30 November 2009

Smoked Rack of Pork

I like turkey, but I've always felt Thanksgiving was a big enough feast to incorporate alternate proteins. Personally I've always wanted some seafood, but it gets difficult to do this with an oven full of casseroles and a stovetop full of gravy, mulled cider, and other odds and ends. When I was a kid our standard family gathering always included a spiral-sliced ham with a brown sugar coating. For the past couple of years, as I've been helping my friend Paul out with his big family gathering, I've been trying a few different things. Last year it was pork loin and leg of lamb. With a smaller crowd this year, I decided to stick to one meat, and found a lovely and affordable rack of pork (also known as a pork rib roast).

This is the same cut as a rack of lamb, or a beef bone-in ribeye roast, just from the pig instead. But since modern pork isn't as tender as lamb nor as laced with intramuscular fat as beef, I always brine it. Pictured at right is the five pound roast after 12 hours of brining. I don't have exact measurements, but there are thousands of brining guides out there. (If you'd like a good starting point, try something like this.)

I usually just eyeball it and focus more on flavor than precise proportions. My brine included unfiltered apple cider, water, kosher salt, mustard seeds, peppercorns, and star anise. I brought it all to a boil, let it cool, poured it over the pork, and turned it every few hours. After about twelve hours I rinsed and dried the roast and let it rest for a couple of hours before smoking.

For the fire, I placed a tray of aluminum foil under the center of the grill and banked lump charcoal on either side (started in a chimney, of course). I threw chunks of raw mesquite on top of the hot coals, covered it, and sat back for an hour and a half.

Around the time to add more coals and mesquite, Alaina graciously made me a martini with a huge garlic-stuffed olive. I had my laptop with me out on the porch, and discovered a higher plane of BBQ nirvana.

As you can see, I trussed up the roast with some cotton kitchen twine. It's not mandatory, but for this particular cut (from whatever animal), I find that the twine helps keep it in a rounder shape, keeps the center from getting overcooked, and frankly, it's just fun to tie up your dinner.

Here's the finished product, after three hours of smoking and twenty minutes of resting. I sliced off part of the end for the photo and was immediately surrounded by Thanksgiving guests lured by the aroma of pork. You can see the nice pink smoke ring around the edge, just about perfect at ¼" depth. For a sauce I had made a batch of fresh cranberry sauce, ditching part of the sugar and water and adding the juice and zest of one orange, walnuts, blackcurrant preserves, and a dash of brandy.

What's nice about this roast is that you can serve it a number of ways. You can cut off thick or thin pork chops, you can just carve thin slices of meat, or you can pull off the bones in case anyone's in the mood for very meaty ribs.

I'm not doing justice to the wide range of awesome food that was there. Paul fixed the turkey in the style of America's Test Kitchen, with plenty of lemons, rosemary, and butter. There were casseroles galore (frankly my favorite part of the holiday), and gigantic Sister Schubert's rolls. I was too busy eating at that point to snap pictures of everything. I did want to highlight two odd wines that I brought along, which were pretty well received by the crowd. I was going for bottles that were lightly sweet, barely fizzy, and very low in alcohol, i.e. perfect for people that don't drink wine on a regular basis.

The first was the Gazela Vinho Verde. Around $8, 9% abv. This "green wine" from Portugal is fun and light, but it had been sitting in the cellar since the summer and I just never got around to it. Crisp and slightly tart with a hint of sweetness, this is the closest thing to a fizzy lemonade you'll find in the wine world. Like many Portuguese wines, it's made from multiple grapes with names that are mostly unrecognizable to us: Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal. While I don't often drink this wine, I do think that it's one of the most perfect appetizer wines available, and the low price means it never hurts to keep a bottle on hand.

Second was the 1917 Stella Rosa Il Conte d'Alba from the Piedmont region of Italy. Contrary to the date, this is a non-vintage wine probably made last year. Around $10, 5.5% abv. It's a light, barely red, slightly fizzy wine that's just a bit sweet. While many people think of it as a dessert wine, I think something more robust like Brachetto d'Acqui works better there. This is more of a summer picnic wine, and I picked it out for its refreshing qualities. With such a low alcohol content, this falls into a specific EU wine category called "Partially Fermented Grape Must", which is perhaps one of the most unappealing phrases you can put on a label. This is sort of like an elegant grape soda with the strength of beer, but it's pretty tasty.

If there's one thing this wine is good for, it's helping someone make the mental leap from only drinking white wines to trying reds. Give the Stella Rosa a shot, then move up to Beaujolais, then Pinot Noir, etc. Eventually your target will be swilling pure unaged Cabernet Franc and demanding more tannins.

There were other, more distinguished wines, but more on those later...

