Eating Out of the Box: Last Hurrah

The final CSA box weighed a ton. Seriously: I needed a Gatorade after I lugged that thing into the house. The combined heft of a ginormous squash, a healthy noggin of cauliflower, apples, peppers, delightful baby turnips, potatoes, and lettuce challenged my muscles as well as my cooking skills this week.

Corn, lettuce, Harukei turnips, peppers, apples, onions, potatoes, and cauliflower.

Corn, lettuce, Harukei turnips, peppers, apples, onions, potatoes, butternut squash, and cauliflower.

The corn, onion, and potatoes became a rich chowder, with stock made from the corn cobs and onion skins. We topped this with a confit of duck necks (more on that project later).

Corn chowder with crispy duck neck confit.

Corn chowder with crispy duck neck confit.

I fell victim to the persuasive powers of the Paleo-obsessed internet and made cauliflower “fried rice,” adding some of the roasted hot peppers from the basket. I had this for dinner topped with two sunny side up eggs (look at those yolks!) and a healthy squirt of Sriracha. Hot peppers + hot sauce for the win.

Cauliflower "fried rice" with roasted hot chiles and Pat's Pastured eggs.

Cauliflower “fried rice” with roasted hot chiles and Pat’s Pastured eggs.

I used the butternut squash and the apples (plus a handful of pecans) as a stuffing for these wee bacon-wrapped quail, which I served on a bed of fresh corn polenta. The remaining apples I ate sliced with almond butter and sea salt. (Does anyone else like to put salt on fruit? I can’t be the only freak, right?)

Pan roasted quail, stuffed with butternut squash, pecans, and apples, over fresh corn polenta and a sherry vinegar pan sauce.

Pan roasted quail, stuffed with butternut squash, pecans, and apples, over fresh corn polenta and a sherry vinegar pan sauce.

Because the squash was massive, I had enough left over to make a pot of Thai-influenced soup, bumped up with red curry paste, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and coconut milk. I brought this jar to work for lunch and had all sorts of curious noses sniffing their way to my office. The fish sauce gets ‘em every time.

Thai-scented butternut squash soup.

Thai-scented butternut squash soup.

 

The lettuce became several salads and the baby turnips I sliced thinly on the mandoline and pickled on a whim with a star anise. We’ll see how those turn out.

Did you notice that I drank NO WINE with any of these things? It’s sad, but true. I cooked all these thing while on a Whole 30, which meant NO ALCOHOL (and NO lots of other things, either). It also means that all of these items are Whole 30 approved (except for the fresh corn polenta, which has some Parmesan cheese in it), so you can eat any of them during your own Whole 30 if you are ever daft enough to do one. (My point here? Not a fan of the Whole 30.)

I’m quite sad that this challenge has come to an end. I have a new one in mind, though. which includes Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. Three of my favorite things!

Stay tuned!

 

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New Playlist: Scotland on My Mind

I intended for the music in this morning’s spin class to pay homage to the incredibly kick-ass happenings in Scotland (“yes” or “no,” it was just thrilling to watch the process; this is how grown-ups do government). I’ve got cuts from some epic Scottish bands, including 1983’s “In a Big Country,” 1995’s “I’m Only Happy When it Rains,” and 2009’s “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning.” I wrestled with including some Belle and Sebastian or Teenage Fanclub, but I needed this playlist to enhance a workout, so the softer, more somber tunes didn’t make the cut.

However, much like the “Yes” campaign, my plans didn’t work out: the stereo receiver in the cycling room shorted out, so we rooster cyclists were left to only wistfully think about what might have been.

If I weren’t on this bloody Whole 30, I would raise a glass of Ardbeg Uigeadail to the Scots for truly expressing their democracy. I wish them well as they negotiate a new relationship with Westminster. Slainte!

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The Spotify approximation of my list is below (lacking the cool remixes, sadly). One track not on Spotify is Travis’s most excellent acoustic cover of Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” but you can watch that here:

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Eating Out of the Box: The Penultimate Edition

Kale, onions, tomatoes, plums, butternut squash, broccoli, golden beets, green beans.

