Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes



A Bi-weekly column for the Mountain View Voice, with a variety of topics on food and wine. Sorted with the newest at the top.

The column completed its run with the top article on January 27, 2005.




Crossroads and Bacalao

I fell in love with salt cod in Basque Spain, where they call it bacalao and consider it a national dish. I have looked for bacalao here in California, without success until I discovered Crossroads World Market.

Crossroads opened in December 2004 at 720 San Antonio Road, between Middlefield and Leghorn on Palo Alto's Mountain View border. Owner Hani Haddad came from Jordan in 1969 and started his first Crossroads in Hayward in 1994; this is the second. He sells Mediterranean and European specialties at reasonable prices, with some rarities that fill gaps in our culinary landscape.

Here I found fresh Halwa (sweet sesame cakes) from Israel, 12 kinds of fresh feta cheese, Czech beers, German Reislings and dark breads, hot mustard and roasted peppers. Islands of fresh olives, dried figs and dates, cakes and chocolates invite indulgence.

Cheeses, yogurt, kefir and cured meats fill the coolers. In the freezer I discovered Turkish soujouk sausages, basturma (spicy cured beef) and ­ to my amazement ­ whole sides of salt cod. Now at last I could try to recreate the bacalao from San Sebastian.

San Sebastian Bacalao

1 fillet salt cod (1.5 lbs.)
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cups dry vermouth
(or dry cider if available)
3 small Yukon Gold potatoes
2 cups asparagus, 2" chunks
2 cloves garlic
3 Tblsp. olive oil
1 Tblsp. capers, soaked
1 pinch saffron
1/2 cup half & half cream

Soak the salt cod in fresh water for two days in the fridge, changing water every 8 hours. Cut into big chunks and boil for 8 minutes in fresh water, then strain. Boil the potatoes for 15 minutes to precook, then cut into 1/4" slices.

In a large deep lidded skillet, sweat the onions in olive oil for 15 minutes, then raise heat to add potatoes to sear 5 minutes. Add cod, asparagus, garlic, capers, wine and saffron. Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until asparagus is tender.

Warm the cream briefly in a microwave. Lower heat in the pan to a slight simmer. Clear a space in the middle of the pan, then very slowly add the cream while whisking quickly. The cream should emulsify with the reduced wine, creating a light rich sauce fragrant with saffron. Serves 3-4 with rice.



Wine and Time

Why do some red wines get better as they age, while others collapse? When considering how long to age wine, it helps to know something about these three characteristics: fruit, acidity, and tannins. Oak can also play a role.

When a wine shows balance between ripe fruit, medium-high acidity and firm tannins, then it can probably improve with age. Wine reviewers call this "good structure." When these flavors start weak or unbalanced, then the wine probably won't improve with time, and you should open it sooner.

Fruit: In young red wine, well-extracted fruit fills your mouth with round oily sensations, sometimes like chocolate. After a few years, this richness starts to fade. Wines meant for early consumption typically taste soft and simple, with ripe jammy flavors but low acidity and tannin.

Acidity: acids do the most to protect wine over the years. Grapes become more acidic in cool weather, so climates with cool summers often produce wines that age well. High acid wines can taste pinched or tingly when young, but over time the low pH reduces the destructive effects of oxygen.

Tannins: in red wine, tannins create a signature dryness on the tongue, a slightly chalky sensation. Strong tannins can taste bitter like over-brewed tea. Like acidity, tannins have antioxidant effects, protecting fruit flavors over time.

Both acidity and tannins soften with age, as they react with oxygen while protecting the fruit. If acidity or tannins are too strong, however, then the wine might always taste astringent, and those tight flavors might linger past the lifetime of the fruit.

Oak: Tannins come mostly from grape seeds, but also from oak barrels used for aging. Oak imparts its own smells and flavors, including caramel, vanilla, tobacco, cinnamon, clove. These flavors can sometimes overpower a wine, but in moderation they add complexity and smoothness.

When grapes provide "good structure", then the wine can benefit from longer contact with oak. Not only will the wine mellow in barrels, but the tannins within the oak react with grape tannins to soften their flavors.

