30 March 2011

Book Review: Beer Is Proof God Loves Us

Beer has been around in some form for as long as 12,000 years, but we're in a golden era of beer appreciation. You're not limited to fermenting some grain in a clay pot, or relying on the neighborhood brewery. You've got options from all over the world, and growing communities of home brewers and beer bloggers and all sorts of other options if you want to discuss the topic. In some ways, it's a more dynamic world than that of wine, because the time from getting an idea to enjoying a completed beer is so short. Here's a new book that covers a wide swath of the beer industry in a very short space.

Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing
by Charles W. Bamforth
$26, 237 pages, FT Press

Bamforth has been involved in the beer industry in various ways for over three decades, and currently works as the first Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis. He has written several books on the topic, and while I have not read any of the others, this one is very strangely put together. Pages 1-131 are the book itself, while pages 133-224 are the end notes and appendices. There are tons of endnotes; the first paragraph of the book contains five. There are individual endnotes that go on for seven or eight pages, making them longer than some of the shorter chapters. It's an odd approach, and I think that a lot of the short endnotes would have worked better as footnotes, while the longer ones could have been incorporated into the text or added as interstitial chapters.

Most beer books and documentaries and articles you'll read these days tend to celebrate microbrews and lambast consolidation and large brewing operations. Bamforth has good things to say about smaller breweries, but also points to the major benefits of consistency and economies of scale. Beer is the world's most popular alcoholic beverage, and the third most popular beverage behind water and tea. The vast majority of that is going to require massive industrial processes, not copper kettles and bottles that are wax-sealed by hand. Since he's originally from England, there's also a split focus on the beer industries of the United States and United Kingdom. I admit that I didn't know much about the latter prior to reading this book, but the story is similar, with lots of consolidation and small scale pushes to protect or revive unique regional brews.

Within the short space of the actual book, lot of topics are covered. Neo-prohibitionism, the chemistry of foam, debates over packaging, a touch of religion, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. In that respect it's more like a series of essays rather than a single cohesive book. There was an interesting look at water usage in the beer industry, going from a 6:1 ratio to an Australian brewery that's operating at a slim 2:1 ratio. Beer is almost entirely water, but all the cleaning and boiling and other processes require a lot of water as well. For the one bottle you crack open, an average of about 3.5 additional bottles of water were involved in the production. And it turns out that recycling bottles (grinding them down and recasting the glass) uses less water than refilling bottles due to the additional washing required.

I'm not really sure who the target audience is for this book. If you have a general interest in beer, the business and technical aspects might be boring. If you're in the business, you probably don't care as much about the philosophical waxing or stories of his boyhood love of soccer. The sociopolitical angle is so muddled from state to state and city to city that it's difficult to write about as a general topic. But if you're interested in a broad range of beer topics written by an industry insider, give it a shot.

P.S. Funny side note: the very first part of the book explains that the quote that inspired the book's title was in fact written by Benjamin Franklin, but it was worded differently and referred to wine, not beer. The complete quote, from a 1779 letter to a contact in France: "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

Note: This book was received as a sample.

28 March 2011

Cliff Creek Cellars

UPDATE: As of September 2011, the wines of Cliff Creek are now available in Memphis! Welcome to the River City.

Cliff Creek Cellars rests on a family farm that was in the cattle business for 100 years before vines were planted in 2000. There are various theories about organic versus biodynamic versus conventional farming, but I'd be pretty excited to grow anything atop a century's worth of cow pasture. Before I ever saw the periodic table, I was taught the beneficial properties of manure in adding nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus to the soil. Well-composted manure is a wonderful thing.

All three of these are sourced from Sams Valley, Gold Hill, part of the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. And big thumbs up to the winery for having a page dedicated to the tasting room dogs.

2006 Cliff Creek Syrah
$25, 14.3% abv.
50% American Oak, 50% French Oak

Black cherry, plum, touch of tart raspberry, smooth beginning with a tannic finish. Bright character, nice and fruity but not crazy. It's rare that I say this, but I think this would be a lot of fun on its own as a first wine to start a dinner party. It's bright and happy, tasty and approachable, but not overly complicated. It will help people get their palates ready for multiple wines and courses.

