29 September 2008

Three Syrah Blends

Whether you call it Syrah or Shiraz, this grape is gaining in popularity and has done well for itself around the world. Not bad for a little vine named after a city in Persia. Here I present three Syrah blends from three different continents.

First up is a Sonoma/Central Coast blend from California, the 2005 Stephen Vincent Crimson. $10, 14.3% abv. 75% Syrah and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. Odd mix, closed even after a day in the fridge. The two varietals fight for position on the nose and palate, making each sip interesting. Not a bad little red in terms of a casual quaff--I had a glass here and there with leftovers for a couple of days. After breathing plum and cherry flavors were present. Note that this label is set in Shelley. That font is as popular for wine labels as Trajan is for movie posters.

Taking a detour down south, we've got the 2005 Big Tattoo Red from Colchagua, Chile. $10, 13.8% abv, 50% Syrah/50% Cabernet Sauvignon. The bottle had a little pink ribbon tied around the neck, and I thought it was a local promotion for breast cancer, but it turns out that the two brothers (one winemaker, one tattoo artist) donate 50¢ from every bottle sold to breast cancer research in honor of their late mother.

This South American wine is not the fruit-forward blend that increasingly dominates the sub $20 market. Instead, this has a nose full of herbs and grasses, a touch of asparagus and a slightly bitter finish, like good salad greens. I found a good pairing to be a dish of strawberry ice cream, where the sweet and bitter got to work with each other on the palate.

With our final entry we sail west to Paringa, South Australia for the 2007 Angove's Nine Vines Shiraz Viognier. $14, 14.5% abv. 94% Syrah, 6% Viognier. I love this combination of grapes, which is pretty expensive coming from Côte-Rôtie. But others around the world have started playing around with the blend, often with delicious results.

Please let this one breathe before drinking; the alcohol and aroma of black grape skins need time to blow off. At first, the Shiraz is overwhelming but with some time it mellows and you can appreciate the more subtle properties. It's got a rare beef and bold dark fruit nose to it, but is softer on the palate. There's just a touch of those lovely Viognier flowers present. I'd still like to see more Viognier in it, but this is definitely serviceable. Served with a grilled burger and traditional BBQ accompaniments. Citizen Kane on the DVD player, the dog at my feet, life is good.

26 September 2008

NV Calliga Rubis

This Greek wine is inscribed with a quote from Homer: "The flame of wit is lit deep in a bottle." I'm not sure what the joke is with this completely asymmetrical bottle. It looks like it got left out in the sun too long. There's a couple of finger grooves in the back but I couldn't figure out any sort of ergonomic pouring advantage.

Ugliness aside the NV Calliga Rubis is from Cephalonia in the Ionian Sea. $10, 12.5% abv. It's made from unoaked Αγιωργίτικο (St. George) grapes and is part of the Kourtakis family of wines. "Calliga Rubis" translates as something like "beautiful red". Etymology tip for the day: any Greek word or name with a prefix of Calli- or Kalli- means beautiful, such as that great Scrabble word callipygian, from the Greek kαλλίπυγος meaning "having beautiful, well-proportioned buttocks". Sir Mixalot approves.

Turning attention away from the ladies, this wine has a dried currant aroma with a flavor of cranberries and honey. Light tannins and very light overall mouthfeel. Very restrained. I enjoyed this with a takeout gyro from a local vendor up in Cleveland.

24 September 2008

The Wine Mummy

Apparently my traveling and shuttling wines back and forth to Ohio got noticed, because I received a Wine Mummy for review. The Wine Mummy is a sturdy plastic bag with a layer of bubble wrap (the large half inch bubbles, not the smaller quarter inch size), another interior layer of black plastic, and a zip top enclosure. Normally I wrap a bottle of wine in clothes or stick it in a box full of t-shirts inside my luggage, but there's always room for improvement.

My first test was to see what kind of bottles fit the bag. It's designed to hold a single 750mL bottle, but those come in assorted shapes and sizes. At home I tried out a few different bottles. In addition to the standard Bordeaux and Burgundy styles it also worked with a Rubenesque sparkling wine and a tall, slender Riesling.

