29 September 2010

Dry-Aging Steak

Right off the bat I need to point out that this is not real dry aging. To do that properly you need a room that is at 50% humidity and is held just above freezing. Beef halves or primals are aged for weeks in such an environment, which promotes the growth of beneficial fungi, removes moisture from the meat, and intensifies the flavor. Then later on, the primals are trimmed and individual steaks are cut off and you buy them for $50-100 each at premium steakhouses.

There are ways to fake this at home with a single steak, though it works better with one steak that's big enough to feed two or three. You'll want to use a thick cut of meat, like a custom cut ribeye or sirloin. Or you can do what I did and pick up a clearance 1.5 lb. Porterhouse that's already beginning to brown a little. As soon as you get it home, dry it off with paper towels, place it on a rack over a plate or tray, and salt and pepper both sides. Chuck it in the fridge, uncovered, for an overnight rest. After only 18 hours you can already see that it is taking on the appearance of a dry-aged steak.

NOTE: If you have anything funky in your fridge, the steak will pick up those flavors. Likewise, your eggs, butter, and even ice cubes might take on a somewhat beefy aroma.

Before cooking, you'll want to put the rack/tray/steak combo in the freezer for about an hour. This is a tip from Cooks Illustrated, who suggest the technique for Argentine-style steak. This wicks away additional moisture, and keeping the center cold will help you produce a browned crust and a rare interior (i.e. maximum flavor).

Then let it warm up for another hour, heat up the oven to its lowest setting, and get a big skillet nice and hot. I used canola oil, but peanut oil or anything with a high smoke point will work. Once the skillet is hot, add a bit of oil, spread it around the pan, and toss in the steak. After a few minutes, remove the steak to the rack/tray and let the pan come back to temperature. Then sear the other side. You should get a rich brown crust, and you should start getting hungry. Slide the rack on top of the skillet, insert a probe thermometer, and then roast the steak as shown in the oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 50°C/125°F. When done, remove and allow to rest for ten minutes.

The joy of the Porterhouse is that you can carve off sections of filet or strip, and there are parts that are rare to medium depending on where you slice. Thus it's great for feeding a couple of people that have differing preferences. Here I've sliced off some portions of the strip--tender, buttery, unbelievably beefy, and oh so delicious. The previous photo shows the crust during resting, but this closeup of some slices shows how there's an even rare (not raw) consistency throughout the meat.

Is this method for everyone? Certainly not. There's a big difference between aged and rotten. You need the olfactory experience to tell the difference. Dry-aging beef or venison or even curing pork produces a range of savory, meaty aromas that can be off putting if you're used to the freshly butchered wet stuff. But there is a difference, and once you've come to enjoy it, it's hard to go back.

ADDENDUM: Paul ran a test for me with a ribeye and a digital scale. After patting it dry, the steak massed 215g. After 30 minutes in the freezer, it was 214g--practically no difference, except that he claimed a texture change from his normal method. I think the refrigerator helps, and Alton Brown has shown proof of that method in actual recorded moisture loss in his ribeye roast episode. I'll let America's Test Kitchen or Mythbusters hash this out in the future, but for now it's a fun new way for me to fix a steak, and I've been happy with the results. In a month I'll go back to the best method: spearing on a pitchfork and dipping in boiling oil.

27 September 2010

The Wine Fridge

When I was first getting interested in wine, I wanted a wine fridge, but couldn't afford one. Then I met people that had entire rooms devoted to climate-controlled aging of serious wine, and I thought the tiny wine fridge would be inadequate. When I could afford a wine fridge, I was concerned about the bottle capacity, as well as issues like vibration. After all, I had an old dorm fridge that was functional, but with a compressor that sounded like a paint mixer full of scrap metal. It would pre-scramble eggs. That dorm fridge sat on the back porch for years and was home to several generations of black widow spiders.

Noise, capacity, and black widows... These colored my thinking towards small refrigeration units, and I tended to warn my friends off them, saying, "For the inexpensive wine you're drinking, just keep it in a dark cool closet or an empty ice chest. That will prevent the temperature shifts that will damage your wine. Throw the wine in the big refrigerator when necessary before serving." And that's not bad advice, but I was missing a few potential applications.

