Negotiating for a Negoçiant in Unexpected Places

If you’re really interested in great wine values, then, if you haven’t already, acquaint yourself with some trustworthy negoçiants.  In case you might not have seen the term before, negoçiants are, very broadly translated, something like  wine merchants.  In practice, however, their relationship to the wines they sell under their own names is much more of a hands-on enterprise than simply the selling of a product.  They canvass a particular viticultural area, buying up excess grapes, or the juice thereof, or even a stray wine here and there in various stages of completion.  Some of the juice or grapes may even come from some notable producers who wish to keep the amount of their own label under control by selling off some of their excess raw ingredient.  Negoçiants, then, proceed to complete whatever needs to be done to those ingredients to procure a finished wine to be sold under the name of the negoçiant.  Few serious fans of wines will not have heard of the likes of Louis Jadot for Burgundy, and Georges du Boeuf for Beaujolais.  But have you ever heard of Cameron Hughes, a California negoçiant who sells most of his admirable product to Costco?  No, you don’t have to be French to be a negoçiant, despite the cedilla under the “c.”  But Costco???  Well, as it happens, Costco may be the largest negoçiant in America, producing under its Kirkland label something like 15 different wines not only from the U.S., but from such areas as France, Italy, and New Zealand as well.  All of those Kirkland wines range from good to excellent, but the price value of those same wines is never less than remarkable.

One of Kirkland’s finest values of late has been their Chateauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps the southern Rhone’s most distinguished wine and, while rich in Grenache, comprises, still further, a judicious blend of any of eighteen different Rhone varietals.  The excellence of a CNP is hardly a secret, and it rarely sells for less then fifty bucks a bottle.  The Wine Spectator gave a recent Kirkland CNP a 92 rating, and, when Costco finally noted this in their stores, the wine vanished from the shelves with dispiriting speed.  O.K.  So here’s an advance notice: the 2012 Kirkland CNP has just appeared.  It has not yet been rated by any major wine publication, to my knowledge, but my own tasting revealed that it’s a first-class bottling, and, like its wonderful predecessor, sells for only $19.99 … a price that is beyond astonishing.  Go for it before word gets any further out than this notice.


Salade Lyonnaise

It was many years ago when my wife and I arrived in Paris in the early evening. We checked into our hotel, and, since it was too late to make formal reservations, we went out to find whatever convenient bistro we could discover … one of those casual places filled with locals and, in the French tradition, several of their dogs.  I can’t remember whether it was just I who ordered the first Salade Lyonnaise I had ever seen on a table or a menu, or the both of us.  Whatever, it turned out to be both attractive, more than delicious, and, for its time, really distinctive.  Since those days, however, one encounters it in French bistros all over the world, so frequently, in fact, that it is often listed simply as a “Bistro Salad.”  Its contents are seemingly simple, perhaps deceptively so for a couple of them: the inner shoots of young and tender frisée, fried lardons of bacon, a vinaigrette of one’s choosing, and two poached eggs.

The reason that I call some of these ingredients “deceptively simple,” is that  you won’t easily find that young frisée, and those lardoons will require your obtaining an uncut slab of bacon.  When I mention something like “young” or “baby” frisée to the grocers in the Pomona valley, they not only don’t carry it, they haven’t even heard of it.  Yes, it can be found in a Whole Foods produce section, and sometimes at Bristol Farms in a plastic box, but that involves some travel time.  For me, the salad is good enough to merit the trip.  Note that the relatively rarity of young frisée is doubtless why some recipes will tell you that you can substitute any other bitter greens of your choice.  I would prefer not to.Frise

So … try the following for two persons:

Separate the leaves, and wash and dry the frisée, using mostly, but not exclusively, the yellow/white interior of the head.

Trim and cut some slab bacon into lardoons, about ½ inch square and fry them until the outsides are browned and crisp.  Drain the lardons and set them aside on a paper towel.  You will want something like eight lardons per serving.

Make a vinaigrette of salt, crushed garlic, sherry wine vinegar, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce, and olive oil, extra-virgin or pure.  I’ll say something further about vinaigrettes in a future blog.

