Monday, June 4, 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Travels with Lora, by Jay McInerney

Travels with Lora

When I first met Lora Zarubin I never could have imagined that we would find ourselves locked in adjacent cells in the police station of a provincial French town at 3 in the morning. In fact I never thought I’d see her again after our disastrous first encounter, which took place in 1995 at the Grill Room of the Four Seasons hotel. My friend Dominique Browning had recently been appointed editor in chief of House and Garden and she’d decided to ramp up the magazine’s coverage of food and wine. She’d already hired Lora as food editor and Lora was quite adamant that there should be a regular wine column. Dominique, a longtime friend, knew about my passion for wine, and she thought it would be interesting to have someone outside the field write about it. When she proposed me, Lora and some of the other editors were aghast. I was known for, among other things, for writing about people who abused controlled substances and Lora found it hard to believe I knew much about wine. I had a reputation as a party animal; no one had ever accused me of being a connoisseur.
When we got together for lunch with Dominique, I confirmed all of her worst suspicions. I’d been out until the wee hours with my friend Bret Easton Ellis the night before and I was not, as we say of certain wines, showing very well. I was kind of a wreck and not entirely able to hide it. We were in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons, surrounded by moguls sipping mineral water. I felt seriously misplaced and miscast. There were Mort Zuckerman and Mort Janklow and Henry Kissinger. And downtown fuckup brat pack novelist me. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk about wine, much less drink it. However, I was eventually able to impress Lora somewhat with my knowledge. Despite my condition I guessed the provenance of a glass that was given to me blind. I think the only person more surprised than Lora when I identified the wine correctly was myself. One would have to say it was a grudging admiration at best, and I believe Dominique gave me the job over Lora’s protests, but suddenly we were colleagues. Neither one of us could have imagined how intimate that association would become.
Lora was appalled at my lack of knowledge and enthusiasm for California wine so she dispatched me there to begin my education. From the start our respective roles in the Conde Nast hierarchy was ill defined. As food editor and full time employee she had a kind of supervisory role over my column. I guess she thought of herself as my boss, whereas I thought of her as my assistant. Luckily, I knew more about wine than she did. Not much more, but enough. On the other hand she had an extraordinary palate; she was a great blind taster and was able to parse out the scent and flavor components of wine better than almost anyone I’ve ever known. She was also a great cook, an utterly passionate about food; I didn’t know all that much about food, wine’s boon companion, and Lora, who had once owned a restaurant in the Village, was to become my tutor in the joys of cooking and eating, although not without a fight, or rather, many fights along the way. So far as I know we were the only two Conde Nast employees who were sent to couples counseling by our editor.
I’m still not sure how Lora became my travel companion, how she convinced Dominique to pay for her to accompany on all wine-related trips. I think she must have suggested to them that I wasn’t to be trusted on my own and it’s true that I’m very absent minded and badly organized. Lora is the opposite. I don’t want to say she’s anal retentive, but on the other hand I can’t think of a better phrase at the moment. She organized the trips, made the calls, held the tickets until the gate, and drove the rental car. She hated my driving and early on banned me from the driver’s seat. I was happy enough to be the navigator and happy to have everything taken care of. For the next twelve years we logged tens of thousands of miles across Europe, the States and South America. We visited the best winemakers in the world, people like Angelo Gaja, Robert Mondavi, Richard Geoffroy (of Dom Perignon) Helen Turley and Baroness Phillipine Rothschild. We became friends with these people, some of them early in their careers. We dined with them at some of the best restaurants in the world. We drank too much with them. We even flirted with some of them. At least I did, and in fact I would have gotten lucky on a number of occasions if not for Lora’s interference. Just when I thought she was asleep, she would rise and bang on the door of my hotel room to ruin my seduction of a hot young Prada-wearing winemaker in Barolo. She was determined not to see me sleep with anyone I shouldn’t be sleeping with, although she didn’t always succeed. She claimed it wasn’t professional, but her own vehemence seemed strangely personal, her ostensible jealousy all the more interesting since she was gay.
Lora somehow imagined that she was in the closet when I first met her, or else she imagined that I was too much of a heterosexual clod to notice that she was gay. About two years after we started working together we were on a wine trip in the Napa Valley and she made me sit down and watch the two-hour “coming out” episode of the Ellen Degeneris show. It was her way of letting me know. “Well, hon,” she said, afterward—she called everyone hon—“can you guess what I’m trying to say?” I pretended to be surprised, and we had a weepy, huggy scene and opened a bottle of Dom Perignon. I became the confidant of her love life, and she of mine. My third marriage was starting to unravel during the years I first traveled with Lora and she listened to the whole story. She was a wonderful confidant and advisor, and probably should have gotten extra pay for all the listening she did.
