30 December 2009


If you're lucky this holiday season, you'll have lots of delicious leftovers. If you're creative, you can throw together a medianoche or Cuban Sandwich. And it's appropriate for New Year's Eve, because medianoche means "midnight", and a salty savory sandwich like this would go very well with a young bubbly wine full of crisp acidity.

Take a soft, long loaf of bread and slice it open lengthwise. If it's really tall, you might want to slice an inch out of the center. On the bottom slice of the loaf, lay down some mustard. The traditional option is just yellow mustard, but I prefer Dijon, and I also add a bit of mayo, which I know is anathema to some purists. Whatever your spread, layer on sliced Kosher dill pickles. Again, opinions vary: delis and restaurants tend to skimp here, but I say double up on the pickles. So much of the flavor comes from pork that you need something tart and acidic to balance it out. Then layer the sliced pork loin (or shredded pork shoulder, or whatever roasted pig you have on hand), the ham, the Swiss cheese, and finally the top half of the loaf.

Many guides will tell you to butter the inside of the bread, and I will admit that this is tasty. But I prefer to spread the butter on the outside, as it aids in crisping. With a manageable 12" loaf, I'll do it in a skillet and press it down with a casserole dish, but with anything longer you'll want to do this in the oven, on a cookie sheet, with another sheet on top of the sandwich and a set of weights on top of that to press it all together (clean bricks are ideal). Flip it occasionally to make sure both the top and bottom get equal heating.

Personally I prefer the shorter sandwich in the skillet or on the griddle; like I said, take anything solid and sanitary and press down as hard as you can on top of the sandwich while it's grilling. Not only will it smash the flavors together but the bread will become this buttery, crusty, compressed wonder. (If you're using a fancy panini press, just heat up the meats beforehand, otherwise you'll have a hot exterior and a cold interior.)

Traditionally this would be served with French fries or perhaps rice and black beans. Both are delicious, but in the interest of balance and digestion, I'd heavily recommend a salad with a light vinaigrette or some fresh fruit. As wholly delicious as this sandwich is, keep in mind that it's a concentrated mass of meat, salt, fat, and starch. The pickles and mustard are key to balancing it out, but they're not quite enough. Make a salad, grab some celery sticks, or even go with cole slaw. It's all about harmony, folks.

28 December 2009

Assorted Leftover Bottles

Here's a few bottles that got tasted and reviewed, but not posted in 2009. They sat around in the bullpen for a while, and I decided I might as well let them out for the 9th inning.

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This wine comes from the time when Bonny Doon's Ca' del Solo line was still whimsical and lighthearted. With a move to biodynamics and a trimming of the wild mix of grapes and products, Ca' del Solo wines now bear very unusual labels. This older label reminds me of the children's book Madeline, though this little girl is obviously not an orphan.

There's not a lot of information out there about this wine--a few reviews of various vintages going back to the 90s, but Bonny Doon is a company that has grown, shrunk, exploded with products, focused on a handful of wines, reinvented itself, and has built up certain mythologies about its products. Like how people mistake the Ca' del Solo line for Italian wines, or think the Big House wines (no longer part of Bonny Doon) were actually made by prisoners. Press releases and company info on old products seem to disappear completely, like the Fraise strawberry liqueur I tried in 1997, leaving us with second- and third-hand accounts and reviews.

Our mystery white is the 2005 Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca from the Central Coast of California. $12, 13% abv. Lots of lime on the nose, like lemon curd but with more of a lime tang--think Key Lime Pie. Plenty of fruit flavor here, and a quick finish. Tropical fruits like papaya and pineapple. I had it with a little cold pasta salad, and it definitely needs something salty like olives to balance out the touch of sweetness. I would have liked to have tried this in its youth; I have nothing to directly compare it with, but I think there might have been some more sparkle a few years ago.

* * *

Different European countries have different rules and regulations when it comes to what kind of grapes can be grown in various regions. France is pretty strict; I often think that Italy and Spain are more accommodating because they have thousands of indigenous grapes that might only be a few hundred distinct vines with ten names each. (It's possible for a wine grape to have over 150 different names.) In Italy the IGT system has permitted well-crafted wines to be produced using plots planted with both indigenous Italian vines and imported French vines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular blending grapes, even as far south as Sicily.

