Friday, January 28, 2011

Surf and turf

The unusual lentil/mussels soup that I ate at Savore in New York City was on my mind ever since that night. Last night, I decided to do something about it.

I’m one of those nuts who try to deconstruct the ingredients that go into a restaurant dish, especially when the dish sparks my appetite and my interest. Mussels with lentils was such an unusual pairing—at least I’ve never done it before—that it was a natural for me to think about deconstructing…and if that fails, I simply construct my own!

I believe that I have captured much of what was in that bowl at Savore, whether I did it with the proper ingredients is not the issue for me. To my taste, the earthiness of the lentils and the fishy-ness of the mussels (and broth) was truly an interesting version of “surf and turf” dining, and that is all I sought to duplicate.

The other day, my wife and I ate trout for dinner. As we usually do in our home, the bones from the trout did not get thrown out; they rested in the fridge overnight and waited for their appointment in the morning to simmer on the stove in water to make a fish stock. (We seem to have a stock pot simmering almost every day, from fish to chicken to vegetable.)

My aim for the trout stock was to use it as part of the base for my experiment with lentils and mussels soup, which we had at dinner last night, and for lunch as leftovers today.

Here’s how I made the soup.

I steamed a bag of mussels until they just popped open their shells, and put the mussels aside; then, I added the water from the mussel-steaming plus the trout stock (total of six cups) into a pot, cleaned and screened one and one half cups of lentils and put them into the pot, added a teaspoon of cumin, three large bay leaves (we have two laurel trees), and a chopped cayenne pepper (we grow and then freeze them), brought everything to a boil and then simmered it for about 20 minutes.

While the lentils simmered, I chopped two large carrots, one large fennel stalk (in place of celery, which to me tastes like kerosene) two garlic cloves, one onion and put them aside.

After they simmered to tender, I took half the lentils out of the pot with a slotted spoon, pureed them, mixed the lentil puree back into the pot and added the chopped vegetables. Everything simmered until the vegetables cooked to tender.

At the last minute, I stirred into the pot the juice of one lemon and two tablespoons of olive oil; then, I added the mussels (in their shells), lowered the flame to below low, covered, and let the mussels get hot in the pot.

The result was close to Savore’s but not exact. It was, however, quite a nice soup—both times that we ate it.

At Savore, I drank Morellino di Scansano with the soup. At home, we tried it with a Heron Hill Cabernet Franc. The wine is clean and crisp, very much in the Chinon style, but it was not the best pairing for the mussels and lentils soup.I'll have to try it again with another wine---any suggestions?
Some have asked about my prostate cancer situation. I don’t care to go into too much detail, but I am feeling fine. I’ve been given a hormone shot to shrink and make brittle the cancer cells in preparation for radiating them. The shot produces potential side effects; in my case, the side effects have been minimal, almost to undetectable.
According to the doc, my overall good health (and the fact that I take no medications, nor have I ever been a habitual smoker) should benefit me during this process. But I do not fool myself; I know that when radiation begins I will suffer fatigue and who knows what else! Until then, I will exercise daily, eat healthy, drink some wine, and keep on writing.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Energize me

New York City is energizing. For me, being there is like being plugged in to recharge, and recharge I did. The weekend was filled with goings on but nothing compared with dining with my old friends.

For those familiar with the city’s layout, you might find it impressive that on my way to meet my friends for that Friday night dinner, I walked from 92nd Street and 3rd Avenue to 42nd Street and 12th Avenue, through Central Park, inside of one hour and ten minutes. As I said, the city is energizing!

I met one of my friends, John, who I’ve known since fourth grade and who is just fifteen minutes older than I, at his apartment on 42nd Street and then we drove in his car to the restaurant, Savore, located at the southeast corner of Spring and Sullivan Streets, in Soho.

Savore has been at that location since 1995. I discovered the restaurant in 1996, and loved it from the start. Both menu and wine list offered a healthy dose of Northeastern Italy.

When I first ate at Savore, it was populated with Italians. These days, the front of the house, the wait staff, and probably the kitchen staff too, represent places like Mexico, Honduras, and Guatamala. The place has changed a little, with a wider offering that includes more universal dishes. But the influence is, as it should be, simplicity in preparation and mainly Italian. I can tell that the wait staff loves to work there, too, by the way that they serve and by the fact that a few of them have been serving for many years.

There were eight of us at the table, each planning to order a separate meal. Once again, I had to call upon my appeasing instincts as the wine list made its way to my spot in the group. It was a bitterly cold night in the city and because of that no one felt like drinking white wine. A good look at the list and then in a flash I decided on a Caldaro Pinot Nero (Alto Adige) and il Puntone Morellino di Scansano Riserva (Maremma).