2006 Cliff Creek Claret
$25, 14.3% abv.
43% Cabernet Franc, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot
90% French Oak, 10% American Oak

The nose is rich and dark with stewed fruit, prunes, and dried cherries. Excellent structure all around, and the low tannins really allow you to enjoy the fruit without getting worn out. I thought it was a perfect pairing for the steak topped with red wine compound butter, until...

2005 Cliff Creek Claret
$25, 13.9% abv.
55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot
85% French Oak, 15% American Oak

The 2005 is very similar in general characteristics, but much smoother and really at a perfect point in its aging. The tannins are mellowed out to sublime smoothness, and there's an elegance that comes from catching a well-constructed wine at just the ideal time to drink it. Highly recommended if you want to slip a ringer into a blind tasting of Meritage or Bordeaux.

Note to my fellow Tennesseans:Aside from Oregon, Ohio, and California, we happen to live in the fourth state where these wines are distributed. They are currently available in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. If they come to Memphis, I'll update this post in the future.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

25 March 2011

Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness

Everyone has something different they need to get started in the morning. For some it's the Diet Coke, others have to have coffee or tea, and others guzzle down milk. As for me, I don't have anything that I chemically need first thing--caffeine doesn't do much for me, and I can live without it. My favorite thing is some sort of mass of ground up vegetables, like V8. These days there are a ton of such blends on the market, and of course people roll their own with juicers.

I recently became enamored of Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness. Full of wheatgrass, spinach, a bunch of fruits, and everybody's favorite cyanobacteria, spirulina. Basically pond scum, this little photosynthetic microorganism has been around for three billion years and is full of all sorts of goodies. If you've spent much time fishing and pulling algae off your line, the aroma is unmistakeable. (Lest you be concerned that you're not getting a full algal load, this beverage also contains an unnamed blue-green algae, Chlorella, a green algae, and Palmaria palmata, a red algae.)

Banana and pineapple aromas and flavors dominate, but there's a lot of grass and dirt. In fact, it reminds me a lot of mowing the yard. I know this sounds terrible, but if you've come to love and appreciate earthy and vegetal characteristics in wine, then it's easier to enjoy them in other foods as well. Plus, I never have to worry about The Roommate swiping any beverage that's the color of the paint used on tanks, Jeeps, and other Army equipment.

23 March 2011

Red Wine Compound Butter

Compound butter is pretty easy to make, though it's not something that you see served at home a lot. There are restaurants that throw a little garlic and chive into whipped butter and customers will practically eat it like ice cream. Whatever you decide to blend in, just make sure that it has some time to rest so that the flavor permeates the butter.

For this experiment, I made red wine compound butter. Often finely diced shallots are added, but I just kept it simple with red wine and one stick of unsalted butter.

Take 125 mL or half a cup of red wine and boil it down into a concentrated syrup. Do this slowly and pay attention, because right at the end there's a very fine line between syrup and having to scrape carbon off the bottom of your pan.

You don't want your butter too hard or too soft, just keep mashing it with a sturdy spoon or paddles until you're able to work with it. While waiting for the wine syrup to cool off, feel free to experiment with some small scale butter sculpture.

Put on a shirt that you don't like and begin to incorporate the syrup into the butter. Why does the shirt matter? The syrup and butter don't really want to mix, and you'll end up with little squirts of highly concentrated wine going everywhere. I just used a butter knife for everything, working on top of a sheet of parchment paper. I had a paper towel nearby to grab stray drops before they stained the table. Keep working at it, and eventually you'll get a nice mauve pile of butter that looks like black cherry ice cream. Don't be afraid to grab a small slice of baguette to perform some quality control testing.

