November 21, 2011

Squash Soup and a California Viognier

If you are still looking for a tasty soup as an appetizer for Thanksgiving, look no further. Try this fabulous Thai Red Curry Squash Soup. It must be honestly one of the best soups I have ever made. While a pumpkin or squash soup is fairly traditional during this time of year, this recipe, which includes Thai-inspired ingredients such as red curry paste, coconut milk, and lemongrass, really makes the orange vegetable stand out, without being too unusual.

I used a golden hubbard squash in the recipe, which in my opinion gave the soup an even more intense orange color than the photograph in the magazine. It looks very festive and is oh-so-yummy. F&W magazine suggests a Riesling with this soup, which is the usual suggestion for Asian-flavored dishes, aside from Gewurztraminer. Yawn... Can we try a different white wine for a change?

I happened to have the 2010 Cline Viognier from the Sonoma Coast in California on hand. This is not the most opulent viognier I have ever had, but also not one of the real crisp and edgy ones, it is more in the middle, if that makes any sense. For hubby it was actually too lean, while I really loved it. It also happened to mention on the back label that it would pair nicely with curried Thai dishes. Right on!

This was very close to a perfect pairing. As you can tell, I am already in love with this soup recipe all by itself, but the pairing with the viognier, which had just the right acidity and fruitiness, really elevated the entire experience. Please try out the soup recipe and let me know if you love it as much as I do! And Happy Thanksgiving.

October 30, 2011

Moroccan Stew and Argentine Malbec

I love experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients. So when I saw a jar of preserved lemons at my grocery store, I just had to get it. Of course I had no idea what I would do with it. But as luck would have it, I own plenty of cookbooks with recipes from around the Mediterranean. Joanne Weir's recipe for a Lamb Tagine with Artichokes seemed just about perfect to me. While I do not own a tagine, which is the traditional vessel to cook this dish in, my beloved enameled cast iron pot did just fine.

Besides the preserved lemons, the recipe included two of my favorite ingredients, artichokes and olives. As one would expect from a dish containing lemons, the sauce came out a little tart, which made me decide to add some extra cinnamon spice, to round out the flavors. This final touch made it just about perfect. I served the stew over some plain couscous.

I decided to pair this dish with the 2009 Las Perdices Malbec from the Mendoza region in Argentina. This Malbec is a nice medium-bodied wine with aromas of sour cherry and vanilla. I purchased this bottle because I had been very pleased with the Viognier by the same producer, but I found this Malbec to be justaverage when it comes to the world of Argentine Malbecs.

 Nonetheless, it was a good match with my Moroccan stew. The citrusy tartness from the lemons in the dish and the sour cherry tartness in the wine seemed to mellow each other out. Also the interplay of the cinnamon in the sauce and the vanilla notes from the oak-aging of the wine were rather intriguing. I think the food and wine pairing really uplifted the sensory experience of this special dinner.

October 16, 2011

Back from La Rioja, Spain

I have been away for a while, and to let the cat right out of the bag, I just returned from a culinary tour of the Basque region and La Rioja wine country in Spain! It was an amazing trip, and I am still in the process of digesting all the memories I have made. I do however want to share a few of the culinary highlights with you right away.

On this trip, I decided to be brave and taste at least a small bite of everything that would be put in front of me, even things that I would normally turn my nose up at. First of all I wanted to be polite to our most gracious Spanish hosts of course, and second of all, I was ready to learn and experience new things and expand my horizon. One of the most wonderful dishes during the trip was called "Rabo de toro desmigado y lacado, crema de foie y guiso de chantarelas" which I enjoyed at La Vieja Bodega in the little town of Casalarreina. I am not even going to try to translate this word for word, but it is essentially ox tail meat with a cream of foie gras and chanterelles, my favorite kind of mushroom.

I am not sure how exactly this is prepared, but it must be a long process of slowly braising the meat, until it is so tender that it literally melts in your mouth. One of the best things I have ever eaten. Seriously. As a matter of fact, I did not have a bad meal the entire time I was in Spain. I really had to pace myself in order not to put on weight at the rate of about two pounds per day...

