25 December 2006

2004 Morgan Cotes du Crow's

Merry Christmas, y'all.

There's a sort of unofficial tradition that I started at the big family gathering a few years back. The Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are non-alcoholic affairs, and everyone's fine with this. However, I started bringing bottles of wine and holding little tastings out of the back of my car, parked out on the street. I'd bring a full set of crystal glasses and everything. Today, unfortunately, it was cold and rainy, but this is the wine I was going to be using: the 2004 Morgan Cotes du Crow's. (Note: the possessive apostrophe is used properly here; an older version of this wine was called "Crow's Roost". For further clarification on the proper usage of apostrophes, consult Bob The Angry Flower.) It's a Rhone-style blend made of half Syrah and half Grenache, sourced from the Monterey region of California.

I got to spend some tine Christmas evening hanging out with a friend of mine, and decided to try out the new decanter. At first test, the wine was pretty brash, but while tasting it in fifteen minute increments, I found that at around the one hour mark, it had mellowed out well. Several hours later (and while watching A Christmas Story), I'm quaffing the last glass. Cranberry aromas, with strawberry and plum skin flavors and a, bright, tangy acidity. Medium finish with mild tannins. Oddly, on the tail end there's some of that ashy quality you get with French wines, but none of the barnyard aroma.

I'm anxious to try some double-blind tests with decanting; I know it's not required for every wine, but I've seen it make a difference before.

I think it would have gone well with the baked ham and my aunt's broccoli-rice casserole, not to mention Mom's fantastic sweet potato casserole, with the brown sugar and pecans and marshmallows on top. Right now I wish I had some leftovers.

In closing, thanks for the Christmas greetings from many of you, and I hope that all of my readers got to enjoy their Christmas weekend with friends and family. Here's looking forward to New Year's Eve!

24 December 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Fingerling Potatoes

OK, not the strangest thing I've cooked, but I couldn't pass these up. One of the local grocery stores got in a shipment of mixed 1½lb bags of Melissa's potatoes, representing small versions of four heirloom potato varieties.

How did I choose to prepare them? Left the skins on, cut into one inch chunks, pan-fried in duck fat, and then tossed with French grey salt and some of my homegrown rosemary. Looking at the finished product speaks volumes about the history of potatoes and their preparation. There are many old and variously colored varieties of potatoes, and yes, they may have been harvested when tiny or large or somewhere inbetween. Likewise, in the decades before the 90s, the high art of cooking tubers seemed to culminate in one bland ideal, the perfectly white and smooth dollop of mashed potatoes, topped with one of three items: butter, white gravy, or brown gravy.

I'm not knocking that preparation, and Lord knows I'm getting hungry just writing about it (Mom made awesome creamed potatoes), but I appreciate the 90s California cuisine revolution that made it OK to leave some skins on with your roughly mashed potatoes, mix and match varieties, and even throw in herbs, olive oil, and roasted garlic if wanted. Likewise, these days people seem to be paying more attention to their potatoes and realizing that there is life beyond the Idaho russet. In particular, I love the thumb-sized new potatoes that pop up in the farmer's market in the spring.

For the wine, we drank the 2003 Lyeth Meritage from Sonoma County, California. Dark berry aromas, similar flavors. Well balanced, if not complex. Firm tannins, long finish. Could probably use a bit of age on it. I decanted it a half hour before dinner, into the glasses and with the leftover in a glass measuring cup. Lo and behold, that very night I received a nice glass decanter as a Christmas present. Thanks Paul!

I'm a fan of the Meritage movement in California, and it's lucky they agreed on a name for Bordeaux blends before it became legally problematic to use the term claret. (By the way, I agree with the restrictions on Champagne and some of the other regional names, but I think that claret is a fairly generic term that shouldn't have been included.)

Here's the final plate. I quartered a duck and put it on the smoker for nearly three hours. Nothing but hickory, which turned out to be a mistake. It ended up being a little heavy on the smoke flavor, and the waterfowl probably would have matched better with a mild fruit wood like apple. However, this had the additional impact of giving a ham-like flavor to the outer layer of the meat. Imagine roast duck wrapped in bacon. Then there's a little rapini cooked down in some homemade turkey stock. A little bitter, but a pleasant counterpoint to the other flavors on the plate.

