29 November 2006

2000 Campo Viejo Tempranillo Reserva

Sometimes you have to wait until after a meal to make a good wine match.

I had lunch at a little Mexican joint here in Memphis--La Guadalupana if you're interested. It's one of those great little places that breaks out of the tacos & fajitas structure you see in the more mainstream Mexican restaurants. Those items are on the menu, but you also get a wide range of soups and seafood options, as well as dishes incorporating more authentic (but scarier to your average gringo) ingredients like tripe and tongue.

I was in the mood for something different, so I went for the barbacoa de chivo, goat braised in a rich broth made with guajillo peppers. Served with some fresh corn tortillas and the standard beans and rice, though the refried beans had a wonderful smoky flavor that hinted they had been made from scratch with love.

Goat, in case you haven't had it before, is somewhere between lamb and pork in flavor and generally has to be cooked for a while before it gets tender. The food was fantastic (particularly with the thick green hot sauce on the table), though when I got home I helped myself to a glass of Spanish wine while the taste was still lingering in my mouth. The 2000 Campo Viejo Tempranillo Reserva is from the Rioja region of Spain. (Today's Spanish lesson: Campo Viejo means "old country" or "old field".) Still some strong fruit and tannins for a six year old wine. I get some dried strawberry flavors, with that sort of ashy finish you get with some Old World wines. Occasionally reminiscent of spiced cider at Christmas.

Next time I might just have to get the goat to go.

27 November 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Brussels Sprouts

I'm amazed at all of the various members of the cabbage family that are essentially the same plant, much in the same way that a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are the same subspecies of wolf: broccoli, kale, cauliflower, collard greens, kohlrabi... There's a dozen more, but today I'm focusing on the Brussels Sprout.

I never had to eat this as a child, which meant that I never had any particular love or hate for it. Maybe my parents didn't like the sprouts, or they just never got around to fixing them, and I've never seen them in restaurants, but I've made it almost three decades without tasting the little green orbs. I say almost because last year I boiled up some, tried to eat them, and found them horrendous. However, I recently learned that some Yankees enjoy Brussels Sprouts as a Thanksgiving side dish. The secret: bacon.

Going by a Yankee recipe, I cooked three strips of bacon and set aside the meat for topping at the end. (A note on this: my local grocery store has incredible thick-cut bacon at the butcher counter. I'm notorious for buying only three or four strips at a time. It's more expensive per pound, but the quality is much better and I don't normally buy bacon unless it's for a recipe.) A shallot went into the bacon fat until clear, and then I tossed in the sprouts (washed, trimmed, and halved on the longitudinal section). Cooked for a while, added some chicken broth, and let simmer until tender.

Wow. Granted, the salt and savory flavors from the bacon and broth really help, but something about the preparation brings about an essential sweetness of the Brussels Sprouts that's rather nice. While these were cooking, I made a batch of turkey meatballs... ground turkey, breadcrumbs, sautéed mushrooms, egg, a dash of the leftover fennel & tomato soup, and a little soy sauce. Baked until nice and brown.

I know it's an odd dinner. I had this for a late meal and found it pleasantly filling and delicious.

25 November 2006

Thanksgiving Roundup

I attended Thanksgiving over at Paul Jones' place. He had a bunch of family and friends coming over, and I tagged along. In addition to the incredibly moist turkey prepared by Paul and the dozen side dishes and casseroles brought from afar, I supplied two fresh cranberry sauces (one traditional, one with orange and mint) and a roast pork loin (braised in hard cider, glazed with apple jelly, mustard, and Bourbon).

Paul enlisted my help in the search for wines, and a trip to the wine shop yielded a half dozen bottles. Those actually consumed have all been mentioned on this blog at one time or another: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Beaujolais Nouveau (got to introduce a few folks to their first sip of Beaujolais!), and the Hayman & Hill Chardonnay. I don't obsess over wine pairings with Thanksgiving; there's too many dishes with too many conflicting tastes, and I figure it's best to go with something fun and easy-drinking that will appeal to a broad range of palates and wine experience.