27 November 2009

Back Monday

An excellent Thanksgiving was had by all yesterday, with tons of food, friends, and laughter. And I've got a good bit of food and wine to discuss, but that can wait. For now, listen to Turkey the Dog:

"Curl up with a blanket, watch some movies, and put a serious dent in those leftovers."

Enjoy your weekend, folks. Safe travels to those of you headed back home.

25 November 2009

2007 Tormaresca Neprica

Is there a term for those tears of wine that stream down a bottle and ruin the label for photos? Lachryma vino? I'm usually pretty careful about that but this time I was distracted by the delicious food... And I think it kind of goes well with an overall Salvador Dalí look with the sauces.

The Roommate's father has, for the many years that I've lived with her, kindly passed me various packaged meats from his hunting and fishing. This is true locavore organic eating, folks. I've received ducks and bass and various cuts of deer. On this occasion, I was delighted at what appeared to be a perfect sirloin roast. Shot on a Sunday, butchered on a Monday, and cooked on a Thursday. It doesn't get any better than that.

I decided to go for a London Broil approach, and I adapted a recipe from Fletchers of Auchtermuchty. When I want to know about good whisky or good venison, I naturally turn to the Scottish source with the most unpronounceable name. I trimmed the roast and seared it heavily on each side, threw the pan in the oven for the rest of the cooking, and let it rest before thinly slicing. For the sauce, I simmered a soup bone in beef stock for four hours, then added rhubarb for another hour, then strained it all before adding a healthy dollop of black currant preserves and a dash of red wine. A great sauce if somewhat thin. On top of the meat I added a custom mustard made from Penzey's mustard powder, red wine, and a dash of red wine vinegar. Everything was succulent, delicious, and tender, and the various juices created a sauce that went surprisingly well with the Brussels sprouts.

What was the wine used in cooking and eventually served with this noble cervid? The 2007 Tormaresca Neprica, $15, 13.5% abv. This is from Puglia, the bootheel of Italy. 40% Negroamarao, 30% Primitivo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Hence the portmanteau Neprica formed from the initial letters of the three grape varieties. (Alternate spellings just on the label are Néprica and NéPriCa.)

Slightly vegetal aroma that I wasn't expecting, with just a hint of bacon fat. A little wild and brambly, but such a composition is a great match for game. On its own the wine is a little rough and heavily tannic, but with an aromatic meat and strong sauce, the wine becomes more subdued in comparison. There is a lovely aftertaste of black cherry and plum. I'm not going to lie, you'll have to wrestle with this one a bit, it fights back. But sometimes that's precisely what is needed.

For another take on this wine, check out Fredric's review.

* * *

I hope all of you have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving this year. Eat well, drink well, and enjoy the time with friends and family. Cheers!

23 November 2009

Bloom County: The Complete Library

Most of this battered stack of paperbacks is about to become obsolete and I couldn't be happier.

Those are my old Bloom County and Outland books, collected over the years. Some at the time of publication, others purchased as used copies later on. While they were entertaining at the time and contained humorous extras like a copy of the fictional newspaper (The Bloom Picayune) and the Billy & the Boingers 45, these books were incomplete. Days and weeks were missing, entire plotlines were excised, and in the early ones, Sunday strips were printed in dull black and white. That has finally changed with the recent release of...

Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume 1. This is one of those collections I thought would never happen, as Berkeley Breathed had no desire to dig back through shoeboxes full of original drawings to piece together nine years of work. Fortunately a publisher was willing to do all the hard work on its own, even going back to old newspapers to collect missing strips where necessary.

This volume includes all of the strips from the debut in the winter of 1980 through the fall of 1982. If one only started reading the strip in the mid-80s, the early years may look unfamiliar. Milo Bloom and Steve Dallas were the only survivors from those early months, while a host of other interesting characters (The Major, Rabies the dog, Limekiller) disappeared as the artist honed his direction and allowed the characters to find their voices.

I started reading it around 1982 when I was six; it wasn't a soap opera strip like Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G, nor was it as confusingly political as Doonesbury, but it was obvious that there were multiple layers of humor involved. And it was the only non-soap opera comic strip in the paper at the time that had long-running storylines that lasted weeks or even months. Such long-form writing was common in the golden age, but has been replaced almost entirely by one-off strips that require no knowledge of what happened yesterday, much less a year or more ago.

It's printed in hardback on full 8.5"x11" sheets with excellent detail, even a classy red ribbon for marking your place. (I don't necessarily want a ribbon in all of my books, but I appreciate it in archival works.) 3 strips per B&W page and the Sunday strips fill up an entire sheet. Commentary is sprinkled throughout the margins, either giving insight on the creation of a particular storyline or explaining a controversy.