In a small salad bowl, toss the frisée with the vinaigrette and bacon, and a generous handful of chopped chives, and arrange on two salad plates.

Now, poach four eggs until just lightly done (because you will want the yolks rich but runny(, and place two of them atop each of the frisée servings.  A light grind or two of fresh pepper and you’re done.

Each diner can now break the eggs so that those yolks run over the dressed frisée, both tempering and enriching the acidity of the vinaigrette.  Ah, bacon and eggs never tasted this good.



Fish like you won’t believe!…Phil’s Fish Market, Moss Landing, CA

My wife and I were visiting our older son and his family in Sunnyvale last weekend, and, on Friday they took us to Moss Landing, a wetlands/wharf/inlet mélange on the coast highway about fifteen miles north of Monterey,  It’s home to several marine research centers, a hotel or two, several hundred fishing vessels, and a few restaurants.  It began its modern life as a whaling port sometime in the 19th century, and its general look is somewhere between funky and unkempt depending, I suppose, on the generation of the viewer.   I wish we’d had more time to explore its many curiosities, but our destination was Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, an altogether remarkable restaurant and fish market.

Oh the Oysters!

Oh the Oysters!

The road to it is not very well marked, parking is sparse at best, its look is as funky and unkempt as that of Moss Landing itself, and lines of customers can be long … but … the menu offerings go on and on and every one of them features fish and seafood so fresh they can only have come from those Moss Landing fishing boats within the last couple of hours or so.   You grab a menu from a stack of them that awaits you as you enter, decide what you want to eat as you stand in line reading that menu or one of the many blackboards offering still more daily specials, give your order to the person at the cash register, pay up, and take your table number to wherever you’re going to sit and await the arrival of whatever you ordered.  For starters I ordered a special the of four large Pacific oysters gently poached in a Champagne and cream sauce.  It was little short of glorious, as were my fresh halibut tacos to follow.  What is truly dispiriting is that there are so many other dishes on that menu you just have to try but cannot  … portion sizes are beyond generous and you have only one stomach. Oh,  Phil’s is famous for its Cioppino and, if you call ahead by a hour or so, you can bring your own pot and have them fill it to take home.  I believe that Phil’s Cioppino bested Bobby Flay’s in his one-season TV show “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown.” 

Halibut Tacos!

Halibut Tacos!


There’s a bar there for beer and wine with your meal or anything else you have in mind, and the adjacent fish market is but another adventure in freshness.  Yes, this place is out of the way, but, if any eatery ever deserved to be known as a “destination” restaurant, this is it.

A local trick: when you get to Phil’s, have one of your party decide what to eat while still in line, and then nail down a table while the rest of you make your way toward the cash register.  However long the wait … just wait.


Chips Ahoy! Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips

Summer is upon us, and, as the first decent tomatoes ripen, and, as the first proper avocados become rich with the first full flavor of the year, visions of pico de gallo and kindred salsas beckon, along with bowls of genuinely full-bodied guacamole.  Ah … but what about the corn chips to accompany them?  Have you ever considered making your own rather than buying them pre-fab, as it were?  After all, a corn chip is simply a piece of fried corn tortilla; all a chip needs to be something special is a truly distinguished corn tortilla in the first place.  Fortunately, Trader Joe’s, of all places, has just what you’re looking for … a genuine antidote to all of those thin and insipid supermarket versions.  In the bread section of your local T.J’s, look for the 12 oz. package that reads “Trader Joe’s Corn Tortillas, made from freshly ground corn.”  You won’t believe the depth of the corn flavor these hefty beauties provide.  tortillas

Each package holds 12 tortillas, and all you need to do is cut them into quarters.  In a 12-inch non-stick frying pan, heat about an inch of Canola oil to ca. 350° and you’re ready to go.  The pan will hold about 10 tortilla quarters, so slip them in gently, and, about thirty seconds or so later, they’ll be ready to turn, using a long set of tongs.  By the time you’ve turned them all, those you turned first will be ready to remove from the pan to a double sheet of paper towels.  If you intend to salt the chips, then do so immediately while the chips are still hot; that way the salt will permanently adhere to the chips instead of just rolling off onto the paper towels.frying

