31 July 2009

Book Review: A Year of Wine

One thing I truly love is seeing fellow wine bloggers in print. A few months ago I was on a US Airways flight and while flipping through the in-flight magazine, I noticed an article by Tyler Colman. Why was that name familiar? At the end it became clear--Dr. Vino! Recently I picked up his book: A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season. I should note here that Colman is a real PhD, and teaches wine classes at NYU. He's a bona fide doctor, not just a less-threatening 007 villain. "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to have purple teeth! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!" On top of that, he's been writing online since 2002 and has recently done some great investigative journalism that has caused a bit of a stir along the borders where the blogging and traditional media worlds meet.

The book is aimed at the novice-to-intermediate wine lover, but there's something to be enjoyed by people of all experience levels. In short, it's a guide to drinking wine seasonally that goes beyond just "reds in the winter, whites in the summer". It's broken down by month, with attention paid to holidays, and along the way advice is printed from top sommeliers around the country.

While the book suggests individual grapes, regions, and producers, as well as providing rough price brackets, it doesn't go into specific vintages and gives enough general advice to point someone in the right direction. So often wine journalism points to a very specific Thanksgiving wine, for instance, that's only available in a few states or perhaps was made in smaller quantities than the readership base. I can honestly see this book surviving for a decade or more, when wine books have a general tendency to go out of date faster than a carton of milk sitting on a radiator. It can be interesting and sometimes amusing to read old wine books. Go back far enough and you'll see things like, "It is believed by some that California may one day have a wine industry that's comparable to the quality of Bulgaria, but such claims are as preposterous as the concept of the horseless carriage and women voting."

It's a great gift for the newbie wine fan in your life, but could also be useful for wine retailers and marketers to approach the beverage with a more seasonal attitude. Also, if you've got a kid, or a cousin, or a younger member of the family that's about to turn 21 and you've been slipping that person a few sips of wine at dinner, give him or her this book. Wine education in this country is basically illegal before the age at which you normally finish your formal education; if we truly want a nation of wine lovers, we've got to catch them early, and this book could be a step in the right direction.

Colman was kind enough to answer the five questions in a recent e-mail interview:

#1: What's your most difficult cork removal story?

"Hmm, a screwcap? Oh, no, wait, those are easy. Probably some crumbly old cork that disintegrated in the bottle. I should really get an Ah-So for all my crumbly cork needs."

#2: When visiting a winery for the first time, do you prefer to go incognito or have it scheduled ahead of time?

"It varies. I have dropped in on lots of wineries on a lark. I've also been to wineries where I have arranged a visit in advance sometimes as a member of the media. But either as media or not, arranging a visit in advance usually means a more extensive tour (possibly with a decision-maker at the winery) and can include some rare tastings of small production wines or older vintages. Each approach has something going for it but I do find that planning ahead is more rewarding. In my book, I suggest that when visiting a wine region, people anchor their day with a prearranged visit in the morning and/or afternoon and sprinkle in some spontaneous stops along the way too."

#3: What's the most polite way to begin steering a novice wine drinker away from White Zinfandel?

"There are many interesting wines that are slightly sweet that offer, in my view, a lot more reward than white zinfandel. Some Riesling and Moscato d'Asti come to mind. But if someone likes white zin, then let them go for it!"

#4: What's your favorite obscure, underappreciated grape?

"Gamay. While it may not qualify as obscure, it certainly is underappreciated. Many (most?) renditions of the grape can be awful, but the best, notably from the crus of Beaujolais, are excellent, offering lovely fruit and acidity and a spectacular pairing with many foods."

#5: At night, with the shades drawn and no one looking, do you ever enjoy the secret pleasure of drinking wine out of a coffee mug and not writing down any notes about it?

"Well, not out of a coffee cup (eegad!). Having good stemware really enhances the wine experience so I do highly recommend investing in some (there are several good brands). But yes, scribbling notes can sometimes get distracting from the task at hand, enjoying a good glass of wine."

Note: I'll admit to using the coffee cup occasionally, but only with leftover wine that's been sitting in the fridge.

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The cigar pictured is an H. Upmann 1844 Monarch Tubo, 7" x 46. Indonesian wrapper, Dominican binder, Dominican and Brazilian filler. Mild and relaxing, touches of cherry and oak. It's a great introductory cigar, as it's not overpowering and the tube makes it easy to carry around or hand out as a gift without damaging or drying out the cigar. Enjoyed with a little snifter of Macallan Scotch.

