Which Scotch is Best? A Macallan Taste Test

Last week at Fincon, I spent some time becoming acquainted with Shannyn Allan, who writes about finance and fashion at Frugal Beautiful. Though we’ve known each other for three years, we’d never spent time getting to know each other until this conference.

Shannyn says that she can be an enigma to some men. She’s a self-confessed nerd. “Plus, most men don’t know what to think of a woman who orders a ten-year-old Scotch.”

If that’s the case, most men are dumb.

On the final night of the conference, a group of us (a horde of us, really) sat around the hotel lobby, chatting and drinking drinks. The subject of whisky came up again. Since I was sitting with Shannyn and Jim Wang (among whose many blogs is Scotch Addict), I decided to have a little fun.

I found Sylvana, the woman who’d been our waitress all week. “Sylvana,” I said, “I want a couple of glasses of your very best Scotch.”

She went behind the bar and looked at the shelf. “We have a Macallan 18,” she said.

“That’ll be just fine,” I said. I’d never tried the Macallan 18 before, but I suspected it would be good. And it was. I took a glass to Shannyn and I kept one for myself. Once Jim discovered what we were drinking, he ordered one too. We sipped the Scotch and marveled at its smooth and silky nature.

“That’s good,” Shannyn said. Jim and I nodded in agreement.

When we’d finished our drinks, I went back to Sylvana. “It’s my last order of the week,” I said, “and I’d like another glass of the Macallan.” She gave me a sly smile. Then, presumably because I’d tipped well for the last five nights, she gave me a whopper of a pour. The three of us gratefully shared the drink.

Fast-forward to last Tuesday. I was driving home from errands when Shannyn sent me a text. “Is the 15-year Macallan as good as the 18-year Macallan?” she asked. Her timing was impeccable. I was just passing the last liquor store before home. I pulled in to the parking lot.

“Don’t buy anything,” I replied. “I’ll do a little test.”

And so I bought a bottle of the 15-year Macallan and a bottle of the 18-year Macallan. Then, for good measure, I bought a bottle of the 12-year Macallan to add to the mix.

Note: Under no circumstances was this a frugal thing to do, I’m well aware. But I’m a whisky drinker. I knew that these bottles would fit nicely with my existing library of Scotches.

Then I drove home and made a little video:

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with this project. (And as you can also see, I forgot to edit the title card at the end of the clip. Haha.) It’s been pleasing to find that the folks who watch this find it as amusing as I do.

This is the second video I’ve posted this week. (It’s actually the third if you count the video of our recent motorcycle trip.) There’ll be more.

Kim and I are embarking on a fun, open-ended project in 2015 that will be very video intensive. As part of that, we’ll be filming interviews with dozens of people.

But while I feel I’m an acceptable amateur photographer, I know next to nothing about videography. I’ve solicited advice from some of my colleagues (David Hobby, Wes Wages, etc.), and their recommendations will help me track down the lighting and sound gear I need. Having good gear is great, of course, but what I need to do most right now is get practice using the gear.

To that end, I’ll be creating lots of short one-off videos. Many of them will be about silly things — like drinking Scotch. I won’t publish all of them here, but I do hope to share the best ones.

Next up? This afternoon, Kim and I are headed to Oregon’s wine country to do a bit of tasting. Who knows? Maybe I’ll put together a short clip about that…

Scrawny to Brawny: Eating a Big-Ass Breakfast

In early November, I joined an online fitness forum. Scrawny to Brawny is a year-long program designed to provide structure, feedback, and support while helping participants build lean muscle mass and strength. To start, though, we simply “bulk up”.

Every two weeks, those of us doing Scrawny to Brawny (S2B) are assigned a new “habit”. We do this habit every day for fourteen days. The S2B website asks us to report on our compliance (as well as compliance with workouts and other assignments). After two weeks, we’re expected to continue with each new habit, although we no longer report on it. Instead, focus shifts to a new habit.

Our first habit was to drink three “super shakes” per day. (Each super shake is composed of a bit of milk, a bit of ice, a bit of fruit, a bit of vegetable, and a scoop of protein powder.) Our second habit was to practice good posture and to perform a series of daily stretches. Our third habit — the one we’re practicing right now — is to eat a “muscle breakfast”. While the first two habits were tough, I eventually made them part of my daily routine (and continue to practice them, which is the point). This third habit, though, is killing me.

You see, I’m not a big breakfast guy. I like traditional breakfast foods, such as pancakes and bacon, but on a typical day I don’t eat breakfast until three or four hours after I get out of bed. Even then, it’s usually just a piece of toast (with almond butter) or something similarly simple. When I started the super shake habit, that became my breakfast. I especially dislike eating before my daily workout.

Now, however, the muscle breakfast has reared its ugly head. Every day, we’re supposed to eat:

  • 4 whole eggs
  • about 200 grams of lean meat (ground beef, sliced ham or turkey etc.)
  • ½ cup of oats (dry measure)
  • 2 tablespoons of nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, pecan etc.)
  • 2 servings of fresh veggies
  • 1 medium piece of fruit, or 1 cup berries
  • 2 tablespoons of a “topper” (sundried tomatoes, pesto, hummus, tomato sauce, spice & herbs, etc.)
  • 1 glass of 
water

Ho. Ly. Cats.

