On Being a Wine Lover (& Not a Wine Snob...)

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A couple weeks ago, the wine importer Camille Rivière & myself hosted a wine dinner at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb), pouring biodynamic wines from Jura, a region sandwiched between the Alps & Burgundy. At the end of the evening, several guests commented on what a delicious, unpretentious and eye-opening experience this dinner was. I have been drinking solely natural or biodynamic wines for the past 18 years now, and I truly enjoy introducing them to people who have never before tasted these kind of wines. It’s like watching someone who has only eaten Perdue chicken try a chicken from Violet Hill Farm for the first time. Once they taste the difference, they never go back.

Here is what I think about wine and why I drink what I drink & nothing else.

I did not always think the way I do now about wines. If I’m being honest, I used to be somewhat of a wine snob. But then something happened to make me step down off of that pedestal.

I was 25, working and eating in high-end restaurants in Manhattan. As an aspiring restaurateur, it was part of my career to study, drink and experiment with wines, so while I wasn’t necessarily a wine expert, I had a strong basic set of knowledge.

Late one night, after a busy evening shift, a few foodie friends and I gathered in Red Hook, Brooklyn to end the night with some good wine and good company. One person had brought a very expensive, very old bottle of Bordeaux (for the life of me, I cannot remember its name). We threw out these big words, making analogies to other wines we loved.

We were half way through the bottle, when Guillermo came in (think Red Hook circa 1998 before IKEA and Fairway, among other new developments): he was this sweet older Columbian gentleman, whom I had met many times at my friend’s house. He was living in the streets, trying to stay out of trouble. He always had some crazy story to share and a deep love for cheap beer & even cheaper vodka…

When my friend proceeded to give Guillermo a full glass of our spectacular wine, I couldn’t help but feel puzzled, almost disapproving. My friend noticed my expression and told me: “Well, I don’t know what makes you think that your tongue is better than his. We all have taste buds, don’t we? I am sure Guillermo will appreciate this wine...”

It was like a big slap in my face: how absurd – and how vain – to consider Guillermo incapable of appreciating fine wine. My attitude towards Guillermo had been pretty much the same as barring him from looking at a Picasso because he wasn’t an art connoisseur.

From that day forward, I vowed to approach wine in the same way that I approached food. One doesn’t need to memorize all sorts of data in order to be able to appreciate good food. Why should wine be any different?

Around the same time, I had another epiphany about the way I was sourcing food for my family and me. I began to ask myself: What is in the food I eat? Who is making this food? How are they making it? It was a natural progression then to ask the same questions about my wine: What is in the wine I drink? Who makes it? How is it made?

I’ll spare you a long lecture on winemaking, but I would like to give you a very condensed idea of what actually happens in the vineyards. Who knows, I might just shatter a few illusions…

Let’s start at the beginning: Wine is an alcoholic beverage typically made from fermented grapes, and sometimes from other fruits. There are many steps in the process, but the essential ones are and where different degrees of human intervention can occur are: growing the fruit, fermenting the fruit, and bottling the juice. Chemicals can be added at any one of those stages. You may have noticed that in addition to conventional wines, some wines are sometimes called “organic,” “natural” or “biodynamic.”

Organic means they use organically grown grapes that are then fermented with different levels of chemical additives. To me, this is a step in the right direction but still a bit pointless—like growing an organic apple, then covering it in chemicals before you sell it.

Wines that are grown with organic grapes, then fermented with minimal chemicals, or none at all, are natural wines—a much better choice.

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Then there are biodynamic wines: those that use organically grown grapes that have been carefully fermented and bottled without anything but earth and sun (following the careful lunar and solar rules coded by Rudolph Steiner in the early 19th century). There is intervention in the vineyards & fermentation but the entire process is really holistic and completely chemical free.

Finally, you have conventional wines, which may use chemical spray in the vineyards, or many additives during the fermentation and bottling stages to control anything such as the speed of the fermentation, the wine’s taste, color, aroma, smell, longevity and other attributes. The different degrees to which a winemaker can alter the natural process are limitless, and sometimes absolutely drastic. For example, have you ever wondered how a particular Champagne (let’s say a famous brand that has a yellow label…) can taste the same year after year, rain or shine, early frost or not? This is because the winemaker has carefully coded the Champagne’s reproduction with additives that ensure his costumers will recognize its taste and flavors, no matter what nature has wrought on the grapes themselves. For me, these types of Champagnes and wines are no different than a can of Coke. And since I don’t drink sodas… That leaves me with two options: natural or biodynamic wines.

Similarly to how we choose our food (and food sources), the consequences of our choices in wine go far beyond our health. They have a great impact on the planet: grape varietals are being extinguished, soil is being depleted, chemicals are polluting our rivers, and labor practices in large estates are no better than on large corporate farms. Like food, wine can and should be alive when consumed and have that vibrant quality where you can almost smell the soil, taste the sun and feel the breeze that once bathed the vines.

