29 June 2007

Intermission: 1993 Sutter Home White Zinfandel

While staying at the R house this weekend, Dave found a rare treasure hidden in the back of a liquor cabinet: the 1993 Sutter Home White Zinfandel. At its birth this was a sweet pink wine meant for quick consumption and no aging. So what happens when it's held at a stable temperature for 14 years and uncorked amongst a group of curious wine lovers?

As can be seen in the photo, the wine turned a shade of amber over time. (I made a zoomed inset for ease of reading the date.) I typically avoid White Zin these days, not out of elitism or snobbery but just because I don't care for the heavy sweetness. But this oddity passed the sniff test. It didn't smell like vinegar, it wasn't oxidized, and it wasn't corked. In short, it wasn't flawed and probably wasn't dangerous. The only thing left to do was try it out.

Over the lips and past the gums,
Look out stomach, here it comes.

The bouquet was somewhat like Madeira with a certain "cooked" profile. Surprisingly the sweetness had largely disappeared over the years and had been replaced with an interesting acidity. I'm not going to say that it was good, but it certainly wasn't terrible. I had about half a glass before pouring it out. Dave suggested that it would be great in a salad dressing, so when I got the opportunity, I slipped some into the vinagrette for the frisée aux lardons.

The best part about this particular tasting is the bragging rights. For the rest of the weekend there were many jokes along the lines of, "That was a great Bordeaux, but it's no '93 Sutter Home..."

26 June 2007

Early 4th of July Celebration

Paul and I hit the road this past weekend to venture up to Middle Tennessee for a visit with the R family. Faithful readers may recall our visit last year (posts here and here). The standing rib roast was a big hit last year, and my presence was requested for a repeat performance. So I arrived at one in the afternoon, threw it in the oven, turned it up to 200° and didn't do anything to it for five hours. Though I did get a little busier with other dishes before dinner started... After sampling the 1996 Müller-Catoir Muskateller trocken, of course. Lemony acidity with a dominant aroma and flavor of green apples. Full bodied and great for afternoon sipping.

I wanted to start with a soup course based on the duck stock that I made and froze a couple of months ago. Many of my soups over the past years have been of the "cream of x" formula, generally a stock paired with a main vegetable and seasonings which was then blended with cream before serving. I felt like something lighter was in order.

Starting with the duck stock, I sautéed three sliced leeks and tossed them in the pot. Later I soaked two ounces of dried mushrooms (a combination of morels, lobster mushrooms, woodears, and several others). These were chopped and added to the soup with some of the steeping liquid. About a third of a bottle of wine (2000 Bott Geyl Alsace), a nice bouquet garni of leek leaves surrounding my homegrown thyme, rosemary, oregano, and lavender, and I let the whole thing simmer for about an hour. The result was rich, complex, and savory, but certainly light on the stomach. For the wine, the R brothers picked out the 2005 Uniqato Rosé, a Bulgarian wine made from the Melnik grape. Dave had grabbed this for me a year ago and it had taken a long journey into my glass. The Uniqato was nicely dry, medium fruit, and a smoky aftertaste. For my first introduction into Eastern European varieties, it was a delicious and mysterious bottle.

Next up was a little surprise: frisée aux lardons. This French salad is more of a lunch entree dish, but it made for an excellent second course. I started with spiky, peppery, slightly bitter frisée (or curly endive). Then I added some crisped up cubes of pork belly (blanched first to remove some salt). A dash of fresh vinaigrette, and topped with a poached egg and some cracked black pepper. The photo shows my staging area before serving, and I briefly explained how to eat the dish: pierce the yolk first so that it runs down through the greens and mixes with the vinaigrette. Some felt it was a little odd at first, but afterwards there were lots of perfectly cleaned plates and loving comments the next day. The R brothers picked out the 2002 Thomas Fogarty Gewürztraminer from Monterey, California. Apple and pear flavors, mellow and dry with a smooth finish. A really amazing combination with the salad.

The final course was the aforementioned ribeye roast. I brought out my demi-glace for topping the beef. For sides, I cooked up some crookneck squash and zucchini in the same unwashed skillet that had held the leeks and pork belly. Ann (mother of the R family and gracious hostess for the weekend) provided a crisp vinegar-based slaw of cabbage and green pepper. This provided a spicy kick to the beef that was even better than horseradish. The beef was even better than last year, and much late night snacking was had with the leftovers.