This habit is hard for me. That’s a huge amount of food, especially for breakfast. It’s tough to wolf it down when I have no appetite. Some days, I have to set aside half of my meal to eat the next day. (Plus, don’t forget, I’m also drinking about 1000 calories worth of super shakes each day, plus eating lunch and dinner!)

At this very moment, I’m staring at a plate filled with 3-1/2 eggs and one chicken sausage. I’ve eaten the other stuff on the list (except the fruit), but there’s no way I’m going to get the rest of this plate down anytime soon. I get nauseated just thinking about taking another bite.

So why keep at it?

This whole Scrawny to Brawny thing is a fun experiment for me. My body is built for long, slow distances. It likes to run and to bike. Its ideal form of exercise is hiking. I can go for hours on end while trekking at high altitude with a pack on my back. I’ve seen other, fitter fellows knocked on their butts by that kind of activity, but my body likes it. It’s what evolution (or god, if you prefer) has designed me to do.

My body is less good at lifting heavy weights. Yet I enjoy this sort of training too. I thought it would be fun to spend a year building muscle in order to see what I’m capable of achieving. Plus, this has provided motivation to get back in shape. (I’d begun the slide into flabbiness.)

As part of the S2B program, we’re required to take monthly photographs of our progress. After only a few weeks, there’s not a lot of visual difference between now and the time I started — except for my back. Most of my exercise the past month has been focused on building back and core strength so that I can move on to more common lifts with good form. I was skeptical that anything had actually changed until I saw this:

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The photo on the left is from 11 November 2014. The one on the right is from 14 December.

That’s not a huge change, obviously, but it’s enough. I can see the difference, and I can feel it. So can Kim. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working.

Last weekend, I talked with Cody, my Crossfit trainer (and friend). I told him how tough this was for me mentally. He knows. Most of my life, I’ve been fat. I have a huge mental barrier to being fat again. To willingly pack on the pounds by stuffing my face every day goes against every fiber of my being.

“Trust the process,” Cody told me. “You’re going to gain weight, and some of it’s going to go to your belly. You’ll shed those excess pounds later. You’re bulking now, and you’ll shred in the summer.”

And so, I’m going to trust the process. But it’s not easy!

The Flavor Bible: A Cookbook Without Recipes

A couple of months ago, I reconnected with Ken, one of my college roommates. Turns out that 25 years after rooming together, he and I gain live in the same building.

Over dinner at Relish Gastropub — one of my favorite new restaurants in Portland — Ken and I reconnected. We talked about life and love. We talked about money. We talked about food. In the decades since I knew him, Ken has become a professional chef. In fact, he teaches restaurant management at one of the culinary schools here in town.

At one point, the conversation turned to books. “I used to have thousands of books,” I told Ken. “I still have too many. But moving into my new place has forced me to do yet another book purge. If Kim moves in with me, I may have to get rid of even more.”

“Yeah,” Ken said. “I love books too. Especially cookbooks. I have a cookbook problem.” We laughed at the notion he was addicted to cookbooks.

“You know,” I said, “I’ve been doing more cooking now that I have a decent kitchen. I like cooking, but I haven’t done much of it since Kris and I split up. Do you have any cookbook recommendations?”

Ken thought for a moment. “Actually, my favorite cookbook — the one I use all the time — isn’t really a cookbook. It’s called The Flavor Bible, and all it does is list hundreds of different flavor combinations that work well together. I use it as a source of inspiration. Like, if I have beets in the fridge that I need to use, I can look in The Flavor Bible to see that good flavor combinations are beets and butter, or beets and blue cheese, or beets and dijon mustard. It even lists complex flavor combinations such as beets and vinegar and hazelnuts and Gorgonzola.”

“Huh,” I said. “Sounds like my kind of book.”

The Flavor Bible

The Flavor BibleThe next day, I borrowed a copy from the library. I liked it. Not only does The Flavor Bible list matching flavor combinations, it also tells you which flavor combinations to avoid (don’t mix basil and tarragon, for instance). It offers tips and ideas from great chefs around the United States. Some of the tips are short and sweet, like this one from Emily Luchetti of San Francisco’s Farallon:

Blueberries and lemon go really well together. Blueberries are a thick fruit with a lot of pectin in them, and intensely flavored. You need som lemon to cut through that.

In the blueberry section, there are quotes from other chefs that suggest using cinnamon or maple in combination with blueberries.

Other tips are longer. For example, The Flavor Bible includes a sidebar in which Gina DePalma of New York’s Babbo describes how to build a cheese plate. As a guy who likes his cheeses (and likes to build cheese plates), these 250 words are gold.

