30 March 2012

Spring Cleaning

Lately I've been spending some afternoons in the backyard, enjoying the last cool afternoons before our dear River City turns into a sweaty, mosquito-infested furnace. The blue jays are getting territorial, there's a massive raccoon that crawls along the neighbor's fence, and I train the Nikon on a spot of daisy fleabane that seemingly popped up overnight. I assume that means it's time to break out the weed eater and lawn mower and begin grooming the grounds on a weekly basis.

This also means that it's time for spring cleaning at Casa de Benito as well as on the blog. Today I went through the links at the left, and thankfully, I only had to remove a couple of sites. I normally only remove a site when it hasn't updated for more than six months or has been turned into an Amway site or something more serious, like using a font that annoys me. Next up is scrubbing the list from Winebloggers In The South. I haven't found that many new sites recently, but I haven't been looking as hard. I'm certainly still interested, so if you're a... wineblogger in the south... feel free to let me know.

I'm not going to go back through all of my posts on this blog and update the links. There's a lot of dead ones back there, but some wineries change their website structure frequently, some have gone out of business or have been purchased by other companies or have other complications. In other instances I've linked to a recipe or a website that no longer exists. It happens, and if such a link is crucial to your particular needs, copy said link and learn how to use the Wayback Machine.

I've got some other fun backend stuff to deal with this weekend. There's some spaghetti code that needs to be cleaned up, I need to take a look at everything and see if I want to keep the same general layout, go with one of the new Blogger templates, or start learning how to utilize the power of HTML5 to make this site a more pleasant reading experience on everything from iPhones to massive widescreen monitors. So there might be a few coding glitches here and there, but at the end of spring cleaning we'll all be far happier.

28 March 2012

2007 Argiolas Costera

I'm fascinated by the wines of Mediterranean islands, and one of these days I'll rent a boat so I can wander around and sip from Balearic and Maltese and Cypriot bottles*, but for now I'm revisiting a Sardinian wine I first tried in 2008.

2007 Argiolas Costera
Serdiana Cagliari, Sardinia
92% Cannonau, 8% Carignano and Bovale Sardo
$20, 14% abv.

Lots of bright red cherry, good acidity, a brief finish and a spicy aftertaste. Little touches of fig and prune after it's had a chance to breathe for a few hours. I decided to serve the wine with a few odds and ends that don't really make a lot of sense together, but tasted amazing. There's slow-cooked and wilted red Swiss chard, tiny purple potatoes, a few slices from a roasted pink and rare T-bone, and a dollop of orange-tinted chipotle aïoli. It was a rather chromatic dinner, and not just because the addition of some pepper vinegar made the greens a little sharp.

The photo does not do it justice, but it was an amazing meal full of vibrant colors, flavors, and loads of vitamins. At some point you look at a plate of steamed chicken breast and white mashed potatoes and think, "Life's too short for this."

The flag of Sardigna/Sardegna features the classic heraldic Maure or Moor's head, which over the years has faced both directions and has sometimes been blindfolded instead of bandaged. Why do I use the flag of Sardinia instead of Italy?

For the blog's style guide, I use different flags for the various American states of the Union. For foreign countries, I use the most up-to-date internationally recognized version of the flag. For contested regions like Kashmir or Nagorno-Karabakh, I'd probably just skip the flags to avoid the hate mail associated with trying to say something nice about the local cuisine while showing, for the reader, the wrong flag.

I will not use soccer/football flags ever.

Europe presents an interesting quandary. Italy and Germany really weren't solidified countries until the 1800s, rather a collection of duchies, principalities, kingdoms, republics, city-states, and various other geopolitical formations. And I can't really write about Scotch while electronically flying the Union Flag (not the Union Jack), so I amended the house style to allow for some different regions. In the past I've used the flag of Sicily, and my reasoning for Sardinia is the same: islands that have a lot of unique history and identity outside of the parent country. I'm thinking that in the future I'll break out Alsace separately with its own flag. Not for any political or historical reasons, but more that when it comes to wine and food it's not quite France, not quite Germany, but it's own wonderful place.

At the end of the day, as writer, editor, photographer, graphic designer, and publisher of this blog, I can engage an interest in vexillology to the degree that it does not alienate readers. And as long as it's consistent, I'm happy with the little additions to the wine/food posts.

*This sailing fantasy is going to involve an eyepatch and a truly fearsome red beard. However, I shall sail under the flag of The Conch Republic and offer key lime daiquiris to all friendly visitors and blunderbusses to those who try to board without permission. If the day to day maintenance of my vessel becomes too much, then I'll send my wharfies into Cannes to press-gang a few drunken celebrities thinking they're going to enjoy a party on a yacht. Arrrr!

26 March 2012

Stetson Salad & Grauer Burgunder

I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw that a friend named Juli Eck (who graciously invited me to a private wine tasting a while back) had posted a photo of something called a Stetson salad. It looked good even though I had no idea what was in it. It was obviously something like the famous Cobb salad, in which the ingredients are laid in stripes. The idea is that the waiter tosses the salad tableside and serves portions to each diner, but that's rare these days, and the salad plates aren't big enough for proper tossing, so you see people just eating the salad with an attitude of "Oh, here's a bit of avocado, next I get to try some bacon! Can't possibly try them at the same time..."

