29 February 2012

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Salty Pamplemousse

Sometimes when I crave things that are odd or outside the mainstream, people think it's an affectation or that I'm deliberately trying to be weird. Quite the contrary--there are a million flavors out there and only so many meals you get in your life. And typically anything odd that I try is beloved by hundreds of thousands of people somewhere. I think in the American diet from WWII to the present we abandoned a lot of things for various reasons: tea and coffee are bitter, so mask the bitterness with sugar and cream and other flavors. Organ meats are weird and the things we used to have to eat during hard times, so we must shun them and only eat the muscles. Fish somehow shouldn't smell like fish, and thus we praise the flavorless white fillets where the only flavor comes from the fried batter encasing. Processed cheese is deliberately engineered to remove any texture or aroma or flavor of "real" cheese. Wine should never be earthy, it must always be big and fruity. And so on and so forth.

The following cocktail was made in praise of bitterness, namely in the form of grapefruit juice. No sugar or other sweeteners, just the tart bitter joy of a half glass first thing in the morning. And while I had a half gallon in the fridge and some free time on a Sunday afternoon, it was time to use the ingredients lying around the kitchen to make a new cocktail.

Mixing two different cocktail recipes together is generally a bad idea. A Michelada Margarita is a recipe for disaster. A Rob Roy Wine Spritzer would... I don't even want to contemplate the flavor. But I put a few things together in my head with this one, and was very happy with the result.

Benito's Salty Pamplemousse Cocktail
2 oz. Gin
2 oz. Unsweetened Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice
Tonic Water
Dash of Fee Bros. Grapefruit Bitters
Kosher Salt

Start with moistening the rim of the glass with water and dip into a dish of the salt of your choice. Pink Himalayan would be an attractive and decadent choice for a trendy bar. The rest is easily mixed in the glass with ice. Combine the Gin and Juice and Bitters (the name of my upcoming rap album under my stage name "Ice Tongs" featuring "The Boston Shaker"). Stir carefully with a bar spoon so as not to dislodge the salt, and top off with tonic water. Serve immediately.

This is the accidental cross between a Salty Dog (vodka + grapefruit juice) and a Gin & Tonic (er, gin + tonic water). The idea was to boost the bitterness of the former with the quinine of the tonic water and botanicals of the gin. The sugar in the tonic water would mediate things a bit, the effervescence of the tonic water would make it a little more fun, and the bitters would add that little touch to make it special, like good bitters always do. As for the salt, if you've never had salted fresh grapefruit it's one of the greatest things in the world. I detest salt on margaritas but here it's divine.

The flavors all work quite well together, and I am sure that the ratios could be tweaked a bit to perfect it. But I found one to be just right on this bright, sunny, warm day during this preternatural winter we're experiencing. As always, if you try one of my original concoctions, please let me know what you think in the comments or by e-mail.

27 February 2012


Recently I was staring at my old baking sheet and marveled at its smooth, nonstick surface. It's not due to a Teflon coating or an anodized finish. Rather, food doesn't stick to it because it's been in continuous use for 40 years.

It's an Ekco, perhaps from 1972 as best Mom can recall. A sheet of steel that was probably stamped out in a Rust Belt factory just like thousands of others. It has a brother--a round sheet that's pretty battered and beaten but can still cook a pizza. When I was a kid this baking sheet was used to make biscuits and cinnamon rolls and cookies and lots of other baked goods. Since it was handed down to me in the mid-90s, I've used it for those purposes as well as a million other things. Yesterday it was used to heat up frozen crab legs dusted with a little Old Bay seasoning.

It was difficult to get a good shot of the cooking surface, since you're looking at black on black. So I took it outside and first snapped a shot of the bottom. Not quite as seasoned, but there's nothing shiny or gray. A little rust here and there.

Despite four decades of use the baking sheet isn't warped or bent, and it doesn't have any holes from rust or damage. It won't last forever, but it's certainly performed far beyond what anyone could have imagined.