Though The Flavor Bible doesn’t contain any actual recipes, it does list hundreds of dishes from restaurants around the country, such as:

  • Alaskan king salmon with sugar snap peas
  • Cornish game hens with pomegranate sauce and toasted almonds
  • Leek and asparagus pasta with lemon, parmesan, and poached egg
  • Seaweed and jicama salad with ginger dressing
  • Roasted beet salad with shaved fennel and chèvre

The names and descriptions of these dishes are often enough for inspiration. (Plus, you can sometimes google to find a recipe.)

Sometimes a chef will describe a dish in detail (though not with an actual recipe). I’m eager to try Gabriel Kreuther‘s watermelon salad, which includes a tomato confit and a layer of browned pistachios with salt and pepper. Sounds delicious.

Since I bought this cookbook a month ago, I’ve used it several times each week. Like my friend Ken, I grab The Flavor Bible whenever I have spare food in the fridge that I need to know how to use. Sometimes I use it to figure out how to add another dimension to something I’m making.

Here’s an example. For the next three weeks, Kim and I are doing a plant-based “cleanse” together (with a small portion of lean protein in the evening). As Kim (and Kris) will tell you, I’m not so good when it comes to eating plants. I need help getting creative with them. That’s where The Flavor Bible comes in.

Yesterday I used it for something as simple as a fruit smoothie. I’d already added banana, coconut milk, berries, and vanilla protein powder. “What can I do to punch this up?” I wondered. “Maybe cinnamon?” I pulled down The Flavor Bible. Sure enough, bananas and vanilla combine well with cinnamon, and berries are on okay flavor match. I added a bit of cinnamon to the smoothie and it helped.

The 39 Best Flavor Combinations

The Flavor Bible contains nearly 400 pages of flavor affinities, which it ranks on four levels based on how many chefs recommend the combination. Of these thousands of permutations, I scoured the book to find only 39 that received the highest number of endorsements. These are the “Holy Grail” flavor pairings that the most experts agree upon. Here they are:

  • Angelica and rhubarb
  • Apple and cinnamon
  • Basil and garlic
  • Basil and tomatoes
  • Beans and savory
  • Beans (flageolet) and lamb
  • Chard and garlic
  • Cheese (manchego) and quince paste
  • Cherries and kirsch
  • Chile peppers and Thai cuisine
  • Chocolate and coffee
  • White chocolate and raspberries
  • Crab and avocado
  • Jicama and chile peppers
  • Jicama and lime
  • Lamb and garlic
  • Lamb and rosemary
  • Mint and lamb
  • Oregano and tomatoes
  • Pork and black pepper
  • Quince and apples
  • Quince and pears
  • Raspberries and white chocolate
  • Rhubarb and strawberries
  • Rosemary and garlic
  • Rosemary and lamb
  • Saffron and rice
  • Saffron and risotto
  • Savory and beans
  • Shrimp and garlic
  • Spinach and butter (especially unsalted butter)
  • Strawberries and cream
  • Strawberries and rhubarb
  • Strawberries and sugar
  • Strawberries and balsamic vinegar (especially aged balsamic vinegar
  • Tomatoes and basil
  • Turmeric and curry powder
  • Vanilla and (ice) cream
  • Fennel seeds and sausages (especially Italian sausages)

I find it interesting that a handful of flavor combinations appear in the listing for both ingredients (strawberries are recommended with rhubarb and rhubarb is recommended with strawberries), but most of the pairings are only uni-directional. Not sure what that means.

The Bottom Line

What to Drink with What You EatIf I have one complaint about The Flavor Bible it’s that the highly-recommended flavor matches tend toward the conventional. I wonder if they’re recommended not so much because they’re great combinations but because they’re well known.

Still, I have to agree with Ken. The Flavor Bible is a great book, and I can see keeping it in my kitchen long after other cookbooks have been donated to Goodwill. I look forward to many years of exploring its suggestions. I’ll start tonight. Kim and I are going to try some jicama with chile peppers and lime!

The authors of The Flavor Bible also wrote a book called What to Drink with What You Eat, which apparently follows the same format. Guess what I’m going to borrow from the library when I run my errands today…

Some Quick Links About Health and Fitness

Lately, I’ve been collecting links faster than I can share them. This is a quick post about some of the fitness stuff I’ve found.

The Seven-Minute Workout

For instance, at the New York Times wellness blog, Gretchen Reynolds shared what she calls “the scientific seven-minute workout“. This series of twelve body-weight exercises — taken from a scientific article — can be done almost anywhere (all you need are a wall and a chair). Here’s the graphic from the NYT article:

Exercises for seven-minute workout

The key is to do these at high intensity (an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10) and to not rest between exercise. In other words, it should be seven minutes of suffering.

In essence, that’s the same philosophy behind Crossfit. You do a bunch of work, and you do it fast. This set of exercises is nice, though, because it covers a wide range of muscle groups without any special equipment.

One web developer created a web-based seven-minute workout timer that tells you which exercise you’re on, counts down the time, and then gives you ten seconds to move to the next one. Pretty slick.

Scrawny to Brawny

Elsewhere, Tim Ferriss shared a story about how to lose 20-30 pounds in five days — and then gain it back. It’s not really useful to anyone outside competitive fighters, I think, but it’s still interesting.

