31 January 2011

Breakfast for Dinner

For longtime friends and dinner companions, I'm happy to take requests or menu ideas. Sometimes it's to fix a favorite dish, or sometimes it's because I need some external inspiration to break out of a rut. A while back Lady A had requested breakfast for dinner, and I finally got the chance to put it in action.

The concept isn't that unusual, and I make omelets for dinner all the time. And brunch is an elaborate affair with tons of different dishes. But putting together a few courses is a little tougher. You can't go too heavy on various breads, and you can't just keep trucking out various egg preparations. And no, I wasn't going to serve an amuse-bouche of Froot Loops in a large spoon.

For the first course, I chose a spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. Very simple, just baby spinach leaves, crumbled bacon, sliced button mushrooms, walnuts, and a red wine vinaigrette mixed with hot bacon grease. Right before serving, toss everything together until the leaves just start to wilt and the mushrooms get just barely cooked.

It's hearty, but not too filling, and while not typically associated with breakfast, it was a fun way to fulfill the bacon requirement. Since this was a dinner thing, I skipped the traditional breakfast beverages in favor of wine. Here a crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc cut through the savory bacon grease. (I'm saving the full wine notes for a separate post.)

Next up, fruit and cheese to clear the palate...

I've served something like this in the past--pears with a disc of soft goat cheese, drizzled with honey. Here I served the thinly sliced d'Anjou pears with a mix of ricotta, honey, sea salt, and topped it all off with a dusting of grated nutmeg. It's sweet, creamy, and a little rich, but not too filling. Again, my goal was to avoid a lumberjack-style breakfast. That kind of cooking is a lot better for large groups, where you can keep things warm in the oven and let people serve themselves.

The main course was the show stopper: Eggs Hussarde. It's a variation of Eggs Benedict developed at the legendary Brennan's in New Orleans, and I mostly followed their recipe. The main difference is the addition of marchand de vin sauce, a savory beef and wine sauce that gives it a deeper, earthier flavor. Making two classic French sauces for one course is a lot of work, but fortunately the marchand de vin holds pretty well when covered and set over the lowest setting on the stove.

From there it's pretty standard: poached eggs, Canadian bacon, and Hollandaise. I used English muffins instead of Holland rusks, and I put the marchand de vin directly on top of the toasted muffin slices. (If you pour it on top of the ham, it will run off onto the plate. Purely an aesthetic choice, because once you pierce the poached egg everything starts to run together anyway.) When I make Hollandaise I almost always make asparagus. You've already got a pot of water going for the double boiler, and the two taste great together, so why not? Eggs Hussarde is also traditionally paired with grilled tomatoes (sometimes tucked under the ham). The end result was amazing, but I can't imagine making it first thing in the morning. I paired this course with a Chilean Pinot Noir, which was a good balance, and since I used some of it to make the marchand de vin, it was nice to layer those flavors.

A couple of hours later we'd recovered enough for dessert, some delicious cinnamon rolls that Lady A brought along with her. All in all a success, and a fun change of pace. I think next time I might try something like frittata and stuffed crepes, or a lighter, more elegant version of the Full English breakfast.

28 January 2011

Martin Miller's Gin

Although Martin Miller's gin is relatively new (invented in 1999), the process is traditional and performed using old methods and equipment even if more time and labor is required. We've seen it with food and wine, but this philosophy exists in the world of spirits as well. Here one might be tempted to call it the Sloe Gin Movement.

All right, sloe gin is something entirely different... This is a classic London Dry, distilled in a century-old kettle named Angela. The old pot still method is similar to what's used in the production of great Scotch. After the second distillation with all the flavorings (more on that below), water needs to be added in order to bring the spirit to a point where it can be safely consumed and isn't in danger of catching on fire if it gets too close to an open flame. And this is where things get interesting... Many companies will use distilled water, or spring water, or maybe even plain tap water, but Martin Miller ships the high-proof distillate to Iceland, where melted glacial water is added and the gin is bottled. The promotional material has a lot of talk about water trickling through volcanic rocks and elves and some other odds and ends. I can't speak directly to the quality of Icelandic water over other sources, but it makes for a damned interesting story.

Martin Miller's Gin Westbourne Strength
$35/750mL bottle, 45.2% abv.
(This gin also comes in a standard version at only 40% abv.)

