My love affair with cookbooks

cookbookA lot of people look at cookbooks as mere manuals. But in truth they’re some of the best reading out there. Whether laced with personal anecdotes and tart asides _ my favorite _ or written as a straight how-to, a cookbook is part self-help volume, part escapist literature,  part historical document.

There are cookbooks you read without any intention of breaking out so much as a wooden spoon. Think “The French Laundry Cookbook.” My goodness, that Thomas Keller has a lot of patience. There are cookbooks that get dog-eared and, frankly, kind of nasty with all the food that’s been dropped on them. Thank you Nigella Lawson and your “How To Eat.”

At their most basic, cookbooks can help you put dinner on the table. As a fairly clueless new mother, I got hold of a book called “Cook  Your Meals The Lazy Way,” by Sharon Bowers. There were some good recipes in there, but I think the most important thing was the general message of, “Buck up, kid. You can do it.” Often, you’ll read a cookbook and find one really good piece of advice. For me, the Lazy Way epiphany was Put Your Food Processor On The Counter. Yeah, it spoils the line of my lovely ‘70s era formica, but having it out and ready to go is often the tipping point between, “I can’t be bothered,” and “Oh, what the heck.”

But there is so much more.

Cookbooks can cure what ails you. When my family immigrated to America my mother, sister and I came by boat, which is where I discovered that  (a.) it is a total thrill to be in the middle of the ocean, and (b.)  I am a terrible sailor. I didn’t want to miss a thing/I wanted to lie in my bunk and die. So, being a resourceful 12-year-old, I dragged the pale shadow of myself up to the ship’s library, pulled out a book of tea time recipes and within an afternoon had recovered to the point that a steaming hot scone topped with homemade strawberry  jam and “lashings” of whipped cream, sounded pretty darned good.

And there’s nothing like a vintage cookbook for taking you back in time. I’ve read some fabulous wartime cookbooks with their eggless cakes and meatless casseroles. And I once had a Fanny Farmer Junior Cookbook, with a recipe for tomato sauce that called for 1 can of diced, stewed tomatoes, although it did not that “if unavailable, fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, may be substituted.”

On my own shelves I have a facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton’s 19th-century cookbook, a pioneer in the field with her measured amounts and relatively detailed instructions not to mention excellent advice on hiring a lady’s maid. And I have a 1950’s British cookbook, “Home Catering and Cookery,” used by my mother as a young bride and replete with the kind of recipes that gave post-war British cuisine its well-deserved rep.

The  text is sexist as hell _ all about mother working out her timetable for cooking, marketing and housekeeping with not a whiff of a suggestion that father might get off his duff and fry a few chips. But you can see faint stirrings beneath the surface. There are a few quick meals the “bachelor girl” can whip up. There’s also fabulous advice on throwing cocktail parties that you just know were glamorous as all get-out with the ladies in pouffy skirts and the gents in jackets. As a long-reformed smoker, I especially like the earnest instructions to put out plenty of ashtrays.

To be honest, I remember eating lots of these recipes as a child and they all tasted great to me. Don’t know whether that’s my mother’s skill as a cook or the power of nostalgia.But because I am essentially not a nice person, I’m going to leave you with something that will chill your marrow. Readers, straight from the horror of mid-century British cooking I give you:Calf’s Head Vinaigrette:

  • Half a calf’s head
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 2 sticks celery
  • ¼ pint vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ½ pint vinaigrette sauce (which is described elsewhere in the book. Come on, you know you aren’t gonna make this so just visualize)

Wash and clean the head well, remove the bones, and keep the brains and tongue separate. If necessary, tie the head together with tape and wrap in muslin. Boil for 3-4 hours in water with the vegetables, vinegar and salt. Add the tongue 2 hours, and the brains 15 minutes, before the head is cooked. Skin the tongue and cut it into slices. Serve the head on a hot dish, garnish with the tongue and brains, and serve vinaigrette sauce in a sauce-boat.

And that, friends, is my new mantra: Garnish with the tongue and brains.

Bon appetit!

A Visit to Venice

Remembering Donna Scala

donnaThe last time I saw Donna Scala, co-owner with husband Giovanni of Napa’s popular Bistro Don Giovanni, she was full of plans to renovate the restaurant.

Which is notable mainly because she’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just months to live. That was earlier this year and as it turned out the end was even nearer than we thought. She died today.

I knew Donna only as a customer; for about the last 12 years I’ve been meeting a group of friends at the bistro for lunch once a month. But even that limited contact made a huge impression. Short, bubbly and blonde, Donna could fill up any room. You could always tell if she was in the house by the throaty, sexy laugh emanating from the kitchen. (Or, if things weren’t being run in keeping with her high standards, the equally recognizable sound of a sinner being summarily set straight.)

But any storms soon blew over and Donna would be back doing what she did so well, circling the restaurant, stopping to hug regulars and catch up on the latest from the many wine country boldface types who frequent the bistro. If there was something new on the menu, Donna made sure you at least had a taste. And she always had something pertinent to say about whatever was the topic du jour in the Napa Valley.

For me, a person who carries the scars of eating lunch alone in the girls’ bathroom for all of 9th grade (High school: The worst, non?), it was a special thrill to be greeted by Donna, ever-glamorous in her crisp chef’s whites (often with a hint of lace peeking out at the lapel) and shorty Western boots. I quoted her a few times in stories about California food and wine and was always tickled by how open and funny she was.

