30 April 2010

Tangley Oaks

The wines of Tangley Oaks are part of the Terlato Wine Group, with grapes sourced from Santa Barbara and Napa. They're doing a special promotion for Arbor Day: they'll plant a tree for every bottle of Tangley Oaks wine sold on April 30, 2010. Arbor Day is one of those holidays that doesn't get much respect. Not only is it associated with one of the weakest Charlie Brown cartoons, but the activity requires some forethought. Don't plant the tree too close to the house, under power lines, or on top of buried wiring. Try to pick the right tree for your region, and if you don't want a yard full of squirrels and pecans in 20 years, don't plant a pecan tree. For more tips, check out the advice from the Arbor Day Foundation.

2007 Tangley Oaks Chardonnay
Central Coast
Lot 4
$15, 14.2% abv
Pear and peaches, definitely fruity with a big ripe pear flavor. As it warms honey and floral elements develop. Light acidity, only a third of the wine was aged on oak. I tried this wine with the spinach and ricotta ravioli that I made recently, and it was a great fit.

2006 Tangley Oaks Merlot
Napa Valley
Lot 8
$15, 14.2% abv
Tart cherry aromas and flavors. Blackberry and bramble elements. Not full fruit: these elements are restrained and not overbearing. I'd suggest pairing this with something like slow roasted pork chops that involve a dried cherry or plum sauce.

Do you live in an apartment or otherwise don't have access to land for planting trees? Take a walk in a nearby park and enjoy yourself. The weather's great, and trees provide shade and keep the landscape interesting.

Note: These wines were received as a sample from Tangley Oaks.

28 April 2010

Survival Dining in Style

Folks, I've got to tell you that I am a late convert to the glorious deliciousness of sardines. Granted, there are good ones and bad ones out there, but, in a pinch they deliver a deeper and healthier seafood experience than canned tuna. (Alton Brown has popularized the little fish during his recent diet success.) Since they are packaged in convenient tins, they make great emergency rations, but it helps to know how to prepare them ahead of time.

Recently I took a tin of the Brunswick Sardines in Tomato & Basil and posited a little challenge for myself: delicious dinner in 5 minutes that doesn't rely on any modern technology. I mentioned "survival" at the top, because this only involves heating water. I'm fine with disappearing for weeks in the woods and eating bugs (seriously, termites taste like carrots, ants taste like lemon drops), but there are lots of situations where very simple methods can produce a delicious meal, like this. And it really was delicious. I've been to Italy, dined on the coasts, and while I've had much better seafood/pasta dishes, I've also had worse. The curse and blessing of dining in a small fishing town is the daily catch. If the fishermen had a bad day, you're going to be eating some nasty seafood.

If you can heat up water, either on a BBQ grill or over a candle, you can cook angel hair pasta. Why? Because it's very thin and only takes a minute or so to cook. Heat water up to boiling, dump in the angel hair, stir a little, and you're done. Much faster, easier, and efficient than beans, rice, or thicker pasta. Drain out the water using your fork as a strainer, then dump in the tin of sardines in tomato basil sauce. Stir lightly until warmed through, and you're done. The result is an improvised pasta con sarde that's salty, savory, pleasantly fishy, and the quickly cooked and sauced pasta is leaps and bounds above your Chef Boyardee canned varieties.

The wine is the 2007 Mandrarossa Fiano, a full-bodied white wine from Sicily. $12, 13% abv. Pure Fiano grape. It's got a lush and thick profile with lots of fruit. Which fruits? It's not a complex wine, but I got some overripe apple and peach, and there was also a magnolia blossom element to the wine as well. It's a good strong Italian white, if you're in the mood for that style. I served it in a Ball Mason jar just to continue the emergency rations theme. (If you don't have an ice chest for some of your perishables, you can chill your wine by wrapping it in a wet towel or wet newspapers and allow evaporative cooling to do its magic.)

Reviewing some other sardine cans: The Beach Cliff Fish Steaks with Louisana Hot Sauce were disappointing. Cross-sections of herring slathered in hot sauce. There's too much of the hot sauce and it's not a great compliment to the fish. I enjoy a dash of hot sauce with canned fish, but I prefer to use the right sauce for the right occasion and moderate its use. Plus, hot sauce fresh out of the bottle has a bright and refreshing acidity to it. After it's been sitting in a tin with fish for months or years it becomes flabby and uninteresting. I ended up adding Dijon mustard to this, but it didn't help much. Definitely have to eat these with crackers.

