30 July 2008

The Negroni

Cocktail Week continues with another great use for gin. The Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail from the early decades of the last century, named after Count Camillo Negroni who requested that gin be added to the Americano. It's a fairly simple recipe: equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet red vermouth, stirred and served with a twist of orange peel. This cocktail is traditionally poured over ice in a tumbler, though often in martini glasses in the US.

Campari is an Italian aperitif flavored with a proprietary mix of ingredients. A prominent flavor is orange peel, and it's got a wonderful bitter quality to it. The Italians say that you have to try it three times before you like it. Whether or not the ad campaign featuring the voluptuous Salma Hayek makes you appreciate it faster is an exercise left to the reader.

This cocktail is not for the faint of heart: I love it, but it's a baseball bat of bitterness hitting you square in the face. Part of that comes from the healthy dose of quinine, which, like tonic water, will fight off malaria. Nothing wrong with diluting it with club soda or sparkling wine to take off some of the edge.

28 July 2008

Cocktail Week at BWR

It's hot. Last week we were in the low hundreds (nearly 40°C for the metric readers). It's a sad state of affairs when you're trying to get your yard work done while it's only ninety outside.

After the proper rehydration with clear, crisp Memphis tap water, the mind turns to other forms of refreshment. This is the perfect time for some cocktails, but I'm looking for something different, a challenge for the palate, a new sensation. Let's rule out rum and vodka, bases of the most popular cocktails out there, and stick to gin as the primary spirit. We'll start the week with a pair of herb-flavored drinks. (Full recipes are available in the links below.)

While looking for inspiration I found the Infinite Monkeys' recipe for a Ten Thyme Smash, reverse engineered from sampling the cocktail at various restaurants. Fresh thyme and cucumber are in season, and plump limes are available everywhere.

This is an incredibly refreshing cocktail, not too sweet, sour, herbal, or strong. All elements are balanced well, which is the most important factor of a proper mixed drink. Friends Paul and Sally were likewise enchanted by this unusual recipe. I used a slice of cucumber for the garnish, but I think a cold Claussen pickle might be fun as well.

A related beverage is Bon Appétit's Raspberry Thyme Smash. I was actually more excited about this one ahead of time, but it was a bit disappointing. The consensus from the fellow diners was similar.

It's not bad, but the sour raspberry notes threw off the balance of the beverage. It can be fixed with additional sugar, but then you end up with something too sweet and you start losing the herbal characteristics. Definitely pretty, and certainly worth trying if you have the ingredients on hand. And spearing a berry on a sprig of thyme makes for a cool garnish, regardless of what's in the glass.

25 July 2008

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

The French have crème brûlée, the Spanish have flan, and the Italians have panna cotta, or "cooked cream". Regardless of the country of origin, these rich dairy desserts are a lot of fun. While I'm not a huge fan of sweets or dessert in general, occasionally I get in the mood for something like this, and decided to make buttermilk panna cotta a few nights ago.

Using a recipe from Whole Foods along with fresh berries from the Farmers Market, it was pretty simple. The flecks that can be seen in the photo are from Chinese Five Spice powder, in an attempt to marry the flavors of cream and spices as is done in India. This was a success, and it added another dimension to the dish. My only advice would be to let the ramekins rest in the fridge (preferably covered with plastic wrap) overnight; even four hours wasn't quite enough to get them set properly.

23 July 2008

2005 Sullivan Vineyards Pink Ink

I was in the mood for Italian and lucked out on a few items at the Farmers Market. The pasta came from the grocery store, but the garlic, greens, lady peas, and tomatoes came from local farmers. Add in some crawfish tails, toss it all up with brown butter, hit it with some grated cheese and you're in business.

I've been having good luck with pasta and dry rosé, so I picked the 2005 Sullivan Vineyards Pink Ink from Napa. $18, 13.8% abv. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot. Slightly tannic, with lemon and cranberry flavors. Excellent tartness without puckering the mouth.

Still not convinced on rosé? Still traumatized by horrible White Zinfandel and pink wine spritzers? Dry rosé just overtook white wine in French wine sales, becoming the most popular style of wine. Yes, bottles the shade of a summer sunset have become the vins du jour in old Gaul, and them fellers know wine.