Food was an important part of our bond, almost as important as wine, though we didn’t always agree on what, or how, to eat. A disciple of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, Lora believed in simplicity of preparation and presentation. She loved to grill over an open fire; she often told me that one of the most memorable meals we shared was an outdoor asada, a cookout of virtually ever part of a recently living cow on the slopes of the Andes in Chile. She believed that the best restaurants in France were one star or no star, that these were the places one was likeliest to find honest, regional food, whereas I loved the haute cuisine and drama of the two and even three star places. We were always struggling and clashing on this front. As she told a friend recently, “Jay believed in treating himself well, very well. We might have had four hours of wine tasting along with eating the food that gracious vintners always offer but Jay had to end the day with a two star meal. Often Jay ended up eating alone or inviting a stranger to join him, even if that stranger spoke a language he didn’t in a country we knew little about.”
One night I convinced her to go to a famous two-star restaurant in Avignon and it was hard to know who she was madder at—the chef, or me. “This food is so phony,” she said, loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear. “It has no soul. It has no sense of place.” She was right about that one, though she grudgingly came to admire Alain Ducasse’s three star restaurant in Paris, one of my favorites, even as I came to see the point of her no star crusade. One of the best meals we ever had was a lunch at Elizabeth Bourgeois’s unstarred restaurant in Provence, sitting out in the courtyard surrounded by birdcages and trees laden with cherries. Laura somehow knew about the place—I think she’d been there before. We started out with the best tomato soup I’ve ever had in my life, accompanied by a local Viognier, and later, after one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life we drove a few miles up the road to visit the man who’d made the Ligonier and taste more his wine.
Our split on the Michelin star issue may have partly reflected the fact that she was the keeper of the expense account, the one who had to go back to New York and try to justify a nine hundred dollar meal at Taillevent. We both became prisoners of our roles in a way, me acting the part of the spoiled epicure, Lora taking the part of the disciplinarian, although were usually able to see the humor in the clash. Not infrequently we would drop the roles and collaborate, when we saw a particularly amazing bottle of wine on a list, calculating how much Conde Nast would be willing to bear and how much we would thereafter chip in together to get what we wanted. Such was the case when we were dining at Beaugravieres in the Rhone Valley, which is famous for its wine list and for its way with black truffles during the season. We, naturally arranged to arrive during truffle season. We knew that the 1989 Chateau Rayas on the list was a relative bargain at around two hundred dollars but we knew there was no way the magazine would pay for that and the truffles so we asked the proprietor to cut the bill in half; the magazine would pay for half and we would split the other half.
Memorably, there was no argument about the bill or about anything else when we shared Easter lunch, 1999, at La Tour D’Argent, looking out the window at Notre Dame and listening to the bells. (I wasn’t even annoyed when she told me that I didn’t know what it was like to be raised a Christian. I had to remind her that Catholics were Christians; Lora had been raised in a strict, fundamentalist household, a source of much guilt and torment later in life.) We agreed that the pressed duck wasn’t the best thing we’d ever eaten together but it was absolutely essential that we order it, the restaurant’s signature dish.
As with so many other foods, Lora introduced me to black truffles, and decided that we should make a pilgrimage to the source, namely Perigord, also noted for its gut-busting cuisine, much of which involves ducks, geese and their livers. (I’d discovered white truffles on my own, more or less by accident, when I was on a date shortly after I arrived in Manhattan and a waiter offered to shave them on our pasta. I nearly had a heart attack when the bill arrived but I craved them from that day forth.) Lora had somehow befriended the Peyberre family, truffle dealers extraordinaire, and we had we had an extraordinary dinner at their home in Perigueux during which we stood beside the stove with Madame and learned seventeen uses for black truffles, while drinking copious amounts of Cahors, the inky Malbec of the region.
Typically, somewhere around the fifth or sixth day of travel, of eating two big meals a day and drinking like fish, Lora’s liver would give out and she would have a meltdown. She would scream at me, threaten to go home, threaten to quit her job. Sometimes it would happen when I failed in my role as navigator and we found ourselves stranded on a dirt road in Tuscany with no clue as to our whereabouts. Sometimes it was a disagreement about a particular wine. Sometimes it was the matter of the hotel room. She was convinced that sexism was at work whenever I got a better hotel room than she did. A simpler explanation, possibly, was that my reputation as a novelist was sometimes responsible. My books were very popular in France and Italy, which were our most frequent destinations. But when I tried to suggest this to Lora she told me I was being self important. One of the more curious aspects of our relationship was her conflicted feelings about my reputation as a novelist. At times she would brag on me, and my novels, and at other times she would seem to deny that it was possible that anyone could possibly be aware of my other line of work. I think its possible she was jealous of this other career, the one in which she didn’t participate.
Lora was a witness to the disintegration of my marriage; and when I finally sold the four bedroom apartment uptown that I’d shared with my wife and kids, she found me an apartment in her own building, the London Terrace in West Chelsea. We liked having one another as neighbors although she came to regret the fact that I was directly above her; she claimed to be able to distinguish the mating cries of the different women who visited me, and even when I was alone she claimed that I thumped and stomped on her ceiling. At least once or twice a week though, finding myself alone, I would go downstairs with a bottle of good wine and she would cook for me, a ritual we repeated on Sept 11th, 2001, after we watched the towers fall from our picture windows. She ran upstairs to wake me after the first plane hit, but I was already up, earlier than usual, and I’d seen the first plane hit while I was standing on a chair in front of the window trying to fix the chain on my blackout shade. That night we opened the best stuff we had handy, a bottle of 1982 Lynch Bages from my stash, a bottle of 1990 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle from hers. We figured we’d better seize the day, the future being very uncertain. It’s a principle I have tried to continue to observe ever since.
