Saturday, June 28, 2008

Spice Braised Meats: Because the Sun is Hiding

Due to a seemingly endless trend of wildfires around Northern California this past week, the air is as smoky as a windowless room that's contained only Lou Reed and a carton(s) of cigarettes for three and a half days. The smoke is keeping the sun from shining, and the fog and the haze is blanketing the San Francisco Bay Area in a thick layer of pure asthma love.

Resulting from our sunless summer, the SF Bay Area is even cooler than normal. This has inspired me to put down my inhaler spray, halt my light cursing, and return to a post that I started in winter but never finished because we had an early heat wave.

Welcome back braising!

One of my favorite ways to prepare meat this winter was with a recipe featured in Saveur magazine's Chicago issue. It involved beautiful amounts of spices, citrus fruits, and aromatic wine. After I made it once the chefs way, I experimented with other meats, wines and herbs.

For example, after finding chicken thighs (ah.... dark meat) in our freezer one night that my mother-in-law donated to our poultry cause, I switched the meat base. I used the thighs for the dish instead of lamb, lessened the cooking time and worried a little less about creating a sauce and more about surrounding the chicken with lush flavors.

Another time I cooked pork butt. Which is actually pork shoulder, but who's ever been worried about the ramifications of misnaming a shoulder a butt.... The point of the matter is, any way I worked this recipe, the dish worked. Chef Bruce Sherman is a skilled man. I encourage you to play around sometime with this recipe too. The recipe is long, but the result is worth actually months of your time. Once you've mastered the basic idea, feel free to alter steps. I did.

The first time I made this recipe, I served the dish with the wine with which I used to cook the meat and pour in my glass during the cooking process. Then I opened an additional bottle of a different wine when the first ran out. The chef who created the recipe, Bruce Sherman, suggested using a dry Gewurztraminer in the braising liquid. Instead, I used a blended Alsatian wine called "Solis L"Exception" by Julien Meyer which contained 60 % Pinot Blanc, 35 % Sylvaner, and 5 % Muscat, but either wine suggestions will produce happy results. Gewurztraminer is a a lychee and rose scented grape, and often both Sylaner and Muscat evoke those scents as well as apricots, peaches, and other members of the floral families. As long as you stick with what is called an "aromatic wine", like a dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Roussane or Sylanner, your braise should come out beautifully. The exotic aromatics in these wines love the flavors in the recipe such as Cardamon, star anise, and cinnamon. Don't the scents of cinnamon, apricot, rose and pear sound like they'd pair well together? Play some.

Once we finished (four people, I swear) the first bottle, I opened a bottle of Barberesco that I recalled exhibited aromas of citrus along with dark fruit and other Nebbiolo characteristics, but nearly any lightly oaked, earthy and spicy wine would have worked in the realm of red, such as a Cote du Rhone (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre). Even an aged Cabernet Sauvignon would have been lovely.

Would the ingredient list or description of the braised lamb of this recipe inspire you to open a particular bottle to sip with dinner? What about if you went with chicken instead?

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Prosecco & Peas

On none too rare of occasions, one will find a better wine pairing while sipping a bottle of wine that they forgot about in the fridge and shelling peas for steamed mussels, slicing cheese for pizza, or tearing basil leaves for a lasagna then one will ever create with hours of contemplation.

Sometimes this pisses me off. How dare something so simple bypass me when I was envisioning the magical mix of twenty ingredients?! But most time, I embrace the spirited nature of the universe that blesses the most basic of foods and the simpliest of wines with hearts that are so happy to meat each other.

Enter fresh shelled English peas, Drussian Prosecco, and my husband's chile pepper chef pants that his mother made. The peas, so sweet and green, were so excited to meet the likes of the peachy, lemony Prosecco that they simply exploded in my mouth. Prosecco is a sparkling wine from the Veneto region of Italy made from the grape it's named after. And the chile pants, well, they were so thrilled by the pairing that they had refused to get out of the picture. They wanted to be a part of the perfection.

We ate at least a handful of the fresh peas straight from the pod, and although I love them many ways, one of my favorite being lightly blanched, with butter and fresh thyme or mint, at the moment, nothing was better.

Any favorite pea pairings?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

An Ode to Picnic Wines and a Note About Raccoons

Sometimes you go on a picnic and it is as relaxing as walking through redwood forrest with a mojito in hand, and other times, wild animals attack. The later was reflective of the latest picnic I went on. But I still liked it. We still got to drink wine.