29 July 2009

Southern Chicken Dinner, Reinterpreted

The latest dinner party ended up being a bit smaller than expected due to some cancellations and conflicts. While some part of me wonders if I've scared people off with obscure critters and organ meats, a five-person dinner is a better platform for trying some new recipes and techniques. In the worst case scenario, you can just ditch it all and order a pizza, and everyone goes home happy.

I decided that I wanted to do a Southern dinner with white wines, but with a twist: the recipes would come from everywhere but the South, and the wines would be lesser-appreciated grapes.

I've made homemade macaroni and cheese lots of times--stovetop, baked, different cheeses, etc. But a few years ago in Boston I had it with lobster, and fell in love. (The various seafood casseroles up there are seriously incredible comfort food in the winter, and for a poor lost Southerner experiencing his first Massachusetts December, it was a way to stay sane.) I grabbed a pair of big rock lobster tails from Costco. I boiled them for about two minutes just to be able to remove them from the shells, and then threw the shells back in the water to make a very thin lobster stock. I roughly chopped the tail meat and put it on ice while getting everything else ready.

I made a Béchamel sauce with half & half, and whisked in 8 oz. each of Fontina and aged sharp cheddar. I fished the shells out of the water and used that to boil the macaroni, drained the pasta, threw everything together in a buttered dish and evenly distributed the mostly-uncooked lobster. I topped it with a little grated Dubliner cheese, and baked for about half an hour. Delicious, and certainly a crowd pleaser.

I served it with the 2006 Royal Tokaji Furmint from Hungary by way of dear friend Thomas R. $18, 14% abv. Smoky, musky, just a touch of honey, peach, and lemon but with restrained acidity. Long finish for a white wine, one that keeps you thinking for a while. I've only had this grape in the super-sweet forms before, and it was amazing to taste the grape in a dry presentation. If you ever get the opportunity to try a dry Furmint, don't pass it up.

Pollo al mattone or "chicken under a brick" is a traditional preparation in which chicken is cooked with a brick on top of it. Unlike the allegorical names of some Chinese dishes, Italian ones are pretty straightforward. I'd never eaten it or made it, but figured why not give it a shot? These "Cornish game hens" were gigantic like the two kids on the Little League team that are a foot taller than all the other players. Faked birth certificates, growth spurt, or steroids? Regardless, they were pretty tasty. My heat wasn't high enough, so the skin didn't get crispy, but the leg quarters ended up with a flavor and texture similar to duck confit.

We've got an Italian chicken in place of regular fried chicken... how about an Asian-inspired cole slaw and a Greek watermelon salad? The former is #20 on a recent list of 101 salads written by Mark Bittman. (He doesn't give proportions, so have fun figuring out the assembly.) Napa cabbage, radishes, and a peanut-cilantro dressing. Pretty interesting. I've made the Greek thing before, but it's a lot of fun--feta and mint with fresh watermelon and red onion. You can play around with this and present it in many different ways.

For the wine, I picked the 2008 La Linda Torrontés from the Mendoza region of Argentina. $11, 14.1% abv. Lime zest, lemon curd, and the most wonderful floral aroma you can imagine. Full of lilies and daisies and other white flowers. Low acidity, smooth body, and a refreshing finish. One of the guests referred to the grape as South America's Viognier, and I agree--with a good example of either it's like walking into a garden and taking a deep breath.

By the time Grace brought out her cheesecake, we had consumed wine from two countries and dishes from four unrelated culinary traditions, but the overall meal was still recognizable to any attendee of a church potluck dinner. And nobody went home hungry, always the sign of a successful dinner.

P.S. Bonus photo of me with two of the guests after dinner.

27 July 2009

A Pair of Bottles from the Artisan Family of Wines

Admittedly, I don't pay a lot of attention to who owns the wineries of the bottles I review. It's not something I deliberately avoid, but it's pretty low on my list of priorities when it comes to wine. And with the way some labels bounce around over time, it can be difficult to nail down the details. Besides, other writers cover such things better (Fredric, Tom, etc., as well as the wine print media out there). As for me, I've got my own beat. I'd never avoid a bottle based on one of its owners up the chain, but God help me, if a winery uses Comic Sans or another terrible font on the label I'm not touching that stuff.

All of this is a roundabout way of pointing out that within a couple of months, I tried two bottles (both random purchases at separate shops) that were from the same group: the Artisan Family of Wines, based out of California.

First up is the 2007 Red Cote Rosé. 580 cases made. $13, 13.5% abv. 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petite Sirah. Sourced from the Suisun Valley just east of Napa. I picked this up because I almost never pass up a dry rosé, and because the ruby hue caught my eye. Excellent bottle design here--rosés need clear bottles and non-obstructing labels to show off the beautiful range of colors that are possible.

