Miserable Flight

We flew to Austin for Thanksgiving with Rochelle’s family today. The flight sucked, due to horrible passengers.

We flew to Austin for Thanksgiving with Rochelle’s family today. The flight was horrible, not for the usual reason, not because of anything the airline did or because air travel the day before Thanksgiving is near chaos. No, it was just horrible passengers.

It all started so well. We made it through the security line without a huge wait or hassels. We headed to the bar with plenty of time to down a couple of double vodka tonics each. And we walked onto our plane without any issues of overcrowded overhead bins, etc. We medicated ourselves further, and then settled into our audiobook, thinking this was going to be an easy flight.

Then some skate rat hits my arm and tray table on his way past, and knocks my red wine into my lap. Not so much as an excuse me. The flight attendant was great, giving me club soda and another mini of wine, but I still had to sit in soaked pants for the rest of the flight, and until we got to our hotel room.

Then on our approach into Austin, we had to turn off all personal electronics, and thus listen to our fellow passengers. Crying babies are one thing (and we had that going in stereo), but two tech people from the Bay Area swapping dot.com-era stories, in over-loud, penetrating voices from the seats directly behind us sent Rochelle over the edge. My god, hasn’t everyone told or heard that same damn story a hundred times by now? It’s only interesting the first time — except, apparently, to the person telling it to the stranger sitting next to them, who is only pretending fascination so they can tell their own story next.

Note to dot.bomb participants and victims: This is 2004, it’s been three years, your stories are officially boring. Find something new to talk about, please!

Name That Bar!

That candy bar, that is…

Different kind of bar than I usually spend time with, but I didn’t do half-bad. The Name That Candy Bar game lets you look at a cross section of candy bars and guess what they are.

I felt like I did pretty well, considering a lot of the bars are not available in California. Some used to be, but there were quite a few I’d never even heard of. “Mr. Big”, anyone?

My overall score was:

  • 10 right
  • 14 wrong

However, of the 14 I missed, 10 were candy bars not in California, most of which I’d never heard of, or eaten even once. So, I only couldn’t identify 4 candy bars out of 14 that I should have known. Rochelle was impressed. (Well, maybe impressed isn’t quite the right word…)

Anyway, an amusing way to pass a little time…

Cooking School

Another thing I was pretty busy with was a 12-week cooking course I took through HomeChef. The course covers basic home cooking techniques, and sends you home equipped to cook 3-4 new recipes a week, along with an appreciation for basic processes that let you cook more confidently from any cookbook, or on your own. It’s not professional cooking school, but it’s quite a step up from watching cooking shows on TV.

Another thing I was pretty busy with was a 12-week cooking course I took through HomeChef. I’d finally saved up enough gift certificates, and also signed up early enough to be a prep assistant. The course covers basic home cooking techniques, and sends you home equipped to cook 3-4 new recipes a week, along with an appreciation for basic processes that let you cook more confidently from any cookbook, or on your own. It’s not professional cooking school, but it’s quite a step up from watching cooking shows on TV.

Taking the course as a prep assistant means you arrive 1 1/2 hours early to help set up the demonstration trays that making teaching the class look so effortless. This involves things as simple as dicing onions and measuring out primary ingredients like flour or oil, but on some nights it’s as complicated as preparing a soufflé all the way up to before you bake it (the high point of the class for me).

The class session itself lasts two hours, and most of the students simply sit in the audience, watch and ask questions, and then get to eat the food that’s prepared. It’s more social than a cooking show, and you actually get fed, but I learned so much by working prior to the class, it wasn’t clear to me how much non-participating students were learning. While I understand that people have busy lives, and making a 3 ½ hour commitment for 12 weeks is really hard, I just don’t know that I would even consider taking cooking classes where I was not participating.

On the other hand, the first part of every class session was a review of the prior week, when people could talk and ask questions about their “homework,” i.e., cooking what they’d learned. There were quite a few people who were making the effort to cook at least 1-2 dishes each week, and always had good questions for the instructor.

I found that trying to cook every dish each week was a huge commitment, bigger than the class itself. I stopped trying after roasting a whole chicken, and decided that (at least in the Bay Area) it makes more sense to pick up a whole roast chicken at Costco or a good grocery store than it does to buy it raw and spend 3 hours making a meal around it myself. The bought bird costs $2-4 less, comes out better, and the only thing you’re missing is gravy. (And I have a great recipe for cracked pepper gravy that doesn’t require meat juices, so I’m OK there.) Instead, I simply tried to make the one dish a week that I thought was the best.