Try Kosher salt; the flakes seem to stick better than salt grains.  Put some more chips into the pan, put the previously salted portion of chips into a larger container (try a wide basket lined with more paper towels), replace the original paper towels on which you drained the first set of chips.  By this time, the new chips in the pan will be ready to turn and you’re off and running once again.  You’ll soon get an assembly-line rhythm going, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll finish the job.  When you’ve completed making and salting the chips, let them cool fully and then put them into Zip-Lock bags.  The bagged chips will last about a month stored in a cupboard or pantry shelf.  The downside of all this?  It’s really hard to resist eating them.

An additional note or two:  just how dark you want your chips is, obviously, up to you.  I like mine on the darker side, but I make sure I make some lighter ones for guests who might prefer them of a more orthodox hue.  Adjust the heat and frying times to your own tastes as you go.

Oh, and if you don’t have one of those fancy frying temperature thermometers, here’s an interesting ploy: stick anything that is plain unpainted wood, e.g. the end of a wooden cooking spoon or a wooden barbecue skewer, and, if the oil bubbles up immediately around the wood, the oil has reached 350°.  Sounds weird, I know, but it works.




Greek Wines – Try Something COMPLETELY Different

When, in 1959, I was a budding young archaeologist bustling around Greece for the first time, I quickly became aware of Greece’s wines and of the strange (to me at least) grapes peculiar to the country.  Ever heard of, say, Xynomavro, or Assyrtiko, or Moschophilero?  Neither had I, and the wines I tasted made from those and others like them were somewhere between undistinguished and unpleasant.  And yet … every now and then, I stumbled across something that was not only good, but nearly sensational … say a well-aged Xynomavro from the Boutari label.  It didn’t happen often, but, when it did, it suggested that the problem with Greek wines of those days didn’t lie with the grapes themselves, which were obviously capable of great things, but with the winemakers.  It took about 25 or 30 more years before those winemakers either passed or retired and their places were taken by their descendants, most of whom had studied oenology, perhaps in Bordeaux or in California or any of the many others there and elsewhere that were born at that time.  As a result, the potential of earlier years became fully realized  – something true of southern Mediterranean wines in general – and you can now buy, at knowledgeable wine stores, some very nice stuff.  So … I was at Bev Mo the other day, looking around for bargains, and my wife, who had been roaming the wine aisles on her own, came up to me brandishing a bottle of Boutari Moschophilero (the label spells it phonetically: Moschofilero), which was on clearance sale for about six bucks.  Note that the word “Moschophilero” literally means “fly-loving,” and there was that time decades ago when flies were just about the only forms of life that could abide the wine.  That’s no longer true, I’m delighted to report, and this “Moschofilero “ is now a lovely, well-balanced and gently fragrant white, just awaiting your summer afternoons on the patio.  Give it a try and perhaps you’ll be emboldened to try many of those other grapes that are out there that you’ve never sampled or even heard of before.greekwine2

Please note that the Greek grapes to which I have referred above have nothing to do with the famous/infamous Retsinas or resinated wines of Greece.  Those sui generis beverages constitute another story altogether.


Maryland Crab Cakes

I’ve always been in love with crab cakes, but had never really learned how to make them.  So, several years ago, my wife and I decided to take an Elderhostel trip east to Maryland, which I’ve always considered to be more less the font of the crab cake art.  There, under the instruction and watchful eye of a man we knew only as Chef Carson, I tried to absorb the basics of the craft.  What follows is my amalgam of what he had to teach, and my own riff on what I learned.

Start with one of those pound cans of lump crab meat you can get at Costco, Trader Joe’s, and elsewhere.  If you live on the west coast, it may be tempting to use fresh Dungeness crab meat, but, while Dungeness is best for eating straight up, it’s not so successful in crab cakes.  Anyway …

Take a small bowl and whisk together until thoroughly blended:

¾ cup of mayo, 2 Tbs. regular French’s mustard, 1 Tbs. Worcestershire Sauce,

l extra-large egg, and several dashes of your favorite hot sauce … just for a little zing.  Set the bowl of blended ingredients aside.