The Air & Water AW210-ED arrived at the house for review. $219.99 from the website, 21 bottle capacity. There are two separate cooling zones, with the top holding six bottles and the bottom holding fifteen. (Note: In the pictures I have the unit set to Celsius, but it does Fahrenheit as well. My house and blog are metric first, imperial second.) It's a sleek black unit that uses blue LEDs with two internal blue LEDs that partially illuminate the bottles--not really enough to read labels, but they don't produce heat and are undeniably cool looking. I found that the unit was easy to assemble (just screw on the handles) and that it got down to the desired temperature within an hour. Opinions vary, but a good rule of thumb is 18°C/65°F for red wines and 13°C/55°F for white/rosé/sparkling wines. It gets down as low as 7°C/45°F if you prefer an even cooler temperature. The unit is completely silent--if it weren't for the LEDs you might wonder whether or not it's on at all, and there's no noticeable vibration. I touch it occasionally when I walk by it and never feel any humming or stirring, so I am confident that the wines are not being agitated. The unit is a bit less than one meter or yard tall, or approximately the height of a seated Labrador.

The uses I had not anticipated: For people that collect cases of wine for long term storage, this isn't your solution. It's really ideal for entertaining, in that you can keep a mixed group of perfectly matched wines in the small unit rather than your regular food refrigerator. Indeed, for a dinner party or wine tasting, you need all that space in the big fridge for food, platters, and whatnot. Having a small dedicated wine fridge in the corner or in an adjacent room is much more convenient. I also found that it was the perfect place to keep my vermouths--if you're not using them up within a couple of months, they really need to be refrigerated, but again there's a space issue. The wine fridge is the perfect place to keep items like Dry White Vermouth, Sweet Red Vermouth, Lillet Blanc, and similar cocktail ingredients that are not spirits and degrade more rapidly at room temperature. Consider similar applications for your Ports, Sherries, and other after-dinner beverages. I also think you could flip the shelves upside down and store a lot of high end beers. On a personal note, let's just say that hot sauces last a lot longer when refrigerated, but if the person you live with gets annoyed at 20 different little bottles rattling around the jelly and milk, dedicating a rack to your sauces can make life a lot easier.

Having used the unit for a week, I'm happy with how it works. It's quiet, it doesn't take up a lot of room, and until I physically had one in my hands I didn't realize how useful it could be. On top of all that I just have to say that it's neat to have sitting in the living room. It looks good, the temp readout gives it a groovy scientific vibe, and pulling a bottle out of it is far classier than with my old blue ice chest. Air & Water has a range of models in various sizes and price points. Take a look and see what fits your particular entertaining needs.

Note: This unit was received as a sample for review. No other compensation or commissions are involved.

24 September 2010

The Summer of Sauvignon Blanc

At the beginning of the summer, I received 20 Sauvignon Blancs as samples in the space of two weeks. It was somewhat overwhelming, and it was impossible to try a different grilled seafood/roasted chicken/salad/pasta course every night for 20 nights. So I don't have details on food here, but I'm sharing the abbreviated notes.

First up is the representative from Octavin... I like this packaging option and the idea of using established producers rather than just making random boxes of red/white/pink.

2009 Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand
$24/3 litre box, 13% abv

Overripe white raspberries, green apples, and pineapple. (Gooseberry is probably a more accurate representation, but I've never personally eaten one.) At colder temperatures the acidity flattens out, but as it warms up it becomes increasingly tart. Dry but very fruity. Definitely keep this in mind for a party or if you're making a big batch of tangy white Sangria.

2008 Brancott Letter Series 'B' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand
Organic, light citrus, classic. Elements of grapefruit with some stone and earthiness in there as it comes to room temperature. Brancott is one of the first Sauvignon Blancs I really noticed and loved, and they've been a reliable producer over the years. Throw this in the fridge and prepare a spicy seafood pasta dish, you'll love it.

And now here's a quick look at the Chilean wines from a Wines of Chile tasting earlier this summer. We tried eight but one was a damaged bottle, and thus not reviewed here. Over 50 bloggers participated in this tasting, which involved a live video feed, online chat, Twitter, and Facebook. There is a lot of material out there on this tasting, and if you need more details I'd recommend the outstanding writeup at Bottle Report.

2009 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc
$11, 13.5% abv
Grapefruit peel, tart acidity, slightly rough mouthfeel.

