30 December 2007

Eggs and Bubbly

A few weeks ago I saw a link to a video of Gordon Ramsey cooking eggs. It looked pretty good--sort of a modified English breakfast without the beans or sausage and somewhat more appetizing. That's not to deny the glory of the full English--when I've gone to Europe I would occasionally have the English breakfast when I wanted a break from coffee and a buttered roll. I'm also surprised that pork & beans has never really caught on in the South as a breakfast food.

I love that video, by the way. He doesn't measure anything, he burns the toast, and in a few short minutes he's got an awesome dish. When my craving couldn't hold back any longer, I decided to make this for dinner the weekend before New Year's. I substituted sour cream for the crème fraîche and though not pictured, I did have a slab of applewood smoked ham with the rest of it.

Frederic is celebrating "Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine". After reading a few posts I thought, damn, that Ramsey recipe would be great with a sparkling wine. So I when I made this I decided to pop open a bottle of the 25th Anniversary Roederer Estate Brut NV, an Anderson Valley, California sparkler made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. It's got a slightly yeasty, toasty nose with tons of bubbles. In fact, the crackling of the bubbles is audible--I thought I had static in my speakers until I isolated the source. (Though it's a little late, I was listening to Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Those brushes on the drums create a bit of a hiss anyway.) The wine has a crisp acidity, with hints of strawberries and lemon. The aftertaste is amazing, and it's always nice when you can lick your lips after a sip of wine and recapture the flavor.

Note that rather than expensive crystal, I've poured the wine into a $2.00 grocery store novelty flute with stars and "2008" stamped on it. The glass is also pretty thick, and it never hurts to have some sturdy Champagne glasses on hand.

Back to the food: I left my eggs a bit more runny than Gordon did--I prefer mine a little underdone. But Lord Almighty, this was delicious. It's the first time in recent memory that I've literally attacked a plate of food, and it's a good thing that I was dining alone. The eggs are a whole other texture and flavor experience than you're used to, and the roast tomatoes burst with flavor and juice that runs down your chin. Had one of my dogs nudged me during this feast I likely would have growled and snapped in his direction.

A tip: the chef pulls this off in what appears to be a stainless steel pot, and I used the same. It was a mess afterwards, and I think you could probably get a similar result with non-stick, which is normally what I use for eggs.

28 December 2007

Hess Wines

Friends of mine and regular readers of this blog know that I rarely drink the same wine multiple times. I'm always excited to try something different, and the variety of producers and grapes out there means that I could sample a different bottle every day for the rest of my life and I wouldn't exhaust the great bounty and variety of the wine world.

There are times, though, when for reasons of comfort, nostalgia, or simply the desire to support a reliable producer, that I return to an old standard. Hess was an early favorite in my wine-drinking life, and it remains a beloved wine. It will never compete with Silver Oak, it will never be as prevalent as Yellow Tail, but it will always have a place on my table.

The 2005 Hess Chardonnay ($12) is a great little wine. I've always been impressed by the Hess labels: hunter green for Chardonnay, burgundy for Cabernet Sauvignon, both with gold foil printing. A heraldic lion passant, all caps Proteus type, and a simple line border around it all.

The wine has a nice, well-rounded, fruity flavor without being flabby or tart. I like to grab a bottle for cooking, which means that a glass or two go into the sauce or soup and the remainder is enjoyed amongst friends while getting ready for dinner. It matches well with a broad range of appetizers and stands well on its own.

The 2005 Hess Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). Black cherry, leather, nice smooth finish. Simple, dignified, and a good match for dinner: in this case, a marinated London broil braised in beer and beef broth with stew vegetables for several hours. It's rare to find a Cabernet Sauvignon under $20 that tastes this good.

25 December 2007

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve dinner in Italy tends to center around fish, sometimes more than a dozen varieties at one table. Lunch the next day moves towards a big platter of salumi, but I thought a simple and refreshing seafood lunch would be perfect on Christmas Day, especially since a heavy family dinner will come later.

Pan seared sea bass, baby Brussels sprouts, and a little salad made from raw fennel, clementines, and pine nuts with a little balsamic vinaigrette. Garnished with some fennel fronds, which in retrospect look a lot like pine garlands.

2005 Ruffino Orvieto Classico, made from 50% Grechetto, 30% Procanico, 10% Verdello, and 10% Canaiolo Bianco. It comes from Orvieto, a little town in Umbria about halfway between Rome and Florence. Aromas of asparagus, a little wood, and a touch of vanilla. The wine itself has a crisp acidity with a smooth finish and light citrus and melon flavors.

I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and happy holiday season. Now get off the internet and spend time with friends and family!

23 December 2007

Christmas Songs

The photo at right is mine, from a few years back when we had a White Christmas. And speaking of "White Christmas", how about some of my favorite unknown Christmas songs?

These are songs you're not likely to hear on the radio, in a Christmas special, or in the mall. Not terribly obscure, but not famous either. Here I've posted links to the lyrics and videos where available, though if you want high quality audio you'll have to get them from the iTunes store or other online music store.

Christmas Jazz in General: There's lots of covers of all the traditional favorites, both secular and religious, but some are truly outstanding. Look for amazing albums by Chet Baker or the solo piano work of Dave Brubeck, including rarities like "Cantos para Pedir las Posadas".

"Fairytale of New York": In 1987, Irishman Shane MacGowan (front man for the Pogues and general example of what not to do with your life) recorded this Christmas song with Kirsty MacColl. It's the tale of two old drunks yelling at each other interspersed with happy Irish folk Christmas music. It's one of those reminders that if you find yourself depressed for even a second during the Christmas season, listen to this and you feel 100% better about yourself. Sort of an Irish blues song, also the source of some controversy this holiday season due to the un-PC lyrics. Here's the classic 80s video

"Christmas Wrapping": 1981 novelty hit by Ohio New Wave band The Waitresses. This one does pop up on the satellite music channels used by shops from time to time. It's a five-and-a-half minute long stream of consciousness story about a single woman at Christmas who eventually gets together with her dream guy. I enjoy it more for the peppy beat than the story, even though I smile every time I hear this part:

A&P has its pride in me
With the world's smallest turkey
Already in the oven, nice and hot
Oh damn! Guess what I forgot?