My second test: put a bottle in it and fly somewhere. Fortunately I had a business trip to Cincinnati, so after judging the construction of the bag to be solid, I packed a red wine--the 2006 Strong Arms Shiraz imported by Grateful Palate from the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. $12, 15.5% abv. Obviously the wine survived baggage handling at MEM and CVG and the luggage hold of a Canadair CRJ-200, because I'm able to tell you that it's got a nose of strawberry jam and fig, with a little toast. The flavor is somewhat overwhelmed by the alcohol but ripe strawberries and stewed fruit flavors are definitely present. (While the label artwork looks like Edward Gorey, it's actually Mel Kadel.)

The Wine Mummy is available for purchase online and retails for $4.95. For the ecologically conscious, the bags are reusable. They're also able to customize bags with logos or text for special events. My suggestion? Use one of these as a stocking for Christmas. For the wine lover in your life, either put a bottle of wine in it and stick a bow on the front, or fill it with wine gadgets and other small gifts. Wrapping paper gets thrown away quickly; why not surround your gift with something useful?

Disclosure: 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.

22 September 2008

2000 Rosemount Hill of Gold Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon

I'm always a sucker for solitary, seemingly forgotten bottles in wine shops. Such is the case with the 2000 Rosemount Hill of Gold Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon, which didn't even show up on the computer when scanned. The clerk asked me, "Did this come from our store?" $17, 14% abv. New South Wales, Australia. Apparently 2000 was a rough year for this vineyard. While others shy away from the vintages that have asterisks in the charts ("hail damage, wombats got in and tore up the bloody vines"), I'm always excited to try the rare bottles that somehow make their way to my local merchants.

It's got a rich chocolate and leather aroma, with undertone flavors of raspberry, cigar, and black pepper. Definitely well aged, though I destroyed the cork trying to open it and had to pour it through a sieve.

I served it with a New York strip that had been coated with a rub made of raw coffee grounds, brown sugar, paprika, and assorted other seasonings. Seared and cooked to rare, sliced up thin and spread out on the plate. I paired it with some leftover watermelon and cole slaw--good summer BBQ fare here in the time between the seasons.

19 September 2008

2006 Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc

After my enjoyment of the Santa Digna Rosé, I was anxious to try another bottle from this winery. There are a handful of other varietals under this label, and for this dinner I chose the 2006 Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc, produced by Miguel Torres in the Valle Central of Chile. $11, 13.5% abv, pure Sauvignon Blanc.

After chilling I found it bright and rich, round yet still tangy. Aromas of apple, pear, and I think dogwood blossoms. The flavor is nicely acidic but isn't heavy on the grapefruit side like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Reminds me more of a California implementation of this grape. Great bargain and a good all-purpose white to have on hand.

Served with grilled mahi-mahi topped with cilantro, red pepper, and green onion, and a side of brown rice and kidney beans. Mahi-mahi can get dried out easily, but I managed to cook this filet just right. For a change I decided to shoot it halfway through the meal, super up close, and at a weird dynamic angle.

I find myself looking at plates and tablecloths and other props that I could use for a food studio setup, but I don't have all the storage space for those things. But even in a small house you can find some different lighting opportunities to spice things up. In the future I'll have a digital SLR that will even shoot under candlelight properly.

17 September 2008

The Pegu Club Cocktail

How about another Old School cocktail here at Casa Benito? This is the Pegu Club, named after a bar in Burma near Rangoon. This was the sort of drinking establishment you see in old British Empire literature. A respite from the heat and malaria and a chance to take a break from the messy business of conquering Asian nations. Kipling even wrote about it in From Sea to Sea: "The Pegu Club seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north." While he mentioned cocktails in a few places, he didn't specifically list the one named after the club.

Sadly, the Pegu Club was destroyed in WWII, but the drink lives on...

The best cocktails are those with only a few ingredients, balanced well against each other. This one is made with three parts gin, one part lime juice, one part Cointreau (I used Gran Gala), and a dash of bitters. Combine with ice in a shaker and shake thoroughly. Pour in a martini glass and garnish with a twist* of lime peel.

This is a cool and refreshing citrus beverage, which tastes somewhere between grapefruit juice and an orange push-up like you used to get from an ice cream truck. The gin goes well with the orange and lime, and it's just strong enough to make you sip slowly and enjoy it.

