31 December 2008

Last Minute Sparkling Wine Recommendations

For those of you doing your shopping on the way to a party tonight, here's some sparkling wine recommendations. Whenever you see "NV" in my reviews, it means "non-vintage", or there's no particular year ascribed to the wine--it might be a mix of multiple vintages, or it might just be an inexpensive table wine. It should not be inferred that they are produced in the state of Nevada. Also, I rarely if ever drink proper Champagne. It's more of a cost concern than anything else, but there are loads of tasty sparklers from all over the world, including the non-Champagne regions of France.

First, here are 23 previous posts that include information on sparkling wine. Most of them are great little wines, just stay away from the Soviet Champagne of Belarus. I can still taste that abomination months later.

Second, check out Fredric Koeppel's annual 12 Days of Christmas salute to sparkling wines. He's got some great bottles there and there's very little overlap in the bubbly we've reviewed.

Now for a few of my own that have been sitting in the review queue for a while...

One that can be found nearly everywhere is the NV Yellowtail Sparkling Rosé, which runs for around $7. Beautiful light salmon color, dry and crisp with raspberry aromas and flavors. The large bubbles give it a soda mouthfeel. Not as fruity as I'd imagined, and it had a slightly bitter finish I wasn't expecting (note that I love bitter flavors, and they show up from time time in all sorts of wine). I couldn't find any information on the grapes used here, but I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Sparkling rosés are a growing segment of the sparkler market, and this might be easier for you to find than some of the European bottles.

Prosecco is a longtime favorite here at BWR, and increased production in Italy and elsewhere means that there are new brands to try every year. On general principles I'd avoid the Austrian one packaged in cans and promoted by Paris Hilton. Instead, why not try something like the Italian NV Martini & Rossi Prosecco. $12, a light 10.5% abv. It's got a little orange peel aroma, light bubbles in the frizzante style, and crisp lemon and almond flavors. Great bargain bottle that's conveniently enclosed with a beer bottle cap, meaning that this should be perfect for taking to parties. (A few other Prosecco and sweet Moscato d'Asti wines are capped like this--great for BBQs or other informal gatherings.)

It's not pictured here, but I'd highly recommend anything from Domaine Ste. Michelle, particularly the Blanc de Noirs. The varieties range from dry to sweet, some blends, some single grape. These are affordable, delicious sparkling wines from Washington state, and I always keep one on hand in case I need something to kick off a dinner. The voluptuous Ste. Michelle bottles can often be found for as little as $12, which is a real steal. And of course the sparkling wines of Gruet in New Mexico will always have a special place in my heart.

What will I be drinking on New Year's Eve? The Spanish NV Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad. $25, 12% abv. Penedès region of Spain. I've had it before, but I've really been in a Cava mood lately. Plus, you've got to admire a bottle that eschews the label for a metal badge. Certainly the guys from Dethklok would approve.

I hope all of you have a happy and safe New Year, and be sure to eat your black eyed peas!

P.S. In the comments, be sure to note your bubbles of choice for ringing in the New Year. Or if you went in a different direction--say the family tradition is 6 Puttonyos Tokaji--list that as well. I think my first NYE adult beverage was a sip of peach schnapps in the late 80s.

29 December 2008

Festivus Cubano

I'm a big fan of Festivus, a fake winter holiday created as part of a Seinfeld episode. I skip the aluminum pole and the airing of grievances, and I don't even celebrate it on December 23. For me, Festivus is a great nickname for any dinner party during November or December that's not tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's. If you invite an acquaintance to a Christmas party, there's an expectation of presents and maybe dressing up and conflicts with other family obligations and whatnot. But a Festivus dinner can include damned near anything, dress can be as casual as desired, and no relatives are going to disown you because you decided to hang out with friends on December 15 or November 30.

This year, dear friends Sally and Terry offered to buy the groceries if I'd do the cooking, and I decided that it was high time to do some Cuban cooking. Memphis has had a couple of Cuban restaurants over the years, but currently there are none. Yes, a few places offer pale imitations of the Cuban sandwich, but if I want lechon asado or vaca frita I've got to do it myself.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt while listening to mp3s of the Canadian radio host Stuart McLean, I spent a few hours prepping a proper Festivus Cubano. Big thanks to the Taste of Cuba website, source of most of the recipes.