The Stetson salad comes from Cowboy Ciao, a Scottsdale, Arizona restaurant with an eclectic, creative menu. The salad appears to be their best-known dish and is no doubt widely imitated around the country by other restaurants, dinner party hostesses, and humble wine bloggers. I've never been to the restaurant but the menu looks solid, and the wine list weighs in at a hefty 94 pages with 3,200 different wines.

There's no bed of lettuce here, and I've seen variations that call for putting the whole mess on a bed of quinoa. There are many recipes, and the one I used seemed to be closest to the actual restaurant photos. My only substitution was the use of fresh corn kernels instead of dried kernels (not like popcorn, but more like dried green peas or other healthy snacks). I couldn't find dried corn, but I think outside of additional crunch I wasn't missing too much. If you're making this for a lot of people, put it all on a big platter, mix, and then serve. If you're dealing with multiple people who dislike or are allergic to one ingredient (but of course, it will never be the same ingredient), lay out the elements and let them build their own. I made mine with everything.

Here you have diced tomatoes, corn kernels, toasted pumpkinseeds mixed with dried currants (most recipes seem to leave out this step), arugula, Israeli couscous (I made mine with garlic and chopped shallots and chicken stock), and the final touch--smoked salmon.

But wait, there's dressing.

(Let me step aside for a moment and say that, as much as I love this salad and as delicious as it is, it's a lot of work and requires a lot of ingredients. So you either want to make this for a lot of people or be prepared to have variations of it for days afterward.)

In accordance with the dressing recipe I made a batch of aïoli and mixed it with diced shallots, buttermilk, and basil pesto (I just used jarred pesto, there were only so many things I could make from scratch before noon). Mix everything together and pour over the salad, and then take a fork and spoon and gently toss everything together. Unlike many of the creamy salads that sit in the deli counter for hours, this remains really fresh with easily distinguishable flavors and textures. And what a combination! No one element overpowers the other, and it really stands as a meal on its own. I'd intended for it to be a first course, but after an initial round of cheese and olives, the salad completely filled all three of us.

2009 Graf v. Schönborn Grauer Burgunder Spätlese Trocken
Franken (Franconia)
13% abv.
Pinot Gris

I couldn't wait too long to try this mysterious bottle from Wines of Germany. It's from the Schloss Hallburg in the Franken region northwest of Bavaria, and no, I don't know how much it costs. I don't even know if it's available in the US. I've seen prices from €16 to $45, so take from that what you will.

The vineyard is owned by the Schönborn family, an noble line that goes back to the 12th century and includes a lot of Catholic prelates, including the current Archbishop of Vienna. The Baroque castle Schloss Weißenstein in Pommersfelden was built for Prince-Bishop Lothar Franz von Schönborn in the early 1700s. The family formally registered their wine business back in 1349 and it is currently managed by S. E. Paul Graf von Schönborn, who studied banking in the United States.

It's a bronze-tinged late harvest Pinot Gris with lovely floral aromas like jasmine and white rose. Good acidity with just a touch of sweetness and a light apple flavor like a Golden Delicious. It has a firm, rich body and substantial weight . It worked well with the salad, but this is such a unique experience that I'd suggest enjoying it on its own with light appetizers of German cheeses and white sausages and a few fellow wine enthusiasts.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

23 March 2012

Betty's Spaghetti with the Freakshow

I've eaten many odd things in my lifetime, but despite the two commonplace primary ingredients, I'd never even heard of "spaghetti and cottage cheese" until recently. I have no animosity toward the concept, and I love both parts of the simple recipe. But it's not something I'd ever contemplated, and I decided to research the dish. I discovered that there was a bit more depth...

The great Thomas Keller of The French Laundry (and consultant to the best food movie ever, Ratatouille) has said that his earliest flavor memory is his mom's spaghetti with cottage cheese and caramelized onions. He updated the recipe with ricotta and a few other flourishes, with the full recipe published in Saveur magazine.

At right is my attempt at "Betty's Spaghetti". I followed the recipe strictly (something I almost never do) and not only was it amazing, but there were little touches that made the whole experience so much better. Fried shallot rings are a classic Keller touch, and stupidly easy to make. I like to throw them on salads or on top of soup every now and then. The blanched parsley stalks give a nice little lemon/green/bright note to the otherwise buttery/salty/savory pasta. OK, so I didn't have any cilantro shoots around but minced some of the flat leaf parsley for garnish and additional flavor.

