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For the first 30-some-odd years of my life, I never drank alcohol. I didn’t care for the taste, and found it repulsive. I sympathize with those who don’t drink.

That started to change in 2012 when the wife and I went to Argentina. We started to have a little bit of red wine when we went out to eat, but for the most part I stuck to water. I never really found myself enjoying wine that much.

My aversion to alcohol went away after we went to the Czech Republic in 2013 and I started drinking beer. It was there that I realized that I liked beer. I figured out that there are only certain types of beer styles that I like. I’ve kept a list of all the different types I like, and over the next four years I figured I was primarily a liker of beer, and not wine. If I was going to drink wine, I didn’t want to sacrifice a beer for it (my body has a limited budget for alcohol consumption, so I have to be selective).

But last year, we went to France and that started to change. I found some wine that I liked. And then this past year we went to Sonoma in California, which is wine country. I learned that I liked some wines from that region, too.

Since going to Sonoma, I have increased my consumption of wine while decreasing my consumption of beer. I haven’t been keeping track, but I estimate that since June of this past year, I’ve probably had more wine than beer. I’m still a noob when it comes to different styles of wine and estimating what they will taste like, but I think part of the reason that I never liked wine in the past was that I wasn’t drinking good wine. It has to cost at least $10/bottle otherwise it leaves a sticky, cotton-mouth feeling in my mouth.

I’ve told people that one of the best things about wine is that it isn’t mass-produced. It’s made by small-to-medium size wineries by families or small businesses that care about their product.

Big business that mass produces things are in it for the money. And when you scale up, the quality of your product goes down. That’s just the way it is. But when you do things on a small scale, of course you are in it for the money (you have to be, otherwise you’ll go bankrupt) but you’re absolutely in it because you love the product and want to make something people will enjoy. You take pride in your work.

Wineries are like that. If you get too big and the wine gets too corporate, the product quality suffers. I don’t think you can make a quality bottle of wine for less than $3/bottle, because the bottle itself costs $2.

So yes – wine has not yet suffered the same fate as beer where a few large corporations dominate the beer market with an inferior product. When I was younger, I didn’t care as much about supporting small business because I was a strong believer in capitalism, and the market would sort out the winners and losers according to whoever had the best product.

But now, I’ve gained some skepticism about the market. Big business can sort out winners and losers not because they necessarily have a better product, but because they have a better business and distribution channel. They can scale up and get their product out to more people. Quality is a concern, but it’s not the concern.

That’s something that is not the case in wine.

Not yet, anyhow. And hopefully never.

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I’ve been fortunate this year to have traveled for work to a number of different cities – Cologne, Germany; Toronto, Canada; New York City, New York; Sonoma, California; and San Francisco, California.

Because I’m reasonably well-known in the antispam filtering space, and because I work for a big company, I’m often taken out for lunch or dinner (along with many other people). This past week, I was in San Francisco and got to go dinner to Gary Danko, one of San Fran’s premier restaurants.

I had never heard of the place before. Of course, why would I? I don’t know that many restaurants in any city other than Seattle (and maybe Winnipeg). But Gary Danko is close to the waterfront, just across the street from the Ghiradelli chocolate factory.

I’m not a food connoisseur, but I do enjoy fine dining. The portion sizes are smaller but they are cooked with more spices and less salt/sugar/fat meaning that it’s not as bad for you as, say, McDonald’s. McDonald’s makes food you like only because it has so much salt and fat. Without it, it simply doesn’t compete with fine dining.

My meal was three courses. It started with appetizers and while there were several things on the menu I could have selected, I went with the bisque.

GaryDanko-Bisque

I don’t often get soup with my dinner. I will eat it if it comes with it, but I usually don’t select it over other things. I decided that since I had a salad for lunch, and I was getting meat for my main course, I would go with the bisque. I was glad I did, because it was really good.

For my main course, there were many different selections. Duck, lamb, steak, quail (I think… I can’t actually remember now) but I decided to go with bison. Why? Well, I never have bison in real life so I figured I would give it a shot now.

GaryDanko-Bison

I didn’t have the option of picking how I would like it. If I did, I would have picked medium-rare. But the way they cooked it was between rare and medium-rare, so it was rarer than what I would have selected.

That’s a good thing, because it turns out that bison is a tougher meat than regular steak.

On my plate, the thing on the right is a portobello mushroom, while the green things underneath the bison are not vegetables but instead a type of soft egg noodle called spätzle. I had never had it before, it was kind of chewy.

For dessert, there were a lot of different sweet things on the menu, and from what I know about fancy restaurants and dessert, they can go all-out. I opted instead to go with the cheese-tasting menu. I like cheese, and I knew it wouldn’t be too sugary.

