04 June 2013

When I drink great wine

When I drink great wine I’m usually with great friends. Last weekend I traveled back to Minnesota and spent an evening with a few friends at Dan and Anna Lisa’s home. Dan has turned into a real artisan of pizza, and his pies rival those of the great pizza joints that we both love eating in throughout the country. He seriously needs to build a wood-fired oven in his backyard, because even with his 500­°F kitchen oven he makes ethereal, baby-bottom soft dough, and tops it with the finest, straight forward ingredients.

Most of the Chablis I’ve drunk has been young, mineral-rich and bracingly delicious. The way Chablis expresses chardonnay matches my own sense of this grape: I like its ability to be restrained and flinty, and love the long pull of fruit. I was not prepared for the transformation the 1998 Domaine Laroche ‘Les Clos’ underwent while it sat in storage for the past fifteen years. After my first taste I wasn’t even sure if the wine was still good. We tasted and looked at each other, wondering if we were in for a disappointment. Turns out it needed about five minutes to open up and send us over the moon.

You know, I’ve always admired the focused senses that bird lovers bring to their hobby. Whether they hear a slight pip or see a fleeting rustle in thick leaves, they have the skill to say, oh, it’s a blah blah blah! And that knowledge thrills them because they may be seeing a certain bird for the first time in their lives. The birders I know bring the joy of discovery with them every time they walk through the woods or down a country road. Wine tasting, on the other hand, sometimes feels like it’s been taken over by technocrats who want to prove that they’ve identified something previously unnoticed by the more pedestrian palates of the world. Some tasting notes read like technical fact sheets represented by ever more obscure tastes and images. Now, I’ve been at tastings where someone has identified flavors that, once named, open up with the precision of a well-turned double play, giving me words to notice something that was just beyond my palate’s vocabulary. A wine drinker with a good palate and an expansive word hoard can give us tools for better expressing what we’re tasting, just as a birder can help us identify a mere disturbance in tall grass as a rare Henslow’s sparrow.

The Laroche ‘Les Clos’ was a swooning bottle, and the candied fruits and caramel sugars were tastes we kept noticing, a slow chant of recognition as we pressed our noses deeper into the bowls, hoping to infuse our memories with a permanent record of this ephemeral event. How does a grape do this? we asked over and again. We were seduced by this just-out-of-sight wine that brought utter silence to our group, a church-like stillness as we inhaled the incense of a High Mass.

After we left the church of Chablis we indulged in a few pies that Dan crafted before us, a deft hand moving dough, cheese and his own pulse of tomato-garlic-basil that he spoons on with a sparseness that celebrates the fullness of each earthborn ingredient. A sprinkle of olive oil and sea salt on this pie, and Brussels sprout leaves on the next. Yes, we all said in chorus.

And then we swooned again, driven deep into the forest of a 1985 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. This Dionysian Bordeaux (my favorite appellation) is, right now, perfect for drinking, so if you have one in your basement, go home and share it with your lover, drink it with friends, or gulp it alone and contemplate the mysteries of earth. The fruit that once ripened on branches returned to humus and made a bed for mushrooms, tobacco, and the funk of soil that nourished these vines in Graves. We lingered over this wine, as certain of its power as we were of fleeting time, knowing that as long as this purple juice swirled in our glasses, our time together would not end. So we sipped slowly, spinning the night longer and onward with wholesome food and endless talk, reveling in friendship and our shared passion for this fruit of the vine and work of human hands.

13 May 2013

Dua, Vietnamese fermented mustard greens

When mẹ, my mother-in-law, pronounces this dish, it sounds like “awe” with a ‘dz’ prefix (like we hear in 'adze'), so it sounds like “dzawe” to my non-Vietnamese ears. She’s been making it forever, and though we’ve asked her several times to show us how to make it, it was only after my wife and I went to Vermont’s first fermentation festival that I pressed her to share her way of making it. Like many things she cooks, mẹ says it’s easy and that it can be prepared in a number of ways. Once I get the hang of a dish, this perspective is great, but it’s difficult to learn a new dish when most questions are answered by, “It doesn’t matter,” or “You can do whatever you want.” On the other hand, such ease with substituting or changing ingredients shows how comfortable and familiar some people are with dishes (rather than recipes) that are close to them; they see infinite variety in secondary ingredients, which keeps the same dish interesting year after year.

