31 October 2008

2003 Bolla Amarone della Valpolicella

To wrap up Halloween Week, here's a dinner so terrifying my roommate left the house for the entire evening. Enjoy!

After the post on the literary James Bond's Vesper cocktail versus the vodka martini of the movies, I decided to tackle a similar movie/book/beverage change. In the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter memorably said, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

In the book, it was a "big Amarone". As I thought about this, I realized that some well-prepared liver, fava beans, and a nice Italian wine would be a pretty good dinner, if in somewhat questionable taste. Let's just go ahead and get this straight: this is a normal cow's liver from the grocery store. Benito's Wine Reviews does not endorse cannibalism practiced upon census personnel or anyone else for that matter.

Despite the disclaimers, it still freaked out The Roommate, as this movie gave her nightmares for years afterwards and one of the house rules is that I don't do my Lecter voice around her. More liver for me!

Liver and onions is a pretty common pairing, and I looked at a few different recipes. A big contender was Mario Batali's fegato alla veneziana, but I settled on Anthony Bourdain's foie de veau lyonnaise. At the end of the recipe, he suggests several variations, including adding apples and pork to the onions. I sliced up some of those Ozark Gold apples and a bit of prosciutto to go along with the onions, and the liver was just lightly fried on each side. The best parts of the liver were the least cooked, sort of a medium rare pink. It's difficult to achieve this using the thin slices commonly available; I'd like to get a full liver and cook one-inch cubes in the future.

The fava beans were prepared with onion, bell pepper, and tomato paste, amongst other spices and seasonings. I started with dried beans (I've never seen fresh ones around here), and by the time the dish was done the beans had fallen apart into a chunky mush. This did not affect the flavor of the dish, which was rich and savory. While there are many substitutes for Italian classics like fava and cannelini beans, somehow the real thing is always best.

And what about the wine? The 2003 Bolla Amarone della Valpolicella was a real treat. $46, 15% abv, made from a proprietary blend of partially-dried Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes. It had gorgeous aromas of fig, fennel, and cedar, with flavors of pomegranate and currant. I allowed it to decant for about two hours before the meal and it went along very well with the meal. This bottle, and other Amarones topping $100, would fall under the "special occasion" wines for most folks I know, but I felt it was well worth it here. It helped elevate the dish far above the sad, overcooked liver and onions that rest under heat lamps at diners and dives throughout the country.

All in all an unforgettable meal. While I won't be replicating it precisely anytime soon, I do want to experiment further with liver, and I think that fava beans could be a great addition to the Thanksgiving table.

Still image copyright MGM.

29 October 2008

The Corpse Reviver #2 Cocktail

Next up for Halloween Week here at BWR, a creepy cocktail... Given the sobriquet "Corpse Reviver", I'd suggest this as a fun apéritif for your Halloween party this year.

While looking around for more information on cocktails, I stumbled upon the excellent blog Oh Gosh! written by Jay in England. Since I lean more towards the classics I liked the sound of the Corpse Reviver #2 from the 1930 edition of The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock.

The drink is equal parts gin, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, and lemon juice (fresh squeezed only, please), with just a dash of pastis, absinthe, or other anise-flavored liqueur. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with a cherry if desired. It's meant as a restorative breakfast beverage, but in my opinion is much better as a refreshing afternoon cocktail. I'm just not a fan of drinking before the mail arrives. The flavors balance out well with each other, and the touch of pastis adds a sophisticated element to the drink.

Keep this in mind for next summer as a good "grown up lemonade", which reminds me of something my friend Paul and I used to make back in our novice drinking days. We'd combine generic artificial lemonade, 7-up, and vodka. We called it Limonov Sevenupski and in retrospect it was syrupy sweet, but that helped cover up the flavor of the sometimes prison-grade vodka used. (There was one called McPherson's or something that was made in Missouri and sold for about $15 a gallon.)

On a similar note, my high school physics teacher had a previous career as a C-130 pilot for the Navy. He used to fly supply missions to Antarctic science stations, and he taught us about a cocktail enjoyed down there that he called Absolute Zero. The recipe involved stealing pure grain alcohol from the lab and adding crystallized orange juice concentrate to make the Devil's own screwdriver. As he told the group of 11th graders, "You could get drunk off the fumes alone."