After dinner, the gentlemen retired to the back porch to take advantage of a few treasures brought back from Brazil by Paul Schwartz: Pousada 10 Year Old Tawny Port (made by a subsidiary of Poças in Portugal) and Dona Flor cigars. The Port was great on its own, but didn't fully develop until paired with the Maduro Robusto style cigar. The time span from the first glass of wine to the last stogie died was around six hours, definitely a pleasant way to spend Thanksgiving.

On the following day, instead of fighting the crowds at the shopping malls, Paul and I regrouped with Schwartz and his lovely family to take advantage of leftovers and another treasure from the Southern Hemisphere: cachaça, the clear sugar cane spirit that is somewhere between rum and tequila. The favored preparation is in a cocktail called a caipirinha, which has become somewhat trendy in a few parts of the US. Here's how they were prepared on Friday:

Caipirinha de Senhor Schwartz
  • 1 highball glass
  • 1½ limes (in large pieces, interior white pith removed)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ice
  • shot of cachaça (we used Cachaça Brasiliana--this is the only photo I could find online, no luck on the producer)
Put the limes and sugar in the glass and muddle heavily. Fill glass with crushed ice, and then add the shot of cachaça. Pour back and forth between two glasses until thoroughly mixed. Serve with a spoon or swizzle stick to help mix the sugar as it settles out.

Bright, fruity, and surprisingly smooth.

19 November 2006

Duck à l'Orange

The girlfriend came over for dinner tonight, and I decided to make the classic French dish Duck à l'Orange. It was hugely popular in the 60s and 70s yet seems to have fallen out of favor. I'm cooking it simply because fresh ducks are on sale right now for $10 a bird and I've never made (or eaten) this particular dish. Plus, it's another one I can check off from the Les Halles Cookbook. This project has been loads of fun, and delicious as well. The inspiration comes in part from Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. I haven't actually read it, but followed the project online and in news reports. Parker spent a year methodically cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One. Anthony Bourdain isn't Julia Child, and I'm not going to cook everything in his cookbook, but I'm picking up a lot of new techniques and flavor combinations that I look forward to incorporating in future dishes.

Back to the duck. The picture above is our five pound White Pekin, fresh and never frozen. You'll notice that this bird came with a packet of pre-made orange sauce. This was tossed out unopened. No cheating here. This is also before trimming. I cut off all the excess skin (and rendered out the fat--more on that in a bit), cut off the wing tips and set them aside with the liver and neck. Without any duck stock on hand, I boiled down a quart of chicken stock with those scraps in there for flavor and body.

Here's what the final roasted duck looked like, stuffed with cut up lemons and oranges, trussed up and dusted with salt and pepper. Total roasting time was around two hours, a half hour at a lower temperature and one and a quarter at a higher temperature. While the bird was roasting, I was pretty busy. The sauce was quite complex, involving many different steps and ingredients, and on top of that, I had decided to render down duck fat for use in roasted potatoes. I'm not going to get into all of the details of the sauce right now, but for the potatoes, I cut up two russet potatoes and coated them in salt, pepper, fresh rosemary, and tossed them with a half cup of freshly rendered duck fat, one of the most delicious substances known to mankind. I've roasted potatoes with butter and olive oil before, but the duck fat is sublime. (If I were taking a photo in the 70s, this duck would have been coated and glazed in the thickened sauce; it would be surrounded by piped rosettes of mashed potatoes, a ring of orange slices, and perhaps some vegetables slightly glistening in aspic. My copy of the Larousse Gastronomique is full of such presentations.)

