28 November 2008

2008 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau

<---For the first time in four years, here's a photo of me beside the grill roasting meats for Thanksgiving. To those readers who have imagined me as Italian, Spanish, or otherwise based on the nickname, enjoy the Scots-Irish reality.

It's time once again for the release of the old Bojo Novo... I've enjoyed it in the past as a fun seasonal ritual but this year was a little different. 2008 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau. A whopping $17, 12% abv. I'm not sure how or why this got as expensive as it did, but it's a sad state of affairs when you can get better Cru Beaujolais for less than the Nouveau. If this stuff tops $20 I might give up on it, tradition be damned--I can get drinkable Bordeaux cheaper than this.

Familiar aromas of strawberry and banana, that groovy magenta-purple color, and a finish so short it's easy to forget what you're drinking. This year is really tart, like the 2005 vintage.

Looking back over my notes I see that I'm building a vertical history of Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau. I really enjoy seeing how the same wine changes with different trips around the sun, but I almost never get the opportunity. As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I rarely drink the same wine twice. When I do it's for a dinner party where I want a very specific flavor or mouthfeel, or in a restaurant when there's not much interesting on the wine list. The rest of the time I'm indulging my palate's short attention span and jumping from grape to grape, country to country, and producer to producer.

Enjoy Black Friday, go out there and stimulate the economy. Thanksgiving recaps and other curiosities will be here on Monday.

26 November 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: CAO MX2 & Italia

I've heard good things about CAO cigars and decided to try out a few... First up is the CAO MX2 Toro, 6", 54 ring. A slightly oily Connecticut wrapper, Brazilian binder, and the filler comes from Nicaragua, Peru, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. This Nashville-based company is named after its founder, Cano A. Ozgener. (The current issue of Cigar Aficionado includes an interesting interview with Cano's son Tim, the president of CAO.)

Rich and toasty with flavors of espresso and chocolate. A solidly built cigar that is delicious down to the last inch or so. I kept it at a steady 70% humidity in the humidor for about a week before smoking.

It's pictured atop my copy of Transcendence & Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China by Suzanne E. Cahill. It's an in-depth study of Hsi Wang Mu (西王母), the queen of the female immortals in Taoism. If you're looking for a casual afternoon read I would not recommend this book.

In the heartier end of their product line some are named after a specific country. The CAO Italia Piazza (6" x 60 ring gauge) has a Honduran wrapper and binder, with filler from Nicaragua, Peru, and Italy (near Naples to be precise). Italy is not a major producer of cigar tobacco, but the company decided to include it here. Aside from the gorgeous graphic design of the band, the cigar is spicy with deep coffee and leather flavors. I got a little black pepper and cinnamon as well.

The cigar is resting on Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which is equal parts historical fiction, adventure novel, and math textbook. While Stephenson can be a little hard to get through at times (I could not finish the 2,500 page Baroque Cycle), his novels generally reward patience. I'm not sure how well Cryptonomicon will hold up over time, but in terms of learning about the science (and history) of cryptography in the context of a fun story this book can't be beat.

23 November 2008

Chilean Carménère

Augustus D. Juilliard, founder of the famous New York conservatory
Paul Revere, silversmith and patriot during the American Revolution
John James Audubon, painter and ornithologist

What do these three people have in common? All were born in the Americas of French parents who sailed across the Atlantic for better opportunities, and these children did great things with their lives in the Western Hemisphere.

Pinot Noir never needed to leave France; the successful stay home. Yes, it has accomplished much in California and New Zealand, but Burgundy still holds the World Welterweight Championship for this grape. Semillon has been planted all over the globe yet has never achieved the sublime glory of Sauternes from Bordeaux.

But for various reasons including Phylloxera France abandoned, neglected, or ignored a handful of native grapes that took root and flourished elsewhere, particularly in South America. Tannat in Uruguay. Malbec in Argentina. And in Chile, a grape that was misidentified for years as Merlot, nearly forgotten, and recently developed to incredible new heights: Carménère.

