Wine Making the Easy Way

I’ve been dabbling with wine making for about a year now. I’ve never got bitten by the bug the way some folks have, however. They’ll go and buy all the special yeasts and all the containers and testing equipment, etc., and because they’ve done it, well natually they will think that you must do the same. And if you visit one of the snooty wine making forums on the Internet, and mention this lowly method of wine production, they will have a joyous time belittling you and making fun of your feeble cretinous attempts.

But there’s one important thing to keep in mind that these butt plugs are probably not even aware of: the history of wine making. Now, I don’t consider myself to be an authority on the history of wine making, and I don’t need to be either. But a knowledge of certain key facts is always helpful.

Fact number one — for many years it was reasoned that the wines being drunk during, say, the time of Christ, were rather weak, and not very far from grape juice. Baptists especially prefer this interpretation because it fits well with their no-alcohol philosophy. But in more recent years archeologist have take the time and spent the effort on reproducing the ancient methods as closely as they could, and guess what they discovered? Many of these ancient wines were quite high in alcohol content. So, employing “primitve” vintnering techniques can, indeed, result in a very powerful vintage.

Fact number two — these ancient wine-making techniques are amazingly simple. You’ve heard the old expresion, “It’s about as hard as falling off a log?” Well, you ask me, I think falling off a log is harder. Two thousand years ago and earlier — do we even know how much earlier, I wonder? — large quantities of wine were produced using simple vats dug into the ground. The grapes were dumped into these vats, folks danced on them until all the juice was squoze out, and then the grape hulls were removed.  And then they just let the juice sit. Open air. No covering or nothing. Sometimes the wine would get covered with silt or other debris. The folks back then didn’t care one way or the other. The important thing to them was to just let the grape juice sit there for the necessary amount of time. And after this allotted time passed, they filled their ancient amphorae with it and all had a snort or two.

The Dirty Little Secret: If you follow the methods I’m about to show you, the wine you make will be perfectly fine. It will taste good, and will have significant percentage by volume of alcohol. I’m so tight I don’t even own a hygrometer yet, so I can’t tell you exactly how much alcohol my wines have, but I would estimate it to be around 12% or so.  And yes, 12% in the wine making biz is a respectable number.

To start, you will need the following items: at least one measuring cup, a funnel or something that can be shaped into a funnel, 1 cup of sugar, one 1/2 gallon bottle of 100% grape juice (concord is best), and one small bunch of grapes — 15 or 20 will be sufficient — the frostiest looking you can find.

I will state this again for emphasis: the juice must be 100% juice with no additives or preservatives of any kind! Citric acid or ascorbic acid is OK, it occurs naturally in fruit anyway and won’t hurt the process. Also, resist the urge to choose a juice other than grape for this, your first time. I have found that a mixture of 2 parts grape to 1 part apple juice works well, but I have found that other mixtures don’t work well at all. Like blueberry and pomegranate. Yuechh. Even though it was 100% juice, I think the yeast — which was hanging out on grapes, please recall, and not blueberries or pomegranates — just didn’t know what to do with blueberry or pomegranate juice. It resulted in a wine that had an initial strongly sour taste with a sweet aftertaste. This description sounds better than it tasted, though. There was just something about the more subtle flavors in that mixture that just really turned me off. It was also noticeably lighter in the alcohol department compared to just straight grape wine.  So no more blueberry-pomegranate for me.

OK, to start, first, pour a cup (8 oz) of the grape juice into the measuring cup. You can drink the juice, offer it to the gods of wine, I don’t care. It is surplus. Next, rinse and thoroughly dry the measuring cup — or if you have more than one, grab the spare — and fill the cup with regular old granulated sugar. Place the funnel into the opening of the juice container and pour the sugar in. Cap the container and shake well. Continue shaking until all the sugar is disolved and you see no more settling down to the bottom of the bottle.  At this point, what you have is supercharged grape juice. It is way sweeter than it ever was or was ever capable of being. But for those little yeasties, it is just right.

Okay, next step, you need to crush those grapes. Do NOT wash the grapes! If you wash the grapes, you will be washing off all the natural wild yeast that has collected all over the exteriors of the grapes. We don’t want that. We need the yeast.

Now, I happen to own a cool old vintage, hand operated, fruit crusher, which is what I use for this step. I think it probably saves me some time over the old, time-worn method, but it isn’t without its own set of hassles. Now if your local Wally World is fresh out of fruit crushers, don’t despair. And don’t go reaching for your Cuisinart, either. We don’t want to be doing any sort of “processing” to these grapes that a food processor will do. It’ll turn the grapes into mush, a thick slurry. That we don’t need.  Remember, we’re just after the juice, but by crushing the grapes with their skins on, we are thoroughly mixing the juice with the wild yeast that was collecting on the outsides of the grapes.  So, if you don’t have any sort of fancy fruit crushing contraption, then just do it the way it’s been done for thousands of years, except you’re gonna use your fist instead of your feet. Oh and a good sized mixing bowl — that’s all you’ll need. Now, clench your hand into a fist. Harder. I want to see a really hard fist! There ya go. That’s gonna be your pestle and the bowl is your mortar.  Dump 15 or 20 of your frostiest grapes into the bowl and Get Busy.

Grapes can be pretty resistant to crushing, so it can end up being more work than you would expect. Nonetheless, we want to keep crushing them until you’ve got roughly two tablespoons of juice from this aggression quenching activity. Go ahead, admit it. Don’t you feel at least a little better now that you got to pound on something for a while? Next we want to separate the juice from the crushed hulls. Actually probably the easiest way to do this is to gather up all the crushed hulls in your hand or hands, and then give them one good squeeze into the bowl before removing them. You know what I do with the crushed hulls? I eat them. I eat them because they will still have quite a bit of juice and grape flavor left. That is, if they are the non-seeded variety. If they have seeds, I just toss them after giving them one good, final squeeze.

So now you have a mixing bowl with about two tablespoons of a cloudy mixture swirling around the bottom. This mixture is positively loaded with wild yeast, which is the key to our grape juice becoming wine. Carefully pour this elixir of the gods into the juice bottle. Cap the bottle and give it another good shake to mix things thoroughly. Set the bottle in a cool dark place and enter that date into your calendar as day one of your new wine-making venture — or should I as adventure?