~ ~ ~
That fall, on a trip to Alsace, we spent the day with the great Olivier Humbrecht and his beautiful English wife, drinking old wines and eating the first white asparagus of the season. I think we were both pretty hot on Olivier’s wife. We had some the best white asparagus I have ever had in my life, washed down with a spectacular 1990 Zind Humbrecht Muscat. That afternoon we drove two hours south to visit Bernard Antony, a great affineur, or cheese master. Antony served all cheese dinners for a perhaps a dozen guests a few nights a week and Lora was determined to dine there, distance be damned. We had a hell of a time finding the unmarked house in the little town of Vieux Ferrette, but eventually found Antony, who took us on a tour of the caves under his house and eventually served us some forty or fifty cheeses, and a great deal of wine. Antony kept opening special bottles for us once he learned that we were wine buffs. I remember a perfect farmhouse Munster, which he served with a Riesling from Boxler, and a soft, creamy Brie de Meaux with a Trimbach Pinot Noir. After a three-hour cheese bacchanal Lora once again insisted on driving us back to Strasbourg. An hour later we were pulled over at a roadblock. The cops had no choice but to arrest Lora once they got her blood alcohol reading.
“What about your husband,” asked one of the cops hopefully? “Maybe he can drive.” The last thing they wanted was the headache of dealing with foreigners, of processing our arrest. Unfortunately my blood alcohol level was higher than Lora’s. So we spent the next few hours at the police station, talking with the cops and periodically blowing a new test. We spent our first hour in adjacent cells but eventually they deemed us harmless and let us hang around the office. None of the cops seemed to speak English and we both speak pretty bad French but I recall a lively and intricate conversation with the gendarmes that night. I remember that Lora kept telling that I was very famous writer, which seemed to impress them, France being one of the few countries in the world where writers rank high on the social scale. Finally, close to dawn, they dropped us off near the car and told us to get out of their jurisdiction. I promised I would get my French publisher to send them some books but somehow I never got around to it.
Every year or two one of us would threaten to quit the magazine after suffering some slight at the hand of the other. After I missed a plane to Paris, where I was supposed to meet Lora to write about wine stores, I explained that the fax they’d sent me had been blurry and I read six thirty as eight thirty. (Actually true, I arrived at JFK at six thirty, having just missed the flight, and finding that the cheap ass ticket they’d bought for me was non transferable.) No one, especially Lora, seemed to believe me. I was unable to reach her that night and she went absolutely ballistic when I reached her in Paris the next morning. Indignant at this lack of trust, I threatened to quit. When she finally returned Dominique prescribed—insisted upon—couples counseling for the two of us, and offered to pay for it, or rather to have the magazine pay for it. We did three or four sessions and they helped a lot, though we still had one or two breakdowns to go.
I was staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel in October 2007, doing a gig at the LA Library, when I got an e-mail from Lora with the subject line HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE MAGAZINE? When I reached her she told me she’d been called into a meeting in Dominique’s office that morning where the staff had been told that the magazine was shutting down. We’d been hearing the rumors for years and were almost inured to them. Almost from the moment Dominique had taken over the magazine her rivals had been predicting its failure, but she’d lasted for twelve years, as had I, which, when I thought about it, surprised me. Writing a wine column seemed like a lark and I certainly hadn’t intended to stretch it out this long. I didn’t know until it was over that it had been one of the great adventures of my life.
I was fortunate in having a parallel career, but I worried about my colleagues and about Lora in particular. Eventually, she found a job with the L.A. Times as a Food Editor, just in time for its bankruptcy filing. She commissioned wine pieces and complained to me about the quality of the writing. I saw her a couple of times on trips to Los Angeles. We went to the opening of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Los Angeles, but it only served to make us nostalgic for the multi-course feasts we’d shared at the French Laundry in Napa. I’d made the mistake of inviting a group composed of individuals all of whom were easily as high strung and neurotic as Lora herself—not that hard to do in L.A., actually—and no one really seemed to click. Lora seemed to be in a bad mood; she eventually told me the newspaper was hemorrhaging and that her salary had been cut in half. In 2010 she moved back to New York to work as a personal chef for Annie Liebowitz, an old friend. She’s recently been working hard at creating the perfect loaf of sourdough bread and judging he samples she dropped off at my house in the Hamptons this summer I’d say she’s getting close. We talk about doing a project together; a movie producer who was at the dinner at Bouchon later expressed an interest in commissioning a screenplay about our travels together but that idea seems to have gone the way of most Hollywood pitches.
Now, when I visit a wine region, I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s itinerary; there are no fights about driving, or choosing a restaurant, or expenses, no jealousy about rooms or waitresses. I still love to discover new wines and to meet the people who make them, to share meals with them and walk their vineyards, although now and then on these journeys I feel something, or rather, someone, is missing.