Very smooth, and the best way I can describe it is as being similar to Hendrick's but swapping the cucumber and rose for a stronger juniper profile. Some gins are so strong with juniper that it's like chewing cedar boughs, but here it's just the most noticeable out of a group of subtle aromas. Other contributing ingredients include orange and lemon peel, coriander, licorice, cinnamon, cassia, nutmeg, angelica, and orris root. At 90 proof it requires a little ice or further watering down from stirring or shaking. (If you don't have Icelandic glacial water on hand, you'll have to make do with what you have on hand.) The aromas are gentle and well balanced, and it goes down rather easily, like a nice vodka. Round mouthfeel, not astringent or burning. It's almost a shame to use this in a cocktail, but I decided to try one that was fairly minimalist.

Gibson Cocktail

The Gibson is, of course, just a Martini with pearl onions in it. But in the interest of disclosure, I made this one fairly dry:

50mL Gin
5mL White Vermouth
Two pearl onions

I shook it up with some ice and poured the cocktail over the onions. The garnish provides a spicy, savory element to the gin, and if you use pickled onions, you'll get a salty boost from the brine.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

26 January 2011

2009 Purple Cowboy Tenacious Red

I'll admit to occasionally being pulled in by a clever label. This one is set up as a cross between a playing card and a general Old West look, with that design style that says, "fill up all the available space with curls and patterns". You'll see it on old leatherwork and metalwork as well, and it's just a subset of a very busy Victorian look that extended to newspapers and furniture and home decorations and everything else. I imagine it must have been a frustrating time for those with poor eyesight, as their entire world was surrounded by a blur of tiny, cluttered shapes.

The second thing that drew me in was the name, Tenacious Red. Yes, I'm a fan of The D, and while I don't see a lot of opportunities for cross promotion (the cowboy would need to have a guitar, throwing up the devil horns, and the horse would need to be replaced by a mythological beast, preferably Sasquatch), the name was enough to get a laugh out of me in the middle of the wine shop.

2009 Purple Cowboy
Tenacious Red

45% Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon
35% Paso Robles Syrah
6% Paso Robles Merlot
5% Oakville Syrah, plus other mixed red
$13, 13.5% abv.

Heavy profile of plum and blackberry. This is a jammy fruit bomb, with low tannins and just a touch of sweetness. I haven't had one of these in a while, and even though it's not my favorite profile, it was a fun bottle of juice for the evening.

Paul was cooking (it was his weekly Steak Night), and after the wedge salad he brought out creamed spinach and T-bones. The meat came from a small farm somewhere around Nashville--his mother and brother purchased half a cow and he brought some of the meat back with him after a recent visit.

While not officially certified organic and all that, the cows are grass-fed and free range, and it shows in the meat. The fat is yellow and rich, and the meat has an earthy, gamey quality that's distinct from the mass market corn-fed beef. It is a little tougher, but with the intensity of the flavor you're limited to smaller bites anyway.

24 January 2011

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

Deb Harkness writes the award-winning blog Good Wine Under $20, which I often recommend to people who are new to wine. Fear about price and quality is a big issue for a lot of newcomers, and she has reviewed a lot of bottles in that category. When she's not looking for wines that will leave you some change from a double sawbuck, she teaches European history and the history of science at USC. She recently decided to take a stab at fiction with A Discovery of Witches, combining witches, vampires, and history. The book draws from Harkness' professional experience: working in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and writing non-fiction books on the history of alchemy. Does it fit better on the horror or fantasy or mystery shelf? Hard to say when bookstores today have entire sections called Teen Paranormal Romance. (I'm not suggesting that this book fits that category, but genres have gotten weirdly specific.)

On that subject, here's my own background with this type of fiction: from the time I was six until about twenty-six, I was a heavy consumer of sci-fi and fantasy, with occasional forays into mystery or other genre fiction. Following that were years of mostly non-fiction, as I needed a break and no longer had the energy to follow so many different series. I can remember writing to a few authors way back when and receiving letters months later. Now, I got sent a copy of a book ahead of the release date for review, and was able to say on Facebook, "Hey Deb, I'm reading your book!" and she messaged me back about an hour later. It's an interesting time to be alive.

Disclosure: I was contacted by the publisher of the book, not by Harkness. I accepted the sample out of genuine curiosity, not as a favor. Even if I didn't have prior contact or familiarity, I would have been interested to read a work of fantasy historical fiction written by a wine writer.