This is really, really good, and while you'll see visible grains of milk curd on the noodles, it all tastes wonderful, like the way they would serve macaroni and cheese in heaven. While reading about the recipe, I wanted to pair it with a substantial white, but was intrigued by the red suggestion. It turns out that the caramelized shallots are the primary flavor driver of the dish and a decent red is necessary. Here's what I served:

2009 Michael David "Freakshow" Cabernet Sauvignon
Lodi, California
$20, 14.5% abv.

There's a splash of Petit Sirah in this wine, which is always a good thing in my book. Black currant and blackberry, with notes of cedar, spice, and black pepper. Mild tannins with a prominent dark fruit character. Mellow but long finish, and really right at the perfect age to drink. Like a lot of the Michael David wines, this is fun and has quirky branding, but most importantly is affordable and food-friendly. This is a great weekend BBQ wine if you have the sort of gatherings where people are melting Roquefort onto lamb burgers and there's a kettle of choucroute garnie simmering away. And that's not snobbish or ostentatious--lots of my fellow backyard grillers are upping their game these days.

In the third part of this post, I will focus on the label, which covers a subject near and dear to my heart: sideshow performers. Personally I don't use the term "freak", but it is the historical classification for the late 19th century, first half of the 20th century art centered around people with noticeable physical disabilities who were involved in the circus industry. A good book on the subject is Frederick Dimmer's Very Special People, giving the human stories behind people viewed as monsters. Though the sideshow has been replaced by voluntary oddities (people who pierce themselves or otherwise do painful/awkward things), there was something fascinating about that era. People who otherwise would have been locked away in an attic or shunned in small towns got to perform before European royalty, travel all over the United States, and in the off hours, laugh at the real freaks who'd pony up a few bits to stare at them.

(While I'm sharing odd circus trivia, it's worth noting that a lot of the classic sideshow performers retired to the carny winter home Gibsonton, Florida, Don't believe me? Here's a ten minute video segment on the town.)

Lots of real sideshow performers are featured on the full wraparound label. I see dear old Фёдор Евтищев, also known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. On the back you've got the 8'3" Canadian giant Edouard Beaupré, the conjoined twins Daisy & Violet Hilton (who appeared in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks), plus so many others from photographs and illustrated posters and postcards and other ephemera associated with the era.

Why the fascination with the subject? It's not exploitative. I don't stop and gawk at people who are somewhat outside of the norm. I'm very happy that medical science has progressed to the point that many of these painful conditions can be prevented or treated, and that society as a whole is much more accepting of the differently abled. There were bad things that happened during the whole sideshow era, yet from an anthropological standpoint it is so interesting to read the stories and hear the oral histories of these performers who were able to find a very particular job when no one else would hire them, and to read about the relationships that they formed between one another.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

21 March 2012

My Favorite Wine

My least favorite wine question is "What is your favorite wine?" It's an honest and friendly question from someone that doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the subject and I usually answer with a rambling mishmash of "Well, it depends a lot on the weather and the food I'm eating. Wines I love with beef in the winter are terrible with shellfish in the summer." At that point I can usually steer the conversation into something more fun, like pairing popcorn with Champagne.

My real, honest answer is more philosophical and more complicated, better suited to a one-on-one situation free of distractions rather than small talk at a noisy and crowded gathering.

Right now my absolute favorite wine is this 2009 Graf v. Schönborn Grauer Burgunder. What makes it so special? I haven't opened it yet. I have no idea how it tastes, and I'm not even going to review it for this post. Maybe in a week or two after it's had a chance to rest and I've figured out a good meal to go with it.

I've never had a German Pinot Gris before, and I'm intrigued to try the wine of a German aristocratic family that goes back to the 12th century. But a few years ago, my favorite wine was made from dandelions in central Ohio by very poor Amish farmers.

Simply put, my favorite wine is the next bottle, the next interesting grape, the next fascinating story. It's not that I don't appreciate all of the amazing wines I've tried in the past, and I've been let down by wines that I was very excited to try. But no wine will ever be as thrilling as that next mystery waiting to be sampled and studied and recorded.

19 March 2012

St. Patrick's Day Lunch

I've never really celebrated St. Patrick's Day other than the obligatory wearing of green to avoid getting pinched, but that's more of a good touch/bad touch issue than ethnic pride. Out of respect for the history of brewing I've never touched green beer, out of general self respect I've never dressed as a leprechaun, and because I want to respect myself in the morning I don't go to places like Hjálmar McGillicutty's Norwegian-Irish Chucklehut for loud singing and happy hour half price Irish nachos (made with potato chips instead of tortilla chips).

I was in the mood for cooking something different (I'm trying to exercise the culinary muscles these days), and as it had been so long since my last foray into the cuisine of the British Isles, I decided to make an Irish meal for Saturday lunch. I started, of course, with a very Irish appetizer: various American cheeses like hard aged cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto, California and Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont.

The blue cheese was soft and tangy, but I loved the aged cheddar, with lots of crunchy tyrosine crystals. Rich and nutty and such a wonderful mouthfeel. And I had some naturally bright green Castelvetrano olives from Sicily, because I thought the table did need a little hint of holiday color. These are delicious olives, and are apparently quite trendy these days. A little salty, a little sweet, a little savory, and so cheerfully colored that you'll forget the fact that you used to own a jar of model airplane paint called olive drab.

