30 May 2011

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
2007 Ecco paperback edition with updated forward and interview at the end
$10, 312 pages.

My copy of this book looks like hell. Not because I've read it that often, or because friends have abused it, or it got damaged while I kept it near the stove like some religious talisman.

It looks like hell because, mere hours after receiving it from my boss on a business trip to Cleveland, Ohio, it and the rest of my luggage sat in the rain on the tarmac as my flight got cancelled and I looked forward to a short stay in a nearby hotel.

About an hour after finding out that my plane wasn't taking off, and this was around midnight, a young female ramp agent came into the terminal with my luggage. It was dripping water, but she was more soaked than my bag. Before she could say anything, I thanked her for bringing my bag, and asked for her supervisor's name because I wanted that person to know how much I appreciated her getting it to me so that it wasn't lost in the system overnight. A handshake turned into a hug, and she broke down into deep, full-body sobs. She didn't have to say anything. I knew that she'd been yelled at and cussed at and on top of all the verbal abuse, had run around on concrete during a thunderstorm for the sole purpose of getting me my luggage.

My father once loaded bags on airplanes, and I can remember him coming home soaked in sweat, rain, and aviation gasoline. No matter how hard you work, there will still be bags that get scuffed, soaked, or even lost. It's natural to be frustrated with this, but don't take it out on the poor guys that are out there every night, exposed to the elements, breathing jet exhaust and slowly suffering hearing damage.

I bring all of this up because, although Kitchen Confidential is notorious for its celebration of sex and drugs and rock and roll, the real message is that it is all about the guys who are sweating, grunting, and getting burned and cut behind the kitchen's swinging door.

It's been 11 years since the book came out, and while I read it then, I've read it every two or three years since. I gave away my original copy, got it from the library once, and now have this memorable version. I think it still holds up pretty well, though it's funny to watch the career trajectory of Bourdain since then. He's no longer counting potatoes every morning, but has hosted a variety of food and travel shows. He's become a blogger. He's dialed back his attacks on some of the Food Network personalities while ramping up others, and recently took on the James Beard Awards, and his tweets are mashed up with those of Ruth Reichl for the bizarre Warhol-esque creation Ruth Bourdain.

The book is still well worth reading, because despite the humor and violence and other fun bits, it's part of a significant trend that has been going on for the past 15 years or so: going behind the scenes. For most movies, we now have the option to watch deleted scenes, interviews, or watch the movies with the commentary of the director and actors. There are shows like Dirty Jobs and How It's Made that show industrial processes or the labor required to perform tasks you may never have thought of before. The cable channels abound with shows about loggers, crab fishermen, ice road truckers, and others. Used to be that maybe a relative or a friend took you on a factory tour to show you how washing machines were put together. Now there are hundreds of such opportunities available without leaving home.

I'm not expecting everyone to mentally hear Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man every time they order dinner or get an oil change, but I'd like to think that the massive curiosity and interest in the background processes that keep the country moving might lead to a new era of respect and civility. Or perhaps folks will continue to demand their steaks cooked into charcoal briquettes and then berate the waitress into tears before leaving without a tip. But one can hope.

27 May 2011

Big House Wines

I've reviewed a few Big House Wines over the years, but I recently made contact with the winemaker, also known as "The Warden", Georgetta Dane. While a name like that sounds right at home here in the south, she's from Suceava, Romania where she worked in the historic wine industry of the region.

She and her husband Corneliu won an immigration lottery and moved to Monterey, California to work for Kendall-Jackson and eventually she became the winemaker for the eclectic and mischievous Big House wines, designed and marketed around a prison theme. To this day there are people that still think the wine is made on the grounds of a state penitentiary and the grapes are picked by convicts, but this is not the case. Frankly I'm more curious if there's some Fetească Neagră or Tămâioasă Românească growing in some experimental patches.

Here are two recent releases, which were tried in the 750mL bottle form, but they are also available in the convenient 3L Octavin packaging.

2009 Unchained Naked Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
$10, 13.5% abv.
Light apricot aroma, mild body with just a touch of lemony acidity. As the name implies, this gets no oak, and it provides a mellow and light drinking experience. Very refreshing, and perfect with my little grilled chicken salad and fruit.

