31 October 2006

2004 Bogle Pinot Noir

I've always enjoyed the products from Bogle, and decided to try out the 2004 Bogle Pinot Noir from the Russian River in California. Runs for around $14.

There's very little nose on this wine, but the taste is fine and full. Some strawberries, plum, a little spice. Tiny bite right on the finish. Medium-strength tannins that disappear rather quickly. It retains that light mouth feel that is so prized in Pinot Noir. It doesn't taste like a Burgundy or a North California/Oregon Pinot Noir, but is good in its own right.

For dinner, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. I really wanted some cheese ravioli, but the girlfriend isn't eating tomatoes right now. And a simple cream sauce would be boring. So I turned to this recipe found on Taste Everything Once: A Pumpkin Cream Sauce for Pasta. Follow the link for the recipe, it's very simple. I don't have any sage, but substituted fresh oregano with good results. (Next year every windowsill in my house is going to have one or more herbs growing on it.) Just one critical note: if using canned pumpkin, make sure you get the pure pumpkin, and not the pumpkin pie filling. Though if you like your sauce sweet, knock yourself out.

It's really tasty, and the pumpkin flavor is very light and mild. The wine may have been a bit strong, but with the good salty ricotta inside the pasta and the little punch from herbs and black pepper, it held up wonderfully. There's something comforting about mashed squash; I don't know if it has to do with baby food or comfort food during the winter. Whether pumpkin or turban or acorn or butternut squash, it's bound to make you feel good. On several dinner party occasions, I've had one of the participants come up to me, see the pile of acorn squash, and get all excited and hug me. I don't think that the squash, one of our Native American delicacies, gets enough respect in the realm of haute cuisine.

Pictured is some of the leftovers, kicked up with some more fresh oregano, some black pepper, and a little grey sea salt. Much better the second day.

28 October 2006


Note: The following describes a more modern interpretation of demi-glace. At some point I'll make the classical version using sauce espagnole.

Last Sunday I attempted to prepare some demi-glace and thought that I could sleep a few hours on the final steps. That turned out to be a pretty bad mistake, as I got up at five AM with a mass of tar and carbon in the pot.

I tried it again this past Saturday, starting at around eleven in the morning. And at eleven at night, I poured the finished demi-glace into the bowl. All of my efforts yielded about a cup of demi-glace.

What went into it?
  • 4 lb soup bones (not much meat)
  • 1½lb onion
  • ¾lb celery
  • 1 leek
  • ¾lb carrots
  • couple of cloves of garlic
  • some peppercorns
  • a gallon of filtered water
  • a little flour and tomato paste
  • a handful of crushed garden tomatoes I wanted to get rid of
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • ½ bottle red wine--I used the 2004 Tittarelli Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina
  • lotsa hard work
I started by roasting the veggies and the soup bones on metal trays in the oven, until nicely browned. (Tossed with a little flour and tomato paste during cooking.) Then all of that was dumped in the enameled cast iron Dutch oven on the stovetop. Added tomatoes and peppercorns, covered with water, put on the lid, and let simmer. I managed to keep the stock simmering just below boiling for the majority of the day, typically at around 205°F (96°C). Throughout the day I skimmed off detritus and fat, stirred the pot, and tried to keep anything from burning.

Finally around 9:00 at night, after a full nine hours of simmering, I strained the stock and kept it in a separate bowl. After scrubbing the Dutch oven, I reduced down a half bottle of red wine and a minced shallot. After about a 50% reduction, I introduced back the beef stock. Over the next two hours, there were three or four additional strainings, involving wire mesh and paper towels to remove any solids or flotsam.

At 11:00, too tired to watch it any longer, I poured the demi-glace into a bowl, covered it, and let it cool in the fridge while I cleaned up the kitchen. The end product tastes pretty good (and gelled nicely), but in the past when I've done this using high-quality organic beef stock from the store, the result was quite similar.

However... I've got a ten gallon stock pot that I never use, and if I ever come across a load of decent bones, I might spend a whole day making enough demi-glace to last me an entire year.

Final analysis: it's not too attractive here in the plastic container, just waiting for a liner of plastic wrap to lay over the sauce and send it on its way to the freezer. The final product, after cooling, was the consistency of jelly, hence the lumpy appearance in this photo. But once again, it smells and tastes incredible. Just taking a pea-sized portion and letting it melt on your tongue is like enjoying a good steak and a glass of wine.

