I grew up with Zinfandel. When I was a kid, my dad Charlie and his friends would hunt almost every weekend; duck hunting, pig hunting, deer hunting. Our freezer was always full of meat. I grew up thinking that everyone was Italian, and that everyone hunted. My folks never took me to see Bambi.

My dad was part of a group of about 20 guys who went in together to lease large pieces of property to hunt. Their hunting clubs were scattered all over Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. For a long time, we hunted the 12,500 acre Rockpile Ranch straddling both Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, being the largest piece of property in either county. I remember my dad taking me for weekends to the club. I would ride in a jeep or truck during the day as the men looked for a large pig, or buck. Lunches would invariably be Salumi and Cheddar on hard French bread rolls. Any game taken would be field dressed, then cleaned and hung back in camp at the end of the day. After cleaning up after the day’s hunt, the men would cook a big dinner. Polenta, meats, Italian sauces, pasta, vegetables, salad, Zinfandel.

Growing up, all the Italian men I knew drank Zinfandel. It came in jugs, it wasn’t complex, it was good and it was cheap. It went into the food, and into coffee cups and high ball glasses, styrofoam cups and complimentary collector jelly glasses from the gas station – free with an 8 gallon purchase.

I crushed Zinfandel grapes when I was my son Charlie’s age, just 12 years old, and the juice was made into wine that I was allowed to taste with food.

Zinfandel has been my first wine love, my longest loved wine, my favorite wine for most of my life.

Big, bold, very red, often high in alcohol, with flavors of brambly raspberry and black pepper spice; Zinfandel is as big as Cabernet Sauvignon in body, structure, and flavor profile but more affordable. Although DNA tests have shown Zinfandel is really the grape varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia, and also Identical to Italy’s Primitivo grape, it has been thought of as California’s grape by generations of California’s wine drinkers.

Years ago, I attended the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and producers) tasting, a tasting of Zinfandels put on at Fort Mason in San Francisco in January. Hundreds of Zinfandels to taste. Thousands of people tasting. A perfect day spent tasting some iconic Zinfandels, like Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Zin, and discovering new stars.

ZAP is marking the 19th Zinfandel festival this year with the theme Zin in Paradise, and it isn’t just the incredible Saturday Grand Zinfandel Tasting, but three days of events. Tickets are still available for most of the events.

http://www.zinfandel.org/

The festival kicks off Thursday evening with the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing at Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavillion. Celebrity chef Beverly Gannon will be serving up Hawaiian Regional Cuisine with Zinfandels, along with 49 other chefs and wineries. As I read the list of wineries, restaurants, and dishes being served, my mouth goes into watering overdrive mode, and I am actually excited about attending this event. The list is too long to print here, but go to the event page and look at the amazing bounty of food, and the participating wineries, and get yourself to this event! If you are looking for me, I’ll be the very happy, short, round, bearded man in line in front of you for more yummy food and wine.

On Friday, I am going to sit down with a group of about 150 people at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for Flights, a showcase of Zinfandel.

The panelists will discuss blending, Zinfandel’s uniqueness, preferred blending varietals, and each panelist will bring a proprietary blended Zinfandel to pour and discuss.

The wineries, panelists and Zinfandels include:

  • Ridge Vineyards, winemaker Eric Baugher, 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles and the 2007 Geyserville
  • Three Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Matt Cline, 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel, California and 2007 Old Vines, California (Field Blend)
  • JC Cellars, founder and winemaker Jeff Cohn, 2007 Imposter Blend and 2007 Sweetwater Zinfandel
  • Robert Biale Vineyards, winemaker Steve Hall, 2007 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel and 2007 Stagecoach Zinfandel
  • Bedrock Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Morgan Twain Peterson, 2007 Heirloom Wine, Sonoma Valley and 2007 Ravenswood, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley

Friday Evening, also at the Mark Hopkins, is an Evening with the Winemakers, Benefit Live Auction and Dinner, where Chef Beverly Gannon will prepare:

  • Asian Duck Tostada
  • Blackened Ahi with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, Wasabi Micro Greens, Tobiko, Mashed Potato in Filo Cup
  • Smoked Salmon Pinwhhels with Chipotle-Chili Fresh Fruit Salsa
  • Kalua Pork and Goat Cheese Won Tons with Mango Chili Sauce
  • Terrine of Foie Gras, BBQ Eel, Potato Pineapple Compote, Vanilla Syrup and Spicy Micro Greens
  • Lamb Shank Canneloni with a Poached Fig Demi-Glaze Double Cut Lamb Chop, Lavendar Honey Glazed Baby Carrots
  • Chocolate Macadamia Nut Tart

I had the opportunity to take part in a high end food and wine dinner like this when I helped winemaker Carol Shelton, who had the Best in Class Zinfandel at the California State Fair – a Zinfandel with four gold medals – pour her Zinfandel and other favorite wines at the best Meet the Winemaker dinner I have ever attended. The dinner was at Susan and Drew Goss’ Zinfandel restaurant in Chicago’s River North area, near the Fonterra Grill and Spago. Without exception, the sold out (it sold out in under 3 hours, a record for the restaurant) 110 seat restaurant’s diners enjoyed one of the best dining experiences of their lives. Many hundreds of bottles were opened and consumed (I helped Carol taste them all earlier that day and found all 5 TCA tainted corked bottles – unlucky me) and Susan Goss prepared a multi course menu around Carol’s wines that amazed, delighted and thrilled everyone who attended the dinner.

This is going to be one of those kind of once in a lifetime dining experiences and Beverly’s menu looks even more fantastic than Susan’s menu. In addition to the incredible sit down mind blowing meal with Zinfandels poured to pair with each course, there will be 25 or so one of a kind Zinfandel themed live auction lots to bid on during the evening.

ZAP’s Zinfandel Festival culminates Saturday with the epically huge Grand Zinfandel Tasting in both the Herbst and Festival pavilions at Fort Mason in San Francisco from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., ZAP members get an hour start on the general public and can taste from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Over the years, ZAP’s Zinfandel festival has grown, more than doubling in size. The number of Zinfandels poured couldn’t be tasted by any one person, be they veteran wine reviewer or liver compromised bum.

Plastic lined garbage cans are provided throughout the festival and serve as giant wine spittoons. I hate spitting out perfectly good wine, but it is the only way to go as an attempt is made to taste as many Zinfandels as possible before my palate is completely blown out by the plethora of high alcohol hugely bodied monster Zinfandels.

I am thrilled to be attending this years Grand Zinfandel Tasting, and getting an early 10 a.m. start as part of the media tasting. I will have my red wine notebook and pen with me.

It almost goes without saying, but eat before, during and after the event, be safe, and consider public transportation.

