Category Archives: Drinking

Seder in the City

My family has always celebrated Easter in the traditional way. Immediate and extended family get together for a day of rejoicing, food & wine, laughter and play. The menu changes from year to year. Sometimes we’ll bake a ham or roast a leg of lamb. More often than not my grandmother will prepare her famous Haitian turkey, as my family need not wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy this specialty of the house.

Despite living in New York my whole life, I’ve never capitalized on the opportunity to attend a formal seder for Passover. When it rains it pours, because this year I had to turn down two dinner offers, but finally I managed to attend one at the home of my best friend on Thursday.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of what happens during a seder, and I have to say that a night of storytelling and eating has always appealed to me. In fact, I try to arrange dinner parties in just this way.

I admit to being a bit leery of the food and the wine. I’m not a big fan of Kosher restrictions, with its archaic by-laws concerning pork and dairy products. I respect those who follow this regimen, and have also noticed the gradual improvement in the overall quality of Kosher wines.

At the home of Dr. L. and Dr. Y., charter members of the Grand Crew, the food and the wine would be prepared with precision, care and expertise.

But before I get to the meal itself, I would like to focus on the importance of the seder. Dr.L.’s father, John, was the patriarch and sort of emcee for the dinner, and he performed his task with love, humor, vivacity and compassion. He assigned roles appropriately and with ease, incorporating the two children present (David and Allison), and utilizing every adult perfectly. Much of the symbolism was explained carefully and colorfully. Dr. Y.’s mother speaks fluent Hebrew, and she orates as if she had been a rabbi in a former life. Her enunciation had such spirit and depth of feeling, I felt as is she were chanting.

The ceremony was kept to about an hour, and because of the choice of program (haggadah) did not feel lengthy at all. The family and friends retold the story of Moses and Exodus, as well as employed several storytelling techniques and role playing to discuss the importance of remembrance and commemoration of things past. The universal message I came away with from Passover is that as long as people are suffering in the world under tyranny or oppression, we must remember, pray, and not tolerate this for our brothers and sisters.

Four cups of wine are sipped throughout the service, and nearing the last song and blessing, my appetite was sufficiently whetted and prepared for a feast. Dr.Y., an excellent baker, diligently prepared some classics using only the best ingredients and recipes.

First up was an elegant matzoh ball soup, hand rolled, light, ethereal matzoh balls floated in a rich, luxurious broth prepared by her husband, no slouch when it comes to soups.

This was followed by gefilte fish, a curiously ethnic dish that would normally strike fear even into an adventurous eater such as myself. Again, fresh fillets were used to create light-bodied dumplings, an acquired taste, and certainly a better tasting and looking version than I have ever had. They resembled French quenelles. The family ate it up.

For the main courses, Dr.L.’s mother prepared two beef briskets, which were succulent, moist and a bit fatty, all qualities I admire and enjoy. It was easily the best I had ever tasted.

Not in direct competition, Dr. L. served a sort of Kosher choucoutre garni. Replacing all the traditional pork products, Dr.L. inserted beef brisket, beef tongue, beef sausage and of course sauerkraut. Slow-cooked overnight, this one pot wonder was a masterful display of ingenuity and religious observance, illustrating the importance of technique and imagination necessary to cooking. I had three plates and took home leftovers.

As accompaniments to the main dishes, Dr. Y. baked a potato kugel, airy with a crunchy crust, and a carrot ring, unleavened and also sporting a tasty crust, exuding a light carrot flavor and aroma.

On a recent trip to Israel, Dr. L. & Y. brought back a few bottles of red and white wine. The majority tasted like standard table wine, forgettable, but some paired well with food. A 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was enhanced by the brisket, and I even tried some good old-fashioned Manischevitz, a favorite of mine since childhood – I’m not afraid to admit. Finally we switched to a Julienas and a wine from the Coulloire, both good, friendly matches for the food.

No successful seder would be complete without dessert, and Dr. Y. met the challenge with a flourless almond cake with orange, a delectable creation with a refreshing, moist filling. Only crumbs were left.

Sated, I retired to play tic-tac-toe and Gameboy with the kids (they whipped me), and I felt like part of the family. Everyone was happy to be with each other, and this is no small task considering the effort required to pull off a dinner of this magnitude in the midst on NYC holiday traffic.

Nothing is more important than family traditions, and if you can prepare and enjoy the best food possible, food filled with love, than you too can recline, like kings and queens for a day.

Coffee Nirvana

There are two things that I have sworn against addiction to: one is smoking cigars or cigarettes and the other is drinking coffee.