Some of the most age-worthy wines in North America come from nearby in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The cool summers and gentle autumns help build acidity and good ripeness that often show better in ten years than when young. On Montebello Road you can find world class production from Picchetti, Fellom, and Ridge, some of whose wines can improve over several decades.




Stollen Bread

Certain holiday foods trigger warm childhood memories. Among my favorites is the subtly sweet German Christmas bread called stollen, which my Norwegian "adopted-grandmother" used to make each year. I have been testing stollen recipes lately, and here's my own hybrid.

This takes about a day to make, but less than an hour of actual effort. If you can't find the time (a common malady) you can find imported stollen in markets this season. Try Rugenberger or Dresdner brands ($5-11 at Dittmer's 400 San Antonio Rd., Mountain View.)

3/4 cup lukewarm milk
2 teaspoons yeast
3-1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
12 Tblsp soft butter (1.5 sticks)
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon, cardamom, mace
Zest from 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup candied lemon peel
1/4 cup candied orange peel
1 cup raisins
3 Tblsp rum or brandy

Pour boiling water over the raisins. Soak 10 minutes to moisten. Strain off the water, add candied citrus and rum. Let soak while making the dough. Combine yeast and milk in a bowl and let sit for 10 minutes to start the yeast.

Blend into the yeast/milk: flour, sugar, salt, egg, vanilla, spices, and lemon zest. Knead by hand or with mixer's dough hook until smooth, about 10 minutes. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, until doubled in volume.

Slowly mix in warmed butter, almonds, dried fruits and their liquid. Knead well to incorporate the ingredients, cover and let rise one more hour. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.

When cool, punch the dough down gently, then shape the dough into a loaf and put it on a large buttered baking sheet. (You could spread some marzipan paste into the center at this point, or you can make two small loaves.) Push protruding raisins back into the dough, to prevent scorching later.

Let rise again for about 45 minutes. Baste the loaf with melted butter and bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F for 50-55 minutes, until golden brown.

Test the center of loaf with a toothpick, seeing that it doesn't stick. Remove from oven and baste again with butter, then sprinkle with powdered sugar. Return the loaf to the oven for about 5 minutes, remove and let cool. The butter helps the stollen stay fresh for a week or more.



Porcini Stuffing

The winter holidays coincide with wild mushroom season in northern California. Holiday cooking provides opportunities to dream up the most luxurious uses for such delectable wild food.

Porcinis (Boletus edulus) are my favorite among coastal mushrooms, but they can be very hard to find in the wild. Luckily they appear fresh this season at the Mountain View Farmer's Market ($18/lb), or frozen at Trader Joe's ($8/lb, a bargain.)

This stuffing for turkey or goose uses Boletus edulis in two ways. First, the croutons come from specially baked porcini bread, then you add fresh porcinis to the stuffing. The flavors are earthy and intense.

If you wish to skip the bread recipe, try substituting 4-5 cups of commercial croutons and add more fresh mushrooms, garlic and herbs to the final blend.

For the crouton bread:

1/4 cup dried porcinis, crushed fine.
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 Tblsp. sugar
1 Tblsp. powdered milk
1 tsp. salt
1 1/8 cup water
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1 Tblsp. tarragon (fresh, chopped fine)
1 tsp. yeast

This recipe works in a bread machine, normal cycle. Or, knead the ingredients together, let rise for an hour, punch down and shape, then let rise again for another hour. Bake 50 minutes in preheated 350º oven. Cube, dry overnight, then re-toast for croutons 30 minutes or until crisp.

For the stuffing:

4-5 cups croutons, see above
3 cups celery, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
8-12 oz chopped fresh porcini
1 cup chestnuts or almonds, chopped
1/2 cup melted butter
1 Tblsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt (or less, to taste)
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
3 Tblsp. dried parsley
2 tsp. dry oregano
1 Tblsp. powdered sage
1 Tblsp. powdered tarragon

Place croutons in a large mixing bowl, add melted butter and stir. Add remaining ingredients, stir and adjust to taste.

