Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cassoulet & Tannat: A Match Made in Southwestern France

Every year the wine shop/wine bar I work holds a dinner called "Cassoulet Night" that focuses on the Southwestern French dish of the same name. Although the title of the event leaves room for excitement, it is highly anticipated by hungry neighbors of the wine shop who start inquiring in September/October if we know what day Cassoulet will be served in February. Their fury, by the way, has only confirmed my long held belief that those craving the rich lushness of duck confit are a gastronomic force to be reckoned with. Our neighbors in particular start recalling the scent of slow-cooked duck in August and can't let go of the fevor until they sink their teeth once more into the sultry poultry in our cassoulet dish in February.

Normally a colleague and I split the cooking workload of our Supper Clubs. I'll sear the meat one Supper Club, and my co-cook will roast the pork loin the next. He'll (Matt) will cook the lentils for the salad one club, and I'll reduce the orange for the vinaigerette for the following first course. Yet the Cassoulet Supper Club is different.

I don't have the patience to cook the luscious cassoulet for 65 people.

Matt, however, does. He's a pretty patient guy who, when not making cassoulet, spends time running after his very active five year-old. Because of my lack of cassoulet stamina, what happens is that Matt cooks every step of the cassoulet for 65 people (I'm sorry, Matt), and I make the salad and the dessert. If you've every attempted to make cassoulet before, you know that I'm getting off easy. Three cheers to Matt.

Here's what he does to make this large batch of cassoulet: He cures the Liberty Farms duck legs weeks ahead of the event. Two to three days after curing, he renders duck fat and confits the duck on low heat in an oven for about five hours plus. Nearly a week later, he soaks cassoulet beans overnight. Then he refreshes the water, brings them to a boil, and drains them. Then, he cooks the beans again with seared hamhocks (in pot picture, above), bacon, and salt pork. At some other point he also purrees roasted garlic with herbs and other delicousness and adds it to the bean mix. On the side, he cooks sausages- those pictured above are the Toulouse variety from Fatted Calf. Before serving the cassoulet, he mixes all of the aforementioned food stuffs together, tops them with crispy breadcrumbs, and bakes the cassoulet until a supple crust develops over all the ingredients.

Personally, I'd pass out after hitting the thirty-person mark with Cassoulet making.

So after preparing the simple salad and flourless chocolate cake dessert, (see the amount of butter above used for 3 -or was it 2- of these gauteau au chocolates) my focus is to test the meal with wine. To figure out which wines will pair best with our courses. Matt and I normally do this together, but as he spends more time slaving away over a stove for this event than I do, I devote more time to thinking about wine pairing. Or maybe I just spend more time testing wines.

Anyhow, for Cassoulet Nights, we decided that to go with regional wine from Southwestern France. Something that the healthy French country folk- you know, the ones who eat duck confit and foie gras with dark red wine all the time who have lower counts of heart disease and cancer than Americans- would drink with cassoulet.

A grape that is dearly loved in Southwestern France, and at our shop, is Tannat. It's commonly used in the dark reds in the lower regions of France and Basque regions of Spain and is one the burliest wine grape in the world (yah, I'm talking to you, Petite Sirah), and it is oh so lovely with cassoulet. This rich, rich, rich dish dish can handle a rough, burly wine with big tannins. Something like this country grape of France.

We decided to go with two wines from Charles Neal- a great importer of le vin Francais. Both from Domaine Laffont, of the Madiran region. One wine, called Hecate was all Tannat. The second wine was a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Franc- just in case we had some wimps in the audience who were scared of the big bad grape. Most weren't worried about the potency- the Hecate was the best seller.

Because these were such big wines, we decanted them two hours before the event. This really helped to soften the tannins and oxygenate the wines so the dark cassis fruit could be released from the dark Tannat shell.

The pairing was pretty fabulous. My fav was the Hecate, because as my favorite saying goes, once you go pure Tannat, you can't go back. The strong Hecate broke down the fat molecules in the duck fat and reconstructed them so the protons were alligned with the bacon's neutrons and the breadcrumbs crisp glutonns, and really, it was just magic all the way.

Lastly, the Tannat grape is, to my surprise, also THE grape of Uruguay as well as Basque and Southwestern French lands. Apparently it does magnificently in Uruguayan soils, and I think that we all will be seeing a lot more of the deep grape from South America, at reasonable costs. If you're interested in a little history, insight of the grape down South, check out this video clip.

Cheers to Tannat, Cassoulet, Vin de la Table readers and participants, and for Supper Clubs at wine bars.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Potato Gratin: What would you pair with.....?

This post marks the beginning of a weekly trend, at Vin de la Table titled, "What would you pair with ......?"