We started things out with an apple/pumpkin soup called sopa de calabaza y manzana, spiced up with the addition of a few tangy cubanelle peppers. At this point the guests were finishing off cocktails, including the Silver Fizz and Manhattan. With the soup served in coffee mugs, it was just enough to whet the appetite and provide a little base for the feast to come.

For the second course, I adapted this recipe and used tilapia. Some amazing canned San Marzano tomatoes really brought an intense flavor to this dish. Since I'll jump at any opportunity to use a sparkling wine with food, I elected to open a bottle of NV Codorníu Original Cava. $15, 11.5% abv, La Mancha region of Spain. For Sally I added a splash of pastis, and for Paul I added a splash of Cointreau; Cava adapts readily to Champagne cocktail recipes. I had mine plain, where it presented a lemon and toast nose with a crisp, clean flavor, balanced acidity, and a short finish. This is a good all-purpose sparkler from a family that's been in the wine business for 500 years.

After a palate-cleansing course of chayote salad (most of the diners had never had a chayote before), it was time for the main course: rabo encendido or oxtail stew. Regular readers will note that I've been on an offal kick for the past few months, and oxtails are a relatively non-scary way to get used to these immensely flavorful parts of the cow/pig/etc. They're also pretty cheap, but rising popularity will surely drive up the price. Accompanying the dish were rice and slow cooked black beans with country ham. All told this was a decadent, rich, savory course that belied the total absence of expensive ingredients.

In keeping with the theme of wines from Spanish-speaking countries, I poured the 2006 Crios Malbec from female winemaker Susana Balbo. $15, 14% abv, Mendoza region of Argentina. Tobacco and coffee nose with blackberry and cinnamon flavors. Bright and smooth with a neat finish.

All in all a successful dinner, and I satisfied my craving for Cuban food. The guests were stuffed, laughter filled the house, and a good time was had by all. Truly a Festivus miracle.

26 December 2008

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

Cocktail enthusiast Robert Hess has written an extensive history of the Old Fashioned in a compulsive manner most commonly seen amongst fans of science fiction, antique furniture, or postage stamps (and I say that as a lover of all three). For mine, I elected to use the 1933 recipe:

- 1 lump sugar
- 4 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 lump ice
- 1 glass Rye Whiskey
- 1 slice orange
- 1 cherry
Stir well until Sugar is dissolved, then squeeze lemon peel on top and serve in same glass used for mixing.

The whiskey in the beverage tends to dominate the other flavors, but they're all present and once the ice begins to melt, it takes on a more refreshing character.

While I definitely like this cocktail, I think it's heavily dependent on the quality of the whiskey and the choices of the mixologist. Order with caution, and if you have to teach the recipe to the bartender it's probably better to try something else.

Serving this, or any other cocktail in an official Tiki Bar Mini Mug is optional, but points for style always count.

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas, Y'all

Main Street, Downtown Memphis
Christmas 2004

24 December 2008

Two Wines from Two Vines

With today being Christmas Eve, newer readers to this site might enjoy my April visit to the house where the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story was filmed.

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Columbia Crest produces many easy drinking, affordable wines made in Washington state. If you're new to wine it wouldn't hurt to work your way through their product line--their bottles are available everywhere and it's a great way to get started. I particularly like the Grand Estates wines and will try out the Horse Heaven Hills when I get the chance. On the bargain end of the product line are the Two Vines wines, so named after a method of trellising the plants in the vineyard.

2006 Two Vines Vineyard 10 White Wine. $8, 13% abv. It's made of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. Aromas of peach and apple, with flowers as it warms up. It smells mostly like Chardonnay but the other grapes show up on the palate: the Sauvignon Blanc contributes a bright crispness and the Semillon adds a musky honey undertone. A good match for a tuna salad sandwich at lunch time. And while it's not quite the same, this is a good substitute for Columbia Crest's Semillon-Chardonnay of the mid-90s.

2007 Two Vines Vineyard 10 Rosé. $8, 12.5% abv. Mostly Syrah with a splash of Viognier. A little dark for a rosé. Whiff of orange peel on the nose. Tart and crisp, flavors of ripe strawberry and raspberry. This is an assertive rosé while still being dry. I paired it with a pulled pork BBQ sandwich, where the firm acidity helped cut through the grease.

