Monthly Archives: January 2009

A Velveeta Comeback?

It must be a sign of the times (one of many) that I flipped through my morning Wall Street Journal yesterday to find an item about new advertising efforts by the Velveeta folks “designed to appeal to budget-conscious consumers.” They’re taking advantage of this weekend’s Super Bowl snack-o-rama for some targeted (Internet-savvy women aged 25 to 50 — hey, that’s me!) grassroots outreach. They’ve sent “party packs” to 2,500 Velveeta lovers, so the article notes, who hopefully will showcase the product among their game day nibbles.

Just the night before we’d seen an add on TV that showed a shopper contemplating a block of cheddar cheese in one hand, a box of Velveeta in the other, and opting for the Velveeta. My husband and I just looked at each other funny and snickered. It was a premise I couldn’t buy; the two products just seem more dissimilar than similar.

Now, I’m not so much a food snob that I don’t think there’s a place for Velveeta in this world. While 99 times out of 100 I’ll prefer to have real shredded cheese melted onto my nachos rather than a disconcertingly smooth, fluid blanket of melted “pasteurized prepared cheese product” poured over the chips–there is an odd sort of retro-nostalgia value in Velveeta. Though to be honest, it’s not a product I grew up on, so it’s a second-hand nostalgia at best.

A few years ago we spent New Year’s Eve at the home of  savvy, classy food friends, with another couple (also both food professionals). We had a very elegant dinner that night, wonderful wines, fine china, the whole nine yards. But the next day, there we were lazing around for hours on end and snacking our way through the day–which included using chips to happily lap up a dip that consisted of Velveeta and salsa microwaved together.

And a couple of decades ago, on a visit that my now-husband and I had with my dad and his wife, she presented a plate of fudge. I’m not really a fan of fudge, no matter how great the recipe. This one was not bad at all. After a few bites, she pointed out that there was a “secret ingredient” and asked if I could figure it out. Marshmallow cream? cream cheese? vanilla ice cream? I had no idea. Yes, as you’ve surely guessed, that secret ingredient was Velveeta. With its creamy-smooth texture and moderate flavor (easily masked by the chocolate, sugar and nuts), it makes a surprisingly decent fudge base.

I just googled “Velveeta fudge” expecting to find references just to the Kraft home page and those recipe sites that have dubious culinary credentials. Instead, I find tons of hits, including this recipe from the queen of Southern cuisine herself, Paula Deen.  Apparently Deen had also made the recipe on an episode of Ellen Degeneres; comments on the show’s web site include one from a user named “someone with a taste bud and some dignity” who completely railed on the idea that Velveeta has any real food value (though acknowledged the aforementioned  salsa [Rotel, to be exact] combo as acceptable!). I also came across this counterpoint to Deen’s Degeneres appearance, on Serious Eats. I had no idea that delving into Velveeta fudge this morning was going to unearth so much interesting reading, so many heated debates about the virtues of the dish.

Moral high ground in the world of food is tricky to navigate. Does supporting farmers markets and choosing to consume only sustainable seafoods (two of my pet convictions) mean you can’t also dig into mainstream (if slightly guilty) pleasures now and then? I rarely accept any position that suggests I can choose only “black” or “white” but nothing in between. Just like fat intake and alcohol consumption, there’s a lot to be said for balance and moderation in this area of food virtuousness. I think many of us  have lines we personally don’t want to cross–such as stepping into a McDonald’s or eating processed snack foods. But for the most part I prefer to spend time, and meals, with people who are pretty open-minded about the world of food.

After all, in another WSJ article recently, Raymond Sokolov wrote of going to an Olive Garden restaurant in Manhattan this winter and reflected thoughtfully (if not too complimentarily) on the menu. He also waxed a bit on the food-world’s obsession with dismissing all things mainstream in favor of what has been deemed correct and authentic by the foodie guard. I found it a breath of fresh air that a writer of Sokolov’s experience and stature gave  fair play to both sides of the foodie-elite fence, discussing the elegant Spiaggia and everyday Olive Garden in the same breath.