DISCLOSURE: ZAP is covering my attendance to events with a press pass. I love this event and would have gushed about the event if I was paying out of pocket to attend. I will be writing a couple of articles after the event. One will focus on the events generally, the other will include tasting notes for Zinfandels tasted over the weekend. Full disclosure requires that I think Julie Ann Kodmur is an angel.

I tried to recreate a meal I used to cook often about 25 years ago; steamed chicken thighs, stuffed with ham, swiss cheese, and green onions – a healthy version of Chicken Cordon blue. I wasn’t able to extricate the thigh bone from the center of the thighs, so I rolled the deboned thighs and used cooking twine to tie them around the other ingredients completely.

Instead of steaming in water, I used an entire bottle of $1.99 2007 FoxBrook Sauvignon Blanc California. I tried to drink a glass of this wine, but poured it out, choosing to cook with it instead. Where another Sauvignon Blanc might have a note of cat pee in the nose, this wine tasted of piss. Not a wine I will ever buy again.

I served the Cordon Blue-esque Chicken up with a creamy chicken rice, to which I added a ton of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

I paired dinner with a 2008 Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Chardonney California. Clear pale gold  in color, this 13% alc wine has a ton of notes and flavors for an under $9 wine at Lucky supermarket. Crisp apple and citrus nose gives way to tropical fruit, grapefruit, and apple, balanced by oak and sweet cream, in the mouth. A nice medium bodied Chardonnay with a long light finish characterized by apple and acidity. I liked it lots, and saved the rest of the bottle with a Wine Preserva flavor saver disc.

Overall, a pretty tasty and moderately showy meal.

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Speaking of showy meals, I’ll be auditioning for Gordon Ramsey’s Masterchef on FOX in 11 days. If you live in Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, open casting calls are coming up; for more information, here’s a link: http://www.3ballproductions.com/masterchef.html

Jennifer Pitchke, a reader of my blog left this comment about the audition process:

Just wanted to let you know I went to the New York auditions and it was nothing like I expected so I wanted to give you heads up. I thought it would be like a one on one. Nope–you will be asked to stand with up to 8 others at one time to plate and they go down the line and you have maybe two minutes with them so back those two minutes good because I sure didn’t. My food rocked but felt I could have handled the Q&A better. Good Luck.

If you have read about the real audition process for American Idol auditioners, not the select few put through to see Simon Cowell and the gang, then Jennifer’s description is familiar. I don’t have cancer, a dead wife, or a very ill or disabled family member to exploit through the audition process, FOX loves the sob backstory in casting their reality shows, but I can cook and have personality; hopefully that will be enough. I will happily keep my healthy family and miss out on being cast if it really comes to that.

I had planned to serve involtini, polenta, and red sauce with a solid red wine. I’m adding a pesto sauce to the mix, so I can “paint” my white presentation plate with the red (homemade Italian red sauce), white (polenta), and green (pesto) of the Italian flag, and lay my sliced pinwheels of involtini across the flag in a line.

The presentation is better, the flavors still work great, and the food allows me to tell my story of growing up watching my Italian American father Charlie Cesano cooking, and how it has inspired my brother Thomas , myself, and my 12 year old son Charlie to be the primary cooks in our kitchens.

CBS has CSI; NBC has Law and Order. Both have spun off myriad incarnations.

FOX has Gordon Ramsey. Hells, Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Cookalong, and coming later this year Masterchef.

Masterchef is another BBC import, and turns amateur but passionate cooks into cheftestants, competing against each other, until only one is left.

I am going to be attending a casting call in San Francisco later this month, bringing the elements to plate a prepared dish with five minutes preparation – a different thermos for each part of the dish, presentation plate, spoon, tongs, cutting board, knife, steel, towels, napkin.

I’m bringing my involtini on polenta with homemade Italian red sauce, and a bottle of red wine. I think wine is part of a meal, and ingredient of the dish. So I’ll also be bringing wine, corkscrew, and wineglass as well as all of the food pack. I think I may look for a cooler with wheels and handle.

I’m hoping my brother auditions in either New Orleans or Los Angeles, we could be the Masterchef version of Top Chef’s Voltaggio brothers.

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I applied for a fellowship award to attend this year’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley, February 16-19, 2010.

On the Symposium  website’s page for Fellowship Opportunities, it says, “awardees will be notified by telephone and or e-mail by January 8, 2010, and their names will be posted on the Fellowship page at the Symposium website…those who are not awardees will be notified by e-mail.”

Last night, looking at the site’s page for registration, I found the statement, “Fellowship recipients will be notified by January 15, 2010.”

I thought I would know whether the writing samples I provided scored well enough with five judges to earn a Fellowship award by tomorrow, and I was already antsy, anxious, at waiting. Now I think I may have to wait another week before finding out my fate.

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I did win two tickets to a terrific food and wine tasting Friday evening, February 19, 2010 (and yes, I can attend the Symposium and tasting on February 19, 2010), Dark & Delicious 2010 in Alameda, CA. Dark & Delicious pairs Petite Sirah from great producers with foods prepared by some of the top chefs in the Bay Area.

I am hugely excited to taste great wines and foods, I love Petite Sirah, so this is right up my alley. I am also going to get to meet some other wine bloggers, including Eric Hwang. Eric handles social media marketing for Windsor Vineyards, I used to handle tradeshow marketing for Windsor Vineyards.

I think there might be a few tickets left, here’s the link to info: http://psiloveyou.org/dd10/

Thank you Jo Diaz for running a ticket contest.

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The mailman has been busy. I received the winter issue of Washington Tasting Room, an attractive, colorful new wine magazine, featuring beautiful photography and solid written content. Recipes, feature articles on selected wineries, a tasting room calendar of special events, and wine columns make this a worthy stand out magazine. I love that the writing puts me right in some of Washington’s tasting rooms, tasting wines; my wine knowledge is limited to California wines, mostly north coast wines, so any magazine that can educate me while entertaining is a must read.

I loved reading about Yakima’s downtown restaurants waiving corkage fees for folks who bring a wine bought that day from a neighboring downtown Yakima tasting room. The news piece quotes a restaurant owner “We’ll wash two glasses any day to sell more dinners…the program is working. The wineries love it and they’re sending customers our way.”

Thanks to John Vitale for sending me this complimentary copy.

From the Wine Appreciation Guild, I received Dr. Richard Baxter’s “Age Gets Better With Wine.” You’ll read my review when I read it – I’m in the middle of a novel so embarrassingly trashy I won’t share the title. I’ve skimmed Age Gets Better With Wine, and I look forward to getting into it soon; with 20 pages of references listed, it appears to be a solid work, and yet my skim suggested a user friendliness. More later.

Also from the Wine Appreciation Guild, I received a new wine preservation system. I am half way through my evaluation of the product and will post a review over the weekend.

Thanks to the Wine Appreciation Guild.