Kale, onions, tomatoes, plums, butternut squash, broccoli, golden beets, green beans.

The Farmer’s Almanac predicts an early fall and a cold winter for us in New England. Already, chilly mornings mean that I pull out the long sleeves for running. Apples have arrived at the farmer’s markets. Darkness falls earlier and earlier.

In the fall my CSA subscription comes to an end as well; this week’s box is the second-to-the-last, so I unpacked some of late summer’s finest along with a squashy harbinger of autumn. (Don’t you love the word penultimate? I had never heard it before I took Greek in college…which is funny because it’s a Latin word. Those crazy ancients.)

Fall makes me want to eat soup. I resisted the urge to make four different soups with this box and instead settled for a duo. The broth for this chicken and kale soup is amp-ed up with Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard; the beet soup gets some extra zing from a healthy dose of ginger and garlic.

Chicken soup with kale.

Chicken soup with kale.

Golden beet soup.

Golden beet soup.

Last year, I ate a tomato salad at Farmstead (sob!) that was dressed with a kimchi vinaigrette. The memory of that dressing has haunted me, lo, these many months, so I tried to recreate it for a salad using the box’s green beans. I achieved moderate success: my version is good, but not lick-the-plate-clean good. More work needed here, obviously.

Green bean salad with kimchi vinaigrette.

Green bean salad with kimchi vinaigrette.

A chilly Sunday morning run led me to crave duck, which we ate with The Best Broccoli of Your Life and butternut squash (roasted and tossed with toasted pumpkin seeds and sage brown butter).

Crispy-skinned duck with roasted broccoli and squash, pickled cherries.

Hideous photo. Crispy-skinned duck with roasted broccoli and squash, pickled cherries.

And finally, the plums became (likely) my last canning project of the season: they simmered FOREVER with orange, cardamom, and cinnamon into a spicy plum butter. The house smelled like Christmas for an entire afternoon. Since I’m in the middle of a Whole 30, I had a schmear on an apple slice instead of toast (I MISS TOAST).

Spicy (sugarless!) plum butter.

Spicy (sugarless!) plum butter.

One more box to go. I’ll be sad to see these bi-weekly challenges come to an end, but happy to embrace a fall of charcuterie. Soppressata, here I come!

PS: Have you heard the new record from The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers? I highly recommend it. While I will always love 2005’s Twin Cinema best, this new record is a pop head rush. Bracing melodies, forceful bits of synth, and those voices. Those voices! The record manages to sound very futuristic while simultaneously paying homage to its eponymous hit-making structure. You can listen to most of it live in concert here.

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Putting By

It is best to prepare for the days of necessity. –Aesop

Do you know the fable of the ant and the grasshopper? Aesop told it as a cautionary tale against frivolity and laziness. In Aesop’s rendering, the grasshopper spends all summer singing and frolicking while the ant busts its tuchis (which I believe is technically its gaster) to store food for the winter. When temperatures drop and snow starts to fall, the grasshopper realizes that he has screwed himself and will certainly starve to death, so he begs the ant for mercy and a cheeseburger (or, you know, a leaf). Aesop leaves his tale unresolved—did the ant help the grasshopper out, or did he tell the grasshopper to talk to the tarsal claw? The storyteller does, however, drop a stern epigram on us about the perils of improvidence. In the animated Disney version, produced in the mid-1930s and reflecting the values of FDR’s New Deal, the ant and his buddies take morally-superior pity on the grasshopper, who soon sees the error of his profligate ways. The grasshopper literally changes his tune (or at least his lyrics) and morally superior dancing ensues.

2010 Bordeaux ready for the cellar.

2010 Bordeaux ready for the cellar.

While my natural tendencies lean toward grasshopper, I’ve spent the last thirty years with an ant, so some of his ant-ness has rubbed off on me. I, too, now occasionally enjoy the thrill of delayed gratification: why enjoy something today when I can enjoy it weeks or months from now?