For use as a side dish (as opposed to stuffing inside a bird), add 1 cup chicken stock, place in a covered casserole and bake at 350º for one hour before serving.




Dry Rosé

With holiday feasts dominated by turkey, let's look at some wines that bring the best out of big birds. When pairing wine with turkey, avoid the big tannic reds like cabernet, syrah or zinfandel. The tannins can bring out metallic flavors from the otherwise sweet earthy taste of turkey.

Most chefs recommend softer red wines or dry rosé to accentuate the deeper flavors in traditional holiday meals. Of the reds, pinot noir and gamay Beaujolais rate highly, especially the fruity young Beaujolais nouveau that comes this season from France. Yet we often overlook the pink wines, in part because they earned such a bad reputation as jug wine or sweet white zinfandel.

In the last few years, California winemakers have been making some exceptional dry rosés, with complexity and crisp acidity that help them pair elegantly with many dishes, especially turkey, shellfish and lightly flavored meats.

I compared some respected 2003 dry rosés from California, alongside recent releases from France and Spain. The wines below impressed me with their food-friendly freshness and good value. The prices noted reflect what I paid at Beverages & More in Mountain View, except for the Tablas Creek, which I ordered direct from the winery.

Marques de Cáceres Rosé, Rioja, Spain ($7)
The cheapest among the rosés listed here, also with the lightest fruit and most acidity. Musky grassy nose with a hint of unripened pineapple and brambles. The very dry flavors don't linger long, lightly spicy with some oceanic minerals. 13% alc.

Grandes Serres Rosé, Tavel, France ($10)
Complex fresh perfumes of winter melon, light berries and limestone. Tart raspberries on the palate, with citrus acidity and a long finish resembling Chinese bitter melon and lime. 13% alc.

Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare ($10)
A supple blend of Rhone varietals that leaves the impression of lingering sweetness despite full dryness. Offers fragrances of fresh peaches and plums, with light dusty minerals, wild primrose and a hint of grapefruit. Lightly viscous mouth-feel whispers strawberry, kumquats, rose hips; almost smoky, with a hint of allspice. 13% alc.

Roshambo Syrah Rosé, Dry Creek Valley CA ($15)
This surprisingly serious blush from a feisty young Russian River winery has earthy aromatics of cherry fruit with strawberries and oranges, dry grass, honey and cream, tinted with clove and mace. Bright crisp palate of cherries and minty herbs deepens into a peppery long-lasting oily finish. 14.5% alc.

Tablas Creek Rosé, Paso Robles CA ($25, direct order: 805-237-1231)
This Rhone style rosé should appeal especially to those who prefer hefty red wines. My personal favorite among the list, it's also the most expensive and hardest to find. Fragrances of plum, watermelon and ripe strawberry overlie chalky minerals with hints of pepper and dry aged cheese. A smoothly rich and ripe palate disguises firm acidity, with viscous melon-strawberry fruit and an earthy dusting of black pepper. The generous long lingering finish shows hints of cocoa. 14.8% alc.


Heritage Turkeys

Centuries before we relegated turkey to holiday fare, this North American bird played a pivotal role in the diet of native people, and probably saved the lives of European settlers during the harsh winter of 1620.

Spanish traders had already imported the wild birds to Turkey in the 16th century, from where Northern Europeans confused them with old world Guinea fowl, and dubbed them "Turkey" by their supposed nation of origin.

By the late 18th century the native bird had become so important to Americans that Benjamin Franklin famously suggested it for the national symbol instead of the bald eagle. Ben Franklin's wild bird looked little like what we eat today.

Although wild turkeys are now protected, farmers have bred domesticated turkeys for at least 200 years. Many of the original breeds have nearly vanished, ousted in the 1960's by the ubiquitous "broad breasted white" variety, which has a bland flavor and more white meat than older breeds.

Modern factory raised turkeys become so misshapen that they cannot mate naturally. They live in pens and feed by automation, with frequent doses of antibiotics. Because they move slowly, they conform well to mechanical harvesting, which lowers the cost of production.