2009 Undurraga T.H. Sauvignon Blanc
$16, 13.5% abv
Overripe grapefruit, little herbal

2009 Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 13.5% abv
Organic, light, mild

2009 Cool Coast Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc
$23, 13.5% abv
Crisp and lemon curd

2009 Ventesquerio Sauvignon Blanc
$18, 13.5% abv
Mineral, grapefruit rind

2009 Valdivieso Sauvignon Blancc
$22, 14% abv
Big, round, and fruity, apricot, peaches, excellent.

2009 Medalla Real Sauvignon Blanc
$20, 13.5% abv
Great tart grapefruit, short finish, bitter finish

Note: These wines were received as samples.

22 September 2010

Forefront Wines

The line of Forefront Wines is made by the Andrus family from a number of regions throughout the west coast. Famous for their Pine Ridge winery in Napa, the Forefront wines explore some interesting blends. (Correction 02/15/11: The Forefront brand was produced by Pine Ridge Vineyards to pay tribute to the Andrus family; the original founders. The Andrus family did not have a hand in the wine making or brand production.)

2008 Forefront Cabernet Sauvignon
$24, 14.1% abv
The vineyard makeup is 84% Napa, 9% San Luis Obispo, 7% Lake Counties, while the grape proportions are 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 5% Syrah, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec, 1% Cabernet Franc.

It has nice blackberry aromas and flavors, though not overly jammy or fruit forward. Peppery undertone with a touch of chocolate, medium tannins, and a long black cherry finish. It is a rich and easy drinking Cabernet. I paired it with a steak (briefly air-dried in the freezer) and assorted vegetables, where it performed admirably.

The next day it was time to sample the 2009 Forefront Pinot Noir (not pictured on its own).
51% Santa Barbara, 41% San Luis Obispo, 8% Monterey Counties, all Pinot Noir.
$24, 14.5% abv.

At cellar temperature, it's soft with overripe strawberry aromas and flavors, short finish. As it warms, it becomes more tart and the tannins are more prevalent. There's a touch of brambles about it, but it's not heavy and provides a nice herbal undertone. I served it with grilled lamb.

I chose to serve the two white wines together with some seafood: fried grouper and stuffed quahog clams.

2009 Forefront Sauvignon Blanc
50% Sonoma, 32% Napa, 18% Mendocino, pure Sauvignon Blanc
$16, 13.5% abv

Tart with touches of grass and grapefruit, similar to a New Zealand style but not as acidic. Crisp and refreshing, and best at colder temperatures. Excellent match for the seafood, and better than hitting everything with a squeeze of lemon.

2009 Forefront Pinot Gris
Willamette Valley, Oregon
95% Pinot Gris, 5% Gewürztraminer
$16, 14.1% abv

I think this was my favorite out of all four wines. Smooth and well balanced, with a little green apple aroma and floral elements. Nice minerality and a short, clean finish. Great blend of round and tart, dry but just a hint of honey sweetness in the back. It was a lovely contemplative wine to enjoy both during and after dinner.

Note: These wines were received as samples from Forefront.

20 September 2010

Book Review: The Bartender's Best Friend

A friend recently asked me, "How many cocktail books do you really need?" Well, I've cleared out some space in the bookshelf, so I've got room for lots more. I have some that are focused on history, some that are full of classic recipes, and some that focus on new recipes. They are arranged chronologically, alphabetically, by theme, or by ingredient. But this is the first one I've received that is a comprehensive, dictionary-style listing of over 800 recipes.

The Bartender's Best Friend: A Complete Guide to Cocktails, Martinis, and Mixed Drinks by Mardee Haidin Regan ($20, 400 pages). Mardee and her husband Gary have written several books together and separately on the subjects of cocktails and spirits. They also have an online presence and regular newsletter through their site Ardent Spirits.

The book is a very sturdy paperback--the cover is thick, and extends beyond the edges of the paper. It's entirely printed in purple ink, although in most lower light conditions it looks black. Nice full-bleed index tabs on the edge that make it quick to go to a certain letter of the alphabet, and I'm always fond of reference books that include a ribbon to mark your place.

I really like the fact that, whenever possible, the mixologist or bar that originated the cocktail is given credit. You don't get pages of history on how the martini was developed (there are other books that go into that in great depth), but it's nice to see credit given where it is due. Other features include an extensive guide to bar equipment, ingredients, and managing a cocktail party. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, without a lot of extra rambling. Again, I find those stories interesting, but the goal here is to make the recipes quick and easy to find.