So many fermented recipes follow a similar pattern, and dua is another. Using mustard greens, which are a thick ribbed and heavy-fleshed leaf, dua differs in just a few ways. First, the washed leaves are separated and laid out to dry and wilt a little. Mẹ recommends an overnight wilting period but in the hot sun it might be only a few hours. Next, the leaves are cut into smaller pieces to make them easier to eat when they’re done fermenting, but they can be left whole, especially if you plan to cook the dua with pork, which is a favorite way to cook it. When I’m making sauerkraut I use the pretty standard ratio of 3 tablespoons salt for 5 pounds cabbage, but dua differs a little in that there’s not a lot of water to pull out through osmosis, so a brine is typically used. To make the brine, I bring water to a boil, add salt, and let it cool to room temperature. A few tablespoons of kosher or sea salt in a few quarts of water is a pretty good ratio – the brine should taste salty. Put all the wilted greens into a big glass or ceramic bowl or crock, and cover with the brine. I put a plate on top to keep all the greens submerged, and a water-filled bowl on top of the plate. A sliced onion is a pretty standard addition, and mẹ sometimes adds garlic, chili peppers, or ginger.

The important thing is to keep the greens submerged because the fermentation occurs in anaerobic conditions and exposure to air can cause less beneficial molds to form on the dua. When mẹ makes it she frequently skims a layer of mold off the top of the brine; I prevent that by keeping a plate and bowl on top, ensuring that the mustard greens stay submerged. And, of course, when you begin, make sure all your containers are clean – I rinse everything in very hot water, and if a container has been used for something that’s left residue of some kind, I first rinse it with boiling water.

When fermenting things the first few times my confidence sometimes wavered and it seemed beyond my reach. But I thought about our early human history as a refrigerator-less species, and figured that I could figure it out (with the help of a few books and conversations with friends.) So I hope you'll give it a try; ferment something and eat like most people did in those years people lived without electricity. Here’s my simple 1,2,3 to make dua, Vietnamese fermented mustard greens:

1. Wash a big heap of mustard greens and spread the separated leaves out to wilt, overnight. Cut into smaller pieces, if desired.

2. Bring a pot of water to boil and add salt. Stir to dissolve and let cool. Use three or four tablespoons of kosher, sea, or other non-iodized salt in the pot. It should taste salty but doesn’t have to pucker your eyeballs.
3. The next day, put the wilted greens into a big pickle jar, ceramic crock, or glass bowl. Cover with brine.
4. Put a plate on top. Put something on top of the plate to keep it weighted down.
5. Let sit for a week or so. Dua will turn pale and yellowish. When done, drain off brine, and store in fridge, covered. 
6. Eat with rice, as a cool accompaniment to spicy foods, or by itself.

09 May 2013


There are many times when broth is the best medicine.  With a nagging sore throat, I came home at lunch and remembered a small pot of chicken stock in the back of the fridge.  A quick sniff confirmed it was still good, so I put it on the stove to warm up and melt those little bits of congealed fat that now glisten on the surface.
The bones and leftovers from a roasted chicken make the best stock, much more flavorful than stock made from a whole, uncooked bird.  Even a little seven-week broiler that's been well picked over at dinner can make a few bowls of delicious broth for the next day.  To make it, I always break up the bones and carcass with a big cleaver, chopping everything so all the flavor can be drawn from the marrow by the slow gurgle of stock-making.  An onion at least, and if I have carrots and celery, all the better.  A bay leaf or two, a few cloves, thyme, pepper, and just a little salt.  I bring it to a boil, skim the scum, and gurgle it slowly, usually overnight.  With the lid barely cracked and the simmer low, my night time dreams are sometimes interrupted by smells of stock.  Morning come, I call it done.
We sometimes look too far for cures to our daily ailments, but this small batch of broth saved me, revived my tired throat and strengthened my bones and blood.  A pinch of mineral-rich sea salt, the pullings of new sourdough crust torn and dropped like dumplings.  Hot soup slurped, my sore throat soothed.