24 October 2006

Rôti de porc au lait

A few weeks ago, I ordered a used copy of Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking. I've read a couple of books by Bourdain, and I really admire the theory behind Les Halles: serve good food at a reasonable price and make it taste awesome. And the kicker is that he's often using low-cost ingredients, just cooked properly and with attention to bring out the proper flavors of the dish in question.

(Side note: this book is gorgeous. It's printed on really heavy stock--I checked it with a micrometer, and the paper is .18mm thick. For comparison, regular copy paper is .09mm thick.)

This is the first cookbook that I've ever read straight through. I mean, I didn't read it all in one setting, but I read it over the course of a few days from cover to cover. It's also the first cookbook I've ever read that cussed at me, insulted me, and threatened me if I didn't do things a certain way. But he backs it up by proclaiming that the majority of the cooking in his restaurants is done by Mexican immigrants with no formal restaurant training who started out as dishwashers. As any good football coach will tell you, it's good to focus on fundamentals.

I've decided to try and cook my way through this book. I won't hit all of them--there's just a few critical ingredients that aren't available or affordable around here, but everything in the book looks like it tastes great.

Here's my first attempt at one of the recipes... Rôti de porc au lait. Literally translated, roast pork in milk. That doesn't sound really appetizing, but it's quite good. You take 3 lbs of pork loin, sear it in a Dutch oven, add in a mirepoix of vegetables, pour in some whole milk, add a bouquet garni, and then cook the loin for an hour. Remove the pork, blend the sauce, and serve over slices of the pork, but only after the loin has rested for fifteen minutes.

I opted to add roasted chunks of butternut squash as a side item. For beverages, Paul brought over some of the Flying Dog "Doggie Style" Pale Ale from Colorado. An excellent, hoppy pale ale. Nice and bitter, a good counterpoint to the savory dish and slightly sweet squash. I also had some toasted sourdough bread on hand to help sop up the sauce.

My opinion: the pork was awesome, but the sauce needed a little more. Paul had seconds and thirds, but for my leftovers I'm going to ignore the sauce (already dumped down the drain), and use one of the half dozen mustards that grace my fridge. The pork loin was the most tender and delicious specimen that I've ever been able to get out of this particular cut, and really want to put a few cold slices on pumpernickel with hot mustard and a bit of sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. (Side note: I wrote this article a couple of days ago and just enjoyed such a sandwich, heated up in the old George Foreman grill. It was quite delicious. I think I might cook pork loin more often now!)

Afterwards, we had some Sonoma Dry Jack, a relative to the more well-known Monterey Jack and much closer to the original "Jack" recipe as opposed to the modern "white cheddar" incarnation. Think about a cheese that's somewhere between smoked Gouda and Romano. A thin, smoky rind, and a great firm cheese underneath. We ate it in slices, but I'm sure it would be good grated in certain dishes.

While I was serving the main course, I was explaining the whole cooking pork in milk thing, and said, "It's damned hard to get decent pig's milk in this city." I enjoyed the few seconds of terror on my diners' faces, and then explained that I used normal cow's milk. However... If you've ever wondered why you can't find pig's milk in the store, here's the reason.

22 October 2006

Beer Tasting for October 17, 2006

On Tuesday, I attended a charity beer tasting for the Harwood Center, a local Memphis school for kids under three with special needs. A friend's son used to be a student, and when she said there was a beer tasting fundraiser... She had me at "beer".

More importantly, this tasting was being held at The Fresh Market, a chain of gourmet grocery stores. I've found some amazing stuff there, and was intrigued by the note of appetizers on the invite.

I was not disappointed.

I even got a commemorative tasting glass, with a line drawn at the exact 3 ounce mark, which turns out to be rather perfect for a beer tasting. There were two or three appetizers and four or five beers per station. And the staff on hand were well educated on the particular beers that were being served. Over 30 beers were available, and I was glad to see American microbrew pioneers like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam represented in full. As is my usual practice with massive tastings, I chose to try those beers I'd never had before, plus a few that I really enjoy.

The entire store was closed off to the public for the evening, though they kept a couple of registers open if the guests wanted to buy anything.

