30 January 2008

Marietta California Port

Over the past few months, I've seen bottles of the Marietta California Port (Lot Number Two). For $15 a half bottle (375mL), why not give it a shot? It's just the right size to bring to a party, and it's also a good quantity for those that don't drink a ton of Port. Or those that try to limit the amount of Port in their homes in order to resist temptation. (It's Wednesday evening at nine? Sounds like Port time to me! Norwegian Independence Day? Break out the Port!)

It's a ruby-style domestic Port made from 30% Zinfandel and the rest a blend of Touriga, Souzao, and Tinta Cao. Spice and raisins on the nose, and it's got a light mouthfeel and isn't overly sweet. At 19.5% alcohol it would be an over-the-top Zin but it's a fairly restrained Port. I had it with a little Huntsman cheese as a late night snack.

As a side note, while looking around the Marietta website, I found a little recipe for minestrone that looked good (scroll down to #8). While it's not the kind of thing you'd serve with Port, it was delicious on its own and easy to make. The last time I made minestrone was back in high school, and I made the mistake of adding pasta early on and letting it simmer for two hours. The result? A gluey, unappetizing mass. The Marietta recipe, on the other hand, is fresher tasting and chock full of good vegetables. The Swiss chard really makes the dish. You might think that the cornbread muffins aren't authentic, but don't be so sure--the February 2008 issue of La Cucina Italiana features a recipe for muffin di farina gialla on page 42.

28 January 2008

Benito vs. the Cheese Board

I decided to lump a lot of cheese reviews into one post. While putting the finishing touches on this, I was watching Trekkies 2, the 2004 documentary that follows up on 1997's Trekkies. The films feature things like a Star Trek-themed dentist office, the Little Rock woman who demanded to wear her Lt. Commander uniform as a juror in the Whitewater trial, a guy who modified his home to resemble a Star Trek set, people who write erotic Trek fiction, and various folks who dress up their pets in uniform.

I'll admit it, I've read and watched a lot of science fiction in my day, and could probably answer an embarrassing number of Star Trek trivia questions, but I have a bit of pride in never having attended a convention wearing Spock ears. Then a British Star Trek fan was explaining the term anorak (a nerd who obsesses over one topic), and gave as an example someone who collects cheese labels. Like the Greek heroes of old, hubris brings my downfall.

White Stilton with Apricot from England. Made from white Stilton cheese that hasn't had the characteristic penicillin mold added to it. It's a fairly dry, crumbly cheese with a yogurt flavor. Good for the holidays but a bit of a mess as it turns into crumbs. White Stilton gets a lot of flak for being a watered-down version of its true blue ancestry, but there's times when these fruit-infused mild cheeses are fun. And they're not going to scare off folks who aren't fond of strong, aromatic cheeses.

Sage Derby is a sort of British white cheddar in which a sage-based herb mixture has been introduced between the curds. To the uninformed observer, this looks like a cheese that has gone well past the edible stage and deep into the High School Science Project realm. But it's not a strong, stinky, or moldy cheese, just a colorful one. I shared this with a pair of dames that don't touch the scary cheeses, yet they loved it. The cheese itself is quite mild, and the sage is restrained yet provides a refreshing counterpoint to the dairy flavor.

Fontinella is a nutty white Italian cheese derived from Fontina. It's fairly close to Swiss cheese in flavor and firmness, though there are no holes or air bubbles. It does have a clear white wax rind, which might not be noticed until you've chewed on a chunk of it. This cheese cries out for some ham or prosciutto.

Grana Padano, a hard Italian cheese. Not as popular as Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano, but it's a great cheese. Hard and suitable for grating, it has little calcium crystals in it that provide a pleasing crunch. While I enjoy it on its own before or after a meal, it can be used in many of the same applications as Parmigiano Reggiano.

Huntsman hails from England and is a carefully layered mix of Stilton and Double Gloucester. As a child, I remember being repulsed by a block of Kraft mild cheddar that had blue mold on one corner. Now I'm paying $10/lb for cheddar with a big chunk of moldy cheese in the middle. It's a nice contrast of flavors, the buttery Gloucester with the tangy Stilton.

24 January 2008

2002 Argiolas Costera

Based on my prior experience with the Perdera, I decided to try the 2002 Argiolas Costera from Sardinia. 92% Cannonau (more on that later), with the remainder comprised of Carignano and Bovale Sardo. Served up with a little ribeye, some roast sweet potatoes, and assorted vegetables.