Tomatoes will become sauce, soup, and ketchup that I will likely beg friends and acquaintances to take.

Tomatoes will become sauce, soup, and ketchup that I will likely beg friends and acquaintances to take.

Especially in September, as we sit on the cusp of summer and fall, I come back to this concept of putting by, the term our grandmothers used to describe preserving food for eating long after the harvest or butchering. It requires a wholesale adoption of the ant-like attitude but also promises ant-worthy rewards. Shelves of jams and preserves ensure that I can, if I desire, taste summer’s peaches or blueberries in the middle of February. Dried and cured meat and fish mean that I can build a great meal even if a blizzard renders me housebound. Wines purchased as futures before they were even bottled rest on their sides in our basement to accompany those cold-weather meals.

So, the ant: yeah, he had it going on, but I worry there’s a danger in too much ant-ness.

Summer in jar: strawberry, cherry, peach, apricot, blueberry, rhubarb, tomatoes.

Summer in jar: strawberry, cherry, peach, apricot, blueberry, rhubarb, tomatoes.

From the freezer: pate, pig head roulade, bacon, pastrami, gravlax, roasted Hatch chiles.

From the freezer: pate, pig head roulade, bacon, pastrami, gravlax, roasted Hatch chiles.

How many dozens of jars of sauce, pickles, jams, preserves, and soups have I foisted off on friends or left in boxes at the gym, begging for people to take them home because I had neglected to eat them or didn’t want to waste them on just me? How many dried-up sausages or jerkified hams have I tossed into the trash because I had saved them too long, or worse yet, forgot they existed? How many bottles of 2000 Bordeaux did we let over-age, claiming, “Oh, this meal isn’t special enough to pull out one of the good bottles,” only to find that when we did pull the cork for an ostensibly “fancy” dinner, the wine within had grown thin and acidic?

We let this bottle age too long. It ended up going down the sink.

We let this bottle age too long. It ended up going down the sink.

It’s this perversion of preservation that worries me. Seriously: is it worse to let something go to waste or to consume it with gusto prematurely? Does the anticipation become an end in itself? Is there a twisted satisfaction in the self-denial that comes with waiting?

Beyond comestibles, I struggle with this question with stuff in general.

I have an I-Don’t-Deserve-It drawer. Actually, it’s grown from just a drawer to a drawer plus a giant box that once housed a Prada handbag plus a couple of shelves in my closet, but I still think of the collective space as a drawer. It is the place where I put things I’ve bought or gifts I’ve received of which I feel unworthy. Ideally, I ultimately will perform any variety of good deeds in my life that will enable me to remove these items from the drawer, but, in all honesty, it’s the freaking Hotel California. Nothing ever leaves the drawer.

The drawer, partial contents.

The drawer, partial contents.

What’s in there? For starters, hundreds of dollars of lotions and potions, including some ridiculously costly eye cream that I bought at Henri Bendel because those Bendel ladies are relentless. (You cannot win against the Bendel ladies. If you agree to walk through that store, you may as well just open up your wallet and hold up a white flag.) Two pairs of Hysteric Glamour plaid skinnies that I ordered from Japan because at the time I was certain that I could regain some New Wave cred in my late forties (now they just cruelly remind me that I used to have a significantly smaller ass). A bottle of Nasomatto Absinth perfume (this fragrance is, and I quote from the Nasomatto website, “the result of a quest to stimulate irresponsible behaviour”). Seriously fancy La Perla lingerie and stockings. A vintage Hermès scarf. Silk long underwear from Switzerland. A vintage minaudière from Henri Bendel. An Eres swimsuit (doubly hilarious because I haven’t even worn a swimsuit since 1992). Moschino sunglasses from the early 90s in pristine condition. A set of Hermès playing cards bought at Holt-Renfrew in Montréal (the only Hermès item in the store I could afford!). Hand-hammered asymmetrical drop earrings made by a local artist. A Norma Kamali jersey tank limned in safety pins. Charles Jourdan peau de soie black pumps from the 60s. An Elvis Costello 45: a live performance from the 1978 Hollywood Bowl concert. A 1963 patent leather Gucci handbag with a bamboo handle. Other miscellanea.