Now here’s what’s going on inside that juice bottle right now. The wild yeast, which covered the exterior of those grapes and which was trying to find a way to get inside the grapes so it could consume all that sugar, is now in yeast heaven. It is totally surrounded by sweetness, so this wild yeast begins to eat sugar and reproduce like crazy. And as these little yeasties eat sugar, they, in a sense, “shit” alcohol and CO2. It has often been said that yeast proves that there is a God because there is no more perfect organism. It eats sugar and releases alcohol and CO2 — what could possibly be more glorious than that, eh? So anyway, during this fermentation process, you’ll note that as part of the chemical reaction taking place, CO2 is being released. But the bottle is still tightly capped. What should one do to prevent a possible explosion? Well, some folks will take a balloon and poke a couple of tiny holes in it and stretch it over the bottle’s opening.  The balloon will partially inflate and stay that way until the majority of the reaction has taken place. That’s fine, in fact I’ve made good wine doing that. But there’s a way that doesn’t involve balloons that works just as well. What I do now is, each day after mixing the wild yeast into the juice, I will unscrew the cap and see if I can detect an out-gushing of gas. If the bottle goes “whoosh!” or maybe “wheesh!” because of its smaller size and all, then this means that fermentation has finally built up a good head of steam, and it’s time to let it run its course. So to facilitate this, we do not screw the cap down tight again. We want those yeasties to get after it and consume as much sugar as they can, as quickly as they can. So we leave the cap just a bit loose so air (actually CO2) can escape. This process will take about three to five days before it’s run its course. This whole process that has just taken place is known as the Primary Fermentation Stage.

It is probably a good idea to pour yourself a small glass of the wine at this point, carefully holding the bottle so you don’t mix up any of the sediments at the bottom — yes sediments, which are mostly dead yeast. Take a sip of the wine. Most likely it will still be quite sweet, but you should also be able to feel the kick from the alcohol. At this point the wine contains probably about 10-12% alcohol by volume (abv). This is also a point where it is usually a good idea to transfer the contents of the juice bottle to another sanitary container of approximately that volume or more. This is done mostly for clarification reasons; when you do the transfer, if you’re careful about it, you will separate the wine from most of the sediment that has collected at the bottom of the container. My favorite container to use for this transfer is an empty 1 gallon jug that used to have distilled water in it. We always have those laying around because of our cat. He easily gets urinary tract infections and one way of preventing them is to see to it that he gets only distilled water. Plus I consider empty but capped distilled water jugs to be naturally sanitary, so I don’t have to do anything extra with them. Obviously if you don’t have empty distilled water containers laying around, then use what you’ve got, but make sure it’s sanitary.

Transferring the contents can be tricky. The easiest way is to siphon it. I use a long tube of clear PVC hose I bought at the hardware store. About 4 feet long and 5/16″ internal diameter is sufficient. Let’s do this in the kitchen so that, if you make a mess, it’ll be easier to clean up. Set the empty sanitary container on the floor next to the kitchen counter, and set the juice bottle on the counter top directly above the empty container. Insert the hose into the juice bottle and push it down as far as it will go. Then, with your mouth at about the same level as the container on the floor, start sucking on that tube. As soon as you see wine come rushing down the tube, drop the hose down into the container. And then just sit back and let flow physics + gravity do their things. Once the liquid is down to about an inch from the bottom of the juice bottle you will likely notice that the liquid has become very cloudy — a muddy brown color. It still tastes fine, it just looks nasty. So usually at this point, I pull the hose out and discard the remaining liquid. If you’re feeling particularly in touch with Mother Earth at this moment, thanks to the gifts she’s given us via such lowly but perfect yeasty creatures, then instead of just dumping the clouded leavings down the drain, you might want to present it as an offering to Mother Earth and spread the leavings around the backyard or something. Cumbaya and all that.  Whatever floats your boat.

Now, at this point, you have a perfectly drinkable wine. Its flavor will be rather simple, not having any of the complexity you might be used to with a nice vintage, and it will most likely be rather sweet. But it will have a goodly percentage of alcohol and if all you want to do is tie one on, you need go no further. This vintage will get the job done in that respect.

But if you are willing to be a bit more patient, by allowing secondary fermentation to run its course, you will wind up with a more sophisticated vintage, and, in my opinion, well worth the wait. To enter this stage, first secure the cap tightly to this new container.  This last stage is not strictly necessary, but I like to take things all the way to the end and I think you have a better tasting product with even a higher abv once fermentation has finally concluded. This final stage can vary in its length. One week? Maybe two?  My most recent one took almost a month. It’s actually rather hard to tell when it’s ended, although one thing’s for sure — if it gives off a hiss of escaping air when you crack open the container, it isn’t finished yet. So, if this happens to you, better to put it back up for a few more days. When it finally gives off no hiss when the bottle is opened, this final stage is complete. You can decant the wine into another container if you want, but it isn’t really necessary. So now, at last, it is time to enjoy.

My experiences have been that this final product is still quite sweet but also packs quite a wallop, not unlike a good Madeira. It should be a medium reddish maroon color, somewhat lighter and more reddish than the raw juice was. Why this is, I haven’t a clue. The wine’s nose I’ve found to be rather simple and not complex. This is, I believe, a result of the grapes that were selected for the juice. I’m sure that their selection is based on a number of factors, all of which are meant to determine consistency from one batch to the next. Whereas wine coming from a winery will have been fermented from varietals, perhaps unique to a region or even a very small geographic area, and these differences will reveal themselves in the nose of a more “sophisticated” wine.  Nonetheless, this simple vintage — and it really couldn’t get much simpler — has a surprisingly good flavor and didn’t really require any special techniques or equipment to produce. Indeed it harkens back to the way wine was fermented thousands of years ago, and by all accounts from the ancient literatures, that ancient wine packed quite a wallop as well.

So, give it a try if you’ve a mind to, and enjoy some of the bounty that Nature has provided for us all.

Even fun things have a life cycle

I’ve been around long enough now to have seen quite a few “things” come and go. Trends, fads, innovations that weren’t, inventions that didn’t quite make it, even entire industries that just went away once they became obsolesced.  And I guess it’s the latter that I find somewhat curious today.

