25 February 2007

Grace's Birthday Dinner

My friend Paul has been a frequent presence on this blog, if not so much for his comments than his participation in many of the "guys' night" dinners where the two of us knock back a few pounds of good beef and better wine. His girlfriend was celebrating her birthday this past weekend, and in lieu of a gift I offered to cook for her birthday party. She graciously accepted, or rather, that appeared to be her plan all along. After giving her the option of cooking the menu of her dreams, she left it in my hands, so I went Italian.

Although in Italy the salad often comes between the secondo piatto and the dessert, I decided to stick it in the American position. This is an assortment of baby greens with slivered almonds, crumbled goat cheese, and a fresh vinaigrette made from a Meyer lemon juice reduction, olive oil, homegrown oregano, and a few other seasonings. And I made some croutons from stale bread I had lying around. Not entirely Italian, but delicious.

For the primo piatto, I decided to build my own version of pasta e fagiole, the venerable dish of pasta and beans that has a thousand incarnations both in Italy and America, and is frequently referred to by its Sicilian nickname as "Pasta Fazool". (For the sake of Italian teachers worldwide, please avoid any Sicilian pronunciation, which goes for pretty much any mob movie or Sopranos episode you've ever seen. It's capicola, not gabagool.) Here I used borlotti, or cranberry beans soaked overnight and simmered in some homemade turkey stock. Combined with a few sprigs of homegrown rosemary and a necessary quarter cup of diced pork belly, the beans cooked for almost three hours before being combined with a batch of foglie d'autunno, or "autumn leaves" pasta. Quite lovely in the bowl and savory on the tongue.

The wine selected to go with the first course was provided by Paul: the 2005 Principessa Gavi. Light but citric and slightly bitter, definitely refreshing and a good counterpoint to the savory dish.

The secondo piatto follows the rustic appearance. I did a sort of chicken cacciatore, using cremini mushrooms and onions to accompany the chicken thighs. The chicken, though not a high dollar or obscure ingredient, was definitely one of the hits of the night (fried in olive oil then baked in the sauce for an hour). For the contorno, I made Mario Batali's carciofi alla romana, which was frankly disappointing. Even after an hour of simmering, the artichoke hearts were still tough and the mint pesto I'd painstakingly ground in a mortar and pestle had mostly disappeared in the wine and water mixture. Still, I'm happy to report that on this as every other occasion on which I've been in charge of cooking, nobody went home with a hollow belly.

For the main course, we had another wine provided by Paul, the 2004 Banfi Centine, a great bargain Super Tuscan that tastes much better than its price tag would suggest. Full fruit flavors, light tannins, and a smooth finish.

Finally, and I'm sorry I don't have pictures, but the lovely Grace, guest of honor, made creme brulée for dessert. It was creamy and luscious as always.

Happy birthday, Grace! Thanks for letting me play around in the kitchen for your special night.

22 February 2007

Surprise Find

While nosing around a used bookstore, I found an old coffee table book called The Treasury of American Wines by Nathan Chroman. This edition was published in 1976, the year of my birth. (Originally written in 1973, I'm assuming it was updated and reprinted to take advantage of the Bicentennial and the Judgment of Paris.)

It was in great condition, and for $2 I thought it would be a fun read. Plus, I was intrigued by the label design shown on the bottles featured on the dust jacket. Should anyone be curious, it's practically free on Amazon.

A brief note: despite the title of the book, it's almost entirely about California. 160 pages of the Golden State, 20 pages of New York, and a mere 6 pages devoted to the rest of the nation.

As with all photos on this site, click the image below for a bigger version. The whole dust jacket is about two feet long.

I was pleased to see the Schramsberg sparkler on the cover: their label design has barely changed in 30 years. The logo is still elegant yet uncluttered, but the body text has shifted from a basic sanserif font (Bell Gothic?) to the much nicer Optima. Speaking of Optima, you can see it in the minimalist Ridge wine label, another good yet simple design that has stood the test of time. Among the others, there's the usual spattering of Snell Roundhand and Shelley script fonts, which are still quite popular around the world. In fact, I enjoy going to tastings and counting how many wines present use Shelley Allegro for the primary text. My record is five out of fifteen.