One relatively mainstream example is the 2005 Bonizio Cecchi from Maremma, Italy (the western corner of Tuscany). $10, 12.5% abv, 90% Sangiovese, 10% "other" red grapes. This little Tuscan IGT has a little blackberry and clove on the nose, with mild tannins and cherry flavors. It performs well for the price and was a decent accompaniment to a pepperoni pizza.

* * *

This is a very inexpensive Pinot Noir, decent enough for the price. After Sideways a lot of people rushed out and bought the cheapest Pinot on the shelf. Many of those folks were sorely disappointed, but it doesn't mean that bargain Pinot doesn't exist. It's just hard to find. I've often considered taping a note to my wallet that says, "Don't buy a Pinot Noir under $20. They've never made you happy."

But for the same reason that I've always dated [REDACTED], I decided to try another bargain California Pinot that showed up at the local shop. This is the 2006 Jargon Pinot Noir that retails for a paltry $7, 13.5% abv. Surprisingly, it is pretty soft and smooth, with decent black cherry notes, but lacking real complexity. Just a touch of acidity, tannins are pretty much nonexistent. It's the kind of wine I'd suggest for a diner if my local diners actually served wine.

* * *

A lot of folks like to beat up on Red Truck, and while it pales in comparison to fine Burgundy or Bordeaux I've always thought it was a fun table wine. Better in previous years, I think, but it's a great "gateway wine" for men. If a guy has never tasted wine before, flowery labels and French language aren't going to convince him. But if there's half a hog on the smoker, and you pull out a slightly chilled wine that has an old pickup truck on the label... You might have just made a convert. In five years he'll be criticizing your Barolo vintages and explaining why he prefers Spiegelau glasses over Riedel.

The 2006 Red Truck is $12, 13.5% abv, and shows notes of plum, brambles, with notes that are vegetal. Just a touch of herbs. Big tannins and acidity but they subside with an hour of breathing. The grapes are a proprietary blend of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. While this may sound like a confused mess, it's probably close to the spirit of pre-Prohibition California "red wine" that used to flow out across the country years and years ago. Fortunately, you'll get a chance to enjoy it in bottle or cask form instead of having it shipped in tankers via train.

* * *

I'm an unabashed fan of the metric system and curse the archaic, illogical standard system we use here. However, for historical and literary purposes I do find obscure forms of measurement fascinating. Fathoms, leagues, hogsheads... Italian miles versus German miles versus Arabic miles... Gold gets measured in troy ounces, and horses get measured in "hands" from the ground to the withers, units now standardized at 4 inches. 14-16 hands is pretty average for a horse. (Similar human body-derived units are feet, paces, cubits, and the Selleck, used to measure mustache thickness.)

Another random wine selection based on the name is the 2007 14 Hands Merlot, $12, 13.5% abv. It's comprised of 85% Merlot, 14% Syrah, and 1% "other", sourced from a variety of locations in Washington state. Pacific Northwest wines are growing in popularity and availability, and it's always interesting to talk to people that just got back from a trip to Washington or Oregon wine country. They talk about it in this dreamy way like they've been to France.

Jammy, with an initial cherry and blueberry nose that can be overwhelming. After some breathing, it mellows out and you're able to get notes of chocolate, tobacco, and tomato vines. Definitely fruity, with medium tannins and a long chocolate-covered-cherry finish.

25 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Here's hoping you all have a safe and happy Christmas, whether with friends, family, or in a strange land far from home.

Taken at Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo in 2005.

23 December 2009

NV Segura Viudas Brut Rosé

Continuing with the bubbly theme, but this time on the bargain side...

I selected this wine for a recent Commercial Appeal online tasting. I'm repeating some of my background notes here, because this is an interesting little wine that deserves some attention. And since you can find it for under $10, it's the kind of thing you can keep in the fridge and open whenever you're in the mood. It's also extremely food-friendly, so have fun trying it with practically anything.