Take a larger bowl, and, with a fork, gently mix thoroughly a pound of lump crab meat, 1.5 Tbs. Old Bay Seasoning (usually to be found in any supermarket spice aisle), 2 Tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley, and some Panko crumbs.  For this last ingredient, just wash and dry the empty crab can and fill it ¾ full with the Panko.  That amount will prove to be just right in the mixture.

Now, add to the larger bowl the contents of the smaller bowl, and, using your hands or a fork,  gently but thoroughly combine the wet and dry ingredients.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before you’re ready to make the crab cakes.

Remove the bowl from the fridge and mold the crab cake mixture just as you would if you were making regular hamburgers … the size is up to you.  Take a large, deep skillet, pour into it about ¾ inch of vegetable oil, and heat the oil to 350°  Put the crab cakes into the hot oil and fry them for a minute or two on each side.  Remove them, when well-browned on both sides, to a foil-lined baking/cookie sheet.  They can stay comfortably on the sheet until you’re ready for the final step before serving.  About 15 minutes before you want to serve them, put the baking sheet in a preheated 375° oven.  15 minutes later, they’ll be ready to eat with any kind of sauce you like with crab.  Sometimes I like to make the cakes smaller so that I can use them for sliders, adorned with a homemade tartar sauce.  If you have any leftovers, put them in the fridge, and, the next day, heat them on high for maybe 45 seconds or so in a microwave.  Try this:

Top each of the reheated cakes with a poached egg and some chopped chives … sort of cries out for a Hollandaise topping or just a sauce made of mayo and Dijon mustard.  Surround with some tomatoes if you like … yummy all the way!crabcakeslider

Or, go for crab cake sliders!


Claro’s Italian Markets

If you live in, say, Arcadia or even Tustin (there are six locations in all), it’s wonderful to have a Claro’s in your vicinity.  However, if you live in the culinarily desolate Pomona Valley, it’s not wonderful; it’s miraculous.  Located in Upland, in a shopping mall on the northwest corner of Mountain and Baseline, Claro’s is a wonderful repository of fine Italian meats, wines, olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, freshly baked breads and equally fresh made sandwiches … and many other southern Mediterranean delights.  I was making a Niçoise Salad the other day and needed, of course, some Niçoise oilves for proper adornment.  Visits to all other markets in the area, large and small, were fruitless, but it was Claro’s to the rescue once again.  It really was brainless of me not to have gone there first.  Yes, you can find the likes of Parma prosciutto elsewhere, pre-cut and in little plastic boxes or wrappers, but Claro’s has the whole ham and will cut from it just the thickness you need for the particular dish you happen to be making.  Need some sopresatta or guanciale?  There it is in that same whole format, awaiting the freshest possible portion.  Does that make a difference in both flavor and texture?  You bet.

The Olive Oil selection at Claro's is first rate!

The Olive Oil selection at Claro’s is first rate!

There’s an Italiote sandwich that I like to make for my wife and me, featuring that Claro’s prosciutto I mentioned above.  I get some freshly baked 6-inch soft-subs, cut them in half and lightly brush the cut sides with olive oil mixed with a little bit of red wine vinegar.  Then, for each sandwich I put several really generous slices of Parma prosciutto.  Have the butcher at Claro’s cut it just a hair thicker than you would have it if you were serving something like prosciutto and melon.  Top the prosciutto with thin slices of Claro’s Parmigiano Reggiano (the best Parmesan cheese in the world).  Just use a good vegetable peeler to cut those slides from a piece of the whole cheese.  Top the cheese with halves of artichoke hearts.  Use the un-marinated hearts from a can, washed and squeezed dry of the canning brine.  Brush the hearts thus arrayed on the sandwich with more of that olive oil mixture, and you’re ready to go.

My Italiote Sandwich

My Italiote Sandwich

I’ll have to confess that I have very little sales resistance when I’m at Claro’s, so I don’t go there unless I’ve decided ahead of time to do myself some serious damage.

Oh … all of the Claro’s Italian Markets are open every day of the week except Wednesdays. There are historical reasons for that unusual choice of days’ off, but it’s only important that you keep it in mind.