An Essay from THE JUICE 2012

Friday, October 21, 2011

Apple Pie Contest

I’m not competitive…I just avoid competition because I hate to lose. There are, however, certain temptations and recently Montgomery Place Orchard in Red Hook New York, presented me with one I couldn’t resist. Every September the orchard puts out a clipboard with a sign up sheet for their apple pie contest. I love their many variety of apples and I’ve often considered the contest. How hard could it be after all? I’ve made dozens of delicious pies in my time and I’m especially good at a tart tatin. There was no category for tart tatin at Montgomery Place; the only categories were traditional double crust or crumb top. I went for the double crust. 
Montgomery place sells a variety of familiar apples like Empire, Fuji, Gala, Jonagold and Golden delicious but I get excited by the less familiar varieties --Esopus Spitzenburg, Karmijin de Sonnaville and Ananas Reinette to name just a few.
I noticed some chestnut crab apples, a small variety with an intense flavor that matches my idea of everything an apple should be and taste like. This was the first time I had noticed them. They are crisp, not too sweet and I decided that this was the apple I would use for the contest.

If you sign up for the contest Montgomery Place gives you a free peck of apples. I took my peck and then bought all the remaining chestnut crab apples they had to make sure I’d cornered the market. Not that I have a competitive nature or anything.

My apple pie testing began. My normal crust is part butter and leaf lard. I tested a few varieties of this crust, with different sorts of butter and varying proportions of butter to leaf lard (I use the leaf lard from Flying Pigs Farm at the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC). I also tried out different flours. The final crust was perfect by my standard, flakey, a bit savory and not too sweet.

