31 December 2008

Last Minute Sparkling Wine Recommendations

For those of you doing your shopping on the way to a party tonight, here's some sparkling wine recommendations. Whenever you see "NV" in my reviews, it means "non-vintage", or there's no particular year ascribed to the wine--it might be a mix of multiple vintages, or it might just be an inexpensive table wine. It should not be inferred that they are produced in the state of Nevada. Also, I rarely if ever drink proper Champagne. It's more of a cost concern than anything else, but there are loads of tasty sparklers from all over the world, including the non-Champagne regions of France.

First, here are 23 previous posts that include information on sparkling wine. Most of them are great little wines, just stay away from the Soviet Champagne of Belarus. I can still taste that abomination months later.

Second, check out Fredric Koeppel's annual 12 Days of Christmas salute to sparkling wines. He's got some great bottles there and there's very little overlap in the bubbly we've reviewed.

Now for a few of my own that have been sitting in the review queue for a while...

One that can be found nearly everywhere is the NV Yellowtail Sparkling Rosé, which runs for around $7. Beautiful light salmon color, dry and crisp with raspberry aromas and flavors. The large bubbles give it a soda mouthfeel. Not as fruity as I'd imagined, and it had a slightly bitter finish I wasn't expecting (note that I love bitter flavors, and they show up from time time in all sorts of wine). I couldn't find any information on the grapes used here, but I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Sparkling rosés are a growing segment of the sparkler market, and this might be easier for you to find than some of the European bottles.

Prosecco is a longtime favorite here at BWR, and increased production in Italy and elsewhere means that there are new brands to try every year. On general principles I'd avoid the Austrian one packaged in cans and promoted by Paris Hilton. Instead, why not try something like the Italian NV Martini & Rossi Prosecco. $12, a light 10.5% abv. It's got a little orange peel aroma, light bubbles in the frizzante style, and crisp lemon and almond flavors. Great bargain bottle that's conveniently enclosed with a beer bottle cap, meaning that this should be perfect for taking to parties. (A few other Prosecco and sweet Moscato d'Asti wines are capped like this--great for BBQs or other informal gatherings.)

It's not pictured here, but I'd highly recommend anything from Domaine Ste. Michelle, particularly the Blanc de Noirs. The varieties range from dry to sweet, some blends, some single grape. These are affordable, delicious sparkling wines from Washington state, and I always keep one on hand in case I need something to kick off a dinner. The voluptuous Ste. Michelle bottles can often be found for as little as $12, which is a real steal. And of course the sparkling wines of Gruet in New Mexico will always have a special place in my heart.

What will I be drinking on New Year's Eve? The Spanish NV Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad. $25, 12% abv. Penedès region of Spain. I've had it before, but I've really been in a Cava mood lately. Plus, you've got to admire a bottle that eschews the label for a metal badge. Certainly the guys from Dethklok would approve.

I hope all of you have a happy and safe New Year, and be sure to eat your black eyed peas!

P.S. In the comments, be sure to note your bubbles of choice for ringing in the New Year. Or if you went in a different direction--say the family tradition is 6 Puttonyos Tokaji--list that as well. I think my first NYE adult beverage was a sip of peach schnapps in the late 80s.

29 December 2008

Festivus Cubano

I'm a big fan of Festivus, a fake winter holiday created as part of a Seinfeld episode. I skip the aluminum pole and the airing of grievances, and I don't even celebrate it on December 23. For me, Festivus is a great nickname for any dinner party during November or December that's not tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's. If you invite an acquaintance to a Christmas party, there's an expectation of presents and maybe dressing up and conflicts with other family obligations and whatnot. But a Festivus dinner can include damned near anything, dress can be as casual as desired, and no relatives are going to disown you because you decided to hang out with friends on December 15 or November 30.

This year, dear friends Sally and Terry offered to buy the groceries if I'd do the cooking, and I decided that it was high time to do some Cuban cooking. Memphis has had a couple of Cuban restaurants over the years, but currently there are none. Yes, a few places offer pale imitations of the Cuban sandwich, but if I want lechon asado or vaca frita I've got to do it myself.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt while listening to mp3s of the Canadian radio host Stuart McLean, I spent a few hours prepping a proper Festivus Cubano. Big thanks to the Taste of Cuba website, source of most of the recipes.