With the economy being what it is, it's more important than ever to get good value from your wine dollars. This doesn't necessarily mean going for the cheapest bottle, but rather doing a bit of research or talking to the staff at your wine shop to find the hidden gems. Check out my archives or blogs like Good Wine Under $20 for further suggestions. There are also mumblings that prices on higher end wines might be coming down in order to move stock--keep an eye out for these bargains. The wine you've been lusting after at $60 could come down to an affordable $40.

22 December 2008

Benito vs. the Hoof: pied de cochon

When my friendly neighborhood grocery store offers a new vegetable, critter, or cut of meat, I'm impelled to pick it up. While smoked ham hocks (the ankles of pigs) are widely available here in the South, you don't see raw pig's feet that often. Pickled yes, smoked occasionally, but raw, no. I know they're a French delicacy and prized in many parts of the world, so for the sum of $1.94 I came home with a pair of trotters.

I found a recipe for the signature dish from Montréal's Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant specializing in traditional Québécois fare. While the pig's feet I found didn't include as much of the shank as I'd like, I did have organic Canadian maple syrup in the cabinet.

One warning for the squeamish (assuming that any have made it this far): the feet arrive clean and shaved, but you still have to rinse them and check for any hairs missed by the razor. This process feels like shaking hands with a corpse that's been pulled out of a cold river. I've got no problem taking apart pigs (I helped dissect 30 in one day as a high school lab assistant), but this might be off-putting for some.

Four hours of brining and four hours of roasting produced the mahogany treasures you see to the right. The house smelled amazing: imagine a cross between bacon and ham wafting all afternoon. My dogs were going crazy at the aroma. And the flavor is great as well, with the crispy skin on the top, the sweet and tender skin on the bottom, meat that's as soft as butter, and plenty of cartilage if you're into that. It's mostly full of bones (phalanges and metacarpals/metatarsals depending on whether they come from the back or front), so your final payoff isn't great. But if you've never tried a properly braised hoof, I'd highly recommend it.

19 December 2008

NV Jarhead Red

Here's a wine that represents what I feel are two positive trends in the American wine industry:

1) Wines that support a charity, in this case the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of wounded or fallen Marines.

2) Wines that, through name and label design, appeal to a masculine audience.

The first is a noble cause and should be self-explanatory, but let me go into a little more depth on the second trend. For the past few generations, wine in this country has been seen as either a drink for women or for the wealthy/artsy/intellectual/effeminate, and the working/middle-class men stuck to beer or spirits. This is slowly changing, and you can see wines like Red Truck, Three Thieves, and Desolation Flats that are obviously marketed towards Joe Sixpack. It's important to bring new wine drinkers into the fold, and such labeling is an excellent way to do that.

For the guys out there that still think of wine as a girly drink, get over it. The Norwegian version of 'cheers!' is skål, which means 'skull'. This goes back to the practice of Vikings drinking wine* out of the hollowed-out skulls of their enemies. The Roman empire was fueled by wine and a thousand years later the Spanish burned and pillaged their way through two continents while planting vineyards. I'd make the case that wine is perhaps the manliest beverage on earth, second only to the harsh rum of Newfoundland called screech.

Reporting for duty in this noble crusade is the non-vintage Jarhead Red, $12, 13.5% abv. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Central Coast of California. It can use a bit of decanting, after which it has a plum jam profile with a peppery finish. Medium tannins, firm body, and other dark fruit flavors linger on the finish. Notice that the label of this wine features neither flowers nor elegant script. There's stenciled letters, an image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, and a dominant red white and blue motif. It's the kind of wine that R. Lee Ermey would crack open with his teeth, swallowing the broken glass on general principle. I elected for a more digestible burger and fries, where the wine performed as an admirable pairing.

On a personal note, my maternal grandfather served in the Marine Corps during WWII. He was in his late 20s by then and based on his civilian experience with the USPS, spent most of the war working in the Military Post Office of San Francisco, which handled all military mail headed throughout the Pacific. Of course, he was a tall and strong man, having played college football in the days of leather helmets and no padding, and like all Marines was expected to be able to grab a rifle and head to the front lines at any time. My grandfather turns 93 this month, and while he doesn't talk much these days I was able to spend some time with him ten years ago compiling an oral history of his wartime life.

This holiday season, also keep in mind the Marines' Toys for Tots program. At that site you can either make an online donation or find a local drop-off for toys.