I can’t believe I’m going to admit this publicly, but the Tim Ferriss article led me to a blog called Scrawny to Brawny, which is about building muscle. I subscribed. You know what? It’s actually a damn fine blog filled with practical advice on more than just weightlifting.

For instance, I love this piece on becoming the most interesting man in the world. The author writes that interesting men (and by extension, interesting women) become interesting by doing lots of stuff. And that alters how they talk about life.

The author illustrates his argument with this clip from the film Good Will Hunting:

His point? To become interesting, you need to stop talking and start doing. He writes: “Things like love, fear, sadness, joy, struggle, triumph and loss all have to be tasted and fully experienced to be understood.” By doing more, you’ll shift your frame of reference and expand your vocabulary.

Human experience exists on a continuum. The degree to which you’ve experienced something will determine your frame of reference when you’re using that word.

The Tragedy of the Healthy Eater

Finally, Kris pointed me to a blog post about the tragedy of the healthy eater. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it makes a great point.

Healthy eating used to be simple. Now, though, everyone has an opinion about what is and is not healthy. There internet allows fad diets to spread like wildfire. Last week, dairy was evil! This week everyone is gluten intolerant! Next week, vegetables will be the cause of all evil!

I’m exaggerating, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there. When it comes to health, people are after magic bullets — just as with money. But there aren’t any magic bullets. Except for those rare few who truly have a problem with gluten, I’ve never seen anyone markedly improve their health by removing whole grains from their diet. And paleo? Don’t get me started. There are stacks of scientific studies that demonstrate a plant-based diet is correlated with health and long life; the paleo stuff is mostly fabricated out of fantasy.

My own solution is to pay attention to the research, and to know my own body. Yes, I mostly eat paleo (despite the fact I think the arguments for it are silly), but I’m very aware that if I ate more fruits and veggies, I’d be doing myself a favor.

The Blue Zones: How to Live a Long and Healthy Life

The Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerI’ve always been fascinated by the idea of extending human life. As a boy, my favorite characters in the Bible were those like Methuselah who lived for hundreds of years. (Noah, of ark fame, was reportedly 600 when he built his boat, and he lived for another 350 years after the flood!)

I’m also drawn to science-fiction novels that feature longevity as a subplot. For instance, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which I mentioned a few days ago in another context), medical advances allow people to live for more than two hundred years. (For a decade, I’ve had an idea for a short story called “Herb Nelson’s Long Life”, which would be about a man who has been alive for centuries.)

Naturally, I’m not just interested in fictional accounts of longevity. I’m interested in the science behind it too. Recently, I found time to read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, a book that examines the lifestyles of five of the longest-lived populations on the planet. What attributes do these folks have in common?

The Blue Zones

I first read Buettner’s work in the pages of National Geographic. In November 2005, the magazine printed his article, “The Secrets to a Long Life“, which offers a taste of what’s contained in The Blue Zones. In the article, Buettner profiles populations in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California. These are communities where people live long and stay happy.

Expanding his work to book length, he added two additional locations: the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Greek island of Ikaria.

In each of these five locations, people have long and healthy lives. They reach the age of 100 at rates significantly higher than average.

In The Blue Zones, Buettner shares stories from each of these locations, sharing how specific people have lived and thrived for ten decades. As he interviews people in each location, he tries to find common threads. What is that makes the people in Sardinia live so long? In Ikaria? Then, at the end of the book, Buettner draws from these five populations as a whole. What attributes do they share?

Blue Zones commonalities

Long and Healthy Lives

After looking at these groups individually, Buettner makes nine broad generalizations about factors that seem to be related to longevity and well-being. Note, though, that correlations does not imply causality. These qualities are present in the communities he’s studied, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually the secrets to long life. (Though, of course, I’d like to think they are.)

Here are the recommendations from The Blue Zones:

  • Be active. Those who live a long time are generally active people. They walk. They raise gardens. They have fun. If you struggle with this, Buettner suggests finding ways to force yourself to be active. He also recommends doing yoga twice a week.
  • Cut calories. Many Eastern cultures have a practice in which they eat until they’re “80% full”. Buettner recommends cutting portion sizes through common tricks like using smaller serving dishes, making snacks a hassle, preparing smaller portions, eating more slowly, and eating early.
  • Eat a plant-based diet. Eat two servings of vegetables with every meal. Limit meat intake. Avoid processed foods. Make fruits and vegetables the highlight of your diet. Stock up on nuts, and eat them every day.
  • Drink red wine — in moderation. Sip it with your dinner, or institute a daily “happy hour” where you socialize with friends.
  • Have a purpose. Take time to see the Big Picture. Craft a mission statement, and then find a partner to hold you accountable to it. Learn something new. Buettner points out that learning a musical instrument or studying a new language are two great ways to keep your brain sharp.
  • Downshift. Reduce the stress in your life. Cut out the electronic noise. Arrive early to appointments. Meditate.
  • Participate in a spiritual community. Buettner stresses the importance of spiritual communities, and encourages readers to open their minds, discard prejudices, and just go to a church service.
  • Make family a priority. Live closer to your family. Own a smaller home, where people are forced to interact more. Establish rituals. Create a family shrine.
  • Find the right tribe. Be likeable. Surround yourself with people who share your values. Identify your inner circle, the people you trust and support. Try to spend 30 minutes each day with these folks.

