Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Coucous Primer

"A handful of couscous is better
than Mecca and all its dust."

- Moroccan Proverb

This May, Lori had an opportunity to teach in western Sicily. For a little over a week we lived in a rustically-refurbished villa just a few kilometers north of Marsala, a three-minute walk from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
[Just to paint a more colorful picture, let me be specific. You can skip this part if all you care about is couscous. The villa was a very large farmhouse from the 18th century back when there were landowners (the 1%) and peasants (you and me). A young couple, Adriano and his wife Yumi, have restored the property with modern conveniences but kept much of the antique feel by using original materials and local construction products such as ceramics. Today the farmhouse is six self-contained apartments in one complex; perfect for hosting weddings, family vacations, or artist workshops. Visit for more information. The photos on their website are not re-touched.
It really looks like that. The area is truly tourist-free except for the buses full of Europeans who come to see the ancient salt production in the protected Stagnone lagoon. The villa is somewhat isolated, but only a short drive to Marsala or Trapani.
When I mention "Marsala" you probably think of the wine sauce prepared for a boring chicken dish in so many American-Italian restaurants. Well, that's NOT Marsala. True Marsala wine is remarkable! Its production is carefully regulated, and there are many types and styles of real Marsala wine. Think sherry, but lighter and perfumed with sea air instead of barrels. I mention the wine because the apartment Lori and I stayed in at Villa Salinara used to be the "Wine Chapel." That is, it was the landowner's private chapel, but also a storage room for the estate's barreled Marsala wine. Makes sense. If you need something to pray about, it might as well be wine.
One last thing. To an American all of the sea surrounding Italy is the Mediteranean, but to locals there are many different seas. Each is defined by the nature of the currents, the temperature and salinity of the water, and the kind of life an area sustains. Sicily is surrounded by four or five different seas.]
When we mentioned to friends that we were going to the Marsala region, they all encouraged us to eat Couscous di Pesce... Fish Couscous. We ate a few meals at various trattorie (smaller family restaurants) in Marsala and could not resist the beautiful grilled fish. Then one afternoon we took lunch at a little place tucked away just off the piazza inside L'Arco di Garibaldi (where Giuseppi Garibaldi and "The Thousand" began the campaign to unify modern Italy). The place was filling up with locals, so we ordered the Couscous di Pesce. We were served a steaming bowl of golden couscous in fish broth with a few deboned pieces of fish (perhaps cefalo?) on top. They also brought another bowl of broth to add by spoonfuls because the couscous continues to absorb liquid as you eat (well, so does the ever-present piece of local bread in your spare hand). It was delicious. Simple, with individual flavors throughout the broth. The couscous itself is mildly nutty, but really more like the earthy flavor you expect from fresh semolina flour.
So, (I asked several people) "What is couscous?" I got many different answers probably because to a Sicilian there really are many different ways to make and prepare couscous. I was assured in every case that real couscous takes many hours to prepare. Unfortunately, I didn't get to witness a real cook making couscous, so most of what I have discovered is thanks to Google.
It seems real couscous is a staple dish in most of northern Africa. The name derives from a Berber-Arabic word kuskus meaning "well-rolled." It is made from durum wheat (semolina) rubbed between moistened hands until the flour combines with just enough water to form hundreds of tiny grains. Obviously the process takes a light touch. It is then sprinkled with dry flour to keep the grains separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. Traditionally, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was usually made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. Today, couscous production is mechanized.
Properly-cooked couscous is steamed over a broth in a special pot. Meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew in the base of the pot (metal in Africa, ceramic in Sicily). On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. I have read that a "flour paste" is sometimes used to seal the two parts of the pot while steaming the couscous. Some instructions call for the steaming process to be interrupted occasionally to rub the softening couscous again to keep the granules separate.
There is an easier way; instant couscous. This product has already been steamed and then dried again before it is packaged. It needs only to be soaked in boiling water until it swells, a process that takes about 10 minutes. When Lori went shopping for couscous at our local supermarket here in Tennessee, this was the only kind of couscous available although the word instant is nowhere to be found on the label.
Here's her super-easy recipe for Couscous di Gamberetti (Couscous with Shrimp, photo above): 20 minutes. Serves 2.
Peel a pound of shrimp. Place the shells in a small sauce pan. Add some chopped veggies such as onion, celery, or carrot to the pan. add 1/2 cup dry white wine and simmer 10 minutes. Add 1 cup water (or veggie stock) and bring just to a boil.
In a skillet, sauté a whole shallot chopped very fine in 2 Tbl. of butter over medium heat. Try not to brown the shallots. Add 1 cup instant couscous, a generous pinch of salt, and stir until the grains begin to toast. You can smell it. Strain about 3/4 of the shell/veggie stock into the couscous. Stir. Cover and set aside about 10 minutes.
In another skillet, sauté the peeled shrimp in a little butter until firm; about 3 minutes for medium-sized shrimp. Throw in some chopped flat parsley near the end.
Serve heaps of couscous topped with the shrimp and a side of the reserved broth.
We had a soft (full malo) California chardonnay from Patland Estate Winery. I might also recommend a white from Sicily made from Zibibbo grape if you want something a bit more crisp and understated.
Buon appetito!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Perfect is the Enemy of Good

"...le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."