Touch of tea, oddly enough. Cranberries, spice, red apple, cake, wow, this is interesting... Very low acidity, with a lot of that red apple finish. Think about a spiced New England apple cider. It's not that strong, and it's not sweet at all, but that's what this reminds me of.

Our second selection is the 2004 Sly Dog Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from the Red Hills District of California north of Napa on the shores of Clear Lake. 6,400 cases made. $15, 14.9% abv. Pure Cabernet Sauvignon.

Blueberry and blackberry, firm tannins. Great dark fruit aromas and flavors, and ideal for drinking right now. The tannins might soften a bit with more time, but this is a solid Cabernet Sauvignon at a good price.

I photographed this wine with a very sly dog in the background, Paul's mutt Wendy. Escape artist, thief of butter, buffalo wings, and steak, and skinny enough to slide under porches and furniture like a cat.

Even here, her canine mind knows nothing of wine, but she is fascinated by the attention that I'm paying to the bottle, and she's already plotting how to operate a corkscrew without opposable thumbs.

24 July 2009

Book Review: When the Rivers Ran Red

When I was a child, Mom had a strict rule against horror movies. It wasn't a religious thing, or an attempt to prevent my brother and me from being scared, she just pointed out that they were stupid and fake. In my teenage and young adult years, when I finally got around to seeing things like Nightmare on Elm Street, I was bored out of my mind. When I saw The Blair Witch Project, I thought, "Geez, there was no projectile vomiting, venomous snakes, hypothermia, lightning strikes, and nobody got stranded in the desert for several hours. I did scarier camping when I was 12."

But if you want real terror, the kind that keeps you up at night and pesters you like an itch inside your skull that can't be scratched, read some history.

Imagine that your family has been making wine since time immemorial. You move to the United States in search of better opportunities, and establish a successful winery. And one day, the government comes in and opens all your wine barrels, letting thousands of gallons spill out onto the dirt and into the local water, killing fish and staining the earth.

That scene, played out dozens of times in the 20s, serves as the inspiration for this book's title: When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosnowski. This is more of a history book than a romantic wine book; the end notes are frequent and detailed. It answers a lot of questions that I had about the time period, such as the use of wine in Catholic and Jewish tradition. (Wine was allowed to be produced for this purpose, but after the number of rabbis with Irish names exploded overnight, the government started cracking down.) There was also a strong trade in homebrewed wine--amazingly, you could make up to 200 gallons of it on your own, leading to a brisk trade in raw grapes. But the supply chain logistics of the time made it difficult and often unprofitable for the grape growers, and it's likely that the wine produced in New York basements was of dubious quality.

A lot of the book focuses on Italian immigrants in Napa and Sonoma, and the tenuous relationship with the authorities of San Francisco. There's the inevitable bribery and bootlegging, but in northern California it appears to have occurred without organized crime or violence. Prohibition tends to conjure up images of Chicago gangsters, Caribbean pirates, or Southerners running from the cops in souped-up hot rods, but California wine country seemed to operate fairly peacefully on a process of fake licenses, hidden wine tanks, and a few well-placed dollars.

I was born in 1976, and in my lifetime I've watched wine go from something that only snooty people drank in movies (or something that regular folk only had on a special occasion) to a beverage that's increasingly appreciated by people of all walks of life. With only a generation of Prohibition nearly a hundred years ago, the impact to the American wine industry was severe and is still being felt today. I can't legally buy a bottle of wine on Sunday and there are all sorts of arcane rules I have to follow. If I visit my brother in Mississippi, just 15 minutes away, and he gives me a bottle of wine, I can't legally bring it back into Tennessee. I could go on and on about our Byzantine series of rules against anything stronger than Coors Light, but the point remains that in much of the country wine is still viewed as a dangerous, evil beverage that must be controlled and contained. There are dry counties within an easy drive of my house; it wouldn't surprise me if some of the neo-prohibitionist movements are able to capture an entire state again.

Speaking of substances that could be made illegal in the future... the cigar pictured here is a La Gloria Cubana Serie R #6, 5⅞" x 60, Connecticut wrapper, Dominican and Nicaraguan filler. The first cigar I ever purchased that came with a verbal warning from the tobacconist: don't smoke this on an empty stomach. It's also the darkest cigar I've ever smoked--deep mahogany, almost black, and slightly oily. Strong and full-bodied with flavors of espresso, chocolate, and cinnamon. It burned a bit hot, but as I slowed down it softened out. Cigars are a lot like coffee (and wine for that matter), in that sometimes you're in the mood for something light and refreshing, and sometimes you want something strong, powerful, and complex. This definitely falls into the second category.