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
$29, 592 pages
Published by Viking

The main characters are the witch/historian Diana Bishop and the scientist/vampire Matthew Clairmont. Speculative fiction demands the following two logical statements before you can proceed: "In this world, X, Y, and Z exist. The nature of X, Y, and Z might be different from or contradict prior encounters in other fiction." In this world, there are witches who can use magic and potions, immortal vampires, and enigmatic daemons. All three can, for the most part, blend in with human society, and they spend the vast majority of their time living normal lives and working normal jobs without bursting into flames or having green warty faces. There's not a massive alternate world like in the Harry Potter books (which I truly love) or the sweaty lust of Sookie Stackhouse and The Southern Vampire Mysteries. And we're spared the teen angst of Twilight. No, when our protagonists meet one of the first events is attending a yoga class together. Which makes sense, because sleeping in a coffin would be hell on your back and shoulders. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The mystery at the center of the book surrounds an old alchemical tome, and the work in question--Ashmole 782--is a real book that has been lost to history. There are loads of books that are only known through secondary or tertiary references. Sometimes they are mere historical curiosities, meant to fill in a piece of a very fragmented puzzle. Other times they are books of the Bible, which could have caused a very different course of Western history if included in the official canon. I think this is what really gripped me while I was reading, since I'm honestly not into the whole modern vampire thing. I don't have a Team Edward or Team Jacob t-shirt. But I love libraries, and it's evident from the writing that Harkness shares my passion for quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. I occasionally had to stop and run downstairs to pet my beloved atlases and 19th century first editions. With gloves on, of course.

I'm sure everyone is wondering: "Where does wine fit in?" I admit that I was getting a little antsy while reading it. Let's call the phenomenon Chekov's Corkscrew. The answer shows up about 150 pages in, and in a curious turn, the female protagonist (most of the book is written in her first-person view) knows little to nothing about wine. The deep knowledge and impressive collection is instead placed with the immortal vampire, with an advanced sense of smell and the patience to let some classic bottles wait for the proper occasion. I found it refreshing to have a vampire to relate to: the guy likes science and wine. If a vampire is just a dark and mysterious object of sex appeal for a swooning woman... I'm not knocking that, but it just doesn't do anything for me. Someday there's going to be a vampire character marketed towards guys that spends most of his free time restoring classic cars, recounting stories of classic European rally races, and loves driving (but not in convertibles). Who knows? Maybe this has already been co-opted in a different form like Count Rusty: Tales of a NASCAR Vampire.

My point with all this is that Harkness used her two lead characters to break away from many of the common clichés about witches and vampires, both when compared to other works but also within the world of the book. Diana Bishop would rather go rowing than attend a solstice ceremony. Matthew Clairmont avoids the temptations of power and hunger to focus on the scientific causes and effects of vampirism, as well as the future of his species. Despite the distinctions that are frequently brought up in the novel, such attitudes make the characters far more human, and thus more relatable to the reader.

* * *

Harkness will be on a nationwide book tour in February. If she's coming to your town, drop by and show her some support.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

21 January 2011

6th Anniversary

Happy 6th anniversary, BWR! I'm not sure how blog years convert to human years, but given that the average blog survives about as long as a batch of potato salad in full sunlight, I remain proud of the endurance here.

For me, 2010 was the year of samples. It was the year when I all but disappeared from my local retail shops, with the requisite guilt and occasional, "Oh, so you think you can just walk back in here?" Most of what I wrote about in 2010 was based on samples, and while I didn't keep an exact count, I think around 200 bottles showed up at Casa de Benito during the calendar year. I know some of you get thousands of bottles a year, but this was a manageable amount with assistance from good friends and beautiful ladies. (Bachelor winebloggers seem to be a dying breed, but I can highly recommend the wine tasting party. Open a dozen bottles, everyone brings an appetizer, and you get to spread the love.)

I like the fact that samples provide me access to wines that aren't sold in my geographical region, as well as allowing me to try some great wines that I might have ignored in my own browsing. If public relations people are reading, I'd love to try more sparkling wines, rosés, and wines from emerging markets like Greece and Austria. I still love the classic reds, the standard regions, and every new bottle is an adventure in some way. I rarely say no to anything, but after getting 30 Sauvignon Blancs in a period of two weeks I'm a little burnt out on that grape.

Speaking of numbers... I used to count the total number of bottles I've tried, but that got out of hand a long time ago. But here's some stats of where I stand in my own curious self-education. I've tried wines representing:

- 164 unique grapes
- 28 countries
- 16 states in the US

In previous anniversary celebrations I've pointed out some new bloggers, or sites that are new to me, and there's no reason to stop that tradition. Between RSS, Facebook, and Twitter, there's about 100 winebloggers that I'm following, and here's a few that came to my attention in 2010:

Chicagoan Sam Klingberg dishes out wine advice at The Broke Wino. Sometimes irreverent, sometimes hilarious, I keep thinking this guy is part of the old Atlanta group of winebloggers. Many of those guys have scattered westward, so we must outsource such writing to the frosty shores of Lake Michigan.