Here's the final plate. Typically whenever I take pictures like this, it's of the plate I actually eat. I serve my guests first, then set my plate, take a picture, and then get down to business. Here I've got myself a breast and a leg, covered in the orange sauce (plenty of long strips of orange zest visible on top), the roast potatoes, and a stalk of steamed broccoli. The sauce was thinner than I expected, but rich and savory considering everything that went into it (my improvised stock, red wine vinegar, orange liqueur, orange and lemon juice, orange zest, the pan drippings from the roasting pan, butter, and other things I'm forgetting). Everything was delicious, and I froze all the bones and scraps for use in making stock at a later date.

The wine tonight was nothing terribly special, a $6 bargain picked out of the closeout rack. I enjoyed the Washington State Grizz Red back in March, and decided to give the white version a try. The 2004 Grizz White is made from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Semillon grown in the Columbia Valley. Screwcap enclosure. It's rather full-bodied and fruity, with medium acidity. Some fizz clings to the side of the glass. A little apple and honey linger on the palate, but otherwise it's an uncomplicated, simple Chardonnay. I remember one of the first non-sweet white wines I really liked was a Chardonnay-Semillon blend from Columbia Crest. It's pictured with a loaf of pain rustique from the grocery store, though honestly it's just a big piece of focaccia.

Final thoughts: this dish was a lot of work, and at the end of the night I'm covered from head to toe in a fine film of duck grease. However, dinner was fantastic, and the entire house smells like Christmas. We never ate duck when I was a kid, so maybe I'm just conflating descriptions I read in old Victorian stories, but the smell of roast duck and oranges provides a warm, succulent, and slightly spicy aroma that is perfect for the holidays.

17 November 2006

2006 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

Every year when this comes up, there's a mixed response... Some serious wine drinkers avoid it entirely, not giving into the marketing hype over an admittedly simple wine. And then there's the Beaujolais fanatics, who dislike Nouveau but obsess over the crus (and to be honest, I love a good Fleurie or Brouilly). And then there's those who say, yes, Beaujolais Nouveau is nice, but not until February or so.

As for me? It's a fun seasonal beverage, a way to celebrate the harvest with one of the first wines of the year. Granted, I'm not a French grape picker receiving my ration of quickly made mild wine, but a feller can imagine.

I've been to Nouveau tastings before, but I generally just stick with the old standby: 2006 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau. Once again we get the classic whiff of bananas on the nose with a little cherry behind it. Last year's edition was pretty tart, but this year shows a much smoother profile, with characteristic light tannins and a short finish.

Random thoughts: when are they going to start shipping this with a screwcap? It comes with a short plastic cork, so it's not like they're standing on tradition. I think it would definitely help with the casual and spontaneous way in which this wine is consumed.

13 November 2006

Fennel & Tomato Soup

Yet another Les Halles recipe... As winter draws near, it's getting colder, and it's time for soup. I used canned tomatoes for this recipe, and while it was simmering away I was working in the garden, cutting down my tomato vines and preparing the former patch as a compost pile in order to enrich the soil for next year.

It's a pretty simple soup that begins with an odd mirepoix: a small onion, a small potato, and a big bulb of fennel. I've run into some problems buying fennel around here--not in finding it, but the people working checkout never know what it is. One local chain has it labeled as "anise", which is fine, but once after telling the checker to look for fennel or perhaps finocchio, she finally found a little tag on the bulb with a number, keyed it in, and said, "For future reference, it's called 'anise'". Except she pronounced it anus, which drew some strange looks from the other folks in line.

Beyond that, the rest of it is just chicken stock with a little dash of herbs. Let it simmer for an hour, and then blend before serving. Couldn't be simpler.

Here's the final product, with a little cheese toast (grated Sonoma Dry Jack) and a bottle of Hornsby's Crisp Apple Hard Cider. There's not much information out there about this cider--it's made by a Gallo company, and I'm pretty sure it's made with Golden Delicious apples (or something close), but it's a nice little hard cider. It avoids the vinegar aromas that you sometimes get with hard cider, and instead focuses on a bright and sunny flavor.