It's interesting to note that the current president of Chile is Michelle Bachelet, the great-great granddaughter of a French wine merchant who emigrated to Chile in 1860, a few years after the arrival of Carménère.

With a glass raised south toward the honored country for Memphis in May 2009, here are six great Chilean Carménères that I tried with friends and family over a long dinner.

Note: All wines were tasted alone before dinner, with food during the various courses, and one last time after dinner.

The first wine opened during the appetizer course (green grapes and Dubliner cheese) was the 2007 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère. 100% Carménère from the Rapel Valley, $10. Vegetal, green tomato leaf aroma, with cherry and licorice flavors. This, like the rest of the Carmeneres, was dark and deep purple.

For the first course, I roasted a rack of lamb (marinated in a Chinese tea--more on that in a future post) and seared in a skillet. I paired it with Raichlen's chimichurri sauce, a traditional South American accompaniment to roast meat. Avocado and kiwi are important Chilean exports, so I threw them on the plate as well. A little dry salami rounded things out.

With the first course I served two wines. The 2006 Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carménère is 86% Carménère, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot from the Rapel Valley, $15. Smooth and rich with aromas of green bell pepper and flavors of black cherry. The 2006 San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Carménère is 100% Carménère from the Maule Valley, $17. Grassy, with Haut-Medoc characteristics after breathing. Flavors included plum and black pepper. Surprising complexity over the course of the evening.

Next up was a course of French onion soup served in coffee mugs with baguette rounds toasted with shredded Gruyère. (Particularly in a dinner party setting, I love serving soup in cups. Smaller portions, easier distribution.) Here I served the 2006 Caliterra Tribute Carménère, 86% Carménère, 10% Merlot, 4% Merlot from the Colchagua Valley, $17. Bright raspberry aromas, with smooth coffee and chocolate flavors after breathing.

For the third course we took an intermission: with a nod to the seafood traditions of Chile, an ensalada de camarones, or shrimp salad. Tossed with a white wine/Dijon/honey vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and grapes over mesclun greens. Served with sparkling water to clear the palate and ready the taste buds for the next plating...

The fourth course was a (not pictured) ribeye roast cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with a trio of Hollandaise, leftover chimichurri sauce, and a horseradish/sour cream sauce. The side dish (much loved by my sister-in-law) was sherry vinegar and molasses glazed carrots. With the beef I poured the last two wines, starting with the 2005 Estampa Gold Carménère Assemblage Red Blend, 53% Carménère, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, from the Colchagua Valley, $22. This was my favorite of the evening, combining a gorgeous eucalyptus and earth aroma with tart cherry flavors. A hint of anise completed the whole experience. Also well received around the table was the great 2006 De Martino "Alto de Piedra" Single Vineyard Carménère, 100% Carménère from the Maipo Valley, $30. Violets and spice aromas, blackberry flavors and a firm tannic finish.

To finish things off, honored guests the Squirrels were kind enough to make shortbread stuffed with a persimmon filling and topped with Bourbon-flavored whipped cream. Though belts were being loosened throughout the dining room, this dessert was a big hit and a definite new flavor for many at the table. Personally I want to see this dish replace pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.

Dessert was accompanied by a handful of Ports that were on hand, but this post is all about Chile and the wonderful wines produced on the West Coast of South America.

For more on Chilean wines (not just Carmenere), be sure to check out Wines of Chile for lots of great links and information.

20 November 2008

Thanksgiving Buying Guide for the Wine Novice

On wine blogs and in newspapers and elsewhere, you're going to see suggestion lists for great wines to try with Thanksgiving. Specific bottles and vintages will be listed, and when you print out that list and take it to your local wine shop you're going to be mostly out of luck. Even if it's available in your city, not every shop will have the exact wine on the list. (See also the annual publication of the Wine Spectator Top 100.)

That doesn't mean that wine reviews are worthless nor am I attacking other bloggers--why else would I have been writing this for nearly four years? But my most frustrating experience as a novice wine drinker was never being able to find the exciting, interesting bottles I'd read about. After trying a few thousand wines I'm confident enough to pick out something on my own, but it's a week before the big day and you don't have time for all that.