- Voltaire, La Bégueule

In my experience, this is true. But, like so many things in this world, the truth becomes more elusive the harder I search for it. Achieving perfection may be impossible, but I do not believe making a start is meaningless, or that extra effort always results in diminishing returns. Voltaire is often quoted too easily by those who never take a chance, or who are content with mediocrity.
As a computer programmer, I deal with co-workers of every ilk. Some are remarkably precise and thorough. Others are unorganized and inconsistent. Some are solution-driven; prioritizing tasks and ordering work to reach a specific goal via the most-direct route. Others feel no impulse to complete anything. Some become mired in insignificant details; never stepping back to undertand the big picture. Some (those who claim to have a "creative" gift) are constantly moving the target, or rather, moving their own vector to the target, and never manage to find a relevant trajectory. The catalogue of human natures could continue here, but that is not my point. Instead, I would like to offer a few thoughts that each of us can use (myself included) to reflect on our own behaviors.
Do you ever compare real things with unrealistic or idealized alternatives? You probably do. We all do. Think of a time when things went badly and you imagined a different outcome. One seldon pictures better when it is just as easy to conjure up perfect. Philosophers call this a False Dichotomy. As an example, I have made gnocchi a thousand times, but not every batch is tender, light, and delicious. If I am absolutely honest with myself, I have never made gnocchi as good as I imagine it can be. In fact, the best gnocchi I have ever eaten is not as good as that which I can imagine.
Essentially, a False Dichotomy assumes the middle (mediocre gnocchi) can not exist, and that a solution is either absolutely perfect or entirely without worth. To argue that any course of action that is not a perfect solution is hopeless (called a Perfect Solution Fallacy) is a classic example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple parts of a complex problem, and as a result, reduces it to two extremes. Don't worry. I still make lots of pretty good, but never perfect, and seldon really bad, gnocchi.
After thinking about this a while, I started to see examples of False Dichotomy all around me. Politicians present an amendment to a bill which is obviously advantageous but completely implausible. They then attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. Of course, what would really serve the citizenry is a choice between one realistic possibility and another which is merely better; not utopian.
In 1969 economist Harold Demsetz used the expression Nirvana Fallacy when he claimed that public policy economics implicitly presents choices between an ideal norm and the existing 'imperfect.' Perhaps economists in the U.S. are less-delusional today, but watching the European Central Bank demand absolute measures from struggling countries makes me wonder if they still believe in strudel-in-the-sky solutions to desperate economic problems.
On the other hand...
There are those who assert that the truth must be found as a compromise between two opposite positions; in the gray area - the middle ground. Philosophers call this Argument to Moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam). Beginning from the belief that any two positions represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, and that such extremes are always wrong, they reason that a solution from somewhere in between is always correct. Of course, any solution from the middle ground can be invalidated quite easily. Simply present another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will become an extreme. This does not mean the middle ground position is always bad or wrong; only that the fact it is moderate cannot be used as evidence of its truthfulness.
Anyone who has worked in a committee or other group charged with making a decision understands how easy (and how perilous) Argument to Moderation can be. When I encounter an ill-conceived solution to a problem, I claim it to have been "designed by committee," sometimes because it is hopelessly inadequate to solve any single problem, or more-often, because it offers many very poor solutions to several diverse problems. The U.S. Congress comes to mind.
A second cousin to Argument to Moderation is Consensus. Consensus seeks the consent of all participants in a group to reach an acceptable resolution; one that can be supported by each individual even if not their ideal. With consensus we leave the practice of logic and moved into the world of human emotions; not always the wise way to make an important decision.
So, I don't subscribe to the belief that a solution must be all (perfect) or nothing (worthless), nor that compromise or consensus is always best. I do believe that a right solution always leaves some failure in the balance. This is illustrated in a concept familiar to business-management types as the Pareto Principle (named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto). Also known as the 80-20 Rule or the Law of the Vital Few, the Pareto Principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, and conversely, it takes 80% of total effort to effect 20% of total change. In business it is translated as 80% of sales comes from 20% of clients.
What does any of this have to do with my work as a computer programmer? Well, it is my nature (I was taught) to do things right. Unfortunately, as the discussion above illustrates, what is 'right' is not always possible to pin down. Anyone can make a good logical argument against my definition of 'right' in any particular situation. There are times when I must take several hours (or even days) to re-engineer a previous passable solution to create a new 'right' one. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Fortunately, I work for bosses who trust me to find the best (if not perfect) solutions while maintaining a balance between time and cost, between attention to details and the big picture, and between extra effort and increasingly inefficiency. If not exact, the 80-20 Rule comes pretty close to explaining my daily output.
In very few ways is my life like that of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, but I can identify with his character in the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy." For years the Pope comes to the Sistine Chapel, time and time again, stares up at the massive scaffolding and asks, "Michelangelo... when will you make an end?" From high above the artist shouts back "When I'm finished!"
In conclusion, I rest assured that my personal quest for truth will never be finished, as the last 20% of the search will require %80 of life's effort. It's a good thing my glass of wine is half-full and my plate of gnocchi is pretty good.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Food and Sex - Preface

