Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Wine News

May 19, 2004
Raising a Glass to Affordability

THE Peck's Bad Boy of wine is back, with a new target: restaurant wine lists.

I'm talking about Fred Franzia, who brought us Two-Buck Chuck a couple of years back.

In a stroke of marketing magic, Mr. Franzia, president of the Bronco Wine Company in Ceres, Calif., matched up a lake of surplus wine with the penny-pinching of the downwardly mobile and made himself a bundle. On the backs, it must be said, of outraged wine retailers who watched their high-markup bottles gather dust while customers sloped off to the nearest Trader Joe's, still the only place that sells the stuff.

The great surplus has shriveled away now, and Two-Buck Chuck, officially known as Charles Shaw, has been relegated to the back aisles of many a Trader Joe's. But the $1.99 wine lives on.

Say hello to Lost Vineyards, a new line of wines from Portugal selling for — you guessed it. What's more, when the Lost Vineyards people say $1.99, they mean it. Charles Shaw sold at that price only in California. Elsewhere it was $2.99. Lost Vineyards is $1.99 wherever it is found.

Which, admittedly, is not everywhere. Matt Betters of Brothers International, the importer and distributor in Oakfield, N.Y., said limited quantities can be found in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Long Island and other parts of New York State and in at least one New York City shop, Astor Wines and Spirits. The line includes a red, a white and a slightly effervescent vinho verde. A Lost Vineyards Argentine series will begin to arrive in June, Mr. Betters said.

Wines like Two-Buck Chuck and Lost Vineyards are sold in supermarkets and liquor stores. Restaurants, hung up on image and fearful of low markups, are not interested.

Which brings us back to Fred Franzia and his newest crusade: getting a $10 bottle of wine into America's restaurants. America will never become a wine drinking country, he said, until you can buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant for $10. He has tried to convince many a restaurateur of this, including some major restaurant chains, he said, all to no avail, leading him to conclude that they are all greedy. Mr. Franzia is not a man for nuance. Reminded that in many restaurants bottled water sells briskly at almost $10, he observed: "It just shows you how stupid Americans can get."

He does have a point. Not about the restaurant owners or the American water lovers, but about restaurant wine prices. They are unconscionably high and getting steadily higher. In good restaurants in most major cities, wine lists often start with a bottle or two in the mid-$30's, then quickly move to $50 and more. Lower-priced restaurants sometimes offer wines in the low $20's, but wines in the $15 to $20 range have all but disappeared from restaurant lists. Then is Mr. Franzia's $10 nothing but a fantasy? Probably, but it does not have to be.

Last week, I bought a bottle of wine at an old restaurant on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. It was a rough, undistinguished Rosso di Montalcino to accompany a couple of plates of linguine with clams. The price: $18. Two days later, I saw the same bottle in a local supermarket for $6. Which means the wholesale cost of the wine was about $3. For the supermarket, a 100 percent markup. For the restaurant, 600 percent.

O.K., in the restaurant I was paying for the (paper) napkin, the use of the silverware and two reasonably clean glasses, and of course, the service ("Hey, who gets the vongole?"). Then, too, I was helping the padrone with his labor costs and his rent. But would it not be reasonable to think I was helping him if I paid only three times what he paid, or around $10?

In some ways, the high cost of wine is a problem we have made for ourselves: we take wine too seriously. We are hung up on vintages, appellations, grape varieties and, in the upper reaches of wine fanaticism, the specific vineyards from which the grapes were gathered. There is a place for all this intensity; serious wine enthusiasts have every right to take their wines seriously. But for everyday drinking it is unnecessary. My personal solution is the carafe, an enthusiasm not shared by my friend Mr. Franzia. Ten dollars for a bottle with a cork, he said, brooking no argument.