OK, nothing Irish about any of that, but lately I've really been digging a nice round of cheese and olives with a martini before dinner. It is far from an original concept but it's often easy to neglect the classics in a rush to plop down an aluminum tray of frozen grocery store lasagna on the table.

Earlier on Friday night I made a simple lamb stew with a pound of shoulder, bacon, a can of Guinness Draught, some beef stock, onions, and a few other odds and ends. A few hours of braising and then I let it all cool and rest in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning I removed the rendered and solidified pork/lamb fat and slowly reheated the remainder. Fortunately these cuts of shoulder had nice thick marrow pieces, which I made sure to distribute throughout the sauce as it reduced.

In the morning I made colcannon, a simple dish of potatoes and cabbage. The more complicated part was making boxty, a class of potato pancakes that come in various forms from latkes to crepes. I decided to go the crepe route, stuffed with the stewed lamb and topped with a little sour cream. The boxty took forever to cook. Each pancake took a good 20 minutes, and I started getting annoyed at the whole process. I was successful, but it was much harder than making crepes or fresh tortillas, and the final product wasn't as flexible as any of the various wrapper flatbreads of the world. This is perhaps entirely due to my inexperience with a potato-based flexible wrapper, but frankly I'd prefer lavash or mu shu or blinis or injera over this particular form.

I grated a little green apple into the batter, and despite the difficulty (I only made four pancakes in the 80 minutes of griddle time), the combination of the potatoes, eggs, apple, lamb, and sour cream was really wonderful and filling. Washing it all down with cold and smooth dark beer was fun as well, and I was finally able to relax after hours of cooking and ponder the question of overthinking the peasant fare that I adore. Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It probably would have been a better idea to do the simpler latke-style boxty with a combination of mashed and grated potato, and I still could have topped it with lamb stew and cream and even a decorative garnish of microgreens that looked like tiny shamrocks, but it wouldn't have taken anywhere near as long.

But at the end of the day, I had a great meal, good company, delicious beer, and didn't have to wade through a horde of idiots wearing "KISS ME--I'M IRISH!" buttons. Instead, it was a quiet meal between a Scots Presbyterian (yours truly) and a redheaded Irish Catholic (Julia) that didn't involve warfare, internecine domestic violence, or the mediation of Bill Clinton on the public stage. Rather, I think that the Irish and most folks around the world would prefer a gentle and respectful celebration of their holidays by non-residents, and I hope that I have done so in this post.

16 March 2012

Fee Bros. Gin Barrel-Aged Orange Bitters

Not that long ago, I knew nothing about bitters aside from having seen yellow-capped bottles of Angostura from time to time and hearing something about it on Lynn Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table in the late 90s. Now I get obscure bitters delivered right to my front door.

Ellen Fee and the other folks at Fee Brothers have been good to me over the years, allowing me to try some special bitters after I fell in love with their collection. The grapefruit bitters are getting low, while the rhubarb bottle is still pretty full. But I love breaking them out for friends and family to sniff or sample in a cocktail.

You probably won't get to try this latest concoction, as only four barrels were made. Why such a small batch? Well, it's a test idea that Ellen had, and the recipe requires aging in barrels that previously held Old Tom Gin. Gin is not typically aged in wood but in skilled hands it can produce a fascinating liquor. Old Tom Gin is a lightly sweetened style that was popular in England in the 1700s and is mostly a curiosity these days.

Fee Bros. Gin Barrel-Aged Orange Bitters
Rochester, New York
5 oz.

It includes gentian and "oil of bitter orange terpeneless", which means that a certain class of organic compounds produced by certain plants (it's where we get the word turpentine) have been removed. but let's get away from chemistry (which plays a very important role in bitters production) and move on to aroma. Most orange bitters have a pretty bright and citric character, along with whatever herbs and spices were included to enhance the flavor. This is different, and the best way I could describe it is by eating orange-scented cookies around Christmas. It's a mellower, cooked orange aroma, with dark spices and juniper and all of the interesting elements leached from whatever gin was used to produce this. Slight caramelized aroma, and you'll be reminded of herbal tea.

I tried it with the pretty basic New Amsterdam gin, which is the house gin of Casa de Benito and one that is smooth but not heavily flavored in any particular direction. When combined with the Old Tom bitters, it was suddenly a much better gin. I will experiment with cocktails further, but the idea of a "gin booster" is a fascinating one and I'd like to surprise a few friends with a blind tasting.

Note: This bottle was received as a sample.

14 March 2012

The Beauty Shop Lunch

A few weeks ago I took Julia to The Beauty Shop, an interesting little restaurant in the Cooper-Young district of Memphis. It's a converted hair salon that still has the hairwashing sinks behind the bar and you can sit under the old hairdryers in the back. I like it because of the great cocktails and eclectic, constantly changing menu. Plus, it's really fun to take someone there for the first time, and we had a great little lunch. The following weekend I decided to recreate it at home. Anything you see here is the creativity of the Beauty Shop staff, and any flaws in the execution are my own fault. I take no credit here beyond the fact that a particular joy of cooking is the ability to have a great meal and then pull it off with your own kitchen.