We started things out with an apple/pumpkin soup called sopa de calabaza y manzana, spiced up with the addition of a few tangy cubanelle peppers. At this point the guests were finishing off cocktails, including the Silver Fizz and Manhattan. With the soup served in coffee mugs, it was just enough to whet the appetite and provide a little base for the feast to come.

For the second course, I adapted this recipe and used tilapia. Some amazing canned San Marzano tomatoes really brought an intense flavor to this dish. Since I'll jump at any opportunity to use a sparkling wine with food, I elected to open a bottle of NV Codorníu Original Cava. $15, 11.5% abv, La Mancha region of Spain. For Sally I added a splash of pastis, and for Paul I added a splash of Cointreau; Cava adapts readily to Champagne cocktail recipes. I had mine plain, where it presented a lemon and toast nose with a crisp, clean flavor, balanced acidity, and a short finish. This is a good all-purpose sparkler from a family that's been in the wine business for 500 years.

After a palate-cleansing course of chayote salad (most of the diners had never had a chayote before), it was time for the main course: rabo encendido or oxtail stew. Regular readers will note that I've been on an offal kick for the past few months, and oxtails are a relatively non-scary way to get used to these immensely flavorful parts of the cow/pig/etc. They're also pretty cheap, but rising popularity will surely drive up the price. Accompanying the dish were rice and slow cooked black beans with country ham. All told this was a decadent, rich, savory course that belied the total absence of expensive ingredients.

In keeping with the theme of wines from Spanish-speaking countries, I poured the 2006 Crios Malbec from female winemaker Susana Balbo. $15, 14% abv, Mendoza region of Argentina. Tobacco and coffee nose with blackberry and cinnamon flavors. Bright and smooth with a neat finish.

All in all a successful dinner, and I satisfied my craving for Cuban food. The guests were stuffed, laughter filled the house, and a good time was had by all. Truly a Festivus miracle.

26 December 2008

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

Cocktail enthusiast Robert Hess has written an extensive history of the Old Fashioned in a compulsive manner most commonly seen amongst fans of science fiction, antique furniture, or postage stamps (and I say that as a lover of all three). For mine, I elected to use the 1933 recipe:

- 1 lump sugar
- 4 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 lump ice
- 1 glass Rye Whiskey
- 1 slice orange
- 1 cherry
Stir well until Sugar is dissolved, then squeeze lemon peel on top and serve in same glass used for mixing.

The whiskey in the beverage tends to dominate the other flavors, but they're all present and once the ice begins to melt, it takes on a more refreshing character.

While I definitely like this cocktail, I think it's heavily dependent on the quality of the whiskey and the choices of the mixologist. Order with caution, and if you have to teach the recipe to the bartender it's probably better to try something else.

Serving this, or any other cocktail in an official Tiki Bar Mini Mug is optional, but points for style always count.

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas, Y'all

Main Street, Downtown Memphis
Christmas 2004

24 December 2008

Two Wines from Two Vines

With today being Christmas Eve, newer readers to this site might enjoy my April visit to the house where the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story was filmed.

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Columbia Crest produces many easy drinking, affordable wines made in Washington state. If you're new to wine it wouldn't hurt to work your way through their product line--their bottles are available everywhere and it's a great way to get started. I particularly like the Grand Estates wines and will try out the Horse Heaven Hills when I get the chance. On the bargain end of the product line are the Two Vines wines, so named after a method of trellising the plants in the vineyard.

2006 Two Vines Vineyard 10 White Wine. $8, 13% abv. It's made of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. Aromas of peach and apple, with flowers as it warms up. It smells mostly like Chardonnay but the other grapes show up on the palate: the Sauvignon Blanc contributes a bright crispness and the Semillon adds a musky honey undertone. A good match for a tuna salad sandwich at lunch time. And while it's not quite the same, this is a good substitute for Columbia Crest's Semillon-Chardonnay of the mid-90s.

2007 Two Vines Vineyard 10 Rosé. $8, 12.5% abv. Mostly Syrah with a splash of Viognier. A little dark for a rosé. Whiff of orange peel on the nose. Tart and crisp, flavors of ripe strawberry and raspberry. This is an assertive rosé while still being dry. I paired it with a pulled pork BBQ sandwich, where the firm acidity helped cut through the grease.