The fact that every meal is paired with the wonderful wines of La Rioja of course also contributed to that. Here in the United States, we can easily find Spanish wines from the La Rioja region by quite a number of different producers. I did however notice that those wines are usually of the Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva categories, which describe respectively longer periods of ageing requirements in oak barrels and in the bottle. Being not a huge fan of strong oak flavors in my wines, I was pleased to often be presented with "joven" or young red wines when eating out at restaurants or while tapas bar hopping in Spain.

One such wine was the 2010 Albiker, made by the winery Bodegas Altun. It is of course made from the Tempranillo grape, which is the absolute star in the La Rioja region. This young red wine from 2010 is very fruit-forward and easy-drinking, and simply a wonderful match to all types of food that you would find in that part of the world. I wish more of these young Spanish wines were available here in the United States and will definitely keep an eye out the next time I visit my local wine shop. Stay tuned for more!

September 12, 2011

Polenta with Roasted Vegetables and Cabernet

When thinking of red wine for dinner, people often think of pairing red meat with it. So I was intrigued to find a vegetarian recipe that suggested a Cabernet Sauvignon as the pairing partner. The dish is again from Jill Silverman Hough's cookbook 100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes. The recipe is called Spinach and Parmesan Polenta with Grilled Vegetable Ragout and you can find all the main ingredients at your local farmers market at this time of the year.

The grill master of the house wasn't around that day, so I decided to oven-roast the vegetables for the ragout. It still tasted delicious. This was also the first time I ever cooked polenta, which is an Italian side dish made from cornmeal. It sort of reminded me of grits, and I am not exactly sure if I got the consistency right, but it tasted very good!

The recipe advises that polenta sets up and becomes firm soon after it is cooked, which is why I transferred any leftovers to a shallow dish while it was still warm and spread it out so that it was about a half inch thick in the dish. The next day I was able to cut the polenta into squares and pan-fried those squares in some butter. I served some sunny-side up eggs over the polenta and had a fantastic brunch dish!

Honestly, the next time I cook polenta, I think I will make it ahead of time, let it set up, and pan-fry it in butter again. I preferred it that way, and it also looked more appetizing with the nice crunchy outside.

The recipe suggests a Cabernet Sauvignon as the pairing wine, and I happened to have the 2008 Beringer Vineyards Founders' Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from California in the house. I found this to be a solid CS with dark fruit and cassis flavors and just enough oak to still be a pleasant and food-friendly wine. It definitely delivered for the price around $10. I was also very pleased by the combination with the hearty vegetable dish. Definitely proof that a vegetarian dish can be hearty and filling comfort food!

September 5, 2011

Chicken Soup with a German Spätlese

When we had the arrival of lots of rain and wind in the weather forecast the other day, namely in the shape of the remnants of Hurricane Irene, I decided to put on a slow-cooker meal. Something similar to a chicken soup seemed just enough comforting to me, being faced with the possibilities of doom and destruction. I decided to try this recipe again, which I remembered as one of the best things I got out of being a Weight Watchers member for a while a few years ago. It ended up being one of the more lasting things of the program as well... Ahem. But anyway... It was just as delicious as I remembered it.

Just to let you know, I added more chicken stock to make an actual soup, and also more jalapeños from our garden, some of which had already started to turn to a red color. That way, the dish had a good kick to it.

For my wine pairing, I had to consider that the meat was chicken, the main vegetable was sweet corn, and there was also a good amount of spiciness in the dish. I decided to go with a white wine, and a off-dry one, meaning slightly sweet, at that. I was more than excited to find the 2009 Schweinhardt Scheurebe Spätlese from the Nahe region in Germany at my local Total Wine store the other day. Usually, the German wines one can find here in the United States are all made from the Riesling grape. Save for the occasional Gewürztraminer. Which is nothing bad unto itself, just that it is a little boring. Plus, it does not do justice to all the other wonderful grape varieties grown in Germany.