Here’s a Venn diagram (from Wikipedia) that summarizes Buettner’s findings from the three original Blue Zones. (I’d love to see a similar diagram that takes into account all five regions.)

Blue Zones commonalities
Common attributes among Blue Zones

More than anything, Buettner writes, “Purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity.”

Conclusion

There’s no way a simple blog post can do justice to Buettner’s book. The Blue Zones is fascinating, at least for those of us interested in longevity. If you want more info, buy the book (or borrow it from the library, like I did). You can also visit the Blue Zones website, where you’ll find:

I’ll close this summary with a key piece of advice from The Blue Zones. “This information will do you no good,” Buettner writes, “unless you put it into practice.”

Paris 2013: In the Land of Wine and Cheese

Greetings from Paris! For almost a week, Kim and I have been exploring the city from an apartment near the Sentier metro stop. Every day, we walk down Rue Montorgueil, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare filled with produce stands and fish shops and boulangeries. With all the people packed into cafés, it feels very much like Rue Cler (where Kris and I stayed in 2010), but with more average Parisians. And at night, if we mistakenly take the next street over, we can see sex shops and streetwalkers. Quite the contrast!

We’re actually very pleased with our apartment. It’s small but functional, and the location is perfect.

Preparing to climb 667 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower!
Kimberly, preparing to climb 667 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower

When I was here three years ago, we spent a lot of time exploring the famous landmarks of Paris: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and so on. Kim and I have done some of that. We actually climbed the Eiffel Tower, for instance (something I didn’t do last time), and we made a quick tour of the Louvre (with an epic journey to locate the Dutch masters). But mostly we’ve done a lot of walking — and we’ve eaten a lot of wine and cheese.

Note: Kim had shoulder surgery three weeks before we left for this trip, which is a mixed blessing. We wouldn’t have been able to take so much time together to explore Paris and — eventually — London and Oslo if she weren’t required to take eight weeks off work. But the sore and healing shoulder is also a liability. It limits the things we can do. And on our way back from climbing the Eiffel Tower, she stumbled at the top of the stairs from the subway. She managed to not land on her shoulder, but she was still sore for days after.

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Taking in the art at the Louvre

On most of my past trips, I’ve had a fairly clear agenda: I’ve known where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. But when Nick and I traveled to Turkey last September, I had a hell of a lot of fun by not planning things. We sketched in where and when we wanted to be, but for the most part we just made things up as we went along. Because Kim and I both like to “go with the flow”, we decided to do the same sort of thing on this trip (with the notable exception of Norway, which is very planned).

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Browsing the streets of Paris

As a result, we’ve spent our days in Paris just wandering the streets. When we find something that looks interesting, we stop to take a look. Some days we set out with a destination in mind, but we don’t always reach it. Yesterday, for instance, I wanted to visit the Orangerie (a museum of impressionist art) and the Arc de Triomphe. We didn’t do either. We stopped outside Notre Dame to sit in the sun, and then wandered again into the Latin Quarter where we fumbled our way through the alleys of shops and cafés. We stopped for crepes. We looked in shop windows. We bought a painting.

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A small boy makes a donation to a Dixieland band playing in the Latin Quarter

Eventually we crossed the Seine to Champs-Élysées. We stopped on a side street for a glass of wine, and I was startled to realize that we’d managed to find the exact same restaurant where Kris and I had a miserable meal of lousy steaks three years ago. (The wine that Kim and I had this time wasn’t much better.)

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A common sight on this trip: Me with my camera

In the evening, we celebrated my birthday with a delicious meal at Le Patio Provençal, a restaurant recommended to me by Nomadic Matt.

We had a great day today, too. We booked a wine and cheese tasting at O Chateau. As we’ve done so many times since arriving here last Thursday, we consumed a ton of wine and cheese.

Our hostess, Charlotte, served us five wines and five cheeses. The pairings were fantastic, especially the last two. For the record, we got to try:

  • A champagne (brut chardonnay) with brie.
  • A saumur (chenin blanc) with Sainte Maure de Touraine.
  • A brouilly/beaujolais (gamay) with Tome d’Auvergne.
  • A haut médoc/bourdeaux (cab/merlot blend) with Comté.
  • A monbazillac (semillon/sauv blanc) with Roquefort.

You’ll notice that I’ve listed the wines a couple of different ways. That’s because French wine is classified different than American wine. In the U.S., our wines are sold by grape varietal. We buy a cabernet sauvignon or a merlot or a chardonnay, for instance. That’s not how the French buy wines. They buy based on region: Bordeaux or Champagne or Beaujolais. (Actually, they buy by subregion or terroir.) The French feel that the place the grapes are grown has as much impact on the quality of the wine as the grapes themselves.