With the economy being what it is, it's more important than ever to get good value from your wine dollars. This doesn't necessarily mean going for the cheapest bottle, but rather doing a bit of research or talking to the staff at your wine shop to find the hidden gems. Check out my archives or blogs like Good Wine Under $20 for further suggestions. There are also mumblings that prices on higher end wines might be coming down in order to move stock--keep an eye out for these bargains. The wine you've been lusting after at $60 could come down to an affordable $40.

22 December 2008

Benito vs. the Hoof: pied de cochon

When my friendly neighborhood grocery store offers a new vegetable, critter, or cut of meat, I'm impelled to pick it up. While smoked ham hocks (the ankles of pigs) are widely available here in the South, you don't see raw pig's feet that often. Pickled yes, smoked occasionally, but raw, no. I know they're a French delicacy and prized in many parts of the world, so for the sum of $1.94 I came home with a pair of trotters.

I found a recipe for the signature dish from Montréal's Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant specializing in traditional Québécois fare. While the pig's feet I found didn't include as much of the shank as I'd like, I did have organic Canadian maple syrup in the cabinet.

One warning for the squeamish (assuming that any have made it this far): the feet arrive clean and shaved, but you still have to rinse them and check for any hairs missed by the razor. This process feels like shaking hands with a corpse that's been pulled out of a cold river. I've got no problem taking apart pigs (I helped dissect 30 in one day as a high school lab assistant), but this might be off-putting for some.

Four hours of brining and four hours of roasting produced the mahogany treasures you see to the right. The house smelled amazing: imagine a cross between bacon and ham wafting all afternoon. My dogs were going crazy at the aroma. And the flavor is great as well, with the crispy skin on the top, the sweet and tender skin on the bottom, meat that's as soft as butter, and plenty of cartilage if you're into that. It's mostly full of bones (phalanges and metacarpals/metatarsals depending on whether they come from the back or front), so your final payoff isn't great. But if you've never tried a properly braised hoof, I'd highly recommend it.

19 December 2008

NV Jarhead Red

Here's a wine that represents what I feel are two positive trends in the American wine industry:

1) Wines that support a charity, in this case the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of wounded or fallen Marines.

2) Wines that, through name and label design, appeal to a masculine audience.

The first is a noble cause and should be self-explanatory, but let me go into a little more depth on the second trend. For the past few generations, wine in this country has been seen as either a drink for women or for the wealthy/artsy/intellectual/effeminate, and the working/middle-class men stuck to beer or spirits. This is slowly changing, and you can see wines like Red Truck, Three Thieves, and Desolation Flats that are obviously marketed towards Joe Sixpack. It's important to bring new wine drinkers into the fold, and such labeling is an excellent way to do that.

For the guys out there that still think of wine as a girly drink, get over it. The Norwegian version of 'cheers!' is skål, which means 'skull'. This goes back to the practice of Vikings drinking wine* out of the hollowed-out skulls of their enemies. The Roman empire was fueled by wine and a thousand years later the Spanish burned and pillaged their way through two continents while planting vineyards. I'd make the case that wine is perhaps the manliest beverage on earth, second only to the harsh rum of Newfoundland called screech.

Reporting for duty in this noble crusade is the non-vintage Jarhead Red, $12, 13.5% abv. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Central Coast of California. It can use a bit of decanting, after which it has a plum jam profile with a peppery finish. Medium tannins, firm body, and other dark fruit flavors linger on the finish. Notice that the label of this wine features neither flowers nor elegant script. There's stenciled letters, an image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, and a dominant red white and blue motif. It's the kind of wine that R. Lee Ermey would crack open with his teeth, swallowing the broken glass on general principle. I elected for a more digestible burger and fries, where the wine performed as an admirable pairing.

On a personal note, my maternal grandfather served in the Marine Corps during WWII. He was in his late 20s by then and based on his civilian experience with the USPS, spent most of the war working in the Military Post Office of San Francisco, which handled all military mail headed throughout the Pacific. Of course, he was a tall and strong man, having played college football in the days of leather helmets and no padding, and like all Marines was expected to be able to grab a rifle and head to the front lines at any time. My grandfather turns 93 this month, and while he doesn't talk much these days I was able to spend some time with him ten years ago compiling an oral history of his wartime life.