Each week I'll post a picture of a food that I'd love to hear how you, my dear readers, would pair with wine. I've changed the blog format so that any reader, not just those with gmail accounts, may leave their wine pairing choice under the comment selection.

Rules: None. If the picture is of an food only in it's basic form, feel free to mentally prepare the food any way you wish to make your perfect pairing. Add garlic. Add fish sauce. Add Fontina if you like. If you think that the food is best in the form in the photo I attached, it's okay to mentally plate the dish as is and choose a wine.

Any wine any time.
You have any wine, from two-buck-Chuck to a Cheval Blanc at your disposal, and you may sip the wine with your glorious dish in any preferred place. Give me details!

Further craziness: Every once in a while, I might throw in a non food item- a song, an object, another type of noun that you may pair with the juice.

This week, the food that ya'll can play with is Potato Gratin. Pair alone, as part of an entree course, or as a dessert topped with ice cream, if you are that sort of person.

Have fun! Looking forward to hearing your wine pairings!

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Madeira: A British Love Affair. Part II

In case you don't want to scroll down to catch up on the first post of Madeira: A British Love Affair, you can find the first part here.
And it starts.... now. Pst... click here

Welcome to my Madeira world.


Before I divulge the amazing nature of this special import, I wanted to include a little background on Madeira. Since many in the states are more familiar with this Portuguese wine as a cheap deglazing liquid rather than a glorious sipping experience, a brief overview might fair us all well.


Like many European wines, the beverage called "Madeira" is named in honor of the place from which it comes. Located around 500 miles from the mainland, the Madeira Island is a warm place fantastic for growing the uber-fragrant Verdelho, Bual, Sercial, Malvasia, and Tinta Negra Mole grapes used for this dessert wine.

Unlike other common European wines, three things happen to Madeira during its maturation that make it unusual.

First, before the grapes finish fermenting, brandy is added to the fermenting mix. Needless to say, brandy is added to the grapes around the same in the process that grandma adds her flair to her morning coffee. This slows fermentation and stops yeasts from eating the developing sugar in the fruit. Then (how Madeira making primarily differs from Port production), the resulting liquid is transferred to one of two places so it can be cooked. That's right, cooked.

If the grape liquid is being used for lower quality Madeira, it is taken to buildings called “estufas” (stoves), where the barreled wine will be left in the artificially heated buildings for 3-5 months. If the Madeira-in-training is going to be used for high quality wine, it is transported to winery attics, where the exposure to moderate and gradual heat over 20 years will nurture delicate caramel flavors.

Lastly, a space is left in the top of Madeira barrels so that air will oxidize (a.k.a, mellow out) the wine over the aging process. To my knowledge, this is only done in Madeira, with a French white wine in Jura, and white some whites in Spain. But I have a lot to learn.

Where in the world is Carmen San Diego, you ask? Good question. Madeira is made in this fashion because it replicates the effects of early sea voyage on the wine when commerce was ocean-based. It originally took months to transport Madeira in the “basement” of ships, where it was so hot that the wine was cooked by default. Luckily, the heat led to favorable caramel flavors and longer-lasting wines. Around the 17th century, Madeira exporters decided to add brandy to the wine to further extend the wine’s longevity for sea voyages to places like Africa and India, and later to South America, suggests Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible.

This is where I’m assuming the British love for Madeira was further honed. Most of the places to which the Madeira was being shipped were original British colonial lands- mainly in Africa, India, South America. Madeira was also quite popular in America for quite a while. It was the libation of choice to celebrate the signing of our Declaration of Independence, and was further favored in warm areas of the U.S. like the South because it is nearly imperishable, even in Southern humidity. It has since fallen out of true fashion in America (no way it could get into a party with Stella Macartney), but has remained popular in England- at least with all Brits who read hard-cover books in their home libraries, where it is legally required that they consume the drink.


I had never had a fine aged Madeira before, and was overjoyed to discover that it is quite simply, miraculous.
The flavors in the forty-six year old wine ranged from coffee to chocolate to cinnamon, then orange zest and dark cherries that had been soaked in fine bourbon (the ones that go in your favorite top-notch Manhattans). But it didn't stop there. It continued to evoke dried apricots and rich caramel. Why more people don’t make Madeira flavored truffles with essence of caramelized orange zest, I just don’t know.

After taking a few sips and whiffs of our pleasurable drink, I suggested to my husband Chim Chim (CC) that the caramelized scent the Madeira was evoking made me think of cooking meat. In culinary school, we were taught the glories of the “Millard Reaction.” This is when a food’s sugars (think rib-eye or carrots) are heated to the point where they began to caramelize. Sometimes the sugars harden, like the surface of a seared steak, or sometimes they just turn even sweeter, like the browned bits of sautéed carrots. CC's response was “the Madeira reminds me of orange zest on a nice crispy steak.” Exactly. Like when you walk home and there's a steak cooking in the cast-iron and a cinnamon, chocolate apricot cake in the oven topped with orange zest. That's got to be like every night, right?

