29 May 2008

Hot Mustard

When I go out for Chinese, I tend to order the strangest thing on the menu, the item with the most misspelled words, and/or the entrée involving seafood with the highest potential for serious illness. (Once in high school I had the abalone at a really sketchy place in north Memphis that later got shut down for health code violations. One friend got nauseated just watching me.) If they'll let a gweilo like me do so, I'll order off the Chinese menu that's not normally given out and go for the hostess' recommendation. And the next step is generally to ask for some fresh mustard, that little pot of blindingly hot yellow sauce that will clear out your sinuses in a heartbeat.

I finally got some mustard powder of my own to make it at home. Just mix equal parts powder and water* until smooth and dive in. I picked this up at Penzey's over at Poplar and Kirby. You can't quite see it on the label, but it says "Canada Hot". Reminds me of the old adage about a woman who would rate a 6 in the lower forty-eight scoring as a 10 in Alaska. So I was concerned that this mustard might be considered hot by Canadian standards and not by residents of the South, where hot sauce is available everywhere and crazed pepperheads brew dangerous concoctions in old jelly jars.

My fears were unfounded and tears ran down my face while I sampled the mustard, slathered on bratwurst. I've also had good results pairing it with turkey sandwiches and grilled beef. So consider this an apology to the good people of Canada that grew this mustard, and to the lovely women of Alaska.

*Depending on the flavors that you want to create, dried mustard powder can be mixed with wine, beer, vinegar, fruit juices, etc.

27 May 2008

Site News + 7 Songs ♪

First off, I've removed the ads from the left--Forbes never got back to me, and if they're still interested they know how to get in touch with me. Also, given the amount of time I'm spending in Northern Ohio I felt obliged to add a little Cleveland blogroll. More to come as I get to know the local writing scene better...

Australian blogress Barbara tagged me with a music meme game: "List seven songs you are into right now." Full details can be found at the link above, and while I don't normally forward these around, if any fellow bloggers wish to participate, feel free to join in and provide a link to your blog post in the comments below.

In no particular order, here are some fun songs that have been running through my head a lot recently. I looked at my iTunes stats and weeded out some of the more popular songs, trying to focus on songs that might be new finds for my readers.
  1. At the River by Groove Armada. Truly one of the most beautiful bits of electronica ever made. It's a collection of samples, trombone riffs, and back beats, but this song never fails to calm me. Please ignore the confusing CGI video here, just listen to the song.
  2. You Know I'm No Good by Amy Winehouse. She's a trainwreck of a human being, the kind you don't take home to mother, but this song combines the brassy notes of a 60s James Bond theme song with modern soul. And it always reminds me of...
  3. Glory Box by Portishead. A trip hop classic from the British seaport of Bristol. Beth Gibbons' voice will stir deep longings in your soul. (On a related note: Teardrop by Massive Attack.)
  4. It Is Pitch Dark by MC Frontalot. The king of nerdcore rap delivers this loving tribute to the text-based adventure games of the early 80s. I spent a long time working in technology, and there was a clear divide between those of us that had once loaded programs using cassette tapes and those who had never seen anything more primitive than a CD-ROM. Of course, we all had to bow down to the guys who cut their teeth on punch cards.
  5. Born Too Late by The Clarks. Ignore the video again, these guys are huge in Pittsburgh and for years I've enjoyed their music. With this song in particular, I always perk up at the couplet "William will you teach me how to write / Cassius will you show me how to fight". Another song with references to greats who have passed away is...
  6. Nightshift by The Commodores. This is one of those songs that I love to play late at night as I'm winding down from the day, maybe throwing together a post, catching up on e-mails with folks I haven't heard from in a while, or just kicking back and relaxing. The only time I ever hear this song outside of my house is at the grocery store. It's difficult to park the cart beside the pickles and have a poignant moment.
  7. Us by Regina Spektor. Nothing washes away the taste of horrid Soviet Champagne like the charming piano work of this Russian émigré. Plus her accent reminds me of this girl named Svetlana who worked at a local coffee shop. When I'd stride up to the counter and politely request "Кофе пожалуйста", I'd get gently teased about my wretched pronunciation. Note that Spektor is the composer, singer, and pianist--no prefab popstar here.