My plate came with some grapes, four different types of cheeses, and then some raisin bread (yuck!). I strongly dislike raisins, but I finished most of the cheese and the grapes.

GaryDanko-Cheese

There was an extra bonus dessert plate afterwards, so I snagged myself a chocolate treat.

GaryDanko-BonusDessert

My group was pressed for time so we were in-and-out in 1 hour and 45 minutes. But I enjoyed my time there. If I had to do it again, I’d probably get the lamb instead of the bison. But nevertheless, no regrets. Any time I can go for fine dining, I jump at the chance.

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Tonight, from Blue Apron, I made shiitake mushroom burgers. The ingredients were simple: some ground beef, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, hoison sauce, and onion greens. That’s it, I mushed them together and then sautéed them on the stove. They turned out really well. I mean, really medium.

While I was doing that, I was reminded of a time when I was living back in Winnipeg when I had a mushroom burger.

For you see, myself and some co-workers one time went for lunch at a place called the Liberty Grill. I had been there several times in the past and never ordered food that was particularly healthy. I was in my mid-20’s at the time so it didn’t matter.

Anyhow, I decided to try the portobello burger. I roughly knew that a portobello was a type of mushroom, so I figured that I’d get a burger with a bunch of fried (or grilled) mushrooms on it.

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I’m not as big a fan of mushrooms as the wife, but I figured it’d be fine since burgers usually have all sorts of tasty (i.e., sweet or salty) sauces on them.

But imagine my surprise when I got my burger. I took a bite and sunk my teeth into it, but it wasn’t a mushroom burger, it was a mushroom burger.

There was no beef patty at all, the patty was a giant portobello mushroom!

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As soon as I got it in my mouth, I said “What is this?”

I opened it up, and saw that there was no meat but instead just a giant mushroom where there ought to have been meat (at the time, I was still 7 years away from cutting back on meat and going partially vegetarian).

I realized my mistake, they really did give me a portobello burger. I hadn’t taken it literally.

I realized I was going to have to stomach it and tried to force myself to eat it. I may have been disappointed, but I was going to eat it.

I couldn’t. I removed the mushroom after only eating perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of it, and gave up. I ate the rest of the bun + vegetables, and the salad (or fries) it came with.

I never ordered it again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Years later I would read about a football player on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Kamau Peterson) who had the same experience as me. He ordered a portobello burger expecting a burger with mushrooms, but realized he was getting something else instead.

He didn’t like it, either.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My shiitake mushroom burger experience was not like that. In fact, it was fantastic. Shiitake mushrooms are full of umami (i.e., they are savory), they don’t taste like regular white mushrooms. They are one of the types of mushrooms that make me understand why the wife likes them so much.

It’s too bad they cost 10 times as much.

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You may remember that last month I mentioned that I am taking an online course in art appreciation.

Well, at the same time I purchased that course, I also signed up for an online class about cooking called The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking.

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This means I am making my way through two sets of online courses, and I do them in the evenings when I have time (which, for some reason, has not been that much lately).

The reason I signed up is because I’ve been cooking Blue Apron meals for about two years now and I’ve gotten better at cooking. However, I’m still very much an amateur without a “philosophy” of cooking. That is, I can follow a recipe, and I know what I like. But, I can’t predict what will taste good together if I were to put something together from scratch.

For example, in magic, I know a lot of the theory and can combine various mini-effects to make one longer routine. For beer, I know the various styles and can predict what something can and should taste like. But for cooking, I don’t know what spices should go together, how to pick between olive oil and butter, how long to cook something, at what temperature, how to pair ingredients, etc. I just know what has worked in the past.

So I signed up for cooking.

I’ve learned a couple of key things:

1. I’ve learned how to pair seasoning and other tastes

Our tongues have five basic taste receptors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (umami). When you are cooking foods, you are not supposed to pair like-with-like. That is, if a food is sweet, you shouldn’t pair it with something else that is sweet for a double-shot of sweetness. Instead, you should combine sweet-with-bitter, or sweet-with-salty. That creates a nice mixing sensation (that’s why there is such a thing as sweet-and-sour sauce).

So, when I cook and I want to add seasoning to something, I say to myself – what does this food taste like? Is it sour, bitter, sweet, or salty? Once I answer it, I then say “What spice should I add?” If the food is bitter (like kale), I would add something salty, sweet, or sour. I wouldn’t add another bitter spice.

Or, if the food is sweet like an orange, I wouldn’t add cinnamon but instead either salt, or another non-sweet seasoning.

Speaking of which, a couple of years ago I was at a friend’s place and we were eating watermelon, and I saw him putting salt on it. My friend is a southerner, and I thought he was a crazy person for putting salt on the watermelon.