28 April 2013

And spring.

And spring. Even here in this rented Vermont house with clod-covered nails, gravel and clay out the backdoor, I scratched today on the earth and dropped seeds into it, chard, kale, cilantro, romaine, with the hope and certainty of sunlight, warmth, and rain.

This burst of warmth brings so many woodland flowers into bloom, and on a sweet hike today we saw trout lilies and bloodroot, and many others whose names I don’t know but whose color brightens the damp forest floor in these early days of sunlight.

Last week I saw the excellent documentary Chasing Ice by James Balog, who’s tracked glacial retreat using time lapsed photography to show the staggering loss of some of Earth’s most significant glaciers in mere years, photographic certainty of massive climate change. I left the film feeling really cynical because even among the people who recognize the central importance of climate change, few of us are doing anything about it. Sure, we might buy our lettuce at the co-op, or carry canvas bags, but every morning in this small town of 6500, I’m in a crush of traffic as all of us who know that climate change may fundamentally alter life on Earth drive our kids to school, pick them up, drive them to tennis or swimming or soccer practice, ad nauseum. We want fuel-efficient cars so we can continue to drive as wantonly as we do, with no impediment to our routines. “If only those climate-change deniers recognized that they’re wrong!” we think, as we wait for the red light to change. We’re hoping for a big policy that will make the difference for us, but it’s not going to happen. Reversing climate change is not like banning DDT.

The Clean Water Act did a good job of curtailing point source pollution (the kind that comes, for the most part, from a single point, like a factory), but we’ve learned in the intervening decades that non-point source pollution (the kind that comes from everywhere – your lawn, your neighbor’s cows, the runoff from a parking lot) is just as malign, and its ubiquity makes it even harder to regulate or reduce. So, while Lake Erie’s water quality improved when some of the biggest polluters were forced to clean up their discharges into the lake, many of our nation’s other rivers and lakes have continued to deteriorate. And you and I are the non-point sources of increased carbon dioxide emissions, and it’s not until you and I and many, many others change our own habits that complement and strengthen any hoped-for policies that we should expect to see atmospheric C02 decrease.

So here I am with my sourdough bread, glad that I’ve nurtured wild yeasts in my starter. I wrote in my last post, after thinking about what a sour ferment is, that if food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do. Working with a live culture necessitates that we pay closer attention to the thing we’re making. For me, this doesn’t mean I have to drop everything when I’m making a loaf of bread, but the usual four cups (or whatever) of flour a recipe calls for may not reflect how the starter is absorbing the new ingredients.

I’ve used a Zojirushi bread machine for three years and didn’t utilize its versatility until I started making sourdough. Lately, I’ve sometimes stretched rising times to twelve hours or more, incubating those wild yeasts in a warm, stable environment. Other times I’ll knead the bread for thirty or forty minutes and in that time the bread turns into a sponge-like batter and I have to add another two cups of flour to the mash. I continue to experiment with times and ratios, and my kids have complained a lot more this year as their peanut butter sandwiches are sometimes made on bread sour enough to be traded for an Atomic Warhead. Other times a loaf comes crashing down after rising to zeppelin heights, or remains gummy no matter how long it’s worked. Bread is alchemical, and making it without commercial yeast lets me appreciate the long history of nurturing food cultures that shared knowledge and starters and cultures when there were no stores to provide for us.