26 May 2008


The last time I was in Cleveland I had a spectacular meal at Michael Symon's Lola. This time I tried the sister restaurant Lolita.

Located in the historic Tremont neighborhood on the edge of downtown, Lolita is more casual and less expensive than Lola. For a martini, a glass of wine, two courses, and a tip I got out of there for under $50. And if you want to dine on the cheap, the happy hour menu has food and drinks for next to nothing.

I got there right at the 5:00 opening and discovered the bar was almost full and all tables had been reserved. I squeezed into a spot at the bar wedged behind the hostess and next to the wine rack. Got to talk to my fellow diners, who were grabbing a bite to eat before The Tribe faced Oakland. Lolita has a much more casual and neighborhood feel than Lola, which is more of a fine dining experience. Symon was in the restaurant that night and aside from a quick hello I didn't spend any time speaking to him. Lolita has a partially open kitchen and he was in and out of the prep area looking over things.

I started out with the aforementioned martini (Tanqueray and a twist) and the roasted dates. The dates were cooked in olive oil with pancetta and almonds. Really delicious without being overly sweet. Also, they managed to serve these just slightly below the temperature that burns your tongue. Amazing.

For the main course I had the hanger steak and ramps with a glass of 2006 Maggio Vini Nero D’Avola. I loved this Sicilian grape the last time I had it and was glad to see it offered by the glass. This was the first time I'd ever had ramps, the wild vegetable that's somewhere between a leek, a green onion, and garlic with edible greens on top. The ramps were sautéed with peas and assorted seasonings. Great combination of sweet and astringent onion flavors.

As for the hanger steak, it was my first time trying this cut of beef and I'm now officially in love. It hangs off the diaphragm of the cow and rests on the kidneys, which give it a deeper, earthier flavor that you normally find in organ meats, but with the texture and appearance of sirloin.

Tremont is an interesting neighborhood. You've got houses and churches and bars and schools and jammed cheek to jowl. In one direction you've got the tall buildings of downtown, and in the other a bunch of smokestacks from factories and mills. A couple of blocks away from Lolita is the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church, with beautiful onion domes. It was built in 1911 and featured in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter.

Cleveland's got a bunch of remarkable architecture, but you're rarely able to get a shot without a bunch of powerlines in the way. At least the minivan provides a sense of scale.

23 May 2008

Советское Шампанское and Other Delights

While in Cleveland on my most recent trip, I vowed to try wines from beyond the mainstream wine-making regions, bottles from places not represented in Memphis wine shops. I've got two reputations to uphold: 1) being willing to try any grape at least once; and 2) being willing to review the oddballs that will never appear on the cover of Wine Spectator. If the title isn't showing up properly, just go to the top of your browser window and hit View --> Encoding --> Unicode (UTF-8).

My first selection was from the Republic of Belarus, sometimes known as White Russia and the only part of the former Soviet Union that's moving back to its authoritarian Communist past. It is now my dubious pleasure to introduce the non-vintage Советское Шампанское, pronounced "Sovetskoye Shampanskoye" and translated as "Soviet Champagne". $12, 11.5% abv. I guess it's a kind of blanc de blancs made from Aligoté and Chardonnay, but there's no telling what strange varietals were used. Nothing inspires confidence like "PRODUCT OF THE MINSK SPARKLING WINE FACTORY" on the label.

Slightly sour tone on the nose, with a touch of yeast. The aroma is somewhere between beer and sourdough. Not what I'm wanting in a wine. It actually tastes better than it smells. Sweet, with a little apple cider flavor. While I tried it on its own, I followed the dessert theme and enjoyed it with a piece of tiramisù and some fresh fruit. The cake and fruit were better than the wine.

Final verdict: Well, if you lived under the iron fist of Communism and this was the only sparkling wine that you ever got to drink then it's not a bad bubbly and I've definitely had worse. On the other hand, any domestic sparkler equal to or greater than Korbel is going to be a far superior experience, and anyone wishing to save money by serving this at a wedding is going to get a lot of nasty looks.