Chicago is one of the only American cities with a recognizable and frequently used city flag. I'm using it here to highlight that I've really enjoyed adding flags to posts over the past couple of months. Also, there's no chance that I'll ever be reviewing a wine made within the city limits of the Windy City, so I might as well show it here.

Rafa Ibarra writes El mundo de Rafa Ibarra from Mexico, and while the site is in Spanish, there is a very effective Google Translate button on the right column. He covers the little-known but impressive world of Mexican wines as well as bottles from around the world. And if you comment on the site, his English is superb.

It was a pleasure this year getting to know the talented Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi. Aside from the man's impressive command of the Italian language, the wines of Italy, and music, he's a friendly and down to earth guy who has learned to enjoy the joys of life in Texas, like the Frito Pie.

Mark Walker is doing some great writing over at WineLife365. Check it out for the stylish design, stay for the giant photographs.

Also be sure to visit Kris Barber's The Wine Rogue, which I think is the youngest of the blogs listed here, debuting a year ago this month. Congrats on your first anniversary, and many happy returns!

Jo Diaz was an early adopter who snapped up wine-blog.org. I got to know her both through her website and her role in wine publicity. She's responsible for the fall flood of Petite Sirah and the recent batch of Portuguese wines. Jo provides an insider look at the marketing side of the wine industry, and has some great stories to tell.

For readers new and old, I'm listing some of my Favorite Posts on that permanent link in the upper left. If you like what I write here but don't want to dig through six years and 894 posts, that's a great shortcut to some of my better work. (Yes, I will reach the 1000 mark sometime this fall. No, I'm not going to do a ton of little posts to reach that goal. Pacing is key here.)

Finally, getting to hang out with Samantha Dugan and Michael Hughes earlier this year was a real treat, and I look forward to our next opportunity to pop some corks together.

Cheers, everyone! And here's to a great 2011!

19 January 2011

Chicken Enchiladas with Red Mole

I've made enchiladas many times over the years, but the results have always been disappointing. I made a huge batch of something I called "deeritos" using leftover stewed venison once, and other attempts have been either too dry, too mushy, or generally unpleasant (I regretfully admit to using canned enchilada sauce once). I didn't rely on any particular recipe here, but as always I feel that technique is more important to master than ingredients, and certain things require some practice and botched meals. So I focused on making a really incredible sauce and assembling the enchiladas properly.

The filling was the easy part here. I braised chicken thighs with a couple of cans of tomatoes and peppers for about three hours. Not long enough for things to fall apart, but rather enough time for all the flavor to leach from the bones and for that lovely dark meat to get nice and succulent.

The sauce was rather more involved, as this marked my second attempt at a mole. For a thickener I started with a roux, then added in a lot of canned tomato sauce. At this point, I had the world's most boring marinara sauce, so I needed to amp up the flavor and get it in the direction of a good mole. I toasted and soaked a couple of dried ancho chiles, and added them to the mix with a handful of pearl onions. I ground cumin seed and merquén in a mortar, and then built upon that blend with some unsweetened cocoa powder. After an hour of simmering, I blended everything with an immersion mixer and let it simmer for an additional hour. At this point, it was time for straining. I wanted a nice smooth sauce, so I passed everything through a sieve. (This took a while, and made a mess. I need to get a chinois or figure out a better way to do this.) I thinned out the mole with chicken broth and resumed simmering.

I used small white corn tortillas, warmed up on a lightly oiled cookie sheet for a few minutes prior to stuffing. A little shredded chicken, a little Monterey Jack cheese, then placed seam side down in a baking dish prepared with a thin layer of mole on the bottom. In order to avoid the "casserole effect", I spaced the enchiladas a few centimeters apart and covered them with an even layer of mole. A little topping of more Monterey Jack, and then everything was thrown in the oven for about 20 minutes.

The result was just amazing. I had individual enchiladas that were not soggy or dried out, full of flavor, and rich beyond belief. I was only able to knock out two with a little salad, sour cream, and refried beans. The Roommate is not typically interested in these, but she ate her fair share and was unusually fond of the mole sauce. I'm getting more and more excited about mole, but since the process can involve dozens of ingredients and a lot of steps, it does tend to mess up a good bit of the kitchen. I'm thinking in the future I need to make the sauce and braise the meat on one day, and then do the assembly and baking on the second. I'm also thinking that I always need to double the amount of sauce I'm making and freeze half of it. Most of the process is balancing out the various flavors, and as long as you have 30 ingredients lying around you might as well save yourself some trouble in the future.