As for the potatoes? Phenomenal. I've read that the best fat for frying potatoes is rendered horse fat, but it's difficult to obtain here in the States, and the ethics of consuming horse products is a topic I'd really rather not bring up on this site. After that, such products as beef tallow and goose or duck fat are highly recommended, if prohibitively expensive for most restaurants (plus, animal fats have a much shorter lifespan and lower smoke point than things like peanut oil). When buying a duck, you get a lot of excess fat from the neck, tail, and thighs that must be trimmed away before cooking and that can then be rendered out if desired. (I save the neck, wings, and bones for stock.) Those scraps provided a little over half a cup of duck fat, plenty to nicely caramelize the potatoes. They were nice and crispy, with a delicious hint of sweetness. And the salt and rosemary made it even better.

20 December 2006

2004 Pannotia Malbec

Paul and I were hanging out with the girls, and Plan A for take out fell through, so I suggested we run to the store and grab some steaks. A local chain had a sale on Porterhouses (around $8.75/lb), so I had the butcher cut a pair of 1½ pound steaks from a fresh primal, which would then be dusted with Kosher salt and ground pepper, grilled over fire and sliced up for the table: the tenderloins for the ladies, the New York strips for the guys. Worked out quite well, particularly when topped with a little soft Danish bleu cheese and caramelized onions.

The Porterhouse is one of my favorite cuts of beef, though I hate to see it sliced into thin, half pound steaks and stacked in the meat case. I really prefer to serve it like I listed above, because the thicker cut provides the most flavor and allows proper caramelization on the outside and lovely rare pink inside. And if you get one that's three or four inches thick, you can effectively cook it as a roast and carve off pieces for an entire table.

For the wine, I brought along the 2004 Pannotia Malbec, a $10 bargain from Argentina. Not the best Malbec I've ever had, but definitely workable. Blackberry and blueberry flavors dominated, with a whiff of leather on the nose. Medium tannins, easy drinking. Malbec is one of my favorite "pizza & burger" wines, though the right one can be the match for much more sophisticated fare.

18 December 2006

2005 Bell Rosé

One of my holiday traditions is to cook a Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner on some day that's between the two official holidays. I do this for two reasons: 1) it's a good way to celebrate with friends without keeping them from their families and 2) I get plenty of leftovers, which is something you don't get when attending big family gatherings.

Since The Girlfriend was out of town for Thanksgiving and will be out of town for Christmas, Saturday served as our intermediate "Festivus" get-together. I roasted a smallish turkey (glazed with apple cider, mustard, and honey), made some homemade cranberry sauce, roasted some acorn squash with brown sugar (her favorite), and rounded out the list of solidly American ingredients with some wild rice cooked in chicken broth.

For the wine, we had the 2005 Bell Rosé.

Very dry, but with a full, fruity mouthfeel. It's almost like a white wine in most of its profile. Subtle aromas, but with some cherry flavors on the palate. 62% Syrah, 27% Zinfandel, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Viognier. (The previous version was mostly Zinfandel.) Best way to describe it: imagine something like a Sauvignon Blanc with some of the berry flavors of a good Syrah but with none of the tannins.

Just an aside, and I have no way of proving this, but when I met founder and winemaker Anthony Bell at a local tasting, I was sipping one of his delicious Syrahs and casually asked if he ever blended in some Viognier like a Côte Rôtie. He laughed and said that such mixes were increasingly popular in Australia, but no, he hadn't tried it.

Now here it is in 2006, and I'm drinking a Bell wine that's mostly Syrah with a little Viognier...

14 December 2006


Wednesday night, I stayed up to watch the Geminid meteor shower. We had a good cold crisp and clear sky, but unfortunately, the meteor activity visible from Memphis was not spectacular. I spent a couple of hours in the backyard with a few mugs of hot tea and saw maybe a dozen meteors. I wasn't able to get any photos of shooting stars, but while I was out there I caught a couple of famous constellations (as always, click for full-size):



And a couple of years ago, I shot this photo of the moon:

13 December 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Napa Cabbage

When you choose to focus on the weirdest parts of your local grocery store, you sometimes wonder how long certain products have been lingering beneath your unknowing gaze. For instance, the vegetable for this installment is Napa Cabbage, yet another ingredient that goes by many names. And hey, it's been cultivated for 6,000 years!