Among the appetizers I sampled:
  • Caprese Salad on Baguette Slices
  • Mini Crabcakes
  • Mushroom Vol-au-Vent
  • Cambozola Cheese and Sun-dried Tomatoes on Crackers
  • Salami and Smithfield Cream Cheese
  • Sushi (including my first taste of tilapia sashimi)
  • Cubes of Ribeye Steak with Olives
  • Some savory dish using squid ink angel-hair pasta and fresh basil
And the beers (in no particular order):
  • Warsteiner Dunkel from Germany. Light and slightly bitter. The first beer of the evening, and not a bad one.
  • Flying Dog Old Scratch. Colorado. An old favorite.
  • Flying Dog In Heat Wheat Beer. Colorado. A pleasant unfiltered wheat beer.
  • Sleeman's Cream Ale from Canada. Light and refreshing. I'm consistently amazed by Canadian beers. And I'm not talking about Molsen's or Moosehead.
  • Avery White Rascal from Colorado. A Belgian style white beer, unfiltered and seasoned with orange peel. One of my favorites from the tasting, and it went really well with the sushi.
  • Sierra Nevada Wheat from California. Lovely little wheat beer.
  • Sierra Nevada Porter from California. The reason why the porterhouse steak was invented.
  • Samuel Smith Pure Lager from England. When you're drinking Samuel Smith, you're drinking history. Kudos to the antiquated label design. Pleasing notes of yeast and hops on this one.
  • Woodchuck Pear Cider from Vermont. I still enjoy the tart and refreshing Woodchuck Granny Smith hard cider when the mood strikes, but I'd never tried the pear cider before this tasting. Enjoyable, and definitely something different. Would be interested to serve with my beloved dessert of pear slices, goat cheese, and honey.
  • Lindeman's Framboise Lambic from Belgium. I reviewed this back in August, and it still brought a smile to my face. So much fun, and much more like a sparkling dessert wine than a beer.
My only regret is that I didn't mention this earlier, so that more could attend. I mean, the place was packed, but it's for a good cause, and even when we left there were plenty of bottles yet to be opened. Rest assured, next year I'm going to be promoting this event for a full month beforehand.

19 October 2006

Food & Wine Reading Selections

Here's a handful of books I've read in the past few months... These are all primarily books about food--chefs, restaurants, criticism--but wine comes up from time to time. I've recently had an interest in books written by chefs that aren't cookbooks. Nothing against cookbooks, but the background stories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes are often quite rewarding. Yes, I do read other things, but these books are probably of specific interest to the readers of this blog. And for the most part, I got all of them at my local network of libraries. Check 'em out! When I was a teenager and first getting interested in cooking, I loved checking out, say, an Italian cookbook for three weeks and cooking everything that looked interesting. Amazon links are provided if you feel like buying any of them.

These are presented in no particular order; aside from the first, all are autobiographical or first-person accounts.

The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. The first part of this book covers the arduous Certified Master Chef exam conducted by the Culinary Institute of America. I was surprised to see a local chef in the story, Lynn Kennedy-Tilyou who worked at La Tourelle here in Memphis in the 90s. The remainder of the book focuses on a few up and coming chefs of the 90s, including the great Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. The best feature of this book is that you get a third person look at how several different chefs operate in the kitchen.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin. Dude had a hard childhood. I've had to shovel manure for stables and as part of gardening, but I never had to follow behind cart horses with a shovel just to help feed the family during a major world war and German occupation. I'm also amazed at the almost medieval apprenticeship system that Pépin had to go through as he became a great chef. For instance, he dropped out of school at the age of 13 and started on the lowest rung at a fancy hotel. He slept in a bunk on the premises and was charged with preparing food for the owner's dogs.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Bone in the Throat by Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain comes across as arrogant, but he seems proud of the reputation. The first book is a bizarre tale of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as he moved from a child of privilege to a poor starving chef to an international star. The second book is a work of fiction focusing on the intersection of restaurants and organized crime in New York City. In an effort to continue my formal culinary education, I've ordered his Les Halles Cookbook and look forward to working my way through the recipes.

