31 October 2007

2006 Hayman & Hill Interchange

I've enjoyed the Hayman & Hill wines I've had in the past. Recently I spotted a new one in the lineup that had no information about the grapes on the label. The 2006 Hayman & Hill Interchange is a white blend from Santa Barbera County. 47% Chardonnay, 34% Sauvignon Blanc, 7% Muscat Canelli, 5% Malvasia Bianca, 4% Semillon, and 3% Gewürtztraminer. It's a semi-dry wine with a huge nose of flowers, pineapple and mango. On the tongue it's a fruit bomb of bright citrus and apricot flavors, with lots of acidity and a bit of sweetness. It's an interesting wine, and one that I think would be a good bridge for someone trying to move beyond White Zinfandel or sweet Rieslings.

I'd like to say that I sampled this alongside some sort of Brazilian seafood stew, but in all honesty I had it with some baked ham and macaroni and cheese. Felt like a bit of comfort food with this colder, rainy weather we've been having recently.

29 October 2007

2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards Dry Rosé of Sangiovese

A fun little wine I've tried recently is the 2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards Dry Rosé of Sangiovese, Sonoma County, California. Beautiful salmon color. Tart and crisp with a watermelon Jolly Rancher aroma. Strawberry flavors follow. Aside from the slight fizzy mouthfeel, it's almost a perfect dry rosé.

Typically I've enjoyed rosés in the spring and summer, but the growing popularity bodes well for them being stocked year-round. And they're a great match for seafood, salads, and simple afternoon sandwiches regardless of the weather outside.

I served it with some black bean and corn quesadillas, topped with a healthy dash of peri-peri sauce. It's supposed to be hot, made from Africa's hottest peppers, but I think you could safely rub this stuff in an open wound without feeling any burn. You could probably splash it on a toddler's bowl of Cheerios and he wouldn't break a sweat. That's not to say that I don't like it--it's got a great red pepper flavor, a hint of sweetness, and just a little kick. Plus, proceeds from the sale of this sauce go to rhinoceros conservation efforts. It's available at The Fresh Market. It goes well on top of chili con carne, grilled fish, and especially roast pork.

24 October 2007


Here's my mojito, a last gasp of summer before cold weather arrives. Some lime, some rum, a crushed handful of fresh mint, a bit of organic Floridian cane sugar, mixed heartily in a martini shaker and poured over ice with a splash of sparkling water to make it fun. This is essentially a mint julep with white rum taking the role of Bourbon.

Want a recipe? Try this. Adjust the proportions depending on how much sweet/sour you want. It's not rocket science, and for my sake, don't use bottled lime juice. Squeeze your own and throw those chopped lime rinds into the shaker along with the other ingredients. Trust me, the flavor is amazing when you do this.

I've enjoyed this cocktail for years, though it has become trendy recently. And while some might grumble over "their favorite secret recipe/restaurant/hangout/movie/band getting popular", I'm glad that others are enjoying the perfect combination of mint, lime, sugar, and rum that is the mojito. It's even showing up in chewing gum these days.

22 October 2007

Naked Lion Copper Flask

The Naked Lion Brewing Company is based out of Memphis but for now, their products are actually brewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There's been a lot of local coverage on this beer. I grabbed a sixer of the Copper Flask at the grocery store and decided to give it a try. Despite the dark color, it is a lager and should be enjoyed cold and in a glass roughly similar to mine in the photo (or directly from the bottle--there's more variety in beer glasses than wine glasses, but at the end of a long day, it's not that important). Amazing flavors of molasses, cloves, and oranges. Savory and not bitter. More alcohol than you're used to in a draft of Bud Light, but you don't really taste it. I'm going to go ahead and call this early in the season: BEST BEER FOR THANKSGIVING. It's available at a few local haunts like the Flying Saucer and the Young Avenue Deli. I picked it up at the Schnuck's in Cordova. Go on, give it a try and support your local entrepreneurs!