I believe it is safe to assume that most successful businesses continue to innovate in order to grow their businesses. If a business ever decides innovation is no longer so important, then it’s lost an important spark of what it once was, and this alone can lead to its eventual demise. Have you ever seen a business that just seemed to have run out of steam and was just going through the motions to keep its doors open?  Sure you have. Excepting for the most part the mom&pop shops that have survived “as is” as they have continued to support multiple generations of a single family. That’s different. A shop like that is more like a family member than it is a business. But many, if not most, of the others haven’t survived, have they.  It is akin to the biological imperative — the will to live. And when a business has lost it, it is doomed.

But there are others who have played their cards right their entire business lives. Yet, because of innovations or market directions, they find they no longer have a market for their product. And even though their product may be at its design zenith — the best it’s ever been — it too is doomed to the trash heaps of history, albeit really through no fault of its own.  I’m thinking of a couple of mature technologies at the moment. One is endangered — to draw from an ecological vocabulary — and the other is showing numerous signs of being “at risk.”

The “at risk” industry is the automotive industry. Specifically, the reciprocating, internal combustion engine. It is quite arguably and predicatably the most advanced it has ever been. These days, small engines put out the same amount of horsepower and torque that large V8s did back in the 60s and 70s. Some are efficient and smart enough to idle underused components to save on fuel, thus it isn’t unusual for modern V8 engines to get upwards of 30 mpg.  Some modern engines are so efficient that the air coming out of them is cleaner than the air going in! But almost all of them burn fossil fuels, plus there is this whole “carbon footprint” guilt trip going on (fuck you, Al Gore!) that you have to deal with as well.

The writing is on the wall, I’m afraid. The trend is more and more toward flex-fuel and hybrids, neither of which really make any economic sense, but it makes all the fruits, nuts, and flakes feel oh-so-good about themselves and how everybody is just getting along so well and cumbaya! I mean, how do you fight that? You can chip away at it with reason, but it is so smooth ate up with stupidity that the prognosis is becoming increasingly dim. And ultimately, this exquisite technology will fall into desuetude because of its perceived evil content or, even worse, intent. You see, it has become a religion to them.  So fine, I say. If they insist on such nonsense, then they should be allowed to go their own way and get around on horseback again. But leave the rest of us the fuck alone. You — the leftists in government bureaucracy, that is — need to stop twisting public policy to support your equally twisted ideologies.

The other industry — the “endangered” one — is the film industry. Kodachrome, quite possibly the finest film ever made, has been history for a few years now. There is nothing in the inventory — digital included — that can replace what Kodachrome was. So many other film emulsion types have been discontinued in recent years, as digital begins to assert its supremacy, too many of them the best they ever were. And that’s what really bothers me as I look around at the film landscape, and try to peer dimly into the future. We have some of the best films there have ever been available to us right now. And it really behooves anybody who still cares about film to get out there, buy a bunch of it, and use it!  My current favorites are as follows:

  • Color Print: Kodak Ektar, Kodak Portra 160, Kodak Portra 400.
  • Color Slide: Kodak Elite Chrome, Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia
  • Black & White: Kodak Tri-X Professional 400

The more I see of the Portra 160, the more I like it. In fact I like it so much that it has become my favorite, even though I haven’t shot any of it yet.  I base my view on a thread I saw over at on the subject of the new Portra 160. The guy showed some rather extreme enlargements, to illustrate the amount of detail that film captured, and all I can say is it was extraordinary! I mean I was seeing resolutions that rivaled a densely pixeled digital image sensor.  At last it appears we may have a color film that can bring it to digital and take them down a peg or two. To me, Ektar is just okay. The sharpness and grain are good, but the colors are — well, I was expecting more Kodachromesque colors from Ektar, and I’m not getting them. They’re more subdued, and don’t seem to be as accurate as Portra. When it comes to color slide film, these days, with the exit of Kodachrome from the stage, it’s pretty much about three emulsions anymore: Kodak Elite Chrome (which comes in a couple of different flavors, IIRC), and Fuji’s Velvia and Provia.  All three are outstanding emulsions with very fine grain, excellent color saturation, and great sharpness. Velvia has grain that is so microscopic that it might as well be invisible. I have dupes of Velvia slides that I took using my 10mp DSLR — so they’re 10mp dupes, but of film images. But when I went to examine the images in photoshop, they were so sharp I couldn’t distinguish them from digital. For black&white, I’m just a big fan of Tri-X, and today’s Professional flavor is the best I’ve ever used. It’s warmth and tonality is unsurpassed.  I shoot it mostly with my medium format cameras and, with that negative size, the detail Tri-X records is extraordinary.

So yes, I grew up in and have lived through a special time for both technologies. They’re likely the best they’ve ever been and will ever be pretty much right now. So it behooves me and you to go out there and enjoy them while they’re still around. Because once they’re gone, there will likely be no bringing them back. Ever.

Idle and Not So Thoughts

I should use my blog more for idle thoughts, I sez to myself, thinking idly. And for thoughts that aren’t so idle. I’m having more and more occasions where I feel like writing something of import to me, but I don’t feel like trying to come up with a story outline or an article premise. Sometimes I just want to write. I want to write about things that are on my mind no matter what they might be. And if I have some images that are relevant, then I suppose I should rummage around through my collection and come up with a few good ones. But I’m meandering . . .

My wife, Bai Shin, who is a native of Taiwan but a naturalized US citizen, goes back to Taiwan every couple of years or so to visit with her family and close friends. She’s lived here for 30 years now, but she still stays in close touch with friends and family. Usually when she goes back to Taiwan for a visit, she goes back around this time of year, for Chinese New Year because that’s a really special date on the Chinese calendar. Imagine Christmas, New Year’s, and Mardi Gras all wrapped up together, and you’ll have some idea of what New Year’s celebrations are like in Taiwan. The entire island just flat parties down for three or four days. Non-stop marathon Mahjong games that are played for money, and every bit as fun as Texas Hold-em — once you know the rules, of course. Bistros that stay open all night and midnight sidewalk flea markets. Swarms of scooters that buzz by like clouds of angry bees. Street corner food vendors everywhere. It’s a blast. Except for the weather, that is.