Using plastic wrap or parchment paper or wax paper, form the butter into a log. It doesn't have to be perfect, but then you roll it up in the wrapper, and twist the ends to make sure it's tight. With just a little rolling on the table, you can get a solid, nearly perfect cylinder. Throw it in the refrigerator and let it rest for at least six hours before serving.

Any compound butter involving fresh herbs will really rely on this time to develop, but won't last as long. I've made sage butter in the past, and it's amazing on top of a grilled pork chop.

Here we see a finished disc of red wine compound butter on top of a rare ribeye steak, accompanied by a bit of broccolini and the drooling admiration of Wolfgang.

When you rub the compound butter over the top of the steak, it quickly melts and then the magic happens. Some of it sinks down into the meat, but the rest of it picks up the melted fat and salt and other seasonings on the steak. As you're eating, it all runs down the sides and combines with the released juices of the steak to form a sauce on the plate.

What wine to use? In a perfect world you use the same wine that you'll be serving with the steak, but frankly this is a better opportunity to use up some leftover wine that has lost its sparkle, or if you freeze leftover wine for cooking purposes, use some of that. I used a Syrah for this one, but really anything will work. By the time you've boiled it down you've killed off any nuance or subtle character and are left with highly concentrated grape juice.

21 March 2011

Seagram's Moscato

Seagram's Moscato (35% abv.) is a new spirit on the market--so new that there's barely anything about it available online. When you first open the bottle there's that unmistakeable musk and honey aroma of the Muscat grape family. And in fact the nose is quite fresh and lively. It was suggested that I try the spirit cold and with some water added. Unmodified at room temperature, it's a little harsh. I can't say that this is something that I would drink on its own, but it has elements that I like. That's what cocktails are for!

A lot of people credit The Moscow Mule cocktail with popularizing vodka in the United States. In the years after WWII but before the Red Scare, people learned to love the combination of vodka and ginger beer and lime. Later America embraced simple vodka cocktails like the Screwdriver, Bloody Mary, and the vodka martinis of the James Bond films, as well as more elaborate concoctions like the Harvey Wallbanger. Without further ado, I present:

Benito's Moscato Mule Cocktail
2 oz. Seagram's Moscato
3 large basil leaves, plus more for garnish
Ginger Beer*

Keep your Seagram's Moscato in the freezer--it tastes best ice cold, and also helps keep your cocktails cool. Combine the basil and Seagram's Moscato in a shaker. Use a muddler to smash up the basil. (If you don't have one, chop the basil before adding to the shaker.) Add ice, and shake thoroughly. Fill a tumbler with ice and strain the vodka/basil over the ice. Then cover with ginger beer, and stir briefly before serving. Garnish with more basil if desired.

I really surprised myself with this one on the first try. The basil and ginger and touch of additional sweetness are precisely what the vodka needs, while the grape flavor gets a better chance to shine. And most importantly, befitting the mule name, the heavy dose of ginger gives it a spicy kick in the aftertaste. (I've been gently kicked by horses, burros, donkeys, and both Shetland and Welsh ponies. But oddly, never by a mule. I still wouldn't recommend the experience to anyone regardless of the species.) I highly recommend this cocktail if you like a mint julep, or are interested in herb-based cocktails. Grape and basil go great together, and the vodka and fizz and ginger just make the whole experience a lot more fun.

*I'm not going to get into the ginger beer vs. ginger ale debate in this space, but for this cocktail I used Reed's Extra Ginger Brew, a traditional Jamaican-style ginger beer sweetened with honey, fructose, and pineapple. Strong ginger flavor, lots of character. But feel free to use regular old ginger ale if that's all that you've got on hand.

Note: This was received as a sample.

18 March 2011

Adventures in Mexican Cooking

I dislike the blanket term "Mexican food", since just like any other country there are a wide range of styles and ingredients and regional traditions. About the closest you can get to summing up a cuisine in one national term is with an island like Jamaica or Cuba. Also, I've never been to Mexico, but have enjoyed the recent explosion of more authentic restaurants, and I'm a huge fan of the fusion style of New Mexico. The problem is that I was never particularly good at cooking in this general category.