My mother, my Aunt Lin who was in town for the day, and we together went up to Tilden Park in Berkeley to enjoy a beautiful picnic spray in the lush green nature reserve. We spread our goods on the table, sliced some Fatted Calf Toscano salami, poured some wine into our plastic cups, and then we had a visitor. A crazy visitor.

Our little friend was a raccoon that could no longer hunt. He was a sad little raccoon, and demanded that we feed him. Instead of running away like another wild, friendly raccoon did when the women of the family (excepting myself, who stood with her mouth open and salami slice in hand) waved things at him and made a lot of noise, he came full force at our table, limping with a recently shortened tail. And then he came closer. Then he charged at my mother. That was when we submitted and threw him a third of our baguette. We aren't normally the family to feed wild beings, especially when there are signs around warning us of the danger, but after we relocated and he followed us with the same crazy look in its eyes, we realized that if we wanted to finish our picnic, were left with little choice. Later the raccoon was joined by a feral cat and a healthy raccoon, who also watched us. We did not feed them. We were able to enjoy our picnic regardless of the uninvited visitors, but I admittedly was frightened by how many times that he walk/limped aggressively towards my mother. Especially because two weeks ago, she was bit by a poisonous spider and had to be hooked up to a IV. I thought it would be such a shame if she had to return to the hospital night due to a raccoon attack. The hospital workers might have questioned the way she spent her leisure time.

Anyhow. It's picnic time.

Once again the season is upon us that requires the filling of straw baskets with luscious meats, cheeses, fresh salads, pie, leftover Girl Scout cookies that magically appeared in our cupboards, and at least two to five bottles of good wine. Those of you who treasure the good life or just enjoy the opportunity to wear your Hawaiian print culottes in public, get ready; it’s picnic season. Pack an extra baguette

Although picnics are somewhat casual events when compared to weddings or baptisms, there is no excuse to get lazy. Like the aforementioned events, picnics have rules too. They are:

Picnic Standards
1. Bring plenty of cheese, charcuterie and bread.
2. Pack plenty of wines that go with cheese, charcuterie and bread.
3. If you’re going to wear your culottes, call other event attendees to coordinate Hawaiian prints, and don’t wear socks unless they are exactly the same print as your partner’s.

An Exploration of Picnic Wines

Good picnic wines are not hard to come by. Essentially, not even wine that overwhelms the lighthearted picnic food will get in the way of you enjoying your day, because you are on a picnic! If you are, however, one of those people like me who like your wine to match your food even when drinking out of plastic cups, there are a couple wines that will match nearly any picnic food that you bring.

Two wines in particular that stand out as super picnic wines, and not just because they earned gold in the Picnic Olympics, are the 05 Stepahn Tissot Poulsard San Soufre, from Arbois, and the 07 Chateau Mourgues du Gres “Les Galets Dores,” a Grenache Blanc and Rousillion Rhône blend from Nîmes.

The Tissot Poulssard comes from Arbois, the charming French town that produces such classics as Morbier, Gruyere and Comté cheeses. It’s a round, raspberry, strawberry, earthy little wine with bright acidity that’s gentle to cheeses and cuts the fat in charcuterie. Some cheeses in particular I’d suggest with the Poulsard would be the Gruyere, Comté, fresh chevre, and Mt. Tam by Cowgirl Creamery.

Next is the Chateau Mourgues, a general picnic pleaser. This pretty, fresh wine will charm everyone from your wine snob cousin to your picky grandmother, pear, vanilla and white peach flavors pair wonderfully with grandma’s chicken salad and brilliantly with the expensive cheeses and French olives your sophisticated cousin brought.

Have a wonderful picnic and watch out for the contentious raccoons.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Chocolate & Wine: Dry Reds, Sweet Wine, or Milk?

There's a great debate in the wine world concerning the pairing of chocolate and wine. It goes something like this: are they simply the best, most romantic duo ever, or are they the worst pairing cliche since Ross and Rachel?

At the request of Vin de la Table readers, I decided to put the question to test. It's a hard job, but someone gets a discount on wine and that someone's husband also works at a gourmet food shop where they sell Michele Cluizel chocolate. So the burden falls on my shoulders; the task falls on my table. Husband's input also included.