Many of the labels seem to reflect traditional European design, including the use of Fraktur text for wines that aren't German. It's interesting that they don't really reflect the art or graphic design styles of the time. None of them share elements with book covers or movie posters of the era. The one oddball of the group is the 1962 Stony Hill, which uses an Old West font and a simple drawing of some vines and grapes. As you can see today, they've traded the Ponderosa for a classier serif font but have kept the original drawing, just in a more subdued form.

And some of the grape names are interesting. Several Chardonnays are listed as "Pinot Chardonnay", and then there's the "Johannisberger Riesling". Likewise, this was the era of California burgundy, chablis, and champagne. Though I give the author credit for suggesting that "...an attempt should be made to change these, too. Champagne could be 'Sparkling Napa Valley White' or 'Sparkling Cucamonga Red'..." Kudos on the first name, but Cucamonga lacks a certain romance.

The book itself is typeset completely in Helvetica, mostly in two or four columns, which makes it feel like a late 70s/early 80s middle school textbook. I did graphic design work for eight years, and I pay a lot of attention to type. Believe it or not I occasionally open a book--especially if it's just straight text--and smile or frown at the font selected. There's a whole world out there beyond Times New Roman. And if you set something in Comic Sans, don't stick that crap in front of me. Now the diamond-edged punctuation marks in Goudy, the clean lines of Sabon, or the way that an uppercase P doesn't completely close in Plantin? Dreams come true.

I did manage to pull myself away from typesetting concerns and read the book, and there's a lot of good historical information about California wine. Many of the wineries still seem to be in operation; I assume that the others were bought out by larger wineries or other buyers. It's funny to read about Fetzer as a new winery and Mendocino as an unexplored wine region.

Readers who were into wine in the 70s, please drop your impressions and memories in the comments.

2005 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserve

This weekend I sampled the 2005 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserve from Chile's Rapel Valley. 85% Carménère, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Syrah. Some chocolate and leather on the nose, with a few berry hints on the palate. It started out a little rough, but with some breathing it opened up and softened to allow for enjoyment. Paul and I split a bottle over a couple of grilled steaks and some fried fingerling potatoes. A warm, filling meal for a cold winter day. Of course, I was standing outside barefoot and wearing shorts, grilling the steaks. What can I say? I love cold weather and freezing temperatures don't bother me too much.

The blurb on the front label was amusing:
More than 100 years ago Don Melchor de Concha y Toro reserved for himself an exclusive batch of the best wines he produced. And, to keep strangers away from his private reserve, he spread the rumor that the Devil lived in that place. Hence the name Casillero del Diablo or Cellar of the Dead.
I remember similar stories from my childhood. One of a guy who spread the rumor that he'd randomly drilled out logs and inserted dynamite in order to prevent the stealing of firewood, and another of a farmer who would claim to inject certain watermelons with castor oil. On the other hand, we have the old joke about a chicken recipe that begins "First you steal a chicken...", with the cuisine in question changing over the years to reflect various regional and ethnic prejudices.

19 February 2007

Christmas Lima Beans & Pork Chops

In my continuing search for new ingredients, I've been hitting the dried beans recently. The cannelinis were a big success, and so for this week I picked up a bag of Christmas Lima Beans, also known as Chestnut Lima Beans. These are really pretty heirloom beans--I had to set aside a few to photograph, and I don't know whether to save them or plant them.

To prepare them, I decided to go with succotash, a traditional Native American pairing of lima beans with corn. After soaking the beans overnight, I minced a shallot and some garlic and cooked them in some diced salt pork. I tossed in the beans, added chicken broth and some water to cover, a bunch of thawed frozen corn kernels, and let it simmer until tender.

I've mentioned before my quest for the perfect pork chop--I've had a couple in my life that were moist and tender and full of flavor, but have had little luck replicating this at home or finding such a specimen in restaurants. I used Alton Brown's brining recipe, but I didn't stuff or grill the chops. Rather I brined them, cooked them for five minutes on each side in a hot stainless steel skillet, and them finished them in the oven at 400° for about 15 minutes. I deglazed the skillet with some beef broth, added in red wine and Dijon mustard, about a half cup of dried cherries, and finally a little flour to thicken. I let this reduce to a smooth consistency while the meat rested.

Lovely combinations all around. The meat was almost perfect, and the beans were so savory and rich that I completely forgot to dash a little hot sauce on them. The chestnut flavor really does come through, and though the colors aren't spectacular in the above photo, it was a great winter meal.