Well, right now, my wifey has been in Taiwan for almost two weeks. She’s still got about another 10 days left to her vacation. Getting plenty of rest, having a good time hanging out with family and friends and all. Our daughter and her boyfriend (soon to be fiancé?) traveled over there with her. So, I am without immediate family. Yes, I have extended family here, but we don’t hang out a lot with each other. It just isn’t the same, you know? Well, to be accurate, I was without immediate family until earlier today. My daughter and her boyfriend finally got back into town, but she just now got around to calling me to let me know they arrived safely. It’s good to know she’s back.

Just got off the phone with my SO. She’s bored, sitting around, not doing anything since our daughter and boyfriend returned to the States. That was like a couple of days ago. She keeps going on about how they didn’t know how to pack properly and how she had to show them, and I’m saying, “Hey, I don’t care about the packing job y’all did. I’m asking what have you been doing over there? Did you go see any cool places?”

She hadn’t. Our daughter had wanted to do some shopping, so they did a fair amount of that, I suspect. And the Taiwanese being the convivial people they are, I’m sure that everyone has been eating out at nice restaurants perhaps more frequently than they otherwise would.

But Bai Shin hasn’t done anything for just herself since she arrived in Taiwan. I’ve asked her specifically what she’s done for herself, and she’s told me, quite bluntly, “Nothing!” As in, ‘stop bugging me about it!’ This seems incredible, right? And here I’m thinking, that’s nuts, she should have gotten out more and had some fun, but then I think back to my trip to Taiwan. The same time of year as now, cuz we wanted to be there for Chinese New Year. And I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I spent most of my time there, kicking back on her mom’s couch, reading paperback novels I’d found at an English bookstore for expats that wasn’t too far from her mom’s apartment, and drinking Apple Sidra, an apple flavored soda that became rather habit forming. Why was I doing this? Because this time of year in Taiwan it rains all day and all night long. When I was there for fourteen days, probably only a half-dozen or less of them had any significant modicum of sunshine associated with them. Most of the days were cool, overcast, and drizzly.

My main reason for making the trip, besides just getting to hang with Bai Shin’s side of the family, was to photograph the island, its people, and general scenic subjects. Obviously, inclement weather conditions can put a hamper on things. But I did come back with some nice shots. For the trip, I packed an EOS 650 with a Tamron 24-70 Aspherical and a Canon EF 70-210 f/4, plus a good store of Fujichrome 100 slide film. But that was then. This is now, and you know what else? I can promise you that my wifey did not take one single photo while she was there. I’m hoping my daughter — who has a pretty cool 16mp Sony p&s, took some cool pix to make up for it.

Bai Shin says it’s miserable in the summertime in Taiwan because it gets so hot and sticky, so I’m thinking mid-spring and perhaps late autumn would be better times to visit that jewel of an island. Still, getting back to the topic, I think wifey should make at least some attempt at least to have a good time before she has to board a plane for the long ride home. Neh?

I’ve been digging on my hard drive partitions for the shots I took of Taiwan, and I haven’t been successful so far. So when I find where I’ve stored the photos, I’ll come back here and load them up.

Welp, it seems to have worked again — the feelings of loneliness being averted. Perhaps they’ll be kept at bay for another day . . .

- Michael

A Day of Sadness

It’s a very sad night tonight. Barack Hussein Obama is projected to have been re-elected to the United States Presidency. BHO, a person who has yet to prove to the satisfaction of millions of Americans that he is even one of us, has managed to bamboozle the majority of the US constituency once again. BHO, who has not proven to any extent that he is even a legal resident of the United States — let alone a US citizen — has apparently been granted the power to continue to rule by a misinformed public. Anyone who would care to question the authenticity of BHO’s alleged birth certificate has only to visit the White House page where it is exhibited, download the document, and run their own tests. And they will clearly see that it is a crude forgery. We have an illegal alien in the White House now and it would appear that this unfortunate situation will continue for four more long years.

I have nothing more to say on the matter.

CFS at the Hollister Grill: Onward with the Quest!

Hollister Grill on Urbanspoon

Chicken Fried Steak at the Hollister Grill in Houston, Texas

Okay, anybody who’s paid attention to my previous posts on the subject knows that I’m on something of a Quest. A Quest to find the Best Chicken Fried Steak in Existence. Alright, alright, I’ll admit that this isn’t a full-time thing. Nothing like the Knights Templar and their Quest for the Holy Grail or anything. Nope, this is a spare time gig, but to me it is just as serious of an undertaking.

Recently I found out about a new restaurant just a few miles down the road from my house, called the The Hollister Grill. It is located where an Italian Restaurant had been a local institution for decades. Sadly, the original owners retired and sold it to some non-Italians, and the quality slipped. It closed a few years later. But after finding out about this new place, I did a bit of research and discovered that their menu was mostly American comfort food, especially for lunch. Things get quite a bit fancier — and more expensive — for dinner, but still even for dinner the American theme presides. One of my discoveries on their lunch menu was Chicken Fried Steak. Well, that settled it; I had to go and give the place a try.

The Hollister Grill is tucked away in the rear of a small strip mall on Long Point Rd. in the heart of the Old Spring Branch district of Houston. If it weren’t for their rather prominent sign out at the curb, you would scarcely know they were there. Parking is limited. We arrived during the peak of the lunch hour today, a Monday, which the owner says is a slow day for them. Yet the parking lot was full and the restaurant was almost full. We ended up parking on the street next to the restaurant. No big deal. Fortunately I had called earlier requesting a table for two, and it was waiting for us when we arrived.

The Hollister Grill is a family run business, and it shows. As soon as you walk in the door, they welcome you as if you are part of the family, and they are warm and friendly, offering prompt and thorough service. It is a smallish, rather cozy sort of place. The interior is simple: booths along a few of the walls, with tables elsewhere. Avant garde paintings on the walls.  When you visit their website, you’ll also see that they recommend you BYOB.

But enough of all that. Let’s get to the reason for this post: the CFS.

