30 March 2007

2002 Hill of Content "Benjamin's Blend" White

2002 Hill of Content "Benjamin's Blend" White. I drank this for the first Combinations challenge, though I purchased another bottle in anticipation of my birthday dinner. See, my name's Benjamin, and there's a guy riding a bike on the front, and when I was seven I fractured my skull in a bike accident, the last of several childhood head injuries. Whether or not any residual brain damage is present is up to my various friends and readers. I showed the bottle off at the party and Mom and Dad got a kick out of it, but we didn't get around to drinking it.

Months later, I'm getting a lot of melon flavors. It's a lovely little white wine, and definitely good for salads, seafood courses, or even casual sipping before dinner. As a second note, I've been impressed with this and other selections from The Australian Premium Wine Collection. The wines all have a smaller label above the main one stating membership in this group.

I'd love to see similar marketing in the US. For instance, the "BBQ Collection", or "The Seafood Gourmet Collection", or any number of categories. I think one of the hardest things for novice wine drinkers in the US is getting away from the one or two wines he or she really likes. Such cross-winery marketing could be an interesting experiment, particularly if it focused on well made but not obscure wines.

28 March 2007

2005 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Rosé

Every summer I go on a dry rosé kick, and every summer I've ignored the $17 bottle of Sofia. Why? I have nothing against Sofia Coppola. I've never seen The Godfather Part III, but I loved her films Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. This decision mainly had to do with some weird mental block about buying a rosé for more than $12. Plus there's the whole "marketing to women" thing with the Sofia line--have you seen the little pink cans of sparkling wine that come with their own little pink straws?

I want a dry rosé marketed in the following fashion: a magazine ad of a grubby French winemaker, dirt under the nails and an ugly scar on the chin, with a freshly killed pheasant flung over his shoulder and a tumbler of rosé in his hand. Because it's refreshing and perfect for sipping early in the winemaking process to give you an idea about how the grapes are developing. Give it a name like "Boar's Blood" or "Rare Beef".

Ahem. Today I gave in to temptation and decided to formally kick off the rosé season with this wine.

The 2005 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Rosé is made from 100% Carneros Pinot Noir. Beautiful light cranberry color. Very light and refreshing, just a touch of tartness on the first part of the sip. Berry aromas with matching flavors, closer to raspberry than strawberry, but subtle. I served it with some veal loin chops, fingerling potatoes, and a nice salad. Great combination. I don't eat much veal, but when I do it's good to have a wine that's not too strong to go along with it.

26 March 2007

NV Barefoot Bubbly California Brut Cuvée Chardonnay Champagne

It's getting warmer here--86°F/30°C yesterday. Everything's starting to green up, and I'm going to have to mow the lawn next week. When the weather changes, so do my wine drinking habits. I back off the reds a bit and move towards rosés, whites, and sparklers. In a quest for one of the last category, I saw a $7 bottle of the NV Barefoot Bubbly California Brut Cuvée Chardonnay Champagne.

The Barefoot wines are inexpensive and fly off the shelves around here, though I find them a little sweet for my tastes. But the sparkling wines came in two styles, Brut and Extra Dry. I picked the drier option, or the Brut. Not bad. It's got a crisp Chardonnay nose--no yeast or buttered toast aromas. The flavor is reminiscent of the cut up green apples Mom would put in my lunch when I was a kid. She'd sprinkle lemon juice over them to keep the slices from turning brown, and this combination of green apple and citric acid flavor in the wine is surprisingly similar. Once it warms up some, there's an interesting cherry pie aftertaste.

It's not the most complex sparkling wine I've ever had, but probably one of the best under $10 that you'll find. This would be an excellent choice for large parties or gatherings of non-wine geeks where a bottle of bubbly is required. Maybe do equal cases of this and the Extra Dry to provide an option for those with a sweet tooth.

For more information on the background of the wine and the use of the word Champagne, check out this extensive interview with the winemaker.

22 March 2007

2004 Steltzner Claret

Once again my dog Wolfgang gets in the way of a photo, but it was a nice sunset, so who can blame him? This particular wine is the 2004 Steltzner Claret, Napa Valley, California. $17. It's made by Stag's Leap, though from different patches of vines than their higher-end offerings. Alder has some more information on the background. Steltzner makes bottles up to 27 litres in size(!), and it looks like they also grow some Pinotage on the premises. I've never had a Pinotage from outside South Africa, and now I have a mission.

I'm a sucker for Clarets, and this was not a disappointment. Aromas of blueberries and rose petals. The flavor is surprisingly mild with dark berry prominent. Light tannins and a smooth finish. Tastes more like a French Bordeaux than a California Meritage or similar Claret blend.

I had it along with a rare ribeye and some roasted potatoes. Simple, earthy fare, but sometimes that's precisely what you need.

20 March 2007

Frijoles borrachos

In my travels through the world of dried beans, I grabbed a bag of the humble pintos for 55¢. And while proper, homemade refried beans are a true joy, I was short on freshly rendered lard and wanted something a little more interesting.