Foie Gras Madness

Tuesday’s Chronicle carried an article about a proposed ban on foie gras. That’s right, a new law banning the production or sale of foie gras anywhere in California. This is stupid.

Continuing our theme of ranting about idiotic legislation, Tuesday’s Chronicle carried an article about a proposed ban on foie gras. That’s right, a new law banning the production or sale of foie gras anywhere in California.

The reason is the supposedly inhumane treatment of the ducks who are the source of foie gras (which is duck or goose liver, specially fattened). Actress Bea Arthur called foie gras production “a nightmarish industry.”

Please.

Let’s face the facts. Meat production in the United States is a nightmarish industry. Go visit a cattle production facility one of these days, that’ll show you inhumane. Or pork, or chicken. Or read Fast Food Nation, that’ll turn you into a vegetarian, at least for a while. The factory-style production methods used to produce enough meat to put into supermarkets across the US would make most people vomit if they saw them first-hand.

Foie gras production is no worse than any other form of meat production, and — by the very nature of how the ducks are fattened up, and the product that is desired — it’s actually better than most. That’s one of the reasons foie gras is expensive, you actually have to treat the animal pretty well.

People like Bea Arthur, who want to pass legislation outlawing sale or production of foie gras, are one of three things. I suspect that most of them are just plain ignorant or stupid. Then there are the hypocrites, who think that foie gras production is somehow different, worse, than the rest of the meat industry. “I eat meat, but foie gras is inhumane.” Bullshit. It’s all or nothing.

Then there are the Radical Vegetarians, for whom this is the thin tip of the wedge. First they’ll get foie gras banned. Then veal. Then it’s on to hamburgers and bacon.

OK, maybe I’m kidding about the Radical Vegetarians…

20 Pounds!

I hit my peak weight of 208 pounds last fall. Between us, Rochelle and I have gained more than 60 pounds since we met each other. At the end of last year, we resolved to do something about it.

I hit my peak weight of 208 pounds last fall. The photos of me from our trip to Tequila are painful to look at. Between us, Rochelle and I have gained more than 60 pounds since we met each other. At the end of last year, we resolved to do something about it.

Today, after about six weeks of more moderate and healthy eating, I weigh 188. I’ve lost 20 pounds! (However, looking in the mirror, I either need to hit the weight machines at the gym really hard, or lose another 10 pounds.)

I’ve been fairly successful by concentrating on only a few things:

  • Eat far less processed food (and we’ve cooked a lot at home to achieve this).
  • Minimal carb intake (but not Atkins-style meat/fat gluttony).
  • Don’t drink alcohol during the week (and beer is right out, at all times).

I came to these by combining advice from David, our friend who has lost over 100 pounds, on his own plan that is basically “No Processed Foods!”, and the Phase 1 and Phase 2 food guidance from the South Beach Diet (which is a lot more healthy than Atkins, and not bad at all for a fad diet).

All things considered, my “diet” hasn’t been that painful. I’ve gorged myself on pizza twice (once for the Super Bowl, once for the Duke-North Carolina game), eaten well most of the time, and certainly gone drinking plenty often. A little more exercise wouldn’t be a bad thing, though…

USB Beverage Warmer: Crazy or Brilliant?

I don’t know what to make of this USB-powered beverage warmer. On the one hand, it’s a weird use of a computer to power something distinctly non-computer related. On the other hand, my coffee cup is currently sitting three inches from a USB port, with the remainder of my morning coffee, too cool to drink…

I don’t know what to make of this USB-powered beverage warmer. On the one hand, it’s a weird use of a computer to power something distinctly non-computer related. And god knows I seem to get low-power warnings whenever I plug in anything but a mouse and keyboard into my computer via USB.

On the other hand, my coffee cup is currently sitting three inches from a USB port, with the remainder of my morning coffee, too cool to drink…

The Fancy Food Experience

A year or so ago, Rochelle and I went to one of the Fancy Food shows held in San Francisco. All kinds of luxury foods, just waiting to be sampled. If you go only for one day, it’s impossible to sample all of them, or even half. Our experience doesn’t even begin to compare with what Joe Bob Briggs went through at a Fancy Food show in New York.

A year or so ago, Rochelle and I went to one of the Fancy Food shows held in San Francisco. All kinds of luxury foods, just waiting to be sampled. If you go only for one day, it’s impossible to sample all of them, or even half. We tried anyway.