For the wines, the brothers descended once again into the family cellar and produced three bottles of exquisite quality. First up was the 1995 Bernardus Marinus Carmel Valley Red Wine, a California claret blend. This was one of my favorites of the weekend, though I thought it had much more Petite Verdot in it: lots of hearty blackberry and violet aromas, great classic claret profile and gracious aging. Next up was the 2001 Мавруд (Mavrud), made from the grape of the same name in Bulgaria. Want more information? The label also says Червено Вино and Златен Ритон. Вино means wine, but beyond that you can translate the rest on your own. I can read Cyrillic but don't know any Bulgarian. Regardless, this is an unusual and savory wine that is begging for some wild game, like boar or venison. Last we had the 1995 Chateau La Louvière, a great Bordeaux with firm aromas of green bell pepper, tomato leaves, and green tobacco. Smooth and deliciously aged. All three reds were decanted for a couple of hours before consumption.

For dessert, I'd left matters to the hosts... Ann made cream puffs filled with custard and topped with chocolate. Frozen custard from a nice mom & pop establishment was available, and after dinner the gentlemen retired to the back porch for Port (Rosemount Old Benson and Penfolds Grandfather), Scotch (The Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood and Glengoyne), as well as Romeo y Julieta Bully cigars. The final nightcap came in the form of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.

More details on the second night of festivities will follow... Stay tuned!

25 June 2007

First Harvest

Here's a shot of my first harvest of the season, on June 21, 2007. That's a cayenne pepper and three Sun Gold tomatoes. I'm growing the cayennes in a pot, and I discovered that they're pretty hot. Maybe too little and hot for cooking purposes, so I'm either going to dry them and grind them up into powder or pickle them for future use. Of course, if you've got any sinus troubles eating a raw cayenne will definitely clear you out.

The Sun Golds are some of the cherry tomatoes I grew last year that sprouted up in the mystery garden. More updates will follow this week--lots of fruit on the vine!

22 June 2007

Chateau Aux Arc

Chateaux Aux Arc in Altus, Arkansas is run by Audrey House, who started making wine at the age of 13 and founded a winery sometime in her early 20s. In a nation where a parent can be arrested for letting a teenage kid take a sip of beer at a party, this is a remarkable achievement. The name comes from the original French explorers' name for the region "Aux Arcs", meaning with curves or with hills. (Alas, I don't think there's a dirty reference in there in the vein of Les Grande Tetons.) Over time this got bastardized into Ozarks.

Work took me to Little Rock for two weeks, and I'd heard good things about the winery. Given the opportunity to try one I picked the 2004 American Petite Sirah ($15, only available in Arkansas). It's got a black cherry aroma, with medium tannins and a flavor that trends towards blackberry. It's honestly one of the better American red wines I've had that didn't come from the west coast, as well as being one of the smoothest Petite Sirahs that I've tried.

The following weekend, I got curious and decided to visit the winery and sample some of the other offerings. The winery is easy to find and is the first that you encounter on Highway 186 running south from I-40.

The tasting room is set mere yards from the vineyards. I strolled over to a patch of Cynthiana (also known as Norton). Took some photos, but obeyed the warnings about pesticides. Besides, it's too early in the season to be plundering grapes. Kudos to the hosts at the tasting room: the menu is presented with dry wines on one side and sweet wines on the other. Sweet wines are far more popular in this part of the country (and often made using Vitis labrusca native varietals or hybrids), but the host passed me the menu with the dry side showing. Good man. There's maybe 20 wines on offer for tasting, and I tried six wines that were full of surprises.

2005 Chateau Aux Arc Chardonnay. This unoaked Chard throws a lot of fruit, lots of peach and apples. Tart yet creamy, just a touch of toast. Full bodied but well balanced.

2003 Chateau Aux Arc Syrah. Black pepper and black cherry aromas, another creamy feel on the tongue. Medium tannins with a touch of tartness.