The wine selected for the evening's meal was the 2002 Colimoro Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a great little wine that ran about $9. The cherry aromas and flavors matched well with the sauce, and an hour of decanting time made it nice and smooth.

14 February 2007

Tasting Notes for February 10, 2007

For this tasting, the theme was Valentine's Day, sometimes by the name or label rather than the wine itself.

Wine 1: 2002 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger. Napa Valley, California. A wonderful sparkling wine with a lot of acclaim and a nice price tag. Yeasty aroma, a crisp start with a smooth finish. Spice cake flavors. Lovely wine. $27.

Wine 2: 2005 Arrogant Frog "Ribet White". Languedoc, France. 60% Chardonnay, 40% Viognier. Strong dried fruit aromas, very dry and mild, not tart. Slightly bitter. $10.

Wine 3: 2005 Little Black Dress Chardonnay. California. "Fashioned specifically to capture the pure essence of what a woman wants in a wine..." I've gotten mixed responses from female friends on wine marketing targeted at women. I'm just waiting for the day when Oprah starts her own on-air wine club. Bright fruit aromas, a little tart, and medium dry. Lovely balance and a good value. $10.

Wine 4: 2004 Virgin Vines Chardonnay. California. This one gets a lot of bad press, but I didn't think it was terrible. Little or no nose, creamy flavor with light citrus notes. $10.

Wine 5: 2005 Cycles Gladiator. Central Coast, California. This is a dry rosé from unknown grapes. Bright cherry aromas, but virtually no flavors discernible on the tongue. Bitter finish. $10.

Wine 6: 2005 Bodegas Ada "Red Guitar". Navarra, Spain. 55% Tempranillo and 45% Garnacha. Black cherry aromas and flavors, mild mouth feel with balanced tannins. Smooth finish. Great bargain. $13.

Wine 7: 2003 Reilly's "Barking Mad" Cabernet Sauvignon. Clare Valley, Australia. Slightly hot aroma, almost Zinfandel like. Firm tannins with a strong finish. Could use some breathing. $16.

Wine 8: 2004 Shannon Ridge "Two Angels" Petite Sirah. Lake County, California. Another slightly hot one, very spicy but with some berry flavors that develop on the finish. $27.

Wine 9: 2005 3 Rings Shiraz. Barossa Valley, Australia. Peppery, luscious fruit flavors, particularly blackberry. Excellent structure. Why doesn't Marquis Phillips have a website? $20.

Wine 10: NV Bleasdale "The Red Brute" Sparkling Shiraz. Langhorne Creek, Australia. Sparkling Shiraz is sort of a new thing around here, and it hasn't really caught on. And given the old geezer on the label, the packaging isn't exactly romantic. However, I was quite taken with the wine. Bright raspberry aroma, light bubbles, just a touch of tannins. I'm looking forward to experimenting with this class of wine in the future. $17.

Wine 11: 2005 Bonny Doon "The Heart Has Its Rieslings. Washington. Nice petrol aroma, sweet, but the sweetness fades quickly. Honey and nectar flavors. $18.

Wine 12: NV Bonny Doon Framboise. Washington. This is a raspberry liqueur, made from Meeker, Tulameen, and Morrison varieties of raspberry. Big raspberry aromas, but not quite as sweet as you might imagine. Excellent tartness and acidity. Would go great with high-quality vanilla ice cream, or even served in a cordial glass alongside a slice of cheesecake. I had something similar from Bonny Doon about eight years ago that was made from strawberries. This offering brought back many good memories. $16 (375mL bottle).

2005 Farnese Trebbiano d'Abruzzo

Since I'm cooking more Italian, it doesn't hurt to explore Italian wines. Tonight's entry is the 2005 Farnese Trebbiano d'Abruzzo from the Farneto Valley, Italy. Mostly Trebbiano d'Abruzzo with some Malvasia. Aromas of peach and flowers, a slight tartness but a mostly creamy mouth feel. Nicely dry, but full bodied with lots of fruit. I picked this up on clearance for about $8. Good with leftover cannellini beans and a crust of stale bread to soak up the juices. While such a meal sounds almost Dickensian, it's really quite tasty and filling during this cold snap that we're experiencing.

12 February 2007

Italian Short Ribs with Cannellini Beans

It's winter here in Memphis, and I've been battling a cold all last week. I'm finally feeling somewhat better, but I still wanted a hearty winter meal for Sunday dinner.