The Scheurebe varietal happens to be one of my absolute favorite white wine grapes. It has this wonderful aroma of black currant and grapefruit, which sounds like a strange mix, but is absolutely stunning and seductive. It is often done in the Spätlese style, which literally means "late harvest", and for label-reading purposes often describes a little bit of a sweeter style of wine.

It was a wonderful wine to pair with the spiciness of the jalapeño. Oh, and by the way, we survived the hurricane completely unscathed. And well-fed...

August 23, 2011

Smoked Brisket and Spanish Mencia

I have probably mentioned before that my dear husband is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Actually, make that minus the potatoes. He loves meat. And lucky for me, he also likes to experiment with preparing meats in all kinds of different ways. Be it that he makes his own deer jerky (not that I would ever eat Bambi... but I hear it's rather tasty...), to his latest passion of smoking all kinds of meats and fish. Smoking, as in curing meats by exposure to smoke that is...

So the other day, he smoked a beef brisket. At first he treated it with his secret spice rub, and then smoked it for about six hours over charcoal and wood chips. Low and slow is key here, he told me conspiratorially. Whatever... as long as it tastes good in the end. And that it did! It was delicious, and we ate it with barbecue sauce and potato salad to make it a complete meal. I would be amiss if I did not point out the lovely pink smoke ring around the slices of brisket in the picture. Please make sure to take note of it... (There, I said it...)

The way I make my potato salad is basically a classic recipe. Sometimes I make changes such as chopping up some pickles instead of using prepared relish or using red or yellow onions instead of scallions. Often I also substitute red bell pepper for the celery. It has the same fresh crunch, but I prefer the flavor and it adds a nice bright color.

I decided to pair this meal with the 2006 Flavium Mencia Crianza produced by Vinos de Arganza from the Bierzo region in Spain. Mencia is a lesser known red grape variety that produces a light, yet very fragrant and aromatic wine. I got some floral notes and blackberry on the nose and the flavor is remarkably well-balanced and smooth. Together with the food, it impressed even more. It had a nice interplay with the spices on the beef brisket. What a great find, and for a very fair price.

August 17, 2011

BLT Salad with OPG, um, Oregon Pinot Gris

Who needs more recipes for their bumper crop of tomatoes? As a matter of fact, I do! So I decided to make this BLT salad. The ingredients and dressing seem a little bit heavy for a salad, but it is oh so good! Of course I used tomatoes from our garden again, and for the salad greens, I had baby arugula, which has a nice peppery flavor.

My favorite ingredient of the salad was probably the croutons, and you are hearing this from someone who usually picks the stale croutons off her salad at restaurants... But these were of course freshly homemade croutons, created from some day-old baguette. Very delicious and satisfying.

For my wine pairing I chose a 2007 Eola Hills Oregon Pinot Gris. Yep, this is not a typo, the vintage was 2007 and it was on sale at a local wine shop, probably to make room for more recent vintages. As a matter of fact, the most current vintage for this wine on the winery's web site is the 2009. So 2007 is rather old for a white wine, to put it bluntly. White wines are usually consumed young, with many of the ones from 2010 having come to the shelves over the last couple of months.

I knew it was a little bit of a gamble when I purchased this bottle, and I wondered if Pinot Gris actually had the potential to age well. There are other white varietals which are known to age well, such as Riesling. As white wines age, they lose some of their fresh fruit flavors, and develop more minerality. What's minerality? I think I would describe it as the taste you get when you put pebbles in your mouth. Oh come on, we were all kids at some point, right?

But to get back to the Eola Hills Pinot Gris, it still showed nice fruit flavors of pear and apple, and finished with some of that just described pleasant minerality. It definitely excelled when paired with food. A very nice wine, which reminded me a little bit of wines from Germany, where in fact Grauburgunder, the German name for Pinot Gris, is gaining popularity. In combination with the BLT Salad, this was a wonderful summer dinner.