The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin. This is a compilation of three books, all of which are made up of Trillin's articles for The New Yorker during the 70s and 80s. When every Chamber of Commerce in the Country was trying to get him to eat at the local bad yet expensive French restaurant, Trillin was eating at down home rib joints and taco stands and burger huts. Lots of smart humor here, making me miss even more the great 80s newspaper humorists like Mike Royko and Lewis Grizzard. While Royko had the fictitious yet endearing Slats Grobnik, Trillin had a real life pizza baron named Fats Goldberg to converse with in his columns. Add to that a wife who restricted him to only three meals a day and a pair of daughters who lived on fish sticks and bagels, and you've got a lot of great stories. I'm looking forward to finding more of his work.

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, all by Ruth Reichl. These form a trilogy--though I hope it hasn't ended yet! Reichl recounts her life in food, from being the daughter of a bipolar mother who served rotten food all the time, to cooking for loads of friends at a communal residence in Berkeley, to becoming the food editor of The New York Times, often reviewing restaurants twice: once as the famous critic and once in disguise as a nobody. You also get a lot of back story about the California cuisine revolution of the 80s.

Speaking of which, why not segue into California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution by Jeremiah Tower. Here you get lots of stories about Alice Waters. I love the Chez Panisse recipes and ideals, but there's also a soap opera element about the formative years. Like Bourdain, Tower grew up wealthy and then struck out on his own as a chef. It's exciting to read about this period in American cooking history, when fresh and local ingredients combined with fun and creativity started beating out the staid, traditional Continental fare. It's also sort of the "Forrest Gump" of the food writing world, as you see guest appearances from the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Paul Prudhomme and many others.

Delights and Prejudices by James Beard. A classic. I purchased a copy of this book at a sale ten years ago and ignored it for a decade. I recently read it and thoroughly enjoyed the tale. Again, Beard was a child of privilege, and because of his amazing taste memory, he can recount in vivid detail virtually everything he ate from birth to adulthood. He was from the Pacific Northwest, and having spent some time there, I can appreciate the rich stories of seafood and wild mushrooms and other local delicacies.

Food in History by Reay Tannahill. The least folksy and most serious of the bunch, this is a study of eating from the Paleolithic era to the present, with stops at major cultural and historical points. If you were the kid who could never get enough in history class, this book is for you. Particularly if you were the kid who helped prepare an authentic Elizabethan meal for Ms. Hankins' AP English class for extra credit. Ahem.

15 October 2006

2004 Clay Station Petite Sirah

I've spent a good bit of the day working on a classic French beef stock, with the goal of eventually making demi-glace. Aside from that, I managed to come across a great sale on some Delmonico cuts of boneless ribeye, so I got one thick one for me and a thin one for the roommate who prefers her steaks well done. With mine, I had a glass or two of the 2004 Clay Station Petite Sirah, purchased for a song at $8. Apparently this winery is putting out a series of "emerging varietals", including things like Viognier and Malbec. The Petite Sirah is good, but not as strong as I generally like it. Smooth on the beginning and fully tannic on the end, with notes of cherry and blueberry. I'm anxious to try their other offerings, and appreciate this attempt to bring lesser known grapes into the mainstream. Though with my eclectic palate, these hardly count as unusual. Where's the Negroamaro and Kadarka?

Back to the stock: there's a tradition in restaurants or in households 200 years ago of keeping a kettle slightly boiling all the time. In the modern era, we normally see this with activities like making stock or soup. I roasted a bunch of beef soup bones, carrots, celery, and onion earlier, and added them to the enameled cast iron Dutch oven with a lot of cold, filtered water. I added some peppercorns, sprigs of rosemary and oregano (I don't have any fresh thyme on hand), and have been skimming the broth every hour or so. And when my roommate and I both had leftovers from our steaks, I tossed them in the pot. A couple of green beans got in there? No problem! I picked a couple of ripe tomatoes earlier, rinsed them and crushed them by hand into the sauce. Seriously, I've read incredible stories about what goes into the stock at commercial kitchens. Carrot peels, the inedible portions of the cow, leftovers from the sausage mill... All I can say is, the stock smells awesome and I haven't even strained it yet. Reduced down into proper demi-glace... I can hardly wait.