2004 Chateau Aux Arc Cabernet Sauvignon. An interesting Bordeaux-style blend that goes off the rails somewhat and includes Pinot Meunier and Syrah in addition to the standard Merlot and Petite Verdot. Spicy with a touch of bitterness, though somewhat closed. I'd love to try it again with some age on the bottle.

2005 Chateau Aux Arc Dragonfly. The wine that most appealed to my sense of adventure but was the only disappointment of the tasting. This wine is a blend of some 50 different grape varieties, most experimental hybrids made by House. Apparently any and all grapes were used in these pairings. It's impossible to pull out any individual grape characteristics from this wine. Off-putting aroma and a harsh flavor, but I'm still glad I tried it.

2004 Chateau Aux Arc Zinfandel. The wine I liked so much I picked up a bottle for $15. And to give you an idea of some of the truth-in-labeling used by this winery, the wine is actually 99.68% Zinfandel, with the remainder comprised of .12% Petite Sirah, .11% Carignane, .05% Syrah, .03% Alicante Bouschet, and .01% Grenache. It had a touch of mint on the nose with full blackberry flavors. Only 15% alcohol, though the 2005 is 17%.

2000 Chateau Aux Arc Champagne. This is a blanc de blancs made in the méthod champenoise, and with the next bottling they're going to drop the Champagne name in honor of the AOC regulations. Light on the aroma but with pleasant flavors of pear and apple, just a hint of banana. Even though the bottle had been opened the previous day (typically they only sample sparklers on Saturday), it was still crisp with good bubble structure. This would be an awesome brunch sparkling wine. Not many bottles are left from their one vintage, so either get one now or wait for next year's batch.

Afterwards I drove down into Altus. Literally down--it's a long trip down to the water, with lots of tight curves and blind corners. I had horrible visions of senior citizens blitzed on Muscadine wine charging down the hills in their RVs, ready to smash my meager rental car without so much as a how-do-you-do. This did not occur, but upon running the main drag of Altus (one block, or less than a dozen buildings), I moved back up the hill. I passed the Post Familie and Mount Bethel wineries. I felt a stop at Wiederkehr was obligatory, but on a Sunday afternoon the place was packed to the gills and I have some bad memories of their sweet jug wines from ten years ago. (This is not meant to criticize their current offerings; I'm just not a sweet wine person anymore. Nor sweets in general, which is why desserts are never featured on this blog.)

Besides these four, there is a fifth winery in Arkansas called Cowie in nearby Paris. For detailed information on the Arkansan wineries, I'd suggest this lovely profile of the Altus AVA by the good folks at Appellation America. At some point I'll return to the area and hit all five for a proper evaluation. For this trip, it was mostly fun to zip through the scenic countryside seeing rows and rows of neat grape vines. In this part of the country we're used to seeing cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans, so grapes are a fascinating change of pace.

18 June 2007

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Radishes

Radishes are by no means unusual, but I can't remember eating one recently. We grew some during a brief period of my childhood when we had a vegetable garden (which also included corn and giant pumpkins). I know I've had some slivered radishes in salads over the years, and I'm sure that the little red globes have snuck into my dinner at some point, but at no time in the past twenty years can I recall ever intentionally consuming radishes or even wanting them. Time then for a personal challenge.

First, I decided to make a radish rose, since these days you're most likely to see radishes used as garnish. I then did what Mom taught me not to do and ate the pretty garnish. I figure it's allowed since I made it and frankly it wasn't decorating anything other than an empty plate. A raw radish is crisp, peppery, a little bitter, and oddly refreshing. If it wasn't so dense I'd consider it for use in a martini. There are other, more absurd, iterations on the radish garnish. If I buy radishes again, I can see mixing them with carrot sticks for snacking.

For my second radish dish, I'd read that the French enjoy thin sliced radishes on buttered bread. (Search for pain+radis+beurre if you want plenty of recettes en français.) I made a slight detour and lightly fried the radish slices in hot butter, and toasted the bread. The result: an open-faced fried radish sandwich. It wasn't bad, but not the kind of thing I will see myself eating on a regular basis. The frying killed all of the heat of the radishes, but the overall experience was depressing. I wasn't starving, but that was my dinner that night. A radish sandwich. I stood there in the kitchen eating the cursed thing, while staring longingly at my herbs and knowing that there was better food in the fridge and freezer.