I was lucky enough to encounter this interesting vegetable at the same time as my desire to try traditional Korean kimchi. It's sold in glass jars at some grocery stores, yet I've never got around to purchasing any.

I love sauerkraut and spicy food, so I'm bound to like kimchi. A conversation with a Korean friend of mine over Thanksgiving inspired me to make my own. So I looked up many recipes, and found many wildly divergent methods. I ended up picking Bobby Flay's recipe. I had all of the ingredients on hand, and it looked like fun.

For this particular recipe, the ingredients mixed in the blender smelled and tasted like a really incredible salad dressing. Sadly, Napa cabbage doesn't taste all that great raw. (I always try these odd ingredients raw and cooked/prepared.) It's sort of like bitter regular cabbage, even though the bunch looks like a slightly more bulbous version of romaine lettuce. (I did remove the hard core at the center.)

Here's what the jar looked like on day one, right after combining the ingredients. I really had to pack all of the cabbage in the jar, but after only a few minutes wilting had begun and I was able to stir the mixture with ease.

Over several days it condensed down to a third of its original volume, and developed a lovely aroma. Granted, my roommate wasn't thrilled by the smell, but after I tightened the lid it didn't permeate the entire kitchen... er, house. (Kimchi-scented ice cubes turned out to be a unique addition to a glass of water over the past week, but I wouldn't recommend it on a regular basis.)

So what to eat with it? I considered making bulgogi or kalbi tang, but compromised and made some braised beef short ribs (with a little honey, soy sauce, and pepper flakes added). This dinner is just Korean-inspired, and does not aim to be authentic.

The beef was braised in, and the dinner served with the Schlafly Coffee Stout from St. Louis, Missouri (scroll down to the October seasonal beers). Why not wine? Granted a sparkling wine or Riesling might have matched well, but I find a cold one tends to be a better match for certain dishes. The beer does in fact smell and taste like really good coffee, yet has the mouth feel of a creamy dark beer. Imagine Guinness with a coffee flavor and you've got a good idea. The coffee flavor is provided by Kaldi's Coffee using Fair Trade beans. It made an incredible broth for the beef and was a good pair with the meal. For future use, I'd suggest it as an after-dinner beer served in small cups.

As for the kimchi? Mind-bogglingly delicious. A perfect balance of sour, tart, sweet, spicy, with a pleasant crunch to it. Mine isn't as red as some kimchi--I skipped the paprika or powdered red pepper, but it tastes great. It has a flavor somewhere between a vinegar-based slaw and sauerkraut with lots of heat (keep in mind this recipe used a full quarter cup of red pepper flakes like you see at pizza joints). I'll also point out that it worked well with the meal, even if it wasn't exactly Korean. The bright, tangy nature of the kimchi balanced against the buttery rich short ribs and the starchy rice.

Verdict: Kimchi rocks. I'm anxious to try some more traditional preparations.

11 December 2006

New Blog + Memphis Blogs

Fredric Koeppel has a new blog that launched last week, called Bigger Than Your Head. He will be continuing his work on his more formal site, Koeppel on Wine. For those outside of the Memphis area, Fredric's been writing in the newspapwer about restaurants, food, wine, and the arts for The Commercial Appeal since... I don't know how long. Let's just say that I'm 30 and remember reading his reviews in the Friday Playbook section when I was 9 and started reading the paper regularly. In fact, he probably has the distinction of being the first food or wine writer that I ever read. In the past year, we've enjoyed a friendly e-mail correspondence. He's been a frequent commenter here, and I'm glad to welcome his new blog.

And while I'm posting this, why not point out a couple of other Memphis wine and food bloggers? Sprinkled throughout are some photos I've taken Downtown.

Note: some of these folks I've written, and some have linked to me but I haven't heard from them. Drop me a line, and certainly if I hear of any more Memphis wine or food blogs, I'll add them to this post and to the eventual blogroll on the left.

Presented in no particular order...

Mantia's Musings by Alyce Mantia. Alyce is the proprietor of Mantia's, a local shop that is the best source of proper cheese and paté in the city. Plus, they host cooking demonstrations and let you bring your own wine. In fact, the first $100+ wine I had was at a cooking demo/wine party at her establishment back when I just turned 21.