I didn’t take wine notes that night—no geeks around—but as I remember them, the Pinot Nero was beautifully round and fruity with a velvety finish. The Morellino (which is the Maremma’s version of the Sangiovese grape, or is it?) was solidly leathery, lean but flavorful, with truly integrated acidity.

I could tell that everyone liked the wine because no one complained and we ordered more bottles.

The dishes at our table represented quite a range, from artichoke stuffed pasta to branzino over root vegetables and all kinds in between. Mine was an order of lentils and mussels soup to start, a soup so unusual that it called to me, and I was glad that I answered the call. Hard to explain how the salty sea-like flavor of mussels offset the earthy lushness of lentils, but it happened. I followed with a seared salmon over crisp vegetables on a soft bed of pureed cauliflower (I’m eating more omega3 foods these days).

The evening went long—four hours—and the conversation went even longer. Once again, we talked of our youthful indiscretions, like the time we broke into the basement of a neighborhood bar and stole two kegs of beer.

We broke the kegs open with a screwdriver and a hammer in a hallway without thinking about the consequences of having just finished rolling them more than two blocks—the beer spray and foam filled three floors of hallway.

The caper was such a spur-of-the-moment thing that we also didn’t consider what we would serve the beer in. A few of us wound up with a case of trench mouth from the old coffee cans that we used as beer glasses.

Ours was a mobster neighborhood. Tough guys were everywhere, as was violence. One of them was a particularly nasty prick, a loan shark that we knew was responsible for breaking a few legs.

A long time ago, there was such a thing as a small kitchen table with a metal top. On one snowy night, after we had downed pints of T’bird and were feeling mischievous, one of my friends saw such a tabletop lying in a pile of garbage. He wondered aloud: what would happen if we buried that tabletop in snow right in someone’s walking path?

That someone turned out to be the loan shark, and it was such fun to watch him unknowingly walk onto the slick, wet metal top, glide up into the air and then come down with a pleasingly, to us, hard thump, cursing all the way up and all the way down.

It was all we could do to hold in our laughter from our perch behind a car across the street.

Finally, there was the teacher whose arm we broke—inadvertently, of course.

It was a Friday afternoon fire drill. The class was made to line up along one wall before filing out. The wall happened to be the one that included the coat closets, which were fronted with sliding doors. It so happened that the chairs in the classroom fit snugly in the closets and so we stacked a bunch of them in there and slid the doors closed.

The following Monday, as the teacher prepared the classroom she opened one of the closets and out came a stack of chairs right on her!

We have recounted these and many other stories more than a few times over the years but we never tire of telling them once again and we always seem to find them as funny as they were when the events took place.

I’ll be seeing this group again soon, as each one of my friends has offered to make the 300-mile trip to visit me and to take turns relieving my wife from the responsibility of driving me five days a week for about nine weeks of daily radiation treatments of my prostate cancer.

As I’ve said, the love that binds these friendships is palpable.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

In this world, we are lucky to maintain a friendship with just one person from our youth or childhood. I consider myself among the luckiest of them all, as I have not one but five close friends, some of whom have been with me from near infancy, others since our teen days.

Many years ago, my close friends and I used to get together at least once a month for dinner in New York City, to stay connected. It’s amazing how many years you can tell and listen to the same stories but find them equally hilarious each time. The love that we six men have for one another is palpable; I know this because my wife tells me that she can feel it when the group gets together with our wives.

The monthly dinners were always sans wives. That way, we could be our childish selves. We spread ourselves around town, dining in many restaurants, but visiting a few of them many times, as they were our favorites. My favorite was named Via Margutta, which used to be located on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village; it’s veal dishes were superbly done.

Via Margutta had once been the hangout for some of the Village’s mobsters—I believe every seat in the restaurant was situated so that backs were always facing a wall! The mob connection gave me a story to tell over the years.

One time, I carried a brief case from work with me to dinner at Via Margutta and stuck it under the table. After a few hours of wining and dining, and laughing, my friends and I fell out of the restaurant, each to grab a taxi home. No sooner had we stepped outside, however, I remembered the briefcase that I had left under the table.

Back in the restaurant, with two waiters suspiciously eying me, the Maitre d’hotel cautiously asked me if anything was wrong. I told him about the briefcase. He grinned widely and told me to wait; then, he swung around and walked into the kitchen. When he returned, he carried my briefcase, which had some liquid on it as well as the smell of salad.

The man handed me the briefcase and said, quietly, “In this place, we never know what might be inside these things.”

Apparently, the briefcase had been thrown into the dumpster either in case it exploded, or to get rid of the machine gun that might have been inside it.