I decided upon Rick Bayless' recipe for frijoles borrachos, or "drunken beans", which are flavored at the last minute with a splash of tequila (left over from the margarita recipe, which turned out to be a huge hit on this blog). I basically doubled that recipe, used chicken stock instead of water, chopped pork neck instead of shoulder, and roasted the leftover pork neck pieces in some pico de gallo. That last bit yielded enough meat to make some quick quesadillas to accompany the beans. It's pretty simple, but full of flavor and a good alternative to refried beans.

Some claim that Mexican fare can't be properly matched with wine, but as always when confronting a spicy cuisine of a tropical region, a sparkling wine is generally a good bet. Here I chose the NV Chandon Rosé. It's basically made like a traditional champagne but with the addition of 10% still Pinot Noir for color, flavor, and body. Good yeast and toast aromas, pleasantly tart with notes of currant. Fruity but definitely dry. Beautiful salmon color.

Through an odd linguistic coincidence, I discovered that pintos go well with pinots.

15 March 2007


Since it's been unseasonably warm this past week, why not take a break from wine and enjoy a refreshing margarita? But I'm not talking about one of those fluorescent green slurpees you get from the local Tex-Mex joint. Here's a fully fresh, well-balanced margarita shamelessly adapted from Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill.

I followed that recipe, except I used only a splash of water and added in some orange juice. And if company's over, I'll float an orange slice like I did today (you can barely see it in the picture). I'm not big on salted rims, but I did sprinkle a bit on the orange slice.

For the tequila, I used a bottle I got on clearance. I'm not a tequila snob, and while I've had some amazing anejo tequila once or twice, I don't particularly care for the flavor on its own. So while purists will tell you to use nothing but the $100 a bottle tequila for anything, in reality the citrus flavors are so strong as to render any delicate subtleties invisible. I lucked out with this $15 bottle of Dos Dedos that happened to be 100% blue agave, but generally any "gold" tequila will work well. Pick a silver if you want a cleaner taste. Just avoid the dirt cheap stuff that smells like paint thinner.

For the brandy part of it, I used Gran Gala, an inexpensive Italian version of Grand Marinier.

Fresh lime juice is a must, and though it's a matter of personal preference, I think the bit of fresh orange juice evens it out well. I also like to chop up some of the citrus peels and throw them in the shaker to help release some of the essential oils.

11 March 2007

Garden Preview

Last year I spent a good bit of time writing about my experiments with tomatoes, herbs, and my failed attempt at growing carrots. Here's what's on tap for 2007:

Herbs: My spearmint, oregano, and rosemary have survived over the winter, growing in the kitchen window. I've used all three frequently, and will continue to do so. The basil is only technically alive; it's pale and makes a lot of flowers but not many leaves. The microgreens died off in the fall, but I've replanted some and have already been able to harvest. In addition, I've started growing arugula in a tray, and look forward to those peppery greens in a month or so. Once the plants show up at the garden center, I intend to set herbs in every windowsill of the house: sage, lavender, thyme, hyssop, dill...

Carrots: Yes, I'm going to try it again. My biggest problems last year were lack of sunlight and poor soil for carrots. This year I've started a batch of Short 'n Sweets, which grow short and stubby and should be a bit easier. Plus, they should be good for snacking as well as for stews and the like. The ones I've started are in a deep flower pot with plenty of room to grow in soft potting soil.

Beans: I'm going to grow some green beans, but I'll also sow whatever dried beans I like that I can get to sprout. Thus far the only luck I've had is with a Christmas Lima bean.

Peppers: I haven't started any yet, but I was impressed with a lot of the plants at the farmers' market last year. I recall fondly some tiny orange peppers that looked almost too pretty to eat. Almost. I used my jalapeños frequently last year; I'd like to grow some different ones this season.

Tomatoes: These are the ones I'm really looking forward to, but I'm going to wait for a while before announcing the varieties. For now, just know that I'm planting eight different types, all sizes and colors, and no repeats from last year.

10 March 2007

Duck Stock

When I was cooking a lot of duck in December, I saved the bones and scraps, wrapped them tightly, and threw them in the freezer. Well, it was time to make some room, so I spent about seven hours slowly simmering the scraps, the standard roasted vegetables, filtered water, peppercorns, bouquet garni, etc. Skimming, then straining towards the end... A long process, but it's worth it later down the road.

The end result can be seen in the photo, conveniently packaged in 700mL containers, and since they're going back in the freezer, I've defeated the purpose of making room. But at least they're more attractive in this form. With 2½ containers filled, that yields 1.75L of duck stock. Early in the process, the duck aroma was pretty strong, but towards the end and it had turned into a more neutral poultry stock, albeit much stronger and deeper in flavor than chicken or turkey stock.

The next step is to take all of the uncooked skin scraps that I've got and render out the delicious duck fat. But not today.

I don't have any immediate plans for the stock, but I'm sure I'll make a risotto or sauce or something in the next couple of months. Perhaps I'll take a cue from the Marx Brothers.