22 July 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Lemongrass

Congratulations to Hardy Wallace of the Dirty South wine blog for winning the Murphy-Goode intern competition. This couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, and I know that he'll bring his unique combination of Southern flavor, rap lyrics, viking horns, and action figures to the wine industry. You done good, boy!

* * *

I've had lemongrass in Thai and Vietnamese food before, but this was my first time cooking with it. I had some with vegetables, with soup, and decided to chop up one stalk for cocktail purposes. I trimmed it, washed it, cut it into thin pieces, and then threw it in a pot of simmering white rum for a few minutes. I let it cool, then transferred the whole thing to a plastic container so that it could steep for a week.

You might be a cocktail fanatic if you've got a jar of Everclear and pineapple rinds brewing in the pantry.

Benito's Original
Lemongrass Cocktail

1½ oz. lemongrass-infused rum or vodka
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. lime juice

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake, then strain. Garnish with some of the pieces of lemongrass used in the infusion. The end result is bracing and refreshing, a grown-up take on lemonade.

Best thing about having lemongrass in the house? Breaking off a piece and handing it to someone. "Here, smell this." They're always amazed.

20 July 2009

2006 Aurielle Cabernet Sauvignon

My brother works nights, and although he only lives 20 minutes away we don't see each other often. I've worked weird hours before, and your options are either terrible fast food or trying to cook something without waking up the "normal" residents of your domicile. With The Roommate out of town and the house to myself, I came up with a crazy idea. "John, why don't you drop by my place after you get off work and we'll have dinner." "I'll see you at 4:30." And that's how I ended up pulling an all-nighter and making Hollandaise sauce at four in the morning.

I thought a New Orleans-style brunch would be a good model for such an odd occasion. I considered making Eggs Hussarde, but I had no desire to make the Marchand de Vin sauce for just two people. (My brother can have one of my kidneys if he needs it. No Marchand de Vin in the small hours of the morning.) So this is basically Eggs Benedict with a slice of Cherokee purple tomato under the ham. Next up on the plate, baby Brussels sprouts with sautéed mushrooms, and a bacon-wrapped 4 oz. sirloin. I thought Bro John was going to break out in tears when the spread was presented to him.

By the way, this was my first time using the plastic wrap method of making poached eggs. I'm now a convert.

My initial plan had been to serve a light white wine, but there were enough strong flavors on the plate to stand up to a red, and my brother's birthday is coming up. So why not pull out something nice? There's a lot of wine out there that gathers dust and eventually spoils because people keep waiting for the perfect occasion. Well, sic transit gloria mundi, you've got to take advantage of these things during that window of opportunity. What's more special than a delicious dinner with your brother before the sun rises? I know that it's now a meal neither of us will ever forget, and with the help of wine, a cherished memory is forged.

The 2006 Aurielle Cabernet Sauvignon is the inaugural release from Aurielle Vineyards. The grapes for this wine came equally from the Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder appellations of Napa Valley. 98.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, and .5% Merlot. $90, 14.9% abv. All French oak, 300 cases made. Lovely balance all around, with an initial nose of blueberries, plum, and a touch of spice. Medium tannins and a round body, with a smooth, lingering finish. Over time, hints of nutmeg, leather, and blackberries show up on the tongue. It's got that serious structure to it that makes you pause and contemplate before taking a sip. The wine is great now, but I'd really love to try it in about five years.

This may have seemed like an unorthodox pairing, but it's quite French in its execution. A little extra Hollandaise was wonderful on the sprouts and steak. I'm curious to try this wine with something like a rack of venison or wild boar--those luscious dark fruits always make me think of game.

P.S. For my math, art, and architecture fans, the logo of this wine is a representation of the golden mean or φ. You can find these proportions in nature, in doorways, in statues, all sorts of things. This is also reflected in the name Aurielle, of Latin derivtion for golden.

17 July 2009

Third Time's the Charm

I had to purchase this wine three times before I got to try it.

The first bottle (an '07) sat in the cellar until Christmas, when someone stopped by with an unexpected gift and I needed something quick to give in return. The second bottle was passed off to a friend--she was on her way to a dinner on a Sunday night when it's illegal to purchase wine here in Tennessee. Finally, I picked up a third and vowed to enjoy it, come hell or high water.

This is the 2008 Starborough Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. $10, 13.5% abv. Grapefruit, green apple, aroma of green apple peels and lime zest. A pretty standard profile for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but the apple peels were an intriguing element. I served it with a very simple dinner: little 4 oz. filet of salmon and a wedge of butter lettuce with bleu cheese dressing, bacon, and tomatoes. Excellent for a hot summer evening.

