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.

August 8, 2011

Mexican Pork Tinga with Enamore

One of the world cuisines I know next to nothing about is Mexican cooking. I like spicy food, and I always like to learn new things, so what else would I do than experiment with a recipe for Mexican food? I found this recipe for a pork tinga, which is sort of a stew. The ingredients were easy to find and the directions are fairly simple. (Unlike the ones for a classic mole... but one day...!)

Let me tell you, the chipotles in adobo definitely pack a punch in the spicy department! I can definitely see the purpose of the avocado and cheese, which cool things down a bit. So which wine would go with spicy food like this? Most people would probably reach for a cold beer... That's not my thing though, and I was thinking about a red wine with a touch of sweetness instead.

I decided on the 2008 Allegrini & Renacer Enamore from Argentina. This wine is a red blend from mostly Malbec grapes, however, there is something very special about it. It is made from partially dried grapes, very much in the style of an Italian Amarone, at a considerably lower price though. As a matter of fact, this wine is a collaboration between Argentine and Italian winemakers.

The Enamore tastes of dark berries, cherries and vanilla. Being made from partially dried grapes, one might expect a somewhat raisin-y taste, and in fact there is just a touch of sweetness, but definitely NOT reminiscent of a dessert wine such as a port. It is one of my favorite red wines, and it paired surprisingly well with the spicy pork tinga! What was important to me was that the wine would not intensify the spiciness of the food. In my opinion, the "heat factor" of the dish stayed the same, and so did the fruitiness of the wine. So overall, the two were great complements to each other, with the wine adding another flavor note to the entire meal.

August 4, 2011

Zucchini Gorgonzola Spaghetti and Sauvignon Blanc

More zucchini from the garden... means that I needed to make more pasta sauce. This time the pasta was spaghetti, and I bought a beautiful wedge of gorgonzola cheese, which is an Italian blue cheese. I would make a white cheese sauce. I started by browning some bacon bits and onions, and then added the zucchini. For liquid, I used chicken stock. During the last few minutes, I added the gorgonzola cheese and some chopped parsley. Very little salt was necessary, as both the gorgonzola and the bacon are already salty.

I decided to pair this dish with a white wine and chose the 2010 Valdivieso Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. Sauvignon Blancs are among my favorite white wines. While there are great fruity ones from California, the ones from Chile are usually a much better value, often costing only about half as much, while being just as good.

This wine has refreshing flavors of citrus and passionfruit. I guess I did go against conventional wisdom by pairing a blue cheese based dish with a white wine, however, I thought it really worked. The acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc was able to cut through the richness and saltiness of the gorgonzola and the bacon. Overall, the Valdivieso SB is a great food wine at a fair price, and it was a great combination! (And another good use of all that zucchini...)

July 27, 2011

Gnocchi in Tomato Sauce with Two Buck Chuck

While I love to cook, I am not one to invent and develop new recipes. I usually cook from cookbooks, magazines, and recipes I find on the Internet. Sometimes, well, let's be honest, often, I switch out ingredients here or there, according to what I have on hand and what I like. One area where I do go all freestyle though, is pasta sauces. And I do make some mean pasta sauces!

A pasta sauce is just a great way to use up some odds and ends from the fridge, and at this time of the year, to make use of all the ripe vegetables from the garden! We are having a bumper crop of tomatoes, so no cans were required for this meal! I chopped up some tomatoes and a red pepper from the garden, and also added some onions and garlic, all to be sauteed in some olive oil. For more liquid, I added some red wine. I also had grilled chicken strips left over, and cubed up some manchego cheese.

I simmered all of that with some thyme sprigs for a while, and finally added some pre-made gnocchi for the last five minutes. You can find gnocchi in the pasta aisle of your grocery store, they look like little dumplings and actually contain potato. The directions usually tell you to boil the gnocchi separately from the sauce, but I don't see a need for that. As a finishing touch, I drizzled the finished meal with some wild mushroom and sage oil. If you've never tried it, start experimenting with some flavored finishing oils!

Probably I will never make quite the same dish again, as there was no measuring or recording of ingredients involved, but I do remember the wine I added. Which was the same wine I enjoyed with the meal. It was the 2009 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Also commonly referred to as Two Buck Chuck. Even though I paid more than two dollars for it. I shelled out at least $3.50. Still not a bad deal. (And yes, this is my cat in the picture...)

This wine is sold exclusively at Trader Joe's and is produced by the Bronco Wine Company in California, which seems to be a huge enterprise by any stretch of the imagination. But in any case, this Cabernet Sauvignon has flavors of blueberry pie and blackberry jam, with a dash of vanilla. It is not very complex and surprisingly light-bodied for a Cab, but definitely a pleasant wine whose price just can't be beat. It was great in combination with the gnocchi in tomato sauce, of course, since it was also a component in the sauce. Give it a try with pasta and pizza, and you won't be disappointed.