This Stuff is OFFAL! (beef tongue demystified)

Offal lovers like me are, for the most part, lonely people.  I generally eat stuff like tripe (cf. menudo … yum!), lambs’ heads, sweetbreads, etc. in solitary, or, to the disapproving looks of my family and friends. Tongue, on the other hand, is a bit of offal that my wife actually likes … even adores.  Just the other day, at Stater Brothers, of all places, we spied a fresh beef tongue lying on top of the meat counter, and, of course, bought it immediately.

How do you cook a tongue, you may well ask, if you’re not already completely turned off by the topic?  Well, the first thing you have to do is peel off the heavy pale skin that covers most of it.  This you do by boiling the whole tongue vigorously in a standard court-bouillon.  You don’t have to employ anything but a lot of water and the usual c-b enhancements – celery, carrots, onion, pepper corns, bay leaves, parsley – and boil the tongue therein vigorously for 45 minutes per pound … no less.  I’ve heard that you can shorten this process by using a pressure cooker, but I’ve yet to try it out.  When the tongue is on the point of finishing up, have a large bowl of ice water at hand, and immediately plunge the hot tongue into the water.  This really important step will allow you to peel off the skin very quickly.  I owe this trick to the chef, Susan Feniger, who told me about it at a Los Angeles restaurant show long ago … one of the best cooking tips I ever received.

Once the peeled tongue has cooled, wrap it tightly in foil and refrigerate it while you decide how you want to serve it.  You could slice it up immediately, I suppose, if you’re looking to make, say, lengua tacos, but I recommend roasting the peeled tongue for added flavor prior to any further use.  You can do this any time, serve it hot right then and there, or stick it back in the refrigerator.  My wife likes to put in a glass roasting dish, with a little water in the bottom of that dish, spread some catsup liberally over all, top with a few slices of brown onion, cover with foil and roast at 350° for 30 minutes.  Uncover the tongue and roast for an additional 15 minutes.  At that point, you can slice it and serve it hot immediately, or chill it for later use.tonguesalad

I like to eat the roasted tongue cold, rinsing off the catsup and then slicing the meat thin.  Have ready a platter scattered with chopped crisp greens, and thin cucumber and tomato slices.  Arrange the slices of tongue on top, and then drizzle liberally the tongue and greens with a garlic vinaigrette made with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, chopped parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.  I was inspired to make this dish by something like it that, while still a college undergraduate, I used to eat at Chino’s famous Basque restaurant, Centro Basco.  It’s still there.  By the way, lambs’ tongues (try Super King) are also wonderful to prepare the same way and serve … another Feniger innovation.


Grilled Eggplant Salad

The eggplant has many forms and a long ancestry in ancient India, but these days, it appears as an important ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures.  You see it steamed, stir-fried, roasted, stuffed, and transformed into soups or salads.  My own favorite approach is to grill it.  Sometimes I just cut it into slices about a half-inch thick, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and just throw it on the barbecue over high heat, maybe with some zucchini treated the same way, and wait for those brown grill marks to suggest that it’s ready to eat as an accompaniment to whatever else I’m cooking up on the same grill.

Eggplant comes in a lot of shapes and kinds, but the one I use most often is the Asian eggplant, sold in markets variously as Chinese or Japanese eggplant.  There are slight distinctions in color and shape in these two varieties, but, in terms of essential taste and texture, those distinctions are of no consequence.  Asian eggplant doesn’t have a long shelf life, so pick through them carefully to select only those that are firm to the touch and whose skins have no blemishes or soft spots.  Asian eggplant tends to be less seedy than their fat and beefy American counterparts, and their purple (light or dark) skins are genuinely edible, which means that you don’t really have to peel them, though you may choose to do so.