I'll pull off a glorious dinner party and then while cleaning up I'll find something like roast hazelnuts that I forgot to include in a dish. Audio only, no video

"Oi to the World": California punk band The Vandals recorded this in 1996. It's the story of two warring British bands (the punks and the skinheads) who nearly kill each other yet come together on Christmas. As violent as it is, it's oddly touching. It's also really fast, which means it helps to read the lyrics before hearing it. I tend to prefer the 1997 No Doubt version, which includes a ska trumpet section and is a little easier to understand. Vandals Live Video / No Doubt Version

"Il Est Né, Le Divin Enfant": Had to have one obscure classic in here. This is a lovely French carol about the birth of Christ. Recorded versions include a lot of boys choirs and hippie-folk Quebec arrangements, but I like the one by the Abbey Road Ensemble. Here's one arrangement from a church chorale

21 December 2007

Benito vs. the Trout

The winter months naturally lead me towards stews, braises, and various dark, comforting dishes. However, external factors (such as The Girlfriend) lead me in the direction of lighter, healthier fare. Such was the inspiration for this dinner.

I got a couple of deboned rainbow trout and threw them in foil pouches stuffed with cilantro, sliced limes, diced chayote squash, butter, white wine, and assorted spices. My side dish involved grilled endives, though they weren't as good as when I have cooked them on an actual fire grill.

The fish was amazing, and got rave reviews all around the table. The wine I picked out was a good summery companion, the 2006 A Mano Bianco. This is a wine that comes from the bootheel of Italy, known as Puglia (or Apulia in English). It's made from 50% Fiano and 50% Greco, which means I get to add two more grapes to my list. It's light and refreshing, with great lemon notes on the nose and the palate. Short finish, good chilled or at room temperature.

Dessert was provided in the form of clementines and an interesting cheese... more on that later.

19 December 2007

Late Night Delight

An afternoon nap is a rare pleasure. Say it's Saturday and you've been running errands all day and decide to lie down and read for a bit. It's two in the afternoon and you nod off. Then nobody calls, the dog doesn't bug you, and all distractions disappear against the white noise backdrop of winter rain. Suddenly it's six o'clock and half the day is gone. This presents the odd situation of being fully awake at midnight and hungry as a bear. I decided to pan-cook a steak, have a bit of wine, and watch a movie.

Here's the 2004 Dow Douro Reserva Vale do Bomfim from the Upper Douro Valley of Portugal. $12. 40% Touriga Franca, 40% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), and 20% Tinta Barroca. Light spice, raisin, and anise aroma, cherry flavors with firm tannins. I think anyone who likes Port should try regular Portuguese white and red wines from time to time to remind them what the grapes taste like before the fortification.

For a fun side dish, I steamed a bag of baby zucchini, though the package used the British/French name courgettes, which I think is a lovely word. On top of that, this meal sounds like a band from the 50s: T-Bone and the Courgettes. Yes, ol' TB&C, famous for their novelty jukebox hits "Dr. Grillopolis" and "Sham-a-lam-a-squash-tastic". Largely forgotten in the grand scheme of things, their recordings on the Green Gourd label remain highly prized among doo-wop enthusiasts in eastern Iowa. Formed by a short-order cook and his three waitresses when the diner burned down, the story of the magical musical quartet tragically ended when their tour bus was buried under a mountain of prize watermelons at the 1959 Indiana State Fair.

17 December 2007

Benito vs. the Sheep: Lamb Shanks

First off, thanks to Angela over at Kirby Wines and Liquors for helping pick out the wine: the 2004 Robert Hall Rhone de Robles. It's a Paso Robles blend of 44% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 11% Cinsaut and 5% Counoise. Here's more info on Counoise. It's got great blackberry and blueberry aromas, with a creamy mouth feel and excellent dark berry flavors.

The South joins the great cuisines of France, Italy, and China in that it celebrates nearly every part of the pig. Ears and ankles and intestines aren't all that uncommon. But when it comes to the ovine cuts, we're far more restricted--this just isn't sheep country. Mutton is hard to come by (and for good reason, though I hear that it makes decent BBQ up in Kentucky). Lamb legs, chops, and rib racks are increasingly common, and can be found for reasonable prices at Costco. Shoulder is harder to come by, and it is often horribly overpriced. I've never seen lamb neck, tenderloin, or sausage in this town, though I'd love for someone to prove me wrong.

On this occasion, I decided to cook a cut of lamb I'd never eaten before: the shank. This is like the section of your leg from the knee to the ankle, incorporating the tibia and fibula but not the knee joint or tarsals. Watch out for hanging tendons and ligaments. Your standard "leg of lamb" is the upper hip portion around the femur. I grabbed the shanks at the Schnuck's in Cordova, where they come two to a pack.

I basically followed Jamie Oliver's recipe, which involved putting each shank in its own foil pouch containing herbs, vegetables, and white wine. The vegetables included carrots, cherry tomatoes, and leeks, and I did insert a slug of herbed butter into the heart of each shank. For a side dish, I made a gratin of cauliflower made with Cheshire cheese.

Dinner was well received by all, which included perennial dinner companions The Girlfriend, Paul and his fiancée Grace. Dessert consisted of Stilton cheese with 20-year-old Sandeman Port. A great savory dinner for a cold winter night.