Our experience doesn’t even begin to compare with what Joe Bob Briggs went through at a Fancy Food show in New York. Recommended reading, unless you’re hungry.

Tequila 101

About a year ago, I was sitting in a bar, and listened to one fellow trying to impress his table companions by making a sophisticated tequila order. He was having more than a little trouble, because he couldn’t remember the brand of any quality tequila except Patron. The waiter was trying to help, but he was using tequila terms correctly, and the customer just had no clue. He eventually managed to order “Patron Gold” (there is no such thing), and as the server walked away, he said to his companions “that guy doesn’t know shit about tequila.”

About a year ago, I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend to arrive, eavesdropping on the conversation at a nearby table. Mostly I listened to one fellow trying to impress his table companions by making a sophisticated tequila order. He was having more than a little trouble, because he couldn’t remember the brand of any quality tequila except Patrón. The waiter was trying to help, but he was using tequila terms correctly, and the customer just had no clue. I thought about stepping in, flashing my Ph.D. card, and trying to help, but decided the guy was beyond saving. He eventually managed to order “Patron Gold” (there is no such thing; presumably the waiter brought him Patrón Reposado or Añejo), and as the server walked away, he said to his companions “that guy doesn’t know shit about tequila.”

Sadly, his level of knowledge is pretty common, even in states like California where a lot of tequila is imported and consumed. It’s not hard to learn enough to always get a quality drink, but it requires a bit more effort to impress your companions, or the waitstaff.

Before posting more about our trip to the tequila region of Mexico, I thought I would describe a few of the basics of tequila. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you might want to know about tequila; if you want to learn more, you need to start visiting Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on a regular basis. Sit in the bar, and talk with Julio Bermejo, one of the world’s “tequila ambassadors.” But this will get you started.

First of all, tequila is a denomination of origin spirit, one of two in North America (the other is mescal). This means that to be legally labeled as tequila, the spirit must be produced in a particular geographic region, primarily the state of Jalisco in Mexico, but also including a few smaller areas nearby. Other denomination of origin spirits you might be familiar with are Scotch (the denomination of origin version of whiskey) and Cognac (known as brandy if not made in the right part of France).

Agave plantTequila is made from a particular plant, agave tequilana weber, blue variety. While many people mistakenly think the agave is a form of cactus, it’s actually closely related to the lily. It looks something like a large aloe vera plant.

Quality tequila is made from 100% agave, and will say so on the label (it’s a mark of pride and quality), but the law allows products labeled tequila to be made from as little as 51% agave, with the rest coming from unspecified sugars (usually sugar cane).

Tequila production, like other well-known denomination of origin spirits, is heavily regulated, with government oversight to ensure adherence to the rules. This is A Good Thing. A few years ago there was a severe agave shortage, and many less reputable distilleries were not using 100% agave to make their tequila. The CRT inspectors, who make daily visits to the distillerias, actually measure the volume of agave delivered to the plant, and when production significantly exceeds the expected amount for that volume they know something’s fishy.

The process of making tequila goes something like this:

  1. Harvest agaveHarvest agave plants. Quality producers harvest individual plants at the height of their maturity, i.e., when they are 8-10 years old. Harvesting kills the plant. (Tequila is the only spirit where the raw materials do not renew easily and grow every year, year after year.)
  2. Cook in autoclaveCook the agave. Almost all of the highest quality tequila is cooked in traditional stone ovens called hornos; the more commerically-oriented technique is to use a giant steam pressure cooker called an autoclave. The cooking process converts the agave starches to sugars. This can be done in as little as 12 hours in autoclaves, but generally is a 36 hour or longer process in a traditional hornos.
  3. Extract juicesExtract the agave juice, called aguamiel. The traditional approach uses a giant stone milling wheel; it’s roughly 30% less efficient than more modern techniques that use motors, gears, steel rollers, etc. Quality tequila can be made using either technique, but the difference is a lot like “first press” olive oil or “first crush” wine. All other things being equal, the higher quality result will be achieved by being a little more gentle, and accepting some loss in efficiency.
  4. Ferment the sugars. Yeast is added to large vats or tanks of extracted agave juice, and it ferments, converting the sugars to alcohol. Eventually the increasing alcohol level kills the yeast, and fermentation ends. Fermentation produces an alcohol level of 5-7%, about the same as beer.
  5. DistillationDistillation. In the traditional batch-oriented process, pot stills are used to purify and raise the alcohol level of the product. The fermented juice is distilled once to become ordinario, which is around 20% alcohol (40 proof), and tastes pretty foul raw. It’s distilled a second time to become tequila, at 45% alcohol (90 proof) or greater. High-volume production is done with something called a column still, which isn’t a proper still at all. Tequila produced with a column still is always inferior to product coming from traditional stills; no quality tequila is made with column stills. Note that what comes out of the still is higher in alcohol content than what you’ll find in the bottle. Most products are dilluted with water to adjust the alcohol percentage as necessary, down to 40% (80 proof).
  6. Aging (optional). Some tequilas are aged in oak tanks or barrels, to add color and complexity to the flavor of the spirit. More on aging further down.