When drinking such sexy wine, CC and I decided that the desserts that we consumed it should be just as provocative. So we brought out our stash of Michel Cluizel “Les 1ers Crus de Plantation Chocolates,” cognac truffles a friend made, and stollen that we had from Christmas.

To start, the Michel Cluizel chocolate was superb with the Madeira. Michel Cluizel is a Parisian chocolatier who makes chocolates from single-origin cocao plantations. Like fine winemakers believe a wine should express the earth in which the grapes grow, Cluizel states that by tasting his chocolates, one is also experiencing the differences in soil, climate, and geography where the cocoa was grown. We tried his dark chocolates from Saint Dominique, Venezuela, Sao Tomé, New Guinea and Madagascar. Our favorite chocolate with the Madeira was called “Maralumi,” from Papua New Guinea. It was the very darkest and had the most intense pure cocoa flavor. The others were gorgeous, of course, but their extracurricular flavors, such as seasame, coffee, and smoke, required more attention than we could offer while fawning over the Madeira.

Like the other Michel Cluizel chocolates that had longer stories to tell than we had time to listen, the cognac truffles were a bit too much for our golden Madeira. Dark, genache-laden, rich and deliciously boozy, the truffles overpowered the Madeira. So we downed a couple when the drink wasn’t looking and put the rest of the box away.

Finally we embraced the stolen. Now if any of you have Germanic roots, you may have tried this earthly delight, if not, oh my lord, you should. It’s a dense, bread-like cake blessed with rum-soaked golden raisins, thin slices of citron and candied orange zest, and best of all, often studded with marzipan then topped with powdered sugar. It’s not too sweet, because the dough itself has only a bit of sugar within, and, we found out, it pairs perfectly with Madeira. Bet you guessed this already when you heard of it’s filling, right? Sound like the flavors in Madeira, doesn’t it? The candied citrus highlighted the orange zest and caramel notes in the wine, and the almond paste (marzipan) brought the coffee and chocolate Madeira scents into fruitition.

What a night. If you haven’t had enough of hearing about the Madeira pairings, I have just one to add. We have a bit left and plan to sip it with Redwood Hill Camellia cheese very soon. It’s a tender, extremely subtle little goat cheese that is completely mellow and buttery due to its downy-white bloomy rind. We had the Camellia with some young V.Sattui Madeira a year or so ago, and if its even half as good as it was with that, we’ll be knocked out for days.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Snooth Blogging: How to Taste More Wine for Less Money

Next week I will have part 2 of Madeira: A British Love Affair (part 1 below) ready for your perusal. Right now, it's taking more time than I expected. To hold you over, I'm including something that I recently wrote for the Snooth wine website that I thought you might enjoy. I'll be posting with them once or twice a month for a while, my topic being anything about food and wine. The post isn't entirely food related, but pertinent in the wine world none the less. Hope it tickles your fancy, and here is a link to the new Snooth wine website itself.


As a wine industry professional responsible for dispensing accurate or vividly colorful wine information to curious oenophiles, you can bet that I taste more wine weekly than your average person tastes in a month or three.

Despite the purple stains gathering unabashedly on my teeth or the high amount of tooth enamel I’ve lost from high-acidity wine samplings, I feel very lucky. My employment encourages me to engage my passion on the clock.

If someone’s aim is to absorb as much viniferous knowledge as possible, having opportunities to taste is crucial. Reading about vineyards, domaines, and grape histories links the world of wine together, but tasting is what really hammers in the knowledge. Example- it’s easy enough to read about the Fiano di Avellino grape, but almost impossible to understand its pear, almond-liscous and sea-air flavors, or think of a food pairing, until it passes through one’s lips.

That being said, wine is not cheap. In fact, unless the experience section of one’s resume benefits from the phrase “tastes at least a hundred wines monthly while working,” tasting with the aim of learning can be excruciatingly expensive.
Yet there are ways.

Five ways to learn more about wine for less money:

1. Frequent wine establishments that let you order flights, half glasses or tasting portions and order glasses at restaurants rather than bottles.

It may feel less economical since we’re taught that buying in bulk will save money, but think of it this way. One bottle equals a taste of one wine. Four half-glasses or tastes equals four tastes of different wines. Would you rather pay five dollars each for four two-ounce pours of diverse wines at one sitting, and then come back next week to try three or four more (that is eight distinct wines you’ve just tasted!), or, pay to share only one bottle (= one taste per visit) each time? Unless you absolutely have to have that hard to find Barolo on the list, buy bottles to drink at home with dinner. Buy tastes and glasses when you’re out.