*The Vikings had good taste in wine, and stole a lot of it from the Mediterranean during their raids. DNA evidence of these voyages can be seen today in the occasional redheads that pop up in Sicily, northern Italy, and on the Food Network in the form of Mario Batali.

17 December 2008

Readers' Choice: Wines from the Comment Section

Without reader comments and e-mails, writing a blog can be a lonely experience, and wine is a subject that demands convivial discussion. Some interesting conversations have developed in the past year, and it's always exciting to get new input. So here's two wines straight from the comments that I probably would not have tried otherwise.

First up is one from Michael Hughes, fellow Memphis wine blogger. In reference to my Beaujolais Nouveau post, he recommended a replacement wine, the 2007 Novy Four Mile Creek Red Wine. $12, 14.1% abv. Made from Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache, and other grapes sourced from vineyards throughout California. It's got a gorgeous color similar to a Nouveau--too dark for a rosé, with a purple that's got more blue than a regular red. Wonderful earthy nose with a touch of vegetation, which you don't see that often from American wines. It's crisp on the tongue, with some mild plum flavors and a slightly tart finish. This is an odd duck, with a light body that belies its strong grapes. Pinot Noir blends are rare outside of Champagne, and usually the Pinot just gets lost in the sea of other grapes. While it might be tricky to pair this with a specific dish, I think it would really shine as a general lunch wine. Should go well with a wide range of salads and sandwiches.

California wine blogger Samantha Dugan (who, like Michael, works in the retail side of the wine business) noted that I'd mentioned Port a lot to the exclusion of other fortified wines. She recommended a Madeira from Cossart Gordon, the 5 Year Old Bual. $17, 19% abv. Made from the Bual grape on the Portuguese island of Madeira, about 350 miles off the coast of Morocco. High temperatures favor a fortified wine, and Madeira has the distinction of being practically indestructible. If you want a regular wine to survive more than a year you're going to need to keep it in a controlled environment. Madeira can easily last a century under heat and motion and other damaging factors. Indeed, in the 1500s it was discovered that some of the best Madeiras were those that had been carried by ships around Africa, to India, to Brazil, etc. These were not smooth, climate-controlled voyages.

It's got a lovely color, like maple syrup. The aroma is similar to a Tawny Port, but with more of a tangy quality. There are scents of golden raisins, stewed fruit, hazelnut... Think about a really good homemade fruitcake, not one of those industrial bricks you find at the store. The flavor is only mildly sweet, with matching raisin and nutty notes, and a delicate finish. It's a great after dinner drink that I think would go well with sheep's milk cheeses and gingerbread.

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In the future I can't promise that I'll try every wine that gets recommended--a lot of it depends on local availability. But rest assured that I read every comment and look forward to new and exciting suggestions in 2009.

15 December 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: CAO Brazilia & Sopranos

Two months ago I tried the CAO Brazilia Box Press 5½" x 55, and I'll be honest, I didn't like it. But after hearing about how much everyone loves the Brazilia I gave it another shot. And I'm glad I did--it has flavors of chicory, cinnamon, and nutmeg, perfect for a winter afternoon. The rectangular box press shape is based on an old method of shipping cigars, in which pressing them in boxes before drying would result in a cigar with less excess room around the sides.

I shot it on a copy of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. An interesting look at how emergent systems form in nature, in software, and in human interactions.

A while back I sampled a CAO Sopranos Edition Boss, part of a licensing deal with the acclaimed HBO series. (I watched all the seasons, and swore furiously at the TV during the terrible final episode.) This torpedo cigar (7"x56) is made from a Brazilian wrapper, Honduran binder, and filler from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Colombia.

Cigars are a lot like wine in many ways. With either, a pedestrian sample will merely taste like wine or tobacco. But a great one can be complex, and scent and taste associations can dredge up all sorts of memories. This one had a strong roasted chestnut aroma, which immediately transported me to the Galleria in Milan back in 1996. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a 120 year old shopping mall right in the middle of Milan near the Duomo. I had my first roasted chestnuts there, purchased from a street vendor who was cooking them on a metal dish over a low propane flame. Later I had a seafood stew and a Gran Marinier-flavored crepe.

The book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a sometimes dense tome about economics, statistics, randomness, and dealing with the unexpected. It's a great companion to the Malcolm Gladwell books.