This holiday season, also keep in mind the Marines' Toys for Tots program. At that site you can either make an online donation or find a local drop-off for toys.

*The Vikings had good taste in wine, and stole a lot of it from the Mediterranean during their raids. DNA evidence of these voyages can be seen today in the occasional redheads that pop up in Sicily, northern Italy, and on the Food Network in the form of Mario Batali.

17 December 2008

Readers' Choice: Wines from the Comment Section

Without reader comments and e-mails, writing a blog can be a lonely experience, and wine is a subject that demands convivial discussion. Some interesting conversations have developed in the past year, and it's always exciting to get new input. So here's two wines straight from the comments that I probably would not have tried otherwise.

First up is one from Michael Hughes, fellow Memphis wine blogger. In reference to my Beaujolais Nouveau post, he recommended a replacement wine, the 2007 Novy Four Mile Creek Red Wine. $12, 14.1% abv. Made from Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache, and other grapes sourced from vineyards throughout California. It's got a gorgeous color similar to a Nouveau--too dark for a rosé, with a purple that's got more blue than a regular red. Wonderful earthy nose with a touch of vegetation, which you don't see that often from American wines. It's crisp on the tongue, with some mild plum flavors and a slightly tart finish. This is an odd duck, with a light body that belies its strong grapes. Pinot Noir blends are rare outside of Champagne, and usually the Pinot just gets lost in the sea of other grapes. While it might be tricky to pair this with a specific dish, I think it would really shine as a general lunch wine. Should go well with a wide range of salads and sandwiches.

California wine blogger Samantha Dugan (who, like Michael, works in the retail side of the wine business) noted that I'd mentioned Port a lot to the exclusion of other fortified wines. She recommended a Madeira from Cossart Gordon, the 5 Year Old Bual. $17, 19% abv. Made from the Bual grape on the Portuguese island of Madeira, about 350 miles off the coast of Morocco. High temperatures favor a fortified wine, and Madeira has the distinction of being practically indestructible. If you want a regular wine to survive more than a year you're going to need to keep it in a controlled environment. Madeira can easily last a century under heat and motion and other damaging factors. Indeed, in the 1500s it was discovered that some of the best Madeiras were those that had been carried by ships around Africa, to India, to Brazil, etc. These were not smooth, climate-controlled voyages.

It's got a lovely color, like maple syrup. The aroma is similar to a Tawny Port, but with more of a tangy quality. There are scents of golden raisins, stewed fruit, hazelnut... Think about a really good homemade fruitcake, not one of those industrial bricks you find at the store. The flavor is only mildly sweet, with matching raisin and nutty notes, and a delicate finish. It's a great after dinner drink that I think would go well with sheep's milk cheeses and gingerbread.

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In the future I can't promise that I'll try every wine that gets recommended--a lot of it depends on local availability. But rest assured that I read every comment and look forward to new and exciting suggestions in 2009.

15 December 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: CAO Brazilia & Sopranos

Two months ago I tried the CAO Brazilia Box Press 5½" x 55, and I'll be honest, I didn't like it. But after hearing about how much everyone loves the Brazilia I gave it another shot. And I'm glad I did--it has flavors of chicory, cinnamon, and nutmeg, perfect for a winter afternoon. The rectangular box press shape is based on an old method of shipping cigars, in which pressing them in boxes before drying would result in a cigar with less excess room around the sides.

I shot it on a copy of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. An interesting look at how emergent systems form in nature, in software, and in human interactions.

A while back I sampled a CAO Sopranos Edition Boss, part of a licensing deal with the acclaimed HBO series. (I watched all the seasons, and swore furiously at the TV during the terrible final episode.) This torpedo cigar (7"x56) is made from a Brazilian wrapper, Honduran binder, and filler from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Colombia.

Cigars are a lot like wine in many ways. With either, a pedestrian sample will merely taste like wine or tobacco. But a great one can be complex, and scent and taste associations can dredge up all sorts of memories. This one had a strong roasted chestnut aroma, which immediately transported me to the Galleria in Milan back in 1996. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a 120 year old shopping mall right in the middle of Milan near the Duomo. I had my first roasted chestnuts there, purchased from a street vendor who was cooking them on a metal dish over a low propane flame. Later I had a seafood stew and a Gran Marinier-flavored crepe.