With Italian food (another overly broad category), it took a few revelations like really learning how to cook pasta. It's not just boiling water and throwing a noodle against the wall to get it to stick. It's using the right amount of water and salt, and the right shape of pasta for the sauce, and incorporating some of the pasta water into the sauce. It's learning how to layer the sauce over time to build, concentrate, and balance flavors. It's using odd, bitter vegetables to complement sweet and savory elements in the meal.

I decided to try to apply some of the same work in fundamentals to generic Mexican food.

Huevos Rancheros

I used some of the leftover mole sauce from my chicken enchiladas that I'd saved in the freezer. The construction here is simple: white corn tortillas, refried beans, mole, fried egg, a dash of hot sauce, served with a little shredded romaine lettuce and sour cream.

What made it good? The labor-intensive homemade sauce was a big part, but I also augmented the beans with rendered chicken fat. Not a lot, just enough to give flavor and texture. I'm also an eternal fan of any dish that involves a runny yolk meant to ooze down and meld with the other ingredients, forming new sauces along the way. Also important here: no cheese. I love cheese, and even have a guilty fondness for the gloopy cheese-laden plates that pass for Tex Mex cooking around here, but that's a crutch, and it's not focusing on flavor. It's just a shortcut to add a bunch of fat and salt to a dish without much work.

While this is ostensibly a breakfast dish, I had it for dinner and couldn't quite finish the three eggs. Rich, hearty, delicious, and pretty quick and easy to make if you have some leftovers lying around.

Enchiladas Verdes de Carnitas

My usual way to make carnitas is to take a Boston butt (pork shoulder) and throw it in a pot with two cans of Ro-Tel peppers and tomatoes. Let it all slow cook until the whole thing falls apart. Remove the bones, and shred the pork with forks or your fingers. Once you're done, you can pack plastic containers full of shredded pork and rendered fat and freeze them for use in all sorts of things in the future. Here, I decided to make some simple enchiladas.

The mistake I've made in the past with enchiladas is just using dry tortillas, filled and rolled up, and then they crack and taste awful. I've learned to warm them up in a lightly oiled skillet until they just start to turn translucent, and then fill and roll. Makes all the difference in the world. Also, the bottom of your baking dish needs to have sauce in it. I'd love to say that I made one from scratch here, but I had a couple of jars of salsa verde that I wanted to use up. A little sauce on the bottom, and then it's important to make sure that all exposed surfaces of the tortilla have some sort of sauce on them. The filling is simply carnitas, topped with salsa verde, a little cheese (OK, I was in the mood for it this time), and then a little extra carnitas on top for decoration. If you're feeding a bigger crowd, this is also a good way to indicate what's filled with chicken/pork/beef/etc. I served it with some slow cooked black beans.

I'm not going to claim that either of these is truly authentic, but I found myself way more satisfied with the results than attempts in the past. And really, there wasn't much to it. Just a few simple techniques here and there that made everything come together properly. And while neither of these came directly from him, I do have to give big thanks to Rick Bayless for an excellent explanation of the basic philosophy in his cookbooks.

16 March 2011

Jacob's Creek Wines

Jacob's Creek is an Australian winery with a history going back to 1847, when the first grapes were planted in the area by a Bavarian immigrant. (The story of European settlement throughout the world often boils down to, "I could use a drink, let's see what we can grow here and ferment.") The current name and brand are much newer, with a first release in 1976. I've reviewed several of their wines in the past, and I feel that the wines represent good bargains with dignified labels. Kangaroos are fun, but sometimes you want something a little more classic looking on the table, or for occasions like wedding receptions.