Asian Eggplant

Asian Eggplant

How about a grilled eggplant salad?  Here’s what I do.  I take a half dozen or so good-sized Asian eggplants, cut off their stem ends, and, with a vegetable peeler, remove strips of the skins, so that the end result is a kind of striped-looking, partially peeled eggplant.  Cut the eggplant, thus peeled, in half lengthwise, and brush with olive oil.  Grill the long eggplant halves, covered, over a hot to medium-hot fire (gas grills are fine), until there are pronounced grill marks on one side.  Then turn them over and continue to grill them, still covered, to achieve the same effect on the other side. While you’re grilling the eggplant, why not cut a large, sweet red bell pepper in half, removing the interior ribs and seeds, and throw that on the grill with the eggplant.  The whole process for both bell pepper and eggplant should take about five to seven minutes, at which the point of a paring knife should easily and deeply pierce the eggplant flesh.  Immediately remove the grilled eggplant and pepper, and set aside to cool.

peeled and ready to slice and grill

peeled and ready to slice and grill

Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette with salt, one large crushed garlic clove, excellent olive oil and vinegar. For the vinegar portion I use ½ part white wine vinegar and ½ part freshly squeezed lemon juice.  This creates the needed acidity, but without any pronounced vinegar flavors (such as occur in, say, red wine vinegar) to overwhelm the subtle tastes of eggplant.  Try making the vinaigrette one part vinegar/lemon juice to four parts olive oil.  After you’ve made the salad, give it a taste to see if it requires more acidity, and, if so, you can squeeze a bit more lemon juice into the salad.

Now … cut the grilled eggplant into bite-size pieces and put those pieces into a medium-size salad bowl, adding the grilled red pepper, diced small.  Sprinkle over whatever herbs you like … some like chopped fresh oregano or fresh parsley, and I enjoy chopped cilantro.  If you’re using cilantro, you might want to try a touch of ground cumin, if you’re so moved; it’s up to you, and those subtle flavors of eggplant that I mentioned earlier will be receptive to an astonishing variety of additional flavors.  Now, give your vinaigrette a final beat, add it to the bowl and give it a gentle toss.  Taste it for salt at this point.  If you feel the salad needs more, sprinkle some really good sea salt flakes over the top of each served portion.  You can eat the finished dish at room temperature, or cool first it in the fridge.  If you have some left over, cover it tightly, refrigerate it, and enjoy it the next day.  Give this dish a try or three, and, as the old song runs, anything goes.


Feta, as in “Feta Cheese”

Feta is perhaps Greece’s most glorious contribution to fine cuisine.  It’s certainly not the only country to make it, but it was clearly the first to do so.  The name “feta,” or φέταis, is the same as the Greek word that means “slice.”  There’s an Italian word fetta, which also means “slice,” but I’m not sure which of the two has historical priority.  In any case, feta is a sheep’s milk cheese (sometimes a little goat’s milk is thrown in), which is fully brined, producing an immediately recognizable sharp and piquant character to its taste.  It is often observed that a similar sounding cheese can be found in Homer’s Odyssey, and, though no one can prove that Homer’s cheese is the true linear ancestor of Byzantine and modern feta, the roots seem clear enough.  In any case, feta is famously used to adorn the well-known “Greek Salad”, yes, but the Greeks love the stuff so much (as do I) that they frequently serve it all by itself as an hors d’oeuvre, just anointed with a splash or two of excellent olive oil.  I like to mash it and the oil together with that same olive oil, sprinkle a little fresh or dried oregano on top, and serve it with some crusty bread.  The Greeks like to eat it with a fresh, right-out-of-the barrel glass of Retsina … but Retsina’s another topic altogether.BulgarianFeta2

So … who really does make the best feta cheese?  Being the professional Hellenophile that I am, I hate to admit it, but Greek feta runs but a close second to the world’s finest: Bulgarian.  You can find it easily at a good Near Eastern deli, and also at the Super King market chain.  The best brand is called “Zer Güt,” which is itself a subsidiary of “Indo-European Foods.”  Zer Güt comes in variously sized small plastic boxes colored green and white.  The cheese is packed in its own brine, and, if you keep it in the box and in the brine and in the refrigerator, tightly closed, it will stay bright and fresh for several weeks.

Danish, French, and American feta cheeses are nothing but truly wimpy imitators; pay them no mind.  Oh, and the first syllable of the word “feta” rhymes with the English verb “let.”  Take my word for it: you’ll love the Bulgarian stuff, and, to add more good news, it’s relatively inexpensive.