2009 The Usual Suspect Cabernet Sauvignon
90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Grenache
$10, 13.5% abv.
Bacon fat and cherry, spice cake on the finish. Touch of tobacco, medium tannins. Interesting splash of Grenache in this wine, and it's always cool to see how Cabernet Sauvignon gets blended without French-style restrictions. I had this with some grilled flank steak tacos and found it to be a good pairing for the hearty beef flavors.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

25 May 2011

Meat, Wine, Man Time

For many years, my friend Paul and I have gathered on a Friday or Saturday night for the Three Bs: beef, booze, and bad B-movies. The definition has shifted a bit over time, with the quality of all three components increasing. Early on it might be hot dogs, Zima, and a film with the production budget equivalent to the cost of a used car. Now it's likely to involve decent wine, ribeyes, and something that at least got nominated for an Oscar, though a recent viewing of the Rutger Hauer grindhouse masterpiece Hobo With A Shotgun shows that we're always willing to enjoy the classics.

On a recent visit, the massive gourmet burgers you find on steakhouse lunch menus were on the menu. From top to bottom, my burger was as follows: bun, lettuce, tomato, Stilton, flame-grilled burger, pickles, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, bun. Towards the end a fork and knife were necessary as the medium-rare preparation started to fall apart.

2008 Steak House Wine
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Columbia Valley, Washington
$15, 13% abv.
The wine has dominant aromas of blackberry and black cherry, medium tannins with a full fruit flavor, some smoke and coffee scents as it warms up, and a long, lingering finish. It comes from The Magnificent Wine Company, makers of this as well as Fish House (Sauvignon Blanc), House Wine (white) and House Wine (red--see below). While I'm not a fan of the label design, you can't deny that it's unique and easy to recognize. And true to its name, it is a delicious pairing with good beef.

On the next such occasion, Paul provided a pair of red wines and grabbed BBQ from the Germantown Commissary, a local joint that provides delicious 'Q in a small space. The restaurant was within walking distance of my high school and for a long time I lived and worked close enough to grab a sandwich there when I was in the mood. The movie for this night? The 1988 classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

2007 House Wine Red
Columbia Valley, Washington
32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Syrah, 30% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 2% Zinfandel, 1% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petite Verdot
$12, 13.5% abv.
Nose of blueberry and blackberry. Mild fruit profile with a light body and brief but present tannins. Fun flavor for such a broad range of grapes. Nice finish, and it held up well with the pulled pork.

One thing I've always loved to do is eat the sandwich over the beans. Over a few bites enough stray pork will fall in to make the slow-cooked beans even better. Hot sauce is also a must, but tragically interferes with enjoyment of a soft red wine like this. If you like your BBQ spicy, a sparkling wine is often a great choice.

After dinner with cleared palates, there was also the option to try a wine that Paul had opened up the previous night, a higher end Napa selection.

2008 Black Stallion Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley
$65, 14.5% abv.
Leather, licorice, coffee, black cherry, a touch of cigar and beautiful balance. The tannins have mellowed out well, though I imagine the wine would continue to improve for the next few years. Highly recommended if you get a chance.

23 May 2011

Pernod Wines: Stoneleigh & Wyndham Estate

Pernod Ricard is an international conglomerate based in France that owns many spirit and wine brands around the world. Beefeater, The Glenlivet, Kahlúa, Courvoisier, Absolut... it's very likely that you've had a Pernod product recently or even have a few bottles in your home. Here I've got a set of wines from two of their properties from the Southern Hemisphere: Stoneleigh of New Zealand and Wyndham Estate of Australia.

The PR firm had some story suggestions to go along with these wines. I normally ignore these, because either the timing is odd (there are only so many wines that you can cram into a Mother's Day post) or because I lack the knowledge to pair up each wine with a soccer player for an upcoming World Cup match. But these were fairly interesting, so I gave them a shot.

2010 Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc
$17, 14.4% abv.
Strong grapefruit and lime aroma, bold acidity and a long, tart finish. The challenge for these wines was to come up with a crazy BBQ pairing, something beyond burgers and hot dogs. With the Sauvignon Blanc, I'm going to recommend the grilled shrimp on sugarcane skewers that I made a few years ago. At the last minute dash with a little lime juice, chopped cilantro, and thinly sliced jalapeño peppers.

