30 June 2008

2006 Miguel Torres Santa Digna Rosé

It just ain't summer without pink wines. Try out the 2006 Miguel Torres Santa Digna Rosé from the Central Valley of Chile. $12, 13.5% abv. Pure Cabernet Sauvignon, not a common grape for this style. This wine has a candied apple flavor and aroma without the cloying sweetness. It's crisp, refreshing, full-bodied, and complex enough to keep you interested. All around a solid wine and good value. Great choice for fellow lovers of dry rosés.

For dinner I prepared pappardelle (wide, flat noodles) with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, cremini mushrooms, and garlic. I've been craving pasta lately and this form is hard to find--you normally have to make it from scratch. I found a bag at Fresh Market and it cooked up quite well. One warning: it tends to clump up, so use a bit of olive oil and stir softly to avoid breaking up the noodles.

I usually don't post photos of my dinner companions, but when they give permission I'm happy to oblige. Doubly so when ladies are involved.

Alaina and Grace, laughing at something one of them said while I was trying to get a more dignified shot. A dog's head popping into the shot in the lower left corner. A table full of good food, ample supply of cool beverages, great weather out on the patio. It's not quite the whole book of verse/jug of wine/loaf of bread, but I'd like to think that I was experiencing some of the same happiness as old Omar Khayyam.

27 June 2008

2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel

Here's a bottle of the 2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel from Contra Costa and Lodi, California. $15, 14.5% abv. Fresh baked bread on the nose, touch of dried fruit, reminiscent of christstolle, which I made from scratch years ago. (Others may wish to think of a slice of raisin bread right out of the toaster.) Full bodied on the beginning with a touch of fruit, firm acidity, drying tannins. A surprisingly delightful wine that pleases the nose and palate.

Some may quibble about the various definitions of vines: Old, Ancient, Century, Senior, Antiquated, Depeche Mode, etc. I'm not going to get involved in that, but the Cline family has access to vines that have been producing fruit for more than 100 years.

25 June 2008

Saumon en Papillote

Kids, don't try this at home.

Cooking something en papillote just means that it's in parchment paper. There's some cool ways to do it so that the little origami-folded envelope of paper puffs up during cooking creating a delicate steam chamber, but I wasn't going that fancy.

First off, I coated the filet with a smear of chipotle-flavored mustard, added some sea salt and black pepper, and then topped it with thinly sliced oranges and fennel bulb as well as some of the fronds for additional flavor. I folded up the parchment, sealed it in a few layers of aluminum foil, and then prepared my heat source.

The 1993 Honda Accord has a cozy spot between the exhaust manifold's heat shield and the alternator. The Honda engineers were kind enough to label the heat shield with "HOT" stamped into the metal. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that an engine will produce waste heat. Normally this disappears through the exhaust system or simple thermal radiation through the hood. However, the laws of physics don't prevent you from capturing some of that waste heat for culinary purposes.

Salmon makes a good choice for this style, since you can eat it raw and it's difficult to overcook, leaving a lot of wiggle room between those extremes for an edible dish. I cooked it while running errands for about 40 minutes. Even when I had to run into a store, the salmon was still cooking. It takes a while for a car engine to cool off.

I stopped at a park, grabbed my bottled water and removed the foil pouch from the engine (carefully, mind you--I'd brought along a towel to use as a hot pad). It was delicious and perfectly cooked, nice and pink with delicate flaking. Moreover it was moist and properly seasoned from the aromatics. Not a hint of 10W40.

The authoritative work on the subject of cooking in car engines is Manifold Destiny by Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller. I haven't read it personally but have seen excerpts. Further techniques and details can be found around the web, but here's some general tips:
  • This is easier on older cars. Modern cars have a lot of the engine hidden behind plastic, making it harder to reach the hot spots.
  • Avoid lots of liquid. Leaky pouches will make a big mess.
  • Thinner foods work better. If you try to bake a whole potato it could take hours.
  • Wedge it in securely but don't block any hoses, intakes, vents, or place the packet near belts, fans, or other moving parts. If you don't know what you're doing, you can cause serious damage to your engine.
  • If your engine is filthy and you have fluid leaks spurting all over the place, car cooking is probably not for you.