2007 Jacob's Creek Reserve Pinot Noir
South Australia
$13, 13% abv.
Toast and blackberry jam aroma, light mouthfeel, no tannins, little tart raspberry finish. It's fairly pale for a red, and light shines through it easily. You don't see a whole lot of Pinot Noir from Australia, and it represents about a tenth of the Shiraz acreage that's planted. I really love lighter Pinot Noir like this with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

2008 Jacob's Creek Shiraz
South Eastern Australia
$8, 14% abv.
The nose has the combination of black pepper as well as the (obviously unrelated) green bell pepper. The flavor is vegetal, spicy, and earthy. There's a lot more complexity here than you would expect from a wine under $10. Consider this one for a hearty, flavorful pizza with a lot of cured meats on it.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

14 March 2011

A New Approach to South African Wines

Sometimes wine is just spoiled grape juice that happens to taste good. Other times, it's history in a glass.

* * *

The long story of South Africa is fascinating, but extremely complicated. Throughout the centuries, there have been dozens of factions, shifting alliances, many languages, and plenty of controversy. It's the country where Gandhi first started working on civil rights, where Lord Robert Baden-Powell was inspired to later found the Boy Scouts in England, and where Dave Matthews was born. It takes a lot of work to understand the big picture.

The wine industry in South Africa is likewise complex. Starting in 1659, it ran on slave labor until the British abolished the practice in the mid 1800s, but things didn't necessarily get better for the black workers who tended the vines, picked the grapes, and performed the heavy labor of the region. There was the tot or dop system that persisted in various forms until the 1990s, in which workers were just paid in cheap surplus wine. The big problem is that if everyone in your area is paid in bad wine, you can't really trade it for anything, so the only option is to stay drunk and then keep working to feed the addiction. Thankfully this practice is gone, and while addiction problems persist among vineyard workers, the face of the South African wine industry is changing.

Due to the Apartheid-era embargo, South African wines didn't show up in America until the 1990s, and are still pushing for market share. But I've always said that I love a wine with an interesting story, and here are a few that fit the bill.

A while back I participated in an online tasting of Partnership Vineyards' wines. The webcast included winemaker Zakke Bester live from South Africa. The project has been around since 2004, and involves partially compensating the employees in shares of the company. As of right now, 20 farmers and 151 workers hold shares in the partnership. Both of these wines are made in the Riebeek Valley and carry a Fair Trade Certification.

2009 Partnership Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 13% abv.
Rich and lush aroma, lots of jasmine, lime peel, grass, and wet rocks. Light, not tart, with a refreshing citrus finish. Interesting profile that I'd love to try with Vietnamese food.

2008 Partnership Vineyards Shiraz
$13, 13.5% abv.
Smoky, dusty plum, deep dark fruit aromas, lots of spice. It's not as rustic as a Pinotage, but this has a unique and earthy character that sets it apart from other Shiraz/Syrah around the world. I asked the winemaker for his pairing recommendation, and I think this is my favorite suggestion ever: "Springbok or oryx steak, seared in a pan, or grilled over a braai using grapevine stumps as fuel."

For this post I also took the opportunity to try a wine from Indaba, a brand launched in 1996. Mzokhona Mvemve won the Indaba scholarship, and after studying at Stellenbosch he became South Africa's first black winemaker. He was the head winemaker at Indaba, but has gone on to a number of independent and joint projects.

2008 Indaba Chenin Blanc
Western Cape
$10, 13.5% abv.
Creamy and lemony, smooth and enjoyable with a short finish. This inexpensive wine is pretty easy to find in the US, and should go well with lots of poultry dishes. Chenin Blanc has a long and popular history in South Africa, where it's also known as Steen. Since it's relatively mild, I'd say keep this one in mind for Thanksgiving.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

11 March 2011

Les bières belges

My friend Paul has been involved in a lot of the posts here over the years, either as a willing guinea pig for some new cooking adventures or by generously offering to help make use of leftover wine. During a recent trip to Belgium, he got a mixed six pack of Belgian beers and brought them back home. Most of these were tasted in one evening with the added assistance of Dave and a few plates of sliders.

Belgian beer labels are a linguist's dream come true. The below six beers use Dutch/Flemish, French, Latin, and Marols. The back labels tend to list everything in Dutch, French, and German. On top of that, the names and designs reflect the abbey brewing tradition, with lots of dark religious themes that at times seem better suited to heavy metal album covers.