Anyhow, we had a lot of wine and cheese for lunch today.

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Our cheeses today at O Chateau

Actually, I’m beginning to believe that Parisians are fueled by just three “nutrients”: wine, cheese, and bread. For the past week, that’s what I have been fueled by.

The day we arrived, we picked up some bread and goat cheese to eat for our breakfasts. A couple of times, we’ve eaten at Au Rocher de Cancale, where I’ve had wine and cheese. I’ve had wine and cheese for nearly every meal, as a matter of fact. You might think that after a week, the wine would be catching up with me, but it’s not the case. The cheese, on the other hand, is causing problems.

Thankfully, we’ll soon be moving on to lands where cheese is less plentiful. On Thursday morning, we’ll take a train across the English Channel, rent a car in London, and then gradually make our way north to Edinburgh. Maybe we’ll see Stonehenge or stop in Bath or catch a soccer match in Liverpool. We’re not sure. And you know what? We don’t care. We’re having a lot of fun just making things up as we go along.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for dinner. I think maybe I’ll have some wine and cheese…

Coffee Addict

Though I’ve long denied it, those who know me well tell me I’m a picky eater. It used to drive Kris crazy. When I started dating Kim, I told her I’d eat almost anything. It didn’t take her long to see that what I meant was I’d eat almost anything other than beer, coffee, mushrooms, and cruciferous vegetables.

Over the past year, I’ve made a conscious effort to face some of my food fears, and to overcome them. For instance, last May I started drinking beer, and now I actually enjoy it. (Beer is food, right?) I’ve also discovered the joys of kale and brussels sprouts. But perhaps my favorite new find is coffee. I started drinking coffee in August — tentatively at first — and am now a coffee addict.

I think the key to my conversion was starting with the good stuff. I was buying a bag of Stumptown Coffee for my brother’s birthday, and the barista offered me a free cup. I declined at first, but he was insistent. “Do you like tea?” he asked. I do. “Then try this coffee,” he said, serving me a cup brewed from Ethiopian beans. I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed it. Over the next few weeks, I tasted Kim’s coffee whenever she had it. Gradually my coffee aversion faded. In fact, I came to crave the stuff.

Now quality coffee is one of my favorite parts of the day. Every morning, I roll out of bed and go to the kitchen, where I pour about two ounces of grounds into my Chemex beaker. I boil a kettle of water, which I then pour over the grounds to produce several cups of awesomeness.

Coffee Addict

The trouble, of course, is that quality coffee is expensive. Some of it is crazy expensive. Stumptown has some great roasts that cost $30 per pound. Yikes. The local organic grocery has some good blends, but they still costs about a buck an ounce. That works out to roughly $2 per day to feed our coffee habit.

Note: Because I like to try new coffee, I just signed up for the subscription coffee service from BrewPony, which promises to supply quality Portland coffee on a monthly basis. Sounds like fun to me!

Kim is frugal by nature, and she hates how much we spend on coffee. But she also hates the cheap stuff. It’s a dilemma. But she’s come up with a way to tackle the problem: She wants to buy green coffee beans and roast them herself. There’s a place near my condo that offers classes in coffee roasting, and I think we’re going to take one. Who knows? Maybe in a few months, we’ll be enjoying great coffee that we’ve roasted ourselves — and saving money in the process.

To be honest, all I care about is that the caffeine continues to flow.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need another cup of joe…

Postscript: The next food fear I’ll face? Mushrooms. I hate mushrooms. Kim loves them. To give her a treat (and to give myself the best possible introduction to these vile fungi), we’ll soon have dinner at The Joel Palmer House, a local restaurant that specializes in mushrooms.

A Culinary Tour of Lima, Peru

I love food. This is no secret to those who know me. (I’ve struggled with my weight all of my life.) Fortunately, I’ve found a sort of fitness equilibrium, because since arriving in Peru a month ago, I’ve been eating like a king.

I knew Peruvian food was good before I started this trip, so I had some warning. (One of Portland’s best restaurants is Andina, where I’ve dined many times.) But I wasn’t prepared for the constant quality at every meal.

Un alfajor
Un alfajor (with ice cream) at Las Brujas de Cachiche

During the first three weeks of my trip, while I was trekking, I managed to eat several fantastic meals in Cusco and Ollantaytambo. I discovered ají de gallina (a sort of Peruvian curry), chicha morada (a sweet soft drink made from purple corn), cuy (roasted guinea pig), chicharrón (fried pork), and oh-so-many delicious soups. (Peruvians, at least those in the Andes, seem to love their soups.)

My wife joined me in Lima a few days ago, and since then we’ve been enjoying the Culinary Peru excursion from Gap Adventures. To start, our host Andrés took us to the Surquillo market, which is something like a supermarket except that it’s filled with individual vendors who mostly sell fresh meat and produce. For instance, here’s a stall with strawberries (for a dollar a kilo!), bananas, lúcuma, apples, avocados, passionfruit, and more.