17 January 2011

2007 Sangre de Toro Red Wine

Just a quick writeup for the holiday weekend...

This was a random pick, as I was looking for something in the $10 range, and at the particular shop that I visited, I had tried nearly everything that was available. I couldn't quite figure out what I was in the mood for, got tired of looking, and just grabbed something off the shelf. Ever do that with a bookshelf while staying at someone's home because you forgot to bring anything you actually wanted to read? You finally give up and accept that you're going to read a Reader's Digest Condensed version of a book that was already forgotten by 1983.

2007 Sangre de Toro Red Wine
Catalunya region of Spain
Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan)
$11, 13.5% abv.

Not a lot on the nose, pretty sure this one is past its prime. A little dusty plum, very low tannins, etc. It started out a little tart and rough, so I decanted it for a few hours. (I love using a French press carafe as a decanter. So much easier to handle and clean than a big curvy one.) Decanting made it more palatable, but not more enjoyable. I ended up using some of it in spaghetti sauce and some of it as a braising liquid, so nothing went to waste.

Side note on the packaging: Aside from the little plastic bull hanging from the neck, the label touted the environmental benefits of a super lightweight bottle. And indeed, it was very light. I didn't have a scale with me, but I've encountered some seriously heavy bottles recently, and in comparisons with those and standard bottles, it was obvious that this was in fact made from much thinner glass. I'm split on this issue, because while I know the difference adds up over the long run, there's a basic bit of human psychology that is hard to get past: things that are heavier are considered more valuable. It's something that goes back to basic primate instincts, where a fruit that feels heavy for its size is better to eat. It's why sometimes electronics manufacturers will put a heavy metal plate into a handheld device, because if it's too light people will assume that it's cheap and will break easily. Having trouble selling a fancy remote for a home entertainment system? Pack it full of enough useless steel that you double the weight and suddenly it seems like a much more solid product.

There are other fun signals, like the voluptuous shape and shiny foil of a sparkling wine bottle, or an Alsatian wine might seem light and delicate because of the tall, thin bottle. As always, I'm a fan of alternative packaging and enclosures, but I don't think that going with thinner glass bottles will make a major impact, especially with table wines meant to be consumed early, like this one should have been.

14 January 2011

Português Quatro

These wines from Value Vines, LLC were interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, I got to add five new entries to my life list, all with names sounding more like the crew of a 15th century sailing vessel than grapes. This takes me up to 164, and while I'm not obsessing over reaching 200, I really don't want to ever have to go back through my notes and count again. Also, some of these grapes have multiple names within Portugal, or have a Spanish name that's more commonly known here in the US. For instance, the Castelão grape I list below is also known as Santarem, Castelhao Frances, Periquita, and Castela, while the Aragonez is better known to us as Tempranillo. (I only provide alternate names when there is a well-known alternative, since I have no desire to list the over 50 different names for Grenache.)

The second reason for interest here is that these wines come from the Alentejo region that encompasses most of the southern third of Portugual. Alentejo is pretty big, but only home to 6% of the population. What else is going on there? Corks! Portugal produces about half of the corks used worldwide and most of those come from Alentejo. Regardless of your opinion of the enclosure debate, it's worth noting that a lot of the wine you've consumed in your life came in contact with a chunk of bark from this region.

2009 Finisterra Vinho Tinto
$7, 13.5% abv.
Blend of Aragonez (Tempranillo), Castelão, and Trincadeira.
Ripe and fruity, with a big red cherry aroma. Cherry flavors follow through on the palate, with medium tannins and a long finish. This one will stand up to pretty hearty flavors, so go for the BBQ and grilled beef.

2009 Finisterra Vinho Branco
$7, 13% abv.
Blend of Antão Vaz, Síria, Rabo de Ovelha and Perrum.
Big fruity aroma, with peach, apricot, melon, and a touch of honey. It has a good fruit forward flavor with dominant ripe peach flavors, but low acidity and a round mouthfeel. Smooth finish. I'd suggest pairing it with something more acidic, like ceviche, where the contrast will be interesting.

Quick etymology: Finisterra means end of the earth, or more properly, land's end, the farthest you can go in one direction while still being on land, usually an eastern/western/northern/southern tip of a country or continent. A similar term is used to describe a beer I love from eastern Canada, La Fin du Monde, even though French has a synonym much closer to the Portuguese, finistère. The next two wines are from Alente, which takes it's name from the Alentejo region, whose name means "Beyond the Tagus River", referring to the natural fluvial border.