So instead of telling you to run out and purchase a 2007 Paso a Paso Verdejo (although it would be a really great Thanksgiving wine), here's my simplified advice:
  • Don't spend a lot of money per bottle. Try the $10-15 range. Why? As you hold that bottle of wine in your hand, imagine having it swiped to punch up the gravy, mixed with Sprite and consumed by a tipsy great aunt, or knocked over by a rambunctious child.
  • Think PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. There are tons of great bargain Italian and Spanish wines on the market right now, and they're very food friendly. Greek and Portuguese wines are going to be a little harder to find but you'll get a lot of bang for your buck, just stay away from the pine sap-infused Retsina. Stick to fruity whites and dry rosés if possible, and ask for help at the wine shop. You'll get a great tasting wine and you'll get a chance to broaden the palates of your friends and family. Don't be afraid to show off a little. Say you collected them all on a Mediterranean cruise.
  • If you're feeling adventurous, bring a sparkling wine. But remember the first rule: skip the vintage Champagne and go for a Prosecco, a Cava, a Vinho Verde, or even a sparkling Shiraz from Australia. Again, these are all generic styles of wines, not specific producers. Chill it, pop it, enjoy it. A crisp sparkler is also a great way to offset greasy, salty casseroles.
  • Bring your own corkscrew. Good luck trying to buy one at the last minute if Grandma doesn't have one. If you don't have a waiter's corkscrew, get one now. They're cheap and easily fit in the pocket, though you might want to practice at home before you try to use one in public for the first time.
  • Most importantly, have fun. There's no reason to stress out over your wine choices, and after the third bottle is open everyone is going to be in a good mood anyway.

19 November 2008

2006 Encyclopedia Tempranillo

Here's my second look at the new Coppola Encyclopedia wines in the odd-shaped bottles. The 2006 Encyclopedia Tempranillo is from Yecla in Southeast Spain. $14, 13.5% abv. The nose has a little stewed fruit with a touch of herbs, medium tannins, and a black cherry finish. It's a solid but uncomplicated wine that's food friendly in the grand tradition of Spanish wines. The tannins are probably a little strong for Thanksgiving but keep this in mind for stews and braises over the winter months. I thought it was a great burger wine.

The screwcap is large, 1⅝" (42mm) across, ample room for printing a quote. (The silver swirl destroys the contrast necessary for legibility! Elementary design concepts!) The bottles are designed to be reused as decanters or containers for olive oil, vinegar, etc.

I suppose I should take this opportunity to mention that I've got a new camera. For the past three years almost every photo on this blog has been taken with a Fujifilm FinePix s5000. The Fuji was a great camera and I was able to coax some amazing shots out of it, but for a bridge camera (between standard point-and-shoot and DSLR), I started running into limitations with it regarding low light conditions and chromatic aberration when using macro lenses. I recently upgraded to a Nikon D40, a true digital SLR with the ability to swap out lenses.

I normally don't repeat photos, but take this recent shot. Very low light conditions, yet I shot it without a tripod and without any special setup. I just put the camera in full auto and snapped a picture. Due to the lenses, with a DSLR it's very easy to get that low depth of field look. Without going into all the math, it just means that what you want people to pay attention to is in focus and everything else in front of or behind the object is blurry. In the top photo of the wine bottle, the screwcap is in sharp focus but you can barely discern any details about the background other than colors. (This method can be increased or decreased through various methods, but I'm not teaching a photography class here.)

Will the Nikon D40 give you outstanding photos? Only if you take a lot of terrible ones first. Like anything else, practice makes perfect. But out of the different cameras I've used throughout the years, this is simultaneously the easiest and, if I want to explore all the different settings and adjustments, the most powerful camera I've owned. If you're interested, check out the review linked above, and if you decide to get one for Christmas, you can purchase it from my Amazon store, where you'll find customer reviews, accessories, and other detailed information.