Volume 2 is available for pre-order now, should be shipped in April 2010, with five total volumes planned in the series. I don't know if there's a similar plan for Outland, but I had to include those books in my top photo for sentimental purposes.

Where am I going with all of this? Have I just gone off on one of my endless and usually pointless digressions on minutiae? Am I just trying to move a few books to make a little scratch for the holidays? Keep reading...

I've gotten a lot of e-mails from eager new winebloggers, and most of them petered out after a couple of weeks or months. I'm not at the top of this field, but I've been at it for a while and have had many successes and failures along the way. I've seen lots of examples of what works and what doesn't.

Ask most people about Bloom County, and if they're even vaguely familiar with it they'll say, "Opus the penguin!" Indeed, Opus became the star of the strip and later migrated to Outland, the Sunday-only project that ran for a few years, followed by his own eponymous strip, Opus. But Opus didn't even show up in Bloom County for six months, whereupon he was forgotten then reintroduced six months later. It was only with a a strip joking about Hare Krishnas that the character became popular, and things took off from there. To be honest, Opus is barely in this book covering the first two years, and certainly not in his fully-formed charismatic version. Still, it would have been insane not to put that big-nosed penguin on the front cover.

Likewise, if you're starting a wine blog, you might not know what works right off the bat. I started out with long, boring laundry lists of stuff I tried at tastings, no photos. It's a wonder that anyone read it, but some did. After a while I noticed that those lists of 15 brief reviews got no comments, but when I'd spend the time with a single wine, that got attention. Or when I cooked something, or tried some bizarre wine or ingredient. Telling deeply personal stories was a big step for me. And pictures obviously helped a lot, even if you can see the odd dog poking a nose or tail into the frame (in my opinion that's a feature, not a bug).

If I'd drawn up a plan in late 2004 for the blog, stuck to it and marketed it as such, it would have been a colossal failure and I'd have given up. But instead I responded to my changing tastes, listened to criticism both positive and negative, and tried to spend more time reading other, bigger wine blogs. Am I huge and successful today? No, but I'd like to think that I have a fairly decent reputation, and a solid backlog of work that is purely my own. Just my words, my photos, my opinions. I have no idea where this will go in the future, but I'm proud of what I've accomplished and the work that I've put into it.

So for you, budding wineblogger, starry-eyed with visions full of Bordeaux and Champagne showing up at your house and offers for luxurious trips to Italy... all these things can be yours, but bear in mind it might be a long time before you even discover your penguin.

20 November 2009

Rued Wines Redux

Several months ago I reviewed a trio of wines from Rued Vineyards of Healdsburg, California. Recently I got the opportunity to try two more bottles from this Sonoma-area winery.

2006 Rued Zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley, $25, 14.9% abv.
Spicy blackberry, deep and aromatic with hints of smoke and cedar. The blackberry flavor carries through, but it's really ripe and tart, with strong tannins and a long finish. Good choice if you're looking for a big California Zin; pair it with something strong like heavily seasoned pork or flank steak.

2007 Rued Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, $35, 14.3% abv.
Overripe strawberries with just a hint of banana in the background--slightly reminiscent of a Cru Beaujolais, even though we're talking about different grapes. While light and delicate in color this is a full-bodied Pinot Noir with firm tannins and an assertive finish. Lingering elements of strawberry and plum. I think it would be incredible with roast duck.

Whenever I sample wines, I try them straight without the external influences of food, toothpaste, or other potentially conflicting elements. And then I try them along with a meal, even if it's not a traditional pairing. Here the food ended up being burgers... but not just a sack of detritus from a fast food joint. I made 6 oz. patties out of high-quality beef, griddled them to medium while toasting the buttered buns, and served them with aged Vermont cheddar and fresh mesclun greens. Some homemade baked beans incorporating blackstrap molasses, Chinese five spice powder and Dijon mustard really brought out certain elements of the Zinfandel.

Neither of these wines are what I'd call a "pizza and burger" wine, but even something like the humble hamburger can be crafted with skill and care into a delicious meal, and a great wine will only amplify the experience.

In accordance with FTC regulations, I received this wine as a sample.

18 November 2009

Benito Revisits Long Island with Bouké Wines

Bouké is a winery on the north fork of Long Island. I've previously written about the White and the Red blends from Bouké, and with these two wines below I round out the current lineup from this creative winery. All of them are made by Gilles Martin under the direction of founder and proprietor Lisa Donneson.

I'm fascinated by the reviews of all of the wonderful wines made on that little strip of land floating next to the Big Apple, but so few of them make their way down South. How much Tennessee whiskey is consumed in New York? Let's work out a cultural trade here, people. After all, men from Tennessee and New York volunteered to fight at The Alamo; surely we can drink together 173 years later.