My shopping started a day ahead of time with the purchase of 24 oz. of dried cannellini beans, a popular white kidney bean used in Tuscany and throughout Italy. (The beans were filthy, by the way. It took three rinsings to clean them.) I soaked the beans overnight and then heated up the venerable enameled cast iron Dutch oven. I cooked some diced, salted pork belly until the fat began to render, then I tossed in a diced shallot. Next came the drained beans, followed by a pint of turkey stock I made and froze last Thanksgiving. For color, flavor, and nutrition, I added a bunch of sliced Swiss chard. I would have used rapini, but it's not looking too good right now, and the batch growing in my backyard is nowhere near ready to harvest. Finally, two sprigs of fresh rosemary were added for flavor and aroma. I let it all simmer, covered, for three hours. (Honestly, this could easily be mistaken for a batch of white bean soup with ham and a sprinkling of greens.) Tomorrow, I can just reheat the beans, or add some water and enjoy them as soup, or puree the whole pot and use it as a dip for toast points.

That's one of the nice things about making a big pot of beans at the beginning of the week: lots of options. Or as they said way back when, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old." Last Sunday I made traditional Boston baked beans using northern white beans, molasses, a smoked ham hock, etc. Decent, but definitely benefited from a dose of hot sauce and a little brown sugar on the reheating.

During the same time period, I was braising the beef short ribs. Two pounds, dusted in flour and seared in hot butter and olive oil. I added three cloves of sliced garlic, and began reducing a can of unsalted beef broth. Once I had reduced the volume by half, I added a cup of red wine (more on that later), and let it all simmer down some. Then came a cup of tomato sauce, a reduction in temperature, and then I left it alone for three hours, covered. (Meat on the bone always tastes better, and in this case you get the marrow leaking out to help improve the sauce.) The zest of one lemon was added at the end to perk it up.

In the finished product, you can see the rich sauce created from the ribs. I skimmed off some of the fat, but all of the flavor remained. The beans here worked not as a separate dish but more as a richly flavored starch to accompany the meat. Both dishes, while simple and dead cheap, were delicious and could easily be made in a pair of crock pots.

The wine used for help with the sauce and for pairing with the finished product was the 2005 Quattro Mani Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from the Le Marche region, right on the border with Abruzzi. Quattro Mani means "four hands" and refers to the four winemakers who helped create the wine. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is the grape/DOC name, and it's one of those unappreciated treasures that can often be found at ridiculously low prices. (If you've ever had the Zaccagnini "twig wine", that's the same grape.) This one cost $10, and was very enjoyable. Black currants on the nose, followed by full dark fruit flavors yet low tannins. A slight bite on the finish just to let you know it's there.

I don't often discuss final food cost unless I got a great deal on something, but the entire cost of what you see in the photo (minus the fruit in the corner) was about $4. On everything (including wine) I probably spent $20, and will get around five plates out of the whole mess. Beef short ribs can be cheaper than ground beef or chuck roast, yet have luscious, savory flavor. Growing your own herbs is perhaps the cheapest and easiest way to make your dishes taste great. Aside from that, don't be afraid of a little hard work and the investment of time.

07 February 2007

2005 R.H. Phillips Night Harvest Chardonnay

Here's an intersting bargain wine: the 2005 R.H. Phillips Night Harvest Chardonnay, grown by a Canadian company in the Dunnigan Hills AVA, California. (That site doesn't have a lot of info, just a promo for this 25th anniversary wine. Here's the link for the winery's main site.) Does the night harvesting make a difference? I don't know enough about viticulture to comment, though ostensibly it's probably more useful than burying a bull's horn full of manure during a full moon. (I'll save my rants on biodynamic wines for a time when I'm hungry for angry e-mails.)

I've used the R.H. Phillips Chardonnay a lot in the past as a cooking wine, though it drinks well on its own. Those bottles had the odd combination of a screwcap with a promotional cork tied to the neck pointing out the... lack of a cork. The Night Harvest comes with a black synthetic cork. I've got nothing against synthetic corks or other alternative enclosures, but the black plastic cork looks like a stopper replacement for some plumbing assembly. I'll take neon yellow over black any day.