The NV Segura Viudas Brut Rosé. $9, 12% abv. This wine comes from Penedès, part of Catalonia in the northeast corner of Spain, near the French border. 80% Trepat, 10% Monastrell, and 10% Garnacha. Monastrell and Garnacha are just different names for Mourvèdre and Grenache. Trepat is a grape that's only grown in this region and is mostly used for rosés.

About 2800 years ago the Phoenicians were buying wine in Catalonia and selling it to the Egyptians. Cava (meaning "cave") is a more recent invention, from the 1870s. Cavas are really popular in Spain, and have gained a lot of ground here in the US as well. Segura Viudas also makes a Reserva Heredad that's bottled with a metal badge and base. You've probably seen it in the store--it looks like a prop from "Lord of the Rings".

Segura Viudas has been making wine commercially since the 1950s, but the estate goes back to the 11th century. We get excited when a building is 100 years old; some of the buildings on that property are a thousand years old.

So how does it taste? Yeasty nose, with a hint of strawberry leaves and seeds. Dry but fruity. Very crisp, firm acidity, tart berry flavors of unripe raspberries or cranberries. Big bubbles, big flavors, just what you'd expect from a casual everyday sparkler. Serve it with appetizers, salty and fatty things like olives and ham.

I took a picture of this wine using a 1/8th second exposure--just long enough to get some fun trails of the rising bubbles. I lucked out and got a fun "flame" effect there at the top of the glass. Since bubbles only form at the site of microscopic imperfections inside the glass, better Champagne flute manufacturers will laser-etch the interior to provide symmetrical "scratches" that will cause a constant and aesthetically pleasing bubble experience.

You don't really get that from a can of soda, which is one of the many reasons why we love sparkling wines.

21 December 2009

NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition

Typically I don't even mention a wine here unless the blessed grape juice has passed my lips, but I'm making an exception in the run-up to New Year's Eve. While I've written about a lot of different wines here, covering many obscure grapes and lesser-known regions, one glaring omission has been proper Champagne. Oh, I pop Prosecco and Cava and Washington sparklers like cans of soda, but I almost never drink real Champagne. Why? Part of it is a cost issue, part of it is that most of my personal friends prefer the more everyday sparkling wines I serve, and the other part comes from the fact that all the wine samples I receive are still, not bubbly.

This shouldn't be taken to imply that I don't like Champagne--on the contrary, I'm quite fond of it. I've had Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Taittinger, all of the big producers. But this year I wanted to ring in 2010 with something different, and so I turned to a pair of friends who happen to be both wine bloggers and wine retailers: Michael Hughes of Joe's Wines & Liquor in Midtown Memphis, and Samantha Dugan of The Wine Country in Signal Hill/Long Beach, California. Both of them have tasted much more Champagne than I have, so I issued them a challenge: collaborate, pick out an interesting selection for me around $50, and I'd buy a bottle here in town while plugging both stores*.

It didn't work out quite like I expected, but Sam and Michael performed admirably. Turns out that the selections and prices were much different between the two sides of the US, and without an individual bottle to recommend, it was time to switch to a certain category of Champagne.

There's an interesting trend of récoltants-manipulants or harvester-producers: farmers who have historically supplied grapes to the big houses, but have begun making their own small-batch Champagne. In the US, these wines are known as grower Champagnes, or sometimes the more casual "farmer fizz". While I've read quite a bit about this movement and admire it in the broader trend towards small production food and wine, I haven't ever had one myself.

Consensus was reached on the NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition, which I purchased at Joe's on Saturday. $53, 12.5% abv, made from 35% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir. (A plurality of Pinot Meunier? Be still my beating heart!) According to the importer website, it's a blend of the 2004, 2002, 2001, 1998 vintages. I'm really excited about trying this wine, but I have to just stare at it for the next ten days.

Is this my official recommendation for your New Year's celebration? Well, it's what I'll be drinking, but I think I bought Michael's last bottle and Sam doesn't carry it. But if you're looking for my formal advice, I'd say try a grower Champagne. It's going to be something different, something individual, something with personality. I like Veuve Clicquot, but you can find that yellow label anywhere in the world at any time of year. When you buy a grower Champagne, you're one of a select few people who will be enjoying that specific wine as the clock ticks down to midnight. You can brag to your friends, impress that girl you've been dating, and most importantly, you'll be drinking a solidly produced wine rather than just an excuse for breaking out the sparkling wine flutes.