The last time she stopped by our table we knew she was ill and she knew that we knew. But we talked mostly about other things, including her plans to update the restaurant. Just for a moment she looked at us and her eyes shone with unshed tears. “I love you all,” she said.

And we loved you, Donna.



Craving cava

Cava bottle rocket, Freixenet style /Michelle Locke

A lot of us view bubbles as bipartisan _ there’s French Champagne and then there’s all the rest. But a little exploration can open up whole new worlds of sparkling sensations from German Sekt to Italian Asti and Prosecco to Hungarian Pezsgo. OK, I haven’t actually tried that last but I could not resist the name.

Having just returned from my trip to Spain hosted by Freixenet I am all about the Cava, which is the Spanish term for sparkling wine.

You’ve probably already tried Freixenet’s most famous product, Cordon Negro Brut, which is the sparkler in the snazzy black bottle with gold labeling. This has been one of my go-tos for some time because it’s crisp, light, eminently festive and quite the bargain at around $10. So I was interested to discover that despite being made in vast quantities _ Freixenet is the largest maker of traditional method sparkling wine _ the wine is made with meticulous attention to detail. The grapes, Parellado, Macabeo and Xarel-lo (Sha-rello), classic cava varieties, are harvested by hand and transported to the winery in relatively small boxes that hold about 50 pounds. The grapes are pressed in gentle, pneumatic presses and the yeasts added to start fermentation are Freixenet’s own cultures.

The first fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks and the second fermentation _ this is what puts the bubbles in bubbly _ takes place in the bottle, the same method used in Champagne as opposed to the cheaper Charmat method in which the second fermentation takes place in bulk tanks. Yeast is introduced, which eats the sugar and creates CO2, aka tiny bubbles, and when that process is over the bottles are upended and  “riddled” _ turned gently _ to move the yeast sediment to the neck of the bottle. This used to be done by hand, and still is for some Freixenet Group wines such as the Reserva Heredad produced by the Segura Viudas winery. But for the most part the process has been automated, saving time and money.  Once the yeast has been collected in the neck, the top of the bottle is frozen, the crown cap taken off and the pressure inside naturally blows out the sediment cap, a process known, reasonably enough, as disgorging. A proprietary “dosage” of some type of sweetener is added and the bottle is corked, all done quickly to keep the bubbles from escaping.

So much for the backstory. Here are some tasting notes:

Elyssia Gran Cuvee: A pleasant floral aroma with a touch of pineapple. Tastes fruity but crisp with a toasty note on the finish. Around $15.

Cordon Negro:  White peaches on the nose. Tastes like apples and pears with a little peach thrown in. Not too sweet, not too tart.Around $10.

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva: This wine is fairly stunning at around $9 and under. Light, fruity, some sweetness but still an elegant wine. Good as an aperitif or with seafood, salad or cheese.  This is the kind of bottle you want waiting for you in the fridge on Friday night.


Walls of cava at Segura Viudas /Michelle Locke

Happy birthday to me

Summer and chardonnay, the perfect pairing /Michelle Locke

Vinecdote turns one this week and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented on, and maybe even, ever so gently, improved what’s been posted here.

As some of you may know, I started this blog at a bit of a low point.  It was a time when I questioned everything I’d worked for, everything I thought I’d accomplished. Even writing my byline became an exercise in angst. For years I’d been Michelle Locke, staff writer. Now, I was … well, who was I exactly?

I knew one thing: I had covered issues big (San Quentin’s Death Row, the O.J. Simpson case) and small (Berkeley’s brief and goose-pimpled Naked Speech Movement), but what really fascinated me was the everyday minutia of life _ the things we eat and drink and how we choose to spend our free time.

So, I decided to start a blog focused on wine, food and travel. The ever fabulous Mr. Vinecdote bought me a digital camera;  I came up with a name _ Yeah, it is a little hard to pronounce. What can I say? As a marketer, I make a pretty good journalist. _ I forked over $10o or so to Yahoo, and away we went.

Some highlights:

Jan. 21, my inaugural post was about Martin Cate and his Smuggler’s Bar rum business in San Francisco. Nothing very spectacular about this _ except that it took me about five hours to screw up the courage to hit the “publish” button. I cannot tell you how many people I begged to look it over before I posted.

Feb. 18, my first news post, blogging about the Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in the Napa Valley. I came pretty close to having an opinion, too, a big change for a dyed-in-the-wool mainstream media type. And comments! Comments from people to whom I was not related! Very exciting.

May 5, now this was a fun week. I went to wine school at the Culinary Institute of America and blogged about it. Without really noticing it, I made the transition from dabbler in to student of wine.July 19. My first video! OK, this one was actually shot by the aforementioned Mr. V. But still. I edited it, cropping out the annoying blonde fidgeting around in front of us, and spent hours fighting with VideoPress to get it to post. A milestone.

In October I went to South America. A magical, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And thanks to WordPress for iPad, you went with me.

What have I learned? I’ve learned that I have a dreadful propensity for run-on sentences. That if one should happen to, ever so slightly, mock someone in a post that attracts only 10 readers, there is a 100 percent chance the person in question will be one of those 10.

And I’ve learned that, for someone who always considered herself a bit of a loner, I have some fantastic, supportive friends.

Thank you.