2009 Stoneleigh Pinot Noir
$17, 14% abv.
Classic wild strawberry aromas, but with a deeper bacon fat and slightly smoky aroma. A nice glass for slow sipping and sniffing over an hour or two. For this one, I picked another former dinner from the archives: smoked duck with fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat. Trim off the big chunk of fat at the tail of the duck as well as the wings, and trim off any other dangling skin. Render out the fat ahead of time and use that for the potatoes. The last time I did it I smoked the duck using hickory, but I think I'll stick to a fruit wood like apple or cherry in the future.

2009 Wyndham Estate Bin 333 Pinot Noir
South Eastern Australia
$10, 13% abv.
Tart raspberry aromas and flavors. Smooth with low tannins and a short finish. I've had some mixed experiences with Pinot Noirs of Australia and Chile in the past, but I find that they are getting better and more varietally correct with each vintage.

2008 Wyndham Estate Bin 555 Shiraz
South Eastern Australia
$10, 13.5% abv.
Black cherry, touch of tea, medium tannins and a long chery finish. I really love this profile in inexpensive syrah, and it tends to be a good match for lots of casual fare. The challenge for this set of wines was to write about your first Syrah/Shiraz, or a particularly memorable one. My best experiences with this grape have come in Rhône blends or wines made in that style. The first magical experience was with a Côte-Rôtie. Not only did it seem exotic and interesting to blend Syrah and Viognier, but the wine was delicious and perfectly balanced. Every sip evoked a "wow", and I was sad when the glass was empty.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

20 May 2011

Rob Roy Cocktail

The classic cocktails are a lot of fun to make, but ordering them usually results in disaster. Unless it's a bar that cares about mixology history, you're likely to get something very strange. If it's purple and involves Sake and Chambord, don't call it a Martini. If you order a Sidecar and the bartender reaches for a can of Dr. Pepper, walk away.

The Rob Roy hails from New York in 1890, and is a variation on the popular Manhattan cocktail that was only 20 years old at the time. Whereas the Manhattan calls for rye whiskey or Bourbon, the Rob Roy incorporates Scotch as the primary spirit. The two drinks end up very different. A Manhattan is smooth and even a little sweet. A Rob Roy is bone dry and almost medicinal. The Scotch really amps up the aromas and flavors of the vermouths, and the whole thing just smells old, like opening up a chest that hasn't been touched in fifty years, or walking into a building that has lots of wood paneling, some cigarette smoke permanently bound to the walls, and the lingering presence of old products like St. John's Bay Rum aftershave or Vitalis hair tonic.

The Perfect Rob Roy Cocktail
1½ oz. Blended Scotch Whisky
¼ oz. White Vermouth
¼ oz. Red Vermouth
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Maraschino Cherry

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the cherry or a strip of lemon peel. I used Black Bottle Scotch for this--please don't use your good single malts. A blended whisky like Dewar's White Label is great for this drink (and appropriate, since the cocktail was pushed by the recent arrival of Dewar's in New York). This version is "perfect" because it incorporates both sweet red and dry white vermouth. The standard Rob Roy just uses red, a dry one just uses the white, but I think you get a more balanced beverage with both.

I'd suggest this one on its own for an afternoon cocktail or as an after dinner beverage. It's got such a strong flavor that you're likely to mess up your palate for food or wine during dinner.

Thanks to Bella who found the scent of the drink fascinating but was not permitted to sample it during her modeling duties.

18 May 2011

Crawfish Boil

A year ago, my friends Grace and Marshall hosted a crawfish boil on Mother's Day. It was partially to celebrate their new house, and partially to celebrate the holiday, and partially because Mars lived in New Orleans for years and you don't need much of an excuse to gather friends and cook up a bunch of mudbugs. This year they pushed it a week later, and amazingly, Memphis got hit with a cold snap. While May is normally the beginning of our dear River City's sweaty season, the temperature dipped down to a pleasant 16°C/60°F. I was ecstatic but the ladies were running to grab hoodies and huddled inside for a while.