I mentioned the Beach Cliff Sardines in Mustard Sauce in a prior post, but after trying some different varieties they're still my favorite. Something about that cheap yellow mustard just goes so well with the fillets. It's probably the most balanced of the three, and stands well on its own. With crackers or toasted points of rye, the sardines are even better, but you can eat these straight from the tin if the situation requires it.

26 April 2010

Dinner With A.

From time to time it's nice to dine with a friend, though not everyone wishes to become world famous on a wine blog. Thus I respect the privacy concerns of my associates, and present this dinner with the lovely Miss A.

The first course was seared mahi-mahi topped with a fire-roasted orange bell pepper sauce and steamed broccolini. Between this particular cut of fish and the cooking method, I ended up with something as rich and succulent as a lobster tail. A. was quite fond of the pepper sauce, which was a nice balance of smoky, bitter, and sweet.

There was also a salad course after this--simple mesclun greens with shaved Asiago and thinly sliced croutons from a baguette. Both first courses were served with the 2008 Höpler Grüner Veltliner from Burgenland in eastern Austria. $15, 11.5% abv. Clean and crisp at first, but smooth and rich on the finish. Light and refreshing with a very mild citrus flavor. Touches of lime peel and jasmine linger on the nose. I absolutely love this wine and I think it's a great one to keep on hand for all sorts of occasions. Despite coming from a landlocked country, it is superb with seafood.

The main course was mostly prepared ahead of time... I braised short ribs in beer, shallots, garlic, and tomato sauce for about six hours. On the next day, I shredded the meat and stuffed it in homemade ravioli. I used a bit of the braising liquid as a sauce, and also used a sour cream-horseradish sauce just to punch things up. Here I was somewhat mimicking Michael Symon's beef cheek pierogies at Lola in Cleveland. (Actually, now that I have a nearby source of beef cheeks, I might have to really make this recipe.)

This dish didn't come off quite as I expected, but it was still very good and full of savory flavors. My pasta dough was a little sticky this time around, but the ravioli still boiled up properly.

For the main course I poured the 2006 Signaterra Three Blocks from Sonoma. $49, 14.5% abv. 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and 36% Merlot, roughly 4400 cases made. The three lines on the label signify the forces of Earth, Nature, and Man (the name Signaterra means "earth sign"). Most of the grapes are grown using biodynamic practices. I visited Benziger last spring in Sonoma, and while I didn't taste the Signaterra then, I was very impressed with the property tucked back in the hills and valleys of Sonoma.

The initial profile is of black cherrry, earthy, plum. After some breathing, swirling, and sniffing, you get more classic Bordeaux-style aromas like tobacco and cocoa. With the braised short ribs, it worked quite well, but I can see it pairing successfully with practically any red meat. I'd strongly recommend this one in a restaurant, as it opens and develops nicely over the stretch of three hours.

Finally, I have to thank A. for bringing an amazing dessert--cheesecake made in-house from Mosa in east Memphis. We divvied up a pair of slices, one plain, one strawberry. Both were great, but what really set them apart from the herd of factory stamped cheesecake is that they were slightly runny, like brie on a hot summer day, with a similar texture and luscious creaminess to boot. I may have enjoyed mine with a snifter of well-aged Scotch, I'm afraid my notes are incomplete at that point.

Note: The Signaterra was received as a sample from Benziger.

23 April 2010

ANZAC Biscuits

I keep an eye on holidays that aren't part of the usual US calendar. I noticed that ANZAC Day was approaching on April 25, a holiday that I knew mostly because of the little cookies (more properly, biscuits) that show up in grocery stores each April. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the day began as a memorial for soldiers who served in WWI, though today it covers a general remembrance for veterans from the two countries. It's a very important and solemn day, marked by traditional Dawn Services.

