Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Passion and Necessity

Today I downloaded and completed the application for the Culinary Arts program at Lane Community College. I'm taking the first steps towards making the best of the situation I'm in. I noticed that part of the application process is an interview. In anticipation of the kinds of things they may ask me if I make it to the interview stage, I have been pondering my love of cooking and cuisine, and the path I took to reach apoint where I knew it was something I'd want to pursue as a career.

I've known how to cook almost my whole life. Both of my parents were (and my mother still is) excellent cooks, and they not only allowed my sister and I to help in the kitchen, they encouraged it. They taught us the basics -- safety, cleaning up, measuring, controlling temperature, how different ingredients and different methods of cooking effected the outcome of the dish. I think that's why I'm such a huge Alton Brown fan -- his show is about HOW to cook, not just WHAT to cook.

But for a very long time, cooking was, shall we say, a pleasant necessity. You have to eat, you might as well eat something that tastes good. Sure, I enjoyed it, took pride in having a couple of dishes that were pretty good (I was once threatened with bodily harm if I showed up at a particular event WITHOUT my homemade Butterscotch Skor Bar Crunch ice cream), and enjoyed contributing to cookouts for friends, etc. But it was still just food.

I remember the day I was awakened to the idea that there was more to food than just eating. Well, I don't remember the exact date, but I remember the evening. I was living in San Diego, California, and had several circles of friends with whom I associated. One of these was a group of gaming geeks (guilty as charged). Among our various activities, we often hung out at a place called Gelato Vero, on the corner of Washington Avenue and India Street. We would usually smoke our pipes on the outdoor patio, drink coffee, eat gelato, and play Hearts. Often we would be joined by a young man named Davide and his girlfriend (wife?). Davide was a pleasant young man, and best of all, he owned a restaurant, All' Italiana in La Mesa. So when I wanted to go out to eat with my friend Shawn and his wife (from another circle of friends), I decided to go give Davide our business.

I don't know if he's moved since then, but back in those days, Davide's place was tiny. Ten tables rops. Davide was the chef, he had one sous chef, his girlfriend bussed/did dishes, and his sister was the waitress. The place was decorated with your stereotypical Italian Restaurant theme -- posters of Italy, candles, roped chanti bottles. At least the linen was white, not checkered. But what it lacked in originality, it more than made up for in warmth and intimacy.

And the food! Davide learned to cook at his family's resort restyaurant on Italy's adriatic coast, and he learned well. We started with his Tomato Basil Soup. I've never tasted its equal. Then I had his linguini with clams in red sauce (yes, RED sauce!). In those days my wine palate was sweeter than now, so I had a glass (or two) of Lambrusco Amabile. We spent the evening talking and laughing and eating. And for the first time, as the meal ended, I realized that not only had it made me full, it had made me happy. My mood was visibly improved by the meal, and by the experience surrounding the meal. I'm sure I'd had many such evenings before, but this was the first time I'd become consciously aware of the power of cuisine -- not just food, but cuisine -- to affect people on a level beyond just sating hunger. This was the moment I fell in love with cuisine. Eventually I honored Davide by choosing his restaurant as the place where I proposed to The Feared Redhead.

But while I was waking up to the enjoyment of cuisine, and dabbled a bit in making it myself, I still was nowhere near the place where I had a desire or the skills to pursue it as a career, or even a serious hobby, for that matter. Several events had to transpire before that would become a reality.

The first was my marriage to The Feared Redhead. This helped in several ways. First, it got me out of my parents' house. I was one of those twenty-somethings that had moved back in with my parents. And while I contributed to the household, my parents did a significant portion of the cooking. Second, it gave me an audience. Even during the times when I had moved out on my own as a single adult, I didn't often do much serious cooking, because I was the only one who would be eating it. I call this the bachelor syndrome -- the only reason to go to the trouble of cooking seriously was to entertain friends or impress women. Surprisingly, even after marriage, the "impress women" motivation stuck -- I wanted TFR to be impressed, to be pleased by what I cooked for her, to lust after me for my culinary skills. Sadly, I did not always succeed as dazzlingly as I desired. But this led to the third benefit that marriage provided for my cooking skills -- a resident food critic. The Feared Redhead is not feared without good reason, and as a typical redhead, she is not averse to expressing her opinion. When she likes my food, she will praise me. But when she doesn't, she'll communicate that as well, and in detail -- not just "ick", but "too salty", "too sweet", "too dry", etc. Her candor regarding my efforts has taught me how to take constructive criticism, and has provided the additional benefit of refining both my skills and my recipes. I can list several recipes that left her far less than impressed the first time I tried them, but that are among her favorites now.

The second event was our return to Oregon. As previous posts have made apparent, I am fiercely proud of this state. It is the only place I've ever felt at home, and I have embraced everything about it I can. Part of my development as a cook has been specifically to develop recipes that highlight as many Oregon ingredients as possible.