Many thanks to Michael and Sam for their assistance, and I'm sure this will be a New Year's Eve to remember!

*This isn't advertising, and I didn't receive any financial compensation for this project. Basically two good writers happen to be passionate about Champagne and are in the retail business. A knowledgeable wine salesperson who has the bottles on hand in your city is worth more than all of the Top 100 lists ever written. If you stop by Joe's or The Wine Country in search of a great Champagne for New Year's, tell 'em I sent you.

18 December 2009

2008 Colores del Sol Malbec Reserva

What do you do when you've got holiday leftover side dishes but no turkey or ham? A narrow strip steak fits in nicely on a crowded plate, but this demands a somewhat bolder wine than the usual holiday middle-weight compromises.

Faced with this delicious dilemma, I poured the 2008 Colores del Sol Malbec Reserva from the Luján de Cuyo region of northern Mendoza in Argentina. $13, 13.5% abv. Blackberry and plum nose, with a touch of pencil shavings. Starts off pretty brash and tart, but with a couple of hours of breathing it is smooth and fruit-filled, and a slightly ashy plum flavor pulls through. Strong tannins on the finish.

With this ample bounty on my plate, full of all sorts of wonderful flavors and textures, it's still the humble deviled egg that brings me the most joy. They're easy to make, I almost always have all the necessary ingredients on hand, and they're a good platform for some recipe modification and experimentation. But I almost never eat them except around the holidays. Hmmm... might have to make another batch and incorporate some of that pickled okra.

16 December 2009

Hendrick's Gin

One of the overlooked Christmas classics is The Thin Man. OK, it's not really a Christmas movie, but is set during the season and has a lot of partying and humor, so we'll let it slide.

In this scene, William Powell (as Nick Charles) lectures the bartenders on martini theory before sampling his fifth of the evening, just a warmup to #6. A fan of the shake method, Nick says, "The important thing is the rhythm! Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time."

I considered counting up how many cocktails and other drinks he consumed during the course of the 90 minute film, but he was never empty-handed and frequently referred to prior and subsequent beverages. What does he do if Nora wakes him up in the middle of the night? Fortunately there's a little bar right in the bedroom! I'm pretty sure that Asta the dog was the only sober character.

While I don't advocate Nick's dawn-to-dusk drinking, I did find myself craving a martini during the movie. And since I was housesitting at Paul's, I helped myself to a bit of the Hendrick's Gin, made in Ayrshire, Scotland (in the southwest near Glasgow). Gins are made with a wide variety of spices and obscure ingredients left over from the old days of Dutch expeditions to the tropics, but Hendrick's is unique. Its flavor and aroma come from rose petals and cucumbers in addition to the more traditional coriander and juniper. It's smoother and has a rounder mouthfeel than most gins, and the scent is so alluring you can sip it over an hour and never get bored.

I made a 4:1 martini with Hendrick's and the European-style Noilly Prat (stirred slowly... adagio). And if I garnish Hendrick's with anything, it's going to be a thin slice of cucumber. I think olives would clash, and lemon peel would obscure some of the more delicate aromas. The cucumber is mild enough to just enhance the flavors already there, and it floats gently on the surface of the cocktail.

If you haven't tried Hendrick's, or if you've been turned off by gin in the past, I'd urge you to give it a try. Many of your better restaurant bars carry it (in fact, that old-fashioned medicine bottle is a great sign that you're at a quality bar), so order a martini or a shot. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Still image ©1934 MGM.

14 December 2009

2007 Cuvée A Midnight Saignée

The croque-monsieur is, in its basic form, just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Some might roll their eyes at the thought of giving something so simple a fancy name*, but it basically means "Mister Crunchy" back in France. There are dozens of variations on this theme, but I found myself with the ingredients and appetite for a croque-madame, which is topped with a fried egg and a béchamel sauce. I tweaked it a bit, trying out blindfolded eggs and a sauce mornay (béchamel plus cheese and spices).

