27 February 2008

Benito vs. the Cheese Board: Round Two

Here's another round of cheese reviews, based on picking up little wedges of cheeses I've never tried before. Will this be a recurring feature? Perhaps. There's a whole world of cheese out there with all sorts of individual flavors and backgrounds, much like wine. Maybe in ten years after I run out of wine, cheese, and food to write about, I'll start grousing about spatula design three times a week. Stay tuned!

As always, click on the photo for a larger version.

Mimolette was commissioned by Louis XIV and was a favorite of Charles de Gaulle. That thick tan rind is made by the actions of the cheese mites, who leave their dander and excrement behind while digging holes in the cheese. Sounds revolting but I've had worse. The cheese is delicious: rich and savory, slightly tangy, firm, dry, and much like aged Edam. The rind tastes like a handful of dirt and made me wonder if dried earthworms taste the same. Note: it is not recommended that you eat the rind on Mimolette. Even the rind-loving French find it tough and unpleasant.

Maître Moutardier is a relatively new Swiss-made cow's milk cheese that's blended with mustard seeds and meant for snacking. I'm a mustard fanatic, and always have at least three different styles in my fridge, and that's not counting the neon-yellow French's that The Roommate eats. This has a flavor of mild Swiss but the mustard flavor is extremely restrained. Only with strong chewing does the flavor start to emerge.

Cashel Blue is the first farmhouse bleu cheese from the Emerald Isle, and is made by hand in County Tipperary.

It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!

Our Scout Troop had a version of of this WWI song about going to camp. And then there were the unofficial lyrics about invading the girl's camp across the lake, which will not be printed here.

I picked it out because I didn't have any strong moldy cheese in the house. It performed admirably when smeared over a steak and allowed to melt slightly. While it definitely has a strong, pungent quality, it's also creamier and softer than many bleu cheeses out there. It would not crumble well, but sliced beautifully.

Idiazábal is a sheep's milk cheese from Spain. Hard and dry, initially mild in flavor but with a pronounced ovine aftertaste. Has a sort of piney tinge to it, which the article informs me comes from the smoking process. Glad to know I'm not crazy or that the cheese didn't get hit with Pine-Sol during an overzealous cleaning session at the grocery store. A good addition for a tapas bar, and I'd love to try it with a good Albariño.

Oka is made by monks at the Abbaye Cistercienne d'Oka in Québec. Now, what I don't know about Canadian cheese could fill a small government-subsidized bibliothèque des fromages in Montréal. The history of this cheese indicates that it's based on Port Salut but produced by a group that came to North America in the late 1800s after getting kicked out of France. It's a nutty, earthy semi-soft cow's milk cheese that that tastes somewhere between Jarlsberg and Brie. Quite nice with some fresh grapes and a bit of ham. Warning: in a hot Memphis summer I think this would last about ten minutes outside before melting and oozing off the plate.

25 February 2008

2003 Georges Dubœuf Chénas

Found on the clearance rack at Great Wines: a bottle of 2003 Georges Dubœuf Chénas. 2003 was the year of the massive heat wave in Europe that killed nearly 15,000 people in France. The heat also had a powerful impact on grapes in the area, and the few grapes that were harvested were generally of great quality. This wine presents a nose of stewed fruit, though it's more subtle than when you normally come across that aroma. Flavor-wise it's mellow, with just a trace of tannins and raisin/prune notes. Not as strong as something like a Banyuls, but it combines these interesting elements with smooth and light mouth feel. Once again this is a reminder why the Cru Beaujolais should never be underestimated.

I've got just two of the Crus left to try: Chiroubles and Côte-de-Brouilly. Any hints on where to find these in Memphis? Wine shop or restaurant, either is fine.

22 February 2008

2006 Villa Pozzi Nero d'Avola

Random selection from the wine shop: the 2006 Villa Pozzi Nero d'Avola from Marsala, Sicily. Made from the Nero d'Avola grape. $11, 13.5% abv. Touch of cherries, hint of prunes, little bit of mint. Despite the dark and strong tendencies of this grape, it's not overpowering. Firm tannins, voluptuous body, lovely cherry aftertaste that lingers for a while.

The name of the grape does not come from the Roman emperor but rather the simple Italian word for "black", as in a black grape from the town of Avola on the southern tip of Sicily, near the historic town of Syracuse (Siracusa).

I served it with a bunch of odds and ends from Lucchesi's: sausage lasagne, spinach and gorgonzola ravioli, creamed spinach, etc. Awesome comfort food, and it was convenient to take home and heat up later. While the pairing with the wine was great, I think it would be even better with lamb or a hearty roast duck.