When you're photographing something that is dark, it helps to go with brighter light, and you can't get a lot brighter than the sun on a clear day. In this picture you can see some of the patterns in the patina, but more significantly the nonstick coating that has built up over the years allowed me to see my own reflection. A white t-shirt, a big SLR camera over my face, and the blue sky behind me.

This pan and a few bowls and other items are remnants from my parents' wedding in 1972 and early years together before I came along in 1976. Sunday they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. As I gaze into my reflection in this otherwise unremarkable piece of metal, I know that I'm in the pan and the pan is in me. The food cooked on it allowed me to grow up and build bone and muscle, and every meal meant a few iron atoms that strayed from the pan to the food to my bloodstream. Likewise, I've burned myself on the pan many times, adding my own contribution to the patina of the lip and edges.

There's a lot of enthusiasm about that which is new and exciting and sparkly, but there's also a great deal to be said for that which is still going strong after so many years and shows no signs of stopping.

24 February 2012

Cupcake Wines

I have tried a few Cupcake wines in the past. I was reminded of the brand recently when my mother was getting ready to host a big baby shower for my cousin. She asked my advice for wines to get for the occasion, and I wasn't terribly helpful--I spend so little time in retail shops in town that I can't really recommend something specific that's here in town. Usually I direct someone to a trusted shop in their neighborhood and put them in the hands of our city's best retailers.

Mom said, "Have you heard of Cupcake wines? I've heard they're good for parties." I think this might be the first time that Mom had asked me about a specific wine label, and I pointed out that it's not just a single location, but rather a brand that gets wine from all over the globe and labels it. Nothing wrong with that, and there are many companies doing the same thing. But from anecdotal evidence I've heard that the Cupcake wines are popular at baby showers, bridal showers, and other such hen parties. And I say that not to condemn the wines from a male perspective--each bottle must be judged on its own merits. But I'm always a fan of making wine less intimidating and easier to pronounce for the average American consumer. You don't need to be able to read the Greek alphabet or have a working knowledge of German to ask for these wines. And if we want a robust American wine market, we need brands like this.

NV Cupcake Prosecco
Prosecco D.O.C., Italy
100% Glera (Prosecco)
$14, 11.2% abv.

Crisp and refreshing with big bubbles and a splash of lemony acidity. Not the most complex Prosecco I've ever had, but it's a serviceable midday sparkling wine for casual lunches. I served it with sweet potato soup that I made for Julia, one of her favorites.

2009 Cupcake Red Velvet
47% Zinfandel, 29% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petite Sirah
$14, 13.5% abv.

A very interesting yet distinctively Californian blend. I love creative red mixes but this one goes in the sweeter direction. Great berry flavors and low tannins, and better cold than at room temperature. For me, I'd serve this as a dessert wine (it's really not that sweet, just my preference for drier wines). But if you're just dipping your toe in the red wine pool, this might be a good non-threatening way to start. Served with thin pork chops and roasted peppers, a rerun of this memorable meal.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

22 February 2012

Musings on the Manhattan

As long time readers should know, though I enjoy inventing new cocktails and having fun with mixology, at heart I adore the classics. My two favorites are the Martini and Manhattan, and which one I prefer at any given moment depends a lot on mood and atmosphere and the ingredients at hand.

A bad but serviceable Martini can be made in pretty dire circumstances: a clear liquor, a shaker of ice, and a brined vegetable or strip of citrus peel, and you can achieve something bracing but able to perform the work at hand. I prefer a Martini as an aperitif, something strong but bracing and crisp that gets you ready for four courses and half a dozen different wines.

The Manhattan is different. It requires a higher degree of civilization. Whiskey/Whisky can be found everywhere, but bitters and Sweet Red Vermouth are a must, and so many bad variations are made in bars that it's often a losing proposition to order one in the first place. I once ordered said cocktail in a bar that shall not be named, and the bartender said, "Manhattan. Got it. Crown Royal and Dr. Pepper. Give me one second." And I said, "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? Good day, sir!" I swear that the silk ribbon on my top hat positively wilted at that egregious faux pas.