20 July 2008

Benito vs. the Buffalo: Round 2

I've written about cooking buffalo here before, but that was in the ground form. This was my first attempt at actual steaks. I decided to make this recipe using Great Range Bison Medallions (the frozen package at Fresh Market comes with two 6 oz. tenderloin portions). A fennel-allspice rub combined with a fresh fig-balsamic vinegar sauce sounded pretty good, and I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand.

Even when cooked rare, this is still a bit tougher than beef. The flavor's great, though, so just slice thinly and sop up a lot of the rich, sweet sauce. I sliced up a tomato from the Downtown Farmers Market and hit it with fresh basil and sea salt. A Greek salad rounded out the summer evening meal.

For the wine I tried out the 2006 Roogle Red, $10, 14.9% abv. From several regions of South Australia. 50% Shiraz, 30% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Black pepper, cherry, and cedar aromas. Medium tannins with pronounced cherry flavors and a touch of spice. Decent blend of grapes in a convenient screwcap enclosure.

18 July 2008

Friends of James Beard Benefit

I miss a lot of the wine dinners and other special occasions around Memphis due to work commitments or simply being out of town. But I made sure I was free for Wednesday night's dinner at River Oaks to raise money for the James Beard Foundation. Six great chefs from around Memphis came together to make one unforgettable evening, all for a great cause.

I got to meet some fellow bloggers, local wine and food notables, and made several new friends. I regret that I have no photos to share with you, but here's the menu served, slightly altered from the one announced in advance:

Appetizer Course
Clay Lichterman - Grill 83 Madison Hotel

Ginger and Lemon Pickled Halibut
Kumamoto Oyster and Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho "Shot"
Kobe Beef, Braised Short Rib, and Foie Gras Slider with Tomato and Red Onion Marmelade
Caesar Salad Mousse with Micro Bacon and Crispy Bits
Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, Brut, Reims, France
Caymus Conundrum, California, 2006

1st Course
Wally Joe - KC's and Brushmark

Crudo of Hamachi and Tuna
Avocado Panna Cotta and Tomato Oil
SA Prum Riesling Kabinett, Germany, 2007

2nd Course
Rick Farmer - Jarret's

Pan Roasted Roulade of Alaskan Halibut, Wild King Salmon and Dungeness Crab
on Seafood Risotto, with Tomato Fondue and Fresh Basil
Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2006

3rd Course
Ben Vaughn - River Oaks

Roasted Quail and Foie Gras
Red Onion Marmalade, Pain Perdu, Pancetta Crisp
Belle Glos "Meiomi" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2006

4th Course
Erling Jensen - Erling Jensen the Restaurant

Lightly Smoked Kobe Loin, Marrow Flan, Summer Greens,
Lingonberry Vinaigrette, Cabernet Reduction
Caymus "Special Select" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2005

5th Course
Jason Severs - Bari

Trio of Tortas
Sweet Tomato Tortaloni with Reggiano Parmesan Gelato
Local Strawberry and Black Pepper with Balsamic Gelato
Gorgonzola Cremaficato and Pear with Basil Gelato
King Estate Vin Glacé, Oregon, 2006

16 July 2008

2005 Smoking Loon Viognier

Answering weird cravings is always fun. I was driving home from work, staring at the back of the car in front of me, the sleepy tones of NPR news drifting into the background, and I thought that swordfish and mango salsa would be great for dinner. After a stop at the grocery store for the ingredients I diced a ripe mango and an Anaheim chile, minced a shallot and dosed it all with the juice of a lemon so it could cure in the fridge.

I seasoned the swordfish steak with soy sauce and Chinese five spice powder, then pan seared it on each side for about four minutes. Meanwhile I braised shredded radicchio with balsamic vinegar and a touch of salt. Thrown all together it wasn't quite as pretty as I'd hoped, but it took care of the craving.

The wine poured was the 2005 Smoking Loon Viognier, California, $9, 13.5% abv. Floral, spicy aroma, with a rich flavor that had a touch of honey from start to finish. Not sweet at all, but that great nectar flavor. Good value, and an interesting application of the grape.