The apples cooked beautifully. All I added to them was some maple sugar, brown sugar, thyme leaves and a little flour for thickening.

I felt confident this was the best I pie I could make so and I was ready to bake for the big day.

I made my dough two days before the contest and rolled it out the night before. In the morning the apples were peeled and the pie was ready to be assembled. I decided the morning of the contest to make a bit of caramel and add some fleur de sel and toss the apples with a bit of this mixture along with everything else. Why? Who knows but next year I probably won’t do that.

The pie came out smelling heavenly and I took it over to Montgomery place at 11:30 am. Your pie has to be there by 12:00, so there is no hot pie advantage.

The frenzy around the stand was palpable and exciting. This year’s judges were a group of people who keep the farm running: electricians, plumbers, and other essential workers. There were 28 double crust pies entered and about 15-crumb tops. My pie was given number 10.
One of the volunteers approached my pie and began to slice it with a pie spatula rather than a sharp Japanese blade as I would have preferred. She struggled. “Heavens! She is tearing my pie I thought,” but somehow she managed to sever three slices. She commented how flaky the crust was which surprised me given the fact that she had smashed the crust with her dull contraption. Nonetheless, the pie was now in front of the judges.
After about an hour the winners were announced. To my disappointment I didn’t win. Mary Creech took first place in the double crust division. She used a combination of Swiss Gourmet and Macoun apples. It was a very traditional pie with, I think, Crisco in the crust. It was flakey, and the filling was delicious, light and gently spiced. It was a great pie.
Will I enter again next year? Yes, I feel like I need one more shot which is why I don’t enter contests: I can’t stop until I win.
On a side note, after the judging is completed and the winners announced everyone is given a plate and fork and you can taste any of the pies that were entered. It’s a frenzy. Below is a photo of my pie number 10, which as you can see is almost all,gone? I got much satisfaction from that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Top 10 Favorite things to do in San Francisco

My friends are always asking me for my lists of what to do and eat in cities around the world and here at home. Having been born and raised in San Francisco I thought I would start with one of my favorite cities in the world. This is a top ten list and not an easy list to edit, but I will update them from time to time.

Swans Oyster Depot
A true classic and never out style seafood bar where you can sample the finest seafood the bar area has to offer.

Sightglass Coffee
For the coffee obsessed drinker this is a must stop.

4505 Meats
The Hamburger at 4505 Meats at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays or Saturday is simply one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Simple ingredients equal perfection.  I always pick up a few bags of their famous Chicharrones.

Tartine Bakery
Chad Robertson’s bread is a religious experience and I pick up as many as I can get my hands on, no matter what the occasion.

Mr. and Mrs., Miscellaneous
A jewel of an ice cream shop in Dogpatch serving fun twists on classic flavors and combinations of
everything ice cream.
699 22nd Street, at Third St. 

Mission Chinese Food at Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant
A brilliant pop-up Chinese restaurant inside an existing Chinese restaurant, I go for the dumplings that are made to order.

This wonderful shop is for anyone searching for the finest selection of spirits, and all the specialty ingredients to make genius cocktails at home.

Bi-Rite Market
I especially love the wine selection shop at Bi-Rite and everything else as well. One of the best-edited markets I’ve ever been to.

Omnivore books on Food
New, antiquarian and collectable cookbooks for anyone who loves cookbooks, this is the bookstore for you.

Bar Agricole
Besides the fact that this is an amazing restaurant, it is also serving some of the finest cocktails in the Bay area.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Torrontes, The other White Grape

I first discovered Argentinean wines quite a few years back when I made my first trip to Mendoza, a wine region in Argentina where some of the greatest reds wines in the world are produced, specifically made from the Argentinean varietal Malbec. Every meal I had with various winemakers, they always served a white wine with the first course and most often it was an Argentinean Chardonnay. I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay outside of Burgundy because it is usually just another anomalous chardonnay, refreshing but not satisfying or expressive and complex. My memory of the whites wines there were not as memorable as the reds so I never gave much thought to Argentina as a great white wine producing country.
I went back to Buenos Aires a few years ago and had dinner with some friends. We went to have a classic Argentinean dinner, an Asado where meat plays center stage. A variety of meats are cooked over an open fire and then served in progression along with various side dishes. The meats in Argentina are extraordinary, usually what we call in this country grass fed.
We left the wine ordering to one of the guests who was a native of Buenos Aires.  I am always curious to discover something I haven’t had before and be surprised.
I expected to us to start off with the dreaded Chardonnay but to my surprise he started us off with a bottle of Torrontes, a white wine I’ve never heard of.

