30 April 2008

2006 le Rosé de Mouton Cadet

I rarely pass up a dry rosé, so I was pleased to find the 2006 le Rosé de Mouton Cadet from Baron Philippe de Rothschild at a grocery store in Twinsburg, Ohio for around $12. You have to dig a bit to get the info, but it's 65% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. "...entirely vinified and blended at the Saint-Laurent-Médoc Winery" in Bordeaux.

Good dry rosé, very light aroma of black cherries, slightly crisp acidity on the palate with a smooth cherry cream finish. Enjoyed with a tuna salad sandwich and some fruit for a light dinner.

I'm excited to see that good rosé wine is becoming more easily available around the country and is more prevalent year-round. While I normally associate it with summer, there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy it at any time of the year. And there are some higher-end rosés coming out, breaking the $30 mark.

28 April 2008

Benito vs. the Rutabaga

When I contemplate the lowly rutabaga, it makes me think about economics. You always see them in the grocery store, but who buys them? Despite the efforts of the Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute, I've never heard someone mention a craving for one. What more popular vegetables subsidize the presence of fresh rutabagas year round? It's also odd to buy a root vegetable encased in wax. Not just the sheen of gloss put on apples and cucumbers, but a thick protective coating that preserves the root vegetable. At a Burns' Night dinner years ago I had some "neeps & tatties" (rutabagas and potatoes) alongside the haggis, and I recently had a rutabaga purée in Cleveland, but I'd never fixed one myself.

I had an idea for a fancy preparation incorporating an ingredient that looked like a prop from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I peeled the softball-sized rutabaga. It takes forever with a peeler and is somewhat dangerous with a knife. Then I divided it into a ¼" dice and boiled it in chicken broth until tender (roughly 45 minutes). Mashed up with some roasted garlic, popped into a ramekin and topped with some buttered orzo, basil and a parmesan chip, one of those magical garnishes that ups the price of a dish by $5.

Verdict? I'm more likely to use acorn squash when I want a savory, non-potato starch. The rutabaga was good in this dish but not necessarily worth the trouble of prep. I also can't shake the association of rutabagas with hard times and starvation such as the Steckrübenwinter of 1916-1917, when the population of Germany had to survive on rutabagas.

Unlike the subjects of the Kaiser, I got to enjoy mine with some beef, a refreshing salad, and the 2005 Columbia Crest Two Vines "Vineyard 10" from the Columbia Valley of Washington. $9, 13.5% abv, a proprietary blend of Syrah, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright, with big red fruit flavors, some lingering tannins but overall a decent blend for the price.

I've always found Columbia Crest to be a reliable producer, and at some point I'm going to try their higher end offerings. One blend I miss is their Semillon-Chardonnay, which I last remember seeing in the late 90s. When you got to serve that to someone that had never tasted any other white than straight chard, it was delightful to watch his or her face brighten up.

25 April 2008

Oyster Surprise

I don't remember when I ate my first oyster; it was probably twenty years ago. I haven't kept score, but in the past year alone I've had a couple hundred raw oysters. Yet Sunday was the first time that I'd ever found a pearl in an oyster. Fortunately I didn't chip a tooth in the process.

According to one source, "only about one in 10,000 wild oysters will yield a pearl".

The pearl can be seen at right with a Shiner 99 bottle cap for comparison. Smaller than a BB, grey/brown in color yet slightly iridescent in the right light. Alas, it's too small for the old tooth test.

For those of you who saw this title and assumed the worst, I have yet to experience the uniquely soul-destroying food poisoning brought on by a bad oyster. I realize that my day will come at some point, yet the slight hint of danger somehow improves the flavor of each one. If hunger is the best sauce then dangerous/forbidden/rare characteristics must be the best garnish: the fully-raw beef, the mispriced bottle of wine, the wild mushrooms sold under the table...