Essentially, I could spend the rest of my life as Mother Theresa and never empty that damn drawer. And what’s even crazier is that I’m not someone who denies herself nice things. I mean, have you seen my shoe collection?

Where’s the sweet spot between economy and extravagance? Can practicality and profusion co-exist? With any luck, I will answer these questions on a wretched winter morning as I spoon strawberry jam on an English muffin. Maybe I’ll even be wearing plaid skinnies with my snow boots.

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Eating Out of the Box: A Non-Meh Tartine

There comes a time each season, generally quite close to the end, where I lose focus and motivation—where “meh” becomes my modus operandi. It stems, I am sure, from my own disappointment that I haven’t worked hard enough or smart enough to take advantage of all that the season had to offer. That I haven’t sucked the marrow out of the last three months. That my gusto has morphed into gust-no. Let me tell you, friends, I am there now. I am so fully inhabiting the “meh” zone that I am thinking about running for “meh” mayor. The field is pretty open and I imagine I stand a good chance.

Anyway, when the box arrived, I peered inside and said, “Meh. I’ll just make a f***ing salad.”

Chard, peaches, carrots, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, sage, lettuce

Chard, peaches, carrots, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, sage, lettuce

But, looking again at this fantastic haul and experiencing some well-entrenched Catholic guilt about saying the F-word in front of the impressionable produce, I decided to get to work.

I thinly sliced the zucchini on the mandoline, skewered it with prosciutto, then lightly grilled and served with a zippy (and not shown) salsa verde.

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I roasted the peppers and combined them with the tomatoes (along with onions, garlic, smoked paprika, and a few other things) to make a pipérade basquaise, into which I plopped a couple of eggs.

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I used the chard as the bitter equalizer and middle layer in a stack of sweet corn biscuits and salty fried chicken.

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The sage enlivened a compound brown butter that tastes pretty damn good on both steaks and sweet potatoes.

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The peaches I grilled, and served alongside a freshly churned strawberry-passion fruit sorbet.

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But the carrots were the star of the basket: center stage in a very unassuming tartine. Seven Stars wheat bread, toasted; carrot top pesto; roasted carrots; Twig Farm Tomme, olive oil, S&P. Granted, anything that contains cheese from Twig is going to sing (seriously: do whatever you need to do to BUY THEIR CHEESE. If you do not spontaneously emit groans of pleasure while eating it, I will personally refund your money), but this thing was insanely good. Stealth good, if you know what I mean. You’ll look at it and say to yourself, “How can this possibly taste good? It’s bread with a carrot on it.” But heed my words: Do not listen to yourself. Just take a bite. And then another. And then give the full-mouthed, slow head nod of approval. Point to your mouth for emphasis.

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And the lettuce? I made a f***ing salad.

My acolyte and helper!

My acolyte and helper!

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Next Year’s Words Await Another Voice

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.”      ― T.S. EliotFour Quartets*

The spousal unit had a birthday this week. A big one, if you know what I mean. One with a zero. While most people like to go out and celebrate on their birthday, especially a big one, the S.U. decisively chooses dinner at home every year. He very rarely even makes specific requests, which exhibits either a tremendous amount of trust in me or a troubling lack of concern about his dinner. I choose to believe the former. If you know differently, please don’t tell me. I need my fantasies.

Birthday apps: gems from Matunuck and a martini made with The Botanist, a gin from Scotland.

Birthday apps: gems from Matunuck and a martini made with The Botanist, a gin from Scotland.