12 December 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred

Recently (i.e. months ago) various blogs have been posting about the The Omnivore's Hundred, a list of foods you ought to try before they start measuring you for the last suit you'll ever wear. You can go to the link to see all of them, and at the bottom of this post you can see the ones I haven't tried yet. Between my first draft and this entry, I knocked two easy ones off the list:

2. Nettle tea
Nettle tea smells exactly like cleaning off the blade on your lawnmower. It's that fermented Bermuda grass smell that lasts on your hands for days afterward. As a Southerner who first mowed the yard at the age of six (approximately two hours after growing tall enough to grasp the handle bar of Dad's beloved Snapper), this scent evokes pleasant memories. Others may not have the same reaction. I like the flavor as well, which is pretty mild considering there's no caffeine or tannins.

It is also supposed to help with gout and menstrual cramps, but never having suffered from either I can't make any claims regarding its efficacy as a natural medicine.

You can find this nettle tea at my Amazon Store or in the Memphis area at Whole Foods.

79. Lapsang souchong
This is a smoked tea from southeast China. The tea leaves are placed on mats or mesh and smoked over pine logs. Supposedly this is one of those binary foods: you either hate it or you love it. I picked up a tin of loose leaves (hence the need for a metal tea ball) and went two weeks before trying a cup. When you peel back the foil seal, you are hit with a powerful smoke aroma. Leave a pile of this in someone's house and they'll swear that something is on fire.

When I mustered up the courage to brew a pot, I followed the instructions and steeped the leaves in my little tea ball and poured myself a cup--straight, no sugar or lemon. The aroma was still powerful and smoky, but this time I got to appreciate it better. And as we all know, scent is the most powerful connection to old memories.

When I was in Scouts, we packed our gear and clothes into Army surplus duffel bags. Clean clothes would be carefully packed in plastic bags and layered, and later dirty clothes would be crammed in however possible. Upon returning home, I'd normally grab a shower and get something to eat before tackling the laundry, and after getting clean and breathing fresh air, I would be overwhelmed by the strong aromas of wood smoke, earth, and various other scents. A cup of lapsang souchong smells exactly like that.

Here's a word of thanks to my dear mother who frequently had to handle laundry after such camping trips, and out of respect for those horrors I will keep this tea far away from her. And while she would only have negative associations from this aroma, it dredges up a hundred wonderful memories for me, and I found myself able to remember the crisp smells of winter in Missouri and the steamy humidity of an Arkansas summer and dozens of other campsites around the country.

Despite the strong smell, this tea doesn't taste smoky. It's not any more bitter than standard black tea, and is actually quite mild. I can't imagine drinking it iced, and I never tried it sweetened, but I've really enjoyed a cup late in the afternoon or evening where I can sit and be whisked back to my youth.

Twinings is the most commonly available version in the states. I got it at Kroger, and you can also purchase lapsang souchong from my Amazon Store. Teabag styles are available as well.

And now, the 21 things I haven't tried... Though rest assured, I'll find a way to grind through most of this list in an effort to broaden the palate. Local readers: recommend some places to find some of these!

6. Black pudding
8. Carp
16. Epoisses
25. Brawn, or head cheese
30. Bagna cauda
37. Clotted cream tea
43. Phaal
46. Fugu
50. Sea urchin
52. Umeboshi
59. Poutine
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
89. Horse
93. Rose harissa
100. Snake

10 December 2008

2007 Feudo Arancio Grillo

One of my many weaknesses is that I will always jump at the opportunity to try a wine made on a Mediterranean island. There's just way too much history and cool geography to pass up. Such was the case with my purchase of the 2007 Feudo Arancio Grillo from Sicily. The name means something like "orange fiefdom", and Grillo is the grape, normally used in the production of the sweet fortified wine Marsala. $10, 13% abv.

Big and fruity, some pineapple and banana on the nose and really rich, round mouthfeel. It's bold, powerful, and broad shouldered. If this wine were a woman and you were dancing with her, she would be leading. (And I say that as a short guy who doesn't dance well and tends to date taller gals.)

I paired this with some takeout cheese enchiladas and it held up quite well against the spicy food. If you were looking for something more traditional, I'd suggest a mess of squid and shellfish with lots of olives and peppers.