Your worst Martini might have ruined rotgut vodka that spent a few hours in steel tubing, but a bad Manhattan ruins years of barrel aging in oak. Keep these things in mind when you're mixing drinks.

When I'm in the mood for a Manhattan, it's normally with the company of other guys and as a prelude to a dinner of hearty red wines and lots of rare red meat. To do it properly, you need control over your own ingredients. Better, older whiskey will make for a better Manhattan, and quality bitters are essential.

Here I lined up the various components I assembled after a long, hard day at work, and a desire for something relaxing but dignified:The end result was amazing, rich and spicy and with layers and layers of complexity. Even the cherry, the weakest part of the whole cocktail, was delightful upon consumption. When you have the opportunity, take the time to craft the very model of a modern major Manhattan, and enjoy the warmth and relaxation that flows from the glass.

20 February 2012

When I was a kid and couldn't drive, and Memphis was a somewhat less metropolitan city than it is now, I did get to try a lot of interesting foreign foods via my father's adventurous palate. But at other times I had to try and make them myself using cookbooks, ingredients available at the nearby grocery store, and my own limited skills. Sometimes I made something delicious, often I had so little concept of what the final product was even supposed to look like that I ended up with a big plate of failure.

For the past few years, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts, which remind me a lot of my early fascination with Public Radio and some of the more obscure shows that would air at odd hours. I like a lot of the comedy-themed podcasts, but one directly related to this blog is The Sporkful hosted by Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison. The two guys debate about food in various ways, sometimes going into strange minutiae like the best strategies employed at a buffet. I enjoy listening to the show, but it hasn't really inspired me to try something new or different--they tend to focus on foods that are not too far outside of the mainstream. However, the show has a handful of snappy slogans, including two that have generated some inspiration, or at least direction with my food consumption, production, and writing: "we're obsessively compulsive about eating more awesomely™" and "eat more, eat better, and eat more better™".

In this new year, perhaps our final if the Mayans are correct, I'm trying to be a little more adventurous. Not just in weird ingredients, because I've done a lot of that, but challenging my cooking techniques and approaches to food. With that in mind, today I decided to tackle something that I'd heard of, but had never eaten, and did my best to make it authentic. Congee, or juk, or 糜, or whatever you call it, is rice porridge. Normally when you make rice you use a 2 parts water/1 part rice mix, but with this you start with 8:1 and can go as high as 16:1. You end up with a thick, gelatinous, milky white porridge that serves as a base for all kinds of things.

I decided to use a few scraps from the refrigerator, which is traditional (this is a common breakfast dish of leftovers as well as a hangover cure, not to mention the fact that the rice porridge is supposed to be very easy to digest for anyone that is ill). I used shredded pork, bok choy, fried shallot rings, and a raw egg. I let the egg sit for a while, and then I added soy sauce and Srirarcha and mixed everything together. Even though this was my first time eating the dish, it was surprisingly comforting and mellow, not odd or exotic in the least. Salty and savory and smooth and crunchy all at the same time, not quite a soup and not quite a stir fry, but its own unique texture and sensation. If there were some way to prepare this quickly I think it would be the perfect backpacking food. I would have killed for something exactly like this after scaling a 10,000 ft.+ peak in the Rockies.

Like phở, I think a great strength of congee is the customization and economical use of leftovers. Next time I make this, I think I'll do it for a group and use chicken broth instead of water, and lay out a few extra ingredients like shredded chicken or tofu or other vegetables. It's always exciting to discover a new food, and even better when you can easily make it yourself and find great variations in the future.

17 February 2012


For Christmas, Julia got me an assortment of gitfts including some looseleaf tea and a strainer from Teavana. Here you're looking at the Celestial Temple blend, a Chinese high-elevation mix of black tea leaves.

I am not a tea expert or a snob. While I appreciate using a tea ball or other device like this strainer for using looseleaf, 99% of my tea consumption in my lifetime has been via bags. At work I mostly use bags of green tea, herbal tea, or Earl Grey depending on my mood and the season. I often head to the coffee maker and hear a yelp of "It's not ready yet" when I'm just siphoning off some hot water from the release valve on top of the machine. That's what the spigot is for, people.