Let's start off with the 2008 Bouké Rosé. $16, 12.5% abv. It's made from a blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot--you don't often see Bourdeaux blends made into pinks but the results are great in the right hands. This luscious dry rosé has elements of red apples, raspberries, just barely tart, with an earthy undertone that emerges as the wine warms up. Aside from its use as a great lunchtime wine, this would be a great Thanksgiving selection since A) it's American, from one of the original colonies, and B) it should stand up to the wide range of dishes found on the family holiday table. Personally I'd gather my most joy from drinking it with a turkey sandwich and leftovers on Black Friday while everyone else is out shopping and fighting traffic. Which leads me to this...

I found myself really craving a muffaletta* to go along with this wine, even before I'd opened it. It would be a natural pairing, with the ham, mortadella, salami, cheese, olive salad: a good rosé goes great with Mediterranean snack ingredients. And yes, it did match quite well. It was only after I started writing this review that I realized the different colored stripes on the label look just like the layers of ham, mortadella, salami, cheese, and olive salad, just a little more evenly distributed. Look at it--both the label and my sandwich have one dark red stripe, in the latter denoting the most savory of the cured pork products. In fact, looking at it days later I'm thinking about mortadella and Genoa salami, which makes me very happy indeed. (For New Yorkers: if you can't find a decent muffaletta, perhaps a not-too-lean pastrami on rye would work well. I haven't had one, but I appreciate them in theory.)

Days after emerging from my muffaletta and rosé reverie, it was time to tackle the dessert wine. The 2008 Bouquet Dessert Wine is a new offering this year. 96% Gewürztraminer, 4% Chardonnay. $36 (375mL bottle), 17% abv. It's a fortified wine boosted with a Chardonnay-derived brandy, unoaked and made following a warm and wet season on Long Island.

This has a lovely floral aroma (honeysuckle and jasmine came to mind), with balanced flavors of honey and apricot nectar, perhaps just a hint of ginger. Definitely sweet and best for small doses, but not cloying or thick. Despite the Port-like levels of alcohol, you can't really taste it. It is surprisingly light, going down smooth and easy, and I had the opportunity to serve this to a few friends with varying levels of wine experience. One couple had never had a dessert wine before, and were pleasantly delighted at this sweet treat. "I didn't know you could have wine for dessert!" one of them said. Sometimes, I replied, wine is dessert.

It's always a good idea to keep an assortment of wines on hand for any occasion, particularly as we approach the holidays: a sparkling wine, a Port or Madeira, and a half-bottle dessert wine for capping off the perfect gathering. I'd strongly recommend the Bouquet Dessert Wine for that last category.

*I've been eating these since I was a teenager, but I'm often surprised at how people in other parts of the country haven't heard of this great sandwich. The muffaletta is a New Orleans creation based on a similar Sicilian sandwich. Typically you only eat a quarter of one (as in my picture) or a half if you're starving. It's more economical to buy a whole one, but be ready to split it with a couple of friends. It's a delicious mound of salt, fat, and love.

Required FTC Disclosure: I received these wines as a sample from Bouké.

16 November 2009

Chilean Carménère, Vol. 2

All this week, I'll be revisiting companies or wineries whose products I've tasted in the past. I happened to get three sets of new wines from three such groups, and am happy to present them to you as we begin the slide into the holiday season.

* * *

Last November I tried six Chilean Carménères. One year later, it's time for a roundup of eight additional bottles of this curious little orphaned grape.

As part of the Wines of Chile promotion for these wines, dozens of other winebloggers joined in a combination webcast, conference call, chat session, and Twitter feed. We got to hear from the individual winemakers down in Chile, a representative of Wines of Chile in New York, and share comments and questions amongst ourselves. I think the funniest part for me was hearing a bit of the joking and trash-talking about various valleys within Chile; the total area for wine production is pretty small, and is all focused on a narrow band around the middle of a very narrow country (imagine a snake wearing a cummerbund). But as with everywhere else on the planet, North and South takes on significant meaning.

I tried these wines on my own and made notes, and then a few hours later tried them with a handful of friends. Some are wine lovers, some are novices. I will say that while I love Carménère, I think it has to have some breathing room, and typically a few hours are necessary for it to smooth out. Straight out of the bottle it can be all bitter and strong tobacco. Don't get me wrong, I love bitter flavors and enjoy a good cigar. But these notes can be off-putting to some wine drinkers. With a little air you get more of the fruit, earth, and other elements.