* * *

Continuing with the Eastern European theme, I couldn't pass up the 2005 Jidvei Fetească Regală from Romania. $10, 12% abv.

Fetească Regală is the grape varietal and means "Royal Maiden". Jidvei is a part of the Târnava wine region in... TRANSYLVANIA! Somebody better get a creepy label for this and start marketing it to college-age goth kids. Include a tube of black lipstick free with every bottle.

It's got an unpleasant aroma, a sour tone that reminds me of the stuff from Belarus. At least it's dry, but the dominant flavor is a sharp tangyness. Before tossing it out I tried it over ice, where the harsher notes were subdued and it developed a decent peach flavor.

* * *

We complete our voyage in South Asia: the 2007 Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc is from the Nashik region of western India. $11, 12.5% abv. It's got an earthy and floral aroma. Kind of like magnolia blossoms or jasmine. It's dry with a round fruit flavor of pears, and a short clean finish. I find myself wanting a bit more acidity, but perhaps that balance would come with proper food matching. I tried it with pita, hummus, and some marinated seafood salad from Whole Foods that included squid, octopus, shrimp, and other denizens of the deep.

I'm guessing it would pair pretty well with Indian food, but that's like saying it would work well with American food: there's a lot of diverse regions and culinary traditions in a country with over a billion people. I'll be on the lookout for Sula wines in Indian restaurants and try them with something like a spicy lamb curry.

21 May 2008

Images from Amish Country

I got to spend a little time looking around the Amish country of Northern Ohio, specifically around the towns of Millersburg and Berlin. If you're ever in the area I can highly recommend checking it out. There's good food, antiques, historical sites, and tons of farm fresh cheese. Just watch out for the horses and buggies.

As always, click any photo for a larger version.

This is what it looks like driving through most of the countryside. Quiet, pastoral, and lots of livestock. I saw horses, goats, cows, sheep, llamas, etc.

Speaking of livestock, this Highland bull was right next to my car when I parked at one of the local attractions, a winery called...

Breitenbach. Here I got to try a rhubarb wine (as refreshing as a slice of watermelon) and a pretty decent icewine made from Vidal Blanc in the Canadian style.

I don't care what Sherwood Anderson said, the folks of Winesburg were kind, friendly people. I suppose someone had to start the genre of "all small towns are full of dark, shameful secrets", but there's a lot of normal, everyday people between the works of Grandma Moses and Stephen King.

One strange sight outside of Sugarcreek was a McDonald's proudly flying the Swiss flag. I was tempted to walk in and say, "Ich möchte ein Big Mac, bitte." The immigrants in the area were a mix of Swiss and German, though English speakers' confusion over the word Deutsch meant that many were referred to as "Dutch". This leads to the odd conundrum of a restaurant called Dutch Valley that specializes in Swiss-German cuisine, and all outsiders regardless of nationality are referred to as the English.

19 May 2008

Le Relais

While in Louisville recently, I had the pleasure of dining at Le Relais (French for "relay races") located in the original building of Bowman Field, built in 1919 and Kentucky's oldest civilian airport. Now it's mostly used for private aircraft, but a third of the building is devoted to a classic French restaurant. Not dressed appropriately? You can always sit outside on the deck, located right on the tarmac. Oh, please don't throw me in that briar patch. Don't make me sit right next to a lovingly restored biplane and a Lockheed Lodestar*.

Alas, I was properly attired and sat inside, where I got to gaze at vintage 1930s Air France posters while dining. I had the carpaccio of beef followed by the pheasant breast stuffed with a wild game mousseline and accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes and carrots. This place has a huge wine list including a great selection of half-bottles that's distinct from the main list. I finally settled on a half-bottle of the 2005 Domaine Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Still bright, a little tart with the cherry flavor, but increasingly mellow and delicate as it breathed. I later got hints of eucalyptus, a touch of tobacco, and a little stewed fruit underneath. The name of the AOC translates to the "new house of the Pope", a reference to the Avignon Papacy and the producer is something like the "thicket of the Popes".