Over the years, as my friends and I moved to varying distant locations, the regular dinners ceased, but we managed to stay connected, and we gather for various reasons a few times each year. The latest of those reasons has had a lot to do with advancing birthdays. The absolute latest of those reasons is my prostate cancer situation.

On January 20, I’ll be off to New York City for a few days, to meet with a few people. One of the evenings on my trip is reserved for dining with my five wonderful friends. Via Margutta is gone, but we have decided on a place that in the past has been among my favorite restaurants. In a future blog entry, I’ll let you know if the restaurant has held up.

Since the 1980s, after I changed careers and got into the wine business, dinners with my friends have invariably begun with one of them telling the waiter to hand me the wine list. They rely completely on my recommendations. It is both a nice and a frightening experience for me. We’ve known one another for so long that we generally don’t hold anything back. If I pick wine clinkers, these fellows let me know with gusto.

Of course, I’ve had enough time to figure out what each of them likes in a wine, and I can almost tell what each one will order for dinner. Still, I always feel like I am auditioning for a part when the waiter hands me the list.

If I had to make a guess, I’d say that I’ve gotten the part more than not. But that’s probably because I try to go the safest route that I know when in a situation like this: I seek Riesling for white and Pinot Noir for red. If that won’t work in one of the restaurants, I usually go crazy and pick the most outrageous things I can find.

I remember one of those times when a couple of the guys thought I was a genius, and the rest thought I was a jerk.

Par for the course, I’d say.
NOTE: I’ll be offline for the next few days, so comments will remain unanswered until next week.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.
Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


If you don’t count youthful indiscretions with Thunderbird and other fortified bombasts, wine has been a regular part of my daily life for quite some time. The passion was put there at age 7 or so after sniffing a recently emptied wine barrel allowing the fumes to enter my soul and stay there, but it took me a while to settle down and understand what wine had in store me.

The operative word is “store,” as a couple of retail shops played a nurturing role in the beginning of my career.

One of those shops was in Summit, New Jersey and it was named, oddly, The Beer Barrel. Despite its name, one of the store’s partners was a “wine guy.” At the time, 1976, I had just returned from two years in Iran, where I discovered the ancient connection to wine (and drank some fine Riesling and red wine for which I was unable to secure grape variety). My wife, Anne, and I bought our first home in Summit and I began to make wine in the basement. Also fermenting, but in my brain, was the idea of getting into the wine business.

I shopped at the Beer Barrel and came to know Cono, the partner with the wine interest. He watched what I bought and realized that I was an experimenter. Soon enough, he encouraged me by throwing a free bottle my way every so often of something new in the shop; then, he invited me to stop by and taste with him in the back room when he was evaluating wines for possible purchase for the store; then, when I asked for a part time job so that I could learn the business, he gave me one.

For three years, I commuted from Summit to New York City for my day job and worked at the shop a couple of nights a week and on Saturdays. The experience was divine, and my wine consumption rose exponentially. At the day job, I stashed a case of splits in my desk and pulled one bottle out each day to have with lunch, which often consisted of a cheese wedge and a baguette. Of course, we always had wine with dinner.

In 1979, we became pioneers and moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There were no wine shops in the neighborhood then. But Anne discovered one that was located on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights. The first time she saw it, she knew that I would be hooked on the place. One day, she led me there and watched the expression on my face as we walked through the door. Racks of wine covered nearly every inch of Marcolini’s Wine Shop. Walking through the store gave me the same feeling I get when I walk through the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan: euphoria.

Armand Marcolini was as passionate about wine as any person that I have ever met, and he shared that passion openly. Once again, I was favored with sample bottles to take home and try out; once again, I sat with the owner and sipped in the back room; once again, I had access to an array of wines from the world over that seemed to be in endless supply.

Anne and I joined an organization named Les Amis du Vin, which was out of Maryland. It provided a nice monthly periodical and a series of wine events around town. In its earliest days, people like Robert Mondavi spoke at events. I didn’t meet him, but I met a couple of other wine professionals who engaged me with their passion. Still, the person whose passion served to push me over the edge from fermenting an idea to acting on it, was someone that I had met entirely by chance.

At the time, I was in the audio-visual business writing scripts, designing storyboards, and producing soundtracks for the corporate world. As I walked down 55th Street in Manhattan, on my way to a video studio located across from City Center to transfer a 35-millimeter slide show to video, a flag blowing in the wind caught my eye; it read "Tastings." As I came close to the flag, I saw that "Tastings" was a brand spanking new restaurant and wine bar. I peeked in the window.

Behind the window was a smiling young man in a suit who saw me and waved hello. He walked over to the front door, opened it and welcomed me in to take a look around. He noticed the boxes of slides I carried and with great interest he asked what I was doing with them. He was interested because upstairs, over the restaurant and wine bar, the International Wine Center had just gotten started and this fellow was its prime educator. He used audio-visual media to back up some of his presentations.