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Completely not related to wine or food, the mailman also delivered a package from a good friend Mike Jasper. The outside of the package was torn, trampled, dirty, cut, a letter of apology from the post office was included. The contents appear perfect however. Jasper sent me a boxed set of 4 discs covering the complete season one of A&E’s Rollergirls. I think Jasper actually knows some of the girls, and when visiting him a while back, we watched an episode and I was stunned by the “there is room on television for anything” aspect of the show’s existence. I am delighted to receive this fine gift, although it will likely wait some time before I view it.

Jasper also sent the October 2009 issue of Playboy so I could read the feature on the 1970s Oakland Raiders.

While I might read this issue of Playboy for the articles, I’m pretty sure my 12 year old son wouldn’t even glance at the Raider article, so I have to put this away.

Thanks Jasper.

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I was just going to put a pair of tri tips on the grill, when I got a call from my local grocery…my order of pork belly is available for me to pick up. Hurray, this is going to be a great week of eating in the Cesano house.

I’m thinking of trying Top Chef cheftestant Kevin Gillespie’s pork belly recipe.

As always, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have a friend named Rob who isn’t really a wine guy. Rob isn’t alone, many people aren’t into wine.

The wine industry has allowed a perception that wine is more special than beer to permeate society. Working guys drink beer. Fancy pant elites drink wine.

I don’t know of any other industry that would purposely allow barriers to purchase to exist like this.

With wine, we’re not talking about unattainably expensive status symbol luxury items like Rolex watches, but there are many people who would more willingly buy a Rolex watch than a bottle of wine. With the Rolex, you know what you bought, an expensive, investment grade, time piece.

People just don’t know about wine, and not knowing are afraid to order it.

By allowing wine to be perceived as complex, a beverage for learned experts, the industry has fostered a fear in consumers. “I’m not James Bond, I don’t know a good vintage, or even a wine type; I’ll just have a beer, or a shot of tequila, or a Mojito, or a coke, or iced tea…anything but wine. I don’t want to look stupid in front of my friends or the waiter or the shop keeper.”

At the same time that Bacardi was marketing their rum through aggressive Mojito promotion, and selling more rum than ever, the wine industry was allowing fear to continue to be a wall most people won’t climb to try their product.

I could scream.

I read the blogs of many wine writers, pick up the wine magazines, keep up on marketing trends. 100 point wine ratings, 5 star ratings, indecipherable wine speak, Frasier Crane-esque reverence paid to a handful of producers of wines not available to the general public or too expensive to justify buying. Open a door or window and let’s get some air in here; most of what you’ll read about wine is from writers who have bought into the failed marketing of the industry – of absolutely no interest to anyone outside of the community of wine cognoscenti. Yawn.

Wine is so much better with most meals than beer, or iced tea, or coke, or just about any other beverage, but the industry is not getting that message across; it also hurts that restaurant wines cost triple what they would in a store and wine service is generally poor.

The next time you are in a nice restaurant, you will see many if not most people drinking beer or iced tea instead of wine. I can assure you that given a wine recommendation that would suit their meal better, and offered a glass of that wine at a reasonable price, most everyone would be drinking and enjoying both their wine and their meal more. I blame the wine industry for poor marketing.

Rather than be one of thousands of other wine writers bleating about the same unattainable cult wines, effectively bragging to my fellow wine writers about the wines I am drinking, I want to write about wine for the guy that would rather have wine with his meal but doesn’t want to feel like an ass.

Although wine knowledge is never ending, wine is simple. Let me say that again; Wine Is Simple.

Take the wine I drank my Christmas meal with, a 2008 Menage a Trois from Folie a Deux winery in Napa County’s St. Helena; while the wine goes for $12 a bottle, I just found the same wine on sale at Lucky’s supermarket for $8.99, so price needn’t be an obstacle to having good wine with food.

I appreciate that there are a wealth of wines in supermarkets that run from $8 – $20 per bottle, and some are good and some aren’t. I’ll try to taste a number of them and give you my recommendations.

Menage a Trois is a playful way of saying that the wine is a blend of three grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of reds, big, structured, dense, with black berry and currant notes, Merlot, Cab’s softer sister red, rounder, fleshier, with cherry notes, and Zinfandel, a brash, in your face red, with raspberry notes.

You have heard, “red wine with meat.” With three red wines in one bottle, this wine is a great wine for pairing with a host of meat dishes from hamburgers and hotdogs to pork shoulder and flank steak. Pasta in an Italian red sauce, Caesar salad; heck, I could drink this wine with just about anything and be happy.

Wine shouldn’t be about inviolable rules, but I will share a few “wouldn’t be a bad idea”s with you along the way.

The “wouldn’t be a bad idea” for today is not overfilling your wine glass just because you have the room to do so. My wine glasses are large, either 16 or 20 ounces, and I pour no more than 4 ounces in my glass. I get to swirl the wine, let it breathe, let the bowl of the wine glass collect wonderful scents, bury my nose in the glass, and inhale all the aroma and bouquet the wine has to give. A sniff and a sip, can change a bite of already good food into something almost transcendent. Doesn’t always, but, oh is it nice when it does!

I can get about six glasses of wine from a bottle at 4 ounces per glass. That means my $8.99 sale bottle of 2008 Menage a Trois is costing me about a buck and a half per glass.

The wine industry should be telling you that you can get a great wine to pair with food at home for about a buck and a half a glass.

That’s a lot more valuable information to most consumers than knowing about another garage winery whose entire release is sold out but just got a 10 page write up in a major wine publication after scoring a perfect 100 points in a possibly not blind tasting.

I’ll be visiting Fetzer and Bonterra in Mendocino County, doing some wine tasting close to home this week, hopefully I will be able to make some more recommendations. I also want to taste some of Topel Winery’s wines, they are also from nearby, but their tasting room is in Healdsburg, so tasting for me will have to wait a bit. I also should be seeing some wine accessory samples arrive this week that a distributer said they would send; I’ll try those out and let you know what I think. I’m also going to try cooking polenta a different way, and I’m going to make another batch of involtini this week. Lots of things to write about, I hope you’ll keep checking in.

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If you do have the time, and are near Healdsburg, CA stop into the Topel Winery tasting room and taste some wines before year’s end. They have a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Grace at $130/case ($1.80/glass) , 2004 Hidden Vineyard Cabernet at $190/case ($2.64/glass), and 2005 Cuvee Donnis Syrah at $150/case ($2.08/glass). These prices are discounted 43 – 51% per case, promo codes are “Grace”, “Hidden”, and “Donnis”, and the sale only runs through the end of December.

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Edited to add: A friend, and reader of my blog, Shannon let me know that the 2008 Menage a Trois was $6.99 at Costco. Seriously, at $1.16 a glass, this wine costs less per ounce than the bottled water I bought at the Fairplex in Pomona, CA at the beginning of this month. Buy it, pair it with meat. Thank me later.