Even though they're from the same year, I felt the Perdera ($15) aged a little better than the Costera ($20). This one is leaning towards oxidation, with a mild sherry aroma. Still some hints of prune and cherry on the nose, and the flavor is a little tart, medium tannins, with elements of blackberry and leather. It's not spoiled, but it's probably near the end of its aging potential.

Back to the Cannonau. Some say it's the exact same thing as Grenache, some say it's a derivative or clone, others say that it's the father of Grenache. The Italians believe that Cannonau is Grenache, originated in Sardinia and that it was exported to Spain during a period of Spanish rule of the island (1400s). The Spanish say they brought it over during the same time period. Others say that Cannonau was brought there by Jesuits and is a derivative of Alicante. And let's complicate matters by pointing out that the island has also been ruled over the past millennia by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, plus a bunch of little Spanish and Italian city-states, kingdoms, and principalities. I have no solid data on the origin of the grape, and am not going to say a word lest this blog get hit with EU sanctions and some Sardo winemaker swears a blood oath against me and my descendants. Let me state again, though, that one of the things I love about wine is that it's truly history in a glass.

22 January 2008

3rd Anniversary

I've made it to year 3...

Some milestones:

January 22, 2005: First post, the first review came the same day. I started this whole thing just as a place to keep notes. I'm astonished at what it's become.

August 5, 2005: First linkage via another blogger, Professor Bainbridge, law prof at UCLA and wine lover extraordinaire. Barbara from New Zealand soon followed, kicking off my international audience. For a long time, I had a lot more readers in England, California, and the Southern Hemisphere than I did here in Memphis.

September 1, 2005: Comments are enabled.

December 1, 2005: One of my most personal posts, in which I eulogized my high school English teacher. I still get lots of mail from this one.

April 15, 2006: First correction requested by a French winemaker.

September 10, 2006: The first "Benito vs. the..." post, in this case Beets and Pluots. I chose the topic as sort of an Iron Chef challenge, not any sort of animus towards the ingredients used.

October 1, 2006: My parents discovered the blog. I didn't mean to keep it secret, but I'd slowly moved from being semi-anonymous to somewhat public, and once the cat was out of the bag, I made my name known to everyone. Traffic increased substantially, and old friends have gotten in touch with me through the blog.

May 13, 2007: First visit to a winery as a blogger.

August 22, 2007: First "Benito vs. the Hotel Room" post, featuring osso buco.

As of today, I'm the #1 search on Google for Benjamin A. Carter, and in the top 10 searches for Ben Carter and Benito. The first two are cool, but the last is fairly surprising considering the number of famous historical Benitos, as well as the continued popularity of the name in the Italian- and Spanish-speaking regions of the world. One of these days I'll beat Mussolini!

My stats (only tracked since June 8, 2006 via Google Analytics):
79,117 visits from 128 countries

Most popular by country:
1 - United States
2 - Canada
3 - United Kingdom
4 - Australia
5 - Germany
6 - France
7 - Brazil
8 - Netherlands
9 - New Zealand
10 - Singapore

As for the US, I've still got more readers in California and New York than I do in Tennessee.

Thanks go out to all of you who have read this blog, left comments, or shared a table with me at some point. If this thing is still going at the five year mark, I think a big party is in order.

20 January 2008

2006 Handley Pinot Noir Rosé

Here's the 2006 Handley Pinot Noir Rosé from Mendocino County, California. $16. Packaged in an attractive clear Alsatian Hoch bottle, which really helps to show off the color of the wine from pale pink at the neck to a deeper coral by the shoulders.

It's got a light strawberry aroma. The flavor is crisp berry, but not tart. A good lunch wine. While I'm sipping this it's below freezing outside, but it would be a great wine for a picnic this spring.