Kudos to them on an efficiently designed and easy to read website. Why should you have to fiddle around with a dozen pages of Flash animation to find out basic information? Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but...

Flash is great for YouTube and other video applications, but otherwise is the bane of my existence if I'm actually trying to get information. Wine websites are particularly bad about this, and many attempt to convert their sites into interpretive art experiences. "OK, I spent fifteen minutes taking the psychology profile and my spirit animal is the raccoon. Now, am I supposed to click on the rabbit or the fox? Let's try the fox... Now I'm seeing a baby carriage full of strawberries and the looping music has changed from New Age to Zydeco. I really just want to know what kind of grapes are in this bottle... Oh wait, now I have to compose a Spenserian sonnet without using the letter E."

But that's just me, I could be wrong.

16 July 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Tetzilacatl

For the past couple of months Ellen Fee, the Vice President/Production Manager at Fee Brothers, has been dropping hints about a new bitters recipe. Last week the product debuted at Tales of the Cocktail, and a sample bottle showed up here at the house. Her latest creation is Aztec Chocolate Bitters--not just chocolate flavor, but a nice Central American blend enhanced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and chile peppers.

The obvious use for these bitters will be in various chocolate or creamy cocktails, where it will add a bite of seasoning and balance out the sweetness. Think about cocktails using things like Bailey's Irish Cream, Kahlua, or Godiva Liqueur. But those aren't really my style... I decided to work up one inspired by Mexican after-dinner coffee with a shot of liquor. Named after the ceremonial copper gong used in Aztec temples, I served this cold but it could work hot as well.

Benito's Original
Tetzilacatl Cocktail

1 shot tequila
1 tbsp. honey
1 cup cold coffee or 2 shots espresso
2 dashes Fee Bros. Aztec Chocolate Bitters

If serving cold, combine the first three ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake, and strain into a highball glass. If hot, you can merely stir the various ingredients together. I used regular coffee, but stronger versions could be made with espresso. Either way, add the bitters last and stir before serving. A serrano chile garnish is optional, but fun.

The result is a nice twist on the iced coffee, and the tequila matches up well with the spices in the bitters. Think about mole sauces and other savory applications of chocolate, and you've got a good reference point.

This is a brand-new product, but you can already purchase it online from Kegworks.

15 July 2009

Memphis Farmers Market BLT

A few years ago I had the idea of making a BLT from scratch. As in, I'd grow the tomatoes and lettuce, make the bread and mayo from simple ingredients, and cure the pork belly. But then I started going deeper into the process, and wondered about raising my own pigs, wheat, chickens, and growing something that would provide the oil necessary for the mayonnaise. I gave up, and mostly forgot about it. Self-reliance is one thing but I don't have the time to recreate 10,000 years of agricultural progress in my backyard.

Others have had the same idea, and have taken it to fields beyond the BLT. Take the Toaster Project, in which a British artist is attempting to make a toaster from scratch--as in, mining and smelting the metals and creating circuitry from raw materials. Even he is stopping short of building a separate generator to provide electricity.

A much simpler version of the BLT project can be found in this, tonight's dinner: a BLT mostly made from ingredients sourced at the Downtown Farmers Market. Hawaiian-style bread from Big Ono Bake Shop in downtown Memphis, bacon from the pasture-raised pigs of Barnes Farms, and luscious Brandywine tomatoes from a vendor whose name I neglected to get. I cheated on the mayo (still no local source of oil) and lettuce (must have been sold out by the time I got there). But I've got to say that it was a damned satisfying sandwich. It's probably the best bacon I've had in my life and I'm a huge fan of heirloom tomatoes. As for the bread, big loaves of King's Hawaiian were an occasional treat on the old family dinner table, and it's great to see someone making this locally.

13 July 2009

Enchiladas & Micheladas

After the cactus and pork tacos from last week, I was craving enchiladas. So I stewed up some more pork and made a batch of enchiladas verdes. No, I didn't roast my own tomatillos and all that jazz, but the jarred version served quite well. A pot of pinto beans and sofrito, and lunch was on the table.

This wasn't an occasion for wine. And when I'm craving an authentic beverage from south of the border, I generally turn to the Wall Street Journal for inspiration. Here's their recipe:

12 oz beer
1 oz fresh lime juice
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes Mexican hot sauce (e.g., Cholula)

Combine ingredients and pour over ice. Several beers were mentioned in the article, but the one that sounded best to me (and that I hadn't had in a while) was Negra Modelo. I also put a little Corky's seasoning on the rim of the glass, as the salt and chili pepper would provide a nice additional kick.