His name is Eddie Osterland, and he was the first American to hold Master Sommelier title. We instantly became friends.

I took Eddie’s sensory evaluation class, and followed that with a winemaking class from Rory Callahan who also taught in the early days of the center.

In 1984, I was on my way to the Finger Lakes, probably with the notion of becoming the East Coast version of Robert Mondavi. Of course, I didn’t fulfill the notion, but you won’t find any regrets in this story.

It’s been a joy ride for me all the way, from the part time job with Cono, to the many conversations with Armand, to learning from and socializing with Eddie (he gave me my first taste of Chateau Cheval Blanc and turned me onto Emile Peynaud, under whom he had studied). Certainly, the ride was made even more exciting when I produced my own commercial wine, owned with a partner a wine shop, and developed a wine writing career.

The world of wine and wine information is of course quite different from when I began. In early 1970s America, there was no 100-point scale (thank the heavens for that), there were no major wine magazines, and there certainly was no such thing as a blog. For me there was only a lovely future. I was an empty vessel to be filled with learning and knowledge. I had boundless energy and so I went many places and called on many people to help fill the vessel. Without exception, the people who taught me were patient, passionate, and kind.

Things began to change drastically in the late 70s and early 80s: magazines and gurus who wrote for them became important. Many of them claimed they were necessary because so much bad wine was being passed off on the public, a position that I never understood, since I remember a hell of a lot of good wine from those days. I think what the burgeoning critics were saying was that Americans had poor taste and that they were here to save us from ourselves, a message that I have yet to embrace. I don't think Americans have poor taste; I think we suffer from poor education, and I don't believe that you teach people by lecturing them.

In any event, I’ve said no regrets and I mean it. The only thing I miss is that tingling sense of discovery of the early days. I envy the young people who have that sense of discovery and embark on their wine journey. There’s so much joy in front of them. My only wish is that the cacophony of critics and know-it-alls would quiet to a gentle prodding so the seekers can have their vessels filled while they discover for themselves.

Now, back to work. I still have wine stories to write.

For whatever reason, the past few days have produced a small run on bloggers writing about point scores, from Tom Wark to Keith Levenberg, to the number 1dude, and points in between (enjoy the pun). I don’t know what brought this on, but the subject is tiring. Are we finally running out of things to talk about on wine blogs?
Also, it seems that bloggers are being tapped to give away tickets to wine tastings and events. Not sure that I like the marketing tinge associated with such activity, but I also know that the horse has left the barn on loose ethics on the Internet. I remember asking Frank Prial (NY Times wine writer pre-Asimov) if he’d like a review copy of my first book. His reply was that he didn’t get to set the book review agenda at the newspaper for obvious potential conflict of interest reasons. Of course, he may just have been trying to let me down easily…

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The nose knows

Surely, I have always been able to recall smells that remind me of events from long ago. But after years of dealing with chemicals and sniffing to evaluate wine, I seem to have developed another sense of smell, the one that acutely reacts to what others don’t seem to smell.

Where we live, we are not connected to a municipal water system. Ours is well water, and around here, the well water often provides quite a blast of sulfurous aromas, so much so that we had to have a complete water filtering system installed that not only removes the sulfurous odor but also the iron and other mineral deposits that plague the water supply.

Our water system provides two outlets for us: one is for washing and the other, on a reverse osmosis filter, is for drinking. The water source for washing is cleansed with chlorine and some large particle filters and then passed through salt to ostensibly take out the chlorine. It doesn’t always work so well but I seem to be the only one who thinks so.

Sometimes, as happened recently, I can detect sulfurous odors in the shower or from the faucet. When that happens it means to me that something is wrong with the system. The problem is that when the service guy arrives to fix what’s wrong, he doesn’t smell the sulfurous odor and thinks that I am nuts. It doesn’t help my cause when my wife can’t smell it either. But I detect it and I don’t care what others say.

Last week I had to call the water company to complain once again about detecting sulfurous odors. The fellow who came out to check things asked me what I do for a living. When I told him his eyebrows went up and he began to jump up and down.

When I asked him what was the matter he said that he just knew that my complaint had to do with my profession. He said they have a customer nearby who is a chemist and who seems also to detect odors in his water that none of the service people can detect.

All well and good, but I wanted to know what he was going to do to fix the problem. His solution was to adjust the chlorine level up a little.

I told him that I hope it doesn’t cause me to smell chlorine because I hate the smell of chlorine in water; when not overpowering and at low levels, it smells like mildew to me. He said that he wasn’t beefing it up so much that it would become a problem.

The next morning, as I splashed my face to wake up I smelled chlorine in the water. My wife did not.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.