23 June 2008

Farewell, The Girlfriend

Three months after the swallows returned to the mission of San Juan Capistrano , The Girlfriend has moved back to her native land in the Golden State, following career and family. It was a good run while it lasted and we've parted amicably as dear friends. Hereinafter she'll be referred to as California Girl as I try to get her to smuggle out wine bottles from small producers on the West Coast. And I've got a place to crash for future visits to the heart of American wine country... stay tuned!

There was a goodbye party at Paul's place, replete with appetizers and laughter and a riotous game of Apples to Apples. The frivolity was fueled by wine and various spirits, including the following:

2004 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz. $10, 12.5% abv. Drier than expected, muted tones of shiraz flavor obviously enjoyed at a colder temperature. In many parts of the English-speaking world this is a favorite for a big Christmas meal of roast bird and assorted sides. I thought it would be an interesting change of pace from standard bubbly and would go well with a a variety of small dishes and cheeses.

2006 Falesco Vitiano Rosé, $12. 30% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Aleatico. Aleatico is a sweet red grape famously grown on the island of Elba. While Napoleon was imprisoned there Aleatico wine was his only pleasure. Bright and fruity, with a strawberry-kiwi flavor. While it was delicious on its own, I found myself craving grilled fish, or perhaps a little Italian frito misto.

2005 Screw Kappa Napa, $10, 13.5% abv. Oaked, buttery, nutty, with a touch of caramel and popcorn. Overall sensation of a box of Cracker Jacks. Aside from the casual ease presented by the screwcap enclosure, I picked this out as a little joke in honor of California Girl's sorority days.

What else was there? I recall martinis and Paul's collection of Ports and the old bottle of cachaça that was considered and then wisely returned to the liquor cabinet. A grand time was had by all.

Next up on the week of celebrations was the grilled ostrich dinner, a personal request from her that I was all too happy to prepare at home.

And the final dinner, l'ultima cena if you want to be dramatic, was held at Roustica on the north side of Midtown. I've been there once before and absolutely loved it. She'd never been, making it a pleasant surprise. After the Maytag bleu salads, I had the rack of veal with goat cheese mashed potatoes (I'm still salivating), while she picked the quail, served in a little nest of frites with a hard-boiled quail's egg hiding under the grilled bird. Dessert was an unexpected joy: sorghum crème brûlée. The tangy, slightly bitter and smoky flavor of sorghum is a perfect match for a rich custard.

All in all the various dinners and gatherings served as a fun, enjoyable sendoff. As she drives off in the direction of the setting sun, I leave you with the quote I used as a toast during the party:

"Don't be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends." —Richard Bach

20 June 2008

2004 Roshambo Rock Paper Scissors Chardonnay

There's all those old French paintings where some Gallic lech painted a nude model washing dishes or scrubbing the stairs. So in the tradition of domestic chores and high art, I present the 2004 Roshambo Rock Paper Scissors Chardonnay, $10, 13.9% abv, pure Chard from Healdsburg, California. (Check out this post on the unorthodox winery by Tom Wark.) Photographed next to the iron in my hotel room, sans the naked woman. Life on the road ain't that exciting, folks. I iron my own clothes and spend the late night hours looking online for interesting restaurants in the area.

The wine is one of those big, fruity, bold California Chardonnays. Definitely good cold, and the screwcap enclosure makes it a good fit for casual gatherings. I haven't seen it in the Memphis area but it's available around Twinsburg, Ohio.

In my neck of the woods, "rock paper scissors" was a game we played as kids but we never called it by a name like Rochambeau. In fact, that never came up until this South Park episode suggested a corrolation with repeated kicks to the crotch, at which point Benito lost all interest in the game.

18 June 2008

Benito vs. the Ostrich

Last year I had ostrich for the first time (a burger in Albuquerque), but I've never cooked it before tonight. I picked up a couple of frozen ostrich filets from Wild Oats and marinated them in some Worcestershire sauce and red wine. Following the advice on multiple websites, I pan grilled the filets until medium rare, roughly 140°F. Given the fact that the cut and the preparation was a lot like what I'd do with flank steak or skirt steak, I decided to top it with a mix of sautéed orange bell pepper, shallots, and shiitake mushrooms, and served with some warmed pitas. Sides included steamed green beans and some roasted baby blue potatoes. The potatoes were incredible, bite size and rich in flavor. I roasted them in butter and Corky's seasoning until tender inside and crispy outside.