Upon my first sip I was in love.  The Torrontes was a bottle of Colome’, the aromatics of the wine were so refreshing, Jasmine, white peach and citrus notes were all beautifully expressed. The wine reminded me slightly of a Viognier, less complex but the structure of fruit and acidity were in perfect play. 
You begin the Asado generally with some Empanadas, often baked in a wood-burning oven. The torrontes was refreshing and vibrant with the Empanadas, and then we had the grilled sausage, which was an interesting compliment to torrontes. The fattiness of the meat and the crisp aromatic wine went well. And to my surprise I wasn’t missing a red wine at all with the sausage.
Torrontes is made from a hybrid of Moscato De Alexandria and the Criolla grape. It is originally thought to be brought from Galicia Spain to Argentina by Missionaries. Phyloxeria destroyed the vines in Europe so they disappeared and so to this day, Argentina is the only country that has the vines and produces the wine. 

Over the last 15 years there have been big changes with Torrontes. Torrontes doesn’t have the prestigious pedigree of let’s say Chardonnay, and the grapes were much more rustic years ago and no one took the wine very seriously. Over the years that has dramatically changed when winemakers started realizing the potential of the wine.

No one is more passionate and producing one of the finest Torrontes than Jose Luis Mounier who arguably makes one of the finest examples of Torrontes in Argentina. Mounier has been producing Torrontes for 25 years in the Calchaqui Valley of  Salta  a region in Argentina, which he considers one of the best terriors for the grape. The Salta region is located at the foothill of the Andes at an elevation of 5,500 feet above sea level.
He believes because of the altitude, extreme temperatures, low rainfall, sandy soil and the quality of the water it is the ideal location to bring out the elegant South of him is Cafayate which produces good and interesting wines according to Mounier but nothing compares to the expressions you get from the terrior in Salta.
When I first tasted Mounier’s wine, I was blown away. You first have to understand that Torrontes is a simple wine, unlike a Viognier or big like a Roussane it’s subtle and when well made extremely aromatic. Think of biting into a Muscat grape is the best way I can explain it.
Mounier’s wine is incredible, and was one of most expressive Torrontes that I’ve tasted so far. What impressed me was the texture of the wine on my palate; it was dense, full and had great volume. It was complex and very surprising. The fruit was also so expressive and refined at the same time. The wine blew me away. Clearly this is a guy who is obsessed with detail, that’s why it’s no accident that his wine is so good.
His obsession starts in the vineyard. Because of the extreme sun, the way the vines are planted are so important. In the wine world it’s called the canopy, the style of covering the fruit with the leaves for proper shading of the fruit so the fruit won’t burn but so that it gets the right exposure of the sun. Another, detail is the volume of fruit he produces from each vine. For example, think like this. If one vine can produce 15 clusters of grapes, but at the right moment when the clusters are still green you cut off 7 of them, the energy of the vine goes into the remaining 7 clusters that remain. That’s the principle so for many dropping that fruit is like leaving money on the vineyard floor but for the winemaker who wants to make great wine, a necessity.

Mounier isn’t the only winemaker producing fine examples of Torrontes. The wines made by Susana Ballbo at Crios and Colome are also among some of the top Torrontes also being produced and among my favorites. Balbo’s wines are very accessible here in the states and she also brings 25 years of winemaking experience to the table.
In LA where sushi plays such a starring role, I’ve been tasting torrontes alongside and I have to say it’s a fantastic marriage.  Grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns are also right up there as one of those magical combinations.
All of us are looking for good value in wine these days especially me. I want to drink wine that has integrity but I can afford to drink daily and as far as whites goes, this is one I am ordering by the case.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Tournebroche, I Never Leave Home Without It

Fire is primal and almost everyone in love with cooking over a wood fire has had a primal moment. Mine was this: lamb revolving slowly on a spit over burning wood in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse. That was back in 1988. The look, the smell, the anticipation of the taste, but above all the simplicity of the scene took me to a place I never wanted to leave—a place where something is always turning slowly on a spit.