Come to think of it, I will be heading to a friend’s house to watch the game on Sunday. I wonder if I even dare to inject a bit of Velveeta into our menu….

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A Distinctive Wine Experience: Saint Vincent Tournante

It was already pretty wonderful just to be in France at all for those nearly three years I spent (mostly) working and studying at La Varenne. But on occasion a really magnificent, unexpected, enchanting experienced came along to make the stay even more magical. This was one of those occasions: a very cold, foggy January weekend in Burgundy, reveling with other wine stvin4lovers in the celebration of Saint Vincent Tournante. This past weekend the festival was held for its 71st year, one of the most distinctive annual events that reflect the deep heritage of wine making in Burgundy.

Saint Vincent is the patron saint of winemakers and since 1938, the winemaking villages of this region have shared in celebration of their saint. “Tournante” reflects the fact that the festival moves from one village to the next from year to year.

I don’t recall exactly how we learned of the festival back in 1991, maybe an item in the International Herald Tribune or a personal recommendation from someone at the school. My pal and I borrowed the school car and headed out early for the 2-hour drive south from Joigny to Puligny Montrachet, where the festival was held that year.

stvin31It is certainly possible that some elements of the festival have changed since then, but a quick glance at this year’s overview rings familiar. The day’s activities included a parade with winemakers representing the different villages of the region (each carrying a statue of Saint Vincent), and many caves (wine cellars) in the village open to attendees for barrels samples. We paid something like 20 or 25 francs for an official festival glass, and simply went from cave to cave for samples (some direct from the barrels) at no extra charge.

The experience was not only festive–a fun diversion on a cold Saturday–but also made me a forever-fan of the white wines of Burgundy. Most of the Burgundian appellations for white wine use only the Chardonnay grape.  But as far as I’m concerned, there is white Burgundy, and then there’s the whole rest of the world of Chardonnay. The two are just completely different animals in wine’s wild kingdom! In fact, I paid $22 for a glass of white from Burgundy during our dinner at L’Atelier to Joël Robuchon in Vegas in December, and so delighted in each sip the price was of no consequence.

The festival honoring St. Vincent was incredibly relaxed, convivial, no stvin11pomp or commercialism.  You can see how easy it was to feel part of the celebration, as I joined the parade itself for a few paces! There was nothing at all “touristy” about the experience, it was a glorious opportunity to meld into the local culture without any kind of visitor’s filter.

The one element of the festival I found most engaging was the way the village was decorated. Being dead of winter, of course trees were bare, no flowers or other blooms in sight. Nonetheless, trees and fences were adorned with colorful flowers–made of paper–adding some flair and as a reminder that spring is just around the corner.

If ever you find yourself in France near the end of January, I recommend you Google “saint vincent tournante” and find out details about where the festival will be held that year. I know it’s on my list, to find an opportunity to return myself.


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A Great NYC Bar: Blue Ribbon Downing Street

Still making it through that too-big pile of papers that accumulated through last year….and found more New York notes that I haven’t yet dealt with from my summer trip.

I can’t recall what the ultimate destination was for the evening, but for starters we gathered at Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar in the West Village for pre-dinner snacks and sips. We managed to snag a couple of the last stools at the tiny, simple space (this New York Magazine item has a few photos).

Not so much a cocktail bar–as are other favorites such as Employees Only, Flatiron Lounge, and Pegu Club–wines figure a little more prominently here. And even then, with such a small sliver of Manhattan real estate, there’s not a lot of room for an exhaustive list. A selective, engaging one, to be sure. The breadth is still pretty admirable, from a refreshing $24 bottle of Vinho Verde to some California cabernet sauvignon selections that require a more sizable $200-plus investment. Something for everyone.

Ever the gin nut, I asked about the gin options, and was told they only have Hendricks. Wow. I love Hendricks, but it has a distinct flavor that the uninitiated may not like, a real gin-lover’s gin. “We don’t have much room back there,” the bartender explained, gesturing toward the back bar. “And no real complaints so far” about not having other gins available. He certainly wasn’t going to hear one from me.