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Want to support Benito's Wine Reviews? Do some of your holiday shopping through my Amazon Store. I've added a lot of items in the past couple of days, and all ordering, shipping, and payment is handled securely through Amazon--I never see any of that information, but I do get a little commission on the sales. I promise I won't resort to public broadcasting-style pledge drives, nor will I post a photo of my dog staring at an empty food bowl.

Thanks to those of you who have already ordered things, and next year when Amazon begins selling wine you'll also have the opportunity to order some of the wines that I write about.

08 December 2008

Christmas Dinner Suggestions

Site Update: I've added keywords to all 567 posts. Scroll down on the left and you'll see a list of keywords based on region, grape, ingredient, etc. They're unobtrusive but will help you (and me) find things faster. Sometimes I'll pick up a wine and when I go to research it, I'll find that the first or second result in Google is my own site. There's over 2,000 wines listed on this blog, I can't remember every single one!

And now, some advice if your holiday cooking is stuck in a rut...

Interested in what wines to serve with Christmas dinner? Check out my Thanksgiving advice but add more reds from PIGS and throw in a bottle of Port for after dinner. But what to serve for that dinner?

A properly roast turkey and a good ham are incredible, but thanks to the pervasive sandwich culture of the US we eat lots of turkey and ham all year round. Here's some simple and tasty alternatives. None of these are exotic, but you'll need a probe thermometer and a roasting pan with a wire rack. Stop by some place like Bed Bath & Beyond and you can grab inexpensive versions for a total of $30. If money is tight, a disposable aluminum pan could be used, just set the pan on top of a cookie sheet and the meat on top of some carrots to let the fat drain away.

Do a little comparison shopping and you should be able to find these meats for $3-5 per lb., but aside from the duck you're not messing with a bunch of bones--the rest fall in the "solid chunk of edible meat" category. You may not have as many leftovers as a turkey would provide, but any of them will make for a memorable dinner and perhaps a new family tradition. And while none of these are difficult to cook, if you've never roasted something you might want to do a test run a week or two before the big day.

1. Duck
Duck is rich, savory, and infinitely more flavorful than chicken. It's all dark meat and the whole bird is surrounded by one of the world's most delicious substances, duck fat. Seriously, trim off the fat from the tail and some of the other excess flaps, render it out in a skillet and then fry up potatoes in the resulting grease. You'll never go back to Crisco.

I can usually find fresh ducks during the holidays, though frozen will work just as well. Roast at 350° until the thick part of the thigh registers 160° (duck is pretty forgiving, and you can go lower or higher depending on your comfort level).

2. Leg of Lamb
Boneless is the easiest way to go here for cooking and carving. In the photo, the lamb is on the right, pork loin on the left. Over a grill is the quickest and easiest way (plus lots of great smoke flavor), but an oven will work just as well. If you don't feel like making a French sauce but want something other than mint jelly, try this: take a jar of raspberry preserves and combine it with chopped fresh mint and walnuts or pecans. Stir it all together and serve beside the lamb as a kind of chutney.

While I prefer my rack of lamb medium rare, I think leg tastes best at medium/medium-well. However you roast it, cook until it's about 140° but don't let it dry out.

3. Pork Loin
Unlike the thin tenderloins, a pork loin is about four inches across and is a solid log of meat with a fat cap on one side. Many grocery store versions are pre-brined or marinated and can be roasted as is. Fruit is a natural pairing: I used orange slices for the one in the picture, but apples, prunes, grapes, or cherries will work also. For more liquid flavorings, cook it in a Dutch oven or other covered pot. Try an oven temp of 350°-400°. Don't overcook it or it will be dry and tough; take it out when it reaches an internal temperature of 150°.

After resting, cut thin slices and serve with the sauce of your choice, or even simple Dijon mustard.

4. Ribeye Roast
One of my favorite things in the world, and it definitely has the "wow" factor with a minimum of work. Some prefer the roasts with ribs on, but I find it easier to use the boneless roasts. Buy as much as you need to feed the guests that are coming, let it air dry in the fridge for about a week. Coat with some salt and pepper (or mustard and herbs, or BBQ sauce, or whatever flavor you want), and cook it in a low oven (around 200°) until it reaches an internal temperature of 125°. Let it rest and either carve off steaks or thin slices depending on what folks want. Check out the Alton Brown method if you'd like more details, just ignore the terra cotta pot--it works perfectly fine in a normal roasting pan.