Don’t let the above photo fool you.  The food was placed on a platter, not a plate, really.  Such a large platter may make you think that the servings are just sort of medium sized.  But they are not.  The Chicken Fried Steak was a good nine to ten inches long by seven to eight inches wide, what looks like a dollop of mashed potatoes was actually a rather large heap, and the ample helping of mixed vegetables has been hidden from view, buried behind the CFS.  You know how many restaurants will offer smaller portions of their dishes for reduced prices on their lunch menus?  Not this place.  This big platter of food sets you back only $9.95.  And with food that is this good, well, that’s a deal any way you want to slice it.

Unlike many other places, the Hollister Grill’s Chicken Fried Steak is dipped in a rather thin batter that ends up being very light and crispy, and it adheres very well to the well-tenderized steak underneath.  The batter does the job that it is intended for: protecting the meat from direct exposure to the hot oil.  Despite being deep fried, however, the steak was well drained and not greasy at all.  The cream gravy is unique — or at least I’ve not run across anything similar to it yet.  Most CFS’s have a flour-based gravy that’s been flavored typically from stock or pan drippings.  The Hollister Grill’s is a genuine cream gravy, though: cream-based, which imparts a totally different flavor to the gravy than what I was anticipating.  Once I got used to the slightly sweet, rich flavor, I found I enjoyed it quite a lot.  The mashed potatoes are interesting themselves.  The skins are left on the potatoes when they are mashed so there is potato skin mixed up with the mashed potatoes.  I like this — perhaps because I was taught from an early age not to waste potato skins. “That’s where all the vitamins are,” my mom used to say. So like a good lad, I ate the skins too.  The potatoes are also topped with the same cream gravy, giving them a very rich flavor as well.  As for the mixed vegetables, well they weren’t bad.  They were mixed vegetables.  And I ate them all because I knew they were good for me too.

Okay, it’s true that  all I’ve mentioned is the CFS at the Hollister Grill.  That’s mostly because both my partner and me both had it.  But just so’s you know, they had several other very interesting offerings on their lunch menu as well.  So more than likely the next time I go there for lunch, I’ll give one of the other items a go.  We asked to see the dinner menu after we had finished.  Yes, definitely more upscale.  The crabcakes — not offered for lunch — are apparently a big hit.  And the shrimp and scallops risotto looks outstanding.  What about CFS for dinner?  Heh, they’ve even kicked that up a notch or two. The dinner CFS is a battered ribeye, served with jalapeño cream gravy.  Yum.  Can’t wait.

The Hollister Grill

1741 Hollister Street, Houston, Texas

Ph: 713-973-1741

Prices: Lunch $  Dinner $$-$$$

Reservations: Recomended

*** B Y O B ***

Empire Turkish Grill, Houston Texas — So Worth It!

Empire Turkish Grill on Urbanspoon

The Turkish Mixed Grill -- Enough for Two Hungry People

Last week, Bai Shin and I were out looking for mohair yarn.  Her mother knits and she wants a new mohair sweater, so she wanted to buy enough for her mom to make her one.  We found a place called Nimblefingers on Memorial Drive in Houston, just west of Gessner.  Upon arrival, I noticed a restaurant just a couple doors down and got curious.  Its name is the Empire Turkish Grill.  Well I was curious because I’ve never eaten Turkish food before, and I’m always willing to try something new.  Fortunately, Bai Shin often is too.

So we’re inside the yarn store and I ask the two women there if they’ve tried the Grill, and they both said they had and that the food was very good.  There was another customer in the store at the time, and she chimed in and said she’d just had lunch there, and that she had enjoyed it.  Okay, well my stomach was starting to rumble so I started dropping hints in Bai Shin’s direction.  She didn’t really say anything until we left the yarn store.  Instead, she just started heading for the restaurant, basically saying, Well, you wanted to try it out — let’s give it a try.  So we did.

Walking into the place, it sort of reminds me of a ladies tea house.  Nice tables with linen table cloths and real cloth napkins all folded nice and pretty.  No booths.  The single largish dining room is painted a pastel sort of peach color.  Not really at all what I was expecting based on the name of the place.  It was about 3pm and the place was almost deserted.  We were invited to take any table we liked, so we helped ourselves to one by the window.  We were seen promptly by the waiter, who dropped off menus and took our drink order.  The menu is about five pages deep and, if you are already familiar with Mediterranean food, then many of the items will already be familiar to you.  E.g., falafals, hummus, tabouli, eggplant babaganush, kebobs, etc.  We eventually decided on the Mixed Grill, which includes giros, lamb kebob, chicken kebob, and ground lamb kebob served over a bed of rice, along with thinly sliced onions, red cabbage, grilled bell peppers and tomato.  It is $23.95, but it is meant to be shared by at least two people.  We liked the idea that it had a variety of main courses.  Since this was our first visit, it gave us the chance to sample their fare.

While we were waiting for the main course, we were served some delicious flat bread with extra virgin olive oil for dipping.  The Mixed Grill arrived in a reasonable amount of time.  Lemme tell ya, I was in love from the very first bite.  The rice had a wonderful flavor that can only be achieved by cooking it in the juices of some of the meats, most likely the chicken.  The chicken kebob consisted of breast meat.  I’m not a big fan of chicken breast because it is often dry and gets stuck in my throat.  But this was surprisingly moist and flavorful.  The same can be said for the gyros, lamb and ground lamb kebobs.  Spices were just right, and the dishes were not too salty.  Over-salting food is a crime often committed by many restaurants and is one that Bai Shin and I especially don’t like.  So it was nice getting a meal that had just enough salt without overdoing it.

We were pleasantly sated after eating our fill, and even took enough home for a late night snack or a light meal.  Running into a place like this is always a treat.  We will definitely be visiting it again.

Empire Turkish Grill

12448 Memorial Drive

Houston, TX

Prices: $$

Reservations: Recommended for Dinner

Incidentally, the photo was taken with my new Smartphone — a Samsung Galaxy S.  It has a 5 mp camera built in and did a good job.  No flash, though.  About a month after I got this phone (signed a 2-year agreement, of course), Samsung comes out with the Galaxy S II, which among other things has an 8 mp camera.  Grrr . . .  Not much I can do about it now. If you click on the image twice, you’ll see it full-size.