I was thinking about the holiday, my relatives who served alongside troops from AU/NZ in the world wars, and the myriad connections that America continues to hold with members of the Commonwealth. I also thought about the incredible wines that I've tried from Down Under, and how lucky I am to be able to enjoy them in peacetime, with clear shipping lanes between our continents.

And lastly, I thought about the biscuits.

The store-bought ones are tasty, but homemade is always best. I Googled around for some authentic recipes for ANZAC biscuits and began to get concerned. After all, if someone wanted a great BBQ sauce recipe, the internet might direct them to some perverted source in Texas or Kansas, surely a travesty against all that is good and holy in this world.

So I e-mailed Jane Cleary, my contact in Western Australia who has sent me many interesting wine samples through The Country Vintner. I asked her advice, and within an hour she called up her 93-year old grandmother and retrieved the family recipe. With her permission and my deep gratitude, I reprint it here, only slightly modified for American cooking units and spelling:

Nanna's ANZAC Bikkie Recipe

1 cup rolled oats
1 cup plain flour
⅔ cups sugar
¾ cup dried coconut flakes
2 tablespoons golden syrup*
1 stick butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons hot water

"Preheat oven to 320°F. Mix the oats, flour, sugar and coconut in a bowl. Place the golden syrup and butter in a saucepan over low heat and melt. Mix the baking soda with the water and add to the butter mixture. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well. Sample some of the mixture (go on--it is so hard to resist!) Place tablespoons of the mixture, leaving space between each one for spreading, onto baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper and flatten to about 3 inches in diameter. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until a deep brown. Cool on trays for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool."

Now, as longtime readers know, I don't have a sweet tooth, and I almost never write about desserts here. But it doesn't mean that I don't know how to make them. I'm actually pretty good at making cookies, and used my air-flow baking sheets lined with parchment paper. It's just that I don't often find myself in need of several dozen bourbon-pecan-chocolate cookies.

Let's get back to the ANZAC biscuits... Utterly delicious. Great balance of the butter, coconut, sugars, and oats. Next time I might even add a few crystals of sea salt on top just to play against that caramelized sugar flavor. A lot of cookie recipes require a dollop on the cookie sheet that will flatten over time, but these do need to be pressed into roughly the size and shape of the finished product, with just a little room left for expansion. These are fun to make, particularly with the heating of the butter and syrup, which negates the need for mixers. In fact, the brilliance of this recipe is that it relies almost entirely on dried ingredients that ship well--butter is the only perishable, and there's no chocolate that might melt. Butter/margarine/shortening/lard can last for a good while at room temperature and could probably be scrounged up somewhere, while traditional cookie ingredients like eggs or milk require fresher sources.

It's also worth noting that once baked, these cookies could survive a long, unrefrigerated sea voyage from the ports of Sydney and Auckland to the fields of Verdun and Gallipoli, a welcome treat for brave lads thrown into a war far from home.

*Note: Lyle's Golden Syrup is like a very light molasses (more properly a treacle) without any bitterness and with a luscious butterscotch flavor. You can substitute corn syrup or honey if absolutely necessary, but it won't have the purely authentic flavor... er, flavour. Lyle's invented the process and is the most popular producer. Founded in 1883, it has held a Royal Warrant to supply the British royal family since 1911. This stuff is tasty. I want to pour it on cornbread and distill rum from it.

The can and lid are the same style as wood varnish, and the logo is perhaps one of the ugliest in the world, depicting a lion corpse surrounded by bees. It's a Biblical reference, check out the link for more details. Also, I've heard this is really difficult to find in many parts of the US, so you can order it online if you like.

21 April 2010

Breakfast With My Brother

My brother John works night shifts, and last year I decided to surprise him with an invite for a little wine dinner at 4 a.m. I hadn't had the opportunity to hang out with him for a few months, and decided to replicate the experience.

This time the wine isn't quite as fancy, but it turned out to be a great one. I've got a soft spot for Paso Robles red blends, and this one did not disappoint. The 2005 Bishop's Peak Rock Solid Red was a steal on clearance at $10 (down from $15). 14% abv. 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Syrah, 23% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petite Sirah. You never know with those bottles that end up on the sale rack, but this one aged well and had the structure to last until 2010. Soft and low tannins, full fruit flavors of black cherry, plums, and stewed fruit. I'm not going to recommend it for a typical breakfast, but with the more dinner-oriented meal we had it was a great match.