The soup was a big success, especially since the dominant flavor is fennel with tomato as a supporting flavor. Fennel's not something I eat all the time, but I crave it once in a while. I really wanted to leave out the potato from the recipe, but it turned out to serve two important functions: it provided texture as well as a creamy appearance even though no cream was used in the recipe.

Postscript: I often publish these articles a couple of days after I write them or fix the dish. I like to have some time to look over what I wrote, and also I appreciate the "leftover quotient" of certain dishes. As a bachelor with a roommate of limited palate, I often end up eating my own cooking for days afterwards. This soup holds up quite well on the second day, though I elected to freeze a liter of it for use later in the winter. I've still got a bowl's worth sitting in the fridge, and look forward to consuming it alongside a club sandwich or similar fare.

10 November 2006

Moules normande

Lately I've been craving mussels. I've never lived near the ocean, though whenever I'm near the coast--regardless of state or country--I try to eat fresh seafood as often as possible. While the modern era of food shipped by plane means that the coasts are closer than ever, it's still nice to eat seafood that's as fresh as possible, and the cheapest way to do that is with mussels. Pictured at right are four pounds of live mussels picked up at Costco for $9 American. I brought them home, gave them a scrub, ditched the cracked or dead ones, and left the live ones to hang out for an hour before dinner. You've got to love the smell of live mussels; it's just like being on the beach right after a rain storm.

Previously when I've cooked mussels, I merely steamed them, and served them with a little butter and lemon. Nice, but not awe-inspiring. As part of my continuing personal education in French bistro cooking, I consulted the Les Halles Cookbook and picked the first mussels recipe, moules normande or Mussels Normandy. The French joke that the cooks of Normandy put butter, cream and apples in everything, but what's wrong with that? This recipe starts off with half a stick of butter in a large pot, followed by a shallot, an apple (I used a Johnathan), 3 slices of chopped cooked bacon, a cup of cream, a splash of Calvados (I used a little brandy and apple juice), and finally the load of mussels. Cook for 10 minutes, shaking occasionally. Serve when all the mussels are open.

The finished product was incredibly delicious. Paul and I sat there for an hour working through the mussels, sopping up the savory sauce with big chunks of French bread. The bacon really made the dish--with a little determination you could get a big mussel, a chunk of bacon, and a piece of apple, all drenched in the cream sauce. Maybe a half dozen mussels were left over at the end, when we were too full to continue.

While hard apple cider would have been the most authentic Norman companion, and I really wanted a creamy white Burgundy, I opted for the 2004 Hayman & Hill Russian River Chardonnay. Pleasantly fruity, with abundant pear flavors. Hints of honey on the nose. Nice and unoaked, not sweet at all, but the fruit flavor makes it a delightful match for the savory dish served. For $11, not a bad wine, and it definitely hit the spot with this simple yet rich dinner. I look forward to trying the other four classic mussel recipes.

05 November 2006

2005 Rex Goliath "47 Pound Rooster" Chardonnay

2005 Rex Goliath "47 Pound Rooster" Chardonnay from Monterey County, California. A nice and fruity California Chard, with lots of apple and pear flavors. Slightly floral aroma and a barely sparkling mouth feel, and some lemon notes on the finish. I'm pretty sure it's unoaked.

For $6, it ain't a bad wine.

I served it with a recipe from Rachael Ray... A modified turkey paprikash. The end result was OK, but not that far off from Hamburger Helper. Which is to say, quite delicious for a cold winter night but not anything particularly special. The Girlfriend loved it, and The Roommate has been gobbling up the considerable leftovers. I served it with some peas, steamed with a touch of olive oil and a few sprigs of fresh mint, cooked just until tender. (Mint really helps with peas--trust the French here.)

Last year I made an authentic paprikash, using chicken thighs and with traditional spaetzle dumplings, again made from scratch. The end result was incredible, but my dining companion and I only had a small bowl apiece and then we retired to separate couches and spent the next four hours not moving and only groaning occasionally. It was good, but damned heavy.