I had a cocktail with the Hendricks that echoes one of the gin’s signature botanical flavors: cucumber. The gin was shaken with fresh cucumber juice and garnished with a twist of lemon, served on the rocks. It was delicious, the perfect elixir on a 95-degree summer’s day.

The snacks we had were great as well. I especially swooned over the “egg shooters,” served up deviled-egg style, with different flavor combos. The eggs come from a farm in upstate New York, a particularly good starting point. Embellishments include pickled peppers with olive oil mayo, smoked trout with trout roe, Cajun shrimp with pickled peppers, or pure and simple caviar.

What I loved about this spot was the complete package it offered in terms of decor, ambiance, size, food, drink. As an only-occasional visitor to this great city, it seemed so very “New York” to me. Folks here squeeze an incredible quality of life into small spaces, whether it’s the cozy, personal environment of the tiny apartments or the inviting, bustling small neighborhood bars and restaurants that become community living-rooms, extensions of a native’s home base. Not grand, expansive, tricked-out or consciously thematic, instead Blue Ribbon Downing Street was a happy refuge with a low profile and delicious offerings that satisfied completely.

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Kitchen Treasures: Vanilla Sugar

I don’t recall the exact moment that I was first introduced to vanilla sugar, though it certainly was in France. May have been during my study-abroad time in Dijon, seeing my host family using those little envelopes of sucre vanillasugar2vanillé in a recipe. And it certainly came up a number of times when back in France working and cooking at La Varenne. Packets such as this one seemed to be a common staple in home kitchens, though I’ve never seen them available in the States.

Luckily nothing could be simpler to make, really. You can start either with a whole vanilla bean split lengthwise, or one from which you’ve scraped the seeds for another use. Choose an airtight container–mine is a large peanut butter jar–add the vanilla bean, cover with granulated sugar, and seal. Now just be patient, set it in the cupboard and give it a good week to infuse before your first use. As more vanilla beans make their way through your kitchen, add more to the jar. And each time you use some of the vanilla sugar, fill the jar again with more granulated sugar. I make a point of tossing things around to distribute the infused sugar with the new quickly as possible. This jar has been on my shelf for a couple of years now, the 6 or so beans in there now still giving off wonderful essence and flavor.

vanillasugarIt’s kind of hard to imagine a recipe in which vanilla sugar would not be a delicious replacement to regular granulated sugar. The subtle flavor comes through best, certainly, in less complex recipes. I use vanilla sugar in batches of homemade ice cream, in hot chocolate, for the layer of caramelized deliciousness on top of crème brûlée, in the batter for sweet crêpes, in poaching liquid for fruit. Possibilities are endless. I try not to go through it too fast, though, so that each new addition of sugar to the jar has good time to gain that infused vanilla flavor and aroma before it’s used.

I know it’s a little early to be thinking about this year’s holiday gifts, but maybe a little “note to self” about making up big batch next fall to give away in pretty jars at the holidays? With a little card attached that tells how to use the sugar and how to perpetuate the supply, this is one homemade gift that has delicious potential to keep on giving.

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Here truffle, truffle

The Puget Sound Business Journal featured an item recently about a new kind of cultivation coming on the scene: that of the truffle. It’s no easy feat to cultivate truffles, they’re still going to have some unpredictable, wild tendencies and take their time to (hopefully) flourish. But at least one 2-acre plot of recently planted hazelnut trees–whose roots were dusted with truffle spores–may well bear some handsome truffles, and a handsome income, at the Bolles Organic Farm in Monroe. Apparently they just may not reap much for the next ten years, while the seedlings mature. We’ll all have to be patient!

I’d written a bit about truffles and their potential for propegation in my Wild Mushrooms book a few years ago. In the course of that research, I’d spoken with Dr. Charles Lefevre, founder of New World Truffieres based in Eugene, Oregon, who is also quoted in the PSBJ article. A few varieties of truffle are native to the Northwest, including Oregon black and white truffles, though most of the trees sold by Lefevre are inoculated with spores of the European black truffle (Tuber melanosporum). It’s a fascinating prospect and with any luck we’ll have a bigger bounty of local truffles to enjoy in coming years.