At the first crawfish boil, a particular crustacean who exhibited stamina and good cheek was pardoned and adopted as a household pet. Louie survived for almost a full year, happily nibbling on kitchen scraps. Considering that Procambarus clarkii spends most of its time in ditches gnawing on dead fish and other detritus, Louie had it made. I'm just holding a random crawfish here, but this year's honored arthropod has been named Louie II, perhaps because of his resemblance to the 9th century French monarch Louis le Bègue. (Young Ian preferred the name Peter Parker, but that got a maternal veto.)

I don't have the exact recipe, but here's how the crawfish were prepared. They were rinsed and purged ahead of time, with the dead ones tossed aside. Mars and his friends have been in the restaurant business for years, and we all know that you don't take chances with shellfish. A massive cauldron of water was put on top of a propane burner like you use for a turkey fryer. Zatarain's Crab Boil was added, and the pot included red potatoes, corn cobs, whole onions, and entire heads of garlic. Let it all cook to perfection, and them dump the whole mess on a table covered in newspapers and let proper manners be damned.

28kg/60lbs of crawfish were cooked for about a dozen happy eaters. That sounds like a lot, but when you're just "pinching tails and sucking heads" there's a lot leftover. A lobster yields about 25% edible meat, while a crawfish is only about 15% edible. (With lobsters it's also easier to eat things like the tomalley and roe, and it's not really worth picking apart a crawfish.) The best part is the succulent, sweet tail meat that looks like a small shrimp when you peel it and strip out the vein. A fun part of a crawfish boil is when you dig through the pile and find a really big one, which means that you can get a little claw meat out of its pincers.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is now brewed just outside of Chicago, but I still associate its 150 year history with Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over time the public image of the beer has changed substantially while the product has remained the same. It was a respected American beer, then it was a solid working-class beer, and by the 80s it was almost a joke, consumed by the elderly or those who couldn't spare the extra buck or two for the marketing giants like Coors and Budweiser. In the past ten years, the brand has exploded as an ironic hipster favorite, like listening to vinyl or collecting old View-Masters.

There's a time and a place for a cold, crisp, uncomplicated lager, and a crawfish boil is that kind of occasion. You're eating spicy food, getting shells and legs everywhere, and you're talking to your friends. It's not a time to ponder and argue about hops and barley or about the bitterness level. This isn't the time to get your greasy fingerprints all over some beautiful label that was printed on sustainable organic paper with a Banksy design. No, just sit back and enjoy yourself and don't overthink it.

16 May 2011

DelMonaco Wines

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance". The term is best known for its association with the trippy art film of the same name, but it's a concept that I often think about when sampling wines from The Other 46, the lesser-known wine regions of the United States. Some of the world's finest wines are sweet, but bumping up the sugar content is also a way to hide some rougher flavors in bad wine. Lots of factors go into winemaking, from the ripeness of the fruit to the type of oak or lack thereof, to the adjustable levels of sweetness or alcohol content or acidity. There's no one perfect way to make wine, but great ones in every style category are marked by exceptional balance above all else.

To be honest, most of the wines that I've tried from my home state of Tennessee as well as other parts of the south and midwest have fared poorly on the balance metric. Sometimes it's because of using a lot of the wrong kind of plastic that imparts a chemical aroma, sometimes it's an effort to make everything tooth-achingly sweet, and sometimes it's an attempt to force a certain variety of grape to grow in a place that God never intended. But I was pleasantly surprised with a recent selection of wines from DelMonaco Winery of Baxter, Tennessee, a town halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. While there was some wine production here in the 19th century, Prohibition and a general favoritism for whiskey and beer meant that wineries weren't legalized until 1977. Our state's wine industry has more in common with countries like Lebanon than it does with California, in terms of recent rebuilding of an agricultural tradition from scratch.

While DelMonaco does produce several sweet grape wines and other fruit wines that are popular in this part of the country, the samples sent to me by winemaker Jesse Pender mostly represented their dry offerings, with both European and American hybrid grapes. It's really the first example I've seen of a serious winemaking culture taking hold in the Volunteer State. I was impressed by the lighter style of many of the wines, both in body and in alcohol content.