27 October 2008

2005 Lachini La Bestia

For this week leading up to Halloween, I have a trio of spooky beverage reviews. First up is one whose name translates from the Italian as "The Beast", and the little script lower down reads Puro Sangue or "Pure Blood". Bonus points go to the classic werewolf woodcut on the label, though I can happily report that lycanthropy is not a side effect of drinking the 2005 Lachini La Bestia, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State. 14.9% abv, $45. And good luck finding it, because there were only 120 cases made. (This was a gift from my former boss, and thanks go out to the staff at Great Wines for picking it out.)

This is a really spectacular wine. Black currant, pepper, and cedar aromas, with a mild and smooth plum flavor and a touch of tannins on the start. One of those rich and complex wines you spend a lot of time sniffing and swirling over the course of a few hours. While I received it a few months ago, I just got around to trying it with a strip steak, asparagus in a sherry vinaigrette, and fresh pineapple. I'm anxious to try some of the other selections from Lachini, of which I've heard great things.

24 October 2008

Bulk Wines

With old movies, I often find myself paying attention to background details, like the style of men's ties, typefaces, and historical curiosities.

Take this still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 Modern Times. I've sharpened and adjusted the image somewhat, and it will be clearer to read if you click on the small photo to the right.

During an extended scene in a department store with the female lead in which our two impoverished protagonists pretend to be rich, the Little Tramp is chased into the liquor section. The sign at the top of the wall reads "Rare Old Wines in Bulk", with a smaller sign below that says "Take Home a Jug of our Guaranteed Wine". The barrels are labeled Pre-War Stock Muscatel, Choice Old Rum, Special Port Wine, Pre-War Stock Sauterne (sic), Sherry Wine, and the blocked barrel reads Angelica Wine, which is sort of a California Port made from the Mission grape. Presumably "Pre-War" is shorthand for "Pre-Prohibition".

I know in the European countryside it's common to run up to the local wine producer with a jug or a few spare bottles to stock up on table wine, but it's not something I've ever associated with American wine drinking. Moonshine yes, wine no.

I don't know a lot about how wine, fortified wine, and spirits were shipped and stored back in the 1930s, but one wonders about how the Sauternes and Muscatel would have tasted after spending roughly twenty years in oak barrels. The rum could have been amazing, though, and that's what gets sprayed in Charlie's face seconds after that screen capture above.

Image copyright Warner Home Video.

22 October 2008

Benito vs. the Inca Empire: Conejo con Verdejo

My friend Grace is a scholar of pre-Columbian history, and since I'd gotten my hands on a box of Inca Red Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), I thought it would be a fun opportunity to make a meal inspired by the Incas and incorporating as many traditional ingredients as possible.

The research phase was a little discouraging, as I don't have ready access to llama meat or any of the various critters that swim, fly, or crawl through the Andes. Guinea pigs were a delicacy of the Incas that are still enjoyed today, but I had a feeling that stopping by the pet store to pick up a few of them for dinner would get me thrown out of the store or thrown in jail. So as a compromise, I swung by the International Market at Winchester and Kirby to grab a frozen rabbit. After defrosting I cut the lagomorph into quarters and removed the spine, and dunked all of it in a buttermilk marinade for an overnight soak.

The quinoa (hidden in the shadows behind the rabbit) was cooked with chicken stock and canned tomatoes until tender, and the blue potatoes were roasted in bacon grease with garlic until nice and crispy. Quinoa, or at least this variety, has a flavor and texture right at the intersection of couscous, wild rice, and Russian buckwheat kasha. The rabbit was simply rinsed, dusted with a chili pepper blend, and grilled outside over fire.

For the wine I decided on the 2007 Paso a Paso Verdejo from the La Mancha region of Spain (the name means "step by step"). $11, 13% abv. Great pear and floral aromas with a flavor reminiscent of canned fruit cocktail. That's not an insult--it reminds me of how much I liked the combination of grapes, pears, and cherries as a child. It's slightly off-dry with a round mouthfeel.

Purely by accident I got a nice little rhyme for the title of this post. With the Spanish for rabbit and the name of this grape, I've got Conejo con Verdejo. It rolls off the tongue so well it should have been an entry in my favorite foreign language phrasebook, Spanish Lingo for the Savvy Gringo.

20 October 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: Camacho Tasting

I attended a Camacho cigar tasting at Cigar Depot out at Poplar and Forest Hill Irene. A cigar tasting is somewhat different from a wine tasting. I can generally try about 25 wines before my palate shuts down, but what on earth are you supposed to do for a cigar tasting? Pass around a few stogies to let everyone try various blends?