*To make a garnish like that, use a zester to take a long strip from the entire circumference of the lime. Spiral around the lime to make it longer if desired. Take the strip and twist it around a thin rod, like a skewer. Best done right before serving. For best results, keep the zester stationary and rotate the citrus fruit without stopping. It's easy to get a foot or more off a lemon after one or two tries.

15 September 2008

A Pair of 2003 Merlots

Here I've got two Merlot reviews for your reading pleasure. Has the curse of Sideways finally worn off? Are restaurant servers still being hassled every time they suggest a Merlot to go with the meal?

First up is the 2003 Château Greysac from the Médoc section of Bordeaux. $20, 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Smoky, with notes of tobacco and a little cherry in the background. Closed at first but it developed well over dinner. Greysac remains a great bargain for those that want Bordeaux flavor at Rhone prices. It generally shows up on shelves five years after the vintage, when it's ready to drink. However, a bit more age wouldn't hurt.

And from the Pacific Northwest, an old love... the 2003 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot. Columbia Valley, Washington. $16. Cinnamon, burnt match aroma, with blackberry and cherry on the palate. I've had several vintages of this wine over the years, and am always pleased to come back to it. One funny note: I was enjoying the last of the bottle at night, listening to classic jazz and savoring the quiet serenity after the dinner guests have left and the kitchen has been cleaned. It was a remarkable wine almost to the last drop. I wasn't paying attention and my last sip was a mouthful of sediment, much like a bunch of coffee grounds if your French press has a leaky sieve. This is not the fault of the wine or the winery--proper decanting and simply keeping my eyes open would have prevented this, but I find it amusing nonetheless.

12 September 2008

2007 Domaine du Tariquet Rosé de Pressée

This Robert Kacher selection from the Gascony region (southwest France right next to Spain) is the 2007 Domaine du Tariquet Rosé de Pressée, $12, 11.5% abv. 40% Merlot, 40% Syrah, and 20% Tannat. Tannat is not a well-known grape--it's grown in the nearby Madiran AOC and is popular in Uruguay, but doesn't get a lot of play in the rest of the world. Surprising candied banana aroma. Really charming. Firm mid-palate tannic elements, touch of acidity, extremely short finish. Neat little wine here.

I picked it up from the Whole Foods in Cleveland, where I was also able to grab dinner: an organic salami/provolone/ciabatta sandwich and a little tub of papaya chunks and lime slices. If I lived near a Whole Foods I think I would have a picnic every day of the year, and the screwcap on the Tariquet makes this an excellent park choice... assuming that your local law enforcement officials allow you to actually sip wine in a park.

10 September 2008

Humanum est errare

Friends and co-workers will occasionally bemoan their lack of cooking skills and assume that there's some sort of magic involved when I'm working in the kitchen. Now, I'm not the best cook in the world, and I have zero professional training. But folks usually leave my table happy, and I'm generally satisfied with my own cooking, which I've laid bare here on this website.

But all of that is built on lots of experimentation with the requisite failures along the way. I have screwed up horribly over the years, and will continue to do so. Recently I was attempting to make homemade mayonnaise--something I've done dozens of times--and wondered why in the hell it wasn't coming together. It's just oil, vinegar, and... oh yeah, I forgot egg yolks.

Presented for your reading enjoyment, an example of good intentions gone bad.

This was in 2004, the pre-blog era when I was having fun with a new digital camera. I did a few recipes on a personal webspace for friends and family, with steps photographed along the way. I was early into this modern experimentation phase and enjoyed trying out various food combinations. Some good, some not so good. Some soul-crushingly horrible.

I had this great idea for a grilled seafood dinner: halibut with roasted peppers, onions, mushrooms, and dill served with fire-roasted corn on the cob. If you saw this on a restaurant menu, you might order it, and I'm sure that someone out there can make this work. Somehow, I didn't.

Nothing was burned, nothing was overcooked, but the particular combination just Did Not Work. I tasted it and wasn't impressed. I soldiered on, not wanting to waste food and hoping that I would at least be able to figure out what the bad element was. About halfway through I stopped, and felt awful. I really wanted to go lie down, but wasn't too confident about leaving the table. I started to clean up a bit, but within a few minutes I was clutching porcelain and pouring my guts down the drain.

I have a pretty strong stomach, as the recent pepper story will attest. But damn, this dish was just wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe too much smoke, maybe something was spoiled, who knows. The fact of the matter is that I had an idea and it failed in a rather spectacular fashion.