Dining With Monkeys

At some point in the near future, I'm going to do a roundup of Memphis wine and food bloggers. I'm not sure how many locals read this blog, but there's an increasing number of us writing around here. Once I get a list together, I'll give it a special section over in the left column blogroll. (If you want to be included, drop me a line.) I do have to give a mention to one tonight, though. Dining With Monkeys, a blog focused on local restaurant reviews by people with small children. Some funny stories (probably less so if you were there), but it's interesting to see what the perspective of a restaurant is like when you've got small kids.

Admittedly, I don't like being around screaming children in a restaurant. If a baby's crying, I know that can't be helped, but if elementary-school age children are running around and throwing things, it bugs me. I had an incident at a local Mexican restaurant a few months ago, in which I was led to my table for one only to have a nearby kid fling a ramekin of cheese dip onto my table. I elected to sit at the bar instead. Good tip, by the way--if you want to avoid kids altogether and don't mind the smoke, grabbing a seat at the bar or in the smoking section isn't a bad strategy.

When I was a kid, my parents were pretty strict about proper restaurant manners and dinner etiquette. (And since my parents are now reading this blog, thank you, thank you, thank you.) Basically the procedure was to nail down the training at home, and then test it out at a casual restaurant, and then at a nice restaurant. Whether at a backard BBQ or at a wedding reception dinner, proper form was required at all times. It's odd how some of that sticks with you... I can't remember precisely when I was taught to eat with chopsticks, just that it was the polite way to eat Chinese and Japanese foods. I still eat pizza with a fork--something that my friends find crazy. Honestly, if I'm alone in my room, in front of the computer with a slice of pizza and a beer after a long day at work, I've got a fork there. And a napkin in my lap.

That's not to say that I can't have fun. There's really no dignified way to eat barbequed ribs or Buffalo wings. I mean, you can keep from making your fellow diners sick, but you're still going to have grease and sauce on your face and up to your wrists. And I'll admit, the last time I roasted a duck my friend and I pretty much just tore the thing apart and ate it by hand.

The following is not a critique of existing parents, but rather something I've been thinking about. I know a lot of kids these days that just won't eat many foods, and find the concept of "adult food" completely alien. If it's not heavily processed or sweetened or fried, they won't eat it. But there's nothing biological about small children that prevents them from enjoying the same good food as their parents. That's how kids eat in most of the rest of the world. I'm particularly impressed with the French in this regard; while not every Frenchman is a gourmand, they do get exposed to rich and varied flavors from early on. If your first exposure to asparagus was in mashed form before you had teeth, then you're probably not going to be averse to it later on in life.

Seriously, do you think that cuisines like Thai and Jamaican and Indian and Vietnamese would have survived this long if the kids were all raised on bland, flavorless food? There's a world of food out there beyond the chicken nugget!

13 October 2006

Tasting Notes for October 7, 2006

Theme for the day: Rhone Varietals.

Wine 1: 2004 Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc. Rhone, France. Mix of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Roussanne. Light and fruity, with a little sweetness. Lots of pear, some peach flavors. $11.

Wine 2: 2004 Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Blanc. California. Rhone whites with some Viognier in there. Bright, green apple nose. Very mild and light with a slightly bitter aftertaste. $15.

Wine 3: 2004 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc. Paso Robles, California. This is the first pure Grenache Blanc that I've had. No discernable nose to it; I found it kind of neutral. Perhaps it should have been a little closer to room temperature? $28.

Wine 4: 2003 Rosenblum Roussane Fess Parker Vineyard. Santa Barbara, California. Prominent taste and aroma of bananas with a little citrus. Full, round mouth feel. An unusual yet delicious wine. $21.

Wine 5: 2005 Rosenblum Viognier Kathy's Cuvee. California. Lightly sweet, acidic and crisp. Missing the herbal notes that you get in some Viogniers, but a good solid wine. $19.

Wine 6: 2004 La Vielle Ferme Rouge Cotes du Ventoux. Rhone, France. 50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Carignan, 15% Cinsault. Ripe strawberry and cherry aromas, light and refreshing with mild tannins. Good bargain. $9.

Wine 7: 2004 Las Rocas Garnacha. Calatayud, Spain. This is the second or third time I've had this wine, and I still love it. $10.

Wine 8: 2001 Caves des Papes "Oratorio" Gigondas. Rhone, France. 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre. Very light and mild, mineral notes on the finish. Very delicate. $34.

