29 August 2008

2006 Big House White

This unnamed dish is comprised of rigatoni, Swiss chard, shallots, porcini mushrooms, ricotta, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, grilled chicken thighs (marinated overnight in buttermilk and spices then cooked over fire), and a few other odds and ends. Frankly I just threw it all together in a big skillet and let it cook a bit in the oven. The exact order of preparation? The timing of any of it? No need to overanalyze it. All I know is three people cleaned their plates and left the table with satisfied groans.

The wine poured that evening was the 2006 Big House White from the Central Coast of California. $10, 13.5% abv. A proprietary blend of Chenin Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Moscato Bianco, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Lemony and light with a crisp melon flavor to it. Not too sweet, not too dry, just a pleasant summer sipper.

27 August 2008

Georgia in the News and წინანდალი in the Glass

When I first purchased this wine originating from the former Republic of Georgia and decided to pair it with cold fried chicken and fresh peaches, I was planning a humorous post based around my childhood confusion with the two Georgias. Somehow Gone With the Wind and Soviet imagery on the evening news didn't quite mesh. However, I consumed that culinary anachronism on August 7, 2008, the day before Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia and Georgia found itself at war.

I avoid politics here on this blog, and the situation is a complex one going back hundreds of years. It can't be easy living in a tiny country wedged between the historical empires of Russia, Turkey, and Persia, as well as the Caspian and Black Seas. And with this post I have no desire to make light of the situation. But honestly, the Sunday afternoon picnic combination of cold fried chicken and nice white California peaches went exceptionally well with the D Collection NV წინანდალი (Tsinandali) from Kakheti, Georgia in the far eastern part of the country, not too far from where the war is happening. $12, 11% abv. Made from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes. For more information on Georgian wines, check out this blog devoted to the subject.

Light grapefruit aroma, touch of citrus follows on the palate with a rounded, slightly oaked structure that's somewhere between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc. Finishing notes of apple and pear. What's this? Eastern Europe, nice balance, good flavor, and no obvious flaws? This is a great summer white at a wonderful price. It's also an honor to try a wine from one of the possible regions where grapes were first transformed into this wonderful elixir.

Here's hoping that this isn't the last time I get to try this delicious blend, and that innocents in the region are able to grow up and appreciate this as well.

25 August 2008

Mixed Grill

This summer I haven't spent as much time grilling as I would have liked. Part of that has to do with being out of town a lot and part of it has to do with the blistering temperatures of July. But I fired up the Weber on a recent Sunday and life was good.

There's a bone-in ribeye, sliced pattypan squash, radicchio, and lamb tenderloins on skewers. Everything was marinated in its own separate mixture prior to grilling, with the tenderloins getting the buttermilk treatment. I threw it all on a platter and brought it inside for everyone to dig in as desired.

These were the first lamb tenderloins I'd fixed, and while definitely tender and boneless, they cook very quickly and lack the depth of flavor you get from a rack, a leg, or chops.

For the wine we popped open a bottle of the 2006 La Posta Cocina Blend from Mendoza in Argentina. $15, 13.5% abv. 60% Malbec, 20% Bonarda, and 20% Syrah. An incredibly smooth red wine made from a curious blend of grapes. It's refreshing to find a young wine that's this mild--just a trace of tannins. Aromas of spice and a touch of plum with light cherry cola flavors and a short finish.

I'm not much of a dessert person, but when the mood strikes this is the kind of thing I like. I halved some Jones Orchard peaches and roasted them in the oven with a little white wine in the baking dish. I topped the peaches with brown sugar and a pinch of sea salt. Then a dollop of ricotta and a chunk of fresh honeycomb from the Farmers Market. From behind the camera, I'm telling Wolfgang that there's nothing on the plate he needs to eat. This dessert was a nice combination of sweet and savory, and the honeycomb was an unexpected treat for my fellow diners.

22 August 2008

2003 Feudo Monaci Salice Salentino

I love inexpensive Italian wines that age well. Such as the 2003 Feudo Monaci Salice Salentino. $11, 13.5% abv. 80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasio Nera. This is from Puglia, the bootheel of the Italian peninsula, produced at a winery dating back to 1480. When this winery was founded, Columbus hadn't even begun seeking venture capital for his voyages. It's mild and mellow, not oxidized, with good black cherry aromas and flavors. Hint of coffee and cinnamon. I decanted it a good four hours before dinner, and it was velvety smooth and quite nice.