Here are my favorite wines for this summer:

Poivre & Sel from Olivier Lemasson – A vibrant Pineau d’Aunis from the Loire, to be enjoyed slightly chilled.

Cerdon du Bugey from Domaine Renardat-Fache: Sparkling Rosé – It is pure happiness in a bottle, it brings people together.

Muscadet from Pierre Lagrange: It is my go-to wine that works whatever mood I am in.

You can find all of these bottles on Maison May Dekalb's wine list.

It should be no surprise that our selection is 100% natural and biodynamic.

As you can see, there is a lot that goes in to choosing a wine. The most important thing is that you either need to know the vineyard, or trust that the wine importer is doing his job in verifying what he is selling you. That’s why working with the right importer is so crucial, and why I take the time to develop relationships with them.

When you buy your favorite wine, ask the vendor if he or she knows how the wine was made. For imported wines from Europe, the wine importer will be listed on the back of the bottle, and you can always inquire with them directly. My two absolute favorite importers are Louis Dressner and Camille Rivière. No need to call these estates to check the way their wines are made because they have already done a thorough job for you.

And above all, remember, it is all about enjoying what you are drinking.

Happy Summer!

 

Brooklyn Based: What's on Your Kid's Menu?

I was recently featured on Brooklyn Based and I shared a bit more about my process for cooking for my family. Continue on to read their article:

For Catherine May Saillard, owner of the long-standing Fort Greene restaurant, ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) “seasonal” and “local” are not marketing tools, but just part of her French upbringing. In 2004, she opened the brownstone doors of the dining room and airy back patio, which today remain one of the prettiest eating options in Brooklyn. Brunch and menu options change monthly, depending on the availability of seasonal produce, but you can expect simple favorites like smoked pork chops with an apple and turnip salad or housemade ricotta cavatelli sprinkled with chanterelles and kale. At home with her two boys, Theo, 14, and Lucas, 12, Catherine practices what she preaches, planning efficient and delicious meals that come together quickly, but without sacrificing taste–or reaching for unhealthy, pre-packaged choices.

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It taps into the sense of being a parent. We have the intuition that feeding a child is important. We do this three times a day. Food is crucial, and when you put the wrong food in the body, it feels like crap. We know that a runny nose or swinging moods can be related to food [which makes mealtimes stressful].

BB: What’s a typical breakfast like for you and the kids?

Breakfast is the only meal [in our household] that is different for everybody. Theo is a creature of habit, so he’ll have oatmeal soaked overnight in almond or soy milk, with dried fruit or a mashed banana, and a little maple syrup. Lucas could have a cow’s milk smoothie or sunny side eggs and toast. It’s so quick, since the oatmeal is prepared the night before and the eggs take 30 seconds. Lucas can do any sort of eggs himself. It’s important to involve your kids in the process of cooking. And start early! I have childhood memories of helping my grandmother with the beans. [When they are young], it’s like arts and crafts for them. Don’t be too ambitious at first, and then train them to do more things.

BB: A typical lunch for the kids?

I integrate leftovers from the night before. This could mean leftover chicken turns into a chicken salad sandwich. I’ll cook a big batch of quinoa, rice or pasta for the week and dress it up with greens, cheese or bacon. I’ll make a dressing out of tomato or a great salsa, and just add leftover protein.

BB: What are your go-to dinners for the family?

Quick and easy grilled meats and roasted vegetables take 15 minutes. I like beautiful greens when they are in season. Every two weeks I make a roasted chicken with vegetables underneath. It takes about one and a half hours to be ready, but zero labor. And then I can make a chicken broth from the bones to use for lunches.

BB: What do you keep on hand (in the freezer or pantry) for last-minute meals?

Pasta is good for last minute. I always have frozen peas in the freezer [to throw in], to cook with butter, cream and maybe bacon.

BB: How often do you all eat at Maison May Dekalb?

Not that often. When the boys were younger we used to go quite often. Now that they are older, they are busy bees. Between homework and sports, we maybe go once a month.

BB: What’s your policy on sweets and junk food?

Nothing. Zero. We may have greek yogurt and jam. They can have sliced apples with honey as a dessert, but cookies or soda, they don’t do at all. They may eat that at school with their friends, but at home there is nothing. I am not spending a dime on making my children sick.

BB: What’s your policy on introducing new food or encouraging your children to eat things they’re not interested in?

The rule is just to try it. I don’t care if you don’t like it, but you will put it in your mouth and swallow it. If you just listen to your kids, you can end up putting them in a bubble where they won’t be exposed to things. You grow your palette; it’s a muscle you develop.