Since I'm begging for fall weather and the attendant cuisine of the season, I decided to make a variation of an Argentine stew called carbonada criolla. One way of serving is to stew all the meat, fruits, and vegetables together and then serve it in a hollowed out pumpkin. I had a small pumpkin, and decided to braise a pork loin and use the vegetarian stew as a topping for the sliced meat. This mix combines flesh scraped from the inside of the pumpkin, fire roasted tomatoes, corn, caramelized shallots, and chopped nectarines. The pumpkin was roasted in a cake tin for thirty minutes by itself (with some salt and pepper inside), then filled, covered with the pumpkin lid, and roasted for another twenty minutes or so.

The pork loin was cooked in a blend of the Copper Flask beer and some chicken stock along with a few sprigs of rosemary and lavender from the kitchen garden. While I really loved this dish and found the mix of fruits and vegetables to be quite charming, my dinner companions were going back for seconds and thirds. It's amazing that the pork chop--so often miscooked into a dry and bland shingle--can seem like a special treat when cooked whole in loin form. Plus it's like a buck-fifty a pound. You don't have to break the bank to enjoy juicy, flavorful pork.

18 October 2007

Pocket Watch

Last month, I treated myself to a birthday present. An odd little curio I'd been wanting for a few years... a pocket watch from the Молния factory in Челябинская область, in the south Urals near the Kazakhstan border. ("Molnija" means "lightning" in Russian.) This is the firm that used to make dials and gauges for Russian tanks, MiGs, and spacecraft during the Cold War. Now they cheerfully produce timepieces for victorious capitalists!

This isn't an antique, and I got it for a song online. But I enjoy carrying it around. It's got a nice heft to it, a strong tick-tock rhythm (all mechanical winding, no battery here), and it's fun to pull out and check the time. I find myself dramatically checking it and saying things like "The 5:15 to Birmingham should be departing shortly."

15 October 2007

2002 Argiolas Perdera

Sometimes it's fun to grab a bottle of wine about which you know absolutely nothing ahead of time. Thus I selected the 2002 Argiolas Perdera from the Italian island of Sardinia (Sardegna). The label also says Isola dei Nuraghi, which means "island of the 4,000 year old cone-shaped stone towers". The Argiolas family specializes in grapes native to the island, so his wine is made of some unique grapes: 90% Monica, 5% Carignano (related to French Carignane), and 5% Bovale Sardo (also known as Muristello, Bovale Piccolo, or Bovaleddu--it almost went extinct, but this winery saved it).

Side note about Sardinia: the local dialect is referred to as Sardo, but there are in fact four distinct dialects on this one island, and my Italian professor told me not to even bother trying to understand any of them unless you've lived there from birth. That one grape name Bovaleddu is a classic example. Another is calamaredusu, which is Sardo for calamari or squid. The tiny dialects of Europe provide a fascinating field of study, and I'm particularly enamored of Catalan, which is a delightful mashup of French, Italian, and Spanish.

Obscure grapes? Ancient history? Linguistics? A winery dedicated to local native varietals? Let's pop this open!

On first pour it's brash and harsh, but a half hour of decanting allows it to mellow out. It's got a mild prune and strawberry aroma. The berry aspect continues on the palate, where you've got strong tannins and and a long finish with hints of coffee and chocolate. I enjoyed it along with some cold roast beef and fennel.

12 October 2007

2003 Egervin Egri Bikavér

Odd little treasure found in an Arkansas wine shop: the 2003 Egervin Egri Bikavér from Hungary. $10. Cherry pie aroma, with tart cherry flavors and a pretty light body. Actually pretty fun wine here. No real tannins to speak of, and only 12% alcohol, but the tartness is really refreshing. Although this may look like a powerful, full-bodied monster, it's lighter than some Beaujolais I've had.