22 April 2013


A sourdough starter is a magnificent thing. Mine lives in a half gallon pickle jar, which gives me enough room to grow it, stir it vigorously, and ferment it. Its consistency is somewhere between pancake batter and porridge, but the bright, pungent smell of sour immediately identifies it as a sourdough starter. Depending on one’s olfactory experiences, its aroma can be off-putting or enticing. A healthy starter seduces my taste buds with a clean, sharp pungency that contrasts so nicely with the crusty earthiness of a well-cooked sourdough loaf.

We’ve heard so much about food borne illnesses and pathogens lurking in our kitchens that we react to sour smells with mistrust and apprehension. In part because we’ve been bombarded by advertising that conflates sterility with healthy, anything that’s pungent is suspect, and we cast a skeptical eye on a ripe, fermenting vat of sourdough, throwing away anything that doesn’t look perfectly preserved.

A good sourdough starter works like a compost pile, digesting raw materials and preparing them for their next use. The wild yeasts and bacteria that inhabit my starter are alive, and that’s the biggest obstacle wild starters have in gaining acceptance in our modern kitchens.

We have an explosion of cookbooks, food magazines, cooking shows, and food blogs that will make sure that any time we want to cook something, there’s a recipe to make sure it won’t go wrong. Someone else has tested it and fixed its flaws and all we have to do is follow the recipe, and it’ll turn out. And if it doesn’t, there’s a healthy dialogue in the comments section following every online recipe, where the next great chef will declare that he used 2/3 tsp basil instead of the ½ tsp called for, and everyone raved about it for months and begged for the recipe. The last thing most of us want in the kitchen – especially when we’re about to entertain, or we have an evening of kids’ activities – is unpredictability, because it will wreak havoc on our need to get dinner at our prescribed time. And the idea that we’re in a relationship with our food, that it can be temperamental and fickle, is not something that appeals to most people most of the time, because in the short term sterility is easier – we come in, cook, eat, and are done with it. If food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do.

I replenish my starter nearly every day. After I take a cup or two out for a new loaf, I add white or whole wheat flour, bread crusts, leftover oatmeal, and once in a while a scoop or two of brown rice. The water from my tap is chlorinated, so I leave a jar of it out for twenty-four hours before I use it in a fermenting starter because I don’t want the chlorine to kill the microbial life that is so active in the starter. I then use a wooden spoon to give the mixture a good stir, which exposes it to air, and the next day the bubbling ferment is ready for the next loaf.

15 April 2013

Brown rice and weeds

This is the place to begin.  A long season of change tempered by the steady influence of brown rice and weeds, oat groats, and sourdough bread. 

I left Minnesota with my family and moved to Middlebury, Vermont in October 2012, and we've spent the past six months settling into a new community, new schools, a new job, and everything else.  And now it's almost spring.

When I walk with my daughter in the evenings after the dishes have been washed I smell the still-cold air against the birthing earth, warm with rot and new growth, piles of crust and slips of green, always.  

Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, Easter; we've now celebrated these seasons among old friends, family with whom we haven't shared holidays in many years, and new friends who have been kind, generous, and welcoming.  I helped my sister make Thanksgiving dinner for thirty-five or so in Buffalo and we shared the Christmas season with my wife's siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and other relatives in Montreal, eating great Vietnamese food and a few of our traditional Christmas cookies.  It's good to be here.

I've eaten oat groats for breakfast since I've been in Vermont, having switched to oatmeal more than a year ago after many, many years of coffee and doughnuts in the morning.  Lunch is typically brown rice and some leafy green -- weeds, as far as my kids are concerned, and I don't know if it's necessary to differentiate the chards from the kohls; what I notice is green life and energy as I walk back to work. 

And then there's everything else that we prepare and eat, buy and make.  Everything still is our food, and we eat at our table every night, candles lit and some form of grace said or recited.  On weekends there is wine, rare on a weekday unless a special meal is served.  Nuts and dried fruit find their way to the table most evenings, and when mangoes are ripe I peel one for my youngest.  We press our children to make desserts themselves, telling them that their effort is all that will produce a sweet on the table.  And still we talk, sit at the table and let conversations turn and grow into this tendril or that, as I hope this blog continues to do.