The book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a sometimes dense tome about economics, statistics, randomness, and dealing with the unexpected. It's a great companion to the Malcolm Gladwell books.

12 December 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred

Recently (i.e. months ago) various blogs have been posting about the The Omnivore's Hundred, a list of foods you ought to try before they start measuring you for the last suit you'll ever wear. You can go to the link to see all of them, and at the bottom of this post you can see the ones I haven't tried yet. Between my first draft and this entry, I knocked two easy ones off the list:

2. Nettle tea
Nettle tea smells exactly like cleaning off the blade on your lawnmower. It's that fermented Bermuda grass smell that lasts on your hands for days afterward. As a Southerner who first mowed the yard at the age of six (approximately two hours after growing tall enough to grasp the handle bar of Dad's beloved Snapper), this scent evokes pleasant memories. Others may not have the same reaction. I like the flavor as well, which is pretty mild considering there's no caffeine or tannins.

It is also supposed to help with gout and menstrual cramps, but never having suffered from either I can't make any claims regarding its efficacy as a natural medicine.

You can find this nettle tea at my Amazon Store or in the Memphis area at Whole Foods.

79. Lapsang souchong
This is a smoked tea from southeast China. The tea leaves are placed on mats or mesh and smoked over pine logs. Supposedly this is one of those binary foods: you either hate it or you love it. I picked up a tin of loose leaves (hence the need for a metal tea ball) and went two weeks before trying a cup. When you peel back the foil seal, you are hit with a powerful smoke aroma. Leave a pile of this in someone's house and they'll swear that something is on fire.

When I mustered up the courage to brew a pot, I followed the instructions and steeped the leaves in my little tea ball and poured myself a cup--straight, no sugar or lemon. The aroma was still powerful and smoky, but this time I got to appreciate it better. And as we all know, scent is the most powerful connection to old memories.

When I was in Scouts, we packed our gear and clothes into Army surplus duffel bags. Clean clothes would be carefully packed in plastic bags and layered, and later dirty clothes would be crammed in however possible. Upon returning home, I'd normally grab a shower and get something to eat before tackling the laundry, and after getting clean and breathing fresh air, I would be overwhelmed by the strong aromas of wood smoke, earth, and various other scents. A cup of lapsang souchong smells exactly like that.

Here's a word of thanks to my dear mother who frequently had to handle laundry after such camping trips, and out of respect for those horrors I will keep this tea far away from her. And while she would only have negative associations from this aroma, it dredges up a hundred wonderful memories for me, and I found myself able to remember the crisp smells of winter in Missouri and the steamy humidity of an Arkansas summer and dozens of other campsites around the country.

Despite the strong smell, this tea doesn't taste smoky. It's not any more bitter than standard black tea, and is actually quite mild. I can't imagine drinking it iced, and I never tried it sweetened, but I've really enjoyed a cup late in the afternoon or evening where I can sit and be whisked back to my youth.

Twinings is the most commonly available version in the states. I got it at Kroger, and you can also purchase lapsang souchong from my Amazon Store. Teabag styles are available as well.

And now, the 21 things I haven't tried... Though rest assured, I'll find a way to grind through most of this list in an effort to broaden the palate. Local readers: recommend some places to find some of these!

6. Black pudding
8. Carp
16. Epoisses
25. Brawn, or head cheese
30. Bagna cauda
37. Clotted cream tea
43. Phaal
46. Fugu
50. Sea urchin
52. Umeboshi
59. Poutine
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
89. Horse
93. Rose harissa
100. Snake

10 December 2008

2007 Feudo Arancio Grillo

One of my many weaknesses is that I will always jump at the opportunity to try a wine made on a Mediterranean island. There's just way too much history and cool geography to pass up. Such was the case with my purchase of the 2007 Feudo Arancio Grillo from Sicily. The name means something like "orange fiefdom", and Grillo is the grape, normally used in the production of the sweet fortified wine Marsala. $10, 13% abv.