Dining With Monkeys by Stacey Greenberg. I've written about this site before, but it reviews local restaurants with a focus on what it's like to eat there with small children. Often amusing, and Stacey shows up occasionally in the local alternative paper, The Memphis Flyer.

Midtown Stomp. Written by a local guy who recently completed his Sommelier certification. Includes writing about food, wine, and recently, a trip to the California wine country.

See Sip Taste Hear by Collin. Wine reviews from a local blogger, and he's got a sister site that lists upcoming wine events--currently down for maintenance, but I'm sure it will return.

Rachel and the City by Rachel Hurley. I think we went to high school together, albeit a couple of years apart. Some posts on food, but is focused on much broader social activities in the Memphis area.

Squirrel Squad Squeeks. Local restaurant reviews.

Dr. Hoo's Memphis Restaurants. More local restaurant reviews!

Please check out these great blogs, and following the links of related blogs will take you to other local writers covering all sorts of topics here in the River City.

08 December 2006

Peking Duck: Attempt #1

One of the joys of cooking is that, in our modern age with access to all sorts of varied ingredients, as well as the ability to grow just about anything in this rich Delta soil of southeast Tennessee, if you've got the knowledge, time, and inclination, you can try dishes from all over the world without spending a lot on a plane ticket.

Now, I'm not going to admit that I can in any way replicate the sheer pleasure found in eating baby octopus freshly caught off the Ligurian coast of Italy and either flash-fried or cooked in a sort of bouillabaisse. There are certain local, fresh ingredients that don't travel well. But there are plenty of others that do, and more importantly, techniques can be learned and applied worldwide.

For instance: Peking Duck. Never had it in a restaurant. I've had duck in various Chinese joints, but not that particular dish. And with fresh ducks cheap and plentiful these days, I decided to try it out... Though I didn't quite succeed. For those of my readers who think that I do everything perfect on the first try, this is an example to the contrary.

The bizarre photo to the right is of my humble stove in la cucina di Benito. I trimmed the duck (saving all of the scraps for stock), boiled it for a while, dried it, rubbed the interior with salt and sugar and the exterior with molasses, and then hung it to dry with the roasting pan to catch anything that fell. Yes, that's a trussed duck hanging from the partition between two cabinets above my stove.

Normally you hang a duck like this for hours or days in a cool room (preferably with the head and feet on, and you need to be working a busy stall in Kowloon smoking a cigarette and wondering if you're going to sell enough dried jellyfish to make the evening worthwhile). I was impatient and had a dinner guest on the way. So I cheated and used a blow dryer. Yes, for half an hour I worked over the bird, discovering that if it's hanging like this, you can make it spin just with the force of air from the hair dryer. From here the duck went on the roasting rack and then baked at 375° for just shy of an hour.

The final product, certainly not the crisp and lovely mahogany bird of legend. However... The skin around the thighs and legs was perfect, nicely dry, crispy, and caramelized. And the meat throughout was wonderful, if a little more on the medium-well side. At home, I generally eat the breast in a genteel manner with fork and knife, and then consume the leg and thigh by hand. I served it with some couscous, freshly steamed broccoli, and the 2004 Francis Coppola Claret, a wonderful wine that isn't being made anymore.

What have I learned from this experiment? Apparently part of the secret of crispy duck skin is to remove as much fat as possible beforehand, and the thighs definitely had less fat than the breasts. Once it gets nice and cold and bugs aren't an issue, I might try this again and hang the duck in a mesh bag in a dark corner outside for a day or so and see how it dries out.

03 December 2006

Tasting Notes for December 2, 2006

With the holidays and other commitments, it's been a while since I've been to a proper wine tasting. What better way to get back in gear than with a sparkling wine tasting?

Note: All of these wines are Non Vintage unless otherwise specified. Also, I've had about half of these wines before, but it's always interesting to give something a second try.

Wine 1: Louis Perdrier Brut Blanc de Blanc. Beaune, Burgundy. There's a little toasted bread on top, and the flavor is slightly tart with a short finish. A little bit of an odd aftertaste, but it's still a great bargain if you're making cocktails or just want a bottle of bubbly to open. $9.

Wine 2: Segura Viudas Aria. Catalonia, Spain. A lovely sparkling rosé made of Pinot Noir. Definitely a fun wine to drink. Strawberry flavors and aromas are present though subtle, with a fruity nose and crisp mouth feel. $12.