12 December 2007

Turkey Sandwich & Yuengling

Back in 1995, I had a sandwich in Pittsburgh. That doesn't sound too exciting, but I've been thinking about that sandwich for a dozen years and just got around to recreating it. But first, let's talk about Pennsylvania beer. Namely Yuengling, the oldest brewery in America. It was recently introduced to the Memphis market through Budweiser (thanks to Bill H. for the info!). It's having some difficulty gaining new fans in the region because many think that it's Chinese, but local residents of Pennsylvanian heritage (or Steelers fans) have been known to rent vans, drive up to the Quaker State, and drive back with dozens of cases of this brew.

It's not the best beer in the world, but for the price it's amazing. At the store I grabbed a sixer of the Black & Tan, traditionally a layered beverage of Guinness Stout and Harp Lager (or Bass Ale). Here it's a mix of a super dark Porter with a fairly dark Lager. You get the coppery molasses aromas and deep flavor with a lighter, fizzier mouth feel and touches of black coffee on the finish. Frankly my favorite beers are those that don't permit the passage of light through a glass.

Oh, I was talking about a sandwich...

I was there for a conference and at the age of 19 there wasn't a lot that I could do in my free time. I spent two afternoons in the Strip District, which is a collection of small shops and ethnic restaurants. It's one of those awesome streets where you sample dozens of different cuisines in a small area. I love places like that where you can have a two hour long lunch spread out over six different cafes, delis, and bakeries. Though if you brag about having fun in the Strip District, folks look at you like you've spent a lot of time in our own "Mt. Moriah Performing Arts District" before all the strip joints got closed for drugs and prostitution.

Prestogeorge was a little deli located on the Strip, and I don't know if it's still in operation. Looks like they mostly do coffee nowadays. When I was there, it was the first time I'd encountered a deli where you had to fight and argue to get your order. After standing in line politely for 15 minutes like a good Southern boy and getting ignored by a bunch of heathen Yankees, I finally picked up on the game and pushed an old woman out of the way to get to the counter. (To be fair, she'd smacked me with her umbrella to get ahead of me.)

After the most aggressive customer service experience of my life, I finally got my sandwich: a strange yet delicious combination of turkey, alfalfa sprouts, pesto, and gorgonzola.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving I had some friends stopping by for lunch, and I decided that a good way to use up leftovers would be to make this phantom sandwich that had been haunting my palate for over a decade. It wasn't exactly as remembered, but close enough. I found that a layer of cranberry sauce added a nice touch, and here's the construction method I employed:
  • slice of whole grain bread
  • cranberry sauce
  • shredded turkey
  • alfalfa sprouts
  • crumbled gorgonzola
  • pesto
  • slice of whole grain bread

10 December 2007

Pizza Red

I thought that the Australian NV Pizza Red would be a fun Thanksgiving wine. For a $6 screwcap, it sounded casual and approachable for non-wine drinkers, and I dragged it along to the various gatherings. I didn't get around to opening it, so I saved it for leftovers. While my leftovers were awesome, the wine was a disappointment. It's a proprietary blend of red and white grapes. It's also sweet like a White Zin and is slightly fizzy. Not like in that touch of bubbles you get with some crisp whites, but rather like it's been blended with a little sparkling wine. In fact, it tastes exactly like what you would get if you mixed together leftover bits of red, white, pink, and sparkling wines in a blue plastic cup in the later stages of a party. And I say that with authority because I remember doing exactly that at the age of 20.

It may be great with pizza, but there's lots of $10 Chianti, Argentine Malbecs, and dry rosés out there that would make a better match.

07 December 2007

2000 Foris Fly-Over Red

It's always fun to open dusty bottles pulled from the back shelves of wine shops. Such is the case with the 2000 Foris Fly-Over Red from the Rogue Valley of Oregon. This is a traditional claret blend of 53% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc. Who says Oregon is all about Pinot Noir? The name comes from the fact that many visitors from California skip over this region en route to the more well-known Oregon Pinot producers.

It's got a bit of coffee, some leather, and deep plum aromas. Plum flavors continue on the palate, and the tannins have all but disappeared with time. I tried it fresh, though it was much more approachable after an hour in the decanter. There's a slight ashy quality, and I would have liked to have tried this two or three years ago for comparison.

I served it with a steak, roast sweet potatoes, and steamed asparagus.

Sorry for the quality of the photo; from this angle you can't see the Foris for the trees.

05 December 2007


I don't remember the last time I did this, but I decided to lay out one of each of the different glasses that I have (those dedicated to wine/beer/spirits). I've got at least two of each of these, and sometimes four or six. It's a bit of a jumbled mess in the cabinet, but it's fun when company comes over and I get to pull out different glasses as the beverages demand.

Two of my most useful are the snifter and the shot glass. The snifter works well for Port, Scotch, liqueurs, as well as "big beers". The shot glass is never used in my house for tequila or vodka, but rather for sauces, tiny tastes of soup, and occasional measuring for a cocktail.

From left to right, starting with the back row (favorites with an asterisk):
  • martini, Cabernet Sauvignon crystal*, Pinot Noir crystal*, Gruet-inscribed Ridel sparkling crystal*, standard sparkling wine glass,
  • Italian crystal red*, lager glass, generic wine glass, small generic wine glass,
  • pint glass, Remy Martin highball* (great for small cocktails), crystal snifter*,
  • 3 oz. shot glass, tall "shooter" shot glass,
  • standard shot glass

03 December 2007

Corn Chowder

One nice thing about liking to cook and loving to experiment is that when you get a weird food craving, it's generally possible to satisfy that urge and have fun in the process. Unless the significant ingredients are out of season, prohibitively expensive, or simply not allowed in the US, that is. In the last category I'm talking about exotic, politically controversial foods like black currants, which couldn't be grown in the US for nearly 100 years.