23 April 2008

Benito vs. the Pteridophyte: Fiddlehead Ferns

I've been waiting a long time to eat ferns, and I'm not talking about crawling around in infancy and trying to nosh on the household plants. After being around ferns for much of my youth, I never imagined they might be edible until the early 90s when I checked out a cookbook from the library. Not just any cookbook, this was a giant, glossy coffee table book showcasing indigenous ingredients and recipes from around the country. The section on Maine featured lovely photos of fiddlehead ferns, and for nearly twenty years I've been waiting to find them in the store or on a menu. Recently I spotted them at Fresh Market and took them home for supper.

Here's what The Girlfriend and I enjoyed: grilled baby bok choy that were then roasted with butter and parmesan cheese, then a chunk of watermelon topped with some Bonnie Blue feta-style goat cheese and sea salt (inspired by this recipe), and then slices of porterhouse steak topped with steamed and marinated fiddlehead ferns. The Alpine Harvest fiddleheads were steamed for a good fifteen minutes and then allowed to rest in olive oil and tarragon wine vinegar for a while before serving. The flavor and texture is somewhat like asparagus but more tart. Unfortunately, they're difficult to clean and from the box I purchased only half were usable. Odd side note: after steaming, the water beneath the fiddleheads was blood red. No idea why.

I've noticed that I'm rarely drinking Pinot Noir these days, so in remedy I picked the 2006 Alamos Selección Pinot Noir from the Mendoza region of Argentina. $15, 13% abv. Pretty decent basic Pinot, nice full strawberry flavors, light and mellow. A good match for the meal, and hey, Jancis Robinson likes it.

21 April 2008

Bari Ristorante e Enoteca

For a long time I avoided local restaurant reviews out of courtesy to Fredric. The subject matter was in eminently capable hands, and for decades he guided the city through the wide and occasionally strange world of local restaurants.

One of those recommendations (that was delivered several times in person) was Bari Ristorante e Enoteca over on Cooper near Overton Square. Now, I have no desire to become a restaurant reviewer, and I'm not going to tell you about the parking and the ease of getting high chairs, but I don't mind reporting when I've had an amazing meal, and I'll give a bit of advice for dining there.

If you're looking for Dean Martin on the soundtrack and red checkered tablecloths, you're in the wrong place. If you're expecting "stuffa you face" portions of pasta and red sauce, there are numerous other restaurants in town that will fill you up. That's not to say that you're going to go home hungry--I was pleasantly stuffed by the end of my meal, and I'd only had four courses and no dessert.

At the start, the waiter will explain to you that the portions are small and you're supposed to enjoy several courses. This is how things work in Italy, where dinner may take three hours and involve dirtying a dozen plates. (What to do with the interstitial time? Try talking to the people at your table! Drink some wine, have fun!) The benefit here is that you can easily customize your meal depending on how hungry you are and what you're craving.

Here's what I had:
  • Polipo con Pompelmo: Grilled baby octopus with red onions and grapefruit. I never pass up baby octopus, and these didn't disappoint.
  • Radicchio e Indiva: Grilled radicchio and endive with gorgonzola cheese and a red wine vinaigrette. My brother has a rule about not ordering anything in a restaurant that he can cook himself, but I broke that rule for this one. I enjoy grilling the various chicories at home, but was quite happy with these two. The radicchio was of the treviso variety, more elongated than the normal chioggia you see in the store. Gorgonzola was a perfect match here.
  • Orecchiette alla Pugliese: Little ear-shaped pasta (tasted fresh to me) with roasted cherry tomatoes, salted anchovies, and rapini. Rich, flavorful, and surprisingly filling for the portion.
  • Branzino alla Griglia: Given the efficient portions on all other courses, I was surprised by this one: a whole European Sea Bass stuffed with fennel and oranges and grilled. Probably a pound or so. Delicate, flavorful flesh that came off the bone beautifully. I'll warn you that this dish takes a bit of effort if you don't eat much whole fish, but it's well worth it.

18 April 2008

2005 Val Montium Bierzo

A friend pointed me in the direction of the Wine Market over on Spottswood between the Williams-Sonoma outlet and Dan McGuinness, owned and operated by Scott Smith. I stopped in to meet Scott and take a look around.