First up: the appetizers with assorted cheeses, olives, marinated mushrooms, and some other neat things. They had a nut-brown sugar-butter spread that was delicious, and a dish of canned cherries that had been reduced down with balsamic vinegar. I did a decent job with the spread using walnuts, and found that sea salt was crucial to bringing out the flavor. My cherries were not pretty to begin with, but flavorwise I got pretty close with a slow reduction using both balsamic and red wine vinegar. The cheeses here are Manchego, Gouda, something Basque, and something else from the Netherlands.

I had a roast beef sandwich of some sort at the restaurant, but Julia picked their ham and cheese which included thin slices of apple and spicy brown mustard. When I made it, I used mandoline slices of Asian pear, Black Forest ham, smoked cheddar, and a combination of oak leaf lettuce and frisée. Like the restaurant, I did not grill the whole sandwich but merely used lightly toasted bread to make the sandwich. Minus the lettuce, I've made similar sandwiches in a skillet.

It's a great flavor combination and I had a few more of these over the next few days with the ample spare ingredients. Wrapped tightly they also last long enough to make in the evening and enjoy at lunch the next day.

The Beauty Shop serves sandwiches and other lunch items with freshly fried potato chips and a garlic-chili aïoli. For my aïoli, I used Sriracha sauce to spice it up with excellent results. Aïoli is not the kind of thing you want to eat every day, but man, it's delicious. I left half of the batch plain and found it tasty, but so much better with that squirt of Sriracha. Here's the recipe I used, not really taken from anywhere but just a result of trial and error.

Benito's Aïoli
5 Cloves of Garlic
Dash of Dijon Mustard
1 Egg Yolk
½ Lemon, Juiced
Dash of Sea Salt
A few turns of freshly ground Black/White Pepper
1 Cup of Pure Olive Oil (no extra virgin necessary)

Combine everything except the oil in a blender or in a cup with a stick blender. Then slowly drizzle in the cup of olive oil while blending. That's it. You can modify this in hundreds of different ways, either by adding chopped herbs or by using different vinegars instead of lemon juice. Throw in some hot sauce like Sriracha or toss in diced cornichons, go crazy.

12 March 2012

2010 Domaine de la Tourmaline Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie

Muscadet is a light white wine from France traditionally paired with oysters. And I love oysters, but I really don't like shucking them myself. I know a few places around town where I can have dozens of Ameripure oysters for next to nothing, and while I like the restaurant standard oyster, I really miss traveling to other cities where I could try a dozen different east coast or west coast bivalves depending on what was in season. Tiny salty ones paired with a grapefruit granita or big buttery ones served with mignonette sauce... Anyway, I chose to buck tradition and regions and serve the wine with pasta and rapini.

2010 Domaine de la Tourmaline Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie
Made by Gadais Père & Fils
Melon de Bourgogne
$14, 12% abv.

This is distributed in the US by Cognac One, known to me as the provider of the various interesting wines of Xavier Flouret that I've reviewed over the years. Light floral nose with a touch of lemony acidity and a great mineral tone. Overall mild body and a slight finish. I haven't had many restrained French whites recently and this was a pure delight to try. While it would work great with oysters or other fresh shellfish, I defend my choice to pair it with the following dish.

Speaking of minerals, geology fans will enjoy the fact that the name includes the semi-precious stone tourmaline and that the grapes grew in soil full of mica gneiss, a type of metamorphic rock.

Yes, when taking a walk, I pick up odd rocks and have a bit of training in the subject.

For the pasta dish, I started with olive oil and diced shallots and garlic, followed by red bell pepper and a big dollop of tomato paste. I added chicken stock and white wine, and after reduction, I introduced chopped rapini to let the leaves wilt and the stalks and blossoms to soften. At the last minute I introduced sliced salsiccia, sweet Italian sausage that I'd previously simmered then browned. A dash of dried pepper flakes, a little red wine vinegar, a few other touches of magic and a final toss of shredded Asiago cheese with the tongs, and we've got a good meal.

This was a very fun wine pairing, and although the Loire is not near the Mediterranean, I like mixing French/Italian/Spanish foods with French/Italian/Spanish wines. I do so in the tradition of Phoenician traders 3000 years ago. I'm guessing they didn't get too picky about matching the right grape to the right culinary tradition, and their Egyptian customers were probably even less discerning.

Folks, as you pop a cork and let fermented grape juice fall out of a bottle, never forget that you're experiencing history in a glass.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

09 March 2012

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Here are a few wine notes from a month ago that I'd neglected to turn into posts. Nothing wrong with the wines--in fact, I really enjoyed these. But sometimes you get caught up with other things, and sometimes you want to wax nostalgic about your Scouting days, and sometimes you're more in the mood to write about cooking.

I don't review every wine that I taste, though that was the goal of the blog in the first two years. And I slogged through it with notes and links and prices on everything I tasted, which was kind of crazy since I was mainly going to free tastings on weekends and reviewing 10-20 wines per post. Now I write about far fewer wines but spend more time with them. Perhaps during my 10th anniversary year I'll just write about one wine a month, but it will be some legendary, rare vintage plucked out of a cellar in Bordeaux. A fella can dream, can't he?