When I got a hankerin' for some corn chowder, it was an easy trip to the grocery store. No exotic ingredients, no difficult preparation, just patience. I incorporated four root vegetables: red potatoes, garlic, shallots, and onion (parsnips would have been nice too). I used organic chicken broth, half-and-half instead of cream, and omitted the traditional bacon in favor of a big pile of lump crabmeat in the middle. Some sea salt and Texas Champagne hot sauce provided the extra bite the otherwise mild soup needed. I also used a ton of fresh shucked corn. There are few things more depressing at the table than a bowl of warm milk with a few stray kernels floating in it.

As much as I enjoyed this, I don't know how often I'll make it--it was really a full meal all in one bowl. Perhaps as a tiny, quarter cup serving before a larger meal.

28 November 2007

Fun with Leftovers, plus Wine

A friend of mine had jokingly said that after Thanksgiving I would make a gourmet dish out of leftover turkey, pumpkin, and potato peels. I took that as a challenge.

I formed the cold turkey and some leftover homemade cranberry sauce in alternating layers into a ring mold and set it atop a pool of roast pumpkin puree (enhanced with chicken stock and various spices). I flash fried a few long strips of potato peel for some quick pommes frites, and the little black dots are a reduction of balsamic vinegar with honey and apple cider. Green onions provided a fun garnish.

I had two different wines with Thanksgiving dinner and its various leftover incarnations. First off was a white from a great producer of Petite Sirah. The pleasantly unoaked 2005 Concannon Chardonnay from the Central Coast of California has a sweet apple aroma with a touch of honeysuckle. It has a tart beginning with a short finish. Which makes it a really nice Thanksgiving wine.

For a red, I selected the 2005 Hedges CMS Red from Washington State. It's a blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 47% Merlot, and 4% Syrah. Raisin and eucalyptus nose. The flavor profile is a little bitter with elements of green bell pepper and grass.

26 November 2007

Extra Thanksgiving

For several years now, I've picked up a turkey for the purposes of cooking it on the Friday after Thanksgiving. While others are out fighting over Cabbage Patch Dolls at the stores, I'm hanging around the house, listening to classic jazz and cooking a 12-15 lb bird. Not only do I get the joy of leftovers (something you miss out on with big family gatherings), but I can also experiment and try new things.

This year I didn't do anything fancy, just put two lemons and a tangerine inside the cavity of the turkey, and poured apple cider over the whole mess every once in a while. It turned out juicy and flavorful, and several days later I'm still enjoying the leftovers.

The Girlfriend is on a big no-carbs kick, so I had to come up with a Thanksgiving side dish that didn't involve starch or bread. Luckily, while at Schnuck's in Cordova I spied a bunch of cardoons. I was surprised and excited: I'd eaten them in Italy but had never seen the stalks in the U.S. For the uninitiated, they look like big, two foot long celery but taste like artichokes. I trimmed them and sliced them into four inch segments, then boiled them in salted water with lemon for 45 minutes. That's the standard way to prepare them before further cooking. Afterwards, traditional preparations include baking them with a white sauce and cheese or battering and deep frying slices.

In the spirit of healthy eating, I elected to wilt a bunch of rapini and a red bell pepper, and then included the cardoons towards the end. If I had prepared hot olive oil and butter with anchovies to pour over all of it, then I would have had a semi-authentic bagna càuda. I also made some homemade cranberry sauce (using 2/3 cup of organic Florida cane sugar rather than the typical full cup of sugar). Why would you ever use the canned stuff when the real thing is so easy and delicious?

22 November 2007

2006 Mollydooker Shiraz

I'm finally getting around to trying the juggernaut that is Mollydooker. The name means "left hander" in the often bizarre Australian patois. (Though honestly, is it any stranger than southpaw?) It's also the first wine I've ever purchased that has a weird aeration technique suggested as part of the serving recommendation. You can't see the full label here, but it's a 1930s cartoon boxer with two left gloves. The other wines of this line have equally interesting designs. There's also a stamp that tears off the back label.

2006 Mollydooker Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Southern Australia. $20. Big, fruity nose, rather hot because of the 16% alcohol. Once you let the alcohol fumes blow off, you get a nice hint of cracked black pepper. The flavor is mild, with a cherry and pastry flavor that later includes prunes and stewed fruit. Medium tannins and a decent finish. Because of the alcohol, this wine has big ol' glycerol legs that hang on the side of the glass.

The Girlfriend was craving pork loin, so I roasted one with a little twist of orange. After an application of Dijon mustard and black pepper, I ran a navel orange through the mandoline and got a lot of delicate slices. Things shifted a bit in cooking, but overall the slices provided a pleasant hint of flavor to the pork loin. And damn, there's something to be said for a presentation like that.

I started at 350°F, and over the course of two hours backed the temperature down to 200°F until the meat reached an internal temperature of 150°F. It then rested under a foil tent for about twenty minutes as I readied the sides... some simple green beans, and a more complicated soup.

I reconstituted some dried cherries in the Shiraz as a simple topping for the pork. The ramekin contains a portion of sopa de plátanos verdes, or green plantain soup, which is either Puerto Rican or Venezuelan in origin depending on who you ask. Slice up some green plantains, pan-fry in butter, add to some simmering beef stock (homemade in this case), add a sofrito of garlic and shallots, then blend with an immersion mixer to the desired consistency. If it's too thick (and the starch in the plantains will make it set up like cold gravy), add water or more stock. I threw in a bunch of hot sauce, cinnamon, and Old Bay Seasoning to enhance the flavor. It's thick and rich yet slightly refreshing. It's also a lighter use for plantains than tostones or mofongo.

20 November 2007


Ratatouille is one of the best movies about cooking ever made. Not only is there amazing animation, not only did Brad Bird (of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant) create it, but Pixar worked with Thomas Keller as a consultant. I'd say that it easily tops Big Night as my previous favorite movie about cooking. I was getting hungry while watching it and returned to the kitchen the next day with renewed enthusiasm.