A Cool Leftover Turkey Dish. Easy and Cheap as well

Well, we’re entering into the home stretch, preparing for Thanksgiving Day.  And if you’re already thinking beyond T-Day for ways to deal with all the leftovers, here’s an idea for you that’s both fun and easy to do.  Guaranteed to be a hit as well: Turkey Pot Pie.  Yum.

The gang around here are all the same in one regard.  We all prefer the turkey dark meat.  So it tends to go pretty quickly and then we’re left with all that breast meat and wondering what to do with it.  Well, I finally figured it out.  Turkey pot pie works so well because it keeps the breast meat moist.

For ingredients, you will need the following:

Turkey breast meat.

At least one deep dish frozen pie crust (I bought two).  Each package includes two crusts so you will have crust for a pie top if desired.  We desire.

Turkey Pot Pies with funky looking crusts. Taste good though.

One 1lb package of  baby carrots

Two packages of frozen peas (I buy the 14oz packages at Kroger)

Plenty of gravy

So, if you plan to make pot pies with the turkey leftovers, plan ahead and prepare about twice as much gravy as you normally would so you’ll have plenty left for the pie(s).  Also, if you have, say, a 12 to 13 lb bird, you’ll wind up with enough of the filling mixture to make three pot pies using the standard size frozen deep dish pie crusts.  If your bird is larger or smaller, adjust quantities as necessary.

Don’t do like I did and let the pie crusts thaw out before you begin to work with them.  You want to remove that top crust piece and set it aside on a cutting board, etc., to thaw.  Because I didn’t do this, the top crusts to my pies shredded.  Also, even though I used Kroger brand pie crusts, I dunno if I recommend them.  Next time I will try the Pilsbury ones.  These Kroger ones just seemed to be too thin and the pie slices just sort of fell apart because the crust was so thin.

I pull the turkey breast meat from the bone and then chop it up into largish approximately 1″ size cubes.  Set it aside.  Precook your carrots and peas, boiling them until they are tender.  Drain and set aside.  Then, in a dutch oven, pour in the peas and carrots and the turkey.  Then add the gravy.  Stir well, but not vigorously, or you may shred the turkey.  You should wind up with a thick stew-like concoction.  Ladle the mixture into the pie crusts, add the crust tops and crimp down the edges.  With a sharp knife, cut a few slits into the top crust of each pie.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Take a flat baking sheet and line it with foil.  Some of the gravy will most likely bubble out; do this to save on clean-up.  Plus you can use the foil to wrap up any leftovers you may have.   Bake for 45 minutes or until the crust begins to brown.  Remove the pies from the oven and allow to stand for at least 15 minutes before cutting the slices.  Serve and enjoy.

Now in my case, guess what?  I still have leftover pot pie makin’s.  Well, I’ve decided that, rather than make another, I will prepare some pasta instead.  I’ve got some linguini that should work just right.  The turkey/carrot/peas mixture will work just like Chicken a la King, ceptin’ it’s turkey of course.  And that should be another pleasant meal I’ll have coaxed out of the leftovers.

Tamron 60B SP 300mm f/2.8 LD IF — a Bargain Pro Telephoto

Well, if you don’t mind shooting with a manual focus lens, that is. And I don’t, cuz that’s how I got started in photography, and I’m still really used to cranking on the ol’ focusing collar. The Tamron 60B compared very well against its Canon and Nikon 300/2.8 contemporaries. If you visit the website, you’ll find the 60B listed there, along with a set of resolution and contrast tests performed by Modern Photography. As the tests show, the lens scores quite high. And as a bonus nowadays, the Tamron 60B can often be found for surprisingly reasonable prices if one is patient or willing to put a bit of work into the lens after buying it. Take this one, for example.

Tamron 60B 300mm f/2.8

I spotted it on eBay and what attracted me to it was its low opening bid: $499.00. It’s more typical finding this lens on eBay in the $700-900 range, often for more, but I don’t think the sellers with high asking prices are having much luck selling their 60Bs at those higher prices. So anyway, this lens had been placed up for a 7-day auction, no Buy-I-Now. So I waited, biding my time. As the days ticked off, nobody bid on it, which I found mildly surprising. I write “mildly” because the seller did an outstanding job of documenting the lens’s defects, most of which was some light fungus on the inside of the front element. It was also missing a few items that would have come with it originally: its case, a 1.4x teleconverter, and a set of rear-mounted filters. It did include the hood and the front cap, plus a Nikon Adaptall-2 mount, the latter of which was actually an option. I didn’t really need the case, I already have a Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, and the filters are mostly just used for B&W photography anyway, so it had all the stuff that mattered to me. But I suspect it was the photos of the fungus that kept other bidders away. Photographers tend to run in the opposite direction when the word “fungus” is mentioned. I wasn’t too concerned, though, because I’ve disassembled lenses before and cleaned fungus out of them, and removing this lens’s front element is a very straightforward procedure. So anyway, the clocked ticked down on the auction and I ended up getting the lens for the opening bid amount.

When the lens arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. The fungus was actually much lighter than I had been anticipating, and the other defects shown in the photos were much more minor in person. Good news all the way around, so I immediately grabbed my EOS DSLR, mounted a Nikon-to-EOS adapter on the lens, and took it outside for some shots.

It’s been stinkin’ hot here in Houston for the past couple of months and I really didn’t feel like dealing with the heat to much of an extent, so I just shot some more pics of the birds that hang around here to eat my dog’s food and drink his water.  Here’s a shot of a grackle perched on a branch in an oak tree in our front yard, followed by a 100% crop of the bird.

Common Grackle

100% crop of above image

The DSLR I used is a 10.1mp APS-C Canon EOS.  So, figuring in the 1.6x crop factor, the effective focal length of the lens was 420mm. Exposure info: ISO 400, 1/250 second, lens set wide open to f/2.8.  I did not use Live View to confirm focus.  Too bright outside.

This is the second one of these lenses I’ve owned. I bought a very clean used one back in about 1989. It was complete as supplied by Tamron, too. I took it to a number of air shows and auto races, and had a great time with it. Here are a few scans of some slides I took at a couple of air shows during the early 1990s.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning -- Fujichrome 100

A rare North American P-51B Mustang -- Fujichrome 100

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Grumman TBF Avenger -- Fujichrome 100

Unfortunately, I sold my old 60B during times having plenty of photo gear but not enough money.  I’m determined to hang onto this one quite a bit tighter this time around.