This guide also features recipes for all of the goofy, obscenely named cocktails that make sorority girls scream "WOOOOO!" I'm not offended by any of the names, obviously, but they're not really the kind of drinks that interest me. If you run a bar, at some point a crazy bachelorette party is going to come in and demand these, so it's useful to have a comprehensive reference source that includes them. In the same vein, dictionaries shouldn't exclude certain words just because eight year olds like to look them up and giggle.

Whenever I review a cocktail book, I like to make one of the drinks in the book, something I've never had before but that uses ingredients that I have on hand. The choice here was staggering, but I went with something simple.

Gin & It
3 oz. Gin
½ oz. Sweet Red Vermouth

Stir in a shaker with ice, and then strain into a cocktail glass. With a 6:1 ratio, this is dominated by the gin, but it's a nice alternative to a drier martini. Although this is perhaps one of the worst names ever for a cocktail (it's going to be mistaken for a million different things, and I think many accents would simply make it sound like you were asking for "Janet"), it is a 1950s classic and has a certain charm to it. Just like the gin and white vermouth martini, the ratio has varied throughout the years and among fans. I tried another Gin & It with a straight 1:1 ratio (the darker one on the left), and it was much smoother but with a nice bitter kick on the finish.

Note: This book was received as a sample from Wiley Publishing.

17 September 2010

2008 The Spanish Quarter

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits.

Yes folks, it's that time of year again when I get the itchy design bug and have to rework the site. This layout might change a bit over the next few days, but I'm digging the 50s/60s vibe and the color scheme makes me think of fall. Maybe it's the Mad Men influence, or perhaps fond memories of a former girlfriend who was crazy about argyle, but I'm happy with the general scheme. For those of you who came here for wine reviews, how about a fun one from Spain?

The 2008 The Spanish Quarter is made by the Cordoníu Group. $11, 13.6% abv. From the Costers del Segre DO in the Catalonian corner of northeast Spain. I couldn't find an official website. From a design standpoint, this bottle is mildly unique in that it features a label that wraps around the entire bottle, 360°, and that the title font uses the old Greek qoppa form for the letter Q.

This wine is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Tempranillo. You'd think with a name like "The Spanish Quarter" it would be perfect to do a 75%/25% blend. But I can't argue with the way the bottle turned out. Very smooth, nice balance, plum and black cherries, medium tannins, soft yet long and pleasant finish. It is not an overly complex wine, but for the price it is very agreeable, and as with many inexpensive Spanish wines it will pair well with a wide range of foods. Great deal, and in some places it goes for under $10.

15 September 2010

Stone Double Bastard

I had a bunch of frozen cod on hand, Paul had some beer and fresh vegetables, and it was a good excuse to slap something together for dinner in between a double feature of the two Grindhouse films, Planet Terror and Death Proof. For the record, I prefer the latter of the two, though both have their charms.

I made a simple beer batter with the classic Newcastle Brown Ale, often the first darker brew that people try. Folks get scared of Guinness, but can slide into the world of stouts and heavier beers with the nutty and mild Newcastle. The batter was seasoned with a little Old Bay, and I used a fork to drip in some additional batter for "crunchies", those little fried bits that are so tasty with fish. A little homemade tarter sauce (mayo + relish + Dijon + Worcestershire + cayenne), the aforementioned steamed vegetables... tasty and simple dinner.

For the after dinner portion of the evening, but before Scotch and cigars, I brought along a bottle of the 2008 Stone Double Bastard. $10/22 oz., 10.5% abv. This is classified as a strong American ale, and is a heartier variation of the popular Arrogant Bastard Ale.

Rich with orange and cloves on top, but with a deep bitter finish. Seriously bitter finish--double brew some espresso and then cook it down to a thick syrup and you've got the idea. This is a powerful and complex beer, with elements of tea, citrus peel, spices, and a great copper red color. Plus, I can't stress how much I loved the strong bitterness.

This is a limited release that comes out each November in both the 22 oz. bomber and a 3 litre bottle, and anything this hoppy can probably be aged for a couple of years.

13 September 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Other Four

As far as I can tell, there are no classic or legendary cocktails named after Memphis. Aside from a few novelties that have shown up in various databases, I haven't uncovered anything serious or notable bearing the name of our fair city. By contrast, there are separate cocktails bearing the names of New York's five boroughs. The Manhattan is perhaps the most famous and most enduring, and has become a favorite of mine over the past few years. But what of the other four?