Wine 9: La Crau de Ma Mere Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Rhone, France. Not much of a nose, but some barnyard flavors with good fruit. Drying tannins. $36.

Wine 10: 2003 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge. Paso Robles, California. 50% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 7% Counoise. Hey, another new grape! Counoise is a Rhone grape used in blending Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Black cherry nose, with matching flavors including plum. Full, firm tannins. $40.

Wine 11: 2004 Altos de Luzon. Jumilla, Spain. Blend of Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo. Very dark. Rich, deep dark plum and blackberry flavors. Complex and delicious. $16.

10 October 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Edamame & Rapini

I'm perhaps the last person in my circle of friends to try Edamame, which has exploded in popularity over the past decade. That's got a lot to do with the fact that we're talking about soybeans, and I was raised to view them as a commodity crop and source of fake meat products.

I'm descended from farmers on both sides of my family, though these days none of my relatives actually farm. We own the land and manage the affairs, but don't actually till the soil. On Dad's side, it's all cotton. On Mom's side, they grow cotton, corn, and soybeans. The beans pictured above aren't from the family farm, but they're the first whole soybeans I've ever eaten. I picked up a bag of frozen pods at the grocery store, and gave them a quick boil. I was pleasantly surprised at the flavor. Rich and savory, and not that filling. Sort of like the world's best lima bean. I served some recently with a little butter, salt and pepper for additional flavor.

This is probably the first of my "weird vegetable experiments" that I'm going to eat on a regular basis.

This vegetable goes by a lot of names, but for the sake of clarity I'll go with rapini or broccoli raab, even though it's not related to broccoli. Given that fresh spinach is still a danger here in the states, many people are looking for alternatives. What a perfect time for my voyage through the underappreciated greens! I made a variation on the pasta dish I cooked for my 30th birthday party. I used campanelle or bell-shaped pasta, combined with sautéed mushrooms, garlic, a cream sauce, Romano cheese, and crawfish tails. For color and added nutrients, I wilted down the large bunch of rapini pictured at right on the stovetop griddle with some olive oil and added it after the cream sauce. My dining companions remarked about how delicious the spinach was--I was quick and eager to give credit to the lesser-known rapini. It's a little more bitter than spinach, but that balanced nicely against the sweetness of the crawfish tails.

08 October 2006

Cognac Tasting Notes for October 5, 2006

Last Thursday, I took my father to a guided Cognac tasting hosted by Frédéric Goossens, the Southern USA Regional Director for Pierre Ferrand. Frédéric is from France originally, and in addition to providing information on the various Cognacs we tasted, he also lectured on the history of Cognac as well as details of the production process. Dad and I arrived early, and got to hang out with Frédéric. I got to show off my poor mastery of the French language, and when Frédéric asked us how we heard about the tasting, I mentioned that I was a regular at this particular host's tastings, and that I'd brought my father because of his love of Cognac. We then proceded to tell him about the time 15 years ago when I, a mere teenager, was awakened by my father on Christmas Eve. He had been at work (at the airport) late that night, receiving gifts from abroad: expensive French cognac from some Japanese friends and fresh smoked salmon from his Norwegian contacts. It was two in the morning, and we stayed up watching old black and white movies, eating huge slabs of smoked salmon, and sipping cognac.

Interesting bits of trivia:
  • Cognac became really popular after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet in 1152, where it was a featured beverage.
  • Armagnac never really became popular worldwide, as it is landlocked and distribution was difficult over land. Cognac, on the other hand, is situated right next to the Charente River, providing easy access to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • To properly sniff Cognac, you must do it three times: hold it against your chest, then at neck level, and finally stick your nose in the glass.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, snifters are not the ideal drinking glasses. Regular wine glasses are much more appropriate.

We tasted six in all--five Cognacs and one Armagnac. The Cognacs can all be found at the above link, and the Armagnac is on a nearby page. We tasted the Armagnac last, but I'm going to write about it first because it was the least impressive of the group, and frankly, after the really old Cognacs, it never had a chance. I found it strong and bold, rougher on the palate than any of the other selections. Much of this was due to single distillation rather than the double distillation required for Cognac. $42.

All of these come from Grand Champagne, the premiere subregion within Cognac. All were served in separate glasses and allowed to breathe for at least 30 minutes before tasting.