I found a lot of wines I haven't seen elsewhere in the city. While it would have been tempting to walk out with several mixed cases, fiscal responsibility forced me to settle on two bottles.

Quick side note: to all of the great local wine shops I know and love, my primary motivator in where I shop is based on where I happen to be when the mood strikes me to buy wine. And if I haven't been in your place of business recently, forgive me, I've been traveling out of state a lot in the past few months.

First up was the 2005 Val Montium Bierzo made from the Mencía grape in Northwest Spain. $16, 14% abv. Nice aromas of dried blueberries with some elements of cherries and coffee. Good fruit but well balanced. Served with roast beef and beets, a decent pairing for the hearty wine.

The second wine selected was the Saint-Meyland Brut Rosé, $15, a light 12% abv. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but there's not a lot of information on this wine online. In fact, the first result in Google for "Saint-Meyland" is this blog. Both this and its non-rosé sister are outstanding bargains. Great quality, serious production, and crisp, light fruit flavors that while dry manage to please both wine lovers and novices.

The rosé has a wonderful nose of cherry soda, with tart flavors combining cherry and a touch of lemon. It is a dry sparkler, wonderfully bright and refreshing. I served it with a little salad incorporating Golden Delicious apples and a tarragon vinaigrette. I think it would be great with appetizers, and the price means that it would be a great party wine.

16 April 2008

Veal Meatloaf & Shiner Helles

Here's my attempt at recreating the amazing meatloaf I had at the Flying Fig in Cleveland. I got close but while my version wasn't dead-on, it was still delicious and made for excellent leftovers. I combined organic ground veal, sautéed oyster mushrooms, breadcrumbs, eggs, etc. and cooked it as a free form loaf on a sheet pan. This has the benefit of maintaining a light, not packed texture as well as permitting most of the fat to run off. I made 3/8" slices with a sharp knife and then seared the slices in a hot pan with a bit of butter. I chose to serve it with some stewed plums and roasted squares of sweet potato. The juice from the plums was reduced down and poured over the meatloaf. Even if you've been scarred by school cafeteria meatloaf full of gristle and various fillers, I think this is a recipe that you'll love.

As I've said before, sometimes the right wine is a beer. And I was excited to see the latest anniversary beer from the good folks at Shiner. I've had the 96th, 97th, and 98th anniversary beers, though for some reason didn't write about them here. This is the Shiner 99 Munich Style Helles Lager, a wonderful lager with a lot more body than your average Coors or Bud. Great hops and malts from a Texas brewery with deep German/Czech roots. It's a good combination of authentic microbrew spirit with macro distribution. (If you want to see what serious beer tasting notes look like, check out the reviews at Beer Advocate.) I'm tempted to make a visit to the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas for the centennial celebration. And from my previous trips to the Lone Star State, I can tell you that cold Shiner Bock from the tap is the perfect thing to take the edge off a hot summer day.

14 April 2008

LiveSTRONG With A Taste Of Yellow: Golden Beet Salad

This is my entry for my friend Barbara's LiveSTRONG recipe/photo competition in support of fighting cancer. Note that I did not include one of the yellow bands in my photo, but I still think it could grace the pages of Saveur.

So what yellow product to use? I initially was planning something mustard-based, but then I lucked out and found some golden beets at Fresh Market. A note to my fellow Memphians: if I find golden beets anywhere in the city, I'm liable to buy several bunches. Not trying to deprive anyone of this delicacy, but when an obscure craving meets limited supply, it's every man for himself. My hope is that by clearing out the stock, it will encourage the greengrocers to purchase more in the future.

In honor of the fact that Barbara writes from Australia (recently moved from New Zealand), for the rest of this post I'll use the antipodean term beetroot.