14 July 2008

2005 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon

I'm excited to present another wine from Agustin Huneeus. At some point in your wine drinking career you stop following individual grapes or regions and begin chasing individual winemakers and importers. Tonight's wine is the 2005 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, $50, 14.8% abv. 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc. Nose of cedar, black cherry, with a touch of tobacco leaf. Rich black cherry flavors with a bit of dark chocolate and mild tannins follow. It's a great wine to savor and the second half was just as nice the next day.

Served with roasted T-bones topped with horseradish-chive compound butter and braised leeks. Needless to say, it was a Guys' Night and the menu reflected that. I couldn't exactly honor this wine with a cube of tofu and an artfully arranged sprig of basil.

The name of the wine comes from Goethe's play, in which a man makes a deal with the devil. Sadly my German language education stopped short of literature, where I'm sure I would have had the pleasure of reading this work in die Muttersprache. We stopped with history, meaning that I know a lot about the Holy Roman Empire but none of the English names for any of it.

11 July 2008

2007 Twin Vines Vinho Verde

I fixed a shellfish lunch for The Roommate and her mother last weekend. Florida pink shrimp and snow crab legs, plus a few ears of striking red corn. Deeper, earthier flavor than yellow or white sweet corn. Think about the difference between green and purple cabbage. Easy cooking all around--I just kept a big steamer pot going and tossed things in the basket as needed, and all of it could be eaten with fingers. The only thing missing was about three dozen raw oysters, but I don't particularly enjoy shucking them at home.

Based on the heat of the day and the food on the table, I pulled out a chilled bottle of the 2007 Twin Vines Vinho Verde, $10, 10% abv. 42% Loureiro, 39% Trajadura, 19% Pedernã. The bottle looks empty but it's full--Portuguese "green wine" is a very mild, light style, with low alcohol and a slightly fizzy body. Mild lemon flavors, comparable to a Pinot Grigio. But at least it's something new and different for most folks, whereas there's usually enough PG in a town to fill the water tower.

Also, due to the mild flavor and low alcohol, this is a great wine for friends and family that don't drink wine often. It's not sweet, but it's not totally dry either. And it will pair with just about any dish, so consider bringing a bottle to the next BBQ to throw in the cooler with the Coors Light and Diet Cokes.

09 July 2008

Benito vs. the Cheese Board: Round 4

This strange beast is Stóri Dímon from Iceland, part of a group of Icelander gourmet products offered by Whole Foods in the United States and currently not available in the Memphis market. Because y'all love it when I type odd stuff on this blog, the text on the wooden case says "Græn. Og / Hvítmygluostur / Mjólkurbú / Flóamanna." And there's no way in hell I'm going to try to decipher any of that. My fascination for foreign languages breaks down at 60° north latitude. Icelandic is riddled with archaic characters such as þ and ð that English had the common decency to abandon 500 years ago, though I lament our loss of the æ dipthong.

A brie-like cheese the size of a tall hockey puck. White rind, creamy inside with a few pockets of mold for flavor. It's a triple-cream cow's milk cheese, meaning it's sinfully rich. Flavorwise it's a lot like brie crossed with a bit of fragrant gorgonzola. Consume sparingly; it's like butter.

Cantal has been enjoyed in France since the Roman occupation of Gaul. (Pliny wrote about this fromage but I haven't had the chance to dig through all of the Natural Histories to find the specific quote.) It's a cow's milk cheese that, in this Southern summer heat, is fairly soft. Surprisingly tangy with an earthy quality that's almost goat-like. A nice change of pace, though there's a bit of greasy sludge that comes off the rind end of a slice like this.

Moving eastward through the Mediterranean, Χαλλούμι comes from the island Cyprus and is a Greek favorite made from a blend of milk from cows, goats, and sheep. Halloumi can be eaten plain but can also be fried or broiled for saganaki since it doesn't melt when heated. Some restaurants even splash it with brandy and flambé it for dramatic effect tableside.

It doesn't even require oil for cooking--I just threw bare slices in a pan and heated them until browned on both sides. This is one seriously delicious cheese--savory and salty with a flavor between feta and buffalo mozzarella. And it's got that squeaky quality you normally only get from fresh cheese curds. I served it as a curious appetizer and had to keep fixing more slices until the entire block was gone.