Dining at Le Relais is a true joy: amazing food, intriguing location, and classy atmosphere. The light jazz on the music system helps contribute to an overall but not overwrought connection with Rick's Café Américain in Casablanca. Most importantly, if you visit I promise it will be the best experience you've had at an airport in nearly a decade. Due to my father I grew up around aviation both private and commercial. At times it's easy to forget that many of the smaller airfields in this country don't require heavy security and surrender of your dangerous 4 oz. liquids. For the first time in years I sat just yards away from aircraft and a runway, having a wonderful meal and watching the planes take off. And everyone around me was happy, relaxed, and smiling...

*Thanks to Dad for the ID on the Lodestar, a plane I clumsily identified as "a small DC-3 with the tail of a B-24".

16 May 2008

2005 Veramonte Primus

It's a pleasure to try a well-made wine at such an affordable price. The 2005 Veramonte Primus is from the Casablanca Valley of Chile. Great blend of 17% Carménère, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 51% Merlot. 14.5% abv, $20. I'm glad to see Carménère in there, the famous "lost grape of Bordeaux" that's worked so well in Chile. I love trying these grapes that France mostly orphaned but that have found success in South America. The story of Argentine Malbec is well known, but I'm still waiting for Uruguayan Tannat to become the next breakout star.

This is the 10th anniversary vintage of Primus, developed by noted Chilean winemaker Agustin Huneeus. Glancing over the reviews it appears to have steadily improved over the years.

I decanted the wine for an hour before serving. I don't always do this but at times it adds a nice touch to the ceremony of wine consumption. Lovely green bell pepper and tomato leaf aroma. On the palate, spicy, good fruit, touches of plums and cherries. Closer to a French Bordeaux than a California Meritage.

14 May 2008

Trio of Petite Sirahs

Here's a handful of Petite Sirah reviews I've been sitting on for a bit...

* * *

Regardless of how it's spelled, I almost never pass up a Petite Sirah. The 2005 Redtree Petite Sirah is from the Lake County AVA, California. $13, 12.5% abv. The bright red synthetic cork was a surprise, and it kind of reminds me of a shotgun shell without the brass jacket. Redtree take note: you've got an untapped market of duck hunters out there.

It's rich and jammy and chock full of blackberry flavors. Fairly light tannins, though a few show up on the aftertaste. The hunting idea above made me think that this would be great with something like a wild duck breast cooked with a splash of wine and a handful of hand-picked berries, either blueberries or mulberries depending on season. Or maybe grilled quail wrapped in bacon. Mmmmm...

* * *

Around my house, "bad dog" is more of a nickname for the two household canines than a verbal punishment. So the label of this wine brought a smile to my face and I thought I'd give it a shot. 2005 Bad Dog Ranch Petite Sirah, $10, 12.5% abv. One of the dozens of labels held by the massive California-based Bronco Wine Company. Decent enough everyday Petite Sirah, with some blueberry and coffee elements.

In the foreground is a roast acorn squash, a frequent request from The Girlfriend. The old acorn squash is pretty versatile and one of them is perfect for one person as a side dish. I slice off the stem end, scoop out the seeds and strings, and then place the squash cut side down in a Pyrex dish. Add an inch of water and bake at 350°F until soft. After that you can do pretty much anything with it, but on this occasion we added butter and brown sugar and mashed up the inner squash flesh. I've also had good luck with olive oil, parmesan cheese, and fresh herbs.

* * *

Paul and I got together for a guys' night a few weeks ago, and I popped open a bottle of the 2003 Marietta Petite Sirah from Geyserville, California. A fun blend of 88% Petite Sirah and 12% Syrah, about $12. A little grilled steak, some blanched white asparagus wrapped in paper-thin slices of coppa crudo, and a bit of potato salad.

The wine was a little dusty on the first whiff, but after a brief period of breathing, a lovely aroma of dark fruit opened up, mostly blackberry. Deep berry flavors followed, with a velvety mouthfeel and light tannins. This is an inexpensive wine that has aged beautifully and would probably hold up for a few more years. Natalie's in Cordova seemingly has the entire line of Marietta wines and I find myself picking up a bottle almost every time I drop by.