2008 Foley Chardonnay Rancho Santa Rosa
Sta. Rita Hills, California
$30, 14.4% abv.
Honey and vanilla with a touch of coconut. Firm acidity, long finish. A surprisingly tropical Chardonnay with an excellent use of oak. While tasting it I found myself wishing that it was summer and that I had some Thai food in front of me. The aromas on this wine are not too strong, but it is a very fun wine to let novices sniff while they try to figure out what those elements are in their glass of white wine.

2009 Parducci Small Lot Blend Pinot Noir
$12, 13.5% abv.
Firm tannins but still smooth and creamy. Strawberry with slight leather and smoke. This is a bargain Pinot Noir without a lot of complexity, but it works well. I enjoyed it with leftover turkey sandwiches during the holidays, and the combination made for a pair of delightful weekend lunches.

2009 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir
Martinborough, New Zealand
$40, 14.4% abv.
This one probably deserved its own post, but I did recently get the opportunity to try two other wines from Craggy Range. This dignified Pinot Noir was fascinating with a solid body and great red berry flavors. Elements of spice and a hint of raspberry seed, medium tannins, and firm acidity. As it opened up, floral and additional spice aromas were present. Even though it was two years old at the time, I still felt that it was not quite ready. In a few years this should be spectacular. I'm not an expert on aging and cellaring, but if you do enough verticals and early release samples from established winemakers, you start to figure out the differences between a "drink now" wine and a "arrggh... why didn't I hold onto this for half a decade?" wine. Which means that if you're thirsty now, you might want to be on the lookout for any surviving bottles from 2004, and set this vintage aside for enjoying during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

07 March 2012

Merit Badges

"Where are the wine reviews?" Patience, young grasshopper. There's some wine in the cellar downstairs, and a couple of wine reviews that I haven't posted yet, but I've finally worked my way through the waves of Christmas/New Year's Eve/Valentine's Day wines, and am currently in the ebb before the next big wine marketing holiday: St. Patrick's Day. Yes, there are wines with green labels and wines with Irish names, and all joking aside, there are various bottles on their way. This blog won't stop if the faucet gets turned off, but it will give me a chance to focus more on food and beer and cocktails and essays and other fun stuff.

I had planned on writing a long essay about getting my Cooking merit badge in Scouts, but when I went to grab my old sash it was notoriously missing. And now I don't think I ever earned it, though I certainly met all the requirements and did all the work. (The white sash is a separate one for the Order of the Arrow, an honor society. Longer story that I won't get into here.)

What are merit badges, and how do they work? As you advance through the ranks, you have to have various required merit badges (silver border) and enough electives (green border). The requirements have changed a bit over the years, but in general it's always been around 11 required badges and 10 electives, plus all of the various other requirements, leadership roles, and community service to make it to Eagle, which I did in 1991. You can continue earning merit badges until you turn 18, which is why I have a total of 36. For the required badges, you generally have assigned instructors and very rigorous rules. For electives, you're either getting it at camp through organized classes, or you're seeking out an expert in the field to teach you the subject because you're interested in it. Some people get every merit badge, but it's very rare. Some of these badges involved a few days, some took years, some I barely remember, and others almost killed me. I've always wanted to list them out, so here goes...