2009 DelMonaco Vivance
70% Traminette, 30% Chardonel
$14, 11.5% abv.
Grass and grapefruit with a firm bitter peel aroma. Dry but fruity with a light grapefruit flavor and bright acidity. There's no foxiness in these hybrid grapes, and the wine has various similarities to Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Great pairing with seafood. (Side note: because not everyone accepts blue glass for recycling, consider reusing this bottle for olive oil, vinegar, as a flower vase, or some other function in the kitchen.)

NV DelMonaco Espirtitu de Oro
50% Cayuga, 50% Riesling
$15, 11.5% abv.
This "spirit of gold" wine is made in conjunction with nearby Tennessee Tech University, with part of the proceeds going to the school. Cayuga is a hybrid popular in the northeast, with a complicated pedigree. Winchell and Moore's Diamond were crossed to create Ontario. Ontario and Zinfandel were crossed to create Schuyler. Schuyler and Seyval Blanc gave birth to Cayuga. Peach and apricot with a little honey underneath. The flavor is dry with nectarine and white plum flavors. Balanced acidity with a smooth finish. I'd love to see this with quail or wild duck.

2009 DelMonaco Cabernet Sauvignon
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec
$19, 11.5% abv.
This blend seems to be in the spirit of a lot of Washington and California blends these days, with the Bordeaux+Syrah combination. Black cherry, touch of licorice, a nutty aftertaste. Light body with low tannins. This was the first of the wines that I tried, and I was truly surprised. It's not Napa or Bordeaux, but it's possibly the best Cab Sav that I've had from a non-traditional wine region. The problem I've noticed in the past generally revolves around over-oaking or going for a tannic bomb that's never going to age properly. Since this one is so mild, it's definitely a drink now wine, and should go well with lots of pork dishes.

2008 DelMonaco Shiraz
93% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec
$19, 11.5% abv.
Powerful nose of blackberry jam and black pepper, but a very restrained mouth profile. Again, a lighter hand was involved to keep the grapes from smacking you upside the head. This one is stronger than the Cab Sav, and would work well with steak or other red meat dishes. Curious use of "Shiraz" for an American wine, but it's possible that fans of Yellow Tail and the like are better acquainted with that name.

NV DelMonaco Blackberry
100% Blackberry
$17, 11.5% abv.
I'm glad this one was sent, because fruit wines are a traditional part of our state's terroir. Yes, it wasn't legal to make wine until 1977, but there's a long history of preserving fruit in a way that's a bit more fun than jelly. I've had several blackberry wines over the years, and they all taste pretty much the same: sweet and with a strong blackberry flavor and aroma. There's just not a lot of complexity that you get from sweet fruit. This one follows that profile, although it gets a bit of a darker, muskier flavor that you get from eating blackberries off the vine versus the ones in little plastic trays at the grocery store. I think this would be good with cheesecake or goat cheese during a dessert course, but I can also see using a splash of it in sparkling wine for an ersatz Kir cocktail.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

13 May 2011

Argento Wines

Last year I tried a Malbec from Argento Wine, but that was just one out of over two dozen bottles produced by the company. I got an opportunity to try five more recently, three of them representing grape varieties that are traditionally successful in Argentina.

2010 Argento Cool Climate Pinot Grigio
$13, 13% abv.
Slight musky nose and a bit of a dark honey flavor. Bone dry with a little crisp finish, and overall a deeper, darker form of Pinot Grigio. What does "cool climate" mean? It's not a strictly defined term, but they also have a regular Pinot Grigio. In this case, it refers to the high altitude valleys of Rivadavia and Uco in the foothills of the Andes. In other parts of the world you can have cool climate vineyards either through proximity to the poles (Canada, England) or cool ocean currents (Chile) or both (Tasmania). While most Pinot Grigios call for fairly weak food pairings, this one would be strong enough to stand up to a heartier pasta dish like spaghetti alla carbonara.