12 May 2008

Benito vs. the Cheese Board: Round Three

Like the Eighty Years' War (1568 - 1648), this post involves the Dutch, Spanish, and English. If I'd been particularly creative I could have recreated certain key battles using cubes of the cheese and historical dioramas. I hope that a few standard photos of wedges will suffice.

Naked Goat is, as you might imagine, a goat cheese. It hails from Spain where it goes by the local name queso de Murcia curado. Purchasing this was one of those slightly anxious moments in the grocery store when I sincerely hoped that a price check was not needed. I could just imagine the following blared over the intercom: "PRICE CHECK ON NAKED GOAT... WE GOT A GUY WITH NAKED GOAT HERE..." This is a firm goat cheese, close in texture to a standard Swiss cheese. In addition to the texture and a slight nutty characteristic, you get classic goat cheese flavors, if not as sharp as fresh chevre.

Cablanca is a Dutch Gouda variant made with goat's milk. Firm but not crumbly or hard with a nice tangy quality. A refreshing change of pace on the cheese plate, and if you're interested in all the many goat versions of your favorite cheeses, just Google "goat _____" and somebody out there makes it. In general I don't eat a lot of Dutch cheese. I respect the love of Edam and Gouda, but the aromas of each draw me back to a trip to Amsterdam. I had a great time there (museums and art galleries rather than hookers and pot), but I vividly recall walking past a cheese shop and being overwhelmed by a blast of warm, funky air. Think back to high school and the bag of gym clothes you accidentally left in the back of your locker for a month.

The British Cheese Board tells us that Red Leicester is "a good partner for beer". Not "enjoy this with a pint o' your best bitter and a heap of bangers and mash" nor "works well with a firm stout and a bit of toad in the hole", merely chow down on this while drinking beer. I had entirely different motivations. After the crazy, surrealist dreams induced by English Stilton, I figured I would attempt to induce dreams of my past with this product. I had a chunk of Red Leicester each night for four consecutive nights and didn't manage to produce a nostalgic dream. Maybe it only works if you ate it in the past? Flavor-wise, Red Leicester is virtually indistinguishable from a sharp cheddar. It was good, but if I want a great cheddar experience I'll get something aged from Vermont or Wisconsin.

Spain's most popular cheese, Manchego, is made from sheep's milk, and I've covered many goat cheeses from the country as well. But the second most popular cheese is a cow's milk queso called Mahón. It's produced on Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands off the east coast of Spain. My particular sample was fairly young, meaning that it was still a little soft, creamy, and nutty. Kind of like a cross between mild white cheddar and brie. Excellent with fresh fruit and a sparkling white like Cava. Maybe some olives and anchovies, and prosciutto and assorted tapas fare.

Hey, let's finish things off with a pink cheese. No, it didn't come with a Hello Kitty label as part of a tea party kit aimed at five year old girls. Rather it's the stodgy-sounding Windsor Red from the Long Clawson Dairy in Bottesford, England. It's based off a sharp pale cheddar that is flavored with a little Port and brandy. But the color doesn't come from the Port: rather it is produced by cochineal, a vibrant red pigment made from pulverized bugs native to Mexico. For anyone repulsed by eating dried cactus parasites, relax. Cochineal is used in all sorts of things, including cosmetics. When a woman reapplies her lipstick after dinner and, perhaps, leaves a red smudge on your cheek at the end of the evening, Miss Manners suggests that you do not describe the biological origin of that coloring if you wish to enjoy repeat performances.

09 May 2008

Wine in the Comics

Presented without comment, click for bigger versions:

Toothpaste for Dinner, May 6, 2008

Ziggy, May 7, 2008

07 May 2008

2005 Joseph Drouhin Chablis

As part of my desire to enjoy better white wines, here's the 2005 Joseph Drouhin Chablis from the Chablis region of France near Burgundy. Around $20.

A nose that is slightly reminiscent of buttered popcorn, but not overly so. Overall a very bright, sunny wine, with flavors of crisp pears and green apples, with a touch of citrus on the finish.

I served this with another preparation of whole rainbow trout roasted in aluminum foil, this time with red bell peppers and pineapple. The touch of sweetness and caramelized sugars was quite nice. In the past I've used chayote squash and other ingredients, but the pineapple is a great pairing.