The blindfolded eggs are fun (act like you're frying an egg, but throw in some water and cover so it steams the yolk), just don't overcook them. As for the sandwich? Savory and delicious. I wish open-faced sandwiches were more popular; there's so much that you can do with them.

For wine I cracked open the 2007 Cuvée A Midnight Saignée from Anne Amie Vineyards in the Willammette Valley of Oregon. $14, 13% abv, pure Pinot Noir. Some of the greatest dry rosés are made with Pinot Noir, and this specimen is wonderful with its striking salmon color. Delicate wild strawberry aroma, tart ripe berry flavors with a touch of brambly earthiness. There's a slight green tea finish--just a hint of tannins to remind you that you're drinking red grapes.

While this was a fun and delicious pairing with the croque-madame, I think it would be a great match for grilled seafood. That dash of bright acidity would really help bring out the flavors of trout or redfish.

*My favorite example of a goofy French food is the name for little scraps of pastry dough that are deep fried: pets de nonne. Follow the link to find out what it means!

11 December 2009

Beaujolais Showdown

I was going to skip the Beaujolais Nouveau this year. I got turned off in 2008 by the high price and low quality. But the price was better this year, and I'm hearing that 2009 is a great year for Beaujolais (i.e., the real Cru Beaujolais we'll be drinking in a year or two). Why not give it a shot? I took the opportunity to perform a wholly unscientific experiment testing two ideas:

1) Supposedly Beaujolais Nouveau is better a couple of weeks after the official release, allowing it to settle down and recover from bottle shock. I have no proof of this, nor did I try it before and after, but I thought it'd be worth it to try the wine after a few weeks rather than guzzling it down 45 minutes after bringing it home.

2) Find a real Beaujolais at the same price and alcohol content and evaluate it against the Nouveau, adding additional credence to the widespread fact that any Beaujolais is better than Nouveau.

Starting off... the 2009 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau. $13, 12.5% abv. Bananas and strawberries, as usual, though the 2009 is far smoother than the 2008 and has a more pleasant tartness. It tastes better chilled than at room temperature, and after being open and in the fridge for two days, it was even more relaxed. Did the waiting and resting make a difference? I can't say for sure, but with the haste and jostling of the bottles in the runup to Bojo Novo day ever year, it wouldn't hurt to wait a few days at least.

At one point I began thinking that unused Beaujolais Nouveau could make a really delicious red wine vinegar, one of those odd intersections Terry Pratchett described as "where the falling angel meets the rising ape".

A lot of people have said this year's label design looks Chinese, but to my eye it seems more inspired by the Хохлома folk art of Nizhny Novgorod. I'm by no means an art expert or a specialist in Khokhloma, but having looked at a lot of Russian vases, plates, and lacquer boxes from the region I always wondered why they designed everything in red, gold, and black. Just look at examples of the style, particularly the swan at the bottom of this page.

I lucked out and found a Beaujolais at the same price and alcohol content. 2007 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages. $13, 12.5% abv. Much more balanced, with a dominant raspberry profile and an alluring hint of cardamom. The tartness and acidity of the Nouveau is completely gone, with a light red wine that goes down as easily as water. In fact, it's a joy to try a restrained red after so many fruit bombs. This wine tastes better at room temperature; chilled it loses complexity. All in all a much better wine, and I can't stress this enough, AT THE SAME PRICE AS THE NOUVEAU.

The Nouveau is enclosed with a short plastic cork, and the Jadot has a composite Diam cork, which is engineered using granulated natural cork and treated to avoid TCA contamination. I haven't encountered a lot of Diam-branded corks yet, but they provide the look and feel of "real" corks with fewer of the drawbacks.

First I invited my brother over for dinner (steaks and baked potatoes) and tried the pair of wines. They performed well, and I took my initial notes, but it really wasn't an ideal pairing. That would have to wait until two days later, when I served the leftover Beaujolais with some delicate lamb chops, coated in Dijon mustard and breadcrumbs and baked/broiled until cooked to medium doneness. Together these three little chops barely topped a half pound, but were perfect in flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. I'll eat any cut of lamb at any time of the day or night, yet I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've had a Gamay-based wine with lamb. It's a good pairing, and while the Nouveau worked well, again, the Beaujolais-Villages came shining through as the superior choice.