"Pizza is like sex, when it is good, it's really good, and when it's bad... it's still pretty good.”

― Anon.

Although I don't often find myself making conversation with strangers at cocktails parties, it brings me some satisfaction to know that, when required, I can stand and chat pleasantly with almost anyone for a few minutes. My method is simple: ask a question about the other person and they will take charge of the topic. Listen carefully, and in an instant you get a sense of what interests them, how they define themselves, and to what degree they are willing to have a real exchange of ideas and opinions. Even when the stranger seems "chat-friendly," I often choose to act the role of listener, as this requires less of an effort, and leaves the other person with the impression that I find them fascinating.
Occasionally, a conversation calls for just the right "spark" to get everyone engaged. I am always happy to provide the thesis: "Food and Sex are Fundamentally Linked." Two of my favorite topics. I dare say, two of everyone's favorite topics.
I wrote the notes below a few years ago as the preface to a cookbook. It was really more of a guide for young men to teach them basic cooking skills, but it also taught how to use food as a way to learn about a woman's (really any person's) sensibilities, character traits, and passions. Perhaps, if there is enough interest in this post, one day I will return to finish this project. For now I offer only a beginning.
*** Preface ***
Deeply coded in our genetic program - indeed, in the programs of all living things - is the desire to procreate. The best way to assure our own survival and the survival of our species is to leave other organisms of our own kind after us to grow, spread, improve, and have offspring of their own.
Even before Freudian psychology was mainstream, most adult people were, to some degree, personally aware of this deeply rooted need to survive. Early humans spent the greater part of their lives trying simply to stay alive from day to day; and with luck, a few years into adulthood. Survival was the primary motivation for every act. At some point, survival became the catylist for increased cognitive function, inspiring the use of tools and the building of communities. Against the odds humankind, unlike many, many other species, did survive. Yet, despite remarkable improvements in our survival skills, the world has tended toward disorder, and human life has been defined as the struggle to keep things from falling apart. Civilization is the product of the human need to triumph over chaos, by bringing order to our world. History is the story of our attempt to keep our own species from being swept away in the maelstrom of nature.
Because modern humans are a product of millions of years of evolution, shaped by our ability to adapt and progress, evidence of our past nature is present still in our daily lives. In the evolutionary process physical, mental, and behavioral strengths have become manifest which contibute to our ability to carry on. And although sometimes we are reluctant to admit it, the most enduring of our survival skills are also our most ancient: sex.
Sex alone is not enough (now that's a statement with two meanings). We must survive long enough to procreate if we are to survive as a species. We need food to survive. Therefore, sex and food are linked at the most-basic levels of human nature.
Many who read this will stubbornly refuse to admit that humans today are the result of a long process of change governed by random genetic mutation. One does not need to be a Darwin-ist to honestly admit that humans love to eat and have sex. Others will find it difficult to concede that our most-base instincts are as influential on our 'modern' daily actions as are our rational, conscious choices. Self-control is a noble quality that we admire in great leaders, co-workers, and close friends. But I contend it is a very healthy act to acknowlege to one’s self that you like to eat with gusto and make passionate love. The desire to do so is central to your very being. If you can be honest to yourself about this, many (perhaps most) of the other psychological baggage that encumbers your life will fall away.