Here's the ingredients in the salad:
  • two golden beetroot, roasted for an hour, peeled and sliced
  • one navel orange, peeled, trimmed, and sliced
  • slivered almonds, toasted in a pan
  • thin strips of firm goat cheese
  • sliced shallot rings
  • Dijon mustard/balsamic vinaigrette
  • spring mix/mesclun as desired
Do you really need instructions on how to put together a salad? Throw it on a plate and gobble down. However, if you put it on a square white plate and make it look pretty, then you can charge $10 for it and call it "beetroot carpaccio", though on this blog we avoid pseudotrophes.

This was one delicious salad if I say so myself. Even The Girlfriend loved it despite the fact that she doesn't like beets. (Golden beets have a milder flavor and don't stain the hell out of your counters and cutting boards.) Therein lies a funny story: The Girlfriend was returning home from a trip and her flight was delayed an hour, meaning that I did a bit of shopping. During said excursion I picked up the golden beets. I'm serious: I never pass these up. So when I finally met her at the airport, instead of a bouquet of flowers I had a bag of slightly muddy beets. Two days later with a successful dinner, all was forgiven.

11 April 2008

Playing the Tourist

Salute to Cleveland Week finishes up with some touristy activities.

Perhaps the most popular attraction for out of town visitors is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum located down on the shore of Lake Erie. It's an odd assortment of tons of memorabilia from the entire history of rock music, with occasional side trips into country, hip hop, and various pop acts.

The biggest thrill for me was seeing the Ford Eliminator Coupe from ZZ Top that was featured in several videos. And it was a curious experience to stand mere inches from the stage costumes and guitars of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and the rest of Parliament Funkadelic (those guys have surprisingly conservative signatures). How about Madonna's slinky outfits and Run DMC's well-worn Adidas?

Less well known but more enjoyable for me was visiting the house featured in the classic holiday film A Christmas Story. The house was used for the exterior shots and some interior scenes (others were done on a sound stage--the house is very tiny). The website devoted to the house will provide you with additional information and directions.

Across the street are two houses purchased by the owner: one serves as a gift shop (where you can purchase leg lamps in many different sizes), and a museum that is accumulating material related to the movie, including the non-flexible snow suit worn by the little brother. They've got the car from the Christmas tree/flat tire scene and lots of other fun stuff.

The Kitchen

Leg Lamps in Many Sizes

09 April 2008

Two Great Cleveland Restaurants

Salute to Cleveland Week continues with the gourmet side of C-Town. Never thought that haute cuisine and Cleveland would be mentioned in the same sentence? It's sort of like that mousy girl from high school who ended up playing bass for a punk band: you may not have noticed it on the surface, but the talent was always there.

Last time I was in Cleveland the weather was terrible and I didn't have a lot of free time. But during this trip the sun was shining, the snow was melting, and I had the flexibility to move around the city a bit. Number one on my to-do list was to have dinner at Lola in downtown Cleveland.

Michael Symon is an up and coming celebrity chef who aside from his Food Network success has established a great pair of restaurants in his native Cleveland and writes a blog called Symon Says. One of his signature dishes is a gourmet twist on a regional Polish favorite: the beef cheek pierogies with wild mushrooms and horseradish crème fraîche. Of course when I went there I had to order this, and I was not disappointed. Think about the most intense, concentrated beef flavor you can imagine and condense it down into soft fibres of facial muscles that have been slow braised and seasoned to perfection. These are stuffed into delicate pierogi dough and then boiled and pan-fried before being served with the mushrooms and white sauce. Simply amazing. I'm going to be dreaming about these for months.

For an entrée I decided on the smoked Berkshire pork chop with cheesy polenta and BBQ onions. The pork chop was a bit over an inch thick and was served sliced over the polenta. I'll admit that the flavor of smoked pork made me slightly homesick for just a moment. I suppose that's one of the highest compliments a Southerner can give to a pork dish prepared north of the Mason-Dixon line. I enjoyed both dishes with a spicy Argentine Malbec called Terra Rosa.