My best friend Fernando had a baby boy recently, and we all smoked Romeo y Julieta cigars to celebrate. I have to admit it was a soothing, relaxing, delicious experience. I was transformed. The next day I had a massive migraine, and probably will not have another cigar again for a long time. Cigarette smoking interferes with the food and wine palate, and is an obvious no-no.

Coffee on the other hand I do enjoy occasionally, but it is easy for me not to become reliant upon it because so much of it is so bad, even in New York. I lean towards the frothy milk, sweet version with a touch of caffeine, and any real coffee drinker will tell you that doesn’t count for much.

Sometimes providence works in strange ways. I had been looking for a professional machine to make a proper espresso, when my friend Janet gifted me a barely used Olympia Cremina.

Food & Wine magazine just voted the Olympia Cremina as the #1 espresso machine for coffee cognoscienti. There was only one problem, the machine was out of balance, and overdrawing shots.

First I had a member of the Grand Crew to come and tweak the machine for me. He owns a Gaggia and has been the coffee guru of the group for years. Add to that his near Seattle pedigree and you have a veritable barista on your hands.

After three hours, of cleansing, shotmaking, and grinding we just couldn’t coax Olympia back to true form. We even researched for the most effective way to operate an Olympia Cremina, but the coffee was an overdraught disaster.

So I took Olympia to Fama in Hell’s Kitchen, where behind a black door of a typical Manhattan townhouse a Brazilian technician named Valentino apprised me of her fate. “Ah,” he wisped, “a real machine. Let me be frank with you. If it’s the heating element, forget about it. You see Olympia is a Swiss company and they have been out of business for some time. It just so happens that my boss loves this machine, so we carry the spare parts. But the heating element. No one sells this part.”

I held my breath hoping it wasn’t the heating element, and described the symptoms of Olympia’s problem.

“Good,” Valentino nodded, “Let’s not play any games. The price will be $150. and I will replace all the parts. She will work like new. Is okay?”

Of course I said yes and Valentino told me that she would be ready in two days.

“I know some one who bought a used Cremina from California for $600. just for the parts to put into his old Cremina. You could say this measure was a bit extreme. But separate not a man from his espresso.”

As I left, I couldn’t help but feeling that Olympia was left with the right person for the job. Valentino clearly cared about his work.

Less than one day later, I got a call from the secretary with a Northern Italian accent telling me she was ready. Olympia pulled through!

I went to pick her up and she exuded a shiny brilliance. Valentino threw in a free tamper and assured me Olympia was in great condition, but any trouble and I could return her within the next month.

I bought a Delonghi burr grinder and some fresh Illy coffee beans and have been working that manual lever to my heart’s content. I have limited myself to one per day, and refuse to have espresso anywhere else. The Krups machine I use at work is gathering dust, and I find myself worrying about the type of water I’m using and the barometric pressure for the day.

It has still taken me some time to wield Olympia, and more often than not she is wily and finicky. But little by little I’m holding a tazza of great espresso, and I wonder how I’ve lived without such a luxury for all my working days.

Olympia has taken a place of honor in my kitchen, replacing my Delonghi panini press. Making espresso satisfies the chef in me. The process requires great detail, ingredients, equipment and care. I love when my guests enjoy it and ask for more. If your machine is feeling neglected, get to know her and drink life.

ESPRESSO TIPS:

1. Buy a Burr Grinder. Clean it after every use with a brush.

2. Use fresh whole bean espresso roast coffee. Grind only what you need for your shot.

3. Tamp the portafilter with 30 lbs. of pressure.

4. Use bottled water. Pull a blank shot before each brew.

5. If using milk, froth milk after the brew.

6. Know your machine and how to get the most out of it.

7. A golden brown crema means perfection.

The “Real” Wine Assault

Last week was Natural Winemaker’s week, and I had the opportunity to visit the Chambers Street Wines Shop for a selection of Louis/Dressner and LDM Wines.

Sometimes I find that I tend to purchase bottles based on importers rather than producers, especially if I feel that our palates are similar. I have yet to drink a bottle of wine from Louis/Dressner that I did not enjoy.

My exposure to natural wines occurred by accident. A few years back I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc from Theirry Puzelat. The wine tasted unusually fresh and boasted great minerality and balanced acidity. It was as if the wine were more alive. I felt like I was drinking the soil, and had a tremendous sense of the terroir of the wine even though I had never been there. Then a restaurant in Red Hook named 360 sported an all natural wine list. I was intrigued and my interest was piqued.

Since that first tasting I have been seeking out these types of wines to pair with my dishes and have become a big fan of many on the winemakers.