5. Entire Goat
Just kidding! I love goat but it's a little hard to find everywhere. Give it a few years and I'll have a great cabrito recipe for everyone. Until then, good luck with the Christmas planning.

05 December 2008

Book Review: Wine

Happy Repeal Day! On December 5, 1933, two thirds of the states ratified the 21st Amendment overturning Prohibition, meaning that citizens could once again legally purchase alcohol, rather than having to rely on a dangerous black market of moonshiners, rum smugglers, the mafia, and Canadians. In celebration of 75 years of freedom from the teetotalers, let's learn more about this site's favorite adult fermented beverage.

I received a copy of Wine by André Dominé, the 2008 translation of the German original Wein. (Great minimalist design on the cover--no doubt as to the book's subject.) The information ranges from general for the novice to microscopic for the enthusiast, all in one volume. The first 150 pages contain chapters about winemaking and wine history. The next 350 pages are devoted to France, Italy, and Germany, and the remaining 350 pages cover the entire rest of the winemaking world. It's definitely focused on the Old World. The chapter on "Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, England and Wales" is the same length as the one devoted to all of North America: 46 pages.

While it's arranged geographically rather than by grape, you can look up specific grapes in the index. Actually there are four separate indicies for Subject, Places, People, and Producers, which will make it easy to find what you're looking for depending on your individual method of looking at wine. In each region, specific producers are featured along with images of some of the labels.

It is a big book, weighing in at over 8 lbs. and 900 pages, all set in a tasteful Garamond. I'd hesitate to call it a coffee table book; it's a serious reference work. This means that it's chock full of wine data, beautiful photography, and informative maps. While I know the main wine regions of Europe fairly well, I need further study in the subdivisions within those regions. This book will be an excellent tool in learning more about the various wines I bring home, as well as developing a better appreciation of terroir.

I plan to keep the book in my kitchen where I can browse through it randomly--after all, it's no fun to read an encyclopedia from start to finish. I've been nibbling away at the Larousse Gastronomique for ten years and I'm still learning things. I also plan to have it on hand for dinner parties, where it will be easier to pull out and show something to a dinner guest in a way that will keep them at the table and part of the conversation rather than shuttling them off to a computer to look it up. And hopefully that person will start browsing and discover something new in the process.

If you're interested in this as a Christmas gift for the wine lover in your life, or as an addition to your own library, you can buy it from my Amazon store.

Cover image courtesy of Langenscheidt Publishing Group

03 December 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: Santa Damiana Tubulares Grande + Ports

A while back I got a mystery box of different cigars, which included ten Santa Damiana Tubulares Grande (6½"x48). Connecticut shade wrapper with the rest of the tobacco coming from the Dominican Republic.

It's a medium bodied cigar with lots of incredible aromas and flavors that are perfect for the holidays: hazelnut and almond, touch of vanilla. The tube is convenient for transporting the cigars when you're going to be away from the humidor for a while (which is why tubos are popular among golfers). With several potential cigar smokers in attendance, I brought them along for the post-Thanksgiving relaxation.

Here's a fun trick to do with a brandy snifter, though you'll want to use a good cigar and a decent Port, Sherry, or Whiskey. Slowly blow the smoke into the snifter and let it roll around on top of the drink. It will slowly waft away and change the flavor of the beverage in interesting ways. Plus, it looks cool. Paul was kind enough to pose for the photo--as always click for a larger version to see more detail.

What's in the glass? We tasted four different Ports after Thanksgiving dinner. In order from left to right, we've got Graham's Six Grapes, the aptly named Benjamin Tawny from Australia, Smith-Woodhouse Reserve, and Dow 10 Year Tawny. Three of these Ports are courtesy of Fredric; I'd suggest checking out his detailed notes from the tasting he hosted. The odd man out is the Benjamin, which has flavors of raisins, orange, apple, and spice. At $15 it's a great bargain.

Even if you're not a cigar smoker, it wouldn't hurt to keep a couple of bottles of Port on hand. They're wonderful after dinner, pair well with cheeses and desserts, and are perfect for slow contemplation in the cold winter months.