Back to the wine. Sweet, buttery oak Chardonnay aroma, but fairly dry on the palate. Flavors of apples and pears dominate. Strong acidity, medium finish. I've had it multiple ways: with some old tomato-fennel soup I had in the freezer, with leftover shrimp-pesto pasta, and finally with some cheese ravioli. It worked well in all cases without particularly standing out. Considering I bought it for $6, I'd consider it a good purchase all around.

In good spirits towards the night theme, I took the photo next to the eyepiece of my circa 1985 Edmund Scientific reflecting telescope. I got this around that year from my paternal grandfather, who had purchased and assembled it that summer. It's one of the clearest memories of my youth: standing in the backyard of my grandparents' house, beside the strawberry patch, gazing through that little black eyepiece and seeing the rings of Saturn with my own eyes.

Over the years I've kept it out as a conversation piece, though when the weather is clear and the season is right, I like to pull it out and look at the mountains of the Moon, the dark bands of Jupiter, the fuzzy red blur of Mars, and any other interesting points within the celestial realm.

05 February 2007

2005 San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano

It had been a long day at work, and I wanted some Italian with a matching wine. So I picked up the 2005 San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano. I first tasted this wine in March of last year, though I mistakenly said it was made of Trebbiano grapes (bad info on the tasting sheet?). No, the grape variety is the same as the name of the wine, Vernaccia: the legendary favorite beverage of Michelangelo. Lemony acidity, slightly bubbly crispness, a short finish and overall great balance. Probably more suited for summer than winter, but it was paired here with a summery dinner. San Gimignano is a little medieval town in Tuscany that's famous for it's towers (seen on the label). Not as well-known as Florence or Siena, but in the area and beautiful in its own right.

Side note: If you're visiting Tuscany, many of the cities fall into either Medieval or Renaissance categories. This has a lot to do with squabbles between the 13th and 17th centuries, and who was on top at certain key moments in history. In general, if the town looks ancient and somewhat gothic and your feet hurt after a day walking around on steep cobblestones, it's probably a medieval town (like Siena). If the buildings have a softer shape and the walking is easier, it's probably a Renaissance town (like Florence). If you're a guy traveling with a woman who is fascinated by shoes and purses, your feet are going to hurt wherever you go. I would suggest that you set her free to shop while you hang out in a bar, restaurant, post office, youth hostel, or, as a last resort, plead asylum at a U.S. Consulate.

This is a variation on a dish I had in a cafeteria in Milan. Here in the States, a cafeteria generally means a place where you grab pre-cooked and -plated dishes off a counter and a sullen cashier rings you up. Over there, we found this little place in the Galleria called Ciao. (The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is essentially a shopping mall that's been around since the 1870s. It's next to the Duomo in the middle of town.) At Ciao, you'd take your tray down the line and order whatever you wanted. They had a dozen different pastas, a dozen sauces, and various raw meats, and your plate would be cooked to order right before your eyes. I had something involving farfalle (bowtie pasta), pesto, and baby octopus, all flash cooked in a hot skillet. I still sometimes wake up at night craving it.

For this version, I used shrimp instead of octopus, due to the scarcity of the latter in these parts and the fact that I was feeding The Girlfriend and The Roommate, who are not fond of eating unusual animals. In the past, I would have grilled the shrimp separately, but lately I've learned to appreciate the natural juices of shellfish that can contribute to a sauce. So I tossed them in hot olive oil, then added thawed frozen spinach, a half cup of pesto, and a splash of white wine. All elements were stirred and tossed until just done, then the freshly boiled farfalle were mixed in right before serving. Served with a little Italian loaf of bread and a dash of cheese.

Not as good without the octopus, but damned tasty nonetheless.

02 February 2007

2000 Quinta de Roriz Douro DOC Reserva Red

One of several bottles picked up at a recent clearance sale... 2000 Quinta de Roriz Douro DOC Reserva Red, from the Douro region of Portugal. 45% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, and 20% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Essentially, this is an unfortified ruby Port that has received some good reviews. Smells sort of like a Zinfandel with a touch of cinnamon, but the smoothness is surprising. 13.5% alcohol, so no real heat on the nose. Bright cherry flavors, a touch of earthy undertones, and a slight tannic bite on the finish. Really delicious, and I picked it up for a steal. Wonderful if you want to learn a bit more about Portuguese wines.

I popped it open after dinner, and while it isn't as heavy as Port, it served much the same purpose. However, I'm sure there are some hearty Portuguese dishes that would match nicely with this wine.