Needless to say, the meal was somewhat above the freeze-dried mystery rations we had to eat during a mountain backpacking trip in New Mexico. As I was on the tail end of housesitting for Paul and with the commandment to clean out the cupboard and larder, I defrosted a 2 lb. ribeye. I thoroughly covered it with Penzey's Northwoods seasoning and slow roasted it for a few hours until medium rare, and sliced it down the middle for two thick portions. For sides, I fried up sliced fingerling potatoes in a cast iron skillet and braised some baby bok choy with soy sauce. To top the beef, homemade red onion marmalade and a fresh sour cream-horseradish sauce.

Despite all of that description, you can't really see any of the food in this picture. But you can see a hungry and happy brother that had spent eight hours toiling in the dark. He put up with my early days of cooking when the results were often unpredictable and occasionally inedible, so the least I can do is put a good meal in the boy once in a while.

19 April 2010

Benito vs. Fresh Pasta

The year is 1990. A young Benito is playing around with cooking by checking out various cookbooks from the library. Which basically meant three weeks of Italian, three weeks of German, etc. The English-Scottish phase was not a high point. I really enjoyed the French cookbook--not one of the classics, but rather a "French Made Easy" book that was informative and fun. I learned how to make great soups and sauces on my own, and the chapters featured things like first aid tips on how to fix a curdled Hollandaise sauce at the last minute.

It was in the French cookbook that I encountered a recipe and detailed instructions for making fresh pasta. Simple flat noodles, like fettuccine. I didn't have a pasta machine, so I had to roll everything out by hand... thin out the dough, fold it over, and cut off the noodles. Then hang them all over the kitchen to let them dry.

The end result was doughy, and several of the noodles simply disintegrated in the boiling water. I decided the whole thing wasn't worth the trouble, and didn't make fresh pasta for 20 years.

Recently, I found a good deal on a simple hand-cranked pasta machine, and decided to give it another shot. After all, I've learned a lot in the past two decades, and I've got an audience for this kind of stuff now. I made a batch of dough--2 cups flour, 2 eggs, a dash of oil, let it rest, and then ran a test ball through the machine, slowly cranking it down from the widest setting to the thinnest, folding it over, able to see my fingers through the finished product, the whole magilla.

The result is shown in this first photo: thin, delicate, flexible but not sticky, and just about perfect. My rolling technique improved over the course of the rest of the batch.

The easiest thing to do for a first test would be lasagna, probably followed by fettuccine (there's an attachment for that on the machine). But I thought it would be more fun to make ravioli. In my opinion, that's the best reason to make your own pasta. You can do triangles, half moons, squares, big ones, little ones, whatever you want. And the fillings! If I wanted to do braised duck and goat cheese with a dollop of pepper jelly, by God I could do it.

I restrained myself a bit and chose to do a simple ricotta/spinach/garlic filling.

While rolling the pasta is time consuming and laborious, making the ravioli is pretty easy. Just don't use too much filling, and give yourself some room. Squeeze out as much air as possible, and try to keep them roughly the same size. I made some half moons here with scraps that didn't match up to another sheet of pasta. No real preference either way, it's more of an aesthetic choice. I set them on a sheet of parchment paper and let them rest while making the sauce.

Since this post is getting long, I'll write about the wines separately on another day. For the sauce, I roasted some golden beets and combined them with chicken stock and cream. A little salt, a little seasoning, blended with the immersion blender... Very tasty sauce. I gently boiled the ravioli in a deep skillet so I could keep an eye on them. You don't want a raging boil--they might rip apart. But they still need to cook. I gently lifted them out, drained them, sauced them, and added a little grated hard cheese.

Amazing flavor. The texture of the pasta was light and delicate but mostly it was just a lot of fun. Aside from a rough estimate on the pasta dough, this whole thing was just improvised using ingredients and methods that seemed like good ideas. I don't know how often I'm going to do this, but I do know that I want to experiment, like using spinach juice to make green and white striped pasta, or beet juice for striking red pasta. And one of these days I will get around to that sinful duck ravioli.