I wanted to focus on an interesting point with the above photo and the detail to the right. It's a movie that talks about food in a deeply passionate way (even it is through the mind of a rat), but it is also ostensibly a children's movie without child characters and the adults act like adults. Including enjoying wine with dinner or after work. In this shot, the head chef is pouring a glass of Chateau Latour. That's some impressive product placement--no bottles of Coke or Nike shoes here.

This, in an era when the first seasons of Sesame Street are being released on DVD with a parental advisory due to things like Cookie Monster smoking a pipe. It is rare in programming geared towards kids that you ever see responsible (let alone discriminating) consumption of wine. Typically it's an afterschool special about a drunk uncle or some bad kid at school sneaking a bottle of Goldschlager and getting sick. In Ratatouille, no one gets drunk or violent due to a lovingly rendered glass of wine.

The computer animation on the kitchen, the ingredients, and the final dishes is amazing. There were no children present when The Girlfriend and I watched it (the DVD was a gift from her), so I didn't get in trouble when I blurted an expletive as leeks were chopped. It was textbook perfect--the suspension of disbelief was complete. It was obvious that the artists and animators had actually studied the behavior of leeks and how they look when sliced. It's a very minor point, but if you love food you'll find yourself marveling at the crumb structure on bread and many other little details.

19 November 2007

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

Hey kids, it's that time of year again. Though I'm closing in on my exploration of each of the cru Beaujolais regions, there's still a soft spot in my heart for the simple delight of Beaujolais Nouveau. I didn't get around to it on Thursday, but I figured a Saturday afternoon was as good a time as any.

The banana custard aroma is there, with a bit of strawberry. I didn't like my first sample of this, but after some breathing, the second glass was much more palatable and followed the expectation. I think I'll enjoy it more amidst the backdrop of a big Thanksgiving gathering. In the presence of comfort foods and without other wine geeks around, its profile tends to brighten. Should anyone be interested, here are my notes on the 2006 and 2005 releases.

One weird complaint: the synthetic cork proved almost impossible to get back into the bottle. It's not that big of a deal, as I have several stoppers and a ton of old corks, but it's generally easier to use the same cork when you're throwing it back in the fridge for later use.

14 November 2007

2004 Bell Petite Verdot

For dessert, Grace made a batch of her famous crème brûlée. At right you can see Paul using the butane torch to caramelize the turbinado sugar. Nice crunchy caramel crust to break through before hitting the eggy custard below. It was served with raspberries on top and some good Dominican 65% chocolate on the side.

The wine saved for the dessert was a real treat. John over at Wolfchase took me into the back office and showed me a bottle of the 2004 Bell Petite Verdot. It's not listed on the website, and not easily available. My bottle that I picked up ($36) was #575 out of 1199, so there's not a lot of it out there. You don't often see a pure Petite Verdot (even if this had two or three percent cab sav), and I was excited to try it with some friends. It had dark violet and blackberry aromas, though the flavor was much lighter than expected. Blackberry and plum flavors with a hint of coffee and an inky color. John suggested that it was dark enough to write notes with, though the lavender stain on my tasting sheet shows that it's not that concentrated.

This demonstrates that not only is it good to make friends with your local wine merchant, but it never hurts to ask if there's anything interesting lurking in the back.

12 November 2007

Roast Chicken with a Glass of Pure Evil

Some people say that hunger is the best sauce. For me, it's when someone else cooks. Don't get me wrong, I love cooking, and as has been demonstrated numerous times on this blog, the harsher the circumstances, the more interested I am. Hell, I'm marginally famous for going to bizarre lengths to make a salade niçoise in a hotel that had that very dish on the room service menu. However, I'm always delighted when other people cook and I'm the guest.

On a recent occasion Paul and Grace and The Girlfriend and I were able to get together for an evening. I had to work and show up right before the invite time, preventing me from my usual two or three hours of prep and slow roasting and sauce-making.

Grace prepared a huge lemon-roasted chicken, complete with roast squash and zucchini on the side as well as some mashed red potatoes. By choice, the ladies took the white meat and the gents feasted on the dark meat. The bird was succulent and delicious, with crispy brown skin and a deep, savory flavor. Two whole lemons shoved up the caboose were a fun addition. I usually use wedges of apple and orange, but the lemon was great.

For the wine, I brought along a bottle of the 2005 Pure Evil, a South Australia Chardonnay from the Grateful Palate that can be found for under $10. It had—zut alors!—a nice lemon aroma along wiht a bright, fruity citrus flavor. It's a simple wine yet entirely quaffable. It went along well with the poultry and the veggies.

After this we were all pretty full, but a sumptuous dessert was to follow... and follow it shall in the next post! Along with a review of a rare and delicious red wine. Stay tuned!

08 November 2007

2005 Crane Lake Malbec

Much has been written here and elsewhere about the Crane Lake wines: those bargain basement bottles that go for as low as $4 but are surprisingly drinkable. Not complex, not fancy, not meant for aging or impressing company, but definitely acceptable for a casual lunch or when serving a large group of non-wine drinkers. They keep adding different grapes, and I suppose the growing Malbec planting in California (spurred no doubt by the success of Argentina) meant that sooner or later this had to hit the shelves: the 2005 Crane Lake Malbec.

It's got a plum jam aroma, very tart with mild tannins and some sour cherry flavors. Nothing to write home to mama about, but a good pizza and burger wine. The Girlfriend requested trout as a spur-of-the-moment dinner, but as it was Sunday I didn't have access to a white wine. The Malbec worked well as a pleasant if somewhat odd choice for the meal: grilled trout fillets with brown butter and a topping of broccoli sprouts, accompanied by a roast acorn squash with brown sugar that we split. The broccoli sprouts, sort of the veal of the broccoli world, were a bit of a disappointment. Raw they tasted like a handful of grass clippings; steamed with a bit of lemon they were only slightly more palatable, and atop the fish with a bit of brown butter they were quickly pushed aside. Perhaps there are better uses for these, but as a lover of alfalfa and bean sprouts, I was sorely disappointed. I will admit they're pretty in a microgreen way. The fish was incredible, though, and I'm convinced that brown butter is a gift from God.