As a side note about wild mushrooms. Truffles are among the varieties that are called mycorrhizal (myco = mushroom, rhiza = root), meaning they grow in a beneficial relationship with tree root systems. Which is why this idea of planting truffle-spore-enhanced trees sounds so brilliant. Other types of mushrooms may be saprophytic, thriving on dead or decaying organic matter, such as leaves or rotting wood. Delicious morels fall in this category, famous for showing up where soil has been disturbed or in the aftermath of a  forest fire. One mushrooming friend found a huge morel in the soil alongside the parking lot of a new building she was working in. That’s what I love about wild mushrooms in the Northwest, they can surprise us with their bounty.

If you’re in the mood for a full dose of the best of this season’s truffles, you’ve got a couple weeks to enjoy the current theme at The Herbfarm, which touts that truffles from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon will make their way into the multicourse extravaganza. I attended this menu five or six years ago, while researching my book. Then-chef Jerry Traunfeld created dishes that included side-by-side simple tarts of different truffle types, ravioli with celery root and truffles, and thyme-grilled squab with Oregon black truffles among other indulgences. I haven’t made it back to The Herbfarm since new chef Keith Luce took the helm, though hope to before long. If you’d like an intensive introduction to Northwest truffles, I can’t imagine a better place to do so.

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One Favorite Ingredient: Vermouth

I really have a thing for vermouth. And it’s not ALL about the cocktails. I use it loads in cooking too — last night to deglaze a skillet after pan-frying steaks, sometimes splashed in a pan of braising greens, and I pour a swig or two into the roasting pan about halfway through roasting chicken. I go through so much dry vermouth, I’ve taken to buying two bottles at a time, and my husband and I are trying to figure out where we can start buying it by the case.

So this love of vermouth is nothing new, but was reinforced this morning when I finally decided to conquer the pile of clippings/notes/emails/etc. that has been living alongside my computer for too many months. (If I were the type to make resolutions, one this year would be to not let the piles win!) In that randomness I found not only one page pulled from Saveur magazine’s Jan/Feb 2008 issue, but also a page pulled from the same issue of 2007. The magazine starts off each year with “The  Saveur 100” list of notable, delicious, quirky, helpful, inspiring, etc. items of interest. The 2009 issue just landed as well, with a special focus on home-cook oriented items. I’ll digest that soon and pass along any favorite items of note.

In 2007, it’s item #30 that caught my attention, titled “the return of the thinking person’s cocktail.” “Instead of vodka, think gin,” the blurb mentions, “instead of Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw, think William Powell in The Thin Man.” Amen on both counts.

The item features a cocktail from Audrey Saunders, owner of New York City’s Pegu Club, who spoke on my panel about gin’s renaissance at a culinary conference a couple of years ago. A variation on the martini, this blend of gin and vermouth she calls the “Fitty-Fitty” as the two show up in equal proportion — a polar opposite from the common “dryer is better” approach that calls for a mere whisper, a drop or two of vermouth. She stirs the gin and vermouth on ice, with a dash of orange bitters (I am currently vermouth2enamored with the Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters, which I plan to try this with later tonight!), then strains into a glass and garnishes with a twist of lemon.

From the 2008 edition of The List, it was #52 I clipped, “the most versatile cooking wine,” featuring my longtime pal: a bottle of Noilly Prat dry vermouth. Dry vermouth has the acidic character you’re often looking for in a white wine to cook with, with added flavor, body and character from the herbs and spices that are infused into the wine base. The recipe they include here is a sort of oven-poached sole, with dry vermouth, minced shallot, dots of butter, a little clam juice and water, topped with buttered parchment before baking.

Back to cocktails, I’m not sure where I picked this up — but on occasion I’ll pour equal parts dry and sweet vermouth over ice, add a couple drops of orange bitters, a twist of orange zest and sip slowly at the end of a long day. Not as strong as a gin- or bourbon-based cocktail, this combo has a mellow, balanced flavor that hits just the right note for me on some evenings. Top-quality vermouth will make all the different. The mere thought is inspiring me to do more research into the artisan vermouths that are coming on radar, such as Vya.

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