16 April 2010

Benito vs. the Durian

It's on the Omnivore's 100*. It's banned from airplanes, hotels, and public transit in Southeast Asia. It's about the only thing that Andrew Zimmern won't eat.

It was time for me to tackle the Durian.

The local international grocery store, my source for odd ingredients, provides durian in two forms. You can buy the entire fruit which is a bit bigger than a football, or you can purchase the pods as seen here. In both cases, the durian is kept completely frozen to avoid stinking up the entire building. This box contains three layers of shielding: the outer shrinkwrap, an airtight plastic box, and the individual pods are wrapped in plastic.

When I got home I placed the box in a Ziploc bag, placed that bag in a Tupperware container, and then tied all that up inside a garbage bag, which was placed in the refrigerator for overnight thawing. Why all the precaution? I didn't want to contaminate the fridge or damage every edible thing within it. I'd never tasted or smelled durian before, but I had enough forewarning that I didn't want to take any chances.

The next morning I started out my day with two glasses of water on an empty stomach. I took everything outside and began to unwrap the whole mass. By the time I got to the Ziploc bag I could already smell something rank. Not good.

I sliced open one of the pods, as seen in this photo. It smelled horrible, like rotten onions and garlic, combined with a really stinky cheese, a sulfuric chemical, and all that is evil and wrong in the world. If you've ever encountered a refrigerator that's been unplugged for a couple of weeks, allowing the contents to stew and ferment, you've got a good idea what durian smells like.

I ate a couple of spoonfuls--surprisingly, it tastes quite nice, very creamy and a little sweet, like a papaya custard. I was pretty proud of myself, and then I exhaled... and encountered the full power of that horrible aroma. A gasp, then I exhaled again, and there it was again. And not to get graphic, but I had been warned that durian burps were considered unpleasant and horrifying even by fans of the fruit, and I got to have yet another new and wondrous experience.

I closed everything back up, tied up the box in two layers of garbage bags, and threw it out at the edge of the street. (And yes, you can still smell it through all of those layers.) A few hours after the tasting, I managed to get down a little lunch without incident, and the aroma eventually disappeared. A long hot shower was necessary. I didn't stand under the water weeping uncontrollably, but only because I was afraid my tears would smell like durian.

Several people have suggested that it's best in a smoothie. There's a difference between enjoying a powerful ingredient on its own as opposed to how it performs in a recipe. Try eating a tablespoon of cinnamon some time. (Actually, don't do it.) I might try a durian milkshake in the future, but it's going to be a while before I can even think about smelling durian again.

*Last year I wrote about this list. By knocking out bagna cauda, carp, head cheese, and durian, I'm down to 17 items I haven't tried.

14 April 2010

Pinky Vodka Redux

About a year ago, I reviewed a new spirit by the name of Pinky Vodka. It's a Swedish vodka flavored with rose petals and wild strawberries among other botanicals. It has a charming and delicate aroma and flavor, unlike the one-note obnoxiousness of many flavored vodkas. Here's a few cocktails I played around with this time, looking again for combinations that would not mask the subtle and delicate flavors involved, but rather build upon them.

The Pinky Cloud Cocktail
Based on the Silver Fizz.

2 oz. Pinky Vodka
½ oz. Sugar
½ oz. Lemon Juice
1 Egg White
Dash of Fee Bros. Cherry Bitters

Combine all ingredients in shaker with ice, shake thoroughly until it sounds more like a solid mass, then strain into glass. Top with sparkling water if desired. It's a creamy and refreshing summer beverage, though one that's difficult to make in large quantities. It helps to get your dinner guests to do the shaking for you--sometimes it's fun to pass the shaker around the table to get it really frothy.

The Pinky Champagne Cocktail
No clever name here, and this recipe riffs off the Bellini and French 75 cocktails. Makes two.

2 oz. Pinky Vodka
1 Very Ripe Peach
1 oz. Triple Sec
Sparkling Wine or Champagne, a good use for leftovers.