06 November 2007

2004 Becker "les trois dames" Claret

Several months ago, business took me to Dallas where I picked up a bottle of wine from Becker Vineyards. Since I was back in the area for recreational purposes, I decided to try another one of their wines, the 2004 Becker "les trois dames" Claret. Contrary to the notes on the 2005 in the link, the 2004 is made up of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. The name comes from three female viticulturists who collaborated on this wine: Eunice Hunter contributed Merlot, Laverne Newsom provided the Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dorothy Cooper grew the Cabernet Franc.

A nose of blackberry jam. Firm tannins, with a cherry cola flavor and a tart but not acidic mouth feel. In a nod to Texas I tried it with a BBQ brisket sandwich.

In the words of standup comedian Ron White, "I told you that story to tell you this story." I didn't purchase the wine at the vineyard. I didn't get it as a gift from the Chamber of Commerce. I didn't even find it at a liquor store. I bought it at a gas station on the west side of Dallas, in a town called Grapevine (ha ha) just north of the DFW airport.

We had stopped for gas and I ran in to grab a bottle of water. On the door I saw a handwritten sign that said "Wine tasteing next Wednesday" (sic). I chuckled to myself and imagined some promotional event for Boone's Farm and Wild Irish Rose. Once I stepped inside I discovered that half of the Shell station was devoted to wine (and decent wine at that), and to make the experience even more odd for this Tennessee boy, I was able to purchase the bottle on a Sunday.

On one half of the store: Slim Jims and Funyuns. On the other half, a surprisingly electic mix of wines from around the world, with shelf tags and the whole nine yards. I grabbed a Texas wine mainly because they're not carried in Memphis and I felt I owed it to the Lone Star State.

02 November 2007

Deep in the Heart of Texas

The Girlfriend and I went on a road trip to Texas last weekend. We drove ten straight hours from Memphis to Houston. The following morning, we went to The Houston Museum of Natural Science in order to see the 3.2 million year old bones of the Australopithecus afarensis Lucy. While the majority of the exhibit focused on Ethiopian history and culture, the last portion was dedicated to Lucy. In a small glass case you get to see a partial skeleton the size of a seven year old child. It's a humbling experience.

Ed. note: in reference to the first comment on this post, I picked up a couple of awesome "I Love Lucy" refrigerator magnets in the gift shop. A perfect mix of history and kitsch, which is what fun weekend getaways are all about.

Then it was off to Dallas. The hotel offered a complimentary glass of wine to be delivered later, and I just checked off the box for the sparkler. I wasn't expecting much, maybe a dull Korbel that flattened en route from the bar. Much to my surprise, I received two 187 mL bottles of NV Chandon Brut Classic in an ice bucket. A bit of toast on the nose, with crisp Chardonnay flavors and just a touch of lemon.

No hotel cooking on this trip... Instead we had a lovely dinner at The Oceanaire. The lady enjoyed the pan-fried trout in brown butter, while I had goat cheese crusted corvina with beet risotto. Simply amazing. I enjoyed mine with a glass of a Sancerre from Mollet: nice hints of apple and pear, solid structure and balanced acidity.

At right, the Old Red Museum of Texas history in downtown Dallas.

The most interesting part of the meal had to be the oysters. Out of the dozen varieties on the menu I told the waiter to pick six for me. I had Beau Soleil, Blue Point, Hurricane, Indian Point, Malpaque, and Tatamagouche. I really loved the smaller ones, some of which had a buttery flavor (such as the Indian Point). The Beau Soleil had an incredible, fresh from the ocean saltiness. The largest was the Blue Point, though even it was dainty compared to the big mud rocks we get in Memphis.

The next morning we were off to Dealy Plaza to visit the site of the JFK assassination. The photo at left was taken looking across the road where the event occurred. (If you click for the larger version, you might get to see little white crosses painted in the road to denote where the shots impacted.) It was surprising to see how small the entire area was; the plaza is split by a pair of roads that lead to and from the interstate, and the infamous Book Depository is a rather nondescript seven-story building on the corner. All of this is on the west side of Downtown Dallas.

I can highly recommend the museum in the Book Depository building. The displays and artifacts are tasteful and comprehensive, filling up the sixth floor where Oswald was perched. For instance, one display includes a sample of every kind of camera that was present at the event, and a future exhibit about photography is planned for the top floor.

Afterwards we made an appearance at a wedding reception then it was back home. A short but fun-filled trip: 1200 miles, two major historical exhibits, one fabulous seafood dinner, and gorgeous weather all the way.

31 October 2007

2006 Hayman & Hill Interchange

I've enjoyed the Hayman & Hill wines I've had in the past. Recently I spotted a new one in the lineup that had no information about the grapes on the label. The 2006 Hayman & Hill Interchange is a white blend from Santa Barbera County. 47% Chardonnay, 34% Sauvignon Blanc, 7% Muscat Canelli, 5% Malvasia Bianca, 4% Semillon, and 3% Gewürtztraminer. It's a semi-dry wine with a huge nose of flowers, pineapple and mango. On the tongue it's a fruit bomb of bright citrus and apricot flavors, with lots of acidity and a bit of sweetness. It's an interesting wine, and one that I think would be a good bridge for someone trying to move beyond White Zinfandel or sweet Rieslings.

I'd like to say that I sampled this alongside some sort of Brazilian seafood stew, but in all honesty I had it with some baked ham and macaroni and cheese. Felt like a bit of comfort food with this colder, rainy weather we've been having recently.