The place is quite popular and while I was able to snag a small table by showing up at opening time on a Saturday afternoon, I chose instead to eat at the bar. Turned out to be a great idea because of the excellent bartender and the friendly local couple seated next to me who struck up a conversation and recommended similar restaurants around town. Topping their list was...

The Flying Fig in Cleveland's Market Square. I went there the following week and had a salad and meatloaf. Sounds like a depressing cafeteria meal served by some surly Eastern European waitress whose last name has an excess of consonants from the second half of the alphabet, all bathed in the dead lights of flickering fluorescent tubes. WRONG! Best salad I've had in months combined with the finest meatloaf I've eaten in my entire life. This is a charming little restaurant in one of those cool, trendy sections of town comparable to Cooper/Young in Memphis. Lots of great restaurants within walking distance, anchored by the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

The salad was a mesclun mix with a honey vinaigrette, prosciutto, mission figs, roasted pistachios, and some sort of dry goat cheese in thin, broken strips. And the meatloaf... good Lord the meatloaf... It was a veal and wild mushroom blend served with a rutabaga purée and a truffle-sage jus. Bit of wilted spinach for greenery. I'm going to have a lot of fun trying to recreate this one back home. Best thing about the meatloaf: aside from the gourmet ingredients, the individual slices had been pan seared to allow for a nicely caramelized crust on all sides. Not greasy at all, just savory bliss washed down with a glass of 2005 Anne Amie Cuvee A Pinot Noir from Oregon.

I ate at many other great restaurants, including a wonderful Lebanese place and an establishment near my hotel that had an amazing pork osso buco. But why spoil all the details for you? If life takes you to Cleveland, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

07 April 2008

Benito vs. the Polka: Babushka's Kitchen

Today kicks off Salute to Cleveland Week here at BWR. I've spent almost a month up there this year on business, and will be headed back for more in a few weeks. Despite the image problem that Cleveland has in the national psyche, I prefer to celebrate the many positive aspects of The Metropolis of the Western Reserve.

On this most recent trip, I decided I ought to have at least one authentic Polish meal. After all, my sister-in-law is of Polish heritage, and I'm a big fan of pierogies. An assortment of locals and one Polish immigrant all pointed me in the direction of one place: Babushka's Kitchen in Macedonia, Ohio, south of Cleveland.

I strode in around opening time and although I wasn't starving, I went for the Hunter's Feast so that I could try a bit of everything. Apparently it's not a commonly ordered dish; the proprietor came out and asked me, "Hey, are you that guy from Toledo?" Apparently I have a doppelgänger who comes by once a week for this particular menu item.

Let me break it down for you:
  • one stuffed cabbage (gołąbek): cabbage leaves wrapped around ground beef, rice, and other aromatics, all doused in tomato sauce. Hearty and piquant, reminded me a lot of stuffed green peppers from Picadilly.
  • a link of smoked kiełbasa: awesome, good quality sausage here.
  • roasted pork loin with sauerkraut and dumplings: slight disappointment, if only because of the great things done with pork in the South. Enjoyed the slow-roasted sauerkraut.
  • one jumbo potato and cheese pierogi with grilled onion and sour cream: probably my favorite of the bunch, this was a huge, quarter-pound stuffed dumpling of pure carbohydrate joy.
  • and two sides: I tried to talk the waitress out of the side dishes, as I had no intention of clearing the main course, but she wouldn't take no for an answer and suggested that I take the leftovers home since it was supposed to snow that night. I demurred and accepted her "lighter" recommendations of a cucumber salad (really quite refreshing and delicious, almost like pickles) and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy (couldn't quite stomach it given everything else on the plate).
Overall it was a great stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal, and while I wouldn't want to eat like that all the time it was a good winter feast. Plus, I received a year's worth of polka music in one sitting. When I found myself humming along to "Who stole the kishka?" I figured it was time to depart.

Crest of Poland image via Wikipedia article on Poland, released into public domain by the author.