2007 Santa Carolina Reserva Carménère
100% Carménère from the Rapel Valley
$10, 14% abv
This was the only one with a synthetic cork, and the winemaker Magdalena Sosa was a charming favorite during the videoconference. This wine had classic elements of green bell pepper, black cherry, touch of licorice. Bold and tart, short finish.

2007 Armador Odfjell Carménère
100% Carménère from the Colcahagua and Maipo Valleys
$13, 13.5% abv
Cherry, herbal, black pepper and thyme, touch of pine, lighter mouthfeel, a little brash. Short finish.

2007 Viu Manent Reserva Carménère
100% Carménère from the Colchagua Valley
$14, 14.5% abv
Green tomato leaves, touch of smoke, leather, medium tannins, long finish. A solid textbook Carménère, if you're looking to learn more about the grape.

2007 Cono Sur Visión Carménère
85% Carménère, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah
$15, 13.5% abv
Slightly bitter, bright red cherry flavor, touch of seeds. Very light mouthfeel. The first of the blends in this group, and an organic wine to boot.

2008 Viña la Rosa "La Capitana" Carménère
100% Carménère from the Cachapoal Valley
$18, 14.5% abv
Drying tannins, bit of tea, cherry. At this point in the lineup, we're getting more serious... As a side note, La Capitana means flagship in Spanish.

2007 Ventisquero Grey Carménère
85% Carménère, 7.5% Syrah, 7.5% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley
$25, 14.5% abv
Toasty, blackberries, spice, smoother, lingering finish with spice on the tongue. This one began to get really nice as it breathed over the course of five hours.

2007 Terra Andina Altos Carménère-Carignan
60% Carménère, 40% Carignan from the Central Valley
$19, 14% abv
Dark plum, rich and velvety, lovely dark flavors. Paired nicely with the mostly vegetarian appetizers we were enjoying; fascinating combination of two lesser-appreciated grapes.

2004 Carmen Wine Maker's Reserve Red
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carménère, 25% Petit Syrah from the Maipo Valley
$44, 14% abv
Rich, deep aromas, chocolate, leather, black cherry, big and tannic at first but oh so delightful as it breathed. It's a bit unfair to compare this with the rest since it's five years old and is a creative blend, but without prompting from me this bottle was the first to empty out during the tasting with my friends.

These wines were received as a sample from Wines of Chile. The tasting kit included a ceramic spittoon and a corkscrew.

13 November 2009

2008 Kung Fu Girl Riesling

This wine was a selection by the talented Angela Moon of Kirby Wines and Liquors for one of The Commercial Appeal's online tastings. You can read the transcript of that here, though I wasn't sipping the wine at the time--I just dropped in for a bit.

Three months later, I finally got around to trying the 2008 Kung Fu Girl from the Columbia Valley of Washington state. Pure Riesling, $13, 12.5% abv. Fruity but dry, with a green apple and pear aroma, green apple flavors, and a lemony finish. It is tart and acidic, but not mouth-puckering. It seems to be a popular choice for pairing with sushi, but with my own irreverence and as a nod to Hardy's upcoming challenge, I served this wine with a 3 piece and a biscuit from Popeyes and was thus inspired to compose a haiku:

Greasy fried dark meat
Fills up the autumn belly
Crisp wine invites nap

Check out the website for the full range of Charles Smith wines. They've got a great set of labels with that sort of punk poster/90s indie comic vibe to them. This one is a solid demonstration of the skilled use of negative space. The girl's clothing is only shown by the cuffs and collars, but any of us can easily "see" the rest of her robe. She has no eyes, but I can feel that glare.

11 November 2009

Pickled Okra

Recently I've been craving okra, but the season for fresh pods from the farm is over. It's time to turn to the preserved variety, and I felt like a bit of spice as well. Fortunately in the South, okra can be found in many forms, so I procured a jar of Trappey's Hot Cocktail Okra. You can eat these straight, slice them and add them to a sandwich or creamy salad of some sort, or you can take that "cocktail" modifier to heart. Oh yes. The fabled Okratini.

This is not a creation of my own, and I generally hate the -tini suffix that gets added to any beverage poured into a cocktail glass. In my opinion, this is a real, 3:1 gin:vermouth martini; the garnish is a separate issue (more on that in a bit). But the name Okratini is too euphonious to pass up. It sounds like a term from Greek philosophy... "Ωκρατίνι refers to the Aristotelian concept of preferring mild guilt over the just action, as in pretending that you've run out of checks when Girl Scouts knock on your door during cookie season. Mentioned in The Nicomachean Ethics."

Initially you don't get a lot of flavor from the okra, but the heat shows up as a slight tingle on the aftertaste. To release more of the essence, take regular bites out of the pod and give it a thorough squeeze and stir. Once that vinegar and salt brine are released it gets a little closer to a Dirty Martini, though I find that most people go a little heavy on the olive juice.