05 May 2008

Derby Day

I don't follow horse racing, but each year I find the Kentucky Derby an excellent opportunity to mix up a few mint juleps and toast a tradition. This year I used the Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon, aged to smoothness for eight years. Much better on its own, but there's nothing wrong with using a couple of shots for this classic Southern cocktail. I just put the Bourbon, simple syrup, and torn mint leaves in a martini shaker with some ice, shake heavily, and then strain over ice cubes. Some club soda or sparkling water helps make it lighter and more refreshing on a hot day.

For dinner I was craving pork chops, which I haven't made in a while. I took a pair of 1½" thick bone-in chops and brined them for a few hours in apple juice, salt, peppercorns, star anise, and mustard seed. They were then dried and stuffed with a mixture of cornbread, apple, garlic, and dried figs. A bit of dry rub, a sear on the skillet, and then finished in the oven to a pleasant medium. Served simply with fresh fruit and a steamed artichoke. Side note: The Girlfriend loves artichokes, and today I bought one that had a foot-long stem on it. It turned out to be the best one I've ever cooked. Looks like it helps preserve the freshness, and it can double as a blunt weapon.

Pork and apples begs for Riesling, so I tried the 2006 S.A. Prüm Essence, a good bargain at $11. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, pure Riesling, 11% abv. Good fruit aromas and flavors (apple and pear), with good tartness. Lovely little mineral qualities. It's dry but not bland, and was pleasantly crisp. Excellent match for the meal.

02 May 2008

Homemade Pizza

Years ago I used to make a lot of homemade bread. During high school and for a few years afterwards, I made all kinds of loaves: traditional baguettes, artisan European breads, sourdough, crazy experimental loaves, gargantuan Russian bread cooked in a full 5 qt. Dutch oven, and whatever else struck my fancy. It wasn't uncommon for me to keep half a dozen different flours on hand at any given time. At some point I moved on to other things, and great local bakeries have filled the need for the odder kinds of bread.

A brief mention of Mario Batali's Otto mentioned a pizza technique I'd been wanting to try. His restaurant starts pizza on a griddle and finishes it in the oven. I've read of similar ideas using a cast-iron skillet, and that's what I tried.

Making the dough was easy even though it had been forever. Recipe? We don't need no stinkin' recipe! Flour, water, salt, yeast, a dash of sugar. Allowed to rise twice, etc. While the dough was doing its thing I took some Muir Glen canned tomatoes, spiced them up a bit and reduced it all down for the sauce. The cooking method requires a bit more detail. (I've got an electric oven, so with gas this will be a bit different.)

I moved a rack of the oven to the top position and turned the broiler on, leaving the door shut. The big cast iron skillet was allowed to heat on medium high until all the metal was hot. I formed the crust into a rough disc as thin as possible (about 1/8" thick on my example but with more refined dough you can go even thinner--just cook it less). Lay out your mise en place, making sure to have everything ready. Put the pets in another room, turn off the smoke alarm, and prepare to sweat.

I spooned a bit of the homemade sauce on the dough, just enough to get the flavor and some nice chunks of tomato. Too much will make it soggy. I topped it with cut fresh mozzarella balls and a little Sriracha sauce. Dash of sea salt and pepper. I scattered a little cornmeal in the cast iron skillet and immediately slid the pizza into the skillet. Just a couple of minutes until the bottom is crispy and is flecked with a few black marks. Before the bottom burns, slide it out of the skillet (don't burn yourself) onto a plate or pizza peel. Then slide it directly onto the rack of the oven directly under the broiler. Cook until desired level of bubbling/browning/etc. For me it only took another couple of minutes.

While prep and everything took a while, the actual cooking time on the pictured pizza was less than five minutes. Five hot and busy minutes, but quick nonetheless. I threw some fresh basil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top and enjoyed it mere seconds after this photo was taken. Great pizza. Light and crispy, full-flavored, and the crust had those little charred spots that do wonders for the taste.

I will warn you that the potential for screwing this up is great. Don't take your eyes off the pie at any stage of the process and be prepared for some smoke. But if you're willing to bear the heat as temperatures rise here in the South, then go for it.