What's up with the root vegetables alongside? I made glazed turnips and carrots to go with the steaks. Chop up the peeled roots into roughly similar sizes. Parboil for five minutes. Toss with olive oil, maple syrup, and Old Bay seasoning. Cook until soft and glazed, with frequent stirring and turning.

Turnips are not something that I normally get excited about, but I do like the flavor. Here they work well texturally with the carrots, and the two flavors play off each other well. The touch of maple syrup boosts the inherent sweetness of the root vegetables, and the spices can be modified any number of ways to suit your household palate. Frankly I was thinking these needed some hot peppers and a bit of garam masala.

20 August 2008

Cleveland: Bar Cento/McNulty's Bier Markt

While exploring the amazing culinary landscape of Cleveland, I made two trips to the Westside Market-area restaurant run by Chef Jonathan Sawyer. The establishment is divided into two sides that share a common kitchen but operate different bars, and I had to try both.

First up was the left hand side, Bar Cento: I sat at the bar near the kitchen, close enough that I could feel the heat off the ovens. I loosened my tie and settled in for dinner. It wasn't until I saw the tattoos that I realized Sawyer was right there in front of me making pizzas and running the kitchen. I had a wine flight of unnamed Barbera, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo--all quite good for the $10 flight special. A warm biscuit was delivered in a brown paper bag with a dish of butter to whet the appetite. I gazed over the menu and finally decided on the Shiitake and Wild Boar Salumi pizza. Excellent crust, great combination of ingredients, and I got to watch the whole process, meaning I got to see Sawyer place full sprigs of thyme on the pizza and then carefully remove them after cooking. Full thyme flavor without having to pick the stems out of your teeth.

One great note about Bar Cento was the music. As I was sitting there on a weekday afternoon, I noticed that Genesis was on the music system. Geez, I haven't heard "Land of Confusion" in a while. After the second Collins song, I saw that the cover for the Invisible Touch LP was propped up nearby. And just to the left, a turntable spinning away. I realized that the record albums stacked above the bar weren't just for decoration, and even enjoyed the minutes-long pause between the A and B sides when the bartender remembered to flip the record.

Later that week I made my way over to the right side for McNulty's Bier Markt, known more for it's massive beer selection. If you love the well-crafted beers of Belgium you can waste a lot of time at McNulty's. I started with a glass of the St. Bernardus Abt 12 dark beer, and followed up with the lighter Delirium Tremens. Two seriously produced Belgian beers from the enormous and well-thought out beer menu. Sadly, the ladies next to me were drinking Corona and Michelob. Oughta be a law.

I had the burger (topped with Dutch cheese and peppery greens) and a side of frites. The burger was great enough to make you cry and call your Mom, but those frites... By far the best I've had in the US and damned close to those available in the Netherlands. They're served with sprigs of rosemary and roasted garlic, and a tiny ramekin of salt and a pepper grinder are provided for you to further season them. And you get a dish with a dollop each of ketchup and three homemade mayonnaise blends incorporating different flavor profiles.

I had greasy fingerprints all over my newspaper, but I was a happy lad. Along with Lola, Lolita, and the Flying Fig, this place is on the Must Visit list for anyone coming to Cleveland.

18 August 2008

Benito vs. the Naga Jolokia

At the Downtown Farmers Market I spotted a table operated by Sparkling River out of Mount Olive, Arkansas. They were selling peppers of varying strengths, and one basket contained the legendary Bhut Jolokia, also known by the name Naga Jolokia. It's become famous since its 2007 Guinness Record for the world's hottest pepper. I purchased three and let them sit in the kitchen for a day while I worked up the courage to try them.

"Afternoon, Homer. Care for some chili? I've added an extra ingredient just for you. The merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum." --Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer"

The history of this pepper is fairly recent and fascinating, from the studies conducted by the Indian Defense Research Laboratory to its use as an elephant repellent. It tops a million on the Scoville Scale, much hotter than habaneros or anything you'll normally encounter unless a police officer maces you.