18 January 2008

Benito vs. the Ocean: Slipper Tails

While shopping for dinner, I picked up a half dozen frozen slipper tails. If you've dug around in the frozen seafood section of your supermarket, you may have seen these. And they're always packaged with just the tail. Why? Well, unlike its more photogenic cousin, the slipper lobster is ugly. As in, "your mama gonna have to tie a pork chop around your neck so the dogs will play with you" ugly. For reference, check out the photo on the article under the Aussie name, Moreton Bay Bug. Authentic Oz recipes can be found by searching for "bug tails". This abomination of the deep looks like the unholy offspring of a lobster and a crab. Fortunately, this man isn't afraid of ugly food. Taste is all that matters, and these were tasty decapod tails. I had a little ramekin of melted butter, and while the tails weren't quite as good as regular Maine lobster, they were delicious. Also not a bad deal at 6 for $15 (roughly a pound of tails), and they would be excellent appetizers or first courses for a dinner party. Just spear them on a skewer if you don't want them curly, and it would be polite to pre-split them for guests.

The Girlfriend is challenging me to cook for her in more healthy directions, including no carbs. I enjoy said challenges, and chose some steamed veggies as well as a bunch of spring onions simply baked with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. (I cooked them in a little Le Creuset dish that was a Christmas present to myself.)

For the wine, I poured the 2006 Clos du Bois Chardonnay from the North Coast appellation in Geyserville, California. I've had this wine several times in restaurants but felt I ought to try it on its own. Since I've typically ordered a glass with seafood and was happy with the results, I felt it would be a good match. It did not disappoint. Green apple on the nose, with hints of burnt sugar. Nice bright fruit flavors, light oak, and decent acidity.

16 January 2008

Barolo Tasting

Every once in a while I am fortunate enough to taste wines outside of my usual sub-$30 beat. Mike Whitfield, local food/wine guru and longtime family friend, gave me a call this past weekend and asked if I wanted to taste some Barolos, including those up to 40 years old. He didn't have to beg me.

Sunday we met up at the Brooks Museum of Art to join around a dozen others for a tasting of 16 Barolos ranging in vintage from 1967 to 1985, with one 1996 thrown in for good measure. The tasting was hosted and guided by Mary Lynn and Tom Cassidy, who provided a wealth of background information on the various producers and vintages. I would copy all that here, but it would become a book and not a blog post.

I'm not going to provide details on all of these, but will point out a few notes in general. The 20-year old Barolos were dark red, and still fairly bold. As they moved back to the 30- and 40-year old flights, the color got lighter and more orange, providing sort of a brick color. Most still had firm acidity. Some had passed their prime, most others were delightful. All were decanted and allowed to breathe for about an hour and a half before serving.

For those wanting more information on the Barolo region (northwest Italy/Nebbiolo grape), here's a decent summary. And here's Lettie Teague on the Barolo Wars between the traditionlists and the modernists.

The food was out of this world, and it was fun to try the different wines on their own and with the various courses. By the last course you had seventeen glasses in front of you spanning 30 years.

Flight 1:
1967 Giuseppe Marbarini
1967 Bersano
1967 Monforte Massolino Mascarello e Figlio
1967 Terre del Barolo Falletto Reserva

Course 1: grilled baby octopus with fingerling potatoes. Baby octopus is one of my favorite ingredients in the world, and I was overjoyed to see it on my plate.

Note: Drinking several wines from this year was a real treat. When those grapes were picked, my parents were in high school and the moon landing was still two years away. I like to think of the rain that fell in Italy, traveled up the roots, plumped up the grapes, and eventually found its way into that bottle. Forty years later, the voyage of those raindrops continued into my glass.

Flight 2:
1968 Ferruccio Nicolello
1970 Ferruccio Nicolello
1970 Pio Cesare

Course 2: dates stuffed with sweet sausage and wrapped with bacon, risotto, surrounded by chestnut soup. Heavenly. The sweet/salty/savory combination was amazing, and the chestnut soup was a unique addition to the dish.

Flight 3:
1978 Terre del Barolo Falletto Reserva
1978 Pio Cesare
1978 Giovanni Scanavino (my favorite, thanks mostly to the beautiful cedar chest nose)
1978 Massolino Vigna Rionda

Course 3: lamb ribeyes, ravioli stuffed with sweetbreads, spinach, and pomegranate au jus. The ribeyes were tiny but full-flavored, and the ravioli were delicate and mild.

Flight 4:
1982 Marchesi di Barolo Sarmassa
1982 Pio Cesare (a clear favorite of the group)
1985 Pio Cesare
1985 Terre del Barolo Falletto Reserva
1985 Massolino Vigna Rionda
1996 Cannubi (provided an excellent younger benchmark to better understand the older wines)

Course 4: Barolo-braised short ribs with olives and gnocchi drizzled with a basil purée. By far the lightest and most delicate gnocchi I've ever eaten, and the meat was fork-tender.