At this point I became discouraged with the radish challenge and turned the rest into the compost heap. Any help out there from my readers? Suggestions on all of the great underappreciated uses for radishes that I've missed out on?

15 June 2007

2005 Hahn Estates Cabernet Franc

A while back I tried the Hahn Meritage, so whne I saw the 2005 Hahn Estates Cabernet Franc at the wine shop I jumped at the chance. 95% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Santa Lucia Highlands, California, $12. Blackberry, nutmeg, just a touch of Concord grape sweetness and plum flavors on the end. Surprisingly smooth and pleasant for a young Cabernet Franc, with few of the herbal notes that normally find. An excellent wine all around, yet not at all what I imagined.

An additional note: this wine just keeps getting better. I decanted it an hour before serving, and here three hours later it's even smoother and more fruit is coming out in the flavor.

12 June 2007

Blog Challenge

Two weekends ago I got to meet the fine folks from Edible Therapy
and Squirrel Squad Squeeks. Papa Squirrel decided to tag me for one of those little blog challenges that go around the web now and then. I'll happily answer the tag, but I'll pass on forwarding it along.

The challenge: seven random facts about yourself. Here goes...

  • The only piece of original art I have hanging in my house is shown at right. Untitled by Vicki Loines, ca. 1999, 18"x24". Chalk on some sort of textured black artboard. I used to work with Vicki, and she gave it to me as a gift. Ever since, it has terrified guests. Despite the dark theme, she was was one of the happiest and friendliest people I've ever known, and it actually cheers me up.
  • My first experience with food-based gardening was picking strawberries at my grandparents' house in Nashville back when I was six. Needless to say, I had strawberry juice running down my chin the whole time.
  • I'm fond of photography, but primarily of non-human subjects. Reference the photo at right of a honeybee perched on a clover blossom. Granted, I had to pop him in the fridge to calm him down before the shoot, but he was released unharmed into my backyard.
  • I've been to 29 states in the US and to Europe twice, but I've never been to New York or Los Angeles. I'll get around to them eventually.
  • I also love astronomy, and have my own little reflecting telescope. The attached image wasn't taken through the scope, but rather using my beloved Fujifilm S5000 digital camera. This picture of the moon was taken on January 27, 2004.
  • I'm a certified operator of the HP Indigo 5000 digital press, even though I haven't touched one in quite a while.
  • At the age of 8, I sat on Santa's lap for the last time when I froze up and asked for a smoke detector because it seemed like a sensible request. At the age of 17, I wore a Santa suit for the first time as part of a charity function at a nursing home. I've worn it a few times since.

09 June 2007

2005 Tienen Duende Verdejo

While in Albuquerque, I got to purchase a bottle of wine in a grocery store for the first time in the U.S. (no problem in Europe). It was a strange experience: to be treated like a responsible adult and not forced to shuffle over to an approved shop during approved hours. I only wish I'd had a kitchen avaialable so I could get the ingredients for dinner and a matching bottle of wine within the same four walls.

Looking for something fun and refreshing, I picked up a bottle of the 2005 Tienen Duende Verdejo from Castilla y León, Spain, for $6. (No information found online, which is often the case with small run Spanish wines.) A clean aroma, with well-rounded body. Some peach and apricot, low acidity but not flat. Dry but with good fruit. All in all a good bargain and easy afternoon sipper. I found it a great match for a cherry empanada picked up from a local bakery.

05 June 2007

Benito vs. the Decapod: Jonah Crab Claws

I was a bit mistaken by what I saw on sale at the seafood counter. Stone crab claws are an expensive delicacy from Florida and Texas waters, and I've never seen them here in Memphis. The stone crabs are so rare that in order to protect the species you can only harvest a single claw and then return them to the briny deep where the tasty crustaceans will regenerate a new claw. Now, what I purchased at the low price of $5/lb. were not mislabeled: I had just never seen a heap of Jonah crab claws, which come from a much more abundant (yet less flavorful) North Atlantic crab. To understand my confusion, you can check out this helpful page. Note the fourth photo from the top and the last photo. Easy mistake, eh? The claws tasted fine, though it was a bit tricky to extract all of the meat. Paul and Grace joined The Roommate and me for this basic Sunday lunch.