It's a lot simpler and a lot more relaxed than that. A representative from the cigar company shows up with a sampler box and hands out cigars to whomever is in the shop. I got a free Camacho SLR Natural Corona that I enjoyed in store, hanging out with a couple of guys and watching the ups and downs of the market on CNBC. I spoke to the rep a few times, and purchased a Camacho Corojo 10th Anniversary cigar on the way out. It's a 6"/60 ring gauge monster made out of fine Honduran tobacco. Despite the huge size (and box press shape, which flattens it into a sort of rectangle cross section), it was a smooth and cool smoke with cherry and black tea notes to it. I enjoyed it on a lovely crisp Saturday evening with a glass of Penfolds Club Port.

The 10th Anniversary Camacho is pictured on my friend Paul's copy of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, a great companion work to Freakonomics if you enjoy that sort of unorthodox viewpoint of how money moves around the economy.

17 October 2008

2006 Rémy Pannier Chinon

A few days after meeting the owner while judging a church BBQ contest, I stopped by Forest Hill Wine Merchants out near Collierville at Forest Hill Irene and Poplar. Unlike most wine shops, it's arranged by body and color, not by region. So you start on the left with light Pinot Grigios and work your way around the store to full-strength Zinfandels. Also appreciated is a section set up with recommendations for chicken, pork, beef, etc.

Right between the dry rosés and the Pinot Noirs, I found the 2006 Rémy Pannier Chinon from the Loire Valley of France. $15, 12% abv, 100% Cabernet Franc (though the locals call it Cabernet Breton). Faint berry aromas and light bodied with a tart raspberry profile. I love Loire wines and they're usually a great bargain--you may just have to spend some extra time asking questions or reading labels closely.

I served this with a big veal rib chop and an orzo stuffed bell pepper. A splash of apple cider reduction sauce and a dab of salted butter went on the chop before serving. The lighter body of the Chinon married well with the mild veal and cider sauce. It was easier to cook and more tender than a similar cut of pork but not as full of flavor as a beef ribeye. This cut can be pricey, but it's worth it for the occasional decadent treat. And if you can ever find it, the veal equivalent of a Porterhouse is wonderful. Enjoying this meat properly cooked on the bone is a whole other world than cafeteria-style Weinerschnitzel or scallopini.

15 October 2008

The Sazerac Cocktail

The New Orleans favorite Sazerac is considered by some to be the first cocktail ever invented. The original was made with cognac and absinthe, and the modern version is usually made with rye whiskey and Herbsaint, an absinthe substitute produced in the US.

I balanced tradition and personal preference with my application of this recipe. I used two shots of Sazerac Rye and three dashes of Peychaud's Bitters (both now made in Kentucky), along with a few drops of French Pastis Henri Bardouin and a bit of sugar to sweeten it all. I felt the pastis substitution would provide the necessary anise/herbal kick. (I've had real German and Czech absinthe; I still prefer pastis.) Everything was stirred together in a chilled tumbler, and a slice of lemon peel was tossed in for garnish (not pictured).

Rye is a little more peppery and spicy than normal whiskey, and Peychaud's Bitters are closer to cherry cough syrup than Angostura Bitters. While all of this sounds a little strange, the cocktail really did come together well. I felt it worked better with a couple of ice cubes in it, and that allowed you to savor it properly over a half hour.

13 October 2008

NV Kestrel Lady In Red

I'm in the mood for red blends lately, so I tried out the NV Kestrel Lady In Red from the Yakima and Columbia Valleys of Washington State. $14, 13.8% abv. 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39.5% Merlot, 10% Syrah, 2.5% Sangiovese. No idea if this was inspired by Chris de Burgh's classic song, but if you want to dance, give it half a chance. Sort of a Zinfandel nose with lots of spice and stewed fruit and, after breathing, some pleasant vegetal qualities. Raspberry and cocoa flavors with medium tannins. Overall some excellent structure and balance for an inexpensive, non-vintage blend.

Served with mini burgers made from a 50/50 mix of ground buffalo and ground beef, topped with grilled red onions and sherry vinegar and colby cheese. Sliders are pretty trendy now, but they're convenient for casually feeding a group of friends. They cook quickly, and eating one, two, or three is an easier fit for how hungry you are versus one or two full-sized burgers.