Use a muddler to mash up half a very ripe peach in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the vodka and triple sec. Combine with ice and shake thoroughly, and divide the mixture in two Champagne flutes. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a slice of peach. Note: If you want sweeter cocktails, use a sweeter sparkling wine like Moscato d'Asti. Also, a warning with this one... Champagne cocktails tend to have a way of sneaking up on people, so use caution. The sweet and bubbly nature trick you into forgetting the shots of liquor involved. The original French 75 has felled many a strong man.

Pinky Cosmopolitan
One simple area where Pinky Vodka really shines is with a simple Cosmopolitan.

1 oz. Pinky Vodka
1 oz. Unsweetened Cranberry Juice
1/2 oz. Triple Sec
1/4 oz. Lime Juice

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake or stir, and strain into martini glasses. Garnish with a strip of citrus peel or even a slice of clementine floating on top. Very refreshing and tasty as the weather is warming up.

Of the recipes that I've posted, this one is the easiest to adapt to serving a larger crowd, and you can make a pitcher ahead of time without losing any freshness. This one also works well on the rocks if you want to sit and linger with it or if it's really hot outside.

Of course, the best use of Pinky Vodka is impressing female friends, who are inexplicably drawn to pose for paparazzi-style photos while holding the stylish bottle. Many thanks to dear A. here who tested the Pinky Cosmopolitan and found it much to her liking.

While some of the marketing and publicity around Pinky might be very feminine, there's nothing to be scared of here, guys. This isn't sweet, it's not a gimmick, and you can do some cool stuff with it. Like I said last time, I think this is a vodka for gin lovers because of the floral elements. If you're a fan of things like Hendrick's, consider adding this to your home bar.

Note: This bottle was received as a sample from Pinky Vodka.

12 April 2010

NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut

The wines of Austria are getting a lot more attention these days, but the grapes and producers still don't quite roll off the American tongue. I've had several Grüner Veltliners in the past but I've never had one of the sparkling variety. This little beauty is the NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut, $20, 12.5% abv. It's from Burgenland, the easternmost state of Austria, and a patch of land that has passed back and forth between Austria and Hungary over the centuries. In fact, the family name Szigeti is of Hungarian origin though the winery is fully within modern day Austria.

The website calls this wine a Typisch* Österreichischer Sekt, or a "typical Austrian dry". The translation doesn't do it justice. This is in fact a light, dry, casual sparkler, but it has an enchanting aroma of lemon and toast on the nose, with a crisp lemony mouthfeel. Big bubbles, firm acidity, and a sharp, short finish. I'd compare it favorably to Prosecco, a tasty food-friendly bubbly that you can open in the middle of the week.

I served it with a vaguely Austrian dinner: lightly floured and fried veal cutlets (pounded thin, of course) topped with a mushroom cream sauce, braised apples/onions/red cabbage, and a refreshing salad featuring roasted golden beets. I dined al fresco on the back porch, with Wolfgang's bushy tail making yet another cameo appearance on this blog.

A lot of different wines could have been paired with this dinner, but I loved the way it turned out. The acidity cut through the savory/creamy main dish while making the cabbage side even better. And I've found sparklers to be consistently great dance partners for fresh salads.

I'll avoid the usual small type for a bigger thanks here: this wine was received as a sample from wine publicist and fellow blogger Constance, who is also responsible for the ribbons on the bottle and the collateral material that came with the wine, including a little packet of morning glory seeds that I think I'll plant near the backyard fence.

*Typisch is one of my favorite German words, because you almost never get to use the letter Y in German, even though they have all those vöwëls wïth ümläüts and the ß (eszett). Germans also don't make much use of Q, X, or even C except when combined with an H (much like the English Q is almost never seen without a U outside of Scrabble tournaments). Also, since I brought up Hungarian, they get to use neat vowels with double accents like Ő and Ű.

09 April 2010

Grey's Peak Wines

Grey's Peak is a winery based in the Waipara region of New Zealand. This is on the northeast coast of the South Island, located just an hour north of the island's largest city, Christchurch. The vineyards sit in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps, a picturesque mountain range that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Here are the three wines in the Grey's Peak lineup. I tried these with some friends in a casual afternoon tasting, but I found myself thinking about seafood the entire time, which explains my pairing suggestions:

2009 Grey's Peak Sauvignon Blanc
$18, 12.5% abv
This is a classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with elements of grapefruit and lime curd, with the latter notes providing a slight creaminess to offset the tart acidity. I would love to pair this with a lunch of grilled shrimp and steamed fresh vegetables.