I used the pepper in two ways. First, I chopped one up--seeds and all--and combined it with a thick spice paste to coat a lamb tenderloin. This was allowed to marinate overnight before grilling over fire. I thought about calling this recipe a rattlesnake, a lightning bolt, or Satan's spleen. My buddy Paul suggested the apt moniker "Shepherd's Sin". While definitely hot and tasty, it was not pain inducing. In fact, I'd happily recommend such a dish at an Indian restaurant.

For the second experiment, I tried one pepper straight. As in, rinse off the wrinkled bastard and chomp down. Paul and The Roommate were present to either alert the paramedics or inform my parents that I'd shuffled off this mortal coil.

Kids, don't try this at home. Here's the chain of sensations as best I can recall:
  • Surprisingly the first sensation was sweetness, with a carrot flavor. This stage did not last long.
  • The heat came next, a pretty standard hot pepper sensation, with nice burning around the entire mouth. My eyes watered a bit.
  • As I chewed, things got strange. It doesn't take long for the heat to get so intense that it's no longer hot and your nerve receptors go sideways. At one point it was kind of cold, like the effect produced by mint. Then it would go back to feeling like a bee sting--not a burn, but a piercing sensation of poison being injected. These sensations (plus several others difficult to describe) came and went in waves. Tears were profuse and my nose was running.
  • It burned a lot on swallowing. It was difficult to speak more than a word or two at a time. I enjoyed the mild euphoria that comes with hot peppers, though my left foot was tingling and my right arm got itchy. I don't think it was an allergic reaction, but I'm sure my peripheral nervous system was having trouble handling the overload. Whitman's opening line "I sing the body electric" ran through my head, and somehow I knew what it felt like to be a Christmas tree when the lights are switched on.
  • Residual effects lasted for a few hours. Symptoms included laughing, drastic changes to depth perception, and the occasional sensation that ants were crawling over me.
Somehow after all of that, I actually want another one. Alas, such a shock to the palate can desensitize the tongue, and I don't want to impact my ability to taste wine (or anything else for that matter). Your mileage may vary, but if you choose to cook with or eat these peppers, please be careful.

15 August 2008

Benito vs. the Cheese Board: Round 5

Montegrappa is a semi-hard cow's milk cheese from the Veneto region of Italy and named after the nearby Mount Grappa, site of an eponymous battle during WWI. Other cheeses made in the shadow of the mountain are the nigh-extinct Morlacco and the unfortunately named Bastardo del Grappa. (I'd love to walk into a Subway and hear someone say, "Yeah, can I get me some of that bastard cheese on my six inch turkey sub?") The Montegrappa is somewhere between Parmesan and Cheddar in texture, and it shreds well. Softer than what you normally put over pasta, but it works out great. The flavor is like a really sharp white Cheddar with a touch of Gouda.

Another hard Italian cheese from the Veneto is Piave Vecchio. This cow's milk cheese is nutty and rich, and yet a refreshing change from the old Parmesan/Romano routine. I threw a batch of this into a dish of rotini and grilled chicken with great results.

Guess what? It's named after a nearby river, and also shares it's name with a WWI battle. How many American food products share names with Revolutionary/Civil War sites?

Cambozola is a cross between Italian Gorgonzola and British Camenbert, with connections to French triple cream cheese, so obviously this was invented in Germany and my particular sample was produced in Italy. Sounds like the voyage of a confused quadruple agent during WWII. It's quite soft, and tastes more like Gorgonzola than any of its assorted parents. I like it spread over a grilled steak, where it melts well and provides excellent flavor without the aggression of a sharper bleu.

Point Reyes is a wonderful California bleu cheese made from the milk of Holstein cows on the Pacific Coast. It's a family operation with a long history in the dairy business but more recent moves into the cheesemaking world. And I'm glad they did--it's a great combination of creamy, salty, and tangy and will likely become my go-to bleu. In the slice pictured you can see the lines where Penicillium roqueforti has been injected. I served this first on top of steaks, and then my dining companions proceeded to consume the rest of it after dinner with fresh fruit and Port.