The wine selected for the meal was yet another pick from The Australian Premium Wine Collection: the 2006 Elderton Unwooded Chardonnay from the Barossa Valley. I've previously tried the 2003 and the 2005, each of which were a bit off balance. However, I was happy with this one: good citrus flavors with a hint of peach on the nose, medium acidity and a smooth finish. The non-oaked Chardonnays are a fun alternative to the heavily oaked California Chards, and it's been interesting to see some of the names used for marketing this lack of oak: unwooded, naked, virgin.

The true star of the meal turned out to be the stuffed eight ball zucchini from the Agricenter Farmers Market. I hollowed them out and filled them with sautéed young onions (again from the Farmers Market), canned tomatoes, homegrown thyme, and topped with shredded Romano cheese. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or so and serve. Add in some fresh roasted sweet corn, and we've got a simple yet delicious lunch.

With the abundance of fresh vegetables available locally as well as the sheer masses of tomatoes I'll have, it's tempting to go vegetarian for the summer.

04 June 2007

2000 Georges Dubœuf Moulin à Vent Prestige

Eric Asimov recently wrote about tasting a 192 Moulin à Vent. I was surprised to see this, as I had just come back from the wine shop with a dusty old bottle of the 2000 Georges Dubœuf Moulin à Vent Prestige. I picked it up on a whim for $12, but apparently Robert Parker scored it in the 90-95 range and it's ready to drink now.

Let's talk again about cru Beaujolais. [Edited for clarification -- thanks Fredric] Beaujolais Nouveau is made in the Beaujolais region south of Burgundy from Gamay grapes. It's a special process designed to make a quick, fruity wine that won't last for a long time. Beaujolais-Villages and the crus are made in the same region and from the same grapes, but using traditional winemaking processes and thus they have more structure and aging potential than the Nouveau. The crus fall into my favorite category of wine: a delicious regional favorite that allows for its own enthusiastic and scholarly appreciation but doesn't cost a lot. There are ten crus within the Beaujolais appellation. With this bottle, I've so far tried Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin à Vent, Régnié, and Saint Amour. I still need to try Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte-de-Brouilly, and Juliénas.

The wine still carried bright red cherry flavors. The tannins had entirely dissipated, though the wine had begun to turn a shade of brick red. I tasted it fresh out of the bottle, then after one hour of decanting, and finally after three hours of decanting. One hour was about perfect for this wine; afterwards the fruit began to fade out and the end result was somewhat watery. Still, for the price, not a bad bottle and I was glad to check it off the list.

01 June 2007

Benito vs. the Produce Section: 白菜

Before anyone gets excited, I've eaten bok choy before, and even considered planting some toy choi because of the easy portion size. It's not that exotic of an ingredient, even here in Memphis. But while roaming through the produce section, I realized that I'd never cooked with it.

On the same grocery store trip, I came across a few pounds of beef spare ribs on sale. Perfect. That evening, I assembled a dinner that was part Chinese, part Italian, and all delicious.

A diced shallot and a few garlic cloves went into some melted butter in the venerable enameled cast iron Dutch oven. Then I separated the ribs using my beloved hand-crafted, carbon steel butcher knife. Ribs went in the pot, along with a can of whole tomatoes, a big can of beer, a few sprigs of thyme, and I let it all simmer for a couple of hours. I didn't incorporate the bok choy until the end. I chopped up the greens and set them aside, and then cut the white stalks into edible chunks. The white portion went into the pot for 20 minutes, followed by the greens for five. Threw together a little salad to go with it. (It's spring, I'm craving green things.)

For garnish on the ribs, I tried a little Thomas Keller trick and sliced a shallot into thin rings. These were dusted in flour and fried in canola oil until brown and crispy. It's sort of a cross between the fried onion topping famous on Thanksgiving casseroles and a batch of homemade onion rings. Great flavor, yet light and delicate. Damned easy to make, too, and it doesn't require a lot of oil. (You'll probably have to click on the photo in order to see them.)

In the grand frugal tradition of using every part of the buffalo, there was little waste from this meal. The leftovers were packaged up for lunch tomorrow; the scraps of the veggies went into the compost pile, and the succulent bones were given to the dogs.