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.