08 March 2007

Daube provençal

For years I thought daube meant dove, and every time I saw a reference to it in a book I figured they were referencing different preparations for doves. Why did I think this? Well, Taube is the German word for dove, and the name for one of the most elegant aircraft built during WWI. Granted, French is a Romance language and German is not, but I figured it probably transferred via Alsace. Taube-->Daube-->Dove, right?

This is a case where too much information is a bad thing.

No, daube is just the French word for stew, and the dish that James Beard's mother made for him every time he got upset as a child. In this case, I've made daube provençal from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. It's a simple lamb stew with some vegetables and herbs, but the end result is wonderful. I skipped the turned potatoes and instead went with one fingerling potato per bowl. The lamb shoulder, which had a lot of bones, made the broth doubly tasty. And the aroma that slipped throughout the entire house was an added treat.

The wine was recommended to me by the friendly owner of Great Wines and a distributor I know and trust who happened to be in the shop that day. (Thanks Gary and Mike!) If I haven't said it enough here, don't be afraid to go into your local wine shop and ask for suggestions. Developing these relationships will broaden your palate over the long term, and you'll get to enjoy some hidden gems that aren't well known or highly publicized. Even if you don't know that much about wine, talk about what you like and what food you'll be fixing, and a good wine shop owner or employee should be able to help you out.

Even though I know both of them and have tried a lot of wines that were lying around, I asked for their suggestion for something new and interesting. They picked out the 2004 Sangiò di Luiano, an Italian IGT (or Super Tuscan) wine made from 60% Merlot and 40% Sangiovese, which runs for $20. Bright cherry flavors, hints of red apple with a pleasant spice note on the finish. Light beginning, firm tannins later. Considering the mixed French-Italian nature of the wine, I feel a provençal recipe was a perfect match.

06 March 2007

A Pair of Chiantis

Fredric recently spoke about the joys of bargain Chianti. I've had good and bad Chianti over the years, and while it's not something I drink on a regular basis, sometimes you want it with a bowl of spaghetti, a slab of lasagna, or a slice of pizza. That southern Italian, American-influenced style of cooking isn't as popular these days in high society, but it still stands as comfort food for much of this country.

First up, the 2004 Ruffino "Il Leo" Chianti Superiore . 100% Sangiovese, $12. I'll spare the details here, but elsewhere you can read about the relatively new Chianti Superiore designation. This lion was a solid Chianti, which is to say that it was easy drinking and tasted exactly like an Italian red should. No real unique aromas or flavors stand out, but it's a good, basic wine. Goofy side note: Ruffino wines got a lot of product placement in last year's The Devil Wears Prada. You know how some movies do that with Pepsi or Coke, where the label of the can or bottle is always turned towards the camera? That's what they did with Ruffino wines.

Next, we have the 2004 Villa di Campobello Chianti, a great bargain at $8. 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo. This one is a cherry fruit bomb, quite fun and refreshing. In fact, I'd go ahead and set aside a bottle or two of this for Thanksgiving, where it should match well with the wide array of dishes and fruit-loving palates.

02 March 2007

Benito vs. the Gastropod: Escargot

First off, sorry for the long week without posts. My real job has been taking up most of my free time. However, on the way home I picked up a certain treat I'd had my eye on for a while: escargot.

While I've consumed other members of the class Gastropoda (abalone and conch), somehow I'd never gotten around to the humble snail. Snails never showed up on the childhood table, and whenever I've encountered them in a restaurant I wasn't really interested in paying $25 for a plate of something that might better be regarded as bait in these parts. But I've been reading more about snails recently, and apparently they're one of the first animals ever farmed by humans, and there are ancient archaeological sites full of huge snail shell middens.

The Fresh Market on White Station had them for 69¢ each. Previously frozen, stuffed with a greenish mix of butter and herbs and garlic. I figured it was an excellent chance to give them a try and bought a half dozen. Each snail was about 1½ inch across. I posed them for the photo to take advantage of the beautiful patterns on the shell, but obviously when cooking I moved the foil and positioned the snails in order to keep the "cup" upright so none of the butter would spill out. Bake at 400° for a few minutes until the butter bubbles, and then remove.

I don't own an escargot fork (really, it hasn't ever come up before), but I used the tip of a thin knife to prise the snails from their shells. I managed to get each out in one piece without breaking the shells, though one required a little coaxing with a toothpick. And what of the first snail? I gave it a good chew and a swallow, and it was sinfully delicious. I gobbled down the remaining five and used a crust of bread to sop up the remaining butter/herb/garlic mixture that had pooled on the plate... and on my fingers. The snails tasted much more like shellfish than something you'd pick off your tomato plants, but with the dark savory texture that you get from smoked oysters. Not slimy at all, and while the sauce was strong, it was still possible to adequately taste the meat.

Will I eat these again? I'm resisting the urge to drive back out to East Memphis right now. Will I serve them at a dinner party? Probably not. I have a hard enough time convincing people to eat raw oysters, or not to get ill if I eat them in public. I do think that next time I'm going to get a dozen, have a simple salad, a good white Burgundy, and maybe I'll even drop a few bucks and get that escargot fork.