2009 Grey's Peak Riesling
$18, 11.5% abv
Riesling is not the first grape I associate with New Zealand, but this one turned out to be the favorite of the three by everyone present. It's a lightly sweet wine full of ripe peach and pear flavors. Not cloying or tinny like the canned varieties, but the real thing straight from farmers' markets and just about to go soft. Perhaps great with butter-fried trout flecked with a little lemon pepper, like you make on a fishing trip.

2008 Grey's Peak Pinot Noir
$25, 13.5% abv
The other famous grape of New Zealand is Pinot Noir, and this is an approachable and delicious introduction to the region. It has a nose of ripe wild strawberries and an undercurrent of toast. On the palate it's tart with matching ripe strawberry flavor. Best with baked salmon and roasted potatoes and parsnips.

Note: This wine was received as a sample from The Country Vintner.

07 April 2010

Shun Santoku

The Bride: Then give me one of these.

Hattori Hanzo: They're not for sale.

The Bride: I didn't say "sell me" I said give me.

Hattori Hanzo: [laughs] Why should I help you?

The Bride: Because my vermin is a former student of yours. And considering the student, I'd say you have a rather *large* obligation.

[long pause. Hanzo walks to the window and writes Bill's name]

Hattori Hanzo: [in Japanese] You can sleep here. It will take me a month to make the sword. I suggest you spend it practicing. --Kill Bill: Vol. 1

My parents, despite my childhood history of self-inflicted head injuries and knife wounds, presented me with a nice knife about a month ago: the 5½" Shun Santoku. So a kitchen knife isn't exactly Hanzo steel, but something about a really well-crafted blade gets the testosterone flowing and weird ideas pop up in your head. Should I wear it in a sheath on my belt like a samurai? Or maybe I can rig up one of those between-the-shoulder-blades holders for the ultimate in stealth.

Let's break away from myth for a while. The santoku style knife has become popular in the United States in the past few years through the prominent use by various celebrity chefs on TV. This is my third such knife, and the first to have an eastern style handle on it. I use mine mostly for chopping non-root vegetables, and the wide blade helps transfer ingredients to the cooking pot or skillet. The grantons carved into the side of the blade help keep the slices from sticking, and overall the style is well suited for someone with smaller hands or arthritis and who might have trouble with a cleaver or chef's knife. I love it for prepping many vegetables and herbs, but when it comes to root vegetables, meat, or other tougher ingredients, I'll set aside the santoku for a sturdy German chef's knife.

In this photo you can see evidence of the Damascus steel process, in which metal is folded and pounded over and over again, then ground down to produce the blade. The effect is a woodgrain pattern. With the high quality of modern metallurgy, this is mostly done today for aesthetic effect. But I've always found it beautiful. Each knife ends up with a unique fingerprint, a set of swirls and loops that eventually identify it as your knife, not just another nameless tool in the wood block.

05 April 2010

Pyrat XO Reserve

When Paul left town for Mexico and I began a month-long housesitting stay, he gave me a bottle of Pyrat Rum as a gift. Blended and aged on the small island of Anguilla, the component rums come from throughout the Caribbean and spend up to 15 years on French and American oak. This is the product that used to be called Pyrat XO Reserve Planters Rum before the acquisition by Patrón (of tequila fame). Those interested in the differences can read more here. While the bottles are no longer hand blown, they are hand numbered and adorned with decorations. The metal tag around the neck depicts Hotei 布袋, the Buddhist god of contentment and happiness, today associated with bartenders.

This definitely falls under the category of a stinky rum meant for slow sipping, though I don't mean that in a bad way. There's a sort of funky blue cheese/orange peel/earthy aroma that some might find problematic. But if you love the manifold barnyard fragrances that come with good Scotch, then you can appreciate a rum like this. Truly, in the glass it acts much like a Scotch, with a texturally thin, powerful alcohol presence combined with a strong nose and flavor. On the palate, this one has a slightly sweet orange profile with luscious undertones of vanilla and oak. Makes me think of Christmas, and how some cloves and cinnamon would round things out nicely.