Panquehue is the first South American cheese I've featured here, coming from Chile. It's a soft cow's milk cheese made in the Andes and is often mixed with peppers or herbs. Very soft and mild, sort of like a baby Swiss with the consistency of Port Salut. It tastes good but it lacked the punch that I look for in an after dinner cheese. Which is why I decided to see how heat would affect it...

In a grilled cheese sandwich, made at 2 a.m. with full-hippie seven-grain bread and a few Tony Packo's pickles on the side: awesome.

This is the first German cheese I've written about. In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten a German cheese before. It's sort of like asking for a Swiss beer: they probably make it, but you'd be hard pressed to come up with a name off the top of your head. Hirtenkäse is made in the mountainous Allgäu region of Southwest Bavaria. It's a brick hard cow's milk cheese that tastes something like a mild Parmesan. It's not great, but serviceable. Slice it up with sausages and serve with beer, or grate it over noodles. Or use as bunker shielding during an Allied bombing raid.

07 July 2008

Jerk Chicken for the Fourth

Last week I read an article in the New York Times about traditional Jamaican jerk chicken. Faced with an Independence Day full of yard work and house cleaning, I figured the attached recipe would be fun.

I started the afternoon of the third by making the jerk marinade. Lots of ingredients, and I saved the habanero peppers for the end. As you can tell from the Scoville chart, habaneros are high up on the list, closer to pepper spray than jalapeños. I don't normally wear gloves when working with peppers, but this time I did. I followed the common wisdom such as "don't touch your eyes", as well as the lesser-known but far more important advice to "be careful going to the bathroom". I slathered the marinade over four chicken leg quarters, all sides and under the skin. The quarters were then placed (under tight plastic) to rest for 24 hours.

I used natural charcoal, alder chips and whole allspice on the fire. This recipe is all about flavor, so the smoke needed a lot of seasoning. The leg quarters were smoked for half an hour with the lid on, then I pumped up the flames and finished them off with about another half hour of turning and adjusting. (The photo was taken in the dark after the smoking stage.)

Sweet Lion of Zion! The final product was probably the closet I've ever come to making Indian food. It tasted like good jerk should, but with the intensity of flavors and the way the spice had penetrated to the bone, it reminded me of great tandoori chicken. While the heat from the habaneros was present, it wasn't painful and kept the dish tingling, like the piccolo part in the 1812 Overture. I served it with some black beans and a little mesclun salad.

While a Red Stripe would have been appropriate, I decided to go with a domestic wine for dinner. The 2006 Vino Con Brio Passione Rosé is from Lodi, California. $11, 12.8% abv. 89% Sangiovese, 11% Petite Sirah. Crisp and tart with luscious ripe peach and strawberry flavors. While I had it chilled with dinner, it holds up remarkably well at room temperature where it can be savored a little more slowly.

04 July 2008

Strange Food from the Mid-20th Century

Two books for your perusal: The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Gastroanomalies by James Lileks, author of the blog known as The Bleat as well as buzz.mn, the latter part of his duties as a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Lileks is also a dedicated chronicler of pop culture: old radio shows, 20th century advertising and architecture, typography (rock on, James), and the monstrosities of old cookbooks and magazines from the less glorious periods of American cooking. If you'd like to see some of these photos and recipes, check out the website that started it all.

The books are hilarious but best enjoyed in small doses--there's only so much overcooked meat, gelatinous molds, and nauseating combinations of pickled vegetables one can taken in one sitting. I can honestly say that even with my own trend towards the weird and obscure, I haven't had the desire to try any of these recipes. Just look at hot dogs placed vertically in pork 'n' beans.

02 July 2008


As a child of the 80s, I can remember states like East Germany and South Africa being off limits. Not that my bicycle could take me to either place, but both were vaguely forbidden and later I learned about blockades and walls and embargoes.

The peppadew comes from a random mutation in the fields of South Africa, and unlike the gold or diamonds (or wine, to some extent) of that nation, there's no political considerations involved. This little red pepper is so sweet and cherry-flavored that you'll swear it's been soaked in Kool-Aid. And while there's a burst of sweetness on the front, the peppers have a pleasant bite on the back end. I imagine that stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and a bit of ham and basil these are divine.

I picked these up in the olive bar at a local Kroger. I expect to start seeing peppadews more often--sort of the chipotle of this food fad cycle.