But when I had recovered enough and returned to solid foods, I was back in the kitchen trying something else without fear. And that's my best advice to those that are terrified of cooking. Don't be afraid to screw up, we've all done it. If you haven't cut yourself, burned yourself, destroyed an expensive ingredient or ruined a cooking utensil, you're not trying hard enough. Get back in front of the stove and make something tasty.

I challenge my readers to share colossal kitchen disasters in comments, and for fellow bloggers to share their own culinary failures. You may not have pictures, you may not have all the details, but somehow you may inspire some struggling home cook to set aside the TV dinners and give real cooking another shot.

08 September 2008

John's 30th Birthday

Good Lord, I'm getting old.

On August 29th, my younger brother John turned 30. For his birthday dinner, he asked me to do the cooking, and I was more than happy to oblige. While we fought a lot as kids, I have to give the boy credit for putting up with my high school experimental cooking phase. I'd check a cookbook out from the library and make as many things as I could from it during the three-week period. When the cookbook was Italian or Southwest or French, the food was usually edible. When I held on to the British cookbook with the tenacity of a barnacle, the food was awful.

Not only did John serve as a test subject for my homemade electroshock device, he was also the guinea pig for what were truly the worst years of my culinary self-education, and the fact that he has forgiven me enough to let me cook for important events such as his pre-wedding Bachelor Dinner is a high honor indeed.

For the first course, I had a little fun with the dish. I got a nice corvina filet from the grocery store. It was about as long as my arm and weighed in at 2.5 lbs. I sliced it up in roughly 4 oz. portions and hit them with Old Bay and sea salt to rest in the fridge.

The corvina was pan fried in olive oil and finished in the oven. Including myself I was feeding nine people, so you're just seeing the first four plates. I prepped a pile of fresh arugula with a light olive oil and tarragon vinegar dressing, a hemispherical mound of sundried-tomato couscous (prepared by my young niece!), and rested the corvina on the greens with a final touch of roasted yellow pepper sauce. My plate painting isn't great, but will get better with practice.

The wine served with the Corvina was a Kim Crawford New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with great grassy/grapefruit flavors. John had it waiting in his fridge, and this style has been a long favorite of mine for pairing with seafood. Several people present were having couscous for the first time, and the presentation was a bit nouvelle cuisine, but at the end I had a stack of clean plates and folks hungry for the next course.

In my continuing evangelism for dry rosé, I brought along a bottle of Angove's Rosé from South Australia. $12, 12.5% abv. 70% Grenache and 30% Shiraz. I only had a sip or two--it was delicious but I don't have any notes on it. Fortunately the rest of the group got to really enjoy it.

I don't have any photos of the second course, because it's one that I've done several times. In anticipation of the dinner, John purchased a nine pound boneless ribeye roast and dry-aged it in his refrigerator for eight days. This preparation is damned near biblical. I hit it with some salt and pepper and slow roasted it, serving it with a light pasta salad and a mayonnaise-based horseradish sauce.

In his role as patriarch, Dad provided two excellent red wines for the beef course. One was the 2005 Coppola Merlot. It had elements of cinnamon, spice, and bacon fat. One of those great meaty, manly wines. I've found this to be a reliable performer on wine-by-the-glass menus around the country. The second was a new one for me, the 2004 Red Dirt Cabernet Sauvignon. I couldn't find any online information about this specific wine, but it had elements of cherry, chocolate, and leather. Both were great performers for the second course, and it was fun to switch back and forth between the two.

Mom and Dad provided dessert as well, and we all had a great time. The post-dinner conversation stretched well into the evening as I sat back, satisfied that everyone had a great time.

Happy birthday, little brother.

05 September 2008

The Golden Apples of the Sun

Ozark Gold apples from Jones Orchard in Millington, Tennessee.

Summer is coming to a close, and what better way to mark that passage of time than "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by William Butler Yeats, whose beautiful final line serves as the title of this post:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

03 September 2008

Shaken, Not Stirred

The everyday man on the street will tell you that James Bond always drank martinis. The more knowledgeable gentleman will correct this to a vodka martini, but the obsessive fan will quote the recipe for a Vesper. While I fall far short of obsessive, I was curious to try the cocktail invented by James Bond in Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale.