The end result is a salty, savory, yet refreshing beverage with a spicy kick in the back of the throat. Since this cocktail is unusual in that it doesn't involve additional alcohol, it ends up being weaker than beer. Perfect for lunch or lighter occasions. One note--if you try and follow this up with a regular beer it will taste unbearably bland.

10 July 2009

Benito vs. the 烏骨鷂: Silkie Chicken Soup

Since this has inadvertently turned into "Week of the Weird" here at BWR, I thought I'd wrap things up with one of the most unusual looking animals I've ever cooked.

This is not a crow. This is not a baby dragon, or a demon, or some sort of burned lizard. This is a silkie chicken that has a number of unique features: feathers that turn into fine, silk-like fur; black skin, bones, and dark meat; and five toes instead of the customary four. When unfolding the bird out of its plastic package, I wasn't expecting the feet, and one of the claws gripped my finger. The dogs, alas, are not used to me yelling expletives at food, and were perplexed.

They're popular as pets and show chickens, have an interesting history, and are useful to poultry enthusiasts for the fact that the hens will happily sit on any eggs that need hatching, regardless of origin. Because there's very little meat or fat, these aren't eaten often in the West but are popular as the main ingredient of medicinal soups in China. Some modern research has been done in regards to these health claims.

There's no one recipe for such soups, in fact there are hundreds. Most of them read like something out of a Harry Potter novel, and the list of ailments that can allegedly be cured by this chicken is huge and often embarrassing. My favorite is "inducing labor".

Without a standard recipe, I followed the only common theme (put a whole silkie in a pot of water) and added a few traditional ingredients that sounded good. A whole head of garlic, a cubic inch of shredded ginger, peppercorns, salt, and a little sliced green onion for garnish. Let everything simmer for a few hours, strain if you want but be sure to return some of the flesh, skin, and bones back to the bowl. You don't want anyone to think you're serving fake silkie soup, do you?

The meat is a little dry and not particularly flavorful--think about a cross between the breast meat of turkey and something like pheasant. It's not something I'd really recommend unless you're into Traditional Chinese Medicine, or like me, you treat your kitchen as a sort of culinary Noah's Ark. There might be other uses... Do you have a picky child at home? Throw down two plates, one with a whole silkie on it and load up the other with vegetables. Suddenly broccoli never looked so good.

08 July 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Monkey Gland

I was looking for a new, yet old cocktail. I thumbed through through my lovely wire-bound copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie 100 Rediscovered Recipes and the Stories Behind Them by Ted Haigh, a.k.a. Dr. Cocktail.

My love of classic cocktails and early 1900s science met at the Monkey Gland, a fun cocktail named after a procedure invented by Dr. Serge Voronoff that involved grafting part of a monkey testicle onto a human one. The desired result was increased virility, potency, manliness, etc. I haven't read any of the peer-reviewed journals on this subject, but I've always felt a great first date is taking a dame out to Primate Canyon at the Memphis Zoo to hear a bunch of screaming apes. Your mileage may vary if you don't often date primatologists.

The Monkey Gland
1½ oz. gin
1½ fresh squeezed orange juice (please don't cheat here)
1 tsp. grenadine (I used fresh pomegranate juice)
1 tsp. absinthe or pastis

Throw everything in a shaker with ice, shake to hell, and strain into desired glass. I'm really enjoying these little squat stemless glasses. I thought they would tip over easily, but they're more stable than regular cocktail glasses.

I liked the cocktail--it's got a fun punch-like quality, but even the tiniest bit of anise-flavored liquor can turn off those with an aversion to licorice. While I didn't feel any crazy monkey passion after having one, it was a relaxing way to end the day.

07 July 2009

Benito vs. the Cactus: Nopalitos + Wines of Lander-Jenkins

An old acquaintance recently moved to Arizona and expressed an interest in cooking cactus. Since I'm always looking for an excuse to go to Mercado Latino, I swung by and grabbed a few paddles of the prickly pear cactus, known as nopales or nopalitos in Spanish.

Here's step by step instructions for preparing them before cooking (as always, click the thumbnails for full-sized images):

1) Rinse off the paddles, being careful not to stick yourself. Yes, there will be spines, it's cactus.

2) Using a long sharp knife, slice from the base of the paddle to the tip, just taking off the little bumps that contain spines. (This will take some practice, and obviously my technique is not perfect here. Trim around the edges and take off the top and bottom after the shaving.