In contrast, some of the older breeds like the Narragansett, which fed our nation's founders, take longer to grow and thrive outdoors. Raising these turkeys requires a more personal touch, but the birds live healthier lives. The resulting meat has more flavor and is less prone to dryness.

With help from the Slow Food movement, Heritage turkeys are making a comeback. Currently, six farms in California have dedicated themselves to raising these hardy older breeds, and more should follow.

In previous years, one had to pre-order Heritage turkeys direct from the farmers or through the auspices of Slow Food. This year, you can buy them locally at select quality grocers. About 6,000 birds are available in California this year, and more will follow as demand increases.

You can find Heritage turkeys at Dreager's, Andronico's, and Mollie Stone's markets, including nearby stores in Palo Alto and Los Altos. They cost more than generic turkey (about $4/lb) but in my opinion, they're well worth the price.


Sichuan Pepper

Sichuan Peppercorns form an integral part of Asian cooking, with their unique tart spiciness. They taste like a combination of sour lemon, black pepper, clove and ginger, with a residual sweet/sour finish lingering around the edges of the tongue.

Also called hua jiao (hua 'do) in Mandarin, flower pepper, or fagara, Sichuan pepper comes from the dried berries of the prickly ash tree. It forms an essential part of Chinese 5-spice powder. Japanese cooks powder the prickly ash leaves, called sansho, to flavor soups and fatty fish.

Sichuan pepper has become scarce in the last few years, due to a USDA Plant Protection Quarantine. Apparently some shipments carry citrus canker bacteria, a disease that threatens orange and lime groves in California and Florida.

Distributors can legally sell Sichuan pepper imported before May 2002, or which has tested negative for citrus canker. The USDA can confiscate for analysis any shipment of the pepper that they discover entering the country, rendering this spice into borderline contraband.

Legal imports of hua 'do still trickle through Canada. We're lucky to live in a neighborhood with many Asian herb markets, most of whom carry Sichuan peppercorns at prices ranging from $2 - $5 per ounce. Try to find whole peppercorns rather than powder. The powder loses its tangy freshness. Japanese sansho makes a milder substitute.

You can deepen the flavors of hua 'do by pan toasting the kernels on a hot dry cast iron skillet or wok for a few minutes, stirring often. You can add some coarse sea salt before toasting the pepper, to fume the salt with the aromatic vapors. This blend forms the key ingredient to Chinese "salt and pepper" sauce.

Grind the toasted salt/pepper blend in a spice mill just before using. Try sprinkling it onto grilled salmon or chicken. It also brings out the sweet flavors in duck, lamb or other gamey meats. Add a pinch to salad dressing to add spicy tartness. A little goes a long way.


Discovering Malbec

Argentina has been making wine for over 400 years, since Spanish colonists first carried grape cuttings from the Old World. Recently, some excellent and very affordable Argentinian wines have found their way onto Bay Area market shelves, thanks to the efforts of several small local importers.

Argentina is famous for its Malbec, a red Bordeaux grape that rarely achieves the ripeness and depth that it does in Argentina's Mendoza valley, nestled in the rocky foothills of the Andes. In an otherwise arid region, these vines pull water from underground mountain aquifers.

Malbec can have the structure of good Cabernet, and it can carry the ripe fruit of earthy Merlot. Flavors abound of cherry, blackberry, coffee, leather and cocoa. Malbec pairs well with red meats, mushrooms and aged hard cheeses.

Recent 2002 releases show a banner year for Argentina. Of the Malbecs that I have tasted under $20, I can highly recommend the following:

2002 Cicchitti Blend Malbec/Cabernet ($11 at Beltramo's, Dreager's, Robert's Woodside.) A rich and spicy Bordeaux-style mix with 70% Malbec, showing rich toasty berry fruit, mocha, tar, mint, and dark sweet oak. In the mouth the ripe fruit hides firm acidity, expressing balance and complexity.

2002 Dolium Malbec ($9 at Whole Foods, Cupertino.) Notes of granite dust, bing cherries, cocoa powder, iodine. The palate seems almost salty, with unsweetened chocolate and iron minerality. This wine opens up very well in the bottle over a ten hour period, developing deeper fruit profiles.