This book not about sex; it is about food. Along with our essential physical requirements of nutrition and water, humans have developed an elaborate sensory system to guide us as we prepare our food. Culinary science has indirectly codified how humans respond to various smells, tastes, colors, and textures. There is often a ‘meaning behind the meal.’ In its most simple expression, sex is also about the senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch. This is more than coincidence. Rather, it is further evidence that the two instincts of food and sex are rooted very deeply and very closely in our brains; down in the most ancient campus, hardwired directly for sensory input.
This book is also about relationships. By relationship I mean a mutually beneficial union that provides more reward for each party than could be had if they continued to live apart as individuals. Again, it is through millions of years of fitness-filtering that the ideal of two-living-as-one has become the norm. To be clear, marriage is not the goal. Marriage is a religious invention, where as coupling is part of our nature. In truth, there is no goal. The best relationships are dynamic, ever-changing, and always evolving for the betterment of both parties involved.
I am writing from a male perspective; primarily because I see a need today for men to reevaluate how they factor into in the food/sex equation. Our role as ‘provider’ has become distorted by a society that values a person by how much they produce, how much fortune they can accumulate, and how much austentatious wealth they can wave in front of a potential sexual conquest. Nothing against the modern hunter-gatherer, of course, but I think such notions tend to stack the world vertically, in a sort of infinitely layered chaste system. Where does the woman fit in such a world? According to this social strategy, women are little more than trophies by which men measure the size of each other’s... well, checkbook. Just look around. How many beautiful women marry the ideal man and then go on to live unfulfilled lives, tomented by loneliness, seething with resentment, and acting out a shopping list of self-destructive behaviors?
I prefer to view humankind as a web of individuals, men and women, any two of which are capable of reaching out and building a resonant relationship together; either as friends, or lovers. My primary reasoning for such a schema is that the behavior of women is also driven by the food/sex instinct. Our culture's social code has been founded on a matrix of puritanical, Victorian morals, and the tireless efforts of the orthodox church to fight bad behavior with shame and guilt. We have, as a result, grown accustomed to seeing women through a lens that distorts their true nature - hungry. The tired double standard that so differently defines appropriate behavior for men and women is a prejudice no less unfair than to judge a person by their ethnicity or skin color. If we include both sexes in the mix, and require an equal amount of investment from both to grow the new relationship, much good food and great sex will be found in the balance.
You may wonder if I am suggesting that the man do this or that to manipulate a woman. Manipulation is unhealthy in any relationship, and I certainly do not advocate doing anything that will covertly influence an outcome that serves only one partner. However, I will offer advice on how the man can (without the woman always knowing it) keep a relationship on the right track and growing. Also, over the past twenty years there has been an alarming increase in the number of people, mostly young women, who are diagnosted with eating disorders. Mental health professionals agree that these diseases are not about food, but rather, about control. Some women have lost so much of their own identity, or feel themselves so trapped in hopeless circumstances, that they use food and drink, or the self-withholding thereof, in an unconscious, pathological attempt to grab for any thread of selfworth. In a rich and meaningful relationship, both partners feel valued, and find reassurance and comfort in each other.
This book is not about hedonism. It is about the absolutely natural joys of sensuality. For the record, I am not advocating using our best natural instincts as an excuse for wreckless behavior. Remember, life is (at the core) about survival. Thousands of other books can explain better how too much food and/or sex is damaging to the body and mind.
OK. There it is. If enough readers are interested, I propose to write the entire book on-line - in this blog - one chapter at a time. You can be my contibuting editor! Just sign up to "follow."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Wine Made Simple

“Accept what life offers you
and try to drink from every cup.
All wines should be tasted;
some should only be sipped,
but with others,
drink the whole bottle.”

― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Four years ago, Lori (my wife) and I returned from Italy having experienced our own personal “Renaissance.” Her eye was clearer, her willingness to take risks unreserved, and her aspiration to be a great painter honed razor-sharp. My mind was more-open, my spirit more idealistic, and my palate reawakened to the beauty, simplicity, and essential joy of good food and wine.
Back in 2009 I felt the desire to share with others, via this blog, my reborn world-view. Perhaps, I believed, if others could get a glimpse of life through my eyes they would understand what had changed in me. If they could taste a morsel of goodness in their own life, they would find a renewed sense of happiness, hope, love... and good taste.
It was not in vain, but it was also not the “seed of change” I had imagined. After ten essays I had exactly five comments from readers and five blog followers. Alas, just because I felt like I had something to say did not dispose others to read. Honest discourse, it seems, is not the best way to inspire people these days. Lori has found a way through her paintings. I am still searching.
Then, a few days ago, I had a very short, very polite, exchange of opinions with someone on FaceBook. An author had published a download-able graphic; a guide to pairing wine with food. Dozens of readers had posted comments celebrating the chart as a Grand Unified Theory of wine selection. I was confused, and troubled to think that many people thought of wine as something one should “fit” into a meal like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. For the first time in three years, I had something to write about!
Simplification is not the issue. In fact, much too much over-sophisticated blather makes wine unapproachable for too many. The availability of so many different wines, each with a label hawking its merits, can be overwhelming. It would be a real benefit if there was a rubric one could follow to make a good choice. Not possible; but framing the topic from a fresh point-of-view may help others rediscover the joy that is wine.
The Basics. If you can understand what is written below, you can buy, pair, and drink wine without worry. All of these statements are generalizations, so I will use the words most and some with frequency.
• Most wine is made from grapes. Most of those grapes are varieties of the species Vitis vinifera.
• A wine that is made predominantly from grapes of only one variety is called a “varietal,” such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. In the New World, most winemakers create varietal wines to show off the quality of the grapes used, and to concentrate flavors that come from the soil, air, and water that nurtured the fruit.
• Other wines are made by combining the juice of different varieties of grapes to create a blended wine. These wines can be designed to impact your taste experience in a specific way. By blending grape varieties, a winemaker can make a wine that effects the drinker with intention, and expresses their own personal sense of “style.” Most European wines are blends. They are often named after the region where tradition has shape the basic blending practice; think Bordeaux or Chianti.
• Red wine is made from grapes with color in their skins. Those skins (and the grape seeds) also contain compounds that are flavorful and/or effect the wine as it is made and aged. Winemakers allow the crushed skins of the grapes to soak in the juice during the wine-making process to transfer those compounds to the liquid. The actual color of a red wine can range from light-pink to almost black.
• White wines are not necessarily made with grapes with less color in their skins, although this is often the case. White wines are more clear because the juice spends little or no time in contact with the broken grape skins during the wine-making process. The actual color of a white wine can range from virtually clear to almost opaque (in many hues).
• From the above descriptions, you can already deduce that most red wines are more complex than white wines (at least until white wine is aged in oak). It is correct to pair less complex wines with foods with subtle flavors.
• Most wine contains sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannin. Tannin is an astringent that reacts with other compounds in grape juice during the wine-making process and as the wine ages. Red wines contain more tannin than white wines.
• It is not helpful to single out each of the four components listed above when tasting wine. It is better to consider how they balance together, or if one aspect is more pronounced than the others.
• More excellent-quality wine grapes are grown today than ever before. Industrial methods have improved the availability of well-made wine to the mass-market. There are also many makers who care little for the quality of their product.
• You can buy many excellent wines at a reasonable price. However, maintaining high standards, even in a wine factory, comes with a cost. Cheap wine is cheap because the maker has not invested in their product. Of course, cost is relative to the economic health of the region where the wine is produced. As an example: in remote western Argentina they can grow excellent fruit and make a truly delicious wine, then ship it to the U.S., and sell it to me for less money than a California maker can make a bottle of undrinkable plunk.
• The best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Wine effects us at a very primitive level (our most-ancient senses of taste, smell, and sight), so the qualities of the wine will register deep inside you. No need to keep elaborate notes. Just trust your own memory.
• When selecting a wine to go with food, add the imagined flavors of the food to the “balance” equation and ask yourself what would make the taste experience more-completely satisfying. For example: if you are serving a rich pot roast with hearty vegetables, a wine with a little brightness (higher acidity, white or red) might help refresh the palate after each bite, keeping the taste buds from tiring out. Sugar robs the mouth of much of its sensitivity (that’s why we serve dessert last). Alcohol helps re-awaken numbed taste buds, so try brandy or whiskey instead of wine with that piece of chocolate cake.
• There is no wrong way to select or pair wine. When you shop for wine, always buy a bottle you have never tried. Maybe you’ll love it... or not. Give any wine/food combination a try, and you will immediately understand why some basic pairing rules have evolved. You will, in the process, develop your own schema.
• Not everyone likes wine. Not every wine drinker likes the same kinds of wine. It is possible to make bad wine. Even good wine can go bad because it is a biological product susceptible to spoilage. Do not drink wine you are not enjoying; whether because it is of poor quality, has gone off, or simply does not bring you pleasure.
• That’s right. Wine should bring pleasure. So ask yourself - Is the color beautiful? Does the combination of flavors contribute to a agreeable aroma and a mouthful of sensation? Do I want another glass, or is this stuff going down the drain?
If you want specific wine advice, please feel free to send me a note. I can only make suggestions based on my own experience, but am willing to point you in some possible “right directions” so you can grow your own wine drinking experience.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Ode to Coffee

"A fig for partridges and quails,
ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
But on the highest mount in Wales
Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
- Jonathon Swift

Peace: That is what I find in coffee. I am probably addicted to caffeine, but also to the liquid warmth, khaki foam, and heavenly aroma that quiets my mind. For most people coffee is a stimulant, but for me it is calming. A shot (or two) of espresso in the morning brings clarity, another mid-morning sharpens my focus, after lunch it is a digestivo, and an after-dinner coffee gives me the strength to sleep.