At casual restaurants I know in Europe and even here in New York, a carafe of wine, usually half a liter, is the perfect antidote to high wine prices. It is also the right size for two at lunch; less than a bottle but more than half a bottle. Joe Allen on West 46th Street is a carafe restaurant. There are plenty of bottled wines, too, but for me, the carafe is often the way to go. You have to know the place and trust it, but once you do, there are no more questions about names, vintages, or anything else. Half a carafe of the red is all the wine knowledge required. At a decent French place, it is usually a Côtes du Rhône. At Joe Allen it is usually a modest Italian red. One day I would hope that restaurants could buy their wine in bulk. For most casual places, the 18-liter box would be perfect. Wine by the glass or the carafe could be both good and inexpensive.

Better and better wine is being put into the box format even now. It will be a long time before we see it in wide use. But then, the screw cap is slowly gaining respect. Why not the carafe, too? I would put my money on the wider use of carafes rather than on Mr. Franzia's $10 bottle.

Copyright 2004

Chickpea soup With Spinach

May 19, 2004
Recipe: Chickpea Soup With Spinach

ime: At least 2 hours (far less with precooked or canned chickpeas)

1/2 pound dried chickpeas, or about 2 1/2 cups cooked
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
Salt and pepper
1 pound fresh spinach, coarsely chopped.

1. If time allows, soak dried chickpeas several hours or overnight in water to cover. If not, boil them for 2 minutes, and soak 2 hours, or just start cooking them, unsoaked. Place in a pot with fresh water to cover by at least 2 inches. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer, covered, at least 1 hour, or until tender.

2. Put oil in deep skillet or casserole, and turn heat to medium-high. A minute later, add onions, a large pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, adjusting heat as necessary so onions soften rather than crisp. Stir occasionally, and cook until onions become very soft and quite brown, at least 20 minutes.

3. When chickpeas are tender, remove from heat, and drain, reserving their cooking water. Purée half the chickpeas in food mill, immersion blender or upright blender, adding enough of the reserved cooking water (or fresh water) to keep mixture moving smoothly. (Use care when puréeing hot liquid. If you have time, let mixture cool to room temperature first.)

4. Return purée to pot along with remaining chickpeas, plus whatever chickpea cooking liquid remains, along with enough water to make 4 cups. Stir, adjusting heat so mixture simmers. Add spinach, and stir. When spinach is tender, after 5 to 10 minutes, taste, and adjust seasoning. Then serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Vegetarians can eat well!

May 19, 2004
Meatless, Not Joyless

I MADE dinner the other night for five, two of them vegetarians, and while shopping I realized how often such a situation now arises. Vegetarianism, common to most of the world but still regarded skeptically by staunchly carnivorous Americans, has made significant inroads into the national culture, and it is increasingly making itself felt at American tables.

Vegetarians coming to dinner? I complained about this prospect for nearly 30 years. Now I was champing at the bit of opportunity.

What changed? Thirty years ago vegetarian food in America meant either brown rice and vegetables stir-fried until lifeless or something cooked in the style of the original Moosewood Cookbook — heavily laden with cheese and cream. Now vegetarian food draws from the traditions of the entire world, traditions that, in the form of ingredients, spices and cooking tools, are now available to everyone, at least those with access to good supermarkets or the Internet.

A generation ago, you had to travel all over town — yes, even in New York — to find real Parmesan and naturally brewed soy sauce, let alone jasmine rice or aceto balsamico tradizionale. All four are now available at most supermarkets, along with everything else necessary for the two meals that follow — two menus, one Italian and one Chinese.

It is amazing that people talk about the Mediterranean tradition of vegetable-dominated meals and the fact that Chinese cooking is largely composed of vegetables accented by bits of meat, while continually cooking Italian and Chinese meals centered around meat. The menus here take another approach, and retain their distinctive national characters and flavors while doing away with meat entirely. Together, I think, they prove that meatless menus built from traditional foods can be not only satisfying but also enticing. And easy.

When I hear the term "vegetarian lifestyle," I reach for my skirt steak. But the arguments for eating vegetarian food, if not daily then at least regularly, are quite compelling, even to lifelong omnivores like myself. I am no preacher, and I will be grilling meat tonight, but consider the following:

• The livestock population of the United States eats well enough to feed the world's human population several times over.