Big and fruity, some pineapple and banana on the nose and really rich, round mouthfeel. It's bold, powerful, and broad shouldered. If this wine were a woman and you were dancing with her, she would be leading. (And I say that as a short guy who doesn't dance well and tends to date taller gals.)

I paired this with some takeout cheese enchiladas and it held up quite well against the spicy food. If you were looking for something more traditional, I'd suggest a mess of squid and shellfish with lots of olives and peppers.

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Want to support Benito's Wine Reviews? Do some of your holiday shopping through my Amazon Store. I've added a lot of items in the past couple of days, and all ordering, shipping, and payment is handled securely through Amazon--I never see any of that information, but I do get a little commission on the sales. I promise I won't resort to public broadcasting-style pledge drives, nor will I post a photo of my dog staring at an empty food bowl.

Thanks to those of you who have already ordered things, and next year when Amazon begins selling wine you'll also have the opportunity to order some of the wines that I write about.

08 December 2008

Christmas Dinner Suggestions

Site Update: I've added keywords to all 567 posts. Scroll down on the left and you'll see a list of keywords based on region, grape, ingredient, etc. They're unobtrusive but will help you (and me) find things faster. Sometimes I'll pick up a wine and when I go to research it, I'll find that the first or second result in Google is my own site. There's over 2,000 wines listed on this blog, I can't remember every single one!

And now, some advice if your holiday cooking is stuck in a rut...

Interested in what wines to serve with Christmas dinner? Check out my Thanksgiving advice but add more reds from PIGS and throw in a bottle of Port for after dinner. But what to serve for that dinner?

A properly roast turkey and a good ham are incredible, but thanks to the pervasive sandwich culture of the US we eat lots of turkey and ham all year round. Here's some simple and tasty alternatives. None of these are exotic, but you'll need a probe thermometer and a roasting pan with a wire rack. Stop by some place like Bed Bath & Beyond and you can grab inexpensive versions for a total of $30. If money is tight, a disposable aluminum pan could be used, just set the pan on top of a cookie sheet and the meat on top of some carrots to let the fat drain away.

Do a little comparison shopping and you should be able to find these meats for $3-5 per lb., but aside from the duck you're not messing with a bunch of bones--the rest fall in the "solid chunk of edible meat" category. You may not have as many leftovers as a turkey would provide, but any of them will make for a memorable dinner and perhaps a new family tradition. And while none of these are difficult to cook, if you've never roasted something you might want to do a test run a week or two before the big day.

1. Duck
Duck is rich, savory, and infinitely more flavorful than chicken. It's all dark meat and the whole bird is surrounded by one of the world's most delicious substances, duck fat. Seriously, trim off the fat from the tail and some of the other excess flaps, render it out in a skillet and then fry up potatoes in the resulting grease. You'll never go back to Crisco.

I can usually find fresh ducks during the holidays, though frozen will work just as well. Roast at 350° until the thick part of the thigh registers 160° (duck is pretty forgiving, and you can go lower or higher depending on your comfort level).

2. Leg of Lamb
Boneless is the easiest way to go here for cooking and carving. In the photo, the lamb is on the right, pork loin on the left. Over a grill is the quickest and easiest way (plus lots of great smoke flavor), but an oven will work just as well. If you don't feel like making a French sauce but want something other than mint jelly, try this: take a jar of raspberry preserves and combine it with chopped fresh mint and walnuts or pecans. Stir it all together and serve beside the lamb as a kind of chutney.

While I prefer my rack of lamb medium rare, I think leg tastes best at medium/medium-well. However you roast it, cook until it's about 140° but don't let it dry out.

3. Pork Loin
Unlike the thin tenderloins, a pork loin is about four inches across and is a solid log of meat with a fat cap on one side. Many grocery store versions are pre-brined or marinated and can be roasted as is. Fruit is a natural pairing: I used orange slices for the one in the picture, but apples, prunes, grapes, or cherries will work also. For more liquid flavorings, cook it in a Dutch oven or other covered pot. Try an oven temp of 350°-400°. Don't overcook it or it will be dry and tough; take it out when it reaches an internal temperature of 150°.

After resting, cut thin slices and serve with the sauce of your choice, or even simple Dijon mustard.