2010 Argento Torrontés
Procedencia Salta
$13, 13.5% abv.
This comes from way up north near the Bolivian border. Bright pineapple aroma, floral, mineral finish. Tart acidity. Medium body. This is a delicious, fascinating wine and is highly recommended. It would be a lot of fun to serve to someone who has never had a Torrontés before. Roast up a bunch of quail, lay out some figs and goat cheese, and have a blast.

2009 Argento Cabernet Sauvignon
$13, 13.5% abv.
Mild aroma of blackberries and cherry. It has a thin body with low fruit and low tannins, really restrained for a Cabernet Sauvignon. It's the only cab sav I've ever had that was light enough to pair really well with grilled salmon.

2009 Argento Bonarda
$13, 13.5% abv.
Big nose of raspberries and pomegranate. Tart red berry flavors, medium tannins, and a long finish. Bonarda is also known as Charbono in California, and originally comes from the Savoie region of France where it's called by names like Corbeau and Charbonneau. It's mostly been a blending grape, but as always, I find it interesting to taste these on their own. Like Malbec, it's a French grape that has really flourished in Argentina and is the country's second most planted grape.

2009 Argento Malbec Reserva
$16, 13.5% abv.
Dark plum and earth, with a touch of ash. Low tannins, a soft, round mouthfeel, and a balanced fruit flavor. Smooth and tasty now, but should be even better in a couple of years. Excellent bargain, and highly recommended for any red meat dish.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

11 May 2011

Santa Carolina Wines

"Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the mooorning..."

I had to sing Carolina in the Morning back in first grade. For some reason, there was a big push for 1920s Tin Pan Alley songs in the early 80s. I'll catch an old movie late at night on TMC and suddenly I'm singing along involuntarily with some silly little ditty like California, Here I Come or Baby Face. That really doesn't have anything to do with wine, and I don't condone drinking these or other wines in the morning, but when I saw the shipment of Santa Carolina Wines from Chile the old choir programming kicked right in.

The winery goes back to 1875, when Luis Pereyra Cotapos invited some Bordelais winemakers over to help establish the vineyards. Now the company has a pretty broad range of products, with around 35 different bottles representing sparkling, still, and dessert wines. These wines come from around the middle of the range.

2010 Santa Carolina Pinot Noir Reserva
Maule Valley
$11, 14.5% abv.
This is interesting, because it has a light raspberry nose, but a much darker plum and blackberry flavor. There's a lot of depth here, not really in terms of complexity, but rather that it smells light but has a much more full bodied, dark taste to it. This one could even stand up to a strongly flavored red meat like lamb.

2010 Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva
Colchagua Valley
$11, 14% abv.
Green tomato leaf, black cherry, and a little tobacco. Firm tannins, a little bitter, and strong dark fruit. Great Bordeaux profile, though it's a little young right now. Should be ready in two or three years.

2008 Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva de Familia
Maipo Valley
$20, 14.5% abv.
Plum and chocolate, blackberry and a bit of coffee. Medium tannins and a long, rich finish. Delightful right now, but I get the impression it could wait a little longer. Both of the Cabernet Sauvignons were enjoyed with steak and fresh spring vegetables.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

09 May 2011

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry

When most people think of Hawaii during the first half of the 20th century, they think about Pearl Harbor and a post-war vacation paradise. You don't hear a lot of details about life there during WWII, and that's mainly because it's difficult to do so in polite company.

Sailor Jerry was a cantankerous yet highly skilled tattoo artist who spent most of his life in Hawaii, settling there after a Depression-era stint in the Navy. After Pearl Harbor, the islands became hugely important to the Pacific war campaign, and thousands and thousands of young men passed through with plenty of free time and cash burning a hole in their pockets. The islands delivered with loads of bars, whorehouses, and tattoo parlors all clustered together for easy, drunken access.

There's a great documentary called Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry that details the man's life as well as this curious but unspoken chapter in American history, complete with photos of the tattoos both beautiful and obscene. When Jerry was tattooing "twin screws" on a sailor's rear end, he wanted to make sure that the ship's propellers were drawn accurately and with technical details. He studied the long history of Japanese tattoo art, refined his craft over time, and even invented his own inks and tools to produce better and more vivid work. I don't have any tattoos (I've always felt freckles make for a bad canvas), but I've designed many over the years for other people and find the art form fascinating.