The next thing to know is that there are four major categories of tequila, which generally correspond to increasing levels of quality:

  • Joven abogado, which means “young and adulterated”. This is never good tequila. It’s not 100% agave (the “abogado” part), and it’s not aged (“joven”). This is stuff like Cuervo Gold/Especial/1800. This kind of tequila is often called mixto, meaning it’s a mixture of agave and other sugars (mixto says nothing about the aging, however). Just Say No.
  • Blanco, or unaged tequila. Blanco means white, and a true blanco is crystal clear, with no color at all. It is tequila straight out of the still (cut with water if necessary to bring the alcohol down to 80 proof). Many tequila connoisseurs drink only blanco tequilas, because they are closest to the “pure” flavors of the agave plant. A very few blancos, mostly Herradura Silver, actually see a little time in oak. This gives them a bit of color, adds some flavor and complexity, and can cut the harshness that is common with blancos. Blancos are sometimes called plata as well.
  • Large aging vatReposado, or “rested” tequila. Reposado tequilas have been aged in oak containers for a minimum of 60 days, up to nearly a year. There is no limit on the size of the oak container, and for some volume products like Sauza Hornitos, they are aged in giant oak vats. Better tequila is aged in smaller 55 gallon barrels, the same size used for aging wine, and for longer than the minimum, usually 6-9 months. The oak can be new, or more commonly, used bourbon barrels from the US or Canada. Aging mellows the tequila a bit, and adds color and complexity.
  • Añejo or aged tequila. Añejo tequilas must be aged for a minimum of 12 months (but 18 months or more for the better quality tequilas), and the oak containers may not be too giagantic (not over 600 gallons, but again, 55 gallon barrels are best). The extra time and contact with wood imparts a stronger oak flaver to the tequila, deepens its color, and smooths it out considerably. Añejo tequilas are almost always the most expensive, but this is a factor of the time and storage space it takes to make añejo as much as it is a factor of quality. Still, all of the super-premium tequilas, like Cuervo’s Reserva de Familia, Herradura’s Seleccion Suprema, or San Matias’ Rey Sol, are añejos. (I am extremely partial to Rey Sol in particular.) Even these products are aged only to 5-6 years (compared to many times longer for some other spirits).

The most important thing about this list is that, while these categories generally correlate with increasing quality as you move down the list, it’s not guaranteed. You must still look for the “100% Agave” on the label, even on añejo tequilas!

Another important thing about this list is that you don’t see any of the marketing terms that people confuse with descriptive terms. I.e., you don’t see “gold”, “silver”, or (these days) “platinum”. Those are marketing terms; they mean nothing about the quality of the tequila, and tell you only what the manufacturer wants you to think about their product. Non-100% agave tequilas can contain other sugars, so often caramel coloring is added to make the product look like it was aged for longer than it was; this is where the “Gold” almost always comes from.

I’ll stop here, and save some more information, recommendations, and margarita tips for another post. And then, maybe, I’ll write more about our trip to Mexico, and the psychopath tequila fiends we went with.

Good Pizza Delivery in San Francisco

It might be hard to believe that in a food city like San Francisco it can be hard to find good pizza. Indeed, it’s not hard to find good pizza — if you’re willing to drive to it. Tommaso’s on Kearny, Vicolo on Ivy, and Arizmendi, on 9th Avenue are all good. None are close, none deliver. My kingdom for good pizza delivery!

It might be hard to believe that in a food city like San Francisco it can be hard to find good pizza. Indeed, it’s not hard to find good pizza — if you’re willing to drive to it. Tommaso’s, on Kearny at Broadway, is probably our favorite. Vicolo, on Ivy, is also outstanding (but not open on Sundays). Arizmendi Bakery, on 9th Avenue between Irving and Judah, changes their pizza every day; most days the combinations are both unique and tasty.

None of them deliver. And none are in walking distance.