29 October 2007

2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards Dry Rosé of Sangiovese

A fun little wine I've tried recently is the 2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards Dry Rosé of Sangiovese, Sonoma County, California. Beautiful salmon color. Tart and crisp with a watermelon Jolly Rancher aroma. Strawberry flavors follow. Aside from the slight fizzy mouthfeel, it's almost a perfect dry rosé.

Typically I've enjoyed rosés in the spring and summer, but the growing popularity bodes well for them being stocked year-round. And they're a great match for seafood, salads, and simple afternoon sandwiches regardless of the weather outside.

I served it with some black bean and corn quesadillas, topped with a healthy dash of peri-peri sauce. It's supposed to be hot, made from Africa's hottest peppers, but I think you could safely rub this stuff in an open wound without feeling any burn. You could probably splash it on a toddler's bowl of Cheerios and he wouldn't break a sweat. That's not to say that I don't like it--it's got a great red pepper flavor, a hint of sweetness, and just a little kick. Plus, proceeds from the sale of this sauce go to rhinoceros conservation efforts. It's available at The Fresh Market. It goes well on top of chili con carne, grilled fish, and especially roast pork.

24 October 2007


Here's my mojito, a last gasp of summer before cold weather arrives. Some lime, some rum, a crushed handful of fresh mint, a bit of organic Floridian cane sugar, mixed heartily in a martini shaker and poured over ice with a splash of sparkling water to make it fun. This is essentially a mint julep with white rum taking the role of Bourbon.

Want a recipe? Try this. Adjust the proportions depending on how much sweet/sour you want. It's not rocket science, and for my sake, don't use bottled lime juice. Squeeze your own and throw those chopped lime rinds into the shaker along with the other ingredients. Trust me, the flavor is amazing when you do this.

I've enjoyed this cocktail for years, though it has become trendy recently. And while some might grumble over "their favorite secret recipe/restaurant/hangout/movie/band getting popular", I'm glad that others are enjoying the perfect combination of mint, lime, sugar, and rum that is the mojito. It's even showing up in chewing gum these days.

22 October 2007

Naked Lion Copper Flask

The Naked Lion Brewing Company is based out of Memphis but for now, their products are actually brewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There's been a lot of local coverage on this beer. I grabbed a sixer of the Copper Flask at the grocery store and decided to give it a try. Despite the dark color, it is a lager and should be enjoyed cold and in a glass roughly similar to mine in the photo (or directly from the bottle--there's more variety in beer glasses than wine glasses, but at the end of a long day, it's not that important). Amazing flavors of molasses, cloves, and oranges. Savory and not bitter. More alcohol than you're used to in a draft of Bud Light, but you don't really taste it. I'm going to go ahead and call this early in the season: BEST BEER FOR THANKSGIVING. It's available at a few local haunts like the Flying Saucer and the Young Avenue Deli. I picked it up at the Schnuck's in Cordova. Go on, give it a try and support your local entrepreneurs!

Since I'm begging for fall weather and the attendant cuisine of the season, I decided to make a variation of an Argentine stew called carbonada criolla. One way of serving is to stew all the meat, fruits, and vegetables together and then serve it in a hollowed out pumpkin. I had a small pumpkin, and decided to braise a pork loin and use the vegetarian stew as a topping for the sliced meat. This mix combines flesh scraped from the inside of the pumpkin, fire roasted tomatoes, corn, caramelized shallots, and chopped nectarines. The pumpkin was roasted in a cake tin for thirty minutes by itself (with some salt and pepper inside), then filled, covered with the pumpkin lid, and roasted for another twenty minutes or so.

The pork loin was cooked in a blend of the Copper Flask beer and some chicken stock along with a few sprigs of rosemary and lavender from the kitchen garden. While I really loved this dish and found the mix of fruits and vegetables to be quite charming, my dinner companions were going back for seconds and thirds. It's amazing that the pork chop--so often miscooked into a dry and bland shingle--can seem like a special treat when cooked whole in loin form. Plus it's like a buck-fifty a pound. You don't have to break the bank to enjoy juicy, flavorful pork.

18 October 2007

Pocket Watch

Last month, I treated myself to a birthday present. An odd little curio I'd been wanting for a few years... a pocket watch from the Молния factory in Челябинская область, in the south Urals near the Kazakhstan border. ("Molnija" means "lightning" in Russian.) This is the firm that used to make dials and gauges for Russian tanks, MiGs, and spacecraft during the Cold War. Now they cheerfully produce timepieces for victorious capitalists!

This isn't an antique, and I got it for a song online. But I enjoy carrying it around. It's got a nice heft to it, a strong tick-tock rhythm (all mechanical winding, no battery here), and it's fun to pull out and check the time. I find myself dramatically checking it and saying things like "The 5:15 to Birmingham should be departing shortly."

15 October 2007

2002 Argiolas Perdera

Sometimes it's fun to grab a bottle of wine about which you know absolutely nothing ahead of time. Thus I selected the 2002 Argiolas Perdera from the Italian island of Sardinia (Sardegna). The label also says Isola dei Nuraghi, which means "island of the 4,000 year old cone-shaped stone towers". The Argiolas family specializes in grapes native to the island, so his wine is made of some unique grapes: 90% Monica, 5% Carignano (related to French Carignane), and 5% Bovale Sardo (also known as Muristello, Bovale Piccolo, or Bovaleddu--it almost went extinct, but this winery saved it).

Side note about Sardinia: the local dialect is referred to as Sardo, but there are in fact four distinct dialects on this one island, and my Italian professor told me not to even bother trying to understand any of them unless you've lived there from birth. That one grape name Bovaleddu is a classic example. Another is calamaredusu, which is Sardo for calamari or squid. The tiny dialects of Europe provide a fascinating field of study, and I'm particularly enamored of Catalan, which is a delightful mashup of French, Italian, and Spanish.

Obscure grapes? Ancient history? Linguistics? A winery dedicated to local native varietals? Let's pop this open!