Note: While I've got a few fragmentary memories of 1979 forward, the period of 1982-1985 is pretty vivid for me. Six to nine was a fun age, full of Legos and building forts and church baseball and riding bikes all day long.

I've used this phrase in the past, but sitting down with great wines over a couple of hours is an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The Brooks is hosting a number of wine-related events in the next several months as part of The Art of Good Taste 2008. These tastings and auctions are a great way to experience some fantastic wine as well as support the oldest and largest art museum in the Volunteer State.

14 January 2008

Truite aux amandes

Truite aux amandes is a dish better known around here as Trout Almondine. Seems as though it was popular decades ago but has faded from the culinary landscape. I decided to give it a shot, going back to the basic French recipe. Some trout dredged in flour, cooked in butter or oil, and a little sauce prepared from sliced almonds, butter, and lemon. Simple enough, but filling and tasty. I think there's room for improvement, though, and I might revisit it in the months to come. I'm trying to see how much seafood I can process through my kitchen this year. By Christmas I ought to have more mercury in my bloodstream than a case of thermometers.

The wine for the evening was the 2006 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay from Monterey, California. $20. Nice citrus aromas, with flavors of lemon, ginger, and lychee. Good acidity but not crisp; overall excellent balance.

Curious about the orange side dish? That's orange cauliflower, a hybrid developed from a random mutation in a plant 30 years ago. (The math geek in me likes the fractal patterns in the florets.) It tastes better than white cauliflower and has loads of beta carotene/vitamin A. I steamed the florets until tender and then put them in a casserole dish with some olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and a topping of grated grana padano cheese. Excellent result, and I'm looking forward to trying the green variety of cauliflower soon.

11 January 2008

2005 Μπουτάρη Μοσχοφίλερο

Greek wines are growing in popularity, and I'm looking forward to an all-Greek tasting sometime in the next couple of years, much in the way that Spanish wines are plentiful and affordable today. For $15, I got a fairly well-known Greek wine, the 2005 Boutari Moschofilero. It's made from the Moschofilero grape in the Mantinea area of the Peloponnesian peninsula. The bottle comes from a town between the historical cities of Sparta and Corinth. Probably not the same style of wine swilled by Spartan soldiers on the way to the Battle of Thermopylae, but a feller can dream.

Big lime aroma with an underlying muskiness that's entrancing. After a glass or two has been poured, a beautiful floral component emerges. Dry, with citrus flavors but relatively mellow. I drank the wine with some take-out sushi, but something about the flavors made me crave Thai dishes (with lots of basil) more than seafood or even Greek cuisine.

09 January 2008

2004 St. Francis Red

Quick note: the frog post was pretty popular, so for anyone interested in running your own frog farm, I found this article via BoingBoing. It's from the 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine: Big Profits in Back Yard FROG Raising. I'm sure your neighbors will love you for it.

Feel free to print the above label and put it on a jar or can of chicken stock as a gag gift.

And now for a legitimately delicious wine that has nothing to do with frogs.

Here's a decent little $12 wine for a basic steak and potatoes dinner: 2004 St. Francis Red, Sonoma County, California. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel (no percentages available). Nice nose of currants and raspberries. Mild tannins, and the Zinfandel plays a good contributing role without overpowering the other grapes.

The label comes in several versions, all variations on splattered red paint.

07 January 2008

2004 Hogue Genesis Merlot

Curious about the odd red fruits on the plate? Those are hachiya persimmons, picked up at Wild Oats this weekend. I was a bit apprehensive in trying them, as I'd heard that the unripe versions were almost painfully tart. The local native persimmons tend to have smaller fruit, and my one experience with that on a childhood camping trip was rough. It taught me why folks refer to someone with a puckered face as looking like "a possum eating a persimmon".

But these were amazing. Soft and lightly sweet, texturally like an overripe peach or plum but with a milder flavor. It's soft and creamy and amazingly delicious. Tiny edible seeds, no real pith, and the skin is easily removed. I'm surprised it's taken thirty years to see these in the grocery store.