I know it's become popular in some circles to bash Beaujolais Nouveau for a variety of reasons from anti-French sentiment to snobbishness to carbon footprint, but I don't think it should be completely avoided. As a fun holiday novelty wine at $10? No problem. But I'd urge any fans stocking up this Christmas season to consider picking up a Nouveau and a Cru or Beaujolais-Villages rather than two bottles of the Nouveau. Try them side by side, see what you think, and I've got a hunch you'll be buying a lot more "real" Beaujolais in 2010.

Correction: Alert reader Fredric noted that Beaujolais-Villages is not a Cru, but rather an intermediate level below the ten official Crus. The post has been changed to reflect this, but note that Beaujolais-Villages is made like a traditional wine, not the quick method used for Nouveau. Thanks!

09 December 2009

2007 Montevina Merlot

Even though I rarely follow recipes precisely and have a cavalier attitude towards measuring ingredients, I think it's always a good idea to read recipes for new flavor combinations. Thus I discovered anchovy butter as a topping for steak. It's a great savory mix of butter, fish, and garlic, but I didn't like the recipe as written. I tripled the garlic, doubled the anchovies, and didn't rinse the little fishes. Why waste any of that great flavor?

Making the butter was easy, I just used a firm spoon and a bowl. Partway through the process it smells like the dumpster behind a cheap seafood joint, but keep mixing and it settles down. I broiled a couple of Delmonico steaks* and served a healthy knob of the anchovy butter on each one.

It tastes great, but of the various compound butters I've made and tried over the years, I think sage butter and red wine butter are better candidates. Yes, this had a salty/savory/umami quality to it, but it's harder to make than the other compound butters and I can't see it being a successful menu item anywhere. Plus you end up with a good bit of leftover anchovy butter, and it's difficult to find other uses before it goes south.

With the steak I served the 2007 Montevina Merlot from California, $12, 13.7% abv. Touches of coffee and spice on the nose, with flavors of black cherry, jam, medium tannins. A pretty basic and drinkable California red wine.

I've included a closeup here, because this is a gorgeous label that evokes old stock certificates, currency, and California fruit crate labeling. But it has a fatal flaw: the date (click the picture to enlarge). Many wineries use "shells": loads of label sheets printed and then later overstamped with the vintage as needed. You see this a lot in French wines, with the year in red. I'm not against the practice, but two things made it difficult here. For one, you're printing on top of other ink, which is always problematic, and two, the designer made an ornate but painfully small target for the printer to hit. Even under the best conditions this would be hard to pull off properly, and you can see the result here. The ink has bled, the registration is off, and the end result looks like the sloppy application of a hand stamp.

I'm not assessing blame to one specific group here, though having worked as both a designer and a press operator I'm going to say that the pressmen probably did the best they could under the circumstances. The design would have been unified if the year could have been printed in brown along with the rest of the label, perhaps with a few separate runs to cover the next few years. Or it would have been easy enough to fill up that corner with the script text or simply leave it blank, and save the vintage to go along with the grape name on the separate lower label. "2007 Merlot" would have been elegant and informative in reversed white text.

At some point a compromise was reached and the result is a flawed label.

It wouldn't have bothered me if this were just another mediocre label, but I really love this design. Someone obviously worked very hard to create this look and feel, with the kind of engraving that was more common a century ago. It is otherwise perfect... It pains me that the only people who will really appreciate the layout are likewise going to notice the scarred vintage.

*There are many definitions of the Delmonico steak, but this one was a ribeye from the portion near the chuck roast. My local Schnuck's carries them occasionally, and always at a dollar less per pound than the ribeyes. It's difficult to tell the difference just from looking. The shape on this one is a bit odd as I'd trimmed off a third for The Roommate, who just wanted a small steak without anchovy butter.

07 December 2009

2008 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc

Costco sells these gigantic chicken pot pies: 2.5 kg/5.5 lbs, enough to feed a good ten people. I've always walked past them with a mix of curiosity and regret. It's a common blend of emotions at Costco, as you pass by five gallon jugs of mustard and 50 lb. bags of rice. But I thought, what the hell, it's only $15, I can grab a few friends and gnaw on the leftovers for a couple of days. In case you're curious, the crust is delicious but the rest is pretty basic. The sauce in particular needs more oomph, with reduced chicken broth and white wine, but hey, it works for simple comfort food.