Ricotta Salata is a weird Italian cheese. Made from sheep's milk, it's salted and pressed into shape in such a way that it doesn't have a rind and has a spongy texture. Frankly I think it looks, feels, and tastes like drywall. Crumbs get everywhere. If you've ever had something stuffed with creamy ricotta that somehow managed to get dried out (exposed in the oven, a leftover held too long, etc.), the flavor is similar.

It's hard to tell from the photo, but it's a bright white cheese, and I had to move the light to get shadows so you can even see it on a white plate. Though the name means "salted recooked cheese", there's very little salt flavor, but it's so dry that you'll be reaching for the nearest glass of water. It's suggested that this cheese be cubed and put in salads, or that it's a good substitute for feta, but I'd disagree with both assertions.

13 August 2008

500th Post: Cleveland West Side Market

Earlier this year I celebrated the 3 year milestone, and this entry marks the 500th post here at Benito's Wine Reviews. At my current pace I ought to hit 1000 around January 2012. I've said this before, but if y'all weren't reading, I wouldn't be doing this, so thanks for your continued patronage and supportive/argumentative comments and e-mails.

Since I'm celebrating this event here in Cuyahoga County, I figured I'd use this opportunity to write about this weekend's food adventure...

August in Cleveland is a lot cooler than Memphis, though it's been nice to see that the temperature has fallen somewhat back home. This past weekend I got to visit the West Side Market in Cleveland, Ohio, a downtown food shopping square that's been in operation since the mid 1800s. Think of a Great Lakes version of the famous Les Halles in Paris. Meat, vegetables, fresh bread, and lots more... If it's edible, there's a good chance you can get it from one of the dozens of stalls.

There's an L-shaped building that houses all of the fruits and vegetables seen in the top picture. Sort of your standard Farmers Market fare with odd twists like prickly pear cactus, green figs, and fresh juices squeezed on the spot. But the real magic can be found inside the square building, home to the fish, meat, and prepared foods. In the righthand picture, from left to right you've got a purveyor of hot sauces, a bakery (traditional breads and pastries), and a butcher selling assorted cuts of bison, lamb, and goat. Hell, you can pick up enough pig parts to build a complete Frankenhog. Elsewhere you've got every seasoned, cured, ground, and smoked meat known to mankind, including Mettwurst and some sort of Slovenian blood sausage.

There were stalls selling sandwiches and falafel and crepes and pasta and many other delicacies. I enjoyed a great Short Attention Span Lunch--"Ooh, that looks good, gotta try that..." While walking around you'll hear at least a dozen different languages spoken. A bit of haggling here, a discussion over preparation there. At the Scots-Irish counter I picked up a meat pie and slice of Guinness cake for dinner later. Humble fare, but despite my prior adventures with hotel cooking I really didn't have any way to properly cook all the organ meats and exotic rices and other treasures that I saw.

11 August 2008

Burgers & Beer

I recently made some incredible burgers: ground round seasoned with crushed allspice and fennel seed, topped with pepper jack, red onion marmalade, mesclun greens, and sliced Cherokee purple tomatoes, and served with mustard-based potato salad from the deli. The spice mix came from the buffalo steak recipe I found, and I'm tempted to continue hand grinding that blend in the mortar for all sorts of dishes. But man does not live by bread alone, so to wash it all down, I poured a glass of the New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale.

I'm really excited that we're now able to get New Belgium beers here in Memphis. They're brewed in scenic Fort Collins, Colorado, just north of Denver. The brewery is excited as well--click on the photo and you can see that the label has a red box with the text "Now Voluntarily available in Tennessee". The Amber Ale is clean and crisp with a nice hoppy flavor, and the 22 oz. bottles make two convenient servings at dinner. I've tried most of their beers while on trips to Colorado, and my favorite by far is the 1554 Enlightened Black Ale, which has a deep coffee/chocolate/malt profile. Despite the fact that it's black as night, it's a smooth and easy drinking beer. Don't be afraid of beer that you can't see through!

08 August 2008

2006 Red Rock Winery Reserve Merlot

A baked potato, a sliced tomato, and a turkey leg braised with blueberries. What do these ingredients have in common? All are native to the Americas prior to European colonization. English settlers were responsible for the cheddar cheese and butter on the potato, and continental European settlement of California brought the Merlot grape to the West Coast. Dutch and German immigrants served as the background of the domestic beer used as a braising liquid.