Involtini. A flavorful pinwheel of meat and stuffing. I hadn’t had any in over twenty years. It took me a long time to realize that I was going to get to eat it again for Christmas dinner, even as I rolled my hands up to help cook it.

Seventeen people were coming for Christmas dinner and my mother-in-law Joan’s house. When I left Ukiah on Tuesday to take my son to visit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, I thought Joan was cooking a turducken and I was thrilled. I almost cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving, but went traditional banging out the perfect turkey; so my joy at trying this remakable ballotine was nearly palpable.

Turducken is a Lousiana specialty where a turkey is boned and stuffed with a boned duck, which was previously stuffed with a boned chicken, all further stuffed with cornbread and sausage stuffing; and a ballotine is a protein, meat, fish or fowl, that has been boned, stuffed, rolled, tied, and cooked.

When I arrived Tuesday, Joan told me that turducken was off the menu, she did not remove the poultry from the shipping container, thinking that there was enough dry ice to keep it well for several days. Sadly, most food is shipped with only enough dry ice to get it safely to your door and such was the case here, the turducken was unfrozen and not cold on the outside, and as it was poultry that meant that there was surely spoilage.

Joan told me that we would be having a “brah-zhule” on polenta. I didn’t know what a “brah-zhule” was, but didn’t confess to my ignorance.

On Wednesday, Joan and I started prepping Christmas dinner. I love cooking with Joan, she is a great cook, and our backgrounds do not overlap, so I always learn a ton cooking with her. Joan asked me to pound out some already thin carne asada meat, either flank or skirt steak, so that each steak was larger in surface area. I pounded each piece of carne asada until it was about twice the original surface area.

Meanwhile, Joan combined garlic, flat-leaf parsley, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, pine nuts, and bacon. Joan spooned the mixture onto the meat, rolled it up, and I tied each ballotine with cooking string.

With a flash of comprehension, I realized that “brah-zhule” was similar to what I knew as involtini. A check on the internet, and I find that braciole and involtini are the exact same food item and oddly has two names.

Traditionally, instead of spooning a lump of the stuffing mixture onto the meat, and wrapping it by rolling and tying, the stuffing is usually spread thinly along the surface of the meat, then rolled and tied. The only difference is that the involtini/braciole, when sliced, will present a pinwheel of meat and stuffing when prepared in the traditional manner.

Joan made meatballs and browned them, then put them in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Next, she browned and added to the pan both sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages, some boneless pork shoulder, and the involtini.

We covered the meats in an Italian red sauce of tomato, wine, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices, and set it in the oven to cook most of the way, just needing a little oven time on Christmas to reheat and finish.

On Christmas day, Joan set about cooking polenta in a crock pot, using a recipe by Michele Anna Jordan found in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091215/LIFESTYLE/912149959/1309

Polenta is a cornmeal mush with butter and cheese, and is to Italian cooking what rice is to many other cultures. Put it on a plate, and top it with what you have available. Peasant food become fancy.

Okay, here’s the thing; I grew up eating a lot of involtini in Italian red sauce over polenta. I grew up in an Italian family, and the men hunted. Weekends would find twenty or more Italian men up at a 13,500 acre ranch, hunting by day and cooking by night. This is a dish I ate in endless variety growing up, the meat and stuffing changing, almost always cooked by men. Imagine the scene in the Godfather where Clemenza is teaching Michael the art of making spaghetti sauce for twenty, or the scene from Goodfellas where, in prison,  Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade paper thin for tomato sauce. That’s how it felt growing up. Men cooked, not all the time, but almost always better than the women.

Other treats cooked up for Christmas dinner included my take on a Rachael Ray recipe potato dish: I cut up 1 1/2 pound each of baby fingerling heirloom potatoes, baby ruby gold potatoes, baby dutch yellow potatoes, and baby South American purple potatoes. I cut each baby potato in half length wise, then cut them from one end to the other into 1/4″ slices. I put the six pounds of sliced potatoes into a roasting pan.

To 6 cups of heavy cream, I added a stick of butter, 4 cloved of crushed fresh garlic, and 4 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme. I cooked over a medium flame, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes, deeply infusing the cream with flavor. I strained the cream, adding about two ounces of microplaned (super finely grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and poured the super flavored cream over the potatoes.

Next, I microplaned five more ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a large bowl, then spead the cheese on top of the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes. Better than Rachael’s recipe, more flavorful, it came out just fine; think of an Italian rustic potato au gratin dish.

There was sweet potato wrapped marshmallow, on a pineapple ring, topped with a cherry, a spiral cut ham, a perfectly baked salmon with lemon, butter and herb, stuffed zucchini, baked oyster, green bean casserole, salad, french bread, and more. It was all great, but for me, it was all about the involtini.


For my first pass through the chow line, I ladled polenta onto my plate, on top of the polenta I put meats, the involtini, some meatballs, some pork shoulder, and some sausage, and on top of the meat I ladled Italian red sauce.

I also poured myself a glass of the 2008 Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With raspberry notes from the Zin, cherry from the Merlot, and blackberry from the Cab, this wine was loaded with rich juicy red fruit notes, and was a great wine for dinner as each food could find a different element of the wine to pair with. Inexpensive, only about $12 a bottle, I was impressed throughout the meal with this wine’s versatility and deliciousness. Honestly, better with food than without.

I spent quite a while with my first plate at dinner, scooping a little polenta, a bit of meat, and some sauce into a perfect bite, sipping a little wine, the emergent whole so much better than the sum of its parts. Each bite a joyful experience, and a trigger to memories of times spent with my father, my brother, and a bunch of old Italian men many years ago.

My second plate was a tasting of the other dishes. While good, some great – I have to get the stuffed zucchini recipe – none, for me, matched the magic of involtini, sauce, and polenta.

I had a glass of bubbly, Korbel’s first sparkler, their Sec. Korbel Sec is made with French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, and is a little sweeter than most bubblies, but not cloyingly so. It was nice to have bubbly on hand. One of Joan’s daughters (my son’s aunt) got married last week, and a grandaughter (my son’s cousin) will have a baby next month on or near my birthday. There were many reasons to be enjoying bobbly, but any day that ends in “y” is a good day to drink bubbly – no reason needed.

For Christmas, I received an electric pepper mill, an oregano dipping oil, a “green” water bottle, and a stack of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines, from the folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. I am really looking forward to reading the food magazines, they look chock full of ideas for me to try out.

I was pleased to see my son’s face as he opened his presents. He listened to the rock songs featuring saxophone that I loaded onto his new iPod, is ecstatic about getting an XBox 360, and is old enough to be happy about getting new clothes.