For some reason this bottle reminded me of another saucy Sicilian*, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Not only is my grandfather a fan of her financial analysis, but the great Joey Ramone wrote a song about her shortly before his death in 2001. The Guardian has more background on the story.

*All right, so she's half Neapolitan. Non mi rompere le palle.

20 February 2008

Wine & Port

Here's another $30 offering as I work my way through the Marietta catalog: the 2004 Marietta "Emilia's Cuvée", made in Mendocino County, California from the Montepulciano grape. An earthy, ashy aroma with elements of blackberries, giving way to a well-balanced, low tannin black cherry flavor. It proved a good match for the ribeyes, pasta salad, and standard Southern Waldorf salad. (As this was for guys' night, I was looking for full flavor and low preparation. Quick sear and bake on the meat, and the rest came from the deli. Delicious, and it hit the spot.) While a great wine on its own, I still prefer the Angeli Cuvée.

After dinner, it was time for something a little stronger. For a month I'd held on to the 2005 Bogle Petite Sirah Port from Clarksburg, California. I've long been a fan of Bogle and was delighted to see this entry into the market. $20 for a an elegant, wax-capped 500mL bottle. Only 23 barrels made! There are lots of wineries making domestic Ports from various non-traditional grapes, and this is the first I'd seen using Petite Sirah. (For more information on the controversy around using the name Port, check out Fredric's article.) It's a ruby style Port, and was actually quite mild for a fortified wine. In fact, it was much like a very strong red wine. There were nice cherry elements, but overall it was bold and youthful. We had it with some Stilton (couldn't hold up to that cheese), but with organic dark chocolate it was a winner.

Following that, we had to have a bit of the 20 Year Old Sandeman Tawny Port, which showed proper maturity and complexity and was a perfect match for the Stilton. Between the two there is no comparison, yet the Bogle remains a good choice for desserts like cheesecake or simple chocolate and fruit.

18 February 2008

2006 Maddalena Sauvignon Blanc

Over a fun dinner at home The Girlfriend and I opened the 2006 Maddalena Sauvignon Blanc from Paso Robles. $12, 14% abv, pure Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was tasted well away from the hyacinths, so as not to influence the nose.

Nice aroma of green apples, though the end result is smoother and rounder than many of the highly citric Sauvignon Blancs that are hitting the market. It's not flabby--there is a good acidic structure. Flavors of green apple and pear are present, with hints of cake. I chose to pair it with a salad, though seafood would be an ideal match.

Dinner was the result of an amusing misunderstanding. I've had a craving for Waldorf salad recently, and have picked it up at the deli a few times. Found out that The Girlfriend loves Waldorf salad, so I picked up a pint a couple of weeks ago. After getting excited about the prospect of this dish, she finally asked where it was. "Right there in the plastic tub! Help yourself!" And thus the confusion.

Invented by Oscar Tschirky in 1893 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the original contained only apples, celery, and mayonnaise. Over the years other ingredients have been added, and the regular Southern version I served included pineapple and coconut. The Girlfriend, on the other hand, comes from California, where the Waldorf salad is an actual lettuce-based salad with chunks of apple, walnut, raisins, etc. and no mayo, and is often served with cubed chicken or salmon or some other cold protein.

For my take on this west coast recipe, I used spring mix, golden raisins and dried cherries (soaked in water before), Granny Smith apples, grilled chicken, celery, honey-roasted walnuts, seedless black grapes, crumbled gorgonzola, and a balsamic vinaigrette. For the benefit of the various diners at the table with different tastes (no celery! no nuts! extra grapes!), I just arranged everything on a platter in separate piles and allowed everyone to build their own salad. The result was quite satisfying, and hearty enough to serve as a proper entrée.

15 February 2008

2005 Pouilly-Fuissé

Here's another $20 white Burgundy: 2005 Pouilly-Fuissé from Domaine Béranger. It's a remarkably fresh and fruity wine, with aromas of fresh cut apples, pears, and ginger. Nice fruit flavors, but overall well balanced.

By contrast, a few weeks ago I tried the 2005 Pouilly-Fuissé from Louis Jadot. It had such a rich oak aroma that my friend Paul said it smelled exactly like an old church. It was an interesting combination: old leather, wooden pews, and the faint scent of Lemon Pledge. After breathing this dissipated, but it was still charming.

In the foreground of the photo you can see the wood-bound wine journal that Paul's fiancée Grace got me for Christmas. It's in Italian and English (definitely a plus for me) and provides a two page spread for each wine in which you evaluate all elements and draw a sketch of the label. I do not intend to use it for every wine, but at times it's nice to sit down and put pen to paper. Most of my wine notes are scribbled on the backs of envelopes and receipts and are shoved into a pocket for transcribing to the web later.