• Raising animals for food has caused extensive environmental damage not only to equatorial rain forests but to North American prairies.

• Using increasingly limited resources to produce meat sometimes sounds just dumb. (My favorite statistic: it takes dozens of gallons of water to grow a pound of wheat and thousands to raise a pound of meat.)

• And finally, a terrifying little fact: 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used to treat healthy livestock. I won't even mention mad cow disease.

All of the above makes me ambivalent, but none of it has converted me. Nor too many other Americans: most surveys find that less than 3 percent are vegetarians. But there are additional reasons, not much discussed, to consider a vegetarian diet at least part-time, and to introduce a meatless take on the Minimalist that will run regularly.

No one, after all, says you have to be a committed, converted, proselytizing vegetarian to eat a diet less oriented to meat. Besides, many self-described vegetarians are not, strictly speaking, vegetarians. Today's rules seem pretty flexible, sometimes to the point where there is not much difference between vegetarians and people who eat moderate amounts of meat.

Furthermore, almost everyone eats vegetarian meals from time to time, whether by choice or because peers, friends or, increasingly, the children do. (It appears, though the statistics vary wildly, that somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of Americans under 30 eschew meat.)

And though elitist food enthusiasts rarely talk about it, from a epicurean perspective, vegetarian cuisine has become far more appealing, thanks largely to the growing influence of Asian vegetarian traditions. (We do not hear, either, that a vegetarian diet promotes weight loss, probably because studies have not been done. But I don't know any overweight vegetarians, though maybe they are walking around hungry.)

Still, it sometimes takes a bit more technique to produce vegetarian food that pleases the spoiled palate. For example, I generally make chickpea soup with chicken stock and sausage. But I found that I could create a soup with just as much flavor and body as my original version by slow-cooking the onions until they are brown; by exploiting the fact that, unlike other dried legumes, chickpeas produce a delicious broth as they cook; and by adding spinach, whose character is just as distinctive as that of sausage. Serve this with homemade croutons if you can, or at least with good bread.

Such contrivances, however legitimate or clever, are not often needed: most of the dishes here are pretty much unchanged from the traditional versions. Ris in cagnon, a Lombard dish I learned from John Thorne (who writes a superb food newsletter that has led to several wonderful books), is not much more than arborio rice with butter and cheese, but it is faster and easier than risotto, and it uses no stock. (It also may introduce you to a good alternative method of cooking rice, in the manner of pasta.)

The classic braised escarole dish, which uses a series of techniques that can be applied to almost any green vegetable, relies on a hefty amount of garlic and olive oil, which are added both at the beginning and at the end of cooking, the final additions to freshen and intensify flavors. This dish can be enhanced with toasted pine nuts, raisins or currants, pitted black or green olives, or chopped tomatoes. Wine can replace the water, for a slightly more complex dish.

The Chinese menu includes a few slightly unusual ingredients, but is more a combination of infrequently seen and quite common dishes.

Cold braised celery is the kind of thing that begins a meal in Taiwanese and some northern Chinese restaurants, a little tidbit that is the equivalent of an amuse-bouche.

Tofu salad starts with pressed tofu — well-drained, extra-firm tofu that you cut in half and press between layers of paper towels under a weight (a big cutting board, for example) for at least half an hour, changing the paper towels as they become saturated. If you visit a Chinese market, you should find prepressed tofu, often cut into strips. Also known as pressed bean curd or extra-firm tofu, it has a brown exterior and is usually packed in plastic, without water.

If you have time, make the salad in advance, so the tofu absorbs the flavors of the dressing. The salad goes nicely with homemade scallion pancakes, which are easier and more successful than you might imagine.

The meal is capped by the kind of soft, tender, highly seasoned eggplant dish you have probably ordered in restaurants but may never have made. It is best to begin with long, slender eggplants — I like the lavender ones, but the color doesn't matter — and large oyster or bai-ling mushrooms. If you go to a Chinese market for pressed tofu, you will probably find all of these, but if not, regular eggplant and button mushrooms will do.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company