When it comes to the shaken versus stirred controversy, I don't get passionate either way. I like the super-cold temperature of a properly shaken cocktail, but with others I prefer a quick stir. I'm not really concerned about bruising gin, especially considering that raw gin is something like a sledgehammer to the forehead. Speaking of which, let's talk about the recipe.

The book calls for "Three measures of Gordon's [gin], one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel." The Lillet will stop most people on the way to the liquor cabinet, but it's an aperitif made in Bordeaux and likened to Vermouth. I find that it tastes a lot like a Sauternes without the musty underbelly of noble rot. While Lillet is delicious on its own, it is completely overpowered in this cocktail and only provides a slight golden hue and a touch of sweetness. I made this twice with double the amount of Lillet and it was still just barely in the background.

What you're left with is a lot of gin and an unnecessary boost of alcohol from the vodka. The best mixed drinks are those that combine elements of sweet, sour, bitter, and alcohol in harmony, but this one is pretty much pure booze designed for the professional drinker. I can't imagine trying to play cards after having one of these, and the first time I made this I split it with a friend and it was still too strong.

So if you're sitting around with Lillet and don't know how you're going to use it... Why not try an Old Etonian? This drink was quite popular in 1920s London and referenced the old boys' school.

Take a shot of gin and a shot of Lillet Blanc, add in a few splashes of amaretto and bitters, and shake it up. Pour and serve with a twist of lemon or orange peel. This is a far better cocktail than the Vesper, and in many ways is a lighter, fruitier version of the Manhattan. Definitely one that's going to stay on the books until this bottle of Lillet runs its course.

01 September 2008

Housewarming for Grace

A group of friends and I recently gathered for a housewarming party for our dear Grace. It was also the date of the Roman holiday Vulcanalia. Look on the calendar, there's bound to be some reason to celebrate.

We started things out with a fun cocktail I tried in Cleveland. The Basil Grape Refresher is made with muddled basil and grapes. Add a touch of sugar or simple syrup, and then shake with ice and vodka. Top with ginger ale to taste. Simple and easy cocktail, and you can play around with it to modulate the sweetness.

The first course was steamed crab legs and topneck clams. When I cook crab legs, I normally take frozen snow crab legs and put them in a big steamer basket over a big pot of boiling water. I'll dust it all with Old Bay and squeeze a lemon over all of it. The trick is to take them out of the basket right when they're warmed through--too long and they get leathery, too short and you've got cold spots. While big and meaty, the clams were a little tough. I've had better luck with littlenecks when the craving strikes me.

For the second course, we enjoyed pan-seared slices of halloumi cheese and chunks of Santa Claus melon. The melon is white-fleshed with a flavor similar to honeydew, and it looks like a striped green football. The cheese was salty and savory, providing a nice counterpoint, and anyone who hasn't tried halloumi yet ought to swing by Fresh Market and give it a shot. For this course the Thomas Hyland/Penfolds Riesling was provided by Paul and was fruit-forward with flavors of apple and grapefruit.

The main course was beef tenderloin slices on a bed of mesclun greens with mushroom-sage risotto. I trimmed and trussed an entire tenderloin and rubbed it down with a blend of fennel seed, allspice, salt, and pepper. It was slow cooked at a steady 180°F until the interior reached medium rare. I then let it rest while I heated up the broiler, and then seared the outside of the roast in the oven. I took quarter inch slices and plated them, and then used a chipotle finishing sauce to top it all off. It was soft enough to cut with a fork and deeply delicious.

Paul provided this wine as well, a Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz. It had rich notes of cinnamon, cedar, and blueberries. Well balanced and nicely complementary to the beef. It's the second time we've tried this Australian wine and it's a great one. Not to mention the great math joke in the name.

Somewhere along the way another bottle was needed, so I picked the 2007 La Vieille Ferme Rosé from the Côtes du Ventoux region of France. It's 50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache and 10% Syrah. Srawberry-kiwi Jolly Rancher flavors with a touch of lemony acidity. I've had the red and white versions of this wine and they're all solidly constructed wines at great prices. And you don't see giant talking chicken ads for them at the wine shop.

Late that evening we wrapped it all up with key lime pie. Congrats to Grace on the new digs and I can't wait to cook over there again.