In fact, for the past week I've had a little seasonal sinus trouble, and a gentle green tea with the perfect amount of dried orange peel made the start to each day so much happier.

At right you see a double dose of the Celestial Temple in the Teavana strainer, resting in a Pyrex measuring cup. Normally you just use a mug for a single serving, but I wanted to capture the color of the tea while it was steeping. The tea is rich and aromatic, with notes of flowers and honey. It's nice because you get a full-bodied brew and the requisite caffeine kick but with great complexity and interesting aromas that will be fun for the wine enthusiast.

I do have to mention that growing up in Memphis, tea was one of my earliest beverages and one of the first things I learned how to make. Though always in the iced form. Brew four bags in a half gallon of water for five minutes, remove bags, add a quarter cup of sugar, let cool, pour into pitcher and cover. The alternative was reserved for holidays: essentially an Arnold Palmer called "Payne Tea" after my Mom's maiden name. We would squeeze lemons and make pulpy gallons of this beverage and, to this day, none of us have ever suffered from scurvy.

High school got me into hot tea, partially as an extension of Anglophilia but also as a desire to try as many different culinary traditions as possible. Celestial Seasonings was widespread at the time and I had a blast working my way through their boxes of teabags. A night with the South American "Morning Thunder"/yerba mate was a transcendental experience of listening to trance radio and not sleeping for 36 hours. But these days, I approach tea in a much different way. I don't add milk or sweeteners or anything else. Just the leaves, in water slightly lower than boiling, and sip at the temperature that makes me the happiest. Sure, I get some weird stares occasionally and people wonder why I'm looking at my watch for a few minutes before I drink something, but the ritual and the swirling of the colors in the water always make me happy, whether at work, or sitting in an airport, or crouched on top of a mountain where it's taken forever to get the water up to temperature. As you sip the tannic liquid you can reflect upon centuries of British tradition and more centuries of Chinese/Indian agriculture, or you can simply accept the caffeine hit, let your belly get happy from the warmth, and be glad about the whole process... until the mug goes cold and it's time to start over.

15 February 2012

Craggy Range Wines

When I received the wines of Craggy Range from New Zealand, I experienced that momentary thrill that I get whenever something has taken a very long trip from the farm to the table. Yes, I know that with that statement, millions of locavores suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I like the eating local thing when the season's good and the region's good. When it comes to drinking local, I like our local beers but otherwise everything else is coming on a truck or a plane or a boat from a very long way away. The green tea leaves that gently stained the water in my teacup this morning like an artist's brush resting in a jar of mineral spirits came from somewhere in China. Everyone gripping a Starbuck's cup is holding onto something that came from Colombia or Kenya or Indonesia or elsewhere.

There are heated arguments over shipping costs and packaging costs and lots of other factors, but at the end of the day I am that six year old boy staring at the globe while lying on the floor, checking out all of these interesting places on the bottom of the sphere. Why is New Zealand a separate country from Australia? What does New Guinea have to do with New Zealand or New York or New Jersey? Why do all the pictures of New Zealand in National Geographic look a lot more like Ireland or Scotland instead of the South Pacific? As a child, I had to seek out these answers, and today, the luxury goods of the islands are delivered to my doorstep. What a wondrous time to be alive.

2011 Craggy Range Kidnapper's Vineyard Chardonnay
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
100% Chardonnay
$20, 13% abv.
Very interesting for a Chardonnay. Lots of green apple and pear, balanced acidity, slightly tart. Fascinating and ultimately delicious with some grilled shrimp with lime. The name of the Vineyard comes from Cape Kidnappers in Hawkes Bay, where Captain Cook's crew got into an altercation with the locals and they tried to nab a Tahitian servant from the H.M.S. Endeavour. A bit ironic that they named the cape after that event when later, Cook would die after attempting to hold Hawaiian King Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage.