If I ever have kids they're going to get tired of these "history on a plate" lessons.

The wine selected for this educational meal was the 2006 Red Rock Winery Reserve Merlot. $10, 13.9% abv. 95% Merlot, 2.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Syrah, .5% Syrah, sourced from various vineyards within California. Big, fruity California Merlot here with a dominant profile of cherry cola. Pretty heavy tannins on the finish. I picked it up primarily because of the charming cairn on the label. For millennia humans have used simple piles of stones to mark a path, note an important place, or commemorate the dead. I've relied on cairns during backpacking trips, and they can be found all over the world. A highly technological network of commerce and transportation brought this wine to my local shop, yet the ultimate low-tech sign caught my attention.

06 August 2008

2006 GRU Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

Sometimes you just grab a bottle at random. Such was the case with the 2006 GRU Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. $12, 13.5% abv. With the crane design on the front I thought there was an Oriental connection somewhere, but it's all Italian. Made in the Abruzzo region due east of Rome from the Montepulciano grape.

When looking it up later I found out that it's the house red for Carrabba's Italian Grill, meaning that I've had it once or twice during business dinners. It's got a sharp tannic quality, and firm acidity for a red, combined with some plum and black table grape flavors.

For dinner I fixed a light salad with blueberries and grapes and small sourdough croutons. I had some leftover bits of steak, which were chopped up and mixed with my vegetable risotto. Nothing special there, but I had a pound of arborio rice and a pint of organic chicken stock in the cabinet. A few frozen veggies chopped up and blended in, a bit of seasoning here and there, and a handful of parmesan towards the end.

I didn't grow up poor and Italian, but a simple meal like this thrown together out of leftovers has a filling and pleasurable quality all its own.

04 August 2008

2006 Coppola Diamond Claret

Sally, a dear friend of the Benito household, was in town to visit The Roommate and help her recover from recent surgery. (You may have seen her recent comments on last week's cocktail extravaganza.) As thanks and because I look for any excuse to make a nice dinner, I decided to try out an idea I had around steak. I snagged a couple of two inch thick grass-fed ribeyes and cut them in half. Each segment was tied with kitchen twine and formed into rounds more common to filet mignon.

These were marinated and then slow cooked in the oven at 200°F until medium rare, then seared in a skillet for surface texture and caramelization. The steaks were then topped with bleu cheese and homemade red onion marmalade. This onion preparation is a seriously incredible accompaniment to any dish and I strongly suggest you make a batch immediately. Throw it on a grilled cheese sandwich and you're going to have drool running down your chin.

On the side we've got Farmers Market brandywine tomatoes, green beans, and store-bought broccolini. For the wine, Paul was kind enough to bring over a bottle of the 2006 Coppola Diamond Claret from Sonoma. $20, 13.8% abv. 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petite Verdot, 7% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc. I've been a longtime fan of this wine and have written about it several times. This vintage doesn't disappoint, and provides great dark berry flavors and aromas, a touch of spice and tobacco, a little leather, and of course a Bordeaux blend is always a great pairing for steak.

01 August 2008

The Silver Fizz

And now we'll wrap up Cocktail Week with one last oddball... the Silver Fizz. Gin, sugar, lemon juice... and raw egg white, "often served as breakfast for the 19th-century drinking man". If you use the yolk as well it becomes a Royal Fizz, but I'm going to stick with the Silver recipe. You've got to watch out for these things. Become known as the guy who likes raw egg cocktails and suddenly people start moving away when you step up to the bar.

I've had one of these before but failed to document it. This is an easy cocktail to make, just shake the hell out of it before pouring. Around the time that the shaker becomes almost painfully cold, the sound will change and the contents will become more solid than fluid. With a nod towards the British favourite pink gin I added a few dashes of Angostura bitters.

This is a frothy, opaque, slightly sweet beverage that goes down as easily as melted ice cream, placing it firmly in the category of cocktails that will sneak up on you. The egg white provides a smooth and luscious texture, and the gin, lemon juice, and bitters contribute to a great flavor.