Despite the shape and size, this is a full 750 mL bottle modeled after old rum bottles from two hundred years ago. And let's be honest: a badonkadonk bottle like this isn't going to tip over during a storm. One of those tall, skinny, anorexic bottles will fall over if somebody sneezes, but if this one goes on its side, it means that the ship has flipped over and is headed for Davy Jones' locker.

01 April 2010

Otinebian Wines

As longtime readers know, I'm always excited to try wines from areas outside of the mainstream. So far I've swirled and sipped wines from 24 countries and 16 American states, but there are still plenty of areas left to explore. For instance, I'm dying to try a Swiss wine, since I've had wine from all the countries bordering Switzerland as well as Arkansan wines made by the descendants of Swiss immigrants. But for today, I'm going to talk about a batch of samples I received recently from this little-known peninsula.

Phrygidaer and Oiurpul traders introduced grapes to the region around the 4th century B.C., and while wine has been continuously made there for the purposes of religion and general consumption, exports have never been popular. In the modern era, part of that is due to post-war and post-revolution chaos, but a lot of it has to do with the surrounding countries who harbor a lot of ethnic animus towards the Otinebians and have historically embargoed the area. This is the reason why the local equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce has decided to target markets that are largely unfamiliar with this prejudice, and the advent of reliable air freight has made exports easier than the traditional land and sea routes.

There are four wine regions in this small area (click the map to see more detail), and I got to try wines from three of them. The fourth, Taeni Isle, produces a very small amount of wine and it's even difficult to get on the mainland. Here are my notes on three illustrative samples:

2008 Rakleto Rosk
$20, 14.5% abv. Made from 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Rakesh. North Lorgna region. Much like the Super Tuscans of Italy, this is an attempt to make a fruity, food-friendly wine combining French and native grapes. With a bold cherry profile, this will probably be the most accessible of the three for American palates. In fact, it's even aged on previously used American oak, making me wonder why I wouldn't just drink a California Cab instead.

It's made in the international style and has modern, simple labeling, though still featuring the 17-point star of the Retrac royal family that has governed the capital city off and on for six centuries. I wish this one had a bigger percentage of the Rakesh grape, as I've been told it has pronounced prune and stewed leather characteristics, but I'm afraid here it is just overwhelmed by generic Cab Sav.

2007 Yekralam White
$10, 11% abv. 100% Forqit Blanc. With fun, trendy labeling, and a low price, this is marketed towards the casual, everyday wine drinker. Light and crisp with an overall grapefruit aroma and flavor, it's hard to believe that this isn't a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But it's really from the Eastern Spur of the peninsula.

After it warms up you're treated to some of the more herbal elements that define this wine as a separate product--I've never encountered tarragon and chives in a wine. Sounds odd but I found the scent alluring and fascinating. The herbal/citrus combination works well with some of the steamed shellfish dishes of the coast, with the catch brought in daily and cooked tableside in small pushcarts that resemble hot dog carts. Like all Otinebian wines this will be difficult to find in your stores but it is well worth the search. Highly recommended.

NV Weazeres Vramat, Sredna col Darza Weaz Otineb
$45, 12.5% abv. Proprietary blend of white and red grapes. Made in the Central Highlands region, this sparkling wine is the famous "Brown Diamond" of Otineb. The grapes are slightly charred over a fire before being crushed and processed, leading to a characteristic smoky, bitter flavor. This is accomplished through the use of traditional charcoal pits and a series of metal screens to hold in the grapes. (See also my review of lapsang souchong, a Chinese tea that is smoked over burning pine wood.)

I found it somewhat... unusual, and I think the color might be offputting for romantic situations. But I am still glad that I tried it, and even now the lingering aroma in the empty bottle reminds me of that girl I dated back around 2002 that constantly smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. Wine and memory, a magic combination.

Remember folks, wine is an adventure, and there's more out there than just California, Australia, France, Germany, and Italy. Don't forget the dozens of other countries that have been making wine for centuries, or that have just started recently. You never know, you might be in for a real treat.

In accordance with FTC regulations, these wines were received as samples from the PR firm of Tryarstuv & Paius.