2007 Alente Vinho Tinto
$10, 13% abv.
65% Trincadeira, 35% Aragonez (Tempranillo)
Light structure with aromas of plum and blackberry. Mellow, low tannins, and a smooth finish. Very easy drinking wine, and a real delight for the price. You don't want to overwhelm this one, so think pork or veal.

2009 Alente Vinho Branco
$10, 13.5% abv.
60% Antão Vaz, 40% Arinto
Like the other Alente wine, this is an extremely light white wine. Touch of melon and apricot on the top, but faint. And in comparison to the other white wine above, this one has a decent boost of acidity that helps with the overall balance. As such, I think it would be great with all sorts of shellfish dishes, particularly mussels and clams.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

12 January 2011

Wine Guerrilla

There are 10 wines under the Wine Guerrilla marque, a company that specializes in quality Zinfandel from northern California. I've previously reviewed two bottles, and here I get to take a look at three more. Continuing with the fauvism theme, these arty labels are distinctive. (This particular style was advanced by one of the art teachers in my high school, and examples lined the walls of one of the main buildings.) Of the three labels in the photo, I think I like the one in the middle the most. Something about the tilt of the head reminds me of a girl I once knew.

One thing I'll note in advance that all three of these are very young, and most likely won't show their full character for another two or three years.

2009 Conte Vineyard
Russian River Valley
$30, 15.1% abv.
Like some of my favorite Ridge wines, this is blended in the field. 83% Zinfandel, 12% Petite Sirah, 2% Carignane, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 1% Grenache.

Deep purple wine with a light aroma of toast, leather, and plum. Initially it is smooth but a tart finish hits you in the back of the mouth. Tannins linger long afterward. This is one that remains strong even after breathing.

2009 Forchini Vineyards "Old Vine"
Dry Creek Valley
$35, 16.1% abv.
Another field blend, this one is 95% Zinfandel with the remainder comprised of Carignane, Petite Sirah, and Alicante Bouchet. And since these vines are over 100 years old, they should qualify as "old vine" under any classification system.

Spicy, hot, firm tannins, dominant character of blueberry. While this alcohol level is huge, it blows off pretty well with a few hours of decanting. The heat and fumes are gone, and what remains is a deeper exploration into that blueberry and black pepper flavor. Medium tannins with a balanced finish, just enough to keep you thinking about the wine.

2009 Harris-Kratka Vineyard
Alexander Valley
$30, 14.8% abv.
85% Zinfandel, 10% Carignan, and 5% Petite Sirah.

Cassis, raw beef, firm tannins. Dark plum flavors with a little smoke and leather. I think it's my favorite of the three, clocking in at the lowest alcohol level but also having the best balance of the group. There's a good mix of fruit, acidity, and tannins, and it only improves with breathing.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

10 January 2011


Occasionally I'll post a photo from dinner on Facebook and I get a lot of requests for recipes. When and if the food appears here on the blog, I try to list some of the ingredients (usually for pairing purposes), but I almost never have specifics. It's mainly because I don't cook directly from recipes and I rarely measure anything. But through some trial and error, I've figured out a really tasty mini-burger. Let's call it the Benito Slider.

Start with a series of small ground beef patties. Round? Square? Octagonal? Your choice. Mini-burgers tend to range from 55-85g/2-3 oz. These were on the heavy side, massing around 80g per patty. (For a full size burger, I've always liked something around 160g/5.6 oz. It's also easy because you just take a kilo or two pounds of meat and divide it into six piles.) It's simple to do this the night before you plan to do the cooking--just roll out all the meat into a sheet pan and slice into squares. Separate the stacks with wax paper or parchment. When you're ready to do the cooking, I think the flat griddle is the best tool to use.

1. Start with a whole red onion, sliced thinly. With some butter and salt, slowly cook down the onions on the griddle. Feel free to season with wine or vinegar towards the end.

2. Set the onions aside but don't wipe down the griddle. Cook the patties, and here I've dashed them with Montreal Steak Seasoning.

3. I use Sara Lee Classic Dinner Rolls, which are a good size and are also pretty light and airy. You don't want something thick and dense here. Steam or toast the buns as desired. (It's easy enough to sop up some grease and toast them on the griddle while it's hot.) On the bottom bun, place a little Dijon mustard and Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce. (Tastes kind of like A-1 Sauce, but has a lot of tart, tangy, and spicy elements to it.) Add a couple of dill pickles.

4. Use a lid to cover the burgers until the cheese is melted, and then assemble! The fun part of these is the freedom to go crazy with toppings, since you can just say, "Well, let's try one with 1000 Island dressing and lettuce, then one with crumbled Roquefort and pickled beets."

