Pleasure in variation

Though I took steps to learn more about wine after moving to California, I still don’t have a good memory for specific vintages. I’m not even sure I have a great palate for wine in general. I tend to appreciate the qualities of different wines more any single varietal. I’m told that the baseline of all wine has improved to the point that—thanks to science—it’s hard to find anything that’s truly undrinkable, unless it’s “corked”. I’m also told that most California wines are so “fruit-forward” and high in alcohol that it’s doubly difficult to discern one from the other.

Anyway, I was thinking about this last night as I was sampling my latest lemonade, like one might sample a fine wine: sniffed it, sipped it (at room temperature), let it roll around in my mouth, felt the pores on my cheeks open up, and then swallowed. Ah, the interplay of sweet and sour. The funny thing is that the base recipe is always the same, a simple syrup made with 1 cup of water and 1 cup of granulated sugar, 1 cup of freshly squeezed citrus (usually some variety of lemon or lime), 4 more cups of water, and optionally the juice of any other freshly squeezed citrus (usually grapefruit or some variety of orange).

What strikes me about this simple recipe is how much room for variation it contains (some of which being out of my control). The lemons could be standard or Meyer, they could be very juicy or kind of dry, they could be sweeter or sourer. I could squeeze slightly more or less than a cup. And any additional citrus adds this intense fruitiness. The juice even starts to age. It’s best right after it’s made, especially if you like it sour, but a day or two later, the tartness mellows and the sweeter, fruitier notes show through.

Now contrast this with a carton of lemonade or orange juice you might get at the supermarket. I love juice, but I’m coming to realize just how much these supermarket products have the variation engineered right out of them. I have no idea how Tropicana manages to maintain such consistency with a single organic (as in living) ingredient year after year. Their juice is very good, but it’s never as sublime as a glass I squeeze myself. And a glass I squeeze myself can vary widely, anywhere from great to amazing.

Twice this weekend I made tomato sauce (out of season no less, I can’t wait for the summer heirlooms!)—first as a base for the paella (known as sofrito), and then on its own to accompany some Sardinian pasta. All it took was a little garlic sauteed in olive oil, a diced onion, some grated or pureed tomatoes, and then seasoning, fresh basil if you’ve got it (or herbes de provence) with salt and pepper. It occurred to me that this is no different than the lemonade. I keep writing about eating with the seasons recently, but I think what it really comes down to is a reaction against the consistency of the pre-prepared supermarket offerings and a rediscovery of how fresh ingredients taste together. The best part: it varies.

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