This is the second Hungarian wine I've had, with the first being a "Bulls Blood" mix as well. And you've got to love this explanation of the name:
During the siege, the citizens of Eger opened their wine cellars and drank red wine to give them strength to fight off the Turks. The wine spilled over their beards and onto their armour, colouring them blood red. As the citizens continued their valiant fight against the invading Turks, word spread quickly that the Hungarians were drinking the blood of bulls to make themselves strong and fierce.

10 October 2007

Bee Movie

Long before the Seinfeld animated film of the same name, I shot a short video of a bee grooming itself. In 2004 I spent a lot of time with microphotography and while taking some really detailed closeup photos of this honeybee, I switched to video mode and managed to capture the bee sticking out its tongue and grooming itself like a cat.


08 October 2007

Galettes bretonnes

I'd read several articles about the famous savory buckwheat crêpes from the Brittany region of France. I've never been there, but the idea appealed to me and I thought I'd give it a shot. Galettes are normally cakes or small cookies in France, but the term also refers to these kinds of crêpes. This dish could be described in several other ways: crêpes complètes de sarrasin, crêpes complètes de blé noir, crêpes avec fromage et oeufs et jambon, or simply thin buckwheat pancakes with cheese, eggs, and ham--and that's without even touching on the unique Celtic dialect of Breton spoken in the region. For ease of the title I settled on the charming galettes bretonnes.

I cheated a bit on the batter and used Arrowhead Organic Buckwheat Pancake Mix which I thinned out with extra water. And the result was fantastic--like a regular crêpe in texture but with a deep, earthy flavor and a darker color. Even though it's been over ten years since I last made crêpes, all of them came out great. After the galette was just done, I spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard and added some shredded aged gruyère, a few small slices of smoked ham, and finally a just-set fried egg. Wrap it as desired (clever folds or burrito-style) and enjoy. Since the region is famous for its apples, I sliced up a Jona Gold to go along with the galette. The flavor was phenomenal, and I ended up having three of them for dinner.

If you decide to make this for several people, I'd suggest making the galettes in advance, frying the eggs in a skillet, assembling the ingredients on a baking sheet, and finishing it all in the oven. Or lining them up like Italian stuffed crespelle and topping it all with mushrooms and a white sauce.

While a northwest French cider would have been a more appropriate pairing, I used the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay from the Columbia Valley of Washington. Bright and fruity with aromas of apples and stewed fruit. Touch of ginger on the palate, with just enough oak to give it structure and make it interesting. A surprisingly apt match for the meal, when initially I was just in the mood for a Chardonnay.

03 October 2007

Benito vs. the Hotel Room: Mediterranean Delight

When it comes to hotel cookery, there are certain things that you have to cross off the list. Large roasts of meat, for example. (Now, if I'm staying in a hotel with a fireplace this winter, that's a different story.) Most sauces are out of the question, and I have no desire to use dried packets of instant au jus. But there is a great sauce that is delicious and only requires a refrigerator: Greek tzatziki. I made mine out of strained Greek yogurt, shredded mint, chopped cucumber and tomato. I don't have pictures of this process, but it's dead simple. The magic comes from letting it sit overnight--the flavors marry together beautifully. Around this one concept I built an entire meal.

Rather than whine about what you can't do, focus on your strengths. With only a microwave and a refrigerator, you're pretty limited in the cooking department but you can boil liquids and heat up certain items pretty well. So I decided to go with a pan-Mediterranean dish incorporating the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece, and North Africa. Aside from the tzatziki, I have a tub of items from the olive bar, a box of instant couscous, a fantastic one cup box of organic chicken broth, a bag of unsalted trail mix, fresh mint, a jar of roasted red peppers, and some pitas. This project begged for some lamb, but as I didn't have any good way to cook it nor could I find any merguez lamb sausage, I lucked upon some Niman Ranch chorizo.

I took the raisins out of the trail mix and soaked them in white wine for a few hours beforehand, saving the sunflower and pumpkin seeds for later. I tore up some kalamata olives and added them to the couscous in the coffee pot along with the "drunken" raisins and seeds, plus a spoonful of residual oil from the olive tub. I heated the cup of broth to boiling, added it to the couscous mixture and then put a lid over the pot to let it steam and cook.