Certainly you could pair a wine here--I'm sure a fruity Zinfandel would stand up pretty well. But I haven't had a Red Stripe in some time, and this seemed like a good occasion for beer. It's a pretty basic lager, known by the "stubbie" brown bottle, a design style leftover from the days when old medicine bottles were refilled with beer. It's cold, bubbly, and crisp, and although I was out of limes, I've almost always had it with an eighth of a lime squeezed in the glass. 4.7% alcohol in a 11.2 oz. bottle. Why the smaller size? It's a third of a litre, a pretty standard portion size around the world. For years individual states had laws against that size, so producers either had to run a separate bottling or avoid those markets entirely.

07 January 2011

Fun Sources of Vitamin C

As a public service, I feel it is important to advise my readers of a way that they can avoid scurvy. In my family, one such method was to brew what we called "Payne Tea", after my mother's maiden name. This pulpy combination of lots of squeezed lemons and super-sweet iced tea is perhaps better known as an Arnold Palmer. But here are four more fun and tasty methods of getting a little of the old Vitamin C into your system.

A while back I got The Roommate hooked on lemon sorbet, and now, much like the father in So I Married An Axe Murderer, she craves it fortnightly. On this rare occasion I had two pints in the freezer at the same time.

Archer Farms Meyer Lemon Sorbet
Darker yellow, almost orange in color. It has more of a lemon flavor that you associate with lemon meringue pie than the fruit itself, and because of the more mellow Meyer lemon influence, the profile leans more towards orange. Not very tart, but sweet and full of bright citrus flavor.

Häagen-Dazs Zesty Lemon Sorbet
In my opinion this is the clear winner, because it's got a nice sour and bitter edge to it. Very tart and crisp without causing the old face pucker. It encapsulates all the various flavors of a lemon and the peel with the cool, refreshing character of sorbet.

Now on to the cocktails! I've got a pair thrown side by side. On the left is the...

Orange Blossom Cocktail
1 part Gin
1 part Sweet Red Vermouth
1 part Orange Juice

And on the right we have the simpler version...

Adirondack Cocktail
1 part Gin
1 part Orange Juice

Although both of these are old school classics that go back over a hundred years, they are two of the laziest cocktails ever committed to paper. Stir? Shake? Who cares, just combine and imbibe. Working from the bottom up, the Adirondack* is just a more herbal Screwdriver, and the Orange Blossom is a smoother version of the Adirondack. Sweet Red Vermouth, while not often enjoyed on its own in this country, is a great mellowing agent for many cocktails, and deserves more respect. All criticism aside, both are quite tasty, and while they're not the kind of impressive cocktails you might serve for company, they're fun enough to accompany a movie or a book. Serve over ice to prolong the experience and further smooth out the flavors.

*I've spent many nights sleeping outdoors on various camping trips, long drives, and other unique and interesting circumstances. Yet out of all of them, I always thought that one of the most pointless was the Adirondack shelter. It's a cabin with a wall missing. In the summer, you get more of a breeze sleeping outside in the open. In the winter, you're better off in a tent or something that's fully enclosed. The only advantage of the Adirondack is that it keeps the rain off, as long as the rain isn't blowing in through the big missing wall. It doesn't keep you warm, doesn't keep the bugs out, hell, deer could wander in and bed down with you.

I've slept out in the open on top of a mesa in New Mexico during a hailstorm. Yet I still consider the Adirondack to be the worst camping solution ever.

05 January 2011

Michael David Winery

These two wines come from Michael David Winery based in Lodi, California. The property has been producing grapes since the late 1800s, and they currently offer a broad range of wines priced from $9 to $60. I enjoyed their Petite Petit, and they even offer a Tannat that looks interesting. But before we get to the wines, let's take a look at the packaging.

Both bottles hold 750 mL of wine, but they look quite different. The one on the right is wider and taller, but has an insanely deep punt (the hollow depression on the bottom of the bottle). The one on the left is fairly standard, just enough room to get a grip if you like that pouring method (3.5cm deep). The one on the right will swallow most of your thumb (5.5cm deep, and wider). The one on the right is also substantially heavier due to thicker glass. As always, what's inside the bottle is the most important thing, but based on how the human brain works and estimates volume, it would be easy to think that the one on the right delivered a full litre of wine.

2008 7 Deadly Zins
Old Vines from Lodi
$16, 15% abv.
Predominantly Zinfandel, with traces of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. Big blueberry and raspberry aromas, lots of fruit, low tannins. Based on the price and the approachable, fruit-forward profile, this makes for a pretty great pizza and burger wine. You'll want to let it breathe for a bit to smooth out, but it holds up pretty well to well-seasoned, hearty fare.