2010 Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
80% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec
$20, 13.5% abv.
When this first arrived I was thinking that it was a Pinot Noir and let it rest in the cellar next to other representatives of that grape. And then when I served it, I knew it was something much different. While mellow and mild, this has definite structure and the balance of black cherry and leather and chocolate is incredible. Highly recommended and a great bargain, not to mention showing that New Zealand has an opportunity to do some Bordeaux or Meritage blends that can stand out.

I hesitate to quote directly from press releases or company websites, but to explain the name of this wine I could not add anything to the following: "Te kahu means 'the cloak' in Te Reo Maori and refers to the mist that envelops our Giants Winery in the Tuki Tuki Valley. Legend has it that this mist was used to protect a mythical Maori maiden from the sun as she visited her lover Te Mata."

Another two wines, another two stories, and that little globe of cardboard with raised mountain features continues to spin at the slow rate of once per day, in a dance around the sun 365.25 times a year...

Note: These wines were received as samples.

13 February 2012

2008 Biltmore Estate Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs

Over the past couple of years I've tried several wines from the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Recently I was contacted by a PR firm offering various wines from the Biltmore, and looking back over my notes, I saw that pretty much the only thing I hadn't tried was bubbly from North Carolina itself instead of California. A couple of weeks later, this bottle showed up at the house.

Now, it's not purely from the Tar Heel State, but it's close enough, and I was impressed. I was also impressed with the bottle of sparkling wine that Joe brought from Georgia, and of course most in the know are familiar with the delightful Gruet bubbles of New Mexico. And on top of that, I was pleasantly surprised by my recent encounter with the fizzy Moscato of Moldova. If you know what you're doing, good sparkling wine can be made in a lot of interesting places.

I still haven't forgotten my encounter with Belarus, though. Shudder

2008 North Carolina Blanc de Blancs Chateau Reserve
Méthode Champenoise
100% Chardonnay: 88% North Carolina, 12% California
$35, 12.4% abv.

The nose is light with a faint tropical fruit note. It's crisp and clean with a touch of lemony acidity. Decent bubbles with a short finish. I served this with a salad before a dinner of roasted pork, and I ended up sipping on it throughout the entire meal. A good complement with food and generally a fun wine to imbibe. It's not often that I enjoy vintage sparklers and I'm curious as to how this one will develop over the next few years.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

10 February 2012

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Admiral Benbow

The Admiral Benbow Inn. It's a place where Jim Hawkins stayed in Treasure Island, and it shares a name with this cocktail I'll get to in a moment. But for anyone from Memphis, there's a far different association.

There are good hotels, affordable but clean motels, and places that are a little sketchy but sometimes the only option when there's a big convention in town or you just need a few hours of shuteye before getting back on I-40 heading toward one of the coasts. There are the places that show up on the news for various criminal activity, and then there's the Admiral Benbow. By the 1980s it was a haven for all sorts of weird, sad crime. If you had a friend who called in tears and needed a ride home at two in the morning, it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to find him at the Admiral Benbow, missing his car, wallet, and most of his pride.

It was the site of the 1986 Memphis Trousers Affair, in which former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was found in the lobby wearing nothing but a towel, and confused as to where his pants were.

This is an older and somewhat obscure cocktail, but it contains classic ingredients and proportions. You're supposed to use Plymouth Gin, but in tribute to the Inn I went a little downmarket with a regular domestic gin.

The Admiral Benbow Cocktail
2 oz. Plymouth Gin
½ oz. Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
1 oz. Dry White Vermouth
Garnish with Citrus Peel and Maraschino Cherry

Combine everything but the garnish in a cocktail mixer with ice. I tried one shaken and one stirred, and found that I preferred the cloudy appearance of the shaken version. Reminded me a bit of some bad motels I've stayed in across the country where you get a glass of water from the tap and it has to settle for a few minutes before it's no longer cloudy.

The cocktail has a nice balance of elements, though the lime juice covers up most of the vermouth. Sort of a very tart martini, and while it won't be in the main rotation, I think I'll come back to it every once in a while. The stories alone are worth it.