3) Once you've got the paddle naked, give it another rinse and then slice up into whatever size you want: small strips for tacos or salad, bigger chunks for stews. (Note that in stews, the cactus juice acts as a natural thickening agent, similar to okra. Bear in mind that some of the slimy texture remains through the cooking process, so if you have a problem with okra, this might not be for you.) For most preparations, you'll now want to dunk all the pieces in boiling, salted water for five minutes and then rinse and drain. Or you can buy pre-prepared nopalitos like in the little baggie I have here. The whole paddles have a fresher flavor, but it is a lot of work. The third option is canned, but those are often packed with peppers and onions to boost up the flavor after processing. Texture-wise they're going to be limp. Think about the difference between fresh whole mushrooms, pre-washed and sliced mushrooms, and canned mushrooms.

I took the chopped cactus and cooked it in just a dab of bacon grease until nice and soft. They taste kind of like green beans, and are used in lots of traditional dishes. Here I stewed up some pork with tomatoes and onions, and made little tacos with the shredded meat, nopalitos, fresh cilantro, and some crumbly queso fresco. (If anyone else attempts this recipe, get the most acidic tomatillo-based salsa verde you can find--it needs the additional tartness.)

I had two wines from the "Spirit Hawk" series of Lander-Jenkins Vineyards, a 100% sustainably grown operation involving winemaker Steve Rued of the Rutherford Wine Company and a family of Welsh immigrants (Iechyd da!) that have been involved in winemaking since the 1880s. With this meal and the heat outside, a chilled white was the obvious choice. The 2008 Chardonnay ($14, 13.5% abv) is sourced from various California regions and is 97% Chardonnay with 3% Muscat Canelli. Two thirds in stainless steel with the last third in French oak, leading to a balanced wood profile. Big apricot and honey aromas, firm acidity, and a lovely full fruit flavor of apricot nectar without being sweet or cloying. Little vanilla and floral aroma after it's rested for a bit.

Later, when things had cooled off and it was time for a contemplative glass of red wine, I opened the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($14, 13.5% abv). 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 2% Zinfandel, and 1% Petite Verdot, fully fermented in French oak. Deep plum and blackberry aroma, touch of wild blueberries. Surprisingly light mouthfeel with tannins that firm up on the finish. This is liable to give you a strong craving for blackberry pie.

The Lander-Jenkins wines are new to the marketplace (this is the inaugural release), and with 3,000 cases of each, they may not be available everywhere this year. But they're both excellent bargains with great performance, and definitely worth checking out.

06 July 2009

Benito vs. the MRE

This 4th of July, when many were enjoying the bounty of cookouts and family dinners, I took the opportunity to honor those in uniform by eating a Meal Ready to Eat, commonly called an MRE. I also did it in the interest of kitchen science, to test one of my long held beliefs: that a dry rosé will pair with nearly any food.

A recent reflection on this theory coincided with the availability of some vintage MREs (circa 1999, civilian packaging without the heater, same supplier as military MREs) that were being cycled out of an emergency kit. I asked my brother to bring me one without telling me what it was, and I'd try it with a dry rosé to see how it worked. Note there is a long history of durable, portable military rations. I remember eating panforte in Siena. It's a sort of indestructible fruitcake that was carried by the Crusaders.

I've never been in the military, but I've eaten MREs in the past and have a lot of experience with dehydrated rations from my backpacking days. MREs are generally better than freeze-dried stuff, but there are funny things in common between the two. For instance, in this MRE I got a packet of grape jelly, which I had no desire to eat with lunch. But out of habit I put it in my pocket, knowing that someone would want to trade me for it. No matter how revolting some individual item is, there is a person you'll meet that stays up at night craving that item. For me it was freeze-dried green beans--sweet, crunchy, and satisfying the inevitable desire for fruits and vegetables you get away from civilization. On the trail the items I couldn't stand were the various meat spreads (tuna, chicken, or ham salad). Eating warm canned meat premixed with warm mayo when it's 100°F in the shade can try even the emptiest stomach.

My MRE surprise contained the following:

Accessories: Salt, pepper, coffee, creamer, sugar, moist towelette, spoon, napkin.

Grape Jelly: Still untried, waiting until I meet someone who wants it.

Crackers: Awesome. These need to be sold in stores. Much better than saltines and somehow have the flavor of good French bread. Plus, they'd stayed intact for years without breakage.

Beef Ravioli in Meat Sauce: Think Chef Boyardee mini ravioli, but with less flavor (it has been ten years, after all). Kind of disappointing, but I know there were times when I would have wolfed this down and licked the plate.

Fig Bar: A generic version of the Fig Newton. Pretty good, actually, even if some of the sugar had crystallized over time. This, combined with the fig seeds, provided a pleasing crunch.