From left to right, top to bottom, more or less in chronological order from 1986-1993:
  • Citizenship in the World: Basically social studies class with a bit of geography thrown in.
  • Swimming: Surprisingly difficult, with a lot of attention on how not to drown. More survival if you fall out of a boat than learning specific swimming techniques, though we were tested on all of those as well. This one was a make or break moment for a lot of guys over the years.
  • Safety: Pretty general subject, but some good common sense stuff.
  • Home Repairs: I don't remember a lot of this, aside from basic plumbing and carpentry.
  • Traffic Safety: Essentially Driver's Ed long before you can drive. I think this was probably more intensive in earlier days, as I've met guys at reunions who talked about learning to drive via our Scoutmaster and having him take them to their license tests.
  • Rifle Shooting: For this we shot .22 calibre rifles and I was a good enough shot to pass. My brother is an expert marksman and in our family there are lots of guns, but the sport never quite clicked with me, even while shooting oddballs like a .50 calibre black powder rifle.
  • Reading: I think I had to do a book report for this, and since I was a kid who sometimes wrote term papers for practice in the summer, I was way overqualified for this one.
  • Genealogy: Very interesting, and I got to do a lot of work with a few relatives who were really into the subject.
  • Shotgun Shooting: Basically like rifle shooting, except that I really enjoyed shooting clay targets with a 20 gauge. The Roommate has a 16 gauge in the closet that doesn't get any use, so I should probably take up this gentleman's sport again at some point.
  • Pioneering: Making structures based on chopping down saplings and binding them together with rope. Surprisingly difficult to pull off well and safely, and you learn a lot of primitive engineering techniques.
  • Aviation: A cherished memory, and something of a rare badge to earn. Dad had his single engine pilot's license and needed to get some hours in, so we did all of the preflight checks and filed a flight plan and everything else required for the badge while flying around south Memphis/northern Mississippi.
  • First Aid: One of the best I ever took, and I've used the lessons learned with this badge many times over the years.
  • Mammal Study: The first goofy summer camp badge I ever earned, which involved writing a report on river otters and building a habitat for various ground rodents.
  • Canoeing: Loads of fun, and I loved canoeing for years afterward. It was good to learn some proper technique and how to recover from a tipped canoe in a safe environment.
  • Indian Lore: A simple look at Native American culture, and may have indirectly influenced my later choice for an Anthropology major.
  • Wilderness Survival: Probably my favorite of all time, since it involved going out in the woods, building your own shelter, and sleeping in it overnight. Multiple other tests for managing to live in the woods on your own without the benefits of civilization. I've always felt that if society completely collapses, I'll be fine for a good long while.
  • Basketry: As much of a joke as it sounds, though I still have the little wicker basket from 1988 and keep change in it.
  • Citizenship in the Nation: Another social studies class.
  • Woodcarving: I think I made a neckerchief slide and learned how to not cut myself, which was a bit late judging by the scars on my fingers.
  • Leatherwork: Arts and crafts time, with emphasis on stamping patterns into leather sheets.
  • Citizenship in the Community: Social studies class. By the way, these were good classes, I just don't have a lot to say about them.
  • Nature: Normally a simple badge, but in my Troop it was a requirement for Eagle and our Scoutmaster made up his own requirements. We had to be able to identify more than 40 trees (even in the winter, without leaves), plus bird identification and other requirements. This one took me years of hikes through neighborhoods and forests.to finally earn it. It drove me crazy at the time but I can still identify trees at a great distance or sometimes just by a piece of bark.
  • American Heritage: More social studies.
  • Camping: This was something you sort of earned out of endurance, by completing a number of nights spent outdoors and the ability to pitch a tent and build a fire and not starve over a weekend.
  • Environmental Science: Fellow Scouts of my era will know why this one was difficult, but I'll leave it at that. Another one that took months of work.
  • Sailing: The most fun I ever had with a merit badge. Tiny one-person sailboats with a single sail, one seat, and a dagger board you had to drop through the hull before going out on the water. Learning to tack into the wind and not get hit in the head with the boom, and then you learn to catch the breeze just right and you zip across the lake while you're just two feet above the surface... heaven.
  • Lifesaving: The one that damned near killed me. It's all about how to save someone who is drowning, which is accomplished by taking a 13 year old and having to rescue drowning adults, who punch you and try to dunk you and otherwise act like a frantic, scared drowning victim. Also fun was diving into a murky lake to pull up a cinder block (the "victim") before brain death occurred. You dive, hear the minute count, you dive again, etc., if you fail, the victim dies. Keep at it until you can save the victim in time. This one made me angry at the time, but I'm so glad that I went through that training.
  • Communications: Public speaking and letter writing and other good gentlemanly skills. I'm still exceptionally polite on the phone because of this and my parents' upbringing.
  • Personal Management: A difficult one that involved six months of work. This was basically an economics class, which involved learning about banking and taxes and other things. As part of the class I had to meet with a loan officer and go through a sample credit approval process.
  • Pottery: Everything from here on out is just gravy, since I'd already reached the rank of Eagle. Can't remember anything about this one, but I had a fun week at a new Scout camp.
  • Archery: A lot of fun, and I still have my old scores and worksheets from this for some reason. I love archery.
  • Sculpture: Like pottery, I have no memory of this one, and probably don't deserve it.
  • Rowing: I worked hard at this one, though I didn't really enjoy it. Canoeing is great because one person can lift a canoe and paddle it and they're pretty quick on rivers. Rowboats are heavy, slow, and you can't see where you're going. I'd hop in a canoe in a minute, but you'd have to force me back into a rowboat.
  • Horsemanship: A great class that involved not only riding but also grooming, including cleaning the hooves. Along with earning a lot of respect for horses, I also managed to get bit and kicked by a new animal. (Before collecting wine grapes, I loved to list off all of the various critters that had gnawed on my flesh. Getting bitten by snakes is painful, but moles have a certain rage that is just scary.)
  • Backpacking and Hiking: The last two were earned as a result of two separate treks at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, in the lower range of the Rockies known as the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Each trek involved two weeks in the mountains, carrying a pack between 40-50 lbs. depending on water and provisions, and days that included waking up in snow and spending the day slogging through hot desert with sand and cactus. Those experiences could fill an entire book, and serve as a fitting conclusion to the sash and to this post.

05 March 2012

queue de boeuf à l'haïtienne

When I read the Knipples' book The World in a Skillet, many all of the recipes made me hungry. However, one jumped out as the dish I'd have to try first. I've never had Haitian food before: check. I love oxtails and habaneros: double check. Opportunity to make hot sauce for the first time: check. Eight hours of marinating plus six hours of cooking: be still my beating heart.