Cognac 1: 10 Year Old Ambre. I found it a little thin, but it had a wonderful aroma. It was definitely the most pale of all the offerings. $43.

Cognac 2: 20 Year Old Reserve. Probably my favorite of the tasting, if by favorite you mean something I could potentially afford and really enjoyed. Very smooth, with a light sweetness. Touches of almonds and licorice on the nose and tongue. $64.

Cognac 3: 25 Year Old Cigare. Designed with an attractive cigar band style label above the main label and intended for pairing with cigars. I found more orange and spice on this one, though it was in many ways similar to the 20 year old. $90.

Cognac 4: 30 Year Old Selection des Anges. Named after the "angel's share", that portion of a distilled spirit that is lost due to evaporation. A mild aroma, and smooth as cream on the palate. Smells and tastes included candied fruits, mint, vanilla. Quite complex. $116.

Cognac 5: 45 Year Old Abel. Named after the grandfather of Pierre Ferrand, and poured into a lovely handblown bottle. Smooth and creamy like the 30 year old, but even more so. Some aromas of cherry and almonds. It was hard to keep myself from licking the inside of the glass to get every last drop. $240.

06 October 2006

Benito vs. the Farmer's Market: Apples & Chestnuts

Black Arkansas Apple
The Black Arkansas is an unusual apple variety. It's much smaller than those you see in the grocery store, and it's hard as a rock. If you threw this at someone, you could cause some serious injury. (I say this as someone who grew up with a peach tree in the backyard and a little brother. Unripe peaches hurt, ripe peaches make a mess, and rotten peaches mean that mom's going to make you strip in the back yard and hose off before coming in the house.)

It's a little hard to bite into, but from there, it eats like a normal apple. It's sort of woody and not very sweet. I've heard that this variety is ideal for cider making, and I'm a big fan of cider, both the natural unfiltered variety and the harder type.

The apples taste much better cooked. I baked the remaining apples (sliced and cored, kept the peels on) with some honey, butter, and cinnamon) for a side dish alongside the recent Combinations #6 dinner. The dark peels provided some lovely color. And there's something I like about the size and shape... Not the huge glossy yet flavorless apples you see in the stores (Red Delicious I'm looking at you), but this is a scrawny, scrappy little fruit that when properly prepared can reveal some delicious secrets.

I haven't eaten chestnuts since my trip to Italy ten years ago. I was there in December, and in most of the decent sized cities I could buy a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor to snack on while walking around the town in the evening. (Nothing like a warm snack to hold on to while bundled against the winter wind!) Typically the vendor would have a little fire going from wood or charcoal, and would roast the chestnuts on a perforated metal plate. You could smell them from a block away.

Here in the Memphis area, the pecan tree is our major nut tree. I actually like to buy them from my barber, whose family owns a substantial pecan grove in Mississippi. But we've got chestnuts as well--some farmed on purpose, others leftovers from plantings over a hundred years ago. Looking at a raw chestnut you'd never guess that they're edible, but when properly cooked the meat inside is delicious.

Pictured above are the raw chestnuts. My first attempt involved roasting them in a pan on the stove. They tasted OK, but a little bland. Obviously much better when I cooked them for my birthday dinner--roasted in the oven for a half hour, shelled and sliced and then pan-fried in butter and honey and brown sugar. Quite tasty.

01 October 2006

30th Birthday Party

I actually turned thirty back on September 13, but that week wasn't conducive to celebrations as some of my closest friends were out of town. And while minor parties occurred throughout the month, I was saving up for a big dinner party at the end when everyone could be there. I did all the cooking, friends and family provided the wine and dessert, and we all had a grand time. I know that it's in bad taste to throw a birthday party for yourself, but honestly, I didn't want any presents, I didn't want to go out and eat... I just wanted to spend some time with those closest to me and cook a bunch of dishes that I'd been dying to try out.

Before I go any further, I have to give full credit to Paul for hosting, as well as joining my father and my brother John, all three of whom spent half the evening washing dishes. Couldn't have done it without y'all.

Once everyone arrived, we started out with a toast, basically thanking Paul for hosting and thanking my parents for giving birth to me 30 years ago. We toasted with the Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs, a non-vintage sparkler from California. I'd been holding on to this bottle for a few months and wasn't disappointed. It had a heady, vegetal aroma, but a cool and crisp mouth feel to it. I found myself sipping it throughout the evening as a palate cleanser. Some of my guests elected to toast with the Fetzer Riesling, a light and sweet wine. My roommate, a devout non-drinker, toasted with the 2006 Diet Coke.