So, to sum things up, if you don’t mind handling the focusing chores yourself, instead of shelling out $6,000+ for a latest generation AF 300/2.8 wonder, you can pick up one of these that still does a bang-up job.

Possibly the Best Manual Focus 80-200 Ever?

Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD mounted to my Old Canon F-1

You may or may not be aware of this, but there is a growing trend among photographers, who are using older manual focus lenses on their digital cameras.  It isn’t just some flash in the pan sort of thing, either.  In fact, we have prestigious lens makers such as Zeiss making manual focus lenses expressly for DSLRs, and we have upstart companies, such as the Korean lens maker Samyang doing the same.  The surprising thing about the Samyangs is that this company is building top-notch optics for very reasonable prices.  They just don’t happen to be auto-focus.  But we also have more and more people taking looks backward at which optics were great in their day and reasoning that they may be worth a second look — or more.  Which is what leads to the subject of this article: manual focus zooms.  Zooms which haven’t been made in 10, 15, even 20 years or more.  There are many excellent manual focus zooms that were made over the years, and this article will discuss the one in particular that I feel is the best of the lot . . . for the group of 80-200 zooms at least.  Okay, about this comparison, when I wrote 80-200 in the title, I did not mean this literally.  Rather, this is a class of optics, to which I would consider 70-210s and 70-200s and 80-210s and even the old 90-230s to be qualified participants.  Think of this as a general zoom range, and it will probably work best for this topic.

So, moving along.  In order for a lens to be ranked “best of,” what sort of criteria would you judge as being essential?  Surely a lens’s resolution must rank highly on the list, but not just any sort of resolution, but corner-to-corner resolution, eh?  And of course a lens must also be blessed with good contrast.  Faithful color.  Minimal optical aberrations.  Maximum aperture value.  And the fact that we’re discussing a zoom here means that an inevitable challenge will appear: “Your zoom may be sharp, but it isn’t gonna be as sharp as my xxx prime.” (fill in the xxx with whatever focal length you want that fits within the zoom’s range)  So a zoom has to overcome what I call Prime Prejudice as well.  So, this “best of” zoom must also be able to accept the prime challenge and do well against them, despite the fact that, in this discussion we’re comparing zooms to zooms and not zooms to primes.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a few lens makers started producing fast 80-200 optics — ones with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture.  It could be argued, I suppose, that Vivitar started it all back in the mid-1970s with their Series 1 70-210 f/3.5 zooms.  After all, f/3.5 is only 1/2 stop away from f/2.8.  Nonetheless, pairing a lens with a top focal length of 200mm or so with a wide open aperture of f/2.8 caused a lot of interest.  Why?  Well, because 200mm f/3.5 lenses had been common for years, but 200mm f/2.8 lenses were uncommon.  In fact there were quite a few lenses that had fast f/2.8 apertures but that didn’t quite reach 200mm.  We had the Zeiss 180mm f/2.8 Sonnar and the Zeiss Jena f/2.8 Sonnar and Leica’s f/2.8 Elmarit and Olympus made a 180mm f/2.8  and the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, and even Schneider made one for Rollei.  Again, why, you may be wondering?  Well, as it turns out, 180mm is still pretty much okay at f/2.8, chromatic aberration-wise, as is a lens with a longer focal length of 200mm and a maximum aperture of f/3.5, but when you open the design up just that 1/2 stop more or stretch it another 20mm — blammo! Color fringing all over the place.  In fact, I know of only two 200mm f/2.8 lenses that were made prior to this time that did not have special glass or optical formulations: the Canon 200mm f/2.8 and the Soligor 200mm f/2.8.  I’ve never tried the Soligor, but I owned the Canon — the late, internal focusing model, too.  And it had severe chromatic aberration problems.  They were so bad, I really had to be careful how I used it.  But that was back in the days of film, when Photoshop didn’t exist and if you had CA in an image, you were stuck with it.

Fortunately for photographers, the lens designers realized that if they were going to be offering zooms with a 200mm maximum focal length and a maximum aperture of f/2.8, they could not just use regular optical glass in these lenses.  So  the lens makers introduced their optics with special glass or formulations to reduce the chromatic aberration problems.  Of course, having to use special, low-dispersion glass and special optical configurations increases the costs for the lens makers, so they were forced to sell these premium lenses at premium prices.  Apparently, this wasn’t a problem particularly, because by all accounts I’ve seen, these premium lenses sold well, despite their much higher prices.  Compare the Vivitar Series 1 f/3.5 zooms, which sold in the mid-70s for maybe the mid-200s (USD), and routinely on the used market at the time for about $150, and the newer zooms with their special glass, which typically sold for $800 or more.  Street prices.  Interestingly, most of the manufacturers of the super f/2.8 zooms were aftermarket makers.  Sigma had its 70-210 f/2.8 APO, Tokina its 80-200 f/2.8 AT-X SD, and Tamron had its SP 80-200 f/2.8 LD.  The only exception I’m aware of is Nikon, who produced an 80-200 f/2.8 ED.  But this is a relatively rare lens.  I have the feeling that Nikon didn’t sell many.  Considering that theirs sold for about twice what the aftermarket ones sold for, this might have been some of it.  But perhaps not all.  In fact, I’d have to say that all of these f/2.8 super zooms are relatively uncommon.  They appear on the used market only occasionally.