Haiti is the western half of the island Hispanola, and notoriously the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It became independent from France in 1804 following a slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture. Haiti has had a complicated and sad history that would take far too long to tell here. The US hasn't exactly been a friend of the country for most of the past 200 years, with the embargoes and refusal to acknowledge a sovereign Haiti for most of the 19th century and the US military occupation from 1915-1934. Today, most Haitian immigrants are in South Florida or in large cities like New York. Though I've met a few Haitians in my lifetime, there's not much of a presence either in people or food here in Memphis.

This recipe has three parts: a habanero hot sauce, a marinade, and the actual braising of the oxtails. I made the marinade first. Known as epis, you take herbs and garlic and oil and vinegar and onion and other goodies and make a thin pesto. This can be used either for marinating pieces of meat or as a flavorful punch up to other recipes. The recipe called for parsley as the main herb, but I decided to go with the variation listed in the sidebar and use cilantro instead. Since I'd already alienated several people with the hot peppers and the offal, I decided to go all the way and make myself happy with yet another contentious ingredient. Saturday evening I rinsed the oxtails, covered them in epis and let them sit overnight.

(As an aside, I completely shut down a lane at the grocery store with the purchase of oxtails and habaneros. Neither were labeled, neither had SKUs on the cheat sheet, and clearing up both took a solid 15 minutes as I apologized to the customers behind me and tried to explain to the poor checkout girl why I enjoyed eating chopped up cow tails. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and it won't be the last.)

Making the habanero hot sauce was my next adventure that night. Eight habaneros, a carrot, half an onion, a little white wine vinegar and sugar and the juice of two limes. Blend until smooth. Now, the recipe was responsible and suggested wearing gloves. I've never really had a problem processing peppers before, but I've never made hot sauce or used an open bowl with a stick blender with hot peppers before. Not a great idea. The capsaicin became aerosolized and I got a nice zingy dose to the nose, lungs, and most of my exposed skin. I'm still stinging a bit in places, but the upside is that my sinuses are clearer than they've been since I was born.

I made enough to fill three of these little tubs. One was used with Sunday dinner and the other two were sealed and sent to the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia (Вектор).

If you decide to do this, use an enclosed blender or food processor, wear gloves, and maybe goggles and a mask. And if you're in the habit of wiping your hands on a kitchen towel after chopping vegetables, go ahead and toss that towel in the washer before a roommate or family member happens to come by and use it. The resulting sauce is thick and bright--almost unnaturally orange, though I didn't add anything artificial to it. Definitely hot but with that sweet habanero flavor and good balancing from the limes' acidity and the carrot's additional sugar.

I started the third part (the braising) around ten in the morning on Sunday. Put the oxtails in the Dutch oven, add a can of tomato sauce and a little water, and bring to a slow boil. Remove from the stovetop and put the entire thing in the oven for six hours. I skipped the last part involving browning the oxtails with onions and tomato paste--everything was browned and nicely tender and caramelized and any further cooking would just ruin things.

I threw a little turmeric in the rice, and have to say that the meat was incredible. Tender and flavorful and full of intense elements from the bones and fat and everything else. The hot sauce was still good on the second day but milder and fruitier. Julia, having her first encounter with oxtails said, "Tastes like pot roast, but not as stringy." I'm impressed with the recipe but in the future I'll probably roast at a lower temperature and add some things like beer or chicken broth or white wine to the braising liquid. The habanero hot sauce is delicious, but I'm going to need a new set of friends to share that level of heat.

02 March 2012

Saffron Road Lamb Saag with Basmati Rice

Frozen food doesn't have to be bad. When I'm talking about my homemade chicken stock (or gloriously rich tubs of duck stock), that's not a bad frozen food. And there are lots of veggies that are great from the freezer, particularly because they were picked and processed at the height of ripeness rather than picked unripe and trucked across the country and left to sit in the produce section for a few days.

I was walking past the organic freezer section at the grocery store, and saw this: Saffron Road Lamb Saag with Basmati Rice. I've had it in Indian restaurants, and thought I'd give it a shot. I'd never eaten microwaved lamb before, but the list of certifications was incredible: Halal, lamb raised without antibiotics, lamb raised on 100% vegetarian foods in an open pasture, etc. It's a far cry from the mystery meat/soy protein mush found in your 75¢ frozen burrito.

The company also makes a variety of other frozen entrees based on dishes from Morocco to Thailand. I haven't tried any of the others, but will probably check them out based on this experience.

I was really happy with how this turned out. Though it's difficult to see, there is a lot of lamb in here, and I'm thinking that the cubes came from the shoulder. There were a few fatty pieces (that were delicious), though most of the cubes were fairly lean. Really tender and flavorful, and superior to the lamb that I've gotten in some local establishments. The saag was mildly seasoned and decent, and the basmati rice was properly tender without being chewy or crunchy.

I'm not planning on making frozen dinners a major or even minor part of my diet, and don't plan on further reviews here. Burt this was a nice surprise, and it's good to see that with quality ingredients and the right technology, it's possible to do this properly.