2002 El Felino Malbec, Nativo Series, Paul Hobbs ($13 at Beverages & More.) An excellent value, offering inky black cherry fruit, tar, rust, hints of iodine, leather, tobacco, and soft creamy-yeasty smells. Warm and fruity palate, softer than the nose implies, with earthy blueberry flavors, cocoa and ferric overtones.

1997 Conalbi Grinberg Malbec ($19 at Ernie's, Palo Alto.) A serious wine that still seems young after 7 years. Clean bright cherry/cassis fruit with caramel oak, ageworthy tannin structure, hints of tobacco. Could cellar for several more years.

You can directly contact the small companies importing these wines. Argimports in Redwood City represents Cicchitti, Conalbi Grinberg and others. Email ines@argimport.com or call 650-430-4306. Dolium comes through Argentium in San Jose. Email mike@argentiumwine.com or call 408-483-6530.



Refrigerator Pickles

In September, our vegetable garden still inundates us with cucumbers, green beans, and hot peppers. In order to preserve some of this bounty for winter, I forego the hassles of canning and simply make what I call refrigerator pickles.

The simple combination of vinegar, salt and sugar has impressive preservative power. This triple blend prevents the growth of virtually all bacteria, especially when kept in a cool environment. A clean lidded jar suffices to store these pickles for over a year in the refrigerator, without the need for sterilization.

Don't bother to cook the peppers or cucumbers. They taste better when crunchy. Simply blend about 1 Tblsp. salt and 1/2 cup sugar per 3-4 cups of white vinegar. You can heat the vinegar briefly in a microwave to make dissolving easier.

For hot peppers, pierce each pepper a few times before submerging them into the vinegar blend, pressing the air out so they can fully absorb the liquid. I have kept feisty habaneros in the fridge this way for several years.

For cucumbers and green beans, add spices such as pink peppercorns, bay leaf, dill, coriander seeds and/or garlic cloves. Quarter the cucumbers lengthwise, then pack them into a jar tightly with the spices before topping with the cooled pickling liquid. After a day in the fridge, they're ready to eat.

Green beans need to be cooked briefly before pickling. Simply boil the pickling liquid then blanche the beans in it for about 5 minutes. They should still squeak in your mouth when you bite them. Let them cool to room temperature before refrigeration.

The pickled beans won't last quite as long as the peppers in an unsealed jar, because they tend to lower the acidity of the vinegar slightly. Nevertheless, they should last over the winter. They add fresh texture and an echo of summer to our winter salads.




Moroccan cuisine counts among my favorites in the world, with its delicate blend of warm and sweet spices, bright citrus accents and savory slow-cooked meats.

A little shop called Casablanca Market opened recently at 793 Castro Street, across from Starbuck's, selling Moroccan cooking supplies and decorative items. They sell an assortment of handmade ceramic casserole dishes called tagines, with cone-shaped lids allowing moisture to drip back into the pot.

A tagine works like a miniature oven on the stove. It can get hot enough for frying, allowing you to brown meats before adding broth and spices. You then lower the heat and cover the pot to allow flavors to merge in the steamy atmosphere.

Casablanca owner, Katia Essyad, provides recipes with her tagines. She also sells select imported foods like preserved lemons and harissa (a spicy condiment) from North Africa. You can find other ingredients down the street at Rose Market, a Persian grocery that carries produce, spices and halal meats. (Halal meats have been butchered in the manner specified by Muslim law.)

Here's a sample recipe from Essyad, which I modified slightly. Serve on a bed of couscous or fava beans, making a meal for four.

Chicken with Lemon and Olives

Preparation: Grind together a spice mix with 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns, ground ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, 1 tsp. coriander and a pinch of salt. Mince one large onion and two cloves garlic. Thinly slice one preserved lemon. Remove pits from one cup Moroccan green olives.