It’s time I got to the point.  Based on articles and tests I’ve read at the time this lens was available new, it is my conviction that the Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD is the best that has ever been made of the manual focus zooms in that range.  I can already hear you Contax guys with your T* 80-200 f/4s saying that my conviction is a load of cow manure.  Maybe even you Nikkor 80-200mm f/4 guys.  And for sure you folks who own the Canon 80-200mm f/4 L.  Now these three lenses I’ve just mentioned are truly outstanding optics that deliver resolution and contrast on par with some of the best primes.  But I really do believe that the Tamron has the edge.  I base my convicition mostly on the lens tests that the much missed Modern Photography magazine used to conduct.  Unlike the mushy IQ bullcrap that Popular Photography magazine replaced it with (PP bought out MP), Modern Photography’s tests gave the reader real numbers that could be compared to other lenses’ real numbers.  And the real number tests for the Tamron 80-200 f/2.8 at 200mm show it to be almost the exact equivalent to Nikon’s superb 180mm f/2.8 ED.  It is, in fact, uncanny how closely the two lenses match each other’s numbers.  At shorter focal lengths, the Tamron’s numbers are even higher.  So because of this, I feel that the burden of proof must lie with those f/4 optics and for their users to prove their superiority.  But there is, for sure, one area in which they cannot compete and that is shooting with the lens wide open at 200mm f/2.8.  For example:
Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD @ 200mm and f/2.8
A 100% crop of the above image
The above photo was taken at a distance of about twelve feet and the camera/lens combo was hand held.  I probably could have done better if it would have been mounted to a tripod, but I believe this is “good enough” to show what the lens is capable of at f/2.8.  Of course, no image sharpening of any kind was done to the above images.  My apologies for not offering more example images at this point, but I’m an outdoor photographer, and we have reached the dog days of summer here in Houston, and it is difficult for me to find much of anything interesting to shoot pictures of at this time of year.  Except maybe for a few neighborhood birds hoping to snag a few morsels of food out of my dog’s food dish and drink from his water bucket.  The odd squirrel or two.  Aw hell, what the hey.  If you don’t mind, I don’t either.
Here’s a common grackle — a bird species indigenous to eastern North America. They are very common around where I live and I’ve been observing them quite a bit. The grackle is a fairly large bird — larger than blackbirds but smaller than crows, and the males are larger than the females. The sexes tend to congregate together. That is, I’ll see gangs of males or females, but seldom do I see them mixed. The males are characterized by a glossy black plumage that can have a greenish-purple tinge, whereas the females have brownish-gray colored bodies with black wings and tails. The males are also characterized by having large, almost out-of-proportion tail feathers. Perhaps the grackle’s most distinguishing characteristic is its call. The grackle’s call can range from a shriek that rises in pitch to a something that sounds like a combination of a high-pitched squawk and a stick snapping in two. Strange.

Common Grackle: Tamron SP 80-200mm f/2.8 LD @ f/2.8

I was about 15 meters away from the bird when I took that shot.  Here is a 100% crop of the image.  Taken with a 10.1 megapixel Canon XS (the megapixel count determines the size of a 100% crop, which is why I mention this).

100% crop of the above image.

So this may not be the most photogenic of subjects, but as you can see this Tamron holds detail exceptionally well.  Here’s another — a white-winged dove.  I like these more than their more common ring-necked cousins because of their blue mascara.  First the uncropped image, then the 100% cropped image.

White-winged dove, Tamron SP 80-200mm f/2.8 LD lens

100% crop of the above image

Incidentally all of the above images were taken with the lens wide open at f/2.8 and at its maximum zoom setting: 200mm. I’m kinda funny that way about lenses, especially zoom lenses. I want to see how well a lens performs at its most demanding setting, and to me its most demanding setting is wide open, and if it’s a zoom, it’s wide open at its longest focal length. This is when it will tend to show softness, chromatic aberrations, and other problems. So if a lens performs well at its most demanding settings, I feel reasonably confident that it won’t let me down if I have to stop it down a bit or bring the zoom in a notch or two. And as you can see, this lens is doing very little in the way of letting me down.

Finally, I would like to mention that this lens is a recent acquisition of mine and that I bought it from KEH (  I’m not getting paid a dime by KEH to mention them here and the only reason why I do so is because I feel that they are an exceptionally good outfit to do business with when one is shopping for used equipment.  This lens arrived in much better condition than their rating system indicated and I was able to obtain it for a great price.  KEH has a very large inventory of used gear and they have become the place I usually check first when I’m in the market for a piece of used gear.  Also, it’s worth noting that, despite their worldwide reputation as a dealer in used photo gear, they sell new stuff too.

CFS at Pappy’s Café: The Quest Continues!

Pappy's Grill on Urbanspoon

Pappy's Chicken Fried Steak with fries substituted instead of mashed, and Texas Toast

Okay, first of all, my apologies for the crappy photo above — it’s the best I could do with my cell-phone’s cheezy camera.  And while the photo might not get your mouth to a-watering, still, it gets the idea across.

What will most likely be my never ending quest for finding the Perfect Chicken Fried Steak  continues.  I revisited one of my favorite haunts a couple days ago: Pappy’s Cafe, a place I that I haven’t been to in a while, and I wanted to refresh my recollections regarding their CFS.  I’m glad I did, too!   It was actually quite a bit better than I remembered.

It is difficult to give an idea of scale in the above image, but let me just say that Pappy’s CFS is a very generous portion, and not shown is the garden salad that was included in the meal’s $8.99 price.  Everything arrived at the table piping hot, and it arrived quite promptly, which is one reason why Pappy’s does such a brisk lunch business.  It’s easy to get in and out and have a good comfort food meal in the process.  Oh — and by the way — you read that right.  $8.99 for a real sit-down meal that includes two sides (doesn’t have to be fries or mashed pototoes and a salad — it can be any of several sides they offer), but best of all, a real sit-down meal that’s really worth sitting down for.

Yes, after having their CFS, I’d rate it right up there with Hickory Hollow’s.  It might not be quite as large, but the taste is memorable.  The batter is crisp but not heavy, the cubed steak is reasonably tender, and the cream gravy has just a detectable hint of bacon in it.  Most likely from some good ol’ bacon fat drippings, I’ll wager.  The fries are fresh cut and crispy, but if you feel like something different, try their black-eyed peas or fried okra. Pappy’s also has a full bar and Happy Hour from 3-7pm Mon-Fri, with drink specials every day of the week.  Pappy’s is an informal, down-home place that will likely become one of your favorite haunts, as it has become one of mine.

Be sure to visit Pappy’s website so you can preview their menu.   Their hours of operation are 11am to 10pm Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm Sunday.  Early birds will likely find a parking space in front (there are only about seven or eight of them), but if you’re heading there when it’s a bit more busy, just park around back and enter through their back entrance.

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