I decided to serve the 2008 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, $20, 13.9% abv. Marlborough, New Zealand. Golden delicious apple aromas, with a touch of flowers and Meyer lemon. Balanced acidity with full citrus fruit flavors. There's a touch of cedar and minerals on the finish. (Had I served a South Australia wine, I would have put the pie upside down in 16 litres of pea soup for the ultimate pie floater.)

I was very impressed with this wine, and it delivers additional complexity as it reaches room temperature. A great white wine tastes good but subtly different whether it's cool or at room temperature; a bad one only tastes good when it's near freezing. Oddly, this rule holds for beer as well. But I purchased the wine not based on its merits or land of origin. No, I noticed it years ago in an ad because the winery shares its name with my home neighborhood in Memphis.

Whitehaven is a little suburb on the south side of Memphis. It would be otherwise unremarkable, but this patch of earth where I was born and raised is also home to the world's busiest cargo airport (MEM, thanks to FedEx), as well as Elvis Presley's Graceland, which gets more than a half million visitors a year from all over the world. On the modern food front, Whitehaven is also the birthplace of Bryant Terry, pioneer of vegan soul food.

Still, despite the fond memories of my childhood it's not a part of town that I generally associate with wine. Poll a hundred random people in Memphis to come up with the name for a classy Sauvignon Blanc and nobody is going to answer "Whitehaven". But this is a damned good wine, and I'd encourage any current or former residents to try this out. And yes, a slightly crisp, full-fruit white wine like this will be an incredible pairing with many of the southern/soul food options available in the Whitehaven area.

* * *

As a followup to the Thanksgiving post last Monday, this wine was felt by many to be the best wine at the gathering. The above post was a test run about a week before the holiday to check it out. The other more serious wine served was the Höpler Grüner Veltliner, though I don't have pictures or detailed notes to go along with it. Suffice it to say that the Höpler is a great way to get into Austrian wine, and I've found that it is a delicious pairing with shellfish like seared scallops. I'll revisit it in a couple of weeks.

04 December 2009

Dirty Sue Martini Mix and the End of Prohibition

As far as I can recall, the Dirty Martini (a regular Martini with a dash of brine from the olive jar) is the first cocktail I ever had. I seem to remember someone pushing one in my hand when I was a bit short of my 21st birthday. It was on the rocks, a bit cloudy and salty. But hey, free Martini! My first legal Martini came later that year, with the release of a James Bond film and a bar within walking distance of the movie theater. That cocktail considerably improved the experience of Tomorrow Never Dies.

Some say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt toasted the end of Prohibition on December 5, 1933 with a Dirty Martini, his first legal drink in years. Some say it was just a Martini. It's hard to say for sure, but if you're interested in the topic you can read this article about FDR in Modern Drunkard Magazine, which contains quotes from the president's family and associates regarding his martini preferences.

Arguing about the specifics of cocktail history is usually a pointless endeavor, since so much of it has devolved into legend and myth. We have more hard data about the Roman Empire than we do about such topics as where and when the Martini was invented. While most of this hazy history has to do with the fact that few people at the time felt such topics were worth recording and publishing, let's be honest and point out that all of these crucial events occurred in bars with people who were drinking and decided to mix a few ingredients. A police officer often can't get a coherent story out of five guys about what happened at the bar 30 minutes ago; now try to pin down events of 100 years ago. (Wine history is much more solid due to property/tax/church/inheritance records.)

Back to the cocktail at hand... The essential problem of the Dirty Martini is that you'll run out of olive brine before you run out of olives. Recently I received a sample of Dirty Sue Martini Mix, a bottle of olive brine that makes it easier to make Dirty Martinis without leaving your poor olives high and dry. $6 for a 375mL bottle, and with the below recipe, you can get 17 drinks from one bottle, more if you lighten up on the olive juice.