13 February 2008

2003 Marietta Angeli Cuvée

The 2003 Marietta Angeli Cuvée from Geyserville, California is a proprietary blend of Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Carignane. A whopping 15.7% alcohol, retails for around $30. After the hot alcohol blows off, you get dark plum and blackberry aromas. Blackberry flavors with strong tannins and firm acidity. Good match for a steak, some mushrooms, and steamed carrots.

I'm warming up to these Zinfandel blends. Not as refined yet as the Meritage/Claret blends, but I think there's some real potential and I enjoy the various experiments that are being performed.

There's no label here, rather the Marietta signature and Angeli logo are printed directly on the bottle with gold foil and the remaining text is in opaque white ink which looks nice against the dark glass. I'd quibble with the choice of Snell Roundhand Bold for the front text (personal pet peeve there, damn you Snell!), but otherwise it's a beautiful design.

The quality of a wine should never be judged by the label, marketing, or hype involved, but there's nothing wrong with appreciating good graphic design whether on a bottle or on a business card.

11 February 2008

2004 South River Vineyard "Karma"

I spent a recent week in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland gets a bad rap from many people, not the least of which is its own population. I entered the city with a fresh perspective and eager hopes: I was greeted with a mass of grey upon grey upon grey. I suspected this was a temporary confluence of weather and season until the fog rolled in from Lake Erie and I discovered whole new levels of grey, combined with such low visibility that the tops of street lamps were fuzzy.

At right: the steamship William G. Mather, built in 1925 and six hundred feet long. It used to haul ore and coal throughout the Great Lakes during much of the 20th century. Currently it's parked on the shore of Lake Erie down by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Browns Stadium.

Despite the economic depression and the fact that the population has fallen by half since the 1950s, I discovered ways to find happiness in this town. A martini after work, dinner at one of the dozens of mom & pop Italian joints, followed by driving back to the hotel listening to a great local jazz station.

As part of my commitment to try indigenous wines when traveling, I chose the 2004 South River Vineyard "Karma" from Geneva, Ohio. $15, 12%abv, 42% Cabernet Franc, 39% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aggressive nose of herbs, grass, underlying cherry. Flavor is a bit odd but you really get to taste some of the unique elements of Cabernet Franc.

Perhaps my favorite meal of the trip was at McCormick & Schmick's. Actually a chain but it's definitely a great, upscale seafood restaurant. Dinner was a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with a pasta/shellfish entree, but the best part was the first half.

I started off with a cocktail. Their bar menu helpfully arranges the cocktails in chronological order, going back to the 1800s. I picked one from the Depression-era, the Negroni. It's equal parts gin, sweet red vermouth, and Campari, an Italian liquor made from 60 different secret ingredients but tasting strongly of orange peels. This cocktail is deep red and bitter as all hell, which means that I loved it.

And then a sampler of oysters (afterwards, the server was kind enough to discuss my notes with me--the man knew his bivalves):

Hog's Island Oysters from Norfolk, VA: big, full-flavored, salty
James River Oysters from the James River, VA: small and mild
Hood Canal Oysters from the Hood Canal, WA: sweet and earthy and delicious (these also have shells so pretty if you found one on the beach you'd take it home with you)
Steamboat Oysters from Bay Center, WA: long, rich, and herbal
Delaware Bay Oysters from Delaware Bay, NJ: big and meaty
Cameron Shoal Oysters from Totten Inlet, WA: long and satisfiyingly chewy

Cleveland has a lot to offer, and if you know where to go and are willing to roam around a bit, there's a lot of nice spots in town. Next time I hope to hit Michael Symon's Lola.

08 February 2008

2003 Argiolas S'elegas

Here's my third wine review from Sardinian producer Argiolas, part of my commitment to the unsung grapes from less publicized corners of the wine world. The 2003 Argiolas S'elegas is from the Nuragus di Cagliari DOC of Sardinia and is made from the Nuragus grape, supposedly brought to the island by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago and named after the local ancient stone towers. $16. Because of the reliability of this grape it's also known by the name pagadeppidus, which means "to pay debts". Such a nicknaming convention continues today in the form of the popular Mortgage Lifter tomato.

The wine has a deep golden yellow color to it, with an aroma of peaches and jasmine. The flavor profile is crisp on the beginning, with full fruit flavors, trailing off towards a soft and mild finish.

For the meal I was thinking Mexican and used a big 2 lb. fillet of Red Snapper to make pescado a la veracruzana, with a topping made of red bell pepper, red onion, manzanillo olives, capers, and white wine. On the side I've got butter-sautéed cremini mushroom tops, steamed artichoke hearts, and a little salad made of julienned jicama and chopped Campari tomatoes. This was my first time eating or preparing jicama (the big turnip-looking thing above), and I was quite happy with it. The flavor is somewhere between a water chestnut and a Granny Smith Apple.