Before I divulge the results, however, it's important to note that the pairing question inherently needs clarification. Just to start, the chocolate and wine seeker must ask themselves:

When I seek to pair chocolate and wine, do I mean red wine? Do I mean dry red wine? Why? Am I imagining a chocolate dessert like cake or mousse with my wine, or do I really want a flavored chocolate truffle? With caramel or tarragon filling? Or, would I rather consume chocolate with a high percentages of cacao- 65% plus? Lastly, am I only to drink dry red wine, or can I indulge in that sweet or off-dry wine like Madeira or Sherry that I have lounging in my kitchen?

These are things to ask oneself before one's quest begins, because the answers dictate the chocolate and wine tasting results. Let me be your guide in this post.

We'll answer the questions together.

1. When I seek to pair chocolate and wine, do I mean red wine? Do I mean dry red wine?...... Why?

Good freaken question. Most times when people come into our wine shop on a chocolate quest, they request a Cabernet Sauvignon. I ask why. Is it because the pictures of chocolate and wine together feature a hazy, dimly lit, golden photo of a cab next to chocolate chunks? I think so. In my opinion, cab and cocoa is as good together as peanut butter in a dog's mouth. Everything just interferes with each other. The saliva, the chewing action, the sticky peanut butter. The heavy oak, the acidity, the fruit in the wine, all conflict with the chocolate. Yet this is the standard on which people base their wine/chocolate consumption. My advice- if you're going for a red wine, a dry red wine, go for a Petite Sirah, an almost-sweet Zinfandel, or a rich and rustic Tempranillo or Malbec, or chewy red from the Madiran region of France. They are heavy, full-bodied, have a hell of a lot of fruit, smoke, depth, and tannins. All of these blessed ingredients equate to a warm blanket that wraps around chocolate and makes it feel good inside. However, if you love chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon, rock the two with all your heart and don't let me stop you from your loves.

2. Am I imagining a chocolate dessert like cake or mousse with my wine, or would I rather have a flavored chocolate truffle? With caramel or tarragon filling?

Yikes. If you are lusting after a composed chocolate dessert with your dry red wine, I'd advise you to look elsewhere. It will never treat you right. It is almost certain that the dish will be too sweet. Sugary desserts and red wine don't mix. However, if you are lusting and imagining a sweeter wine with your fourless chocolate torte, three cheers for you! Sweet and sweet? What a match!

3.Or, do I want to consume chocolate with high percentages of cacao- 65% plus, with my wine?

Good thinking. You do want to consume chocolate with high percentages of cacao, from 65%- 75% with your wine. This is best way to go if you are hoping to experience the magic of both subjects. 65% is about as low as you want to go because anything under that, you'd be introducing too much cream or sugar and would out-sweet the wine. Anything over 75%, you are matching tannins in chocolate to those in the wine. Not what you want to do unless you want to whip your tongue and palate into submission. Keep in mind, however, that there's plenty of give and take in the percentages. Play around. Play around a lot. This is an area where red wine, such as Petite Sirah, Malbec, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and Madrian reds can shine with the wine. Here, the combo of the fine cacao and the wine bring out the fruit in each other. Cherries, berries, cassis.

4. Lastly, can I indulge in that sweet or off-dry wine, or fortified wine like Madeira or Sherry that I have lounging in my kitchen?

Oh my, I hope so. In all respect to chocolate and dry red wine fans together, I don't belong to the same fan club. While "enjoying" the two together, I find myself looking around the kitchen to see if I can find some milk for my chocolate. Or, I imagine the cheese I could be eating. It's sacrilegious, somewhere, I'm sure, but real nonetheless. The pairing isn't bad, per say, but I prefer other flavors in the chocolate besides the blaring fruit and acidity that the chocolate brings out. The wines that I really like with my cocoa are the sweeter types, like Madeira, certain versions of Sherry, Port, or late harvest Zinfandels. Sauterenes is a beautiful wine, but I'd rather have it with my fruit tart. Same goes for late-harvest Chardonnay.

Back to what I tasted. Out of the three wines pictured above that I tried, the best with chocolate was the Tempranillo. It was rich, tannic, fruity, and delicious, and was the perfect chocolate blanket. The Chianti was good, but didn't scream "chug me." The Mas des Brousses (Cab-Merlot blend) was just too acidic for the wine. Lovely with meat, not enticing with sugar.

What do you like to drink with your chocolate? I'd heard beer and peanut butter cups are delicious together.....

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