I don't have prices on these, although none of them are particularly rare. Think $2.50-$5.00 per 330mL (11.2 oz.) bottle, but most of these are also available in 750mL bottles, or will be cheaper if purchased by the case. Your best bet for trying these is probably at a bar that specializes in having a huge beer list, like The Flying Saucer. You might even be able to find some of them in draft form.

I served all of these in a brandy snifter, but if you want to be truly authentic, the various breweries produce specific shapes of glasses that bear the logo of the beer and are designed to most precisely deliver the aromas and flavors of that particular product. A serious beer establishment will have these, but they're really impractical for home use unless you stick to just one or two brands.

Manneken Pils
5% abv., Czech Pilsener
This comes in a small 250mL bottle (8.5 oz.). Light, crisp, and clean, and with the small serving size this is a good candidate if you plan to try several beers in an evening. It's named after the famous Brussels statue of a boy peeing in a fountain, Manneken Pis. Sometimes a keg of beer is hooked up to the statue and beer flows straight from the, er, tap.

Leffe Brune
6.5% abv., Belgian Dark Ale
Coffee and chocolate, a little bitter edge. Dark, with nice toasty malts, and a surprisingly crisp finish. If you like Newcastle Brown, this is a good second step on your way to enjoying darker beers. The original brewery was destroyed in 1794 during the French Revolution, but the modern facility is owned by the massive Anheuser-Busch InBev conglomerate, which produces 25% of the beer consumed in the entire world.

Grimbergen Optimo Bruno
10% abv., Belgian Strong Dark Ale
The strongest of our sextet, this one is rich and savory, with almost a soy sauce component. Pleasantly beery aroma without a lot of outside elements. While it's not thick or sweet, it does seem to coat your mouth and hang on your teeth for a while. Grimbergen is an abbey in the Dutch part of Belgium, and Optimo Bruno is Latin for "Best Brown". Odd combination, but they've been brewing there since 1128, so they can do whatever they want.

8.5% abv., Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Bitter, touch of herbs and grass, great hops. Recommended for fans of good bitter beers like India Pale Ales. It's really fun to serve a bitter beer like this as a contrast to something like pork with a sweet glaze on it.

8.5% abv., Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Light and crisp, touch of acidity, lots of bubbles. The name means "devil" in Dutch and was created to celebrate the end of WWI. The body of this beer is so light that the alcohol strength can sneak up on you, though out of all of the beers listed, this will probably be the easiest to find in supermarkets and bars.

Delirium Nocturnum
8,5% abv., Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Dark and rich, full-bodied and strong. There's a touch of spice, and ultimately it's just delicious. Latin for night terror, also a play on the sister beer called Delirium Tremens, named after withdrawal symptoms. The bottle throws a lot of people off--it looks like a bottled milkshake, and has a pink elephant on it. But it's just painted glass, and despite the silly design, it is a serious beer. Definitely one to sit back and enjoy slowly after dinner.

P.S. Because I've been getting a lot of e-mails recently asking where to find things, these beers present a curious problem. Since the alcohol content can get as high as 12%, in various jurisdictions of the United States there may be no legal way to purchase them. Sure, you could buy a 12% wine, or some sort of watered down 12% liquor, but in some places anything above a certain limit (5% or so) isn't legally beer, but isn't able to be sold under another category. In other cases, you might be able to purchase the beer at a liquor store but not at a bar, or vice versa. Likewise, the way that these beers are classified and taxed will result in some big differences in price throughout the country.

09 March 2011

NV Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace

Few things bring joy like a casual sparkling wine with dinner. A lot of people get irritated when they see bubbly sprayed over a crowd or smashed against the side of a boat. I personally hate seeing sparkling wine served by itself. Oh, it's certainly fun as a party beverage, and it is classy to begin an event while wandering around with a slowly fizzing flute, but the stuff goes so great with so many foods that it's a shame not to take advantage of it. And when you serve it to other people with dinner, it helps reverse the idea that bubbles are just for special occasions.