It was great seeing family, it is nice that I am friends with my son’s mom, my ex-wife, and that her family still consider me their son-in-law, brother-in-law, or uncle. It was great getting to cook, and getting to help cook. It was fun learning that involtini is also known as braciole.

One of the best Christmas gifts I received were the memories of times spent with my father, triggered by food. My father passed away in 2008, but he was alive in my memory as I cooked and ate Christmas dinner.

I am not a cake person, but I love pie. I put my blackberry pie on my list of ten perfect foods a little over a week ago. With fresh blackberries not available on the vine where I live, there are plenty of pie filling alternatives. This week, many people are going to be making pies for Christmas dinner, apple pies, pumpkin pies, mincemeat pies.

As my Christmas present to you, I’m sharing the blackberry pie recipe I use. I use the pie crust recipe for all of my pies, strawberry, cherry, apple, pear.

Where I often talk about a wine to pair with food, I am going to recommend vanilla ice cream as a perfect pairing partner to any fresh and delicious holiday pie you make.

Use and enjoy the pie crust recipe this week for your Christmas pies, I know we’ll be having apple pie after Christmas dinner for dessert. Save and use the blackberry pie recipe for next year when blackberries come into season, you will love it.

Family, friends, and a holiday meal. If you make your pie crust from scratch, the flaky deliciousness will say, “I care.”

Double Pie Crust

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 egg

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in water until mixture forms a ball. Divide dough in half, and shape into balls. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
  2. Roll out dough on a floured counter. Don’t over work it. Use as directed in pie recipe.
  3. Brush both the bottom crust and top crust with a little beaten egg

Blackberry Pie

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 cups fresh blackberries
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup tapioca flour
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 TBS butter

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine 3 1/2 cups berries with the sugar and flour. Spoon the mixture into an unbaked pie shell. Spread the remaining 1/2 cup berries on top of the sweetened berries, squeeze a little lemon juice and dot butter over berries, and cover with the top crust. Seal and crimp the edges. Brush the top crust with milk, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup sugar.
  2. Bake at 425 degree F (220 degrees C) for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C), and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes.

Happy holidays everyone. I’ll be back the day after Christmas and I’m sure I’ll be telling you about a tasty meal with wine and family.

One of my wine industry jobs was with the Wine Appreciation Guild, one of the industry’s largest publishers of wine books and a one stop distributor of both wine books and accessories. My job was to sell wine books and wine accessories to wineries for their tasting rooms, to wine shops, and to other specialty merchants in 42 California counties.

http://www.wineappreciation.com

There are many people here on the interwebs that know about wine, and I’ll carve my own niche by writing from the heart about wine as a means to an end, a beverage to be enjoyed with family and friends, as opposed to the end itself. I am not the guy to read if you are looking for a review of the nearly unattainable, released in three bottle maximum allotment to people on THE LIST only, cult Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot. I love wine, know wine, can share my knowledge; but I am a regular guy.

In addition to telling you about a wine in context, who I shared it with, the food we ate with it, I can also tell you about a good wine book or wine gadget. Go with what you know, I wrote recently, and I will. Out of the thousands of wine writers inhabiting the web, I have unique knowledge. Hopefully, my writing will find an audience thirsty for what I am pouring.

Vacu-Vin. There is no wine preservation system more ubiquitous. Gwyneth Paltrow told Oprah that it is a “must-have” in her kitchen. Every frau and pretentious wine poser in the country has one. Sales of the devices number in the tens of millions.

For the one or two of you who are unfamiliar with Vacu-Vin, here’s what the manufacturers say

http://www.vacuvin.com/Vacuum_Wine_Saver_286_270_267.html

“The Wine Saver is a vacuum pump, which extracts the air from the opened bottle and re-seals it with a re-usable rubber stopper. Place the re-usable stopper in the bottle and extract the air from the bottle using the Wine Saver pump. A “click” sound tells you when you have reached the optimum vacuum level. The vacuum slows down the oxidation process which makes it possible to enjoy your wine again at a later date. The question “how often do I have to pump?” is a thing of the past. The unique and patented vacuum indicator will emit a “click” sound when the correct vacuum is reached.”


The Wine Appreciation Guild carried them, and everyone I worked with wanted them to sell in their stores.


I had a problem. The Vacu-Vin doesn’t work:

http://www.winelife.com/pdf/lab-report-26292-vacu-vin-test.pdf

“The “Vacu-Vin” device as submitted was evaluated to determine efficacy in reduction of oxidative spoilage in opened wines. Using the protocol described above, the “Vacu-Vin” device was found to have no measurable effect in reduction of oxidative spoilage.”

-Gordon Burns, ETS Laboratories, 1204 Church Street, St. Helena, CA 94574


http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/6257

Vacu-vin doesn’t work, It never has.

Sensorily, to me anyway, the Vacu-vin was a shuck. You could track the deterioration in each sample. Indeed, just recorking the wine worked equally as well – or as badly.

The [Wall Street] Journal asked Professor David Roe of the Portland State University chemistry department to test the gizmo…At best he achieved a vacuum of somewhat less than 70 percent…In just 90 minutes, he reported, the vacuum pressure diminished by 15 percent.

I asked Professor Roe to repeat his test with a newly purchased (newer, ‘improved’, model) Vacu-Vin. The results? “The pump is more efficient, but no more effective,” he reports. “The vacuum is the same, around 70 to 75 percent. And the leak rate is the same: After two hours you lose 25 percent of the vacuum. Overnight – 12 hours – the vacuum is totally gone.”

-Matt Kramer, “A Giant Sucking Sound…And That’s All”


http://www.consumerreports.org December 2006

What to do with leftover wine? Just put a cork in it

UNNECESSARY EQUIPMENT There’s no clear need for Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver and other wine-preservation systems, our tests suggest.

A lot of people turn to wine-preservation systems that seek to retard or stop oxidation, the chemical process that degrades wine. If you’re among those who swear by such systems, we have surprising news, based on our tests of four widely known brands: No system beat simply recorking the bottle and sticking it in the fridge.

Getting the air out…The Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver, $10, uses rubber stoppers (two are provided) with a pump that sucks out air.

We tested three varietals with the systems on three different occasions for three different periods of time. For comparison, we also stoppered one bottle with its own cork. After all the bottles spent time in our wine cellar, expert wine consultants compared their contents in blind taste tests with freshly opened bottles.

If our trained experts, with nearly 60 years in the business, couldn’t discern among wine storage systems, most consumers probably can’t, either. So just go ahead and cork it (you can turn the cork over if it’s easier to get in). But try not to wait more than a week or so to drink the wine, and sooner is better.


I would tell the buyers for the winery tasting rooms, the wine shops, and the kitchen stores that the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work – but it didn’t stop most of them, because you, the home customer, wanted to buy and use these things.