But it turns out, he’s not so crazy after all (at least not for that). Salt + sweet is a good combination of flavors with contrast to give you a different sensation. What he was doing made sense.

It turns out I was the one who was wrong!

2. There are four different types of cooking techniques

I’ve often hear of roasting, braising, baking, frying, etc. But there are just four main techniques:

i) Dry-heat cooking with fat

I used to put my food in a frying pan and heat it up, and say I was frying it. That’s not right, I was sautéeing it. To sauté something is to add a little bit of oil (e.g., olive or avocado oil) and then heat it up.

Frying it is when you have a deep pan, e.g., 6 inches, and then fill it up halfway, e.g., 3 inches, and then cook your food in it. There’s way more fat involved.

French fries in a restaurant are literally fried. I only sauté things.

ii) Dry-heat cooking without fat

This includes techniques like roasting and baking

iii) Moist-heat cooking

These are techniques like boiling or steaming

iv) Combination

This is self-explanatory, it combines the above

I still don’t know when I would use each of the above techniques, but dry-heat cooking with fat seems to be the easiest and fastest.

I’m still early on in the lesson plan, and I have not yet done any of the recipes that the chef has demonstrated, even though they look fantastic. I don’t know if I ever will.

But, I do know that when I cook Blue Apron, or do anything else, I am now more deliberate about the chopping techniques I have, the cooking technique I use, and the seasonings I add to the food.

And in that regards, the class has been worth it.

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I go through phases. We all do. But lately, I’ve been organizing my own evening or late afternoon snack.

For you see, since I’m currently on a wine kick, this past Sunday I bought a French baguette from the bakery in Fred Meyer. I came home and cut up a few slices, and had it with some basil-flavored olive oil that we bought in Sonoma, some cheese, and a glass of wine.

It was a typical French dessert. I was quite pleased with myself, and I can’t wait to have it again in the future.

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Well, this is interesting.

During the past month (if that), I have preferred drinking wine instead of beer.

What? How’d that happen?

I don’t know. It may have started when the wife and I went down to Sonoma, California where I attended a conference. Sonoma is wine country, and one of the evening events was wine tasting.

We went to the Kunde Winery where I tried 7 or 8 different types of wine. And it was good! So good that I became interested in having wine rather than beer when I got home. So that’s when it started.

Except, even before that, I had been enjoying Riesling, a style of white wine. And I had reduced my beer consumption even before the trip to Sonoma.

I’m not sure what’s driving this (temporary?) wine preference. I’ve discovered that I prefer white wine instead of red wine, but what I think I really prefer are wines that have a “clean” finish; that is, wine that does not have much of an aftertaste. Most red wine lingers on your palate after you sip and swallow it. I’m not a fan of that.

But apparently, there are some red wines that have clean finishes. I discovered some at the Kunde Winery. That made me think “Hmm, maybe some red wines are decent.”

I’m still at the stage where I can’t distinguish between $10 wine and $100 wine. I’m also still at the stage where I can’t really distinguish between different styles of wine.

That is, for the two main types of beer – ales and lagers – I can easily tell the difference between ambers, browns, stouts, and IPAs because those are so distinct. But even within the golden-colored beers, I can distinguish them. Pale ales, kolsches, golden ales, pilsners, hefeweizens, pale lagers… it doesn’t matter because I can reasonably predict what they should taste like.

However, for wine I am not that discriminating. For white wine, there’s Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, and I don’t know what each one is supposed to taste like. For red wine, there’s Pinot Noir (which is the only one I know that is supposed to be reasonably light), Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec… if you gave me one I wouldn’t know what to expect. Nor would I be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test.

So, I am still a rank amateur when it comes to wine.

But, in the past couple of days, I’ve been enjoying having a late evening snack. I have bread, olive oil, cheese, and a glass of wine.

Ça, c’est magnifique!

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This past week, the wife and I got invited to a financial seminar (something about retirement) at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse which is one of the high-end steak houses in Bellevue. We are both going, and I think we are allowed to invite two more people because they sent us invitations for four people.

It’s pretty common for us to get invited to these things. We live in the wife’s parents’ home, and the various marketers know people’s ages around the neighborhood. So they’re always inviting the wife’s parents (by mail) but we go instead (heh, heh, heh) [1]. In the past we’ve gone to two financial seminars, and one for solar panel installations. We’ve never bought anything, but they are still interesting. Plus, you get a free meal. Previous ones have included McCormick and Schmick’s in downtown Bellevue, and Maggiano’s.

Anyhow, the dinner is free (!!!) and we’ve invited 3 other couples, and all three have turned us down due to other commitments. I literally can’t even give these free tickets away for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

 

[1] They are mostly looking for older people. Half the invitations we are not allowed to use because it says "Please, no attendees under 40."

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