10 October 2008

2007 Bouké White

"New York City?"

Much like the old Pace Picante commercial, that was the reaction a lot of my friends had when I told them I had a New York wine to try. "No," I'd reply, "it's not made in the city, it's out on Long Island. I've heard there are great vineyards out there. There's even a blogger named Lenn Thompson that covers the area almost exclusively."

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never been to New York, either the upstate areas or the city so nice they named it twice. Chalk it up to a residual Southern fear of Yankees. There's some weird phobia about the city, like getting mugged, or just knocked around in the bustle. That I would stick out like a hayseed. This is wholly irrational, as I've easily slid into Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Amsterdam, Rome, Milan, and a dozen other cities larger than my home of Memphis, which has worse violent crime problems than all of the above.

Lately my thoughts towards New York are that if I ever go there I'll move in and never look back, but I'm hoping to at least visit sometime in the next year.

Without further ado, the first Empire State wine I've ever tried is the 2007 Bouké White (pronounced "bouquet"), $18, 12.5% abv. 40% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Gris, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Gewürztraminer. Made by Lisa Donneson on the North Fork of Long Island. It's unoaked (hurrah!) and has a floral aroma that immediately makes me think of spring in my grandmother's garden. It's full-bodied with light pear flavors and has a nice splash of acidity from the Sauvignon Blanc. The Gewürztraminer doesn't make it sweet but contributes a spicy finish. While it worked admirably with grilled chicken and homemade cole slaw (as well as a chicken salad sandwich made from leftovers the next day), this wine begs for pasta, shrimp, garlic, and a light cream sauce.

From a graphic design standpoint, I really like the label. It reminds me of awnings, or of this skirt a pretty girl wore back in 10th grade English. It's difficult to pull off the multicolored stripes motif well, and by incorporating white space between the colors the designer avoided vibrating boundaries. And the reversed-out name of the winery is set in something like Beton Extra Bold that I can't quite identify, but it all comes together with good balance.

If you get a chance to try this I'd highly recommend it, and I can't wait to explore more of the Long Island wine world.

08 October 2008

2006 Coppola "Encyclopedia Wine" Cabernet Sauvignon

You should never buy a wine on appearance alone, but the postage stamp label and odd shape of the 2006 Coppola "Encyclopedia Wine" Cabernet Sauvignon caught me hook, line, and sinker. This is from Bordeaux, $14, 12.5% abv. The embossed molecule on the side of the Erlenmeyer flask-style bottle is a diagram of resveratrol, the compound in wine linked in some studies to health and longevity.

Aromas of blueberry and plum, with flavors of dark berries and a touch of tart cherry. Nice pie crust aftertaste. The body was a little thin at times but was overall an easy drinking cab sav. My only complaint is that it doesn't taste much like a Bordeaux; I was looking for earthy or vegetal notes, maybe even a touch of tobacco or something, but it was a fruit-forward wine more in the California style.

The wine is pretty food friendly, going well with beef and salumi and a dozen other odds and ends, and I'd heartily endorse this as a good all-purpose wine selection for Thanksgiving. I also love the fact that it's relatively low in alcohol: 12.5%. Definitely a nice change of pace from the big 15% cabs.

I do like the concept of this line--single grape wines from around the world, presented in a fun and affordable manner. It's obviously a marketing strategy towards the younger, curious wine drinker, and I hope this is successful both for the winemakers and the newcomers to the wine market.

06 October 2008

Roasted Turkey Breast

For a recent Sunday evening dinner I picked up a boneless turkey breast. The ones in that link are both sides of the breast, but mine was a half portion, giving it the exact size, shape, and weight of a human forearm sans the radius and ulna. Fortunately I'm not squeamish in the slightest and was happy to truss this and marinate it before roasting. I rubbed it with barbecue sauce and pepper before roasting, and served it in ¼" slices with steamed broccolini and scoops of Juan Canary melon, which tastes like banana and pineapple and cantaloupe all mixed together.

For the wine, I decided on the 2006 Henry's Drive Pillar Box White from Padthaway, South Australia. $10, 12% abv. 66% Chardonnay, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, 14% Verdelho. Rich fruit flavors of apricot, orange peel, and yellow raisin. An excellent minimalist label based off old postal boxes, though I would have matched the Bauhaus aesthetic with a proper sanserif font like Helvetica, Avant Garde, or Century Gothic.