Fortunately there are lots of well-crafted bargains out there today, including those from less famous regions of France. Such as this little gem from Alsace, way out east next to the German border.

NV Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace
Brut Blanc de Blancs
Alsace, France
100% Pinot Blanc
$20, 12% abv.

This wine has large, abundant bubbles, which combined with the dash of acidity gives it a very crisp and refreshing profile. The nose is floral, with touches of honey and pear. It is bone dry, with just a touch of ginger. This one seems like it would be a great match with spicy Thai food, but I popped it open alongside grilled mahi mahi, tomatoes, green peppers, and a bit of brown rice.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

07 March 2011

Book Review: Deceptively Delicious

Anyone that has lots of bookshelves knows that, left to their own devices, books will mingle and eventually reproduce. If you stack some Agatha Christie next to Shakespeare, sooner or later you're going to find some little paperback mystery novels set in Renaissance England. And they're just too darn cute to throw out in the cold.

Cookbooks are a little different, in that they tend to invite older relatives to move in. This is why you'll be looking for your latest trendy Asian-Brazilian Fusion glossy and will instead find a grimy cookbook that came included with your family's Amana Radarange in 1975, complete with advice to wear a lead-lined apron and goggles while zapping an entire turkey for three hours.

But cross-pollination can occur! When that old copy of SeinLanguage gets too close to one of The Roommate's healthy eating cookbooks, you get...

Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food
Jessica Seinfeld, 2008
Published by William Morrow
208 pages, available for less than $10 these days

Yes, it's a cookbook written by Jerry Seinfeld's wife Jessica, and before I get into the actual recipes, I have to give this praise: this is a beautiful cookbook. Playful 60s-style design without being tacky, gorgeous photographs, lovely typography, and it's conveniently wire-bound so that the book will lie flat on the kitchen counter. While reading through it I kept thinking what an utter joy it must have been to do the layout for the book. But ultimately, it's the content that matters. That playful wink on the cover will only get you so far.

The concept behind the book is getting kids to eat vegetables by sneaking various vegetable purees into other dishes. The purees include beets, spinach, cauliflower, butternut squash, etc. So for instance, while making brownies, you fold a little carrot and spinach puree into the batter. It's not necessarily a bad set of recipes. The book is full of All-American classics, sort of a shorter and simpler Betty Crocker Cookbook. It's a little odd to think about adding ground-up canned navy beans to macaroni and cheese, but hey, have fun.

I do have a couple of issues with it. One is that most of the recipes just make an existing dish sweeter, through sweet potatoes or butternut squash puree. That's more of a personal preference, but our national cuisine is increasingly sweet, either naturally or artificially. Try buying a soft drink that isn't sweetened--your choice is either water or non-alcoholic beer. Another problem is the portion size. A contributing nutritionist to the book suggests trying to get kids to eat 1½ cups of vegetable stuff per day. No problem with that, but an entree recipe designed to serve four might only have ½ cup of puree in it, meaning that the kid is only going to get a spoonful for that course (assuming the kid eats the whole serving). The book does suggest serving whole veggies (raw or steamed) along with the meal to make up the difference, but... doesn't that defeat the whole purpose?

One of the best pizzas I ever had in my life was a vegetarian deep dish pie in Chicago. It was delicious because it was an amazing combination of flavorful vegetables that tasted great together, not because a bunch of cauliflower puree was slipped in with the cheese to bulk it up. I've always felt that with any cooking, it's important to add things for flavor, not for sheer volume. Need to serve soup to more people? Add more stock or tomato juice or whatever, don't just thin it out with water. Italian cooking is full of ways to stretch out a meal during lean times while maximizing flavor and nutrition.