Last year, having fallen prey to the siren call of a shiny black tautog at the farmer’s market, I pursued a pescatorian path. Underestimating my own ability to clean a fish, I had to ask for help. Probably not my brightest moment: getting elbow deep in fish guts kind of takes the bloom off the old birthday rose. This year I heeded the voice of lamb calling me, specifically the corned lamb I ate at Le Pigeon in Portland. As I thought back on this dish, I remembered how each component was an interesting play on a traditional corned beef dinner: lamb instead of beef; mustard delicately saucing the potatoes instead of on the side; a cabbage cream instead of boiled cabbage; freshly grated horseradish instead of prepared. I knew I had my work cut out for me to attempt creating an uglier but still delicious version of this dish.

Spicy lamb bath.

Spicy lamb bath.

Long story short: I procured a beautiful lamb shoulder from Persimmon Provisions. I separated it at the shoulder joint and boned out half for a lamb pastrami experiment (spoiler alert: delicious). I brined the other half for three days, following the recipe for corned beef in Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie, and then poached the meat for three hours until it reached the perfect state of wobbliness. I portioned it out, seared the hell out of the fat cap, and served it over boiled new potatoes tossed with butter, grainy mustard, and mascarpone, surrounded by an onion soubise (the birthday boy is not a huge cabbage fan). The original dish featured Oregon huckleberries; I substituted pickled cherries that I made in the height of cherry season and fashioned a gastrique using the cherry pickling liquid.

Lamb pastrami, ready for the smoker.

Lamb pastrami, ready for the smoker.

Horrible photo, delicious food: corned lamb, pickled cherries, onion soubise, potatoes with grainy mustard, cherry gastrique.

Horrible photo, delicious food: corned lamb, pickled cherries, onion soubise, potatoes with grainy mustard, cherry gastrique, and grated horseradish.

I will not lie: this supremely unattractive dish was astoundingly delicious, but it only achieved full glory when matched with a weird 2009 Kenneth Volk Mouvèdre from the Central Coast of California. When I bought this wine four years ago, I stowed it away with the following tasting note: “Brambleberry, salt, smoke!!! Rustic and wild. Needs lamb or game.” I almost dislocated my own shoulder patting myself on the back for this pairing. I can’t imagine a better duo. This wine, 100% Mouvèdre, really drove home for me what this grape brings to many of my favorite French red wines (CdP, GSM, Bordeaux). Ergo: delicious + educational. Win!

mouvedreWe cleansed our palates with a salad of melon and cucumber, quick pickled in rice wine vinegar, served with crispy bacon, a good glug of peppery Greek olive oil, and thin slices of serrano. It was the only way I could think of to bring some oomph to the shockingly flavor-less melon that came in last week’s CSA box. I enjoyed the salad, but it was a little like wearing a padded bra: there’s only so much you can do when the raw materials underwhelm.

Crunchy cukes, wimpy melon, crispy bacon, zingy chile.

Crunchy cukes, wimpy melon, crispy bacon, zingy chile.

I made some decadent shortbread cookies studded with toffee for dessert which we kind of ignored in favor of drinking more of that Mouvèdre.

*Owing to the failure of the American educational system (or, more likely, my own inattention in Odessa Coulter’s 11th grade English class), I know diddly squat about T.S Eliot, other than that his name is an excellent anagram of toilets. I only know this from watching the brilliant John Sessions render nonsense in the style of Eliot on the pilot of Whose Line is it Anyway?

But this morning, as I was getting ready for work, Jay started reading me some of Eliot’s poetry, ostensibly to prove what a crap poet he was. I disagree. I think Eliot was just composing in the wrong era. Take his verse and stick a thumping bass behind it and you’ve got some pretty impressive rap songs. Or, conversely, plop his words over a topsy-turvy score, and you’ve got a comic opera worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan. See? A victim of his time, I tell you! Eliot also wrote a lot of poems about cats and, having read some of them, Jay insists that he certainly never owned a cat. He assuredly never owned one who vomited all over his mid-century Heywood Wakefield sofa, as one of mine did this morning.

In conclusion, we had a great birthday dinner and we learned something about poetry. Go to the 1:35 mark (or so) to enhance your own knowledge of T.S. Eliot, as well as Daniel Defoe, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Jackie Collins.