There are separate bottles named Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony (the "fun" ones), and I don't imagine Greed or Envy sound as good. Pride seems like a natural choice, and Wrath practically writes itself. Angrily.

2007 Rapture
$60, 14.5% abv.
91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petite Sirah

Representing the upper end of the product line, this curious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah has a lot of great things going on. Coffee, cassis, and cedar on the nose, medium tannins. On the palate there are balanced fruit flavors of plum and blackberry, with a lovely, balanced structure. Steak or lamb chops would be great here, although I had it with a section of roast pork loin and apples.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

03 January 2011

New Year's Eve (Eve) Dinner Party

It had been a while since I'd held a dinner party, and I figured that a gathering on December 30 was a good choice. It avoids the craziness of the main night, and it's easier for people to attend.

With the first two courses, and because of the holiday, I popped open a bottle of the NV Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs, with the option of crème de cassis for those who wanted a little kir pétillant. It's an old favorite, and some places around town had it for as low as $11, making it a great bargain while still being serious enough for a wine lover to enjoy.

First Course: Tomato Soup

Tomato soup is ridiculously easy, but people are always amazed by it. A few cans of tomatoes, some chicken broth, butter and onions, toss in some wine or white vermouth, season to taste. Hit with an immersion blender to get it smoother. Towards the end I added in some half and half, and then did a decoration with Salvadoran-style crema. (Some of the last minute ingredients and Mexican direction had to do with a visit to the International Market with Paul's sister Alaina. As I ran about gathering certain products, she was entranced by the piñatas, knockoff perfumes, and live tilapia. She wasn't as excited when I showed her the frozen aisle of offal.)

Second Course: Shrimp & Salad

Nothing terribly surprising with the salad here, just mixed greens and shredded broccoli stalks with yellow tomatoes and a red wine vinaigrette. However, I used part of the vinaigrette (along with some fresh lime juice) to marinate the shrimp for about 15 minutes. Right before serving, I quickly sautéed the shrimp in olive oil over high heat, had Paul dim the lights, and then I splashed in vodka and set the whole thing on fire. Flames went up a good three feet in the air, and I did not lose my eyebrows. The shrimp emerged perfect: cooked just right, plump and juicy, and slightly sweet from the quick caramelization.

I know this looks like more of a summer dish, but bear in mind that Memphis that day hit 18°C/65°F. We could have had an outdoor cookout if it hadn't been raining.

Third Course: Pork Tenderloin with Mole

Easy part out the way: the asparagus was just blanched and quickly grilled, and the pork tenderloins were butterflied, smeared with sage pesto, trussed up, and roasted. But what's that on top of the pork?

I had never made a mole sauce before this dinner, but I was familiar with the theory. There's no one established recipe--dozens of variations exist in print and likely thousands are made in the homes and restaurants of Puebla. With the theory in mind I just winged it. I took four dried ancho chiles, toasted and reconstituted them in chicken broth, and began building the sauce. I added in some of the leftover tomato soup, garlic, and three little pie wedges of Abuelita chocolate. I blended everything and let the sauce simmer for an hour, and then I added in a bunch of walnuts. Another go-round with the immersion blender, and I had a fairly thick sauce. (In the future, I'll add fewer nuts, but this worked out well.) I was concerned that the sauce was a little too hot for my guests, but as it simmered the flavors blended and mellowed out.

The end result was incredible, and people were licking their plates and going back for seconds. I was quite happy with the way it turned out, but I want to explore some other variations involving different chiles, pumpkinseeds, and dried fruits like prunes or raisins. Traditional moles can have upwards of 30 ingredients, and I'm barely topping 10 here.

We had two red wines with the savory, flavorful main course. Both were gifts from Dave and Mike Rickert, friends of mine that generously passed these bottles along during Paul's recent visit with them. The 2008 Schug Pinot Noir is from the Sonoma Coast and clocks in at 13.5% abv. It has a dusty strawberry profile, nonexistent tannins, and a very mild finish. Extremely light and restrained.

The bigger hit was the 2008 Saint Cosme Côtes du Rhône. A pure Syrah at 14% abv., this was nutty with a lovely black cherry profile, well-balanced tannins, and a finish of tart raspberry and raspberry seeds. This one matched particularly well with the mole sauce.

Capping off the evening, Grace made her famous crème brûlée and we settled back with Australian Port and other libations... Groans were heard around the living room as people settled in to digest the big meal (even all four dogs were worn out), and one by one people headed home or nodded off. Big thanks as always to Paul for providing the hosting location, and I'm looking forward to more fun in the kitchen in 2011.