17 November 2008

Benito vs. the Beet: Борщ

There are not a lot of beet lovers in my family. I remember during a game of Trivial Pursuit with my grandfather Chuck the following question came up: "What vegetable goes by the scientific name Beta vulgaris?" Chuck gave the correct answer, with the explanation that no vegetable could be more vulgar than a beet. I enjoy red beets and go crazy over golden beets--in fact the only ingredients I dislike are those that are bland and flavorless (chickpeas, I'm looking at you). With colder nights, I thought that it would be fun to make a hearty pot of borscht, a soup that doesn't get a lot of respect thanks to lingering misconceptions from the Cold War. Borscht is boiled beets and sour milk, right? Just like the trope that Russian women are ugly, and we all know how that turned out.

Like garam masala, BBQ, pasta sauce, and kimchi, there are as many conflicting recipes for borscht as there are grandmothers in the given culture. Arguments erupt, friendships split, cities go to war against each other on the soccer field. Somehow millions of different people each have the Perfect Version of Dish X, the One True Recipe Since Time Immemorial, and woe unto the heretics.

Without any relatives from the former Soviet Republics, I have no dog in the fight. So in looking at various recipes I decided to go with one attributed to the famous Russian ballet dancer and defector Rudolf Nureyev. Chuck roast, cabbage, carrots, beets, potatoes, tomatoes, assorted flavorings... I roasted the beets before shredding them into the soup, and I increased the amount of beef and tomatoes for additional flavor and body. When serving, be prepared to add two things: salt and acidity, the latter from lemon juice, white wine vinegar, or if you're like me, hot sauce. It's a deep, rich, savory soup, but that necessary punch is best moderated by the individual diners. Whatever you do, don't forget the dollop of sour cream in the middle, and if you have it on hand, a sprinkling of fresh dill.

Frankly I don't know if you can pair a wine with this--I just started eating the soup and the bowl was gone before I thought to try it with the wine. With the earthy peasant heritage beer might be better, but afterwards I relaxed with a glass of the 2007 Bodegas Naia Verdejo. $13, 13% abv, 100% Verdejo from the Rueda region of Spain. Big peach and spice cake aroma, with full-bodied apple and peach flavors. It's easy to get a little tired of fruit bombs with red wines, but luscious fruit flavors can be refreshing in whites. My pairing advice for this wine wouldn't include borscht, but I think it would be a perfect wine for assorted appetizers or a muffaletta: the touch of sweetness and fruit flavors make you crave ham and olives.

Thanks to my friend Angela at Kirby Wines & Liquors for choosing the wine, though at the time I wasn't even thinking about borscht. I can stop by and ask for something like a "fun Spanish white" and she'll select a winner for me. I can't stress this enough: talk to the people at your local wine shop and find someone who works there with similar tastes to yours. Those folks have most likely tried a lot more wine (good and bad) than you, and can quickly find something you'll like in your price range.

14 November 2008

2004 Night Owl Merlot

The other night I invited my brother John over for dinner and the chance to spend a bit of time shooting the breeze, swapping tales, and unwinding at the end of the week. I had a couple of buffalo filet steaks marinating for a few hours in a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and Angostura bitters. I sliced up a few small blue potatoes and roasted them in butter and garlic, and prepped basic sides of mesclun mix and fresh berries. When John showed up, I threw the meat in the skillet and cooked it to a perfect medium rare. Anything longer and buffalo starts to get damned tough.

The yellowish blob on top of the steak is a daub of homemade aioli, best described as French garlic mayonnaise. I used olive oil, egg yolks, a lot of garlic, and cayenne pepper to make mine. It solidifies in the refrigerator, but when topped on a hot steak it slowly melts into a lovely sauce. It's a bit different from béarnaise, but definitely gets the job done, and the oil-based topping helps compensate for the fully lean buffalo meat.

For the wine we popped open a bottle of Delicato's now defunct 2004 Night Owl Merlot from Monterey, California. $10, 14.5% abv. Some blackberry and cedar notes, but mostly just a pretty basic California table Merlot. While the wine was not spectacular, the food and conversation were great, and frankly there's nothing wrong with the wine taking a backstage to everything else once in a while.