You know, when I get home I'm going to miss that little coffee pot.

I sliced the chorizo and heated it up in the microwave until just sizzling. I was able to use a little bowl (swiped from the breakfast buffet in the lobby) to make a perfect timbale of couscous, surrounded by roasted red peppers and topped with a mint leaf. Rounding out the plate were some dolmas and a stuffed pepper from the olive bar, a healthy dollop of my tzatziki and warmed pitas. The meal was precisely what I was craving and while I doubt that you'll see anything quite like it on a menu any time soon, it was a wonderful combination.

For the evening's wine, I selected the 2006 Saint Clair Vicar's Choice Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Great bitter grapefruit peel aroma, with tart, dry, full-bodied flavors that include hints of grass and licorice. A decent wine on sale for $10, and with a screwcap enclosure it makes it even more suited to the hotel room--for those who don't travel with at least two corkscrews at all times.

01 October 2007

Blog notes, plus the 2002 Kunde Syrah

No, I'm not cooking endangered species. That's a shot of a chimpanzee I snapped this weekend at the Little Rock Zoo, where I've been for the past week and a half. Little Rock, that is, not the zoo. (Click the photo for an enlarged version if you want to see the occipital crest, hair patterns, and wrinkles between the phalanges of Simia troglodytes.)

I also had a great time this weekend visiting the Arkansas Arts Center which was hosting a traveling Smithsonian exhibit featuring the art of Jim Henson. Not only did I get to see Henson's paintings and sketches from all periods of his life, but I also got to see real life Muppets used on TV, including Kermit, Bert, and Ernie. Cool to see them in person, but as a child of the late 70s, there's a slight disconcerting feeling as if you'd seen Mr. Rogers in a glass case staring ahead with a smile on his face.

Thanks for all of the positive feedback on the previous "hotel room cooking" article, and I'll have another one up later this week. To answer a few questions:
  • No vlogs, video podcasts, or other motion-picture technology anytime in the near future. I did video production in high school and to do it right requires decent lighting and a knowledgeable cameraman. I'm by myself and I'm sure it would look great if I advertised on Craigslist for "video services, paid hourly, working in hotel room". I'd get lots of entertaining responses. And while I bear a slight resemblance to a short Mario Batali, I have no desire to become a star of the small screen.
  • I do this not out of starvation or poverty, but just because it's fun. If you're in one place for two weeks (like me), you have to find ways to keep busy. If you're on a romantic weekend getaway with a young woman, I don't know if it will impress her when you blanch veggies in the coffee pot. "Room service would have charged $5 for this!"
  • Proper hotel cooking is helped a lot by access to a Whole Foods, Wild Oats (recently purchased by Whole Foods), Fresh Market, or other gourmet/organic grocery store. Good base ingredients and a selection of prepared or semi-prepared ingredients go a long way.
  • In the future I'll write a more extensive guide on hotel cooking, perhaps with such exotic techniques as using the iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

A couple of weeks ago, I sipped the 2002 Kunde Syrah, a $20 bottle from Sonoma. I served it alongside a pair of steaks, broccolini, and later some Scharffen Berger 82% cacao chocolate from Berkeley. Dark, bitter, savory, not sweet, and utterly delicious. (These new dark, artisanal chocolates are to Hershey bars what fine espresso is to Folger's instant coffee.)

The wine has classic blackberry and cracked pepper aromas and flavors, along with a fruity but not overpowering profile. After breathing for a while it picks up a darker, duskier aroma, but is still quite enjoyable.

And a note on broccolini: this is one of my new favorite vegetables. It's more expensive than broccoli, but is more tender and flavorful. Plus you get a great textural combo--the broccoli-like feel of the florets combined with an asparagus-like feel of the stalk. And it takes to sauces like a fish to water.