I really liked the ostrich, and felt that I got to better appreciate the flavor in this format rather than ground. It's somewhere between beef brisket and really flavorful turkey thigh. With that in mind, I felt that a red was a better match than a white and selected the 2001 Muraccio Parrina, $18, 13.5% abv. 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Merlot. It comes from the town of Albinia in Tuscany in the province of Grosseto. When the first pour revealed a garnet hue I was concerned that it was oxidized, but with breathing and swirling it revealed a lovely wine that had definitely gotten its beauty sleep. Touch of smoke, hint of eucalyptus. Very mild with light cherry flavors and just a touch of tannins remaining. A real pleasure and a steal at the price.

16 June 2008

A Pair of Australian Ports

Two of the Ports I first discovered as a freshly legal wine-purchasing citizen were both from Australian producer Yalumba: the Clocktower and Galway Pipe. I don't know if they're still being made but they've disappeared from local shelves. That absence provides an excellent opportunity to try some of the other entry-level Port-style fortified wines from the land where women glow and men plunder.

Image of Barossa Valley wine country courtesy of Lou Carter, my globe-trotting grandmother. While I'm in Cleveland, my grandmother is planning a trip to South America.

First up is the NV Penfolds Club Tawny, reportedly the most popular Port in Australia. I've never seen it around Memphis but I picked up a bottle in Cleveland. $10, 18% abv. Made from a South Australia blend of Shiraz, Grenache, and Mataro (Mourvèdre). Penfolds has always been a reliable producer and their Grandfather is a shining example of the genre.

Not a spectacular Port but a good one for the price. Bit of a cherry cough syrup profile but it improved with breathing. It's got a lovely nose but needs some air before the flavor truly develops.

Enjoyed over at Paul's with Grace's fabulous crème brûlée after dinner, where it ably played the role of a decent dessert wine. It is not recommended that you wield the bottle as a blunt weapon.

A week later we tried the NV Jonesy Rare Aged Port, also from South Australia and made mostly from Pedro Ximénez but also including Shiraz, Grenache, and Semillon. $15, 19% abv and a whopping 93 score from Robert Parker.

Really intense fortified wine here, with rich aromas of fig, chocolate, molasses, coffee... Full flavor and high alcohol but it goes down smoothly. A real delight and a steal for the price. As noted in my 2005 post from a tasting where I got to drink this with the winemaker, Trevor Jones, much of the press refers to this as being 46 years old when in reality it's four to six years old.

13 June 2008

Pear, Cheese, and Cashew Salad

Over on Serious Eats I found Jamie Oliver's recipe for a Pear, Parmesan, and Cashew Salad. I substituted Cantal cheese but the results were delicious.

A bit of mesclun mix, thinly sliced Bartlett pears, strips of cheese, toasted unsalted cashews, and a little lemon vinaigrette. It's easy and has a great range of flavors that balance each other out well.

Quick tip: I couldn't find unsalted cashews, so I got a can of the "lightly salted" variety, rinsed them in several changes of water, and roasted them at low heat in the toaster oven. Next time I'd probably toss them with a little honey and chile powder first.

11 June 2008

The Manhattan

When it comes to cocktails, I'm a traditionalist. I like a simple set of ingredients, something more on the dry side, and a beverage whose name does not contain words commonly scrawled on the walls of middle school bathrooms. While the martini is an old favorite that can typically be found anywhere libations are poured, recently I've grown fond of a properly made Manhattan.

It's been around since the Civil War era, and while ingredients have varied slightly over the years, the basic recipe is simple: two shots whiskey, one shot vermouth, and a couple of dashes of bitters. Stir with cracked ice (to moderate the potency, stir longer) and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry or a lemon twist. For the version I made at home, I started with 1792 Bourbon that I had on hand and some martini glasses chilling in the freezer.

For the next ingredient, I selected Noilly Prat Rouge sweet red vermouth. This company is better known for its dry white vermouth (and less known as the namesake of T.S. Eliot's cat), but I was very happy with the red. In fact, when chilled it can be sipped on its own as an apéritif. It is sort of like an herbal sherry, but lighter with a spicy tamarind aroma. And contrary to the name, the color is like tawny Port, more brown than red.

Vermouth seems to be horribly misunderstood here in the States, with bartenders using mere drops in a martini. I personally love the flavor of both white and red, and find that it's a fun ingredient when cooking fish. Plus even the good stuff is rarely more than $20 a bottle and it will last for a couple of months once opened. If you'd like to know more about vermouth, I'd suggest this excellent post on the subject.