Out of concern for my palate, I tried the wine first and the fruit later. This is the 2004 Hogue Genesis Merlot from the Columbia Valley of Washington State. 85% Merlot, 12% Syrah, and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Hogue remains a beloved producer that I got to know back before I could legally purchase wine. In fact, I don't remember the first bottle of wine I purchased as a legal adult (in the U.S., that is), but money may have changed hands to pick up a 1994 Hogue Johannisberg Riesling when I was 19 and cooking dinner for my fellow resident advisors at the dorm. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

It's got a big currant aroma with hints of leather, tobacco, and green bell pepper--much like a good right bank Bordeaux. It's nowhere near that refined, but with some age it could possibly be amazing. It's got a rich, concentrated flavor, with strong tannins that soften with breathing. I sipped it along with a winter dinner of ham steak and cellentani con formaggio, or some fancy mac & cheese made with tubular corkscrew pasta and a rich Mornay sauce. The persimmons were dessert, and nothing makes me happier than some simple ripe fruit to top off a meal.

03 January 2008

Benito vs. the Amphibian: Frog Legs

For the record, I'm not particularly fond of frog legs. I don't dislike them, I don't turn up my nose at them, but the damned things don't bring any hint of a smile to my face. It's been nearly a decade since I ate them last (Dad deep-fried some for a 4th of July cookout on the request of an older relative), but when I was at the store and saw them in the seafood case, I had to buy a pair. Since folks are increasingly asking where I find these odd ingredients, I got these at the Kroger at Germantown Parkway and Trinity. It's going through a renovation which includes--quel surprise!--a huge international cheese selection with free samples and great prices.

The first thing you need to know is that you're going to have to defend your purchase against the checkout employee as well as the customers in front and behind you in line. I had to explain that they weren't being used for bait. That I was really going to eat them. That I would be happy to scan the item so the poor girl would stop shrieking. I tried to justify my purchase by using the French term cuisses de grenouilles, but that didn't help.

The second thing you need to know is that raw frog legs can look a little scary, like a human in miniature. Unlike chicken, turkey, or lamb legs, you see perfectly formed thigh and calf muscles. Plus they come in pairs, so during prep you're staring at a pale white frog butt. Not quite as appetizing as a well-marbled steak.

I was going to use the legs as a fun appetizer, but didn't feel like fighting with the women and instead just cooked them in the afternoon for my own enjoyment. I dredged the legs through a mix of flour, Old Bay, and pepper and then fried them in butter. For serving I applied a liberal amount of lime juice and poured a dollop of Dijon mustard. Some say that the neutral flavor makes them "a good way to get mustard in your mouth".

How does frog taste? Many people say chicken, but I think it's closer to catfish. It's whiter than poultry, more delicate, and slightly fishy, and you can't eat the skin and the bones provide no real flavor. (If anyone out there makes frog stock, I don't want to know about it.) I've had them fried, both with flour and cornmeal based batters, and I've had them grilled. These were made in a slightly Cajun way. I've heard that Kung Pao preparations are interesting, but frankly, there's not a lot of meat on those hindquarters, and the flavor's not something that flings a craving on me once in a while. These were juicy, edible, and somewhat satisfying, but I don't see them as part of my regular dinner repertoire.

I had to fix this in honor of the holiday because 2008 is, after all, a leap year.

01 January 2008

Happy New Year!

For my New Year's Eve Champagne, I picked the NV Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and chose to serve it during a viewing of Casablanca, where the Yellow Label makes a cameo appearance. It's also been featured in other films, such as Hitchcock's Rope and To Catch a Thief, as well as the oft-maligned Godfather III and the acclaimed Babette's Feast. The screenshot above is from the 22 minute mark in the film, after Claude Rains has said "May I recommend Veuve Clicquot '26, a good French wine." This is when the waiter has returned to serve it, though it's a quick cut amongst gunplay and confusion while Peter Lorre is escaping.

This Champagne is made from 50-55% Pinot Noir, 15-20% Pinot Meunier, and 28-33% Chardonnay. Crisp, a little tart, with aromas of green apple and some lingering flavors of apricot. My New Year's plans were fairly low key, so we enjoyed it with various cheeses during the film.

It looks like with the new year, winter has finally arrived here in Memphis. It's right at freezing as I type this, and perhaps I'll even get a chance or two to wear wool scarves before spring arrives. Stay warm out there, kick back and enjoy a cup of hot tea while the north winds blow.