For I wine I grabbed the nearest chilled rosé: the 2006 Red Guitar Old Vine Rosé from the Navarra region of Spain near the French border. Pure Grenache (Garnacha), $12, 13.5% abv.Light sweetness, rich and slightly smoky aroma. Wild strawberry flavors and firm acidity. Full-bodied with that slight orange tint you see in Spanish rosés.

How did it pair up with the food? It went great with the crackers and fig bar, but with the ravioli it helped immensely by providing enough acidity and flavor to balance out the bland main course. Also note that I'm serving the wine out of a Riedel glass, which might be the first time that an MRE and Riedel have shared space on a dinner table.

I considered trying to doll this up to look more "gourmet" for the photo but there's just not a lot to work with. The sad part was that I'd just returned from the Downtown Farmers Market and had a pile of fresh vegetables and bread staring at me. But I slogged through it for science and for the amusement of you, the readers, who seem to delight in some of my more bizarre culinary adventures. This is also proof that such a pairing is possible, should you find yourself in the unique position of having access to wine and having to eat emergency rations.

03 July 2009

Blackened Grouper and an Oregon Pinot Gris

Yankees (a group that, due to my Southern upbringing, includes everyone north of Kentucky and west of Arkansas) typically don't understand that there are lots of different kinds of Southern cooking. For instance, I love Louisiana cuisine, but I've never been there, and it's not a strong part of my local culinary tradition. I appreciate the difference between Cajun and Creole even if I don't often cook much of either style. But I got a hankerin'* the other day for blackened fish...

I took things back to basics with the original Paul Prudhomme recipe. I consulted the 1982 New York Times article, as this was faster than digging up the family's first edition of Prudhomme's cookbook. Again, I feel the need to clarify for the sake of Yankee readers: blackened ain't burnt, it's merely seared at high heat.

The cooking method is pretty simple: heat a cast iron skillet to hellish temperatures, slop the filets through some melted butter, coat with spice mix, and throw in the skillet. Flip once, pull out before it's burned. If you're using filets that are thicker in the middle (like the grouper I had), you may want to transfer them to a warming sheet in the oven for ten minutes or so. For the sides I prepared some speckled butter beans and turnip greens, the latter of which benefitted from some pepper vinegar.

This is the kind of meal that would traditionally be paired with sweet tea or a really cold beer, but I felt it was appropriate to slingshot over to the other end of the country and pick an Oregon white. The 2007 King Estate Signature Pinot Gris is $17, 13% abv. Overall profile of Golden Delicious apples, with hints of lime and a full body. Stronger acidity than one would expect from a Pinot Gris. Wines like this are making me want to move to Oregon, home of a few of my ancestors.

The crisp acidity of the wine matched up beautifully with the buttery flavors of the wine and fish, and the Pinot Gris was strong enough to stand up to the peppers in the blackening spice and the vinegar. Oregon Pinot Gris might not work with every N'Awlins recipe, but I was quite happy with the experiment.

*hankerin': abbreviation of HANK•er•ing, colloquial term for craving or longing from the Dutch hankeren. My own favorite usage is related to someone or something that inspires such a craving. For instance, reading Peter Mayle's A Year In Provence could trigger a desire for roast lamb. I might then remark, "That book done flung a hankerin' on me for some gigot d'agneau."

01 July 2009

2008 Coppola Diamond Collection Sauvignon Blanc

There's nothing in the world quite like a friend that loves good food. And I know that when I get a craving for crab, I can call up Grace and she'll join me. Live blue crab? Snow crab? Dungeness crab? Jonah crab claws? It's all good. She's not a big fan of the King crab legs, but I enjoy them when I've got the proper cracking tools.

Newspapers on the table, ramekins of clarified butter, and a few pounds of crab legs. What more could anyone want? Well, I generally need something to cleanse the palate... I find that a crisp white or sparkler works well, but in this instance I chose something softer: the 2008 Coppola Diamond Collection Sauvignon Blanc. $15, 13.5% abv. Grapefruit and peach nose, light lemon flavors. The most striking thing about this particular Sauvignon Blanc is how smooth it is--and this has been consistent through the years. It's got an almost creamy quality to it with low acidity. The versatility of this grape never ceases to amaze me.

I've enjoyed tasting my way through the Diamond Collection product line--I haven't tried the Petite Sirah or Malbec yet, but I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually. These wines are widely available and consistent in quality, and if you don't have a lot of storage space but wanted to keep a few wines on standby, I'd suggest a bottle or two each of the Claret, the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Syrah. If you're a wine fanatic chasing odd grapes, be sure to try the bizarre Alicante Bouschet and tap into the pre-Prohibition wine mindset.