The Queens Cocktail is a perfect martini with pineapple (perfect meaning equal parts red and white vermouth).

The Queens Cocktail
1½ oz. Gin
½ oz. Sweet Red Vermouth
½ oz. White Vermouth
1 Ring of Pineapple

If you're using canned pineapple, stick to the stuff packed in juice, not syrup. Or to make it faster and easier, consider substituting half an ounce of pineapple juice instead of working with the fruit. Muddle the pineapple in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the remaining ingredients, add ice, and shake and strain into a martini glass.

As I said, this is basically a martini, but the sweetness and fruit juice give it a softer edge, and it's better suited to hotter weather.

The Bronx Cocktail is similar to The Queens in that it is a modified perfect martini, but with a bigger portion of fruit juice. According to some sources, if you add Angostura bitters this becomes an Income Tax Cocktail, though like most recipes from the turn of the last century there are many variations.

The Bronx Cocktail
2 oz. Gin
1 oz. Orange Juice
½ oz. Sweet Red Vermouth
½ oz. Dry White Vermouth

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass.

You get the impression that this was a morning eye-opener for folks in the pre-Prohibition era, a beverage that, like the Bloody Mary, could be rationalized as part of a healthy breakfast. It's actually softer and better balanced than a Screwdriver, even though the gin and vermouths add so many other elements to the drink.

I had a weird experience with the Staten Island Ferry. The drink, not the water transport. For the latter, my grandfather has pictures from a Navy shore leave circa 1946 where he and a buddy are hanging out with a couple of young women from Staten Island. He pointed out that only because the ladies gave them fake phone numbers would he later meet my grandmother, eventually leading to my birth 30 years later. So, er, thanks Staten Island gals!

In my own odd story, a girlfriend who didn't drink much tried to order a cocktail in a bar in Dallas. She told the bartender that it was made up of Midori melon liqueur and Kahlua. He politely suggested that wouldn't work well, and she and went through a few other iterations before eventually remembering that the combination she was thinking of was coconut rum and pineapple juice. Without further ado...

The Staten Island Ferry
1 oz. Coconut Rum
1 oz. Pineapple Juice

Combine in a highball glass with ice, and serve. It is precisely what it looks like: a quick shooter that is a lazy variation on the Piña Colada. Too sweet for my tastes, and also a much newer entry to the cocktail world. (The other three recipes shown here have been around since around the Prohibition era.) But there are a lot of people who would really enjoy this.

I saved my favorite for last. The Brooklyn Cocktail is a clever, delicious, and classy variation on the Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Cocktail
1½ oz. Rye Whiskey or Bourbon
½ oz. Dry White Vermouth
¼ oz. Maraschino Liqueur
¼ oz. Amer Picon

What's Amer Picon? It's a form of bitters from France. It's fairly obscure these days, so I substituted Averna Amaro. Combine everything in a shaker with ice, shake, strain into a martini glass and serve.

The baseline of this cocktail is very much like the Manhattan, but on top of that you get all the nice herbal notes from the bitters and the nutty, cherry flavors from the Maraschino.

10 September 2010

2010 Jacob's Creek Moscato

Recently fellow wineblogger Kimberly and I wrote back and forth about the idea of "gateway wines": easy, inexpensive, non-threatening bottles that are a good way to introduce people to the world of wine, like Vinho Verde and Brachetto d'Acqui. The names may look odd at first, but they're much better starter wines than White Zinfandel.

One of my first "wow!" moments with wine came on board a KLM flight over the Atlantic. I was 20, but crossing international waters, on a Dutch plane... nobody asked for ID. With the cheese course after dinner, a gorgeous flight attendant introduced me to this slightly fizzy Italian wine called Moscato d'Asti. The golden shade of straw in sunlight, sweet, bubbly, a little tart but a pure joy--I was in love. The wine was pretty good too.

A few months later, when I was of legal age in the States, I introduced a few friends to the wine and successfully deployed it on a couple of dates (perfect with brie and strawberries after midnight, for any fellow bachelors reading). It was an instant crowd pleaser, and for people that weren't crazy about wine to begin with, something that was a little sweet, low on alcohol, but actually produced with quality in mind was a positive experience.

Alas, times and tastes change, and aside from sporadic encounters at a wine tasting or two, I mostly forgot about that wine.