Wine 3: Nino Franco "Rustico" Prosecco. Valdobbiadene, Italy. The sheet provided at the tasting notes that this is the wine used to make the first Bellini at Harry's Bar in Venice. (A Bellini is just sparkling wine mixed with either a fresh peach puree or peach juice.) There are some apple aromas, clean with a crisp flavor and fairly neutral but not bad. Dry and refreshing. $18.

Intermission: On Wine #4 and Wine #12, I got an aroma of roast duck right off the bat. It's the first time I've encountered this in a wine, and though the first one could have been a fluke, the second time confirmed it. Maybe it's just because of the amount of duck I've had in the past month, but it was spot-on. I'm guessing that it's a combination of the toast aromas you often get in sparklers, combined with a little gaminess and maybe just a hint of sulfur. I don't want it to sound like a flaw--it was wonderful, just surprising.

Wine 4:
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut
. Sonoma, California. Aside from the roast duck aroma, it's got solid fruitiness, a little tart, dry and with a clean finish. $18.

Wine 5: 2003 Bailly-Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé. Burgundy, France. Creamy cherry aroma, some bright berry flavors. Soft finish, a nice fun wine. And I'm always up for a roseé. $20.

Wine 6: Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs. Napa, California. Fresh bread dough aromas, some vegetal and slightly herbal flavors, with a crisp finish. A well balanced and mature sparkling wine. $35.

Wine 7: Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Champagne. Champagne, France. Very mild and smooth, dignified. Dry and properly balanced. $40.

Wine 8: Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne. Champagne, France. From the producer of the famous Cristal. Strong toasted bread aroma, light citrus elements, wonderful aftertaste and crisp bubbles. Pretty amazing for the price. $45.

Wine 9: 1995 Perrier-Jouet Fleuer de Champagne Brut. Champagne, France. Dark and musky aroma, almost like a Muscat-based wine. Lemon custard flavors, with a little spice cake on the finish. Probably the star of the tasting. $140.

Wine 10: Mumm Cuvée M. Napa, California. Light aroma, creamy mouth feel, with a slightly sweet finish. $20.

Wine 11: Schramsberg Crémant. Napa, California. Lovely, light sweetness, creamy flavor and utterly delicious. $35.

Wine 12: Chandon California Rosé. Napa, California. Again, I got roast duck on the nose. The flavor was full fruit, but pleasantly dry and not sweet. Also, the wine isn't anywhere near as bright pink as it looks on the website. $20.

01 December 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Chayote

I'm fascinated by ingredients that are native to the American continents. Where would world cusine be without the tomato and pepper? I love finding fusion recipes for things like wild rice and bison and cactus. Today I'll be focusing on another New World family, that of the squash.

The chayote is a pear-shaped and -sized squash that goes by many names. My favorite is the one used in the French Caribbean islands: christophene. Oddly, the Larousse Gastronomique uses the English term "custard marrow", akin to the use of the word marrow when referring to a large zucchini.

Back in 2003, I was on a major squash kick. I'd had yellow summer squash, cucumbers, and zucchini before, but had somehow skipped the various winter squash. Except for pumpkin, but those are generally used around here in the canned variety or as simple decoration in the fall. I went through acorn and butternut and turban squash, as well as a few unnamed hybrids that would show up from time to time at the farmer's market.

For the preparation of the chayotes, I found a recipe that suggested softening them in hot oil and then cooking with some cream for a bit, followed by a topping of sliced green onions. Most chayote recipes seemed to use them just for bulk, and I wanted to really focus on the flavor of the squash. I'd heard it referred to as "mild" before, but it's pretty flavorless. In general, I'd compare it to a cross between a cucumber and a honeydew melon, yet watered down. It's clean and crisp, and ever-so-slightly sweet, but more confusing than anything else.

Final verdict: I don't know if I'll be incorporating chayotes into any dishes in the future. Maybe some raw diced pieces in a salsa fresca over seafood. Maybe as a mystery ingredient in a salad. It doesn't taste bad, there's just not enough flavor there to make it a significant ingredient. They are, however, quite easy to peel with a standard vegetable peeler. The skin is only about as thick as that of an apple or potato, unlike the thicker rind of some squash varieties.