Cut apart one whole chicken, or use four legs/thighs or half-breasts. Pre-heat two cups chicken broth, then add a generous pinch of saffron to the broth to infuse for a few minutes.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in the tagine, then fry the chicken parts until they start to brown. Add the onions, garlic and spices, frying for a few more minutes on high heat. Lower the heat, then add chicken broth, lemon slices and olives, and cover with the coned lid. Simmer for an hour or longer, adjusting seasoning to taste.

For a brighter flavor, you can add the lemons and olives toward the end, but I prefer to soften their acidity with longer cooking. The chicken should fall off the bone, as the aromas of saffron and sweet spices fill the air.




Wine Points

In the last decade or so, wine consumers have become so familiar with the 100 point scoring system that many won't buy wines without numbers attatched.

Numerical scores took off after wine critic Robert Parker began using them in his newsletter "Wine Advocate" in 1978. Now ubiquitous, the system proved excellent for marketing. Wineries can often raise prices after getting 90+ scores.

Parker intended numerical scores to act as a shorthand consumer guide, scaled from 50 to 100 like letter grades in school - F,D,C,B,A. Scores from 80-90 show a good solid wine, while 90+ shows exceptional quality.

Like in school, grade inflation can creep in. I rarely see wines rated under 80. Certain critics show more restraint than others. Yet on market shelves, we see scores from the most generous reviews. High numbers sell wine.

A single number cannot communicate nuance. It often rewards wines that pack the biggest punch, while undervaluing those whose lightness and finesse helps them pair well with food. Reviewer's bias also informs the score. Numbers mean more when we learn the preferences of the reviewer.

Good descriptions convey more than summary numbers. Most wine lovers use associative terms, like "blackberry, butter, chocolate and vanilla" to indicate flavor and fragrance. Such terms reflect the fruit, acidity, tannins, oak, terroir and winemaker's style.

Educated shoppers can ask for the qualities that they like in a wine, instead of just looking at scores. Most good wine shops know their stock well enough that they can recommend something to please both palate and pocket.



Baby Artichokes

Recently I was pondering how artichokes make most wines taste strange. Artichokes contain a bitter component called cynarin that changes the way we taste surrounding foods. (Cynarin also appears to lower cholesterol, and has become a popular herbal extract.)

Yet, certain wines make art of this bitter element, especially the delicate crisp Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand. Their grassy, grapefruity profile complements the artichoke, which in turn makes the wine taste sweeter.

Here's a Northern Italian dish that uses six baby artichokes, the smaller thistles that grow low on the artichoke bush. Baby artichokes cost less than the big ones that grow at the crown of the bush.

Remove all the tough outer leaves, until you reach the soft pale green leaves inside. Cut off the top to remove spines and fibrous tips, then slice lengthwise in half.

With a spoon, pry out spiny inner leaves and fine hairs on top of the artichoke heart. This creates a small indent which you can stuff. Keep as much of the stem as possible, but trim the bottom tip of the stem if it's dry. Dribble the cut halves with lemon juice.

In a large covered skillet, add two tablespoons olive oil and bring to medium heat. Place the artichoke halves face down to brown for about five minutes. Then, add three cups dry vermouth to the pan. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Flip the halves over, outer side down. Top with pine nuts and grated Romano cheese. Add two drops of Worcestershire sauce and a few grains of sea salt, then cover again for 20 minutes. Deglaze with additional dry vermouth to prevent burning. Serve as an appetizer for three to six people.



Blackberry Season

Midsummer each year, the wild blackberries ripen along our roadsides, dry creek beds and open spaces. Joggers along Stevens Creek Trail stop for purple-fingered treats while trying to avoid thorny brambles.

Most of these large berry patches consist of invasive European blackberries. The California native species has smaller canes and berries, with less aggressive thorns. Occasionally I find the native species intermingled or possibly hybridized with the European. The native plants provide smaller fruit, and I avoid picking these to help protect them.

During these weeks I try to slip away for an hour or two, with a small bucket, torn jeans and a worn leather jacket. The heavy clothes get hot on July afternoons, but they allow me to worm my way through brambles without losing too much blood.