One can not indulge in a cup of mediocre coffee. Only the good stuff has the ability to open the mind with its magical bouquet and quickening essence. Of course, one person's good coffee is another's undrinkable.

Starbucks has never impressed me with their coffee. A business plan that puts a store on every corner, gets suburban families to think of it as their other living room, and sells dirty water served by soulless baristas for $2 per cup – now that is impressive. I personally only buy coffee at Starbucks when there is no other option. No peace can be found in a noisy room full of strangers who have all paid too much for a cup.

In 1974, after graduating from high school, a friend and I travelled for six weeks around Europe. I can remember my first cup of Italian coffee (caffé normale, espresso). We were walking out of the train station in Florence and I stopped at a little stand and asked for coffee. Cue the orchestral music. One sip and the clouds parted. I was bathed in golden rays of Tuscan sunlight. Well, not exactly. It was difficult to drink; too strong and too bitter. Still, I will never forget the lingering flavor and toasty aroma. By the time we had made it to Rome two days later, I was hooked.

When the rest of America was buying their first Mr. Coffee, I was wearing out a French press. In 1980 I got my first espresso machine – one made by Simac. At the time, very few Americans even knew what espresso was. People called it eXpresso; like something drunk in a hurry. That first machine lasted over ten years making many cups every day. It was built to professional standards, probably because there was not yet a demand for cheap, crappy home machines. When it finally failed, un-repairably, Lori bought me a nice Krups from William-Sonoma. A company like that would only sell quality products, right? Within four months the thing was leaking. W-S was very kind to replace that unit – and five more over the course of the next few years! In 2000 we bought a new machine from (of all places) Starbucks. It is still going strong even-though we do replace a part occasionally.

Even harder to find than a trustworthy machine is good coffee. We prefer a dark-roasted African bean. There are a few local roasters who sell French Roast Kenyan AA, but it is very pricey. The coffee must also be ground to the ideal fineness; something inconvenient and inconsistent to do at home. So we started trying many different brands of ground coffee available at our local grocery. We have found the very best to be El Aquila. It is coffee from Latin America (which means it could come from almost anywhere). It is roasted and ground perfectly for espresso. It is very consistent. Best of all, 10 ounces only costs $1.79! That is less than one espresso at Starbucks.

During our stay in Italy last year we would stop on the way to the market and take a cup of coffee at the bar. Lori asked for machiato; that is, espresso 'spotted' with milk. What a pleasure to watch the skill with which a real barista sets little saucers on the counter, makes your perfect coffee, and serves it, all the while talking to a friend about last night's soccer match. It only takes a couple of sips to down the little cup, so you just stand at the counter beside the bankers, priests, and laborers and savor the best coffee in the world for never more than 80 centine (about $1).

Lori is encouraging me to write a book. It would be titled "Stop Star*ucking Up My Life!" In it I would point out how American society is replacing many good things (like a simple cup of coffee) with slickly mass-marketed, inferior products (or music, or art, or religion, etc.). When I imagine the first chapter, I hear the voice of Andy Rooney, or my mom, or my own interior curmudgeon complaining about this or that. That is not the voice I want to share with the world. The 'good-ole-days' were not always better, and I am all for progress.

Perhaps I just want people to spend as much time searching for peace as they do looking for a Starbucks. I think I need coffee.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Classical Music is Not Dead

"Men profess to be lovers of music,
but for the most part they give no evidence
in their opinions and lives
that they have ever heard it."
- Henry David Thoreau

Conventional wisdom suggests that classical music is dead. Public interest is at an all-time low with sales of concert tickets and recordings lagging far behind other entertainments. The few major orchestras that remain are programming 'audience friendly' concerts that feature film scores and the old (familiar) warhorses of the repertoire. Alas, the end is near!

Much of my adult life has been spent defending classical music as something meaningful – something that has purpose. Like the curator of a musical museum, I have tried to keep the dust from settling on great compositions by listening to, teaching, and performing them.