On first pour it's brash and harsh, but a half hour of decanting allows it to mellow out. It's got a mild prune and strawberry aroma. The berry aspect continues on the palate, where you've got strong tannins and and a long finish with hints of coffee and chocolate. I enjoyed it along with some cold roast beef and fennel.

12 October 2007

2003 Egervin Egri Bikavér

Odd little treasure found in an Arkansas wine shop: the 2003 Egervin Egri Bikavér from Hungary. $10. Cherry pie aroma, with tart cherry flavors and a pretty light body. Actually pretty fun wine here. No real tannins to speak of, and only 12% alcohol, but the tartness is really refreshing. Although this may look like a powerful, full-bodied monster, it's lighter than some Beaujolais I've had.

This is the second Hungarian wine I've had, with the first being a "Bulls Blood" mix as well. And you've got to love this explanation of the name:
During the siege, the citizens of Eger opened their wine cellars and drank red wine to give them strength to fight off the Turks. The wine spilled over their beards and onto their armour, colouring them blood red. As the citizens continued their valiant fight against the invading Turks, word spread quickly that the Hungarians were drinking the blood of bulls to make themselves strong and fierce.

10 October 2007

Bee Movie

Long before the Seinfeld animated film of the same name, I shot a short video of a bee grooming itself. In 2004 I spent a lot of time with microphotography and while taking some really detailed closeup photos of this honeybee, I switched to video mode and managed to capture the bee sticking out its tongue and grooming itself like a cat.


08 October 2007

Galettes bretonnes

I'd read several articles about the famous savory buckwheat crêpes from the Brittany region of France. I've never been there, but the idea appealed to me and I thought I'd give it a shot. Galettes are normally cakes or small cookies in France, but the term also refers to these kinds of crêpes. This dish could be described in several other ways: crêpes complètes de sarrasin, crêpes complètes de blé noir, crêpes avec fromage et oeufs et jambon, or simply thin buckwheat pancakes with cheese, eggs, and ham--and that's without even touching on the unique Celtic dialect of Breton spoken in the region. For ease of the title I settled on the charming galettes bretonnes.

I cheated a bit on the batter and used Arrowhead Organic Buckwheat Pancake Mix which I thinned out with extra water. And the result was fantastic--like a regular crêpe in texture but with a deep, earthy flavor and a darker color. Even though it's been over ten years since I last made crêpes, all of them came out great. After the galette was just done, I spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard and added some shredded aged gruyère, a few small slices of smoked ham, and finally a just-set fried egg. Wrap it as desired (clever folds or burrito-style) and enjoy. Since the region is famous for its apples, I sliced up a Jona Gold to go along with the galette. The flavor was phenomenal, and I ended up having three of them for dinner.

If you decide to make this for several people, I'd suggest making the galettes in advance, frying the eggs in a skillet, assembling the ingredients on a baking sheet, and finishing it all in the oven. Or lining them up like Italian stuffed crespelle and topping it all with mushrooms and a white sauce.

While a northwest French cider would have been a more appropriate pairing, I used the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay from the Columbia Valley of Washington. Bright and fruity with aromas of apples and stewed fruit. Touch of ginger on the palate, with just enough oak to give it structure and make it interesting. A surprisingly apt match for the meal, when initially I was just in the mood for a Chardonnay.

03 October 2007

Benito vs. the Hotel Room: Mediterranean Delight

When it comes to hotel cookery, there are certain things that you have to cross off the list. Large roasts of meat, for example. (Now, if I'm staying in a hotel with a fireplace this winter, that's a different story.) Most sauces are out of the question, and I have no desire to use dried packets of instant au jus. But there is a great sauce that is delicious and only requires a refrigerator: Greek tzatziki. I made mine out of strained Greek yogurt, shredded mint, chopped cucumber and tomato. I don't have pictures of this process, but it's dead simple. The magic comes from letting it sit overnight--the flavors marry together beautifully. Around this one concept I built an entire meal.

Rather than whine about what you can't do, focus on your strengths. With only a microwave and a refrigerator, you're pretty limited in the cooking department but you can boil liquids and heat up certain items pretty well. So I decided to go with a pan-Mediterranean dish incorporating the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece, and North Africa. Aside from the tzatziki, I have a tub of items from the olive bar, a box of instant couscous, a fantastic one cup box of organic chicken broth, a bag of unsalted trail mix, fresh mint, a jar of roasted red peppers, and some pitas. This project begged for some lamb, but as I didn't have any good way to cook it nor could I find any merguez lamb sausage, I lucked upon some Niman Ranch chorizo.

I took the raisins out of the trail mix and soaked them in white wine for a few hours beforehand, saving the sunflower and pumpkin seeds for later. I tore up some kalamata olives and added them to the couscous in the coffee pot along with the "drunken" raisins and seeds, plus a spoonful of residual oil from the olive tub. I heated the cup of broth to boiling, added it to the couscous mixture and then put a lid over the pot to let it steam and cook.

You know, when I get home I'm going to miss that little coffee pot.

I sliced the chorizo and heated it up in the microwave until just sizzling. I was able to use a little bowl (swiped from the breakfast buffet in the lobby) to make a perfect timbale of couscous, surrounded by roasted red peppers and topped with a mint leaf. Rounding out the plate were some dolmas and a stuffed pepper from the olive bar, a healthy dollop of my tzatziki and warmed pitas. The meal was precisely what I was craving and while I doubt that you'll see anything quite like it on a menu any time soon, it was a wonderful combination.

For the evening's wine, I selected the 2006 Saint Clair Vicar's Choice Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Great bitter grapefruit peel aroma, with tart, dry, full-bodied flavors that include hints of grass and licorice. A decent wine on sale for $10, and with a screwcap enclosure it makes it even more suited to the hotel room--for those who don't travel with at least two corkscrews at all times.