You don’t see good restaurants using Vacu-Vins to preserve their wines poured by the glass. You don’t see good wineries using Vacu-Vins in between the wine tastes they poor in their tasting rooms. NY Times wine guru Eric Asimov doesn’t pump air out of wine bottles, he doesn’t believe it does much of anything.

http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/25/when-age-is-measured-in-days/

When I see a wine bar using a Vacu-Vin, I won’t drink any but the first glass from a bottle.

Here’s the deal: when you open a wine and let it breathe, you are letting tannins dissipate, alcohol flush burn off, and fruit come forward. You’ll find that the hot, harsh, and closed Cabernet at opening becomes a smooth delicious beverage with blackberry and currant notes with a little time. Oxygen is wine’s friend initially.

While I am prepping food for dinner, I usually open a bottle, or more than one bottle if cooking for friends, pour a little of each in a separate wine glass, so I can repeatedly swirl and sniff each. I am looking for the wine to open and become perfect. At that point, I recork the bottle so I can just open, pour, and seal all the way through the meal. I know the last glass will be as good as the first. Every glass perfect.

If I opened the wine, let it breathe, and then ignored it, the fruit would follow the tannins, and perfect would become sad. Oxygen, so important to a wine at opening, becomes wine’s enemy afterward. Leaving a wine open ruins wine over time.

Pumping the air out of a bottle of wine with a Vacu-Vin strips the wine of aroma and bouquet. Each time it is used it ruins the wine. To me, a couple of seconds is like hours of damage.

The Vacu-Vin doesn’t even create a complete vacuum. As tested, fully 25-30% of the air, and oxygen, remains inside the bottle – before the Vacu-Vin fails and all of the air, and oxygen, returns. To me, the worst think about the Vacu-Vin is that consumers are fooled into a false sense of preservation security and don’t seek another, effective, method to save the aroma, bouquet, and flavors of a bottle of wine in between glasses.

Matt Kramer and the Wall Street Journal engaged a University science department professor who measured the Vacu-Vin’s fail using drills and tubes and meters, all very high tech. Similar high tech methods were used by Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories and the testers at Consumer Reports.

Look, I know that if you are into wine, you have one of these gadgets at home. Want to see it fail before your own eyes? Fill an empty wine bottle half way with mini marshmallows, use the Vacu-Vin as directed, sucking some of the air out of the bottle, creating a partial vacuum at best. As you pump, the marshmallows will swell until they fill the available space inside the bottle. You will see that, as the Vacu-Vin seal leaks and fresh air goes back into the bottle, the marshmallows shrink. You can watch the level of the marshmallows fall from bottle fill to half bottle as the Vacu-Vin fail is total.

While at the Wine Appreciation Guild, the owner Elliot Mackey, knowing my feelings about the Vacu-Vin, put me in a surprise direct face-to-face meeting with one of the company’s representatives. I felt a bit awkward, but presented him with much of the evidence I have laid out here for you. The representative assured me that he had heard these charges before and had a “wealth of anecdotal evidence” to counter it.

Just because a non critical taster, perhaps an actress appearing on Oprah, thinks that her Vacu-Vin is doing something beneficial, and allows that incorrect assumption to color expectations at tasting her old wine, self deluding herself that the wine is well preserved – just because there are tens of millions of people who got suckered, don’t know it, and think this junk works – well, so what? A wealth of anecdotal evidence does not counter evidence of Vacu-Vin’s complete lack of efficacy, nor does it counter Vacu-Vin’s fail in blind tastings performed by sommeliers and other wine professionals.

I am a believer in never presenting a problem without a possible solution. I’ve created a problem by telling the truth as I see it. There are tens of millions of people ruining their wine, thinking they are saving their wine’s quality. I know I won’t reach quite that number of readers, but for the few who do find their way to my blog, I’ll tell you how I keep wines delicious in between glasses.


I recork the bottles. Believing it matters, I use a decoratively topped, denser than normal, non-porous Corker instead of the old porous cork. If I am going to keep the wine for more than a couple of days, I pair a blast of Private Preserve (nitrogen/argon/inert gasses in a can) and the Corker and have experienced solid longer term storage.


http://thecorker.com

http://www.privatepreserve.com

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Oil and Vinegar preservation:

For the foodies out there who have made it this far through a wine entry, I use the Private Preserve/Corker combo on my specialty oils and vinegars for the kitchen and have eliminated the oil goes rancid and vinegar goes musty equivalent of wine goes yucky.


Oh, and if you have pour spouts in your oil and vinegar, or wine, you are just letting it breathe and go bad. So unless you are Gordon Ramsey and go through multiple bottles of oil/vinegar/wine in the kitchen each night, throw away the spouts, they are as ridiculously bad as a Vacu-Vin.

Just saying’.

DISCLOSURE: I have sold Corkers in art and craft shows, I do not now. I am very experienced with their efficacy. I worked for the Wine Appreciation Guild over seven years ago, I do not now. I have not worked with Gordon Ramsey, but am willing to accept a free meal from him.

What is a perfect food? Something so good that it makes you sit up, your taste buds surprised, delighted. Something that is perfect in and of itself, something that when on a plate or in a bowl really doesn’t require embellishment. Something delicious. Something that when it has been absent from your diet, you long for. Something you would travel an hour or more to eat. Here are 10 perfect foods. Enjoy.

Pork

Someone asked me this year to name the one single food I would choose if going onto a deserted island – the island being magically supplied with a never ending supply of fresh whatever you choose, and equipped with the means to cook it.

Without thinking, I chose pork.

Chops, roasts, ham, sausage, bacon, cracklins, hocks, feet, so many delicious cuts and ways to prepare them.

Oh my, did I forget whole, whether cooked in the ground or turned on a spit. I’ve had pig both ways, and they may be some of the most delicious meat treats on earth.

Growing up, I hunted. Wild pig, or boar, tastes different than the domesticated animal we mostly eat. Variety.

I would still happily choose pork as my deserted island food. Pork is my # 1 perfect food.

Chili Relleno

A Poblano chili, fried, stuffed with cheese, battered and fried again, topped with a ranchero sauce.

Ingredients matter. Pick good chilis, good cheeses, and don’t forget the sauce. Salsa or a simple tomato sauce will not do. A good ranchero sauce will permanently stain clothing, it looks like a tomato sauce, but pepper, chilis, herbs and spices lurk beneath the surface, and the flavor is at one complex and delicious, bringing heat but not too much.

I have had Chili Relleno just a handful of times that makes you sit up and take notice. Often, they are limp, soggy, indifferently sauced; but in the hands of some cooks, this can be one of the best foods.

I like a chili relleno that has enough firmness, just a bit of crispness, that the shell can be pierced with a knife and ranchero sauce can be poured into as well as on top of the chili relleno.