The heat from the peppers intensifies as the drink steeps and warms, and while I like the added kick, there's nothing wrong with using mild pickled okra. These are also suggested as a good garnish for a Bloody Mary; if anyone tries that out, let me know. I've had lots of different Bloody Mary variations, and have never been very enthusiastic about the cocktail. Plus in the modern age, the garnish has gotten out of hand. A mere sprig of celery is not enough; you must add shrimp and other vegetables, or bacon and pickles and citrus.

When it comes to the traditional gin and vermouth martini, two garnishes are commonly accepted: the olive(s) or twist of lemon peel. Personally I prefer the peel, but I think there's some room for improvisation without getting crazy. A blue cheese-stuffed olive is wonderful. An heirloom cherry tomato, split and skewered with a boconccino of fresh mozzarella and basil is lovely in the summer. Even a swath of orange peel speared on a sprig of rosemary can provide an added dimension to this classic cocktail. The freshness of the garnish ingredients are paramount; nobody wants those dried out olives or sad withered lemon wedges that's been fermenting in the bar tray for a few days. And keep it small and simple--serve the shrimp on the side.

09 November 2009

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History

In the fall of 1990 a 14-year old Benito read about something called The Cartoon History of the Universe in the science magazine Discover. He asked for it for Christmas, and received it. He read it over and over again.

That was the first step in a 20-year journey that ended last week.

Now, for those of you that are beginning to smirk at the idea of me reading "comic books" as a teenager and grown adult, I will kindly ask you to kiss my Scots-Irish ass. The first book in this series was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she saved it from the reject pile at Doubleday) and the work was praised by Carl Sagan among others. In a college World History course, I recognized the inferior quality of the assigned texts, and used TCHOTU I & II as my source material for exams. I was one of two people to get an A; the other being a girl that I was courting and with whom I was sharing a lot of that great cartoon history. (Young gents out there: the right kind of lady loves a literate man.)

Who is the genius behind all of this? None other than Larry Gonick, a Harvard mathematician who decided to draw cartoons about science and history. I'm going to focus entirely on his historical contributions here, but he's written similar guides to statistics, genetics, and many other topics. Pictured at right you can see my first editions as I collected them over the past two decades:

The Cartoon History of the Universe I, Vol. 1-7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

The Cartoon History of the Universe II, Vol. 8-13: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)

The Cartoon History of the Universe III, Vol. 14-19: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2006)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad (2009)

I hate that the books got smaller over time, but cost becomes an issue and these aren't exactly Spider-Man comics we're talking about. The quality and style has been consistent over the twenty years, and I've savored every minute that I've spent reading each of the five books. Things I love about these:
  • Beautiful black and white pen and brush work reminiscent of Pogo and Asterix. Examples here, here, here, here, and here. These little images don't do the work justice.
  • The books are heavily footnoted (with an amusing icon of a foot drawing an asterisk or a musical note). They also contain extensive bibliographies at the end, referencing both established works in the field as well as primary sources when applicable.
  • While it's not possible to list every historical figure and the detail of every society on earth in a space that takes up less than 20 linear centimeters on the bookshelf, Gonick does a great job of covering histories that are frequently ignored in modern western life unless you choose to specialize. Namely the histories of China, India, the Middle East, and north Africa.
  • There are big gaps. Only the briefest mentions are given to Russia, Korea, Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. South America drops off the radar around 1900. Antarctica also gets short shrift, but not much of significance has happened there. For my part, those gaps encourage me to do the research on my own.
  • Because a truly comprehensive history of the world would have required a book for every modern nation, there are points at which Gonick draws a map of the world and gives a quick synopsis as to what is happening where. It's an easy way to get the "big picture" of a specific decade.
  • If it's not already obvious, the whole endeavor was produced with a lot of love and humor. When was the last time you laughed while reading history? And for those of you who have reached the bottom of this post, desperate for food or wine content... He did a great series of cartoon recipes for Serious Eats.
Why do I bring all of this up now? These books will make great Christmas gifts for the curious youngster in your family. If you prefer a geocentric universe that began 6,000 years ago you probably won't like it, but if you want a kid to be able to intelligently argue about the ostracism of Themistocles or the politics of Byzantium at any point from sixth grade to grad school, these books are for you--or more appropriately, for that weird little relative that obsesses over dinosaurs, space, math, and eventually, wine. Though I'd prefer that you give it to the child with a few cracks in the spine and some dogeared pages. We could all use a refresher course in world history.

06 November 2009

2007 Rio Seco Malbec

I love inexpensive Malbecs for their bold flavors and easy pairing. Here I enjoyed the wine with a vegetarian pizza, but it would work well with BBQ, steak, lamb, etc.