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Eating Out of the Box: The Plight of the Flavorless Melon

Cucumber, tomatoes, purple basil, beets, dill and melon.

Cucumber, zucchini, tomatoes, purple basil, eggplant, beets, dill, new potatoes, and melon.

More squash, more beets (I like beets, but MORE BEETS? Seriously?). Also tomatoes, a cucumber, a bunch of dill, a tease of a melon, three zucchini, and a study in purple: eggplant, basil, and potatoes.

The melon I had planned to make into a sorbet. The flesh was gorgeous, but it had no flavor. I think it sold its flavor to the devil and what I received is the picture of its flavor that is supposed to stay in the basement while the perennially luscious flavor is out debauching all over London (an imperfect metaphor, I admit). So, I did what I generally do when I’m stumped: I pickled it. We ate it in a salad at Jay’s birthday dinner (more on that coming soon). The pickling definitely improved it, but still it disappointed.

The eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes joined a couple of robust crookneck squash donated by the lovely Lucy Oullette Santis in a rustic ratatouille which we ate at Jay’s pre-birthday dinner, topped with a healthy mound of Narragansett Creamery ricotta, a swish of olive oil, and lots of black pepper.

Ratatouille with ricotta.

Ratatouille with ricotta.

The purple basil garnished a Asian-inspired cucumber salad (cucumbers, rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil, fish sauce, chopped peanuts) and took a starring role in a crayola-colored cocktail (St. George’s gin, purple basil, pomegranate, simple syrup, lemon juice, lemon bitters*). Now that’s what I call multi-tasking!

Cucumber salad.

Cucumber salad.

Purple hooch.

Purple hooch.

I pickled the beets (of course) and used the potatoes in Jay’s birthday dinner. All good stuff.

*I have a ton of homemade bitters looking for a good home. If you’re interested, hit me up.

Signing off with the Gourds, covering Snoop Dogg.

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Eating Out of the Box: Vacation Scramble

The box arrived while I was on vacation and sat unattended in the fridge at work for four days, giving me much less time to take advantage of the bounty. The original haul included four ears of local corn which I bequeathed via email from California to my boss because (1) fresh corn needs to be eaten immediately; the quality would have declined dramatically if it sat around for several days, (2) I really like my boss, and (3) sucking up with farm fresh, local, organic produce is pretty much the most ethical way to suck up.

Here’s what awaited me upon my return from the west coast:

Zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, carrots, celery, onion, and chives.

Zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, carrots, celery, onion, and chives.

The celery and carrot had already gone past their prime, so I made them into a rich vegetable stock with onions, tomatoes, parsley, peppercorns, and bay leaf. I popped this in the freezer for future risottos, beans, or soups.

Vegetable stock.

Vegetable stock.

I thinly shaved the zucchini on the mandoline (PSA: use a kevlar glove!!) and tossed the slices with a concasse of the tomato, spiked with capers and garlic. A dollop of mascarpone on top.

Zucchini "pasta" with crushed tomato, capers, and mascarpone.

Zucchini “pasta” with crushed tomato, capers, and mascarpone.

I pickled the green beans because I am a pickle fiend. These would also be awesome in a Bloody Mary.

pickled green beans

I stuffed the green peppers with sautéed onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and tomatoes. Worried that this might be too healthy, I grabbed a proscuitto end out of the fridge, diced it and added it to the vegetables. A handful of goat cheese topped it off.

This pepper looks a little like Oscar the Grouch.

This pepper looks a little like Oscar the Grouch.

The chives, although undocumented, garnished a plate of soft scrambled eggs.

All in all, not my most creative use of ingredients, but considering the time constraints I am glad to have put everything to good use!

I had a helper during the photography session. Chet is a either fan of local produce or pointy-toes Prada pumps!

I had a helper during the photography session. Chet is a either fan of local produce or pointy-toed Prada pumps!

 

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Playlist: 08-08-14

playlist 0814

It was a good ride this morning for my 5:45 AM Roosters and I was honored to be back in the saddle after two weeks on vacation! Thanks immensely to Nick Coloumbe for sitting in for me. It take a lotta heart to agree to sub these daybreak classes. I owe him, big time.