03 October 2008

Disaronno Sour

We've all seen the Disaronno commercial featuring the waif sucking on an ice cube. Outside of dessert I'd never had Amaretto before, and someone gave me an old half bottle of Disaronno. Out of the various cocktails suggested on the company website, the Sour seemed the most appealing.

To make a Disaronno Sour, you use one part Disaronno liqueur and three parts sour mix (as is used for margaritas). If you've got a bit of free time and are so inclined, you can make your own sour mix out of three parts water and three parts sugar (cooked together to make simple syrup) combined with two parts lemon juice and two parts lime juice. I did make my own, and decided on 75mL homemade sour mix and 25mL Disaronno. Stirred in a tumbler with ice and garnished with a cherry.

I took a sip and immediately felt sugar crystallize on my teeth and my fillings began to hurt. Damn it was sweet. Frankly too sweet to drink. This one was too heavy on the sugar and too light on the spirits, and while the lemon, lime, and almond flavors were delicious it was hard to get past the sweetness.

Recommendation: if you know somebody that likes to drink honey straight out of the jar, I would highly suggest this cocktail. For everyone else, I suggest you check out my drier cocktail recipes. If you have a bottle of this, a splash on the rocks is far more satisfying. The so called "Disaronno Martini" is naught but an abomination of Amaretto and orange juice shaken together. Drink it as you wish, but don't call it a Martini.

01 October 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: Arturo Fuente Royal Salute Natural

I've recently had the pleasure of enjoying some decent cigars, and invested in a small Spanish cedar humidor in order to keep a dozen or so on hand. While I can't stand cigarettes, I enjoy a good cigar once or twice a month in the presence of like-minded friends, or alone on the back porch with a glass of Bourbon and a good book. Since I've written here about beer, spirits, cocktails, food, and whatever else is on my mind, I figure there's room for the occasional cigar review as well.

So how did I get interested in this subject? Well, I tried my first cigar at the age of six during spelling class.

Now, before anyone accuses my parents or the school of negligence, there were extenuating circumstances. For Halloween that year we were allowed to dress up for school, and I chose to be Groucho Marx. I had the fake glasses, big nose, and mustache from TG&Y, and on the way out the door Dad thought a cigar would round out the look. He fished an old, forgotten stogie out of his dresser drawer and handed it to me. It was wrapped in plastic, and I put it in my mouth and tried the duck walk with great success.

At school no one seemed to mind the presence of the cigar, and the plastic held up for the first hour or two. However, I was a bit of a chewer as a kid, and tended to grind my pencils into splinters. So during a rigorous spelling test of hard words like February and Wednesday, I chewed through the plastic and got a little nicotine buzz. Perhaps my experience chewing the leather on my baseball glove prevented me from getting sick off the tobacco.

While it was an enjoyable memory from childhood, I honestly waited until my early 20s before I touched any form of tobacco again, and I've probably only smoked a dozen cigars in my adult life. Unlike the quick, furtive fix of a cigarette, a cigar is something to be savored and experienced over an hour or two, preferably with friends. It makes it less of a bad habit and more of an occasional indulgence.

Tonight I enjoyed the Arturo Fuente Royal Salute Natural. 7⅝" long, with a ring gauge of 54 (diameter measured in sixty-fourths of an inch, or ⅞"). This is a big, heavy cigar, but appearances can be deceiving. It's mild to begin with but the thicker, longer cigar makes for a smoother flavor. It's shipped in a cedar sheath with a black ribbon around the foot. The A. Fuente was rich with oak, leather, chocolate, and nice touches of sweet and bitter that went well with the Bourbon.

With wine, you've got two horizontal belts around the earth: one in the north that passes through California and most of Continental Europe, and one in the south that passes through part of Chile, Argentina, the tip of South Africa, and Southern Australia and New Zealand. Those two "purple belts" are where climate, sun, and seasons are most conducive to producing good wine.

Making a wide equator between those two is a "brown belt" that provides the world with the highest quality chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. For cigars, we're talking the Caribbean, the northern regions of South America, Cameroon, Indonesia, etc. Most cigars are made from tobacco leaves of different countries for different purposes. In this case, the binder and filler are both from the Dominican Republic, while the wrapper is sun-grown Ecuadorian.

In the photo the cigar is resting on my copy of Robert Poole's detailed history of the National Geographic Society, Explorers House. Damned good book if you're a lover of the magazine.