To ensure wine tasting stamina, I went to Katz’s Deli on Houston to load up on a pastrami sandwich, potato pancakes, and Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. I was also able to sample the reuben sandwich which was also quite filling. I rolled out into a cab to Chambers Street, and boy was I in for a treat.

The presence of famous natural winemakers made for a star-studded night. Just imagine six or seven of your favorite musicians gathered in one hall playing their music for you for free. In my mind’s eye I have imagined what some of these winemakers were like, often giving them outrageous personalities and superhuman abilities. They were indeed pleasant, wonderful hosts and obviously passionate about their wines.

The wine shop, glass aplenty, buzzed with tasters humming to and fro the narrow aisles for their chance at a glimpse of their heroes. Table One was shared by Marc Ollivier and Evelyn and Isaure de Jessy de Pontbriand. Monsieur Ollivier’s offered just one wine, a 2004 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur lie Clos de Briords. I had recently re-familiarized myself with this old vines muscadet recently by pairing it with Cantonese food at the Phoenix Garden. There were three Domaine du Closel bottles. My favorite Savenniere was an ’04 La Jalousie, young and refreshing, only missing a plate of fresh sea scallops. Both the ’02 and ’04 exhibited tremendous potential for aging. The owner was as charming as her wines.

Then I met one of my favorite winemakers, Monsieur Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue-Boeuf. Once I thought his wines to be so off the wall, I dubbed him “the mad man.”

Out of his five offerings my favorites were the 2004 Touraine, Thesee, and the 2004 Petillant Naturel. The Touraine was a bright sauvignon blanc and the Petillant was bubbly and slightly oxidized, but in a pleasing way. I almost asked for his autograph.

Clos Roche Blanche also represented with a Touraine sauvignon blanc, a gamay, and a cot/malbec blend. I have enjoyed these wines for years. They serve as my standby when I want solid, natural wines for good value. They are excellent food wines.

At Table Three I was graced by the presence of Pierre Breton, who produces the not so common Bourgueil. The 2004 Les Galichets was a terroir-driven dream. Everyone treated him like a rock star, a celebrity among men and women with vision.

In the back room at Table Four Frack Peillot was pouring the 2004 Altesse, a former Buster wine from Louis/Dressner. Alternately an ’04 Vin de Bugey, Mondeuse was also being offered. I recall the Vin de Bugey, but fastened á la methode champenoise, a real treat and a wine my friend used as the sparkler for his wedding.

Sylvia and Thomas Morey were quite the dashing couple as they poured the very young 2004 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Morgot, a white burgundy with plenty of years ahead of it. The more basic 2004 Bourgogne Blanc was a bit green, but drinking well.

As a bonus there were some winemakers present whose wines I had not yet tasted. Monsieur Gregoire Hubau of Chateau Moulin Pey-Labrie offered the 1999 Canon Fronsac, a vibrant merlot fully of earthy flavors and good fruit. I mentioned that a good sheperd’s pie on a cold night would accompany the wine well, to which Monsieur Hubau inquired of the pie’s main ingredients. When I said pommes de terre (potato), he wryly corrected me. “Where I come from the potato is known as the noble tuber (le noble tubercule).” Now that’s a man who knows his food and wine!

Rounding out the tasting at Table Five were three Italian wines illustrating in part the scope of the natural wine movement. Both the Colli Orientali dei Friuli, Clivi Galea, and the Collio Goriziano, Clivi Brazan from 1999 grabbed my attention. These Malvasia/Tokay blends were the types of whites I have been enjoying lately, lively, minerally, off the beaten path type of white wines. I preferred the Clivi Galea to the Clivi Brazan as I found it less austere. Both wines were crafted from 80 year old vines, and exhibited unusual depth.

The last two wines of the night were tasted in a flurry of emotion and fatigue, because I found myself refilling at the other tables quite often. My sense of smell was still intact, and thank goodness so was my vision. Throughout the tasting I had been speaking in my rusty French and getting by quite admirably. Italian is another story, as all I could remember from spending time in Italy was where’s the beach and thank you. Nadia Verrua from Cascina Tavijn poured a very different Barbera D’Asti than I am accustomed too, followed by a 2004 Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato. The Barbera was good and interesting, but the Ruche was complex and layered with flavor. The winemaker was impeccably dressed and I fumbled for words to keep the conversation alive. The Italian accent is a wonderful note to my ears. Her beauty remained, just as the aroma of the Ruche left in my now empty glass, and I blew a kiss goodbye which somehow got lost in translation. Alas, the love of wine needs no translation, and what a magical couple of hours were embraced under a pale moon beaming down Chambers Street.