Years later in 2001 at Chez Panisse’s 30th anniversary, Alice Waters set up a tripod and suspended a giant copper cauldron from it to cook fish bisque over a wood fire. That was about the best soup I have ever had. Was it the smoke, the scene, the person stationed there whose sole job was to stir the pot that made it so wonderful? It was all of these plus the visual anticipation of a meal prepared so memorably.

Over the years, I’ve collected equipment for cooking over an open fire. One of my most cherished tools is my Tournebrouche by Le Capucin from France. The French have made these nifty clockwork spits for well over a hundred years. The mechanism could not be simpler: you wind the clockwork handle which turns the spit; when it winds down a charming little bell rings and you wind it up again. The Tournebroche was probably only meant for the fireplace which is how I usually use it, but I took it to upstate New York this summer and decided to try it outside. I built a fire and made spit roasted pork shoulder for pork burritos.

The 10-pound pork shoulder came from Fleisher’s, the great butcher in Kingston, New York. They were careful to leave an inch of fat on it so that it basted as it turned. I wrapped the meat in herbs from the garden and did nothing else besides rubbing it with salt, pepper and olive oil. I cranked up the Tournebrouche and the whole magical ritual began.

I cooked the pork shoulder for three hours until the crust turned beautiful dark amber. The smell was intoxicating. But don’t get me wrong; you do have to work during the cooking. You have to tend to the fire constantly moving embers and adding wood to keep an even heat under the meat. And you have to regulate the fire so it heats but does not burn.

When I took the meat off the spit my sense of accomplishment was off the charts. We had made black beans, rice, several salsas and homemade tortillas for the burritos but the pork barely made it to the table; everyone in the kitchen was picking at it. The flavor was unlike anything I remember before and the texture was as tender as if it had been slow cooked for eight hours. This lunch was one of the greatest successes of the summer and everyone who was lucky enough be there will carry the taste forever.

All I can say to friends who weren’t there is that my Tournebrouche travels well and I will gladly travel with it and do this meal or another like it again and again and again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Takeout with Nancy Silverton

As I was sitting at the Mozzarella bar at Osteria Mozza the other night, I was telling Nancy Silverton how much I loved the chicken at Pollo a la Brasa and how I had just written a blog about them. I knew she was a fan, and she immediately one-upped me and told me she has this routine—first she picks up a chicken at Pollo alla Brasa and then goes to Carousel, the amazing Armenian restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, to get side dishes to go with the chicken.
She invited me along with some friends to come over for dinner and try it out. I was beyond curious as to how these sides would fare with wood-roasted chicken, but I was sure Nancy knew what she was doing.
I arrived to a table Nancy had set up in her beautiful garden. With the outdoor fireplace blazing, I glanced over the amazing array of side dishes she'd laid out, each more mouthwatering than the next.
Nancy asked her friend Jason to stop at Sunnin Lebanese Café, to pick up some dishes there so we could compare. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I loaded my plate with everything—hummus, tabbouleh, mutabbal, muhammara (made with walnuts and red peppers), labneh harrah (a yogurt cheese with pickled peppers, tomatoes and olive oil) and, of course, the chicken and some pita. It was all sublime.
I thought the sides from Carousel were pretty amazing, and the dishes from Sunnin were good as well, especially the fattoush salad, made with tomato, onion, cucumbers, toasted bread and sumak. Nancy had this down, and as she was putting out the final offerings, she said, “No dishes, no mess.” A perfect dinner party.

Then she upped the ante with some of Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non wines, including the estate grenache and syrah. The grenache was mind blowing. I'd aways wanted to taste it, and sure enough, it was the best grenache I’ve had outside of France. The syrah was right up there, too.
Nancy was right: It’s a perfect dinner to throw together—a meal you couldn't improve on if you had made it yourself. I can’t wait to try it at home. Pollo alla Brasa, 764 S. Western Ave., 213-382-4090; Carousel, 5112 Hollywood Blvd., 323-660-8060; Sunnin, 1776 Westwood Blvd., 310-475-3358.