I'd like to say that I used imported Hungarian cherries that I preserved myself in a homemade Bourbon syrup, but in reality I grabbed a jar of Kroger generic maraschinos. More than enhancing the flavor, the cherry serves as an intriguing visual cue, a little target resting in the apex of the martini glass. So let's talk about the bitters. I used Angostura, but if anyone knows of other bitters available in the Memphis area, let me know. Angostura can be found at many grocery stores in the mixer aisle. It's got a great, complex flavor full of assorted spices and extracts, and the label is fun to read. It suggests taking a few teaspoons before dinner to aid digestion and a few after dinner to prevent flatulence. Huzzah!

The finished product is a true delight. The vermouth softens the edges of the whiskey while the botanicals of the vermouth and bitters keep it interesting. Watch out, because this cocktail is the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove. Best enjoyed with a little something on the stomach and the opportunity to relax for a while.

09 June 2008

2006 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec

Realizing that it had been some time since I'd had a South American red, I reached for the 2006 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina. $10, 14.2% abv. Good basic Malbec here with aromas of dark plum and leather. Berry flavors on the palate without being jammy. Medium tannins and a short finish. Tried it with a bone-in ribeye and some d'Avignon radishes from the Memphis Farmers Market. These radishes were mild and tender after a little steaming. Definitely worth checking out if you have been turned off by the standard globular radishes.

06 June 2008

2004 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc

A salute to the south of France with a plucky white that's held up well over the years... The 2004 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc. $10, 13% abv. 55% Viognier, 20% Roussane, 10% Clairette, 5% Marsanne, 5% Bourboulenc, and 5% Grenache Blanc. Fruity, slightly lemony nose with a very round mouthfeel and short finish. Slight touch of vanilla on the aftertaste. This is a wine that's not spectacular, has no obvious flaws, yet remains alluring: a girl-next-door wine. Red or white, I think that Côtes du Rhône is an excellent way to introduce people to French wine.

Back in my wine novice days I latched on to Rhône. Despite my curiosity and desire to learn more, I still felt that French wines were too expensive or complicated for a neophyte. The Rhone taught me that there were accessible flavors and price points available everywhere if you're willing to look. All those little treasures of Sancerre and Banyuls and Savoie that get ignored by the mainstream American wine drinker as well as the covers of glossy wine mags.

I paired this wine with an odd little dish that popped up in my head while mowing the yard. Half a toasted croissant, a seasoned and roasted chicken thigh, sauce béarnaise, chopped shiitakes, steamed asparagus, and on the side some roasted nectarines with a Port/balsamic vinegar reduction. Great balance of flavors here. My béarnaise was thinner than I desired but it performed its role flavor-wise. You had savory, sweet, salty, tangy, and an impressive range of textures all in what was a relatively simple dish.

04 June 2008

Tony Packo's

During a business trip detour to Toledo, Ohio, I was told by many that I had to try Tony Packo's. But there was one diner's suggestion that had been rattling around in the back of my head for decades: that of native son Jamie Farr, a.k.a. Cpl. Klinger on M*A*S*H. In one episode he said, "If you're ever in Toledo, Ohio, on the Hungarian side of town, Tony Packo's got the greatest Hungarian hot dogs. Thirty-five cents..." The restaurant was mentioned several more times over the course of the series. When I was a kid Dad and I used to stay up late watching this show, and after I told him about visiting the restaurant he dug up the local product info (more on that in a bit).

A Tony Packo's hot dog is not what you're thinking exactly. It's a Hungarian sausage called kolbász, close in appearance and similar in flavor to Polish kielbasa. For a standard dog, one of these is split longways, put on a bun that's been dosed with yellow mustard, topped with chopped onions and the house chili. There are a variety of side dishes, but I had mine with their chili mac, basically spätzle topped with more chili and a handful of shredded cheese. The hot dog was delicious, the chili mac was filling, but my favorite part was the complimentary dish of pickles.

It seems like a ridiculously simple idea, but putting sliced cucumbers and banana peppers together in the same brine is genius. When I got home I picked up a jar at our local Fresh Market. Many varieties are available online but locally you've got original (pictured, fairly hot), bread & butter, and sweet. It's hard to describe how the flavors intermingle but if you love pickles and banana peppers then this is heaven in a jar.