We have a couple pizza places on our block, but I have come to the conclusion that you can tell if a pizza place is good or not just by looking at their sausage. If they use the little Sysco sausage pellets, the ones that look like rabbit droppings, it’s mediocre-at-best pizza. That’s our block.

North Beach Pizza makes pretty good pizza, if you get it from the right location, and they deliver. The problem is, you can only get delivery from the location closest to you, and the North Beach Pizza on Haight delivers crappy pizza (it inevitably arrives soggy and warm, not hot and crispy).

As you might imagine, this makes football and, especially, college basketball far less enjoyable than they might be. What’s a sportsfan to do? (Don’t get me started on the food in sports bars in SF.)

But, glory be, I have been delivered. We finally found excellent pizza delivery, from Bambino’s Ristorante on Cole Street. Pizza arrives fresh and hot, with a crisp crust, and outstanding ingredients. I especially recommend the Number 10, the “Tre Fromaggi”, which is a thin crust pizza without sauce, three cheeses, garlic and fresh basil. Out of this world good. Rochelle and I had to stop ourselves from eating an entire Extra Large in one sitting…

The Soul of Champagne

Two years ago, Rochelle and I attended a champagne tasting held at Absinthe, and hosted by Terry Theise, a specialty wine importer. He introduced us to “grower producers,” or, champagnes made by the same people who grow the grapes. It was eye opening, and we immediately decided our next big vacation would be to the Champagne region of France.

Almost two years ago, Rochelle and I attended a champagne tasting held at Absinthe, and hosted by Terry Theise, a specialty wine importer. We had gone to a couple other champagne tasting events, but this was a smaller setting, and Theise had a different agenda.

He introduced us to “grower producers,” or, champagnes made by the same people who grow the grapes, in very small quantities. It was eye opening, and we immediately decided our next big vacation would be to the Champagne region of France. That trip was in September of 2002, and will probably remain our best vacation for many years.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an excellent article about champagne grower producers, and also provides a fine introduction to some of the subtleties of champagne. I’ve been meaning to write up my own introduction, but for now, I’ll just point you at the Times.

I will add one thing to the NYT article, that Rochelle and I thought was the key lesson we learned at our tasting with Theise. Grower producers don’t have any money for marketing, and don’t make enough product where marketing would actually help them. So when you buy a bottle of their wine, you’re paying for the wine, not the marketing budget.

By contrast, the largest champagne houses spend zillions on marketing and distribution. That’s what puts them on supermarket shelves across the US, and what drives people to buy them off those shelves. A substantial piece of the price tag for that wine is the marketing and other costs that are not reflected in the quality of the wine.

So, if you’re drinking a well-made $40 champagne from a grower producer, it compares favorably to a $80-100 champagne from, say, Moët & Chandon. Dom Perignon, the premium label of Moët, is $80 at Costco. While in France we paid 30€ for bottles we liked better.

A Sad Passing: Seltzer Sisters Is No More

When I arrived at Rochelle’s house to pick her up for our very first date, she invited me in for a few minutes, and offered me a beverage. She took an old fashioned seltzer bottle out of the refrigerator, put a little vanilla syrup in two glasses, and spritzed in the seltzer, stirring to mix in the syrup. It was delicious, a retro luxury, and I knew then that Rochelle was supercool, someone whose tastes would complement mine. Less than three months later, we were engaged.

When I arrived at Rochelle’s house to pick her up for our very first date, she invited me in for a few minutes, and offered me a beverage. She took an old fashioned seltzer bottle out of the refrigerator, put a little vanilla syrup in two glasses, and spritzed in the seltzer, stirring to mix in the syrup. It was delicious, a retro luxury, and I knew then that Rochelle was supercool, someone whose tastes would complement mine. Less than three months later, we were engaged.

Rochelle’s seltzer came from Seltzer Sisters, a local small business that provided home and commercial delivery of seltzer all over the Bay Area. Rochelle had been a customer of theirs almost since she moved to San Francisco 15 years ago.

Today we learned that after being in business for 20 years, Seltzer Sisters has ceased operations, due in large part to the wildly escalating costs associated with workers’ comp. insurance.

I don’t know who’s to blame for the horrible workers’ comp. situation, but it’s clear it’s killing businesses I care about. Here’s hoping that the new governor of California, whom I didn’t vote for, can fix it, and that Seltzer Sisters can find a way to make a comeback.

To Craig and the rest of the crew at Seltzer Sisters, we wish you the very best of luck. We will miss you terribly.

Update: They’re back, and as good as ever.