Manna. Amazing. Each part, just okay, but together, the sum is so much, exponentially, better than the parts. The search for the perfect chili relleno can become an entertaining life quest. If you don’t have long to live, I’ll give you a hint: the best Chili Relleno I have ever tasted was in the least likely of mexican restaurants in Millbrae, CA.

Good hunting.

Blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream

I wrote in an earlier entry about my first attempts at a fruit pie, they came this year. I made three perfect blackberry pies from fruit freshly picked, and served it with a premium vanilla ice cream. Three entire pies were devoured in under 24 hours.

My pie when cut maintained it’s shape. The fruit filling was perfect, neither too wet nor too dry; my pie crust was flaky, yet sturdy. Each slice of pie looked delicious.

Two things are critical when making a great fruit pie; use fresh fruit and make your own crust.

Cioppino

This was my favorite dish growing up. Thanksgivings in northern Californian Italian American households often featured a great crab cioppino instead of a turkey; or if both were served, the turkey would remain largely untouched for Friday sandwiches while pot after pot of cioppino were consumed.

Cioppino is said to have been created at Alioto’s restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It may have started there, but they do not make the best cioppino.

Needless to say, my mother made the best cioppino I have ever tasted. An Italian American fisherman’s stew, similar to a bouillabaisse, it features a HOMEMADE tomato sauce, white fish, clams, shrimp, and crab, lots and lots of dungeness crab. Cioppino without dungeness crab is not cioppino, just a fisherman’s stew.

On my mom’s passing I recreated my mom’s recipe (a family secret), but I ran into Guy Fieri who shared a recipe with a huge licorice twist, using lots of anise.

This is a dish that can have as many different recipes as cooks, and all are good, many great.

The best restaurant cioppino I have ever had was at Fontana’s in Cupertino on Steven’s Creek Blvd. Perfect meal at Fontana’s: ceasar salad (I know it is not Italian), gnocchi al pesto, and cioppino; served with a bottle of Ruffino Chianti Riserva Ducale, Gold Label. Hint, unbutton your top pant button when sitting down, that’s a lot of food.

Gnocchi al pesto

The best Gnocchi I’ve ever tasted were made by the wife of one of my dad’s business associates. My dad ran the mechanic’s shop for a garbage company in Santa Rosa. One of the partners, when vacationing in Italy, met and married an incredibly young Italian girl. Old enough to eventually bear him a son and daughter, when she came to the United States she could not speak any English.

Margarite could cook though. Taught by her mother, aunts, and grandmothers, Margarite cooked 9 course lunches for the garbage company partners and their male sons. After lunch, the men would retire to the bocce court to smoke cigars and drink grappa, while Margarite cleaned the table and did the dishes.

One of the dishes Margarite made was gnocchi al pesto. Gnocchi are little potato dumplings, light fluffy, delicious, hand formed. Pesto should be a blend of basil, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts and olive oil, however some people get cheap and try to substitute a Wisconsin parmesan cheese or walnuts. Combine freshly made and boiled potato dumplings in a coating of pesto and oh my God. I still remember the first time I tasted Margarite’s gnocchi as being revelatory. Food can shock and delight and surprise.

The best restaurant gnocchi I have tasted is at Firenza by Night in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Lox and bagel

I was a little hungover after spending a night out with friends at the Whisky on Sunset in West Hollywood last week. I got in my car and went in search of breakfast and found the Bright Spot in Echo Park. Close to ordering sausage and eggs, I saw the lox and bagel plate and surprised myself by ordering it instead of the pork plate breakfast.

I am so glad I went with the lox and bagel. The lox was fresh and generously portioned, affixed to the lightly toasted bagel with a schemer of cream cheese. Wonderfully briny caper berries were scattered on top of the lox. Sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, and sliced red onions, along with a small pile of alfalfa sprouts came on the side and I used some of each for each bite.

The capers providing a sea saltiness and the sprouts offering a peppery note, the cucumber and tomato, both fresh, married with the smoked fish, cheese and bread in each glorious bite.

This meal only works when the ingredients are fresh, otherwise it is just food, but what I tasted last week at the Bright Spot in L.A.’s Echo Park inspired me to return the following morning for a repeat, and to attempt to make it at home yesterday.

Veggie sandwich

There is no wrong here, but the more piled, varied, and creative, the better.

I love lettuce, spinach leaves, sprouts, tomato, cucumber, carrot, asparagus, beet, radish, pickle, onion, and olive on a Straun bread, or stuffed into a pita shell, with cheese, most often cream cheese, and maybe a little mayo. A sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can taste the healthy. Each flavor distinct. Fresh. Wonderful.

Kobe beef

I did a $200 dinner for one in Philadelphia at Morimoto, Iron Chef (both Japanese and American versions) Masaharu Morimoto has always impressed me with his cooking, and my travels allowed me to dine at his original restaurant. I went with the multi course chef’s tasting menu. I could describe the o-toro fatty tuna and caviar with bonito flakes and ponzu with fresh wasabi, the way the tuna, unthawed, just melted on your tongue into goneness. the pop of the salti caviar. I could teasingly describe the scallop carpaccio (I love scallops), thinly sliced scallops seared in hot oil, with yuzu and micro greens; or the broiled lobster and asparagus, the lobster dripping oils and all kinds of delicious. No I will not tease you with the supporting cast,

The star of the night was the Kobe beef. I have never in my life tasted beef so…beefy. It was like the essence of beef permeated every deliciously orgasmic taste of beef. Served with a foie gras sauce because it wasn’t already too effin great already.

Caprese salad

There are a few moments when you realize that the way you learned to do something is not the best way. My father’s zucchini was bitter, he allowed the garlic to burn, and I was never really a fan. Zucchini, almost anywhere else was better.

We’ve had tomato, and mozzarella, and basil, and olive oil,  and salt and pepper in our kitchen growing up. How did we not combine them into this simple, ubiquitous, and delicious Italian summer salad.

It was not until I was working for Windsor Vineyards, returning with Susan Johnson from a San Francisco trade show for the winery, having not eaten all day, that I tasted my first Insalata Caprese at Pomodoro in the Strawberry Town & Country Village in Mill Valley. I wanted to kick my own butt for not having made this before.

Simple and delicious. The only variables are the freshness of your ingredients. The fresher the better.

Cheesecake

I used to watch the Frugal Gourmet’s every new episode on PBS. Jeff Smith cooked with love. Food was the center of family and friend get togethers. Cooking was magical.

Imagine how unhappy I was when the man I watched each week, the man who wrote the cookbooks I bought, turned out to be a very flawed human being, a pedophile. Still, he has passed on, so let’s let go of the sin, and hold on to the sinfully delicious cheesecake.

Jeff’s New York style cheesecake recipe is the best I’ve ever found. Better even than Alton Brown’s cheesecake recipe.