12 November 2008

Slow Food Gathering + Site Update

Quick site update: I'm trying yet another advertising system, though at least this time I get to hand-pick the items, customize everything, and it's all handled seamlessly through Amazon.com. Click on the link at the left to check out my Amazon Store. Everything on that store is something I've either read, used, or consumed. When Amazon begins selling wine, I plan to include links for those bottles that I review. Obviously I want you to support your local wine shops and bookstores first, but half of the e-mails I get are people from all over the country asking me where to get a certain wine, book, or cooking utensil that I've mentioned, and if I can make a little scratch from the links, then life is good.

Monday night I attended a BYOB wine and cheese function at the Hunt Phelan Inn hosted by Slow Food Memphis. I was invited by my friends in the Squirrel Family. I didn't know until the last minute that it was Papa Squirrel's birthday, and the man actually gave me a gift: an autographed copy of Imbibe!, a history of the golden years of cocktails. I'll have more details in a future post, and look forward to making a huge punch that will serve two dozen people.

I felt the gathering of folks who were committed to preserving dying culinary traditions would be interested in trying a wine made from dandelion blossoms harvested by Amish children. I picked up the bottle during my trip to the Ohio Amish country this summer, but my desire to try it had been simmering since I read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine at the age of 12. It's a beautifully written book that captures the pure experience of summer in its pages. And the wine also accomplishes that feat: while it's sweeter than I like, and certainly not as subtle as a fine grape-based wine, the aroma of dandelions will take you back to your childhood. When you're a kid, you're not allowed to touch pretty flowers like roses or tulips, but nobody stops you if you pick all the dandelions out of the yard. Maybe it has to do with the innocence of youth in distinguishing a weed from a prizeworthy iris, or maybe kids are just lower to the ground and better able to appreciate such things.

These were three of my favorites from the tasting, a Hawaiian pineapple wine (drier than you'd think and with a glorious nose), a big jammy Zinfandel, and a Super-Tuscan that had aged well and was a refined example of its type.

Additionally, cheeses from Mississippi State University were provided. I had the Cheddar, the Edam, and the Vallagret. All were savory and delicious, and the cheeses are available for order online or at the shop in Starkville, MS.

Future Slow Food events are planned locally--check the schedule for more details. If you're interested in eating local products, supporting local farmers, and saving heritage cuisine, look for a Slow Food group in your area.

10 November 2008

Cocktail Recipe Cards

With the holidays approaching, I thought I'd arrange my various cocktail recipes into one convenient collection. This is a set of twelve 3"x5" cards that you can cut out and put in the recipe box, stick in the liquor cabinet, or use as flash cards for training your kids to mix your evening cocktails.

Click here to download PDF

Creative Commons LicenseWhile I didn't create these cocktail recipes, I did put a bit of effort into trying them out and then typesetting them in an attractive and easy-to-read format. With that in mind I've licensed it under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, which means that you're free to use this file for personal or commercial use or modify it as long as you give me credit. You can even put that download link on your website or blog if you want to recommend cocktails to your readers. Have fun!

07 November 2008

2002 Botromagno Gravina

After weeks of fiddling around with game, organ meats and arguing in Spanish about whether or not the package contains gizzards and hearts, I felt like taking things back to basics. Roasted chicken with creamed spinach, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese, the sides coming from Fresh Market.

I used the "Stretch's Chicken" recipe from the latest issue of Saveur, which involves putting a hard cheese/herb paste on a cut-up chicken and browning the parts in a cast-iron skillet before roasting it all at high temperature in the oven. For simplicity and because it's my favorite for this kind of cooking, I just used a pack of leg/thigh quarters. Defat the pan and deglaze with red wine vinegar and you've got a tangy sauce to go with the chicken. It's ridiculously simple but really flavorful.