The 2007 Rio Seco Malbec is from Mendoza, Argentina. $12, 13% abv. Black cherry, full plummy flavors with a big mouthfeel, medium tannins, long finish. This is a great table wine, and I'm glad that we're getting better and better access to inexpensive but decent selections.

In the background you can see one of my less-noted wine glasses: a polycarbonate tumbler. While I love proper crystal and try to pick the right glass to go with the right wine, for everyday bottles I'm sometimes less discriminating, especially when it comes to leftovers on the second day. This is also my travel glass: it's rigid, indestructible, perfectly clear, easy to wash in a hotel sink, and works well enough for casual tasting. You can do a swirl and sniff on this easily enough, and with its short squat shape you're not going to easily tip it over and destroy your laptop.

There's not a great solution for traveling wine lovers when it comes to glassware. Yes, you can construct a special package for your beloved Riedel glass and keep it in the luggage, but it could always disappear in the hotel room if someone mistakes it for a room service glass. Some suggestions from my personal experience, based on spending a week or more in one place and finding fun curiosities in different wine markets:
  • The $2 Wal-Mart Wine Glass: Ugly, clunky, and thick, but you can buy just one anywhere in the US and leave it behind when you depart.
  • The Room Service Deception: Late night reports have to be filed and you're stuck ordering room service? A lot of hotels use goblet-style water glasses with whatever you order. Rinse it out and stash it in one of the drawers. Before you check out, be sure to put the glass somewhere visible, and leave a tip in it.
  • The Friendly Bartender: If you're not willing to actually ask the hotel bartender if you can borrow a glass for the evening (and be sure to purchase a cocktail or something and tip handsomely first), there's the introverted option of slowly wandering off with the glass until you can duck into the elevator. Again, be sure to return it later.
  • The Scavenger: I do not recommend swiping a used wine glass off a random room service tray in the hallway and ducking back to your room like my dog Wolfgang stealing a chicken carcass from the trash can. The glass will probably have lipstick on it and if you get caught there's no respectable way to explain what you were doing.

04 November 2009

Benito vs. Peru: Tallarin Verde con Bistec y Pisco Sour

I stared at a group of random ingredients in the kitchen and thought, "I could make a Peruvian Dinner with this." It was a rare flash of inspiration, as opposed to the usual observations of "that lettuce has gone sideways", "I need to write about those sardines eventually", and "why do I own so much mustard?"

This dinner needed an authentic cocktail, and the Pisco Sour was an easy choice. While I didn't like it as much as some other egg white cocktails, it was an interesting alternative and one that I had to eventually cross off my list.

Pisco Sour
2 oz. Pisco
1 oz. fresh lime juice
¾ oz. simple syrup
1 egg white
Angostura bitters

Combine everything but the bitters in a shaker with ice cubes, and shake until the beverage starts making dull thudding noises and it's become so cold that you can't feel your hands anymore. Pour into tumblers and dash a few drops of bitters on top of the foam. It's tangy, creamy, and yes, sour.

The Don César Pisco Puro is widely available in the United States, and I grabbed a bottle months ago. As often happens, other interests and commitments got in the way, and I sort of forgot it was there. I also have a large Civil War atlas and a cheap Mexican cookbook written by a Brit, and I don't know where those came from. I think the ephemera of my life is beginning to crossbreed during the late night hours, producing new and wondrous items.

Pisco is a clear brandy distilled from grapes invented in South America over 400 years ago. Which grapes? This was probably made from Muscatel. And while my Pisco came from Peru, others are made in Chile. The two nations fight over which truly owns the name. No comment on that disagreement here, but the Don César has a sort of grainy, wheatish aroma with a background of raisins. On its own, you can feel the pisco travel down your esophagus with the curious aftertaste of, again, raisins. I guess the best way to describe it would be to imagine white rum dosed with a bit of Muscat wine.

With my pile of odd ingredients I decided to make tallarin verde con bistec. Often translated as "green spaghetti", it's usually made with flatter noodles like fettuccine. There are lots of different recetas out there, but it couldn't be simpler. Take your favorite basil pesto recipe or pre-made variety. Add in a few handfuls of baby spinach leaves (or even a full bag if you wish), half a cup of evaporated milk, blend it all together, and slowly warm it on the stove. Toss it with the cooked pasta and you're done. It's about as complicated as Hamburger Helper®. It's often served with some bit of meat, and I settled on spicy broiled cube steaks (hence con bistec). Grilled flank steak would have been better, but the New York Times informs me that cube steak is trendy again, and I didn't want to be behind the Times.