Oh, the photo... Instead of a bank of appetizers, I elected to provide an amuse bouche, French for an entertainment of the mouth. The idea is to provide the diner with a free sample of the chef's intent, but not necessarily anything related to the dinner to follow. In this case, I prepared a trio of richly flavored items. First off, a purée of peas courtesy of Jacques Pépin. Slightly cooked peas blended with some mint and jalapeños from my garden, plus some Italian parsley and the other items in the recipe linked above. Served in a shot glass for the purposes of just tasting the sauce. Then there's a few of my late harvest yellow cherry tomatoes, topped with the diner's choice of Kosher salt or French grey sea salt. Finally, there's some honey roasted chestnuts. I roasted the chestnuts whole for a half hour, then shelled and sliced them before sautéeing in a pan with butter, honey, and brown sugar. My dining companions found all of this a little odd but ultimately delicious.

For the soup course, I made a "14 Carrot Soup". Pardon the pun... There were only about ten carrots in there, three parsnips, a good chunk of diced ginger, several cloves of garlic, and two leeks. I really didn't have to season the soup, which was fortified by a half gallon of chicken stock and half a bottle of wine. Root vegetables can have some incredible flavors on their own, if you cook them properly. For serving, I made a little vine design using some sour cream piped through a bag. Then I dragged a knife through the lines to produce the vine. (I picked this up as a decorating tip from a pumpkin soup recipe about 15 years ago.) A little dusting of freshly ground nutmeg and we're ready to go.

For wine, we drank the 2005 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region of Italy, though I was still finishing off some of the sparkling wine. The pinot grigio was tart, lemony, and quite refreshing. Brought by my sister-in-law. (I put an odd rule in the invitation: all men had to bring red wines, all the ladies had to bring white wines, though no one would be turned away for breaking the rule. Though perhaps chauvanist, it's really not a bad way of achieving a balance of wines, is it?)

Throughout the evening, we sipped on my brother's red wine, the 2001 Chateau Potelle Zinfandel from Paso Robles in California. A dark and jammy Zin with hints of plum and black cherry. Typically I follow the Soup-Fish-Meat-Dessert paradigm, but I mixed it up a little this time and did a more Italian primo piatti dish with a Southern flair. What you see before you is spinach and cheese tortelli, topped with crawfish tails and a light cream sauce. A little grated Romano cheese and Italian parsley to top it off. This was a big hit of the evening, and while I was concerned that it might fill everyone up too fast, there was enough time before the secondo piatti for everyones stomachs to settle.

The wine I recommended for this course was provided by my mother.
2004 Lockwood Chardonnay
from Monterey, California. A delightful little wine, whose French oak aging really matched well with the rich crawfish and cream sauce.

Between the pasta and meat courses, I poured the 2002 Shelton Vineyards Cabernet Franc, a bottle I picked up after a recent tasting. This is an incredible wine, and everyone was shocked when I told them that it came from North Carolina and was very affordable. For the main course, I cooked a whole beef tenderloin (coated in a horseradish-mustard sauce with fresh rosemary and black pepper), served with a savory mushroom sauce and some grilled radicchio. The radicchio were made more or less in the style of chef Michael Chiarello, including the use of anchovies to spice up the vinaigrette. I didn't tell anybody beforehand about the anchovies, and nobody complained after the disclosure. The beef was really good. Several diners gorged themselves to excess. The primary wine for this course was provided by Dad, the 2004 Pilgrim Vineyard Zinfandel from V. Sattui's Lodi Vineyard.

Dessert was a key lime pie provided by my parents, accompanied by some vino brulé that I made according to an old Italian recipe. It was deep and hearty, but didn't discourage us from enjoying snifters of Paul's favorite Port, the Penfolds Grandfather. A perfect way to end a delightful evening.

I'd like to thank all of my friends and family that were able to attend, as well as thanking them for putting up with my various culinary experiments over the years. Several of those in attendance said, "But we should be taking you out for your birthday." Honestly, there's no other way that I would have wanted to celebrate this particular milestone.