04 April 2008

2003 Kavaklidere Öküzgözü d'Elaziğ

Since this has turned into the "Week of the Weird" here at BWR, I figure I might as well wrap things up with a strange wine that was actually quite nice. The name you see on the title of this post is not a typo, it's Turkish: land of the superfluous umlauts.

While looking around the Whole Foods in the University Heights neighborhood of Cleveland, I found the 2003 Kavaklidere Öküzgözü d'Elaziğ. $15. This comes from the Elaziğ province of eastern Turkey on the Anatolian plateau. Öküzgözü is the name of the grape and means "ox eye" in Turkish. Oddly Turkey is the fourth largest producer of grapes in the world but only a tiny percentage is converted into wine. I've never had a wine from a nation where the per capita consumption is less than one bottle a year. (The average American drinks ten bottles a year, the average French or Italian person drinks a little over sixty bottles a year.)

Bright red cherry aromas, crisp, slightly tart flavor with a mild finish. Much lighter than expected, kind of like a mellow Merlot. Totally different from what I expected--I was thinking something aggresive like a Spanish red to stand up to the robust cuisine of the area.

01 April 2008

Other Grape Beverages

For far too long I've neglected the other beverages that are made from the plump fruit of Vitis vinifera and her American cousin Vitis labrusca. While spirits like grappa, marc, and brandy are derived from the grape, here I focus on the more accessible forms that can be found in a variety of establishments across the nation.

Representing the dehydrated market is Grape Kool-Aid®, introduced in 1927 by Edwin Perkins. Just add water and sugar--I prefer using organic Florida-grown cane sugar or the earthy product of a sugarcane plantation nestled in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. While this is often consumed out of sippy cups and plastic mugs, I find that a crystal brandy snifter helps concentrate the spicy aromas of Red #40 and Blue #1 dyes. Drink this on a regular basis and you'll develop a purplish "mustache" that's quite fetching among the kindergarten crowd. Note that the extra Vitamin C means that this has a piquant, tangy character more often found in white grapes such as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. A good ringer for a blind tasting, eh?

Ah, a sparkler! Don't wait for a special occasion to open Big K Grape Soda. Sparkling Shiraz wines have been the craze in Australia recently, but let's not forget our homegrown bubbly, often packaged in convenient aluminum cans. While the debate over cork versus synthetic enclosures has raged in the still wine arena, many sparkling wines are still plugged up with good ol' tree bark. This convenient 12 oz. serving is ideal for resting in a cooler during a baseball game. Heck, at 35¢ per can, fill up the cooler! Perhaps the aluminum packaging was inspired by Francis Coppola's canned Sofia Blanc de Blancs? A firm fizz takes this can past frizzante and into spumante territory, though as it's a domestic house brand of the Kroger Corporation it cannot carry a proper Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita designation.

The bellini is a cocktail made from Prosecco and a purée of fine white peaches. It was invented sometime around WWII at Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy. An authentic bellini at Harry's will run you €14 (US$22), not to mention airfare and lodging. Instead, you can pick up a whole jug of Welch's White Grape Peach for a little over three bucks! While the company rose to power and fortune on the juice of the Concord grape, in recent years lighter varieties (much less likely to stain the carpet) have been produced using the indigenous Niagara. An excellent match with some prosciutto-wrapped melon, crostini, and marinated squid salad while enjoying a Fellini marathon at home. La dolce vita indeed!

The color blue turns up in wine product names (the internationally-acclaimed "Blue Nun" of Germany), in grape names (the Austro-Hungarian Blaufränkisch), and in fact, some dark grapes do have a bluish tint to them when viewed in the right light. However, this is the first grape drink I've seen which bears the cheerful hue of Windex. Gatorade FIERCE Grape is not for the faint of heart: designed for athletes and those engaged in heavy manual labor, this is fortified with elecrolytes. Like competitor Brawndo, "It's got what plants crave." So when a dainty Pinot Grigio won't cut it, and your wimpy Chablis is quivering in fear of your Hungry-Man Sports Grill frozen dinner, reach for something FIERCE.