I'm not a parent, and I'm not going to tell people how to feed their kids. But the idea that kids can't or won't eat vegetables is absurd, and I'll tell you why. If you include people who consume dairy and eggs, about 40% of India is vegetarian. That's 480 million people who didn't starve to death on an all veggie diet during childhood. Somehow humanity has survived for millennia without the chicken nugget. If you want to know how to get your kids to eat vegetables, ask a vegetarian. Seventh Day Adventist churches often offer vegetarian cooking classes, as do health food stores, Buddhist cultural centers, and your local hippie drum circle. I'm not advocating here for any of the vegetarian spectrum diets (even though I enjoyed it for a few years in my 20s), but if you want to know how to make veggies tasty and filling, there are entire established culinary traditions devoted to the subject. No need to reinvent the wheel with broccoli puree in your beef stew (p. 83).

04 March 2011

Veramonte Wines

The Chilean winery Veramonte was built by Augustin Huneeus starting in 1990, with the first wines released in 1996. Huneeus is a legend of the Chilean wine industry, having built Concha y Toro up as the country's largest producer during the 1960s. Veramonte was an opportunity to take advantage of the Casablanca Valley, which had mostly been ignored as a wine region.

There are five wines in the widely available Reserva series. In addition to the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir shown here, they offer a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Syrah Rosé.

2010 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc Reserva
Casablanca Valley, Chile
$12, 13.5% abv.
Heavy grapefruit pith aroma and flavor. Some stone and lime curd flavors. Bitter and tart, like lemonade that's low on sugar, though the acidity isn't as strong at colder temperatures. I found myself craving something like fried chicken--something savory and a little greasy to balance out against the citrus.

2009 Veramonte Pinot Noir Reserva
Casablanca Valley, Chile
$14, 14% abv.
Cherry, heavy tannins, tart raspberry flavors. Chilean Pinot Noir is still a relatively new endeavor, and various producers are still experimenting with different regions and methods to develop a style. It's not Oregon or Burgundy, and the ones I've tried so far remind me more of the entry-level Pinot Noirs from New Zealand. I liked this one far more than prior Chilean Pinot Noirs I've tried, though the bottle itself is still young and needs some time to smooth out. Tasted great with a grilled burger topped with blue cheese.

2008 Cruz Andina Malbec
85% Malbec, 8% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon
Mendoza, Argentina
$20, $14.5% abv.
This was a little surprise--Vermonte in Argentina? It's a partnership that was developed recently. A mild and pleasant Malbec, with plum and chocolate flavors. More distinguished and balanced than a lot of the $10 Malbecs, and worth the higher price. Since this has a subtle flavor profile, it's could work well with something like veal or sweetbreads.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 March 2011

Bodega Elena de Mendoza

Bodega Elena de Mendoza is among the dozens of wine brands under the Gallo umbrella that are produced throughout the world. This particular winery is named after Elena Napoli, who came to South America as part of the 19th century emigration of Italians to Argentina.

Monday I listed two wines made by female winemakers, and all three of these were made by Daniela Romero. It's not a deliberate trend this week, but just sort of an interesting coincidence. Priced at $8 each, these are inexpensive table wines for casual consumption. They're enclosed with composite corks, which are made from lots of little pieces of cork glued together. Frankly for this level of wine I really prefer a screwcap, especially when you might be buying full cases for parties.

2009 Boedga Elena de Mendoza Chardonnay
$8, 13.8% abv.

Overripe peach aroma, big peach and apricot flavors with a bit of sweetness. It's a full fruit Chardonnay that's going to require some spicy or strongly flavored food to stand up to it. Jerk chicken might be a good match here.

2009 Bodega Elena de Mendoza Red Blend
$8, 13.8% abv
62% Malbec, 21% Syrah, 17% Bonarda

Coffee, leather, blackberry. Big fruit profile with a slightly sweet kick. A good Argentine combination, but I would have preferred it a bit drier and more subtle. Again, big flavors are going to be necessary to avoid being dominated by the wine.

2009 Bodega Elena de Mendoza Malbec
$8, 13.8% abv

Earthy, leather, dark fruit, dry, soft cherry flavors. Definitely my favorite of the three wines, and suitable for all sorts of red meat. This one would still be a good deal at double the price.

Available from Amazon.com:

Note: These wines were received as samples.