BB: What’s your philosophy on food?

If we care about the food we consume, it can go a very long way toward caring about the planet. We really have a chance to make a conscious choice [with our meals]. If you are an overwhelmed parent, start by picking one lunch box a week to consciously pick sustainable choices. That will make a difference, and within a few months, you’ll find it easy to expand.

BB: Do you have a favorite recipe you’d like to share?

Lemon Zest Turkey Meatballs & Spicy Mayonnaise.

For the meatballs:

2lbs of ground turkey

2 egg yolks

1 cup of panko

zest of one-half of a lemon (preferably organic, non-treated), chopped very thin

chopped herbs such as parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything and then shape little balls about 1.5 inches in diameter. Add the panko: the exact amount will depend on the quality of your turkey: you want to be able to shape your meatballs so they are firm enough. Remember to rinse your hands often under cold water so they do not get too sticky. Heat the olive oil in a sautée pan and brown the meatballs. Reduce the heat & cover so they can cook through, about 15 minutes. It is important not to make the balls too big, otherwise it is impossible to cook them through.

For the mayo:

2 teaspoons dijon mustard

1 egg yolk

juice of 1 lemon

chipotle powder

extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, mix all but the oil, beating everything so it is really smooth and homogenous. Then add olive oil really slowly, beating continuously until it becomes a thick mayonnaise. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes before serving.

Our Family Weekly Cooking Strategy

I had a good laugh the other day when a friend told me that some people have this super glamorous vision of my family life when it comes down to food. They envision me eating at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) almost every night, with my perfectly mannered children—aren’t we French, after all?—just relaxing the night away over delicious food. On the rare nights we’re not there, I become a domestic goddess in the kitchen at home, whipping up something spectacular with ease.

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This is as far as you can possibly get from our reality. The boys almost never eat at ICI and while, yes, I can cook, it’s nothing too elaborate. I focus on what I can pull off with one main goal: make something taste delicious efficiently and ethically. In short, we’re a regular family. And in that sense I face the same challenge every head of household does: how do you come up with three meals a day for three (or however many) individuals with incredibly different tastes and needs, in the most nutritious, empowering, and caring way?

I basically follow a pattern that helps me organize my brain so that I never stare at an empty fridge on a Wednesday night at 7:30pm with two starving teenagers breathing down my neck.

Map the Week

I figure out my schedule, and the boys’ schedules, and start from there. I ask myself:

What days will I be able to cook?

What days can I prep for other, busier days?

When will I be home late, or not at all?

What days do the boys have dinnertime plans?

What day is going to be pizza or burger night (I’m dealing with two teenage boys, remember)?

Make a Menu

The week’s food roster covers breakfast, lunch boxes, dinner, and snacks. I list a few key dishes, from which I can pull ingredients or save leftovers for lunch boxes. Based on our schedules, it varies how elaborate my menu plans are. I think about how much time and energy I think I’ll have, and I always predict conservatively. If I have extra time, I can always make a last-minute chocolate cake.

Make a Shopping List

I draft a plan, and include ahead of time, not only what I will buy, but from where. This is also based on my schedule for the week, as well as what we receive from the CSA delivery.

Make a Cooking Plan

I draft a more detailed plan so I can manage my time efficiently, and, most importantly, so I do not have to think about it or remember everything as the week goes on and gets more crazy.

Kitchen Meeting with the Boys

Well, it doesn’t always happen so officially, but I write everything down and post it for them on a blackboard in the kitchen, so they are aware of the rhythm—and so I don’t get a text at 2:45pm on Tuesday asking me what’s for dinner, when I am coming home, realize that they rated a chicken for snack... 

Cook!

Oh, yeah, and then that has to actually happen.

Despite the level of detail that goes into it, the plan is not actually so rigid—because I never forget that our life is nothing but unpredictable. For me, this routine eliminates the daily anxiety of coming up with a way to make it all happen, and gives me a sense of starting ahead of the game each week, instead of chasing it for the next seven days.

Braised Pork Shoulder, Chimichurri & Creamy Grits

I love this dish because it is comforting, disarmingly easy to make and is best cooked the day before so when your guests arrive, you do not have anything to worry about and your kitchen is clean… And I always do a batch of garlicky sautéed collard greens on the side so I do not feel like I splurge too much...

Have your guests leave with some left over pork, perfect in a sandwich the following day:  spread horseradish mayo on ciabatta & add a few pickles and serve with bitter winter greens.

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Food Epiphany

By reconnecting with my roots, and with the intrinsic way of eating that had been mine for so many years, I discovered a deeper meaning to it that not only drives how I feed myself, my children, and the community in a healthy and delicious manner—and remains at the core of each and every week when I plan meals for my family and my restaurant—but inspires a way of living and working based on the simple ritual of eating well.

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