4. Ribeye Roast
One of my favorite things in the world, and it definitely has the "wow" factor with a minimum of work. Some prefer the roasts with ribs on, but I find it easier to use the boneless roasts. Buy as much as you need to feed the guests that are coming, let it air dry in the fridge for about a week. Coat with some salt and pepper (or mustard and herbs, or BBQ sauce, or whatever flavor you want), and cook it in a low oven (around 200°) until it reaches an internal temperature of 125°. Let it rest and either carve off steaks or thin slices depending on what folks want. Check out the Alton Brown method if you'd like more details, just ignore the terra cotta pot--it works perfectly fine in a normal roasting pan.

5. Entire Goat
Just kidding! I love goat but it's a little hard to find everywhere. Give it a few years and I'll have a great cabrito recipe for everyone. Until then, good luck with the Christmas planning.

05 December 2008

Book Review: Wine

Happy Repeal Day! On December 5, 1933, two thirds of the states ratified the 21st Amendment overturning Prohibition, meaning that citizens could once again legally purchase alcohol, rather than having to rely on a dangerous black market of moonshiners, rum smugglers, the mafia, and Canadians. In celebration of 75 years of freedom from the teetotalers, let's learn more about this site's favorite adult fermented beverage.

I received a copy of Wine by André Dominé, the 2008 translation of the German original Wein. (Great minimalist design on the cover--no doubt as to the book's subject.) The information ranges from general for the novice to microscopic for the enthusiast, all in one volume. The first 150 pages contain chapters about winemaking and wine history. The next 350 pages are devoted to France, Italy, and Germany, and the remaining 350 pages cover the entire rest of the winemaking world. It's definitely focused on the Old World. The chapter on "Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, England and Wales" is the same length as the one devoted to all of North America: 46 pages.

While it's arranged geographically rather than by grape, you can look up specific grapes in the index. Actually there are four separate indicies for Subject, Places, People, and Producers, which will make it easy to find what you're looking for depending on your individual method of looking at wine. In each region, specific producers are featured along with images of some of the labels.

It is a big book, weighing in at over 8 lbs. and 900 pages, all set in a tasteful Garamond. I'd hesitate to call it a coffee table book; it's a serious reference work. This means that it's chock full of wine data, beautiful photography, and informative maps. While I know the main wine regions of Europe fairly well, I need further study in the subdivisions within those regions. This book will be an excellent tool in learning more about the various wines I bring home, as well as developing a better appreciation of terroir.

I plan to keep the book in my kitchen where I can browse through it randomly--after all, it's no fun to read an encyclopedia from start to finish. I've been nibbling away at the Larousse Gastronomique for ten years and I'm still learning things. I also plan to have it on hand for dinner parties, where it will be easier to pull out and show something to a dinner guest in a way that will keep them at the table and part of the conversation rather than shuttling them off to a computer to look it up. And hopefully that person will start browsing and discover something new in the process.

If you're interested in this as a Christmas gift for the wine lover in your life, or as an addition to your own library, you can buy it from my Amazon store.

Cover image courtesy of Langenscheidt Publishing Group

03 December 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: Santa Damiana Tubulares Grande + Ports

A while back I got a mystery box of different cigars, which included ten Santa Damiana Tubulares Grande (6½"x48). Connecticut shade wrapper with the rest of the tobacco coming from the Dominican Republic.

It's a medium bodied cigar with lots of incredible aromas and flavors that are perfect for the holidays: hazelnut and almond, touch of vanilla. The tube is convenient for transporting the cigars when you're going to be away from the humidor for a while (which is why tubos are popular among golfers). With several potential cigar smokers in attendance, I brought them along for the post-Thanksgiving relaxation.

Here's a fun trick to do with a brandy snifter, though you'll want to use a good cigar and a decent Port, Sherry, or Whiskey. Slowly blow the smoke into the snifter and let it roll around on top of the drink. It will slowly waft away and change the flavor of the beverage in interesting ways. Plus, it looks cool. Paul was kind enough to pose for the photo--as always click for a larger version to see more detail.

What's in the glass? We tasted four different Ports after Thanksgiving dinner. In order from left to right, we've got Graham's Six Grapes, the aptly named Benjamin Tawny from Australia, Smith-Woodhouse Reserve, and Dow 10 Year Tawny. Three of these Ports are courtesy of Fredric; I'd suggest checking out his detailed notes from the tasting he hosted. The odd man out is the Benjamin, which has flavors of raisins, orange, apple, and spice. At $15 it's a great bargain.