This selection isn't from Italy, but Jacob's Creek in Australia is introducing a wine made in the same style as the Moscato d'Asti. The 2010 Jacob's Creek Moscato is only $7, clocks in at a mere 8% abv, and has a convenient screwcap. Party and wedding planners, take note. There's a dominant nose of peach nectar and pineapple with matching flavors. Tart, light frizzante bubbles, medium sweet with good acidity to keep it from being cloying. Overall pretty well balanced, and a great bargain.

The press release came with some cocktail ideas, but I threw together one of my own, pictured on the left side of the photo.

Benito's Moscato Refresher
2 oz. Gin
1 oz. Orange Juice
6 Fresh Raspberries
Moscato to cover

Muddle the raspberries in the bottom of a glass. Add ice, and then add the gin and orange juice. Stir thoroughly, then pour in Moscato to fill the glass. Stir briefly just to combine the ingredients and serve. It's a refreshing punch-like beverage that's quick to make, tastes great, and doesn't rely on exotic ingredients. Don't want to mess with the fresh raspberries? Cheat and use a little melted sorbet.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

08 September 2010

The Austrian Duet

When Constance e-mailed me about some Austrian wines from Monika Caha Selections, she said she had a "Grooner and a Zvy-gelt". That was odd, I thought--I knew she'd been over there recently and I can get by in Deutsch (even if it isn't meine Muttersprache), but I was happy to try the wines despite the English phonetic spelling. And then a few days later I received screwcap-enclosed bottles labeled Grooner and Zvy-gelt. Well I'll be a monkey's uncle!

I've spoken many times in favor of simpler German and Austrian labels. I think the Austrians are doing a better job of it from what I've seen, but they're also viewed as a newer entry to the American market and have less of an established fan base to deal with. With simple, pop art-inspired labels, anyone should be able to ask for these wines easily, even if they know nothing about the Niederösterreich appellation in Lower Austria, home to both.

I really wanted to enjoy these wines with food, and so recruited Lady A and Paul as dinner companions. For the first course, I made blackened cod with steamed asparagus and Hollandaise sauce. Hollandaise is one of those things that is completely pointless to make just for yourself, but for a group of people you can put a lot of smiles around the table. I used some of the Grüner Veltliner and lime juice in the sauce.

Speaking of which, we obviously paired this with the white: 2009 Grooner, $10, 12% abv. 100% Grüner Veltliner. It's light with a lemon and green apple aroma. Crisp with tart acidity, but not too strong. It rounds out somewhat as it warms up. Outstanding match for seafood--I have a lot of Austrian trout recipes, but I had cod on hand and was anxious to cook it. It was a bit salty with the blackening spices, but delicious regardless.

For the second course, I did something closer to Austrian cuisine. I coated a pork tenderloin with a mix of soy sauce, Dijon Mustard, and honey, and roasted it to a perfect medium, with just a touch of pink in the center. Slices were placed atop a mixture that had been braising for an hour: purple cabbage, red onion, and Jazz apples, with a bit of butter and a dash of red wine vinegar. I didn't overcook it, so the cabbage was still a bit crisp and the flavors of the ingredients were still distinguishable.

Here we opened the 2008 Zvy-Gelt. $11, 13.5% abv. 100% Zweigelt. I will quibble ever so slightly with the pronunciation here, since the German z is a sort of ts sound that takes some practice, especially at the beginning of a word. But no matter. This is a light and refreshing red wine, comparable in character to a Cru Beaujolais. Very mild cherry, soft and smooth with practically no tannins. Subtle spice and toast elements as well. Had I known it would be so gentle, I would have left out the vinegar from the cabbage and dialed back the spices a bit. The food didn't overpower the wine, but I was expecting something much stronger. As it was, the Zweigelt was a pleasant surprise and I was happy to add another grape to my list.

For dessert the always charming Lady A brought along a tasty carrot cake (Karottenkuchen) from Fresh Market with amazing icing. Usually it's just cream cheese, but I swear this had some sour cream or crème fraiche in it. Either way, it was rich, moist, and the perfect cap for the dinner.

Note: This wine was received as a sample, and the shipment included some lovely autumn-patterned table napkins that will show up in a future post.

06 September 2010

2008 Terranoble Gran Reserva Carménère

As a followup to Friday's review, here's another Chilean red wine I had the chance to try recently. The 2008 Terranoble Gran Reserva Carménère comes from the Maule Valley. $14, 14% abv. 96% Carménère, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon.