Pieces of classical music (and by 'Classical Music' I am referring generally to non-popular genres, not specifically to the Classical period of European music from the late 18th century) are like 'artifacts' of western history, culture, and religion distilled into sound. They are the most honest representations of sacred and secular thought and feelings. The best works manifest a mysterious phenomena, mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds. Others are just beautiful, or joyful, or triumphant. I can not list all of the possible adjectives because music expresses that which transcends language.

Great classical music is more available now than ever before. There are thousands of beautiful recordings on-line. The world is full of amazing, charismatic performers. For ten dollars you can buy all of the Beethoven piano sonatas on CD and enjoy them for a lifetime. There no laws forbidding you from listening. There is no punishment for over-indulging. So what is missing?

Time and attention. Most classical music was written before the age of television. People had a different concept of time then. A long evening in the concert hall was a special occasion. Instead of waiting for a sonata to end, the listener would wish it could go on and on. Their attention also had a different scope. Classical music was enjoyed because the listener could focus on shifting tonalities and developing musical ideas over several minutes. That is how the composer gave the music 'form.' Musical memory was more persistent too. Audiences would leave after the premiere of a new work humming the tunes. Not now.

Music today, as a whole, is much more disposable. We do not invest much attention in listening because there is always another 3-minute song waiting to follow. Very few popular songs have engaging melodies and interesting harmonies. Music has stopped being about pitches, rhythms and timbres. It is about words and 'the beat.' Society has lost the ability to understand music that is not patently 'dumbed down' to the most common audience.

Not only does it seem like fewer people have any interest in classical music, but many actually make a point of criticizing those of us who do. Classical music has unfairly become a symbol for 'cultural elitism.' It should not be. Like the inner-city kid who wants to learn and is ridiculed by the other kids when he makes good grades, there is disdain for those of us who truly enjoy classical music. Hollywood makes a point of associating classical music with snobs and socially inept characters.

Maybe our modern lives are so hectic, fragmented, and over-saturated with popular music, there is too little time to indulge in something antique – like a classical symphony. Because classical music relies on subtle expression to evoke deep emotional responses, it is out-of-place in an impatient, superficial world. As a late baby-boomer, I have lived through the golden age of rock music and fully recognize popular music for its fun, commercial, and entertainment value. Here in Nashville, country music is king. But classical music can transcend the social/economic matrix that shapes listening habits and opinions. It can speak to all of us, universally, and across generations.

It can also be very exciting. Live music is (by its nature) ephemeral. During a classical concert the performers and the audience share a sublime intensity that is, at any split-second, both tangible and transient. Classical works are cleverly designed to engage the listener and hold them breathless, supported only by an invisible thread of sound. Even if the music is familiar, the listener feels a curiosity about how the orchestra will interpret a phrase, or how a soloist will execute a cadenza.

Maybe in a major metropolitan city with a fine professional orchestra, and an audience of wealthy patrons, there are enough ticket sales to support classical music. But across most of America this is simply not the case. Following a decline of interest in classical music comes the decline in economic support. Large professional ensembles struggle to pay their bills. Talented players end up in jobs that have nothing to do with making music.

The legacy of classical music is carried on by willing (and unwilling) music students and a few amateur adults. I play with several dozen other amateurs in a community orchestra. Not every note is perfectly in tune, nor every rhythm articulated with precision. For those music lovers who rehearse and perform solely for the joy of making music together, for those of us who keep our iPods loaded with Haydn and Schubert, classical music is still 'alive.'

Friday, November 13, 2009

Essays on Italian Food: Part I

So much has been written about Italian food – the tradition, the culture, how to select ingredients, how to prepare dishes, what wine complements what food. To start a series of essays seems the height of conceit. I am not Italian. I did not grow up in the kitchen beside my nonna making tortellini from scratch. In fact, until I was 45 years old, I thought all Italian restaurants specialized in heaps of re-heated pasta swimming in over-cooked sauces.

My understanding of real Italian food has changed over the last few years. Time in Italy spent rubbing elbows with local contadine has a way of changing a person's perspective. I returned to the U.S. an evangelist for authentic ingredients and preparation techniques. My credo is that cooking Italian right yields many benefits: it simplifies food buying and preparation, it is cheaper, it is healthier, it has endless variety, it is delicious, and (above all) it satisfies. Those of you who have eaten at our family table know how passionate I can be about what makes the meal Italian.

Think about this. When was the last time you ate anything and felt really satisfied – not just stuffed or full, but truly satisfied? The average American adult eats out 7+ times a week! When they do eat at home, much of the food is pre-packaged. Everyone spends too much when they eat at a restaurant or grab a frozen entree from the freezer. Perhaps they feel pressure to eat a lot to justify the cost. I believe they eat too much because the food delivers very little satisfaction.