Dale DeGroff's
Dirty Martini

2½ oz. Gin or Vodka
Dash of White Vermouth
¾ oz. Dirty Sue
Pitted olive, no pimento

Stir with ice and strain into a martini glass, garnish with the olive.

I tried it both with gin and vodka, and this is a rare time when I'll come out in favor of the vodka version. With gin there's just way too much fighting for your palate's attention.

Dirty Martinis are, by their very nature, more salty than a regular Martini. Thus, they're better suited to drinking on their own, perhaps slowly over an afternoon. (If you find it too salty, add an ice cube or two until the dilution softens the drink.) Cocktails often go well with the sort of salty appetizers and hand food of a party, but if your drink is already salty you're going to lose your desire for prosciutto and Kalamata olives and even certain cheeses.

Still, there are those times when I have a huge craving for olives, but don't have any in the house. Having a bottle of this on hand will be a great temporary substitute, and I know enough people that are crazy about Dirty Martinis that it will be great to take along to the next party. I also applaud the makers of Dirty Sue for using real olives in this product--so many bottled drink mixtures are nothing but corn syrup and citric acid with artificial coloring. This product is by no means a cheat, just a convenience. If you want a different twist on your Martini routine, grab a bottle of Dirty Sue in the store or via Amazon.com.

Saturday, raise a glass to the 76th Anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition. It doesn't even have to be anything with alcohol in it. Celebrate the freedom to choose.

Photo of FDR ©1937 Life Magazine. He's drinking wine, not a cocktail, but do you think you'll ever see a future photo of a sitting president (no pun intended) drinking and smoking?

Note: I received this bottle of olive juice as a sample. All other ingredients in the cocktail were my own.

02 December 2009

Egg Nog

Egg Nog wasn't a big part of my family Christmas tradition. Mom was more fond of Boiled Custard, Dad enjoyed the odd cup at a company Christmas party, and for some reason Egg Nog always tasted funny to me. When I purchased my first bottle of Bourbon in my early 20s, I tried spiking a bit of store-bought nog and was disappointed with the results.

But times and tastes change, and eventually I grew to love the nutmeg-scented holiday beverage even in its virgin, mass-produced, pasteurized form. Maybe a small dash of rum for fun, but part of me always felt like I was missing out on the real thing.

This winter, destiny came calling.

I received a pair of acrylic moose mugs, inspired by the glasses used in the holiday classic National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. These mugs hold 260mL of liquid, or a bit over one cup. They're packaged in individual boxes, so in theory you could repack them each year with the Christmas ornaments and other decorations. Frankly I'm going to be looking for excuses to use them year-round, such as any time I have Canadian beer in the house.

I've got lots of different glasses for various wines, beers, and cocktails, but now I've got the world's finest Egg Nog mugs. This demands a classic, made-from-scratch recipe. How about...

David Wondrich's Virginia Eggnog
from Esquire, adjusted to a third of the original quantity
serves 4

4 Eggs
4 TB Sugar
⅔ cup Cognac
⅓ cup Dark Rum
⅔ cup Milk
⅓ cup Cream

Follow the link for detailed preparation instructions, though it's more like making dessert than a regular cocktail. Absolutely nothing about this recipe is healthy, and if you're queasy about raw eggs, keep in mind that most aficionados recommend keeping the jar of nog sitting unrefrigerated in the pantry for weeks, or even years for the flavor to really develop. The substantial amount of alcohol (about ¼ cup per serving) works as a strong preservative.

I used Brandy and Bourbon in place of Cognac and Dark Rum, respectively. It's definitely the best Egg Nog I've ever had. It's got a lighter texture and more intense flavor than the store-bought variety, which some have compared to melted ice cream. If your guests aren't afraid of raw eggs, I'd highly recommend this recipe.

The mug performed admirably, and it's difficult not to grin like an idiot while drinking from it. Since the antlers are on both sides, it works for right- or left-handed people, though there's a natural inclination to grab both like a toddler.

P.S. The authentic glass moose mugs identical to those in the film can be purchased online from the original artist, but bear in mind they're $90 per glass with a two glass minimum order. The acrylic ones mentioned above and shown in the photo are $25 per mug.

Screenshot ©1989 Warner Bros. Pictures