Moving backwards in the meal, we started out with a wedge salad. I know that iceberg lettuce has fallen out of favor in culinary circles, but a lot of time has passed since this was a staple menu item, making it either refreshingly retro or charmingly nostalgic depending on your point of view. I used a sixth of a head of iceberg for each person, accompanied by sliced Campari tomatoes, a diced boiled egg, a crumbled strip of bacon, and some bleu cheese dressing topped with a bit of cracked black pepper. I was inspired by the great wedge salad at River Oaks I had Thursday afternoon, and felt like having one at home. It was a big hit all around, and goes to show that you don't necessarily have to have a mesclun blend with a pomegranate vinaigrette to feed a group of friends.

06 February 2008

2005 Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon

Here's the 2005 Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Maipo Valley of Chile. Probably the definition of a closed wine: it was sampled fresh out of the bottle, decanted for an hour, and tried again several hours later. It's only after the max of aeration that the hot alcohol aroma blows off and you can grab a little bell pepper and cherry aroma. As for the flavor, the tannins are still quite strong and the cherry flavors are distant. It's a decent wine with no obvious flaws, and one I'd love to try in a few years, but I don't think it's ready for drinking now.

I tried it on its own, but also with a homemade chili. Hand-dicing the chuck roast makes for a much better dish than ground beef, though it did take a while and at one point I was wondering whether or not this "cow" had at some point worn a saddle and metal shoes. That didn't matter, as the long simmering time resulted in a rich, savory, and tender chili enhanced with black beans. Many decry the use of beans or any starch in chili; I tend to prefer a base of good beans or rice or pasta to offset the hearty meat sauce. Would you eat a whole bowl of bolognese sauce for dinner?

03 February 2008

Wine Gear Review: Wine Travel Tote

The good folks at Simply Bags sent me their monogrammed Wine Travel Tote ($34.99) for evaluation. I was pretty excited when this arrived, because I've really been needing one of these but haven't seen anything like it locally. I'm ashamed to admit that when I take wine to friends' houses it's usually in a plastic grocery bag, with newspaper wrapped around the bottles to keep them from clacking together.

The canvas and leather bag holds two standard 750mL bottles of wine and comes with an attractive waiter's-style corkscrew with a wood-plated handle. Inside there's a padded divider to provide protection between the bottles, but it is attached with velcro and can be removed if needed. It closes up with a zipper, and there's a pocket on the front for storing notepads and pens or whatever else you need.

I've tried it out with unopened bottles and knocked them around a bit, even casually tossing the bag into the car. No breakage, and while I know that kind of abuse isn't good for wine, I wanted to test the product under real life conditions. It performed admirably and gets the "Benito Seal of Approval".

It also solves another problem for me, which is traveling with wine. You can't take bottles in carry-on luggage, but they're fine in checked baggage. My strategy of stuffing the bottle in a big tube sock and surrounding it with t-shirts was doomed to failure eventually. This bag is compact enough that it can rest inside a larger suitcase and provide some protection for the bottles.

In addition to the many other bags produced by this company for various purposes, they offer two additional wine bags that are waterproof inside and can be filled with ice for chilling wine. The four bottle version ($29.99) is cool, but the three bottle bag with cheese board and knife ($37.95) looks perfect for classy picnicking.

Disclaimer: I'm not receiving financial compensation for this review or for sales of this product. It's a genuinely good product that fits my wine needs, and I enjoy supporting companies that produce such wine/food accessories.

01 February 2008

Paprikás Csirke

Paprikás Csirke is oddly similar to the popular Indian dish chicken tikka masala, which isn't authentically Indian but was adapted for British palates. For this dish, you can check out an authentic Hungarian recipe, or you can try something a little easier to read. It's a rich chicken dish that uses a lot of paprika (my preparation called for a quarter cup of Hungarian sweet paprika). I also like to use chicken thighs, as they taste great and hold up well to the stew-like cooking process.

The first time I made this was a few years ago. My buddy Paul and I were hanging out and I made the paprikás along with the traditional homemade Spätzle noodles. Between the onions and the sauce and the heavy noodles, this dish was delicious but seriously damaging. We each had one bowl of it and spent the next three hours on our respective couches groaning and trying not to move. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I lightened it up. I used leeks instead of onions, light sour cream, skimmed most of the fat off the dish, and used some whole-wheat egg noodles as a base. As I type a few hours later, I'm suffering no ill effects and consider the meal a success.