02 June 2008

Australian Wines Featuring Non-Cute Animals

Whether you love it or hate it, the simple act of putting kangaroos and koalas on wine labels has done wonders for wine sales throughout the United States. Here, for the fun of it, are some Aussie bottles advertised by less cuddly critters.

The 2003 Heartland Stickleback Red is from South Australia. $15, 14% abv. 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Shiraz, 5% Grenache.

Still bold, brassy, and tannic five years later--hasn't mellowed much. The label suggests serving with fish but I think it's more of a burgers & BBQ wine. The fish referenced in the name is one of many piscine species that have sharp spines coming up from the dorsal fin. (Ever wonder why those spikes are there? When a bigger fish eats a fish with spines, they stick up and lodge the smaller fish in the mouth, and with luck the bigger fish will spit it out and move to less defensive prey.)

Indeed, in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, a frog goes fishing and hurts his hands when he catches a stickleback. Despite having my mother read this story to me as a child, I nevertheless managed to cut myself many times on the spines of various bream and bluegills caught out of creeks and ponds in the Mid-South.

Moving on to the mammals, here's the 2004 Hare's Chase Red Blend from the Barossa Valley of South Australia. $15. Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark plum and pepper, fruit bomb. But rabbits are cute, right? They're not native down under and have done serious damage to indigenous animals in a terrible example of introducing a fast-breeding animal into an environment where nothing will eat it. In Australia rabbits are responsible for wiping out many native animal and plant species as well as causing tens of millions of dollars of damage every year.

Wild rabbits here in the Mid-South tend to be confined to the cottontail variety. For a while, there was a particularly cruel cottontail that lived in my backyard. It knew how to stay just out of range of my dog's leash, and seemed to take a perverse pleasure in leaving droppings close to the house just to taunt my poor mutt. Since Wolfgang looks like he's about half coyote, this must have been doubly distressing for his feral soul.

Finally, we've got an unoaked Chardonnay featuring a zaftig cow posing in a seductive odalisque. Finally the intersection of Gary Larson and Robert Crumb appears on a wine label. Joking aside, the artwork was created by Rossy Reeves, co-owner of the vineyards.

The 2004 Hentley Farms Mallee Sands Chardonnay from the Coonawarra (Aboriginal word for "honeysuckle") region of South Australia. $10, 13% abv, pure Chardonnay. Dominant apple flavors and aromas, mellow mouthfeel, low acidity, short finish. Perfect summer wine that will go with a wide range of dishes.

It doesn't matter how many I try, somehow unoaked Chardonnays are always a refreshing surprise on the tongue. And they're often so inexpensive to boot.

The last wine was consumed alongside a dinner of wild rice-stuffed pork chops, haricots vert with hollandaise, and roasted dates like I had at Symon's Lolita. Interested in how to make those? It's dead simple. Grab some dates. I prefer the big Medjool dates from the bin at Wild Oats, but some pitted Deglet Noor* dates out of a Sun-Maid bag will work as well. With the big Medjools, you'll need to cut a slit to remove the pit but you'll also create a pocket for stuffing.

Dice up some pork (ham, bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, whatever's handy), take some slivered or sliced almonds, and olive oil. Stuff the dates with the pork and almonds and drizzle with oil, or just toss it all in a mix. (I think this would work well with pistaschios as well.) Place everything in a oven-safe dish and cook. How hot and how long? I don't know exactly. Try 300°F for 20 minutes the first time you attempt this. It really depends on the moisture and sugar levels of your dates. Just note that if they're in there too long the dates will begin to caramelize and might rip out your fillings as you chew on them.

*If either of these date varieties is not available, feel free to try one of the following: Aabel, Ajwah, Al-Barakah, Amir Hajj, 'Abid Rahim, Barakawi, Barhee, Bireir, Derrie, Empress, Ftimi, Holwah, Haleema, Hayany, Iteema, Kajur, Kenta, Khadrawy, Khalasah, Khastawi, Maktoom, Manakbir, Migraf, Mgmaget Ayuob, Misriq, Nabtat-seyf, Rodab, Sag'ai, Saidy, Sayer, Sekkeri, Sellaj, Tagyat, Tamej, Thoory, Umeljwary, Umelkhashab, or in a pinch, Zahidi.