08 February 2012

Benito vs. Homemade Pasta

On a Sunday morning, Benito woke up tired and weary, and resigned himself to a meagre lunch of spaghetti and marinara. Granted, the marinara was homemade from good canned San Marzanos, and he planned to amp it up with the pork rillettes in the freezer, but a half hour of thawing and ten minutes of boiling were all that were required for said meal. And then he looked in the pantry, and saw that he had only orzo and stelline, tiny pastas better suited to soups. But he did have eggs and flour, as well as a manual pasta roller.

He'd made pasta with varying results in the pursuit of delicious ravioli, but felt it was time to crack the knuckles and attempt a proper noodle. First, the dough. Simple 1 egg per 100g of flour (about one cup). He used two of each and after some vigorous kneading, had a little dough ball that needed resting. He pulled off a bit and ran it through the rollers to produce the taglierini at right. Not a perfect batch, but a decent proof of concept. Those noodles were tossed aside while waiting for the dough to rest and develop properly.

He mused on the whole eggs vs. egg yolks debate, but elected to keep it simple with whole eggs. Besides, there was no lemon pie in desperate need of meringue.

His manual stainless-steel pasta machine had nine levels of thinness, a nice square number. Some skip levels but he always works through the process methodically, two passes per setting. In the past it's involved sweaty brows and sore arms, but on this Sabbath he fell into a rhythm and took pleasure in the work, much like the feeling of accomplishment after mowing a yard or painting a house. (Rather not like taking shingles off a roof one hot Memphis summer, which left Benito with a pair of jeans full of holes from all the exposed nails.)

The moment of truth is when you get to the seventh level of thinness and think, "Maybe it would be better to make lasagna." But he persevered, and continued with the rolling, only occasionally dropping the handle to the ground where it clattered like a 11mm wrench falling through the engine of a car only to lodge in some obscure nook. Fortunately the space under the kitchen table is less complex and does not require a telescoping wand with a strong rare-earth magnet on the tip.

Another decision point. The pasta machine has two sets of rollers, one for the wider tagliatelle and one for thinner taglierini. He decided to try a sheet of pasta to see how the tagliatelle looked. And they were perfect. Picture perfect and delicate and even fitting within the 6mm specifications set by the EU.

Taking the story of Solomon and the baby far too literally, he split the dough in half and processed half into wide noodles and half into thin spaghetti-like noodles.

Time to let everything dry, a step that doesn't show up a lot in cooking unless you're making jerky or dried green beans or other survival fare. One can of course cook fresh pasta right away, but he realized that he couldn't eat all of it in one setting (even with two dinner companions), and that it might be good enough to hang out for a few days in the freezer.

There are different ways to dry pasta: on spindly wooden pasta trees (not the other kind of pasta tree), on sheets or towels, in adorable twirled nests, or made in a dry climate more like Albuquerque than Memphis where the noodles will quickly dry themselves on the trip out of the machine.

The next decision point: which to use with his carefully made sauce and pork rillettes? The sauce was already simmering away, awaking from its winter hibernation with wakeup shots of red wine, balsamic vinegar, and a few other dashes of magic. He turned to the internet, where Facebook users had been following the progress, and ultimately went with the advice of the German reader. After all, Nudeln mit Schinken is delicious and the Germans know their pork. Plus, he was still a little concerned that the tiny noodles might fall apart.

The end result was divine, with the sauce warmed in a skillet, combined with the freshly boiled pasta and a little pasta water until everything came together perfectly. He grated a little Romano cheese on top, finding the unique tang of sheep's milk to be a good fit for this dish.

As for the wine, he had an extra bottle of that 2004 Il Borro in the cellar, and felt that what had began as such a simple dinner deserved a really fantastic wine. Everything came together so perfectly, like magic, and Julia and The Roommate were equally enthused about the meal.

The next day, it was time for Benito to try some of the leftover sauce with the thinner noodles, the taglierini. They performed admirably but between the two he felt that the wider noodles provided a better dining experience, allowing better sensation of the flavor and texture of the homemade product.