For the wine I took a gamble with the 2002 Botromagno Gravina from the bootheel of Italy in Puglia. $15, 12% abv, 60% Greco, 40% Malvasia. I'm not sure how long this wine was supposed to age, but it's become amazing over the years. There are rich aromas of dates and golden raisins as well as violets. Flavors of dried apricots with a foundation of lemony acidity round out the package, and it's got a beautiful amber hue to it.

Looking at this plate, you could easily find the ingredients in a TV dinner or cafeteria lunch menu. Just put a little love and attention in the preparation and find the right wine to make it special. And, of course, eat it at the table surrounded by friends.

05 November 2008

Benito vs. the Thoracic Cavity: Beef Short Ribs & Heart

When I saw beef heart at the market, I got the idea for an odd dish. Most folks would just grimace and move on to the socially acceptable cuts of meat, but I grabbed un corazón de res and a few pounds of short ribs for dinner. Naturally the two go together in the chest, so why not cook them together?

Out of respect for the more squeamish readers I've omitted the pictures of the heart during the trimming phase, but it's a highly educational experience if you've never done it. It's a good four times the size of the human heart but works mostly the same way. And unlike the formaldehyde pickled samples you may have encountered in biology class or med school, this smells like steak. Tastes like it as well--once you trim off all the fat and the various arteries, you're left with something like filet mignon: a perfectly lean, fine grained meat that grills beautifully. I tried a few pieces in this fashion before chopping up the rest for the braised dish.

I started by roasting the short ribs in a hot oven for an hour to render out the fat and get some nice browning. Do this on a deep lipped aluminum sheet pan and it's a lot easier than doing it in a skillet (hat tip to Cook's Illustrated). I heated the roasting pan in the oven and then added a few tablespoons of the rendered beef fat and a standard mirepoix. Then I added the chunks of heart, the drained ribs, a couple of cans of tomato sauce, a can of chicken broth, and half a bottle of Bordeaux (more on that in a bit). I covered it and roasted it in a low oven for a good four or five hours until everything was nice and tender.

The whole thing was rich, velvety, savory, and sinfully beefy. This is a great method of preparing short ribs. The heart is actually milder and more tender than the short ribs, so it's sort of lost in the stew, but the cardiac muscle does provide an interesting textural contrast.

For the braising liquid I used half a bottle of the 2005 Mouton Cadet from Bordeaux. $13, 13% abv. 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. The label comes with a quote: "Le vin, il naît, puis il vit, mais point ne meurt, en l'homme il survit." Baron Philippe (1902-1988). This translates as "Wine is born, it lives, but it never dies; in man it survives." There's a dusty nose with elements of black cherry and hints of vanilla and lipstick (I promise I was using a clean glass) with a smooth mouthfeel and restrained berry flavors. 2005 was a banner year for Bordeaux and this is a very economical way to enjoy it.

I was going to open the other bottle to try something different, but I decided to save it for later. That's a 2004 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna from the Italian island of Sardinia. $15, 12.5% abv. I've written about the Cannonau grape previously and was excited to see a bottle from a different producer. A few days afterward I opened it up to go with grilled pork chops and an apple-garlic-sherry vinegar topping. The wine has an intensely spicy, grape skin aroma to it and a full black cherry flavor. The spice continues on the tongue, black pepper and allspice. Medium tannins, clean finish, a little unusual but certainly strong enough to hold up against the grilled pork.

03 November 2008

Election Day Cocktail

In honor of Election Day, here's a historic campaign cocktail to enjoy, but please do so after voting.

I was charmed by this recipe over at Serious Eats for the Ward Eight Cocktail, hailing from 19th century Boston when candidates' victory parties took place before Election Day. This is a gussied-up Whiskey Sour, and I followed the footnote to the recipe by using fresh pomegranate juice and sugar rather than an old bottle of grenadine syrup.

This cocktail manages to be spicy and tangy and would work well as a punch for a party. The rye and fresh juices keep it sophisticated, and you'll get plenty of vitamin C here. You really wouldn't want to make this with Bourbon or Scotch, though a white or gold rum would probably be an acceptable substitute.