01 December 2008

Benito vs. the Eunuch: Capon

Quick Thanksgiving Recap: I assisted Paul with his big Thanksgiving, which swelled to nearly 20 people. To help feed the masses while leaving the kitchen free for casseroles and the turkey, I set up the Weber grill with lump mesquite coals on either side and an aluminum trough in the middle, which allowed me to roast a pork loin with indirect heat for a few hours. Halfway through I added a boneless leg of lamb and had both ready for carving right after the blessing was said. Both were a big hit with the various families assembled, and the smoky flavor wasn't strong enough to overpower the savory casseroles provided by the many guests and tender roast turkey Paul got from Fresh Market. For wines we had a Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs and a lot of the leftover Carmenere from the previous weekend. Several of the menfolk retired to the deck with cigars and Port afterward.

Skip ahead to Sunday...

Every year after Thanksgiving, I roast a small turkey at home and make some side dishes so I can have leftovers (the lack thereof is the only downside of attending a big holiday gathering), but something different caught my eye. A capon is a male chicken who was castrated at an early age and raised as a plump, non-aggressive, and ultimately tasty bird. I first heard about this oddity sometime in high school--it was either a footnote in a history book or a Scrabble word, I don't recall. The Elizabethan delicacy was mentioned in Shakespeare a few times*, and I remember thinking that you'd have to be pretty decadent to even think up such a dish, like Roman emperors eating pickled hummingbird tongues. Of course, now I've got four different salts and five vinegars in my kitchen. You've come a long way, baby.

After picking it up from the Schnuck's freezer section (about $15), it took a few days for Farinelli to thaw out, and I prepared him for roasting the same way you'd season a hen. (And for the gigglers in the back row, no, the testicles are not included in the giblet bag. Though I did consider serving two de-breaded McNuggets on the side to frighten my fellow diners.) Just a little salt, pepper, some lemon and onion in the cavity, fresh rosemary under the skin, and fairly high heat.

A capon tastes somewhere between a chicken and turkey but is a lot juicier due to the added fat. I think it's a great compromise between the two, especially since a small turkey has a lot of heavy bones versus the available meat. I served it simply with fresh cranberry sauce and fingerling potatoes roasted in brown butter.

For the wine I followed my own Thanksgiving advice with an Italian rosé. The 2007 Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto from Verona in North Central Italy. $20, 12.5% abv. 55% Corvina, 35% Rondinella, 10% Molinara. It's light and restrained, with just a slight nose of wild strawberries. As it warms up more structure and lemon-tinged acidity is present, so resist the temptation to overchill this bottle. It is a delicate wine that melts on your tongue and would go well with quail or game hen. And while it has the least to do with the flavor, I love this particular shade of rosé: an orange/salmon that you see more often from Spain.

With a successful Thanksgiving behind me and a refrigerator full of leftovers, I'm a happy lad. Sandwiches and enchiladas and other tasty dishes await...

*And by "a few" I mean eight times in six different plays, twice as an insult:
  • "Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and/ drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a/ capon and eat it?" ... "Item, A capon,. . 2s. 2d./ Item, Sauce,. . . 4d./ Item, Sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d." - King Henry IV, Part I Act 2, Scene 4
  • "The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit," - The Comedy of Errors Act 1, Scene 2
  • "Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb,/ idiot, patch!" The Comedy of Errors Act 3, Scene 1
  • "Stand aside, good bearer. Boyet, you can carve;/ break up this capon." - Love's Labour's Lost Act 4, Scene 1
  • "I' faith, I thank him; he hath bid me to a calf's/ head and a capon; the which if I do/ not carve most/ curiously, say my knife's naught." Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, Scene 1
  • "And then the justice,/ In fair round belly with good capon lined," As You Like It Act 2, Scene 7
  • "You are cock and capon too; and you crow,/ cock, with your comb on." Cymbeline Act 2, Scene 1

28 November 2008

2008 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau

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

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

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

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

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

26 November 2008

Benito vs. the Cigar: CAO MX2 & Italia

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2008

Chilean Carménère

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 2008

Thanksgiving Buying Guide for the Wine Novice

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

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

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

19 November 2008

2006 Encyclopedia Tempranillo

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

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

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

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

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

17 November 2008

Benito vs. the Beet: Борщ

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

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

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

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

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

14 November 2008

2004 Night Owl Merlot

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

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

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

12 November 2008

Slow Food Gathering + Site Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 November 2008

Cocktail Recipe Cards

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

Click here to download PDF

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

07 November 2008

2002 Botromagno Gravina

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

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

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

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

05 November 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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