So here goes. I'm one more voice in the wilderness promising salvation if you just shop, cook, and eat according to my food gospel. Anybody listening? A few foodies perhaps. Does the world really need another food writer? I would be the first to say, "No!" Words can never substitute for the smells, colors, textures, and tastes of good food.

One approach would be to simply re-state gems of cooking wisdom penned by other authors, and then add my own commentary. That does not seem very original, but it might be the best way to bring authority to my discussion. First I must sort through all of the really bad Italian food writers out there and draw only from the best sources. This is really not so difficult. I start by eliminating every text with the words 'Quick, ' 'Easy,' or 'Low-fat' in the the title. Then skip over anything written by Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, or Mario Batali. That does not mean that their advice is always bad, just that it is distorted by commercial interests which have nothing to do with good food.

It is important to always include at least one good recipe in each of my essays – paying forward, if you will. Passing on lessons learned is a very important (and traditional) part of being a great Italian chef. It is not unusual to see two little Italian women at the market arguing with loud voices and shaking their fists at each other. If you listen carefully, you will realize that they are just debating the proper way to wash spinach or to slice prosciutto. They are not mad – they are taking a stand on a matter, probably because their teacher took the same position. Real Italian cooking is a living tradition. So much for literary authority.

The author I would like to paraphrase today is a favorite of mine: Marcella Hazan. Her cookbooks include very intelligently written introductions, even though some of the recipes are a bit esoteric. One thing she wrote in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has stuck with me, "Real Italian cooking never uses one ingredient too many, nor does it require one additional step in preparation." I have tested that theory again and again, and it holds up every time.

Today's topic: Braising. Marcella was the first to introduce me to braising as a specific method of cooking meats. Actually, I had been doing this for as long as I can remember (i.e. pot roast), but never called it braising. It is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat. Typically a food (most often meat) is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising relies on heat, time, and moisture to successfully break down tough connective tissue and collagens in meat. Many times the added liquid is acidic (such as wine), helping to tenderize as the food simmers.

Many classic braised dishes such as Coq au Vin (cooking a tough rooster in wine) and Boeuf Bourguignon are examples of braising. Slow cooking in a crockpot is also a form of braising, I guess. Vegetables and seasonings are added to the liquid to enhance the flavors. The remaining liquid is often reduced to make a sauce.

Marcella Hazan is quick to point out that braising is not a fancy way to cook. It originated not only as a way to make cheap cuts of meat more tender, but also to limit the amount of fuel needed to cook a lot of food for a big family. In Italy, one avoids heating up the oven to roast meat. It wastes energy and makes the kitchen hot (not good during a Sicilian summer). Once the food is seared and the added liquid begins to simmer, the lid of the pot is put on to keep the heat local. A very low flame is enough to keep it cooking for several hours.

My wife Lori makes an irresistable lamb fricasee by braising shoulder chops (not the most tender cut) in white wine and veal stock. She finishes it by whisking in an egg and lemon juice. Wow! Lori learned this recipe from chef Donatella at Azienda Fontelunga just outside Cortona in eastern Tuscany. This may look like a complicated recipe, but after you have done it once, it will become an easy model for all kinds of meals. Here it is.

Agnello Fricassea

2 tbl good olive oil
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
about 2 lbs misc. lamb cuts
1 tsp plain flour
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups veal or chicken stock
1 egg
juice of 1/2 lemon

Prepare the rosemary by stripping away any older, more bitter leaves from the base of the sprig. Prepare the lamb by carving the meaty portions away from the bones (but keep the bones).

Heat a large frying pan, heat the oil until very hot (shimers but does not smoke). Add the dried red pepper, rosemary, and garlic and gently move them around until they begin to release their aromas (about 1 minute). Add the lamb, bones (a lot of flavor there) and all, and sear all sides turning often with tongs (about 7 minutes). Toss in the flour and stir to cook it in the pan drippings. Add the wine, partially cover, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, but keep the liquid bubbling.

It will take at least 10 minutes to cook off the wine. Try to reduce it to a sticky film, but not burned. Add the stock, stir, and cover again. Go do something else for 20-30 minutes.

Just before serving, take out the garlic and rosemary and throw them away. Break up the egg in a small bowl and then whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the lamb from the heat and pour the egg/lemon over the top stirring as you go. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the lamb out onto a large platter and garnish with rosemary and lemon slices. This is beautiful served with sauteed wild greens. You will want plenty of good bread to fare la scarpetta, that is, to 'make a little shoe' for mopping up every drop.