Jerry died in 1973, but his designs remained popular and continue to be inked and marketed today. The rum bearing his art and name was introduced in 1999 by Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, two of his proteges. While rum is made in Hawaii, this one comes from the United States Virgin Islands. It's a territory of our great nation by way of a treaty with Denmark in 1917--just in time for Prohibition to halt 300 years of profitable distillation. Rum production and sale were outlawed, though it was still available from the nearby British Virgin Islands. Imagine a tourist in the 1920s. "Welcome to beautiful St. Croix! Would you like a Pepsi? We'll put an umbrella and a piece of pineapple in it so you think you're having fun!"

Sailor Jerry Rum
$25/1.75L bottle, 46% abv.

Unlike many spiced rums (I'm looking at you Captain Morgan), this isn't sweet, but rather subtly flavored with a proprietary blend of spices. I get some cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, with maybe a little pepper. It's a gentle application, whereas the brew I made last year was pretty potent. The Sailor Jerry is buttery and delicious, dry and smooth with just a little kick of black pepper on the finish. You can use it in cocktails if you want, but frankly it's great over ice and goes beautifully with a cigar. Despite the higher alcohol content it's not hot or astringent, but pace yourself.

* * *

You can purchase the DVD of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry or you can watch it online for $3 via Amazon.com.

06 May 2011

Spaghetti & Meatballs

When I was a wee lad, spaghetti was a common dinner but was always made with a chunky meat sauce that came from the printed recipe on a Ronco pasta package. My first exposure to actual meatballs came at one of the Grisanti family restaurants, and bore very little resemblance to the rubbery chunks packed in cans of SpaghettiOs®. Later on, I'd obviously learn the joys of meatball subs and some traditional Italian-American preparations that were the size of a fist and would rest in your stomach like a lead cannonball.

I recently got a craving for this American classic, and found the ingredients close at hand. A pound of ground meat (beef, pork, venison, lamb, goat, or any combination thereof), one egg, a quarter cup of bread crumbs or cereal or something starchy, a dash of milk, some shredded Parmesan cheese, a dash of Worcestershire, and some oregano/thyme/whatever seasoning you're in the mood for. Mix all that up in a bowl and then scoop out quarter cup mounds on a cookie sheet. Bake at 180°C/350°F for 20 minutes, or broil for 10 minutes. Just get them browned on the outside but not dried out.

In the meantime, prepare a pot of tomato sauce. Use the jars if you want, or do it from scratch, or combine a jarred sauce with cans of diced tomatoes and other goodies. Splash in wine and other tasty things. Add in the meatballs and allow to cook just below a simmer for three or more hours. I left them exposed for the photo, but go ahead and submerge all the meatballs in the sauce and put a lid on the pot. Don't let it boil or get too hot--you don't want the roiling liquid to rip apart your meatballs. A gentle heat just under the simmering level will provide the perfect savory braising environment.

These can be served in many ways, but I say go for the classic: a nice plate of spaghetti. Spoon some of the sauce over the noodles first, then ladle in as many meatballs as you can handle. Three was plenty for me, and I'm looking forward to the leftovers. Since I was already in a goofy 1950s mood, I made a salad out of chopped iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and bleu cheese dressing. Frankly, I found myself really wanting a red check tablecloth and some Dean Martin music. At the very least, a particular Billy Joel song would have been perfect.

Now, if it's late at night and you find yourself craving that simple BBQ sauce they serve with meatballs at wedding receptions, just mix equal parts ketchup and grape jelly, heat it up in the microwave, and try not to burn yourself while sneaking around the kitchen. For a fun variation, use equal parts ketchup, apricot jelly, and Dijon mustard. It's got a much better flavor and if you've got a properly stocked refrigerator, it should be easy. Heat up your sweet little sauce, warm up a pair of meatballs, and enjoy that late night episode of M*A*S*H and reminisce about hanging out with your dad and eating sausage and biscuits during reruns in the 80s.

04 May 2011


Flag of ArgentinaAlex Elman started out early in her wine career working in sales and production for Perrier-Jouët Champagne. Later, she worked in wine trading with her stepfather and got exposed to the import world. But by the age of 27, she had gone completely blind from complications related to diabetes.