Al mercado de Surquillo
Fresh fruit at the Surquillo market: strawberries and more exotic fare

We bought a bunch of fruit to eat that afternoon. In fact, we bought too much fruit. Two days later, we’re still munching on it. (Not that I’m complaining — I’ve become addicted to maracuyá, the passionfruit.) Yesterday for breakfast, we ate the chirimoya, a fruit unlike any I’ve ever encountered. (Andrés described its taste as “like eating cotton candy from the mouth of god”.)

Chirimoya
Chirimoya: “Like eating cotton candy from the mouth of god…”

After shopping at the market, we headed to Kennedy Park. At El Parquetito, one of the chefs gave us a lesson in how to prepare ceviche, that Latin American answer to sushi. Some fresh fish, a little lime juice, ample salt, ají pepper, and strong red onions combine to produce a delicious dish, one I enjoyed by ordering the first beer in my life. (Not kidding. I’ve never ordered a beer before this.)

Ceviche
The ceviche we helped to make

That beer was just the start of our drinking. Next, Andrés took us to downtown Lima, where we visited two of the bars that claim to have invented the pisco sour, which has become the emblematic cocktail of the country. Pisco is a colorless grape brandy common in the Andes; a pisco sour mixes pisco, lime juice, egg whites, sugar, and bitters. Over the next couple of hours, we drank three pisco sours.

Pisco Sours
Our tour guide, Andrés, with our second round of pisco sours

At our last stop in Pueblo Libre, we decided to take the edge off the alcohol by grabbing snacks at one of Andrés’ favorite bars, Antigua Taberna Queirolo. The jamón sandwiches and papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) helped, but what I really enjoyed were the picarones I bought in the nearby plaza. Picarones are like donuts, but they’re made from a pumpkin and sweet potato batter, and they’re drizzled in sugar cane and fig syrup.

Picarones
Picarones made fresh at a plaza in Pueblo Libre

Yesterday, our culinary tour of Lima took us to Las Tejas, where one of the chefs gave us a personalized demo of cooking lomo saltado, a sort of Peruvian stir-fried steak and potatoes dish. (Lima has a strong Chinese influence, which can certainly be felt in its cuisine.)

Making Lomo Saltado
Making lomo saltado at Las Tejas

Lomo saltado was fun to make, but it was even more fun to eat.

Lomo Saltado
Lomo saltado, the finished product

After lunch, we stopped next door at Senora Buendia for some actual tejas. A teja is a Peruvian “sweetie” (as Andrés called them) made of a sugar shell filled with dulce de leche and fruits or nuts. They’re small, cheap, and delicious.

Note: Though Peruvians eat plenty of Snickers and Sublimes (a local candy bar), traditional treats like tejas can be had if you know where to look. Andrés also took us to a local bodega (the ubiquitous corner store, very much like a U.S. minimart) and asked for un beso de moza (literally: “a kiss from a young girl”), which was a chocolate-covered marshmallow.

Our official culinary tour ended here, but my unofficial exploration of the country’s food will continue for the next ten days. (And for the rest of my life, I imagine.)

Last night, for instance, we walked from Miraflores to the heart of the Barranco neighborhood to find Sóngoro Cosongo, which Andrés had recommended for anticuchos (beef-heart kebobs) and picarones. Today, we’ll stop by Punto Azul, which he suggested for ceviche and seafood. And I still haven’t tried chifas, which is supposed to be a delicious Peruvian twist to Chinese food.

And, best of all, after nearly a month in the country, I’m finally ready to relax and try street food. I heard enough horror stories about food poisoning that I was reluctant to dabble in more informal delicacies at the start of the trip. I didn’t want to ruin my treks by having to be confined to bed — or the toilet tent. Now, though, I’m willing to take more risks. That means plenty of snacks from street vendors.

With nearly ten million inhabitants, Lima is a big place. And Peru is bigger still. There’s no way that a quick 48-hour tour can fully cover the rich culinary tradition to be found here. And though I’ve eaten broadly over the past month, there’s no way that five weeks is enough time to sample the complete range of the cuisine either.

That’s okay. I’ve enjoyed the food I’ve tried. And besides, this gives me an excuse to come back for more, right?

Note: My favorite Peruvian food by far? The humble maracuyá. The passionfruit.

American Cookery: Magazine ads from 1939

My wife knows me pretty well. At a recent garage sale, Kris picked up the November 1939 issue of American Cookery magazine. She wanted it for the recipes. But after she was finished, she handed it off to me. “You’ll want to look at the ads,” she said. She was right.

Fun trivia: American Cookery magazine was originally called The Boston Cooking-School Magazine. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was first published in 1896 and written by Fannie Merritt Farmer. When I was a boy, my mother regularly used a modern edition of this cookbook, which we knew as “the Fannie Farmer cookbook“.

Some of the ads from this issue of American Cookery are for products that are still familiar to us seventy years later:

Baking soda ad Salt ad

But many of the ads seem quaint or outdated:

Cake ad
Fowl lacer ad
Table-setting ad
Cheese ad

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Five Festive Christmas Cookies to Share with Family and Friends

What’s Christmas without cookies?