The pasta was unique; not even remotely Italian-tasting, but the ingredients are all available in Italy. It's creamy and vegetal without being gloopy or bitter. Something about the evaporated milk gives it a lovely texture without the weight of cream, and the color is an almost otherworldly green. The cube steak was simply seasoned and broiled, and while not terribly attractive in the photo, it was tasty enough and well-received by my fellow diners.

We skipped the wine on this dinner--it was more of a beer occasion. And when it comes to Peruvian food served in the United States, the most logical choice was a hoppy Czech pilsner brewed in Mexico: Bohemia. Crisp, cold, bitter, and great for washing down a load of protein and carbs.

02 November 2009

Thoughts on Australia

I got a great comment from an Australian reader on Friday's post. I'm going to excerpt some of his points and address them below, but I thought that first a quick geography lesson was in order. I feel certain that if I asked any of you to map a route from Adelaide to Darwin without going through Alice Springs you could do so as easily as you could give directions to the nearest Starbucks. But on the off chance that someone is less familiar with the land down under...

I wanted to clarify Australian population density and wine regions for the benefit of the average American. Unless you decide to study the topic yourself, or have some connection to the country, few of us understand that continent. Since there's no existing map that explains these two topics well, I built my own non-scientific, mostly factual* map from scratch. I call it "Benito's Bruised Mango Map of Australian Wine & People" (click for big glorious version). First off, the "Lower 48" (all of the US minus Alaska and Hawaii) is about the same physical size and shape as Australia, but the population is totally different:

US Lower 48 = 8 million km2
Australia = 7.6 million km2

US Population = 307 million
Australia Population = 22 million

The US population (99% in the Lower 48) is concentrated in the eastern third of the country bordered by the Mississippi River, but we have 30 million people in California and 24 million in Texas--the latter group is bigger than Australia, and that's just one state. In Australia the population is almost entirely coastal, with the vast majority in the southeast and smaller groups in the southwest. Imagine taking the population of Texas and spreading them out from North Carolina to Florida, and taking a handful to San Diego and Seattle.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at Hieronymous' discussion points:

As an Aussie wine-lover I always find it fascinating to read international reviews of our wines. For a start many of the wines that make it out of the country are barely known here - there is a distinct segment of the market who produce for the export market only, some of which have trashed the brand internationally.

We had a great set of comments on this issue back in August from American retailers and distributors. I'm curious as to what all of you are drinking down there--I see reviews occasionally in magazines, but as you say, some bottles just don't make their way onto a boat or plane. What sort of American wines show up on Australian shelves and menus?

Yellow Tail is certainly available here in Oz, but is very much a budget brand that no-one of my acquaintance would dream of drinking. Likewise, there are a lot of elegant reds now being produced, but our rep has been tainted by the disproportionate proportion of 'fruit bombs' heading overseas.

Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, and others are hugely popular here, and I think the sales help keep wine shops running on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of arguments in wine circles over these type of bottles. I don't really drink them anymore, but I did when I was freshly legal to purchase wine. I think that they're decent introductory material for novice wine drinkers. As I've said many times, a label full of confusing French or German can be scary to the neophyte; a cute animal is reassuring.

I was delighted with the wines I tried last week because I felt many of them broke the mold of the "standard Aussie wine" that shows up on American shelves. I hope they are successful and that as Americans, we don't develop a one-dimensional attitude towards an entire nation's industry.

That little rant over I'm glad to see some of the more diverse wine growing areas of the country getting some exposure. WA is certainly an up and coming area, and I would direct your readers to wines from Mornington and Yarra Valley in Victoria, and some of the Tassie wines. Orange is another region worth keeping an eye on.

I'm sad to say that I've only seen and tasted one Tasmanian wine in my life, but I loved it. Victorian wines are a bit easier to find around these parts. Western Australia wines are becoming more common, and I'll almost always grab one if I find it. But of course the vast majority of Oz juice is from the powerhouses of South Australia.

* * *

I think it's always helpful to examine your own prejudices and preconceptions. I know my own selection of wines reviewed here is skewed in several weird ways. I tend to ignore Germany unfairly due to the dominance of Riesling. Italy's vast and varied grapes fascinate me. Looking back over my notes I have a strong preference towards California red blends that I could not have recognized without analyzing the data. Not everybody has the time or inclination for such reflection, but if you've found yourself in a rut with Australian wines or any other category, step back and look for the under-appreciated wines and regions within that country.

*I started with a vector map of the continent to establish the basic design. For the wine and populations, I overlaid maps of major wine regions and population and painted over the main points to achieve the Mango Map. While it doesn't do proper service to the island of Tasmania, I think it does a decent job of showing population and wine densities in the southwest and southeast, the sources of most Aussie wine and people.