Elman continued working in the wine business, and in 2009 decided to release Argentinean wines under her own label. These bottles shown here represent the first release in the fall of 2010, which also includes a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

I don't always use alt image tags, but felt I should for this one showing the detail of the label with the raised BrailleBraille on wine labels is nothing new, although it's often ignored. Due to space limitations on labels, there's only so much information that you can provide in such a format. Handheld devices combined with QR codes might be a good solution for providing more detailed information in the near future.

On this closeup, the Braille spells out "Malbec", while the other label says "Torrontés", and in case you're curious, the title of this post simply reads "Alex Elman Wines". The labels also show Elman's seeing eye dog Handley, a yellow Labrador. Dogs and wine keep popping up in the oddest places. Some are working dogs like Handley, some keep people company at wine shops and tasting rooms, and others, like mine, alert me to the arrival of new deliveries.

2010 Alex Elman Torrontés
12.8% abv.
This has light peach and apricot aromas, fresh and subtle rather than jammy or concentrated. The fruit flavors are balanced with low acidity, a round mouthfeel, and a short finish. I'd really like this with some roast pork stuffed with dried apricots and walnuts. Torrontés is a little mysterious, since it's most likely derived from European grapes bred together in California and then exported to Argentina during the Spanish colonial period. It's sort of the white version of Malbec in that Argentina turned out to be a perfect environment for it, while there's little planted elsewhere in the world.

2009 Alex Elman Malbec
13.5% abv.
If you ever wanted to explain to someone what a basic young Malbec tastes like, this is a great example. It's got a meaty profile with blackberry and ash aromas. Solid dark fruit flavor with medium tannins and a long finish. It's the combination that I remember from the first dozen or so that I tried. Like many Malbecs this will pair with almost any red meat, and don't be afraid to use a full-flavored sauce like reduced red wine and shallots or a stronger marinade like soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 May 2011

Buried Cane Wines Redux

I first wrote about Buried Cane Wines in December. They have redesigned the look of the labels for the current releases. There's an overall theme of woodcut printing, so while some of the nicknames might sound like vineyard terms they are unrelated. A grape vine would not do too well with only a single leaf. (Single leaf refers to an individual print that might be framed, as opposed to a print for a book.) I like the new look, whenever I look at old book illustrations I think about doing all of the tiny little cuts into a block of wood, backwards so that there's a positive impression on the paper. It's an incredible amount of work for something that might simply be in the margin.

In each case, the wines are built from a combination of vineyard sources throughout Washington State.

2009 Buried Cane Single Leaf Riesling
100% Riesling
$12, 12.7% abv.
Stainless steel fermentation
Fruity pear and apple nose, light body, medium sweet. Paul and I had this wine with some bacon-wrapped scallops. I've never paired Riesling with that before, and it was a match made in heaven. Absolutely delicious.

2009 Buried Cane Whiteline No Oak Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
$14, 13.3% abv.
Stainless steel fermentation
Bright acidity and a light mouthfeel. There's a slight apple aroma to it. It's overall fairly mild and light, so you'd want to serve this with something that's not too strongly flavored, like roast chicken and potatoes or trout. Has anyone settled on a great name for unoaked Chard yet? I've seen words like Virgin and Naked and Unwooded. No Oak gets the idea across pretty simply, but it remains to be seen what catches on in the future as there's more demand for such wines.

2008 Buried Cane Roughout Cabernet Sauvignon
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Syrah
$14, 13.4% abv.
Blackberry and a touch of coffee, with firm tannins and a full-fruit profile. As it warms and breathes, a green tomato leaf aroma emerges. It's a solid Cabernet Sauvignon at a great price, and is ready to drink now.

2008 Buried Cane Heartwood Red Wine
78% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 7% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise
$25, 14.1% abv.
Rich elements of blueberry, chocolate, and a bit of coffee. A lot of wineries will toss in a cheap red blend in their profile that's made up of the various random grapes around the vineyard, but this "Red Wine" is really quite well blended in a great Rhone style. I loved this one with roasted lamb chops.

Note: These wines were received as samples.