Even if you're not a cigar smoker, it wouldn't hurt to keep a couple of bottles of Port on hand. They're wonderful after dinner, pair well with cheeses and desserts, and are perfect for slow contemplation in the cold winter months.

01 December 2008

Benito vs. the Eunuch: Capon

Quick Thanksgiving Recap: I assisted Paul with his big Thanksgiving, which swelled to nearly 20 people. To help feed the masses while leaving the kitchen free for casseroles and the turkey, I set up the Weber grill with lump mesquite coals on either side and an aluminum trough in the middle, which allowed me to roast a pork loin with indirect heat for a few hours. Halfway through I added a boneless leg of lamb and had both ready for carving right after the blessing was said. Both were a big hit with the various families assembled, and the smoky flavor wasn't strong enough to overpower the savory casseroles provided by the many guests and tender roast turkey Paul got from Fresh Market. For wines we had a Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs and a lot of the leftover Carmenere from the previous weekend. Several of the menfolk retired to the deck with cigars and Port afterward.

Skip ahead to Sunday...

Every year after Thanksgiving, I roast a small turkey at home and make some side dishes so I can have leftovers (the lack thereof is the only downside of attending a big holiday gathering), but something different caught my eye. A capon is a male chicken who was castrated at an early age and raised as a plump, non-aggressive, and ultimately tasty bird. I first heard about this oddity sometime in high school--it was either a footnote in a history book or a Scrabble word, I don't recall. The Elizabethan delicacy was mentioned in Shakespeare a few times*, and I remember thinking that you'd have to be pretty decadent to even think up such a dish, like Roman emperors eating pickled hummingbird tongues. Of course, now I've got four different salts and five vinegars in my kitchen. You've come a long way, baby.

After picking it up from the Schnuck's freezer section (about $15), it took a few days for Farinelli to thaw out, and I prepared him for roasting the same way you'd season a hen. (And for the gigglers in the back row, no, the testicles are not included in the giblet bag. Though I did consider serving two de-breaded McNuggets on the side to frighten my fellow diners.) Just a little salt, pepper, some lemon and onion in the cavity, fresh rosemary under the skin, and fairly high heat.

A capon tastes somewhere between a chicken and turkey but is a lot juicier due to the added fat. I think it's a great compromise between the two, especially since a small turkey has a lot of heavy bones versus the available meat. I served it simply with fresh cranberry sauce and fingerling potatoes roasted in brown butter.

For the wine I followed my own Thanksgiving advice with an Italian rosé. The 2007 Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto from Verona in North Central Italy. $20, 12.5% abv. 55% Corvina, 35% Rondinella, 10% Molinara. It's light and restrained, with just a slight nose of wild strawberries. As it warms up more structure and lemon-tinged acidity is present, so resist the temptation to overchill this bottle. It is a delicate wine that melts on your tongue and would go well with quail or game hen. And while it has the least to do with the flavor, I love this particular shade of rosé: an orange/salmon that you see more often from Spain.

With a successful Thanksgiving behind me and a refrigerator full of leftovers, I'm a happy lad. Sandwiches and enchiladas and other tasty dishes await...

*And by "a few" I mean eight times in six different plays, twice as an insult:
  • "Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and/ drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a/ capon and eat it?" ... "Item, A capon,. . 2s. 2d./ Item, Sauce,. . . 4d./ Item, Sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d." - King Henry IV, Part I Act 2, Scene 4
  • "The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit," - The Comedy of Errors Act 1, Scene 2
  • "Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb,/ idiot, patch!" The Comedy of Errors Act 3, Scene 1
  • "Stand aside, good bearer. Boyet, you can carve;/ break up this capon." - Love's Labour's Lost Act 4, Scene 1
  • "I' faith, I thank him; he hath bid me to a calf's/ head and a capon; the which if I do/ not carve most/ curiously, say my knife's naught." Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, Scene 1
  • "And then the justice,/ In fair round belly with good capon lined," As You Like It Act 2, Scene 7
  • "You are cock and capon too; and you crow,/ cock, with your comb on." Cymbeline Act 2, Scene 1