And the third major event was when I took up blogging. This blog has afforded me an outlet for the expression of my passion beyond cooking for TFR and occasionally for friends. Here I can share my recipes, here I can read the praise of gracious readers, and here I pick up tips and insightes that further hone my skills.

That's how I find myself where I am. By sharing with others -- those I love, those I respect, those I admire -- and my receiving in return love, admiration, and respect, and by developing a sense of what I like, and what fires my passions, I have realized that this is what I want to do with my life. I've taken what was at first a "pleasant necessity", that then progressed into a passion, and am ready to turn it into a passionate necessity. I must work to provide a living for myself and my family. I might as well make a living by working at my passion.

Just So You Know....

From my last post, some of you may have gathered that I'm a bit of what I call a regionalist. That is to say, I try to give preference to Oregon wineries and food producers in my cooking and eating. It also means that when I visit other places, I try to sample the local offerings there. When in Rome, and all that.

In the past few years, Oregon has started to develop a culture of good food and wine. The 45th Parallel runs through Oregon, placing us at roughly the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Oregon is only the 5th largest wine producing state in the US, and there are indivisual wineries in California that outproduce our entire state, but what we lack in volume we make up for in quality. Our dominant grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but you'll find many different varietals here. We have the strictest wine labelling laws in the country. One of theones I find most interesting and admirable is the ban on using foreign regional wine names -- you'll never see an Oregon Bordeaux or Burgundy or Champagne. Oregon wines are named either for their varietal, their color (Girardet's Grand Rouge is a highly drinkable blended table red -- not memorable, but agreeable), or any other fanciful naming convention the weinery desires, but NOT for somewhere outside of Oregon. If it's labelled a varietal, such as Pinot Noir, the rules are stricter. A varietal label must include the appelation (growing region within Oregon) from which it comes, and except in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, must contain at least 90% of the stated varietal.

Along with the wine, we make excellent beers, and our mild climate and fertile soild makes this an ideal place to grow produce, fruits, and berries, and we have recently become renowned for our (non-hallucinogenic) mushrooms. Rogue Creamery, in Southern Oregon, has over the past few years won several international competitions for Best Blue Cheese in the world.

I recently watched an episode of $40 Dollars a Day in which Rachel visited Salem, our capital. While I was pleased with the comparisons she made between Oregon and Tuscany, Napa Valley, California, has adopted for itself the name "America's Tuscany", and perhaps rightly so. I'd actually compare us more to, say, Provence, or even more like Alsace. The lifestyle here is more laid back, there's a mix of old west rural and hippy which, while politically causes me frustration at times, makes for a friendly, relaxed, warm attitude. The old "Welcome to Oregon, now leave" reputation we cultivated for years has faded, and was a front to begin with -- Oregonians are actually quite hospitable.

Not That Anyone Cares

A couple of years ago, before TFR got pregnant, before I even blogged, I found something I'd been wanting for some time at a flea market -- a nice wine rack. It dodn't LOOK nice at the time -- it was water stained and the varnish was cracked and chipped -- but it has a solid teak tray top, and holds 16 bottles. I bought it for $4, took it home, and restored it. I used a simple oil for the finish: no varnish, urethane, etc. My goal was to eventually stock it with wines from Oregon wineries we've visited. Pregnancy and parenthood intervened, and our winery touring has been scaled back.

But I have managed to stock it with Oregon wines, and while only one bottle was purchased at a winery, several bottles are from wineries we've been to. It took me time, since I can't afford 16 bottles of wine all at once, and has required some persistence, but I've got it stocked. And while it is dominate (like Oregon's wine industry) by Pinots, there are some other wines in it that are quite nice as well. I don't exclusively drink Oregon wines, but I do exclusively stock the rack with Oregon wines, and we do drink mostly such.

So I thought I'd share with you my collection. Not being a wine expert, but having my own esthetics in mind, I decided to stock 4 white wines, 4 blushes, 4 reds, and 4 dessert wines. I also have 1 semi-sparkling sitting on top of the tray, next to the decanter and rabbit.

Wineries we've actually visited are in italics.

Fries Family Cellars 2004 Duck Pond Pinot Gris
Eversham Wood 2004 Blanc du Puits Sec (a gewurtzstraminer/Pinot Gris blend)
Saginaw Vineyards 2003 Estate Grown Pinot Gris
St. Josefs 2000 Pinot Gris

High Pass Winery 2004 Pinot Noir Rose
Girardet 2003 Whit Zinfandel
Saginaw Vineyards 2002 Pinot Noir Blanc
Chateau Lorane 2003 Gamay Noir Rose

Girardet 2001 Barrel Select Pinot Noir (our favorite)
King Estate 2002 Pinot Noir
Abacella 2003 Tempranillo
Amity 2004 Gamay Noir

Montinore Estates 2003 Late Harvest Riesling
Made in Oregon Cellars Nog (a blended sweet red intended for mulling at the holidays)
Chateau Lorane Life Force Raspberry Mead
Honeywood Blackberry Wine

Silvan Ridge 2004 Early Muscat