We alternated high-intensity intervals with pure strength work, propelled along in the work by some very hot remixes and a balance of old and new tunes. I personally will never tire of the entire Fantasies album by Metric. Emily Haines’s voice grabs me by the jugular every time and when she demands “more and more; more and more; more and more and more and more,” the legs have no choice but to deliver.

Now: FREE MUSIC!

The Bastille Remix here

The White Stripes Remix here

Happy riding!

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Sonoma! (Or: The Drinking Portion of My Vacation)

Veraison in action at MacLeod Family Vineyard.

Veraison in action at MacLeod Family Vineyard.

Having left our hearts (or, in my case, half a heart) in San Francisco, Steve, Jay, and I drove north on the 101 to Healdsburg, an adorable town in the northern portion of Sonoma County, which would serve as our locus operandi for several days of wine tasting and eating. I will spare you a blow-by-blow of the vineyards, wines, and individual dishes, except to offer the following bullet points:

Rolling vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the delightful sparklers at Iron Horse. Not a bad way to kick off the tasting portion of our trip.

Rolling vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the delightful sparklers at Iron Horse. Not a bad way to kick off the tasting portion of our trip.

The scene from the Gary Farrell tasting room on Westside Road. The elegance of the wines matched the view.

The scene from the Gary Farrell tasting room on Westside Road. The elegance of the wines matched the view.

Greta, the winery cat at Gary Farrell.

Greta, the winery cat at Gary Farrell.

This baby owl greeted us at the Arista tasting room!

This baby owl greeted us at the Arista tasting room!

Pride Mountain Vineyards in the Spring Mountain AVA. Half the vineyards are in Napa County, half in Sonoma.

Pride Mountain Vineyards in the Spring Mountain AVA. Half the vineyards are in Napa County, half in Sonoma.

  • We ate some truly delicious food at Dry Creek Kitchen, Bravas, The Girl and the Fig, the Healdsburg Bar & Grill, the Fremont Diner, and some Mexican place whose name I can’t remember but at which I introduced Steve to the habanero pepper. He won’t forget that soon.
  • We met some genuinely fun and interesting people. Having an Englishman (who lives in Scotland) with you opens up all sorts of fun conversational opportunities with strangers. The fact that there is often wine involved doesn’t hurt, either.
  • It’s great having a whisky expert with you because his eagle eyes can spy a bottle of no-longer-made Glengoyne 17 on an eight-foot high shelf among hundreds of other bottles from 20 yards away. Then he’ll treat you to some of it.
It wasn't all about the wine....

It wasn’t all about the wine….

  • Jay and I speak to each other in fake British accents approximately 65% of the time (quoting Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Office, Spinal Tap, etc.). Having a real Brit around to point out how ridiculous we sound (NB: Jay sounds much less ridiculous than I) both embarrassed us and goaded us on.
  • I am not to be trusted with numbers, dates, or directions. The only semi-glitches we encountered resulted from my own idiocy and mental oafishness.
Steve and I took a breathtaking and quad-crushing hike through Armstrong Woods State Park. Many thanks to Dave Edwards for this fabulous recommendation!

Steve and I took a breathtaking and quad-crushing hike through Armstrong Woods State Park. Many thanks to Dave Edwards for this fabulous recommendation!

The highlight of the trip, though, was our visit to MacLeod Family Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley. I first visited MacLeod four years ago on a solo tasting trip. Richard MacLeod gave me a private tour of the vineyards; we talked about clones and grafting techniques and how the family wine business had grown out of Richard’s father George’s desire in the 70s to have a retirement place. Then we sat at a picnic table under an oak tree and tasted the wines. I was blown away. MacLeod produces primarily Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel on about 50 acres of rocky slope in central Sonoma. Until 2005, the family sold all of their grapes to other winemakers, but recognizing the high quality of their fruit, they decided to make some wine of their own.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes almost ready for harvest at MacLeod Family Vineyard. When harvested, the grapes will have twice the sugar content of table grapes. The sugar will turn into alcohol via fermentation.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes almost ready for harvest at MacLeod Family Vineyard. When harvested, the grapes will have twice the sugar content of table grapes. The sugar will turn into alcohol via fermentation.