I like Carménère, but my favorite wines from the grape have been more blended. I was expecting some big green pepper aromas, but this wine surprised me with its complexity. Rich dark chocolate and cassis notes. Mild elements of eucalyptus and brambles. Medium tannins, and unlike many red wines in its price range, this is ready to drink straight when poured and doesn't require breathing to knock off the rough edges. (Though as with any red wine, it does get softer with time.)

The wine was served with steak, and then a day later with roasted pork. It's full bodied enough to stand up to strongly flavored sauces and ingredients on the plate, but it's also mellow enough to be enjoyed as a slow sipper after dinner.

Note: I received this wine as a sample.

03 September 2010

2008 Root: 1 Cabernet Sauvignon

How about a bold and fruity Chilean red now that things are cooling off a little?

This is the 2008 Root: 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, $14, 14% abv. 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah. Produced by Viña Ventisquero in the Colchagua Valley of Chile.

Initial strong cherry pie aroma, which mellows into a slightly jammy black cherry. There's a touch of tobacco and hay, with big, firm tannins. There's a tart finish that is very long lasting.

The subtitle for this wine is "The Original Ungrafted". This is a reference to the fact that these grapes came from ungrafted vines--while vineyards around the world were nearly destroyed from phylloxera, Chile remained unaffected. Phylloxera is a tiny aphid-like insect that attacks grapevine roots. Native to North America, it was introduced to Europe by mistake and nearly destroyed that continent's wine industry in the mid-1800s. The solution was to take native American rootstock (which is resistant to the bug) and graft European vines on top. Similar methods are used with fruit trees around the world, and if you want to get crazy you can grow 81 citrus varieties on one tree.

This particular wine isn't unique among Chilean wines for being ungrafted, but it does draw attention to the distinction.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

01 September 2010


Last year three people opened a casual restaurant here in Memphis: a local, a Californian, and a South African. Called Humdingers, the first location at Poplar and Massey specializes in healthy grilled fish and chicken, with a series of sauces and seasonings built on the southern African piri-piri pepper. In a land of fried chicken and catfish, lots of people praised the restaurant's fresh, light approach. While I'd heard good things about it, I didn't actually get out to the restaurant.

This summer, a second location opened up within walking distance here in Cordova, so I had to give it a try. I strode up to the counter and said, "Goeie middag! Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie..." Just kidding. It's the kind of place where you order at the counter and they bring the food out to your table, but there's real plates, silverware, they serve wine, etc. I elected for takeout, and got the sampler of tacos (grilled shrimp, fish, and chicken) with a side of corn and black bean salsa.

As you can see, the tacos are not topped with the Tex-Mex staples of lettuce and cheese. There's a sort of Asian slaw made with shredded cabbage, carrots, and a dash of creamy "Humdingers" sauce. I brought home the three piri-piri sauces (there is a fourth lemon pepper sauce I skipped). They are mild, medium, and hot, though all three are intensely spicy and flavorful, somewhere between a BBQ sauce and standard hot sauce in texture and complexity. The spice burst you get (again, I'm talking flavor, not heat) is similar to various south Indian sauces, so if you're not used to that kind of taste bud explosion start easy with the mild, and just try a bit. As for me, I'd like to have a few bottles around the house to slather on everything.

Among the various tacos, the shrimp is best, followed by the chicken and then the fish. Nothing's wrong with the fish, but I felt the spices worked best with the first two. Most importantly, nothing was overcooked or rubbery--perfectly cooked and tender for all three. The rest of the menu includes various grilled fish and chicken entrées, paired with fresh fruits, grilled vegetables, rice, and other healthy but tasty sides. I think what I like about the place is that it's not tied to a specific culinary tradition, nor is it just a trendy fusion place. They're simply taking quality, fresh ingredients, and combining them in delicious ways. Which is how I think a lot of food enthusiasts are approaching their home cooking these days. Does something simple like grilled zucchini really need to be pigeonholed? Does it become Indian if you dash garam masala over it, or Asian if you splash it with soy sauce, or Italian if you drizzle oil and vinegar? Who cares as long as it tastes good.

P.S. I did not get a look at the wines available, but if you're doing takeout, I'd suggest a well-chilled South African Steen (Chenin Blanc) for most of these dishes. Not just because of the connection with the piri-piri, but also because the fruit and minerality will stand up well with this type of cooking.