Later, he collected photos and began reminiscing over a regional favorite, BBQ spaghetti, served at locations like Leonard's Pit Barbecue and too many church potluck dinners to mention. And he reflected on how a long and laborious process had brought him right back to a dish of his childhood. And while he thought that his was more refined and the pasta better presented, he thought back on both, and smiled.

06 February 2012

Clayhouse Tasting Samples

From the good folks at Clayhouse in Paso Robles came this sampler via TastingRoom.com. I've gone through many of their tiny bottles, and in honor of this tasting, I made a batch of "Munchkin Burgers" with a nod toward Julia's love of The Wizard of Oz.

Small beef burgers topped with homemade red onion marmalade, smoked cheddar, mesclun greens, sliced Roma tomatoes, and a variety of crazy mustards, because I have at least half a dozen in the icebox at any given time. And of course, a nice cold Claussen pickle to accompany the burgers and fries.

A brief note on ingredients... While I was a cheddar fiend as a child, enjoying all levels of mild/medium/sharp/etc., covered in wax or not, I really didn't like smoked cheddar. I'd eat it with the same enthusiasm I employed while chomping down the questionable abalone dish at Dah Wah near Rhodes. Interesting but not something I'm going to seek out often. Yet as with Scotch and a few other things, I've discovered that smoked cheddar is amazing, even if it refuses to melt and is difficult to separate into single slices.

The meal was delicious, and fun to try with the variety of wines. I've had plenty of Clayhouse wines in the past, and have liked the various Paso Robles blends that made their way to my glass. And for the record, these are all Paso Robles wines...

2009 Clayhouse Estate Cuvée Blanc
40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Roussanne, 20% Viognier
672 bottles made
$23, 13% abv.
Light, mild, slight apricot aroma, low acidity, mellow mouthfeel.

2008 Clayhouse Estate Malbec
86% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot
672 bottles made
$35, 14% abv.
Plum and spice with low tannins and a long, delightful finish.

2006 Clayhouse Hillside Cuvée
56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Petit Verdot, 7% Malbec
3054 bottles made
$33, 14.5% abv.
Black cherry and pepper with a touch of green bell pepper.

2006 Clayhouse Estate Cuvée
Rhone blend with Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah
3960 bottles made
$30, 14.6% abv.
Plum and licorice, mellow and mild, soft tannins, full-bodied.

2007 Clayhouse Show Pony Petite Sirah
98.5% Petite Sirah, 1.5% Syrah
1620 bottles made
$40, 14% abv.
Nice black cherry and licorice, touch of chocolate and leather, soft tannins and delicious.

2007 Clayhouse Estate Petite Sirah
15000 bottles made
$23, 14% abv.
Nutty, earthy, rich black cherry. Great example of the Petite Sirah grape.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

03 February 2012

Book Review: The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South

Full disclosure: I'm good friends with the authors of this book, as well as a few of the people covered in it. However, for the past year, whenever I've invited the Knipples to come over for dinner or to help me empty some wine, they were out of town tracking down people and recipes for this book. Doing serious writerly legwork on the road instead of helping me drain some Chilean wine while we swap tips about where to find hibiscus flowers in syrup and weird organ meats in the Mid-South. So while I'm glad that the book is a reality and not just a polite excuse after I served them haggis tamales, I'm going to call this even on the journalistic ethics front.

I first met Paul and Angela when they reached out to me in 2007 to have a little gathering of Memphis food and wine bloggers at a Mexican restaurant downtown. I knew we'd hit it off when they bypassed the gringo fare and went straight for the cactus appetizer. At the time they wrote about local food and related topics on a blog called Squirrel Squad Squeaks, though over the years they rebranded with the more essay-driven From the Southern Table. And of course, the book has its own website, which features a calendar of book signings and other events throughout the Southeast in the next few months.

The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South
By Paul & Angela Knipple
Foreword by John T. Edge
The University of North Carolina Press
$35, 296 pp.

While you can pre-order the book at Amazon using the above link, fellow Memphians might want to attend the official launch party at the local independent Booksellers at Laurelwood, formerly Davis-Kidd.