Returning triumphant with hard-won wild fruit, I like to prepare this blackberry Zinfandel sorbet for our friends:

Simmer one gallon of washed berries with about one cup sugar (to taste) for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally until reduced by half. Let cool, then squeeze through cheesecloth, or press through a colander, to remove seeds.

At the end you should have about 8-10 cups of syrup, enough for two batches of sorbet. Refrigerate the syrup, and discard the seeds. You can also freeze this syrup for up to a year, in tightly sealed containers.

In a saucepan, combine 1/2 cup sugar with one bottle of red Zinfandel wine. Simmer until reduced to around two cups, about 30 minutes. Boiling removes all the alcohol from the wine. Use a good cheap Zin like Bogle Old Vines ($10) or Cline California ($8.) Refrigerate after reducing.

In a chilled ice cream maker, combine one part (2 cups) reduced wine with two parts (4 cups) berry syrup, and turn until frozen. My ice cream maker holds a total of 6 cups of liquid, which uses all of the reduced wine and half of the berry syrup described above.

The resulting sorbet tastes intense, like the essence of berry deepened by Zinfandel's earthy spices. The texture is best when served immediately, or within a few hours after returning to the freezer. One batch of sorbet makes roughly 8 servings.




Screw Cap Wines

Most wine lovers learn to fear the smell of a bad cork. The wine exudes fragrances of swimming pools and wet cardboard, as its fruit profile gets buried.

About 10% of wines get cork damage, traceable to a fungus native to the cork oak. Fungus spores often survive cork-makers' attempts to sanitize the soft tree bark. In the cork, the invisible fungus slowly bonds chlorine into off-smelling TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole.)

For the last several years, Santa Cruz wine entrepreneur Randall Grahm has been waging a marketing war to help eradicate corked wines. President of Bonny Doon Winery, Grahm switched to screw caps for even his flagship Cigare Volante Rhone-style blend. Bonny Doon's rustic Ca'del Solo "Big House Red" sells for under $10 at most markets, and pairs well with barbecue or pasta.

Many wineries in Australia and New Zealand have also started bottling their table wines with screw tops, as have some top California wineries including Sonoma-Cutrer.

Most buyers still associate screw caps with cheap jug wine. Many relish the ritual of the corkscrew. Experts question whether fine wines will age as elegantly without the minute respiration that a cork provides.

Screw cap proponents argue that enough air needed for maturation already enters the bottle during bottling. Blind tastings show little difference, but only time will tell. Most top wineries remain conservative, and will stay with cork for a while.

Cork makers in Portugal meanwhile try to improve their sanitation methods by Pasteurizing cork under pressure at higher temperatures. Synthetic corks have also gained acceptance. Hopefully we can soon forget the taint of bad cork in good wine.




Zucchini Attack

Most gardeners in the Bay Area discover the combined blessing and scourge of zucchini. With our cool sunny days, my wife and I get plants that take over the garden, delivering so much squash we get sick of it by July.

Last year we lost a prized rosebush to a nearby zucchini, strangled by the roots while we travelled. We returned to find squash the size of a human thigh.

Here are some ideas to manage the bounty:

1. Pick them young, while still hot-dog sized. Brush baby zucchini with salted olive oil and flame them quickly on the grill.

2. Pick the blossoms while still young, especially the male flowers on thin vertical stalks. Remove bugs from inside. Dip in egg batter and sautée quickly with olive oil on a very hot skillet. Top with Parmesan cheese. Serve as a garnish on salad or soup.

3. Oversized zucchini taste great baked with stuffing. Slice the squash lengthwise down the middle. Scoop the seeds out of both halves, making long "boats". Brush lightly with olive oil, and bake face-down on an oiled sheet for about 10-15 minutes at 400 F.

Seperately blend together a stuffing from cooked rice or couscous, finely chopped cooked sausage, chopped sundried tomato, pine nuts, parsley, pinches of oregano, thyme, salt, pepper and a dash of olive oil.

Fill the zucchini halves and sprinkle with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Bake again, face up, at 375 F for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Adjust baking time to the size of the squash.