2. If ordering a prix-fixe menu at a restaurant, choose the wine pairing option with the courses.

Whether it is $18 or $65, wine pairing options at reputable establishments are always a good deal and a fantastic learning experience. Most wine directors and sommeliers are very skilled at pairing wine with cuisine- it’s their job. That being said, not only will you taste at least three of the wine director’s favorite wines for less than the bottle cost, you’ll learn just by noting the pairing experience.

3. Frequent and support wine shops that offer free daily tastings.

More and more wine shops and markets are pouring a different wine nightly, for free, in order to increase awareness of wine and to help familiarize people with a store’s offerings. I’ve seen this in Berkeley, the broader Bay Area, New York City, and have faith that this common sense practice will expand.

4. Host wine tastings where each guest brings a bottle of wine made from the same grape, but from a different country.

This is a great way to share the expense of exploring differences in tastes, vintages, textures and styles due to climate, varying techniques and practices and taste preferences. Take notes, check out wine books from the library, share your findings on the region’s typical wine practices after you taste, do a little research on the vintage’s impact on the grape, and be amazed by how much you’ll learn.

5. Finally, attend wine classes and paid tastings at local shops and venues.

These are generally very good deals. You’ll be sharing the cost of the wines with other classmates and you’ll learn the wine’s background as you taste. Keep in mind, all wine educators know that the wine world consists of an amazing amount of knowledge, that no one can know everything, and that everyone starts somewhere.

Next blog- I’ll explore a glory of drinking wine with dinner. In the meantime, check out my wine and food pairing blog, vindelatable.blogspot.com.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Madeira- A British Love Affair

This is the first of a two-part story about an aged British Madeira, and the imported goodies consumed with the luscious nectar.

Brits have a soft spot for Madeira.

This I discovered when a regular wine bar patron said one of the things he was most anticipating upon his return to England during Christmas was that fine Portuguese island dessert wine. “You don’t often see good Madeira around here,” he said, chuckling. Indeed.

Well, it just happens that before my husband was born, his parents lived in England for three years. And, my husband’s older brother is a dual citizen of England and the U.S, because he was born in Britain. Furthermore, it is possible (I don't want to pry) that my husband was conceived in England. Accordingly, my husband (lets call him Chim Chim), is almost British. So he loves Madeira too.

Knowing that Chim Chim (let’s call him CC) is a fan of the Portuguese dessert wine, I was very happy when the aforementioned regular bar patron offered to bring me back of bottle of fine Madeira when he returned from England. It was the good stuff, he said.

“I have access to some really great cellars,” he told me. Well, that statement alone is worth a post all in itself, but as I’m low on space, I’ll briefly describe some of his access.

1. Apparently, the older universities in England keep cellars of wine imported from their European neighbors and occasionally post grads- like our wine bar friend, can obtain or taste or a bottle or two. The colleges have been furnished these cellars for hundreds of years, he said, so they have some of the finest and most coveted wines you’ll see around. Okay. Cal wasn’t like this, and if Oxford was upfront about this in the application packets, I would have applied.
2. He knows a guy.

Now, I don’t now through which avenue he procured the Madeira he brought back to the U.S, but it is the kind of Madeira that I feel secure saying would be amazingly hard to find anywhere outside of England. Why? Because this Portuguese juice was the 1981 Anniversary Madeira bottled (just bottled, mind you, it had already just been aging in barrel for 25 years) to commemorate Princess Diana’s and Charles marriage. And its still there, commemorating. Except for the bottle in our cabinet- a quarter of which is commemorating in our stomachs.

Next post what we ate with the luscious bottle, and an exploration of Madeira.

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Citysearch Girls and Boys Night Out- East (by me)

Hello all-

I've been a contributor to the Citysearch website for a couple months now (little things, here and there), and today, they published something larger that I wrote. It is a "girls night out, boys night out" guide to the East Bay (SF Bay Area), inventively titled:

"East Bay Girls/Guys Night Out"

I'm including links to the article in case any of you in the area and into an x or y chromosome empowerment night. Have fun! By the way, once my article was edited, I discovered that the acronym "S.O." now in my Citysearch writing means significant other. Should I have known this? I never know these things.

Main: East Bay Girls/Guys Night Out

Girls Night Out

Boys Night Out

Lastly, since I didn't feel that the pictures for my Citysearch writing accurately reflected girls night out, so I included a couple snaps of me and my girl Claire, powering up before a night on the town! Now you know how we do it. Old School.

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