Don't let the cover mislead you: this is not a collection of Southern classics like cornbread and collard greens, though those dishes make appearances. Rather, it's a look at the increasing cultural and culinary diversity of the South and how such cooking traditions have settled and adapted in towns small and large in this corner of the United States.

The new South is a different place. Within walking distance of my abode in a fairly vanilla suburb of Memphis, I have two Thai restaurants, a Vietnamese place, two Indian restaurants and a third grocery store, two Japanese sushi bars, and more. I now encounter old Russian ladies working at local supermarkets, and whenever I say "Спасибо", I get an involuntary response of "Пожалуйста" followed by a chuckle at the short Irish guy spouting bad Russian. Less than 20 years ago, this was still farmland, and even 10 years ago it was just a sea of fast food joints and chain restaurants.

Each chapter focuses on a chef or a restaurant, telling the story of how that person or family came to the United States, and concluding with a couple of choice recipes. (Memphians include Pepe Magallenes of Las Tortugas and Wally Joe of Acre.) In places, anecdotes and cooking tips are included as sidebars. It's a fascinating oral history project that has the added benefit of making you very hungry.

It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite formative cookbooks, Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors (Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother). He was writing from experience in the relatively cosmopolitan cities of Chicago and Seattle as well as lots of world travel. I was excited to have one book that had dozens of chapters focused on specific world cuisines, each with an introductory story/history lesson, quotes from friends, and four or five recipes. For someone that would go on to get excited about wines from Colorado, Moldova, and India, it was a book that combined Gourmet with National Geographic. (And come to think of it, the Hawaii chapter had a drawing of a topless native...)

For me, the best part of The World in a Skillet was reading about Haitian food. I've never been exposed to it and have never thought to seek it out, despite a love of Cuban, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and other styles of cooking that are collectively Caribbean but so individually unique. I can't wait to try out the recipe for queue de boeuf, which combines two of my favorite things that never made Julie Andrews' list: habaneros and oxtails.

The book is a great read for either short or long stretches and builds upon a unique strength possessed by the authors. They both have distinct and interesting personalities but are able to collaboratively write in a third and separate voice. I've known them for years but when reading their essays or this book I can't pick out which parts are Paul's or Angela's. I can edit or be edited, but I can't write with a partner to save my life, and I admire that talent. Think about that love and friendship when you're reading the book, and it will let you know how they were able to get so many people from so many different backgrounds to contribute to this effort. Best of luck to them both, and I can't wait to read the next one.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

01 February 2012

2009 Clos de los Siete

Just in time for the 7th anniversary here at BWR comes a bottle called Clos de los Siete, French and Spanish for "Enclosed Vineyard of the Seven [Investors]". Originally seven investors and vineyards banded together to promote their own wines as well as contribute to blended wines under the Clos de los Siete marque. I didn't see a website for the operation, but Alder Yarrow visited in 2010 and has a lot of information about the properties and specific region of Argentina.

When the bottle first arrived, I snapped a photo and thought "Malbec" and set it aside to let the bottle rest and cool for a few days before sampling it. The first taste revealed more complexity than I was expecting, and I peeked at the list of grapes. Really a fascinating mix while remaining majority Malbec. I enjoyed it with roasted pork and a few steamed vegetables... Nothing special, but I was in the mood for a light dinner and the flavor of the pork shoulder was great with this bottle.

2009 Clos de los Siete
Mendoza, Argentina
57% Malbec, 15% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 3% Petit Verdot
$18, 14.5% abv.

Great red blend with a good bit of heft to it. Firm tannins, big body, and lots of dark fruit. Blackberries and plum, touches of cedar and tobacco, long finish. 50,000 cases were produced, and imports from Argentina are somewhat easier than the former Soviet Bloc, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find this wine. While I normally recommend flavorful red meats with Malbec (beef, lamb, buffalo, etc.), this one is more delicate and I think needs to go along with duck, pork, or veal. If you get a chance to try it with any of these, let me know what you think.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.