Two years later, I returned to MacLeod with my friend Bryna when we were on the west coast for our friend Jessica’s wedding (NB: Jessica is now a mom! I got to spend an afternoon with Jess and her perfect nine-week-old daughter Emery on this trip. Such an incredible experience!). Bryna and I met Marjorie MacLeod, George’s daughter-in-law, and George himself on that visit. We drank more wine and again I was agog at the quality. MacLeod had added Merlot to their catalog, a round, well-balanced wine with aromas of dark plums and a tiny bit of cocoa; an absolute beauty.

This grouping of plants, the insectary, encourages bees and other beneficial insects in the vineyard.

This grouping of plants, the insectary, encourages bees and other beneficial insects in the vineyard.

This year, I had Jay and Steve with me. The MacLeods (Marjorie and her husband John) took us and a small group of their family friends into the vines, which are ripening early this year throughout the valley due to a warm winter and dry, hot growing season. We picked grapes and tasted the berries. John tested the brix (sugar) levels of the Sauvignon Blanc grapes and told us they would likely harvest in the next week or two. We saw Zinfandel grapes going through veraison, when the grapes turn from green to purple. We talked about changes in pruning techniques and their move towards organic growing practices. And again, we sat at a picnic table under a majestic oak tree and drank their delicious wine. Soon, patriarch George joined us and regaled us with stories. At 93, George, a born raconteur, has a more than a few to tell. I can’t imagine a more perfect wine experience.

John MacLeod checks the sugar content, or brix level, of the SB grapes with a refractometer.

John MacLeod checks the sugar content, or brix level, of the SB grapes with a refractometer.

The fantastically charming George MacLeod.

The fantastically charming George MacLeod.

To add to the fun, we got to try some of the MacLeod’s homemade apple juice (before grapes, apple trees took up much of the real estate) and to hang out with Marjorie’s awesome dog Panda.

PANDA!

PANDA!

Here’s the thing about MacLeod: this family is so charming, so generous, and so genuine, that one could almost forgive them if their wine wasn’t that good.

But the wine is WONDERFUL.

The Sauvignon Blanc is pleasantly acidic, displaying mango and citrus on the palate. It’s seen a tiny bit of neutral oak, which reveals itself only on the roundness in the finish. It goes great with seafood, avocado, or goat cheese. The Zinfandel is big, but it’s not overly baked or alcoholically jammy like so many California Zins. It’s got sweet spices, black fruit, and a little bit of smoke and it makes one want to eat grilled meat, preferably with a little char on the edges. The Merlot still impresses; it’s a super match with roast chicken or pork. MacLeod now makes a crisp, dry Merlot rosé which is pretty much summer in a glass. We (and Bryna) belong to the MacLeod Association, so we get shipments of all these twice a year. (NB: You can, too!)  We have never been disappointed with any bottle of MacLeod and consider it our house wine. I’ve heard rumors of friends threatening to sneak into our basement to abscond with bottles for themselves, and I can’t say I’d blame them.

When it came time to head back to the airport and to reality, my heart sunk a bit. I guess all the best vacations end that way. But, in the end, this trip inspired and enlivened me. I owe most of that to my awesome travelling companions and a good deal to the brilliant vignerons, winemakers, farmers, and chefs who stewarded and presented the terroir of Sonoma for my eating and drinking pleasure. A special debt of gratitude goes to the MacLeod family for their immense hospitality and their damn fine wine.

The sewer at Pride. You didn't think I could pass up a sewer pic, did you?

The sewer at Pride. You didn’t think I could pass up a sewer pic, did you?

Signing off with a tune from one of my favorite bands of the last decade, which from a titular perspective expresses my goal for this trip.

 

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