A plate of warm Christmas cookies can help you bond with the neighbors, and taking a tray to the office is a sure way to win points with your co-workers. Christmas cookies can also be a fun part of frugal holiday gift-giving.

Every year, Kris and I assemble holiday gift bags to give to our friends. We fill these with candy and cards and candles and books and other small things we’ve gathered year-round. And we always include lots of home-made cookies.

This Sunday, Kris will spend all day in the kitchen with her sister Tiffany and friend Eila. They’ll be on a cookie-baking bonanza. They’ll use some classic recipes, of course, but this year they’ll also be making one of Kris’ new discoveries: the Oreo truffle. She’s already made two batches for friends and co-workers, and they’ve drawn rave reviews.

Because it’s the last weekend before Christmas — and because the video post I’d originally planned for today has run into technical difficulties — Kris has agreed to share five of her favorite Christmas cookie recipes. Yum.

Note: Cookies are inherently bad for your diet. Consume in moderation. Substitute organic, low-fat, or sugar-free ingredients as desired.

 

The first recipe makes a festive cookie:

Minty Chocolate Crinkles

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1-1/4 tsp peppermint extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup peppermint candies
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar

 

Combine oil, cooled chocolate and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. Stir in extracts. Add blended flour/salt/baking powder. Chill dough several hours or overnight.

Grind peppermint candies in coffee mill until reduced to a powder. Measure 1/4 cup peppermint candy powder and mix with powdered sugar in a small bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll teaspoonfuls of dough into balls. Roll in the powdered mixture until well-coated. Place 2″ apart on a greased baking sheet and bake 10 minutes — they will look underbaked. Cool on tray for 2 minutes and remove to a wire rack. Makes 72.

 

The second recipe makes a frugal Christmas cookie:

Molasses Spice Cookies

  • 1-1/2 cups shortening
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 tsp EACH of baking soda, ground ginger, cloves and cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together shortening and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and molasses, blending well. Add dry ingredients and mix slowly to combine. Place spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet, about 2” apart. Bake 8-9 minutes. Makes 48.

 

The next Christmas cookie is a fancy cookie (er, candy):

Nut Brittle

  • 1 cup dry roasted salted peanuts
  • 1 cup pistachios
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 2 tsp honey

 

Line a rimmed baking sheet with Silpat or buttered parchment paper (do not use wax paper!). In a heavy saucepan, mix all ingredients over medium-high heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it becomes a nice amber color and thickens — about 10 minutes. You will know you are done when you smell the first hint of burnt sugar, so pay attention!

Quickly pour onto the baking sheet and spread to cover. Cool for 4 minutes and then score the brittle with a pizza cutter or sharp knife into about 36 pieces. Once it has cooled completely, snap along scored marks.

Note: Good with other varieties of nuts, but be sure to include some peanuts.

Options: Add 1/2 tsp espresso powder for a coffee brittle (with hazelnuts). Scatter chocolate chips over warm brittle; press in or spread when melted.

 

The fourth recipe features a family-friendly Christmas cookie:

Chocolate Marshmallow Sandwiches

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 24 large marshmallows
  • sugar for rolling

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside. Beat butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in corn syrup, egg, and vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture. Beat at low speed, scraping down bowl. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

Place 1/2 cup sugar in a shallow dish. Form tablespoons of dough into 1-inch balls, then roll in sugar to coat. Place 3 inches apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake 10-11 minutes or until set. Cool completely on a wire rack.

On a paper plate, invert one cookie, top with a marshmallow and microwave for 12 seconds (or until marshmallow is hot). Immediately press another cookie, flat side down, to form a sandwich. Makes 24.

 

And the final Christmas cookie recipe makes a fun cookie — the afore-mentioned Oreo truffle. These are pure evil:

Oreo Truffles

  • 18 ounces Oreo cookies
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 14 ounces chocolate candy coating
  • sprinkles, nuts, white chocolate

 

Cover a cookie sheet with waxed paper. Crush cookies in a food processor until fine. Dice cream cheese and add to food processor. Process until no streaks of cream cheese are visible. Transfer to a bowl and chill 45 minutes.

Make small balls using a cookie dough scoop and place on baking sheet. Chill 15 minutes. Melt the chocolate (microwave or double boiler). Dip chilled candy balls into chocolate coating and return to the sheet. Chill until set, then store in the fridge in an airtight container. Makes 30.

 

One of these days, I really will compile a GRS cookbook. (Maybe Trent and I could join forces.) I’d love to share the favorites from our kitchen. (Well, it’s mostly Kris’ kitchen, of course. I’m mainly just there to chop onions and make clam chowder.)

Until then, what are your favorite Christmas cookie (and candy) recipes? Do you have any special traditions that go with the baking — or the sharing? Are any of your Christmas cookies especially frugal? Share your tips below!

(And don’t forget to leave out a plate of cookies for Santa!)

Photo by Ana Branca.