The trick to stellar cheesecake is quality ingredients. I go to Traverso’s market in Santa Rosa for high quality Italian cream cheese when I make a cheesecake, I would never use Philly cream cheese in a cheesecake.

Do not use a store bought pre-made pie crust either. Make your own graham cracker crust too. It’s easy.

Making a cheesecake is a bit of a production, so I usually make between three and five. They don’t last long.

Once I made four cheesecakes and forgot just one ingredient: vanilla. I can not stress enough the importance of not making my mistake. It was an expensive and disappointing mistake. Quality vanilla is essential for a good cheesecake.

A good cheesecake should be tall, not flat, it should taste amazing and have a great texture. Each bite should reward the taster, and there is no such thing as too many bites.

Cheesecake, made correctly, does not need a topping of any kind. Cheesecake, made correctly, would be better than any possible topping. Cheesecake should be served unadorned. Fruit can be served on the side, as an accompaniment.

The best restaurant cheesecake I have tasted came from Katz’s Deli and Bar in Austin, TX. At least a pound, as big as your head, as delicious as any you will find.

Okay, last night I watched Showtime’s Dexter say he was thankful for yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Trinity killer’s family; then I watched Lauren say she was thankful for canned yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Bennet family on NBC’s Heroes.

I am a foodie, but I don’t like yams. I am thankful that I do the cooking most every year at Thanksgiving so that I don’t have to eat around the yam dish on my plate.

As a foodie, I am thankful I am not Andrew Zimmern who has eaten bull’s rectum and testicles soup in the Philippines; bull testicles in Spain;  chicken uterus, black-bone chicken testicles in Taiwan; goose intestine in New York City; civet feces coffee, bull penis in Vietnam; snake penis, fried deer penis, yak penis in China; boar’s testicles in Minnesota; bull penis soup in Bolivia; and braided intestines, cow’s butt sandwich, fresh bull testicle and scrotum stew in Chile.

At least Anthony Bourdain can wash down the occasional freakish menu offering with a drink or twelve, but Zimmern is a recovering addict/alcoholic and is making the choice to swallow so much shaft, balls and ass sober.

I am not really one of those, “let’s all say what we are thankful for,” kind of Thanksgiving dinner Dads. I love to cook. I love that there is a holiday all about cooking and family. I love that people eat my food. I love trying new recipes. I am not a traditionalist. I love the insanity of 5-7 dishes all coming up at the same time for 12-16 people, the high-wire risk of having no repeat dishes year to year.

This year I am cooking for just my son and myself. We will have more than enough food for his mom, my ex-wife. Most importantly, we will have plenty of left over turkey for sandwiches on Friday. Note to self: buy sandwich fixings tomorrow for the long holiday weekend.

I am using an Alton Brown brine on our turkey, then cooking it in my Popeil Showtime rotisserie (set-it-and-forget-it) grill. I am doing a Rachael Ray gratin potato dish and Paula Deen cornbread stuffing. Instead of my own delicious pies, I am doing a Nancy Iannios pumpkin creme brulee.

I worked for Tom Klein years ago when he owned both Rodney Strong and Windsor Vineyards. I will be enjoying a 2007 Russian River Valley Rodney Strong Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner. Wine Spectator gave the Russian River Valley appellation, 2007 Pinot Noir vintage a 98/100 rating. I am thankful that Tom and Rick Sayre make consistently delicious and affordable wines, and that having worked with them, I have the confidence to choose their wines in any, not just this classic best ever, vintage.

All around me is change. I have a good friend up north who has left her job rather than complain about it, and is in search of a better job. I have an old girlfriend out east who has left her job and will be starting a new one. I am looking at changing my job. I am good at what I do, I make money for my business, for myself, but I would like to travel less often and spend more time with my son. I will be trying to find a job where I can use my wealth of real world experience, the education behind my marketing degree, and my newfound web 2.0 skills to help a winery in the north coast (Sonoma, Napa, Lake or Mendocino county) of California. I would love a hybrid position involving social media marketing, traditional marketing, tasting room and/or wine club work, trade show marketing, and more.

I write without thinking about someone reading what I write, and I usually disable comment leaving for my blog, so I am always surprised when I read a comment left on facebook, twitter, a forum or e-mail about my writing. I know people read what I write, usually 100 people, but sometimes as many as 300 and more. Knowing you are out there, having you write back to me, does influence my writing a touch. I am thankful anyone finds my writing at all; more thankful some of you like my writing.

__________

My son is 12 years old. He is 5′ 9 1/2″ tall and 170 pounds on a lanky muscular frame. I knew dating sasquatch would produce a tall child. Charlie has been at basketball tryouts the last two days, trying to make his school’s 7th grade team. As the tallest boy at the tryouts, and with a year of league play, we are reasonably confident he will make the team. I am thankful that my son has such an affinity for a game I never played, or was interested in playing; it is good for him to be good at something that is his own.

__________

I had an Apple iMac screen damaged by careless family while I was away at work about a year ago. I found a used flat screen monitor and have used it to mirror what would have been viewable on my iMac screen. This last weekend, I bought a used iMac with more guts, a perfect screen, and the newest Apple OS. I was able to move all of the info in my old computer to my new one effortlessly using migration assistant, and now I have both screens viewable to spread my work over. An extra 750 GB hard drive, for a 1 TB total, speakers, and high speed internet access completes the coolest computer system I’ve ever had. Better than I could have imagined, I am thankful for my totally cool and powerful home work and play space.

__________

I will be writing more, perhaps much more with a business slant, but certainly more on a personal basis as I travel less. I will probably move my personal writing to a dedicated website, and I’ll certainly let you know if I do make that change. I plan to write more about wine and food from the perspective of an industry professional with real world experience and as a born and raised resident of California’s premier wine growing area. I also want to give reviews of wine accessories and wine books. I want to make more use of video entries as well. Look for a more wow experience sometime early in 2010. I’ll be thankful if you follow me with my writing. Thanks.

Okay, Thanksgiving is a special holiday. As my Aussie cousin-in-law pointed out, no cards, no presents, just great food and family.

Here’s a way to make cranberries interesting:

John Cesano’s Cranberry Chutney

2 tbsp. butter

1 small shallot, finely chopped

1/4 c. orange juice

4 c. fresh cranberries

1 c. sugar

1/2 c. firmly packed brown sugar

1 c. unpeeled, cored and diced Granny Smith apple

1/2 c. golden raisins

1/4 c. chopped walnuts

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp. vinegar

Saute shallot and apples in butter over med high heat about 3 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, about 20-25 minutes, until cranberries give up juice and mixture begins to thicken. Some like to serve warm, I prefer to chill at least two hours in refrigerator and serve cold as a counterpoint to all of the hot dishes.

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