July 21, 2011

Bouillabaisse and Picpoul

The other day I made a bouillabaisse, the famous seafood stew from Provence. Geez, it's over 100 degrees outside, why would anyone want to write about fish soup right at this moment?! Well, the AC is purring away here in the house and I am trying to tell myself that it's just another nice sunny summer day outside. Plus, Provence is in the South of France, where it's usually rather hot as well, and they still eat their bouillabaisse there, rain or shine.

Well, the real reason is closer to the fact that I have this fabulous recipe for a bouillabaisse from a recent cooking class. I don't want to bore anyone with excruciating details, so e-mail me if you would like the exact recipe. There are many out there on recipe web sites, but let me at least tell you about my main ingredients. For vegetables, I had onions, garlic, leeks, fennel and tomatoes. My seafood was haddock, squid and mussels. The rouille, basically a flavored mayonnaise, was probably my favorite component of the dish, as mine had roasted peppers, sweet and spicy, in it. I put dollops of it right in the soup bowl, and also topped my baguette with it.

I decided to pair this dish with a white wine also from the South of France. It was the 2009 - okay, here we go, it's a mouthful - La Cave "Les Costières de Pomerols" Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul-de-Pinet. Here's what you need to know: the region is called Languedoc and the grape type is Picpoul, just ignore all the other words...

This is a simple, dry white wine with citrus and green apple flavors. As it is not overly complex or complicated, it did not take away from the bouillabaisse, which had a lot of different flavors going on. It was a very nice complement to the dish. It was also nice to see a dry white wine with good acidity work well with the spicy rouille. Overall, a great combination.

July 17, 2011

Salad and my "House White"

Ah, the lazy days of summer... They are upon us. Not much cooking going on these days in my house. The vegetables are ripening in the garden, so often, it's just a big salad for dinner. One of my favorite lettuces is mâche, also called  lamb's lettuce. These are tender, dark leafy greens. It is admittedly difficult to find in these parts... But you could substitute arugula or baby spinach, even though the mâche has a milder flavor.

My classic recipe for mâche lettuce is to toss it in a balsamic vinaigrette, and add bacon bits, goat cheese, red onions, sunflower seeds, and wedges of boiled egg. For the balsamic vinaigrette, I have been experimenting with specialty olive oils and vinegars from this wonderful store lately. The nice thing is that you can taste everything in the shop before you purchase. Two of my favorites are the fig balsamic vinegar and the Arbequina olive oil which I used on this salad.

Salads are sometimes difficult to pair with wine because of the acidity of the vinegar. My go-to wine for salads and really for any kind of white wine fare is the 2010 La Vuelta Torrontes from Mendoza, Argentina. Unfortunately, I cannot find a website for the winery that makes it. But I think I can go as far as to call it my "house white" (as in "I always have a bottle of it in the house"), just as I recently introduced you to my "house red" here.

In this Torrontes, floral notes take turns with fruity flavors of green apple, citrus and white peach. On the finish, there is some very pleasant acidity and minerality. To me, this combines the best of both worlds between a Sauvignon Blanc and a dry Riesling, if that makes any sense...
Definitely one of my favorites, and very affordable at that. For some reason, it works very well with salads. As a matter of fact, it shines even more in combination with salads. Give it a try!

July 10, 2011

Snacks with Red Wine

Sometimes you had a big lunch and just want "something small" for dinner. Or sometimes, especially now in the summer time, you don't feel like turning on the stove for dinner. Happens to me all the time. Often after a long day at work, I just assemble a snack plate for dinner. I bring out my "house red", the Côtes du Rhône I wrote about here, and dinner's done! Stuff I always have in the house is pita chips, hummus, and olives. My favorite hummus is the one with roasted red peppers, and at the olive bar, I usually go for the kalamatas stuffed with garlic, or the Greek-marinated olive mix.

The lightly salted pita chips, the briny olives, and the smoky hummus really bring out wonderful fruit flavors in the wine. In addition to that, I get the feeling that I am on vacation somewhere in the Mediterranean, in the South of France or the Greek Isles, or at least snacking on an appetizer on the patio of some fancy restaurant on a balmy summer night...

I also got a great tip for some snack food, which also makes a great appetizer for unexpected company by the way, from my readers Becky and Steve. They sent along a wonderful fig spread, and suggested I try it with some Spanish manchego cheese and crusty bread.

I had some whole wheat baguette that day, and also added some meat to the platter, some sopressata, which is a coarse Italian salami. The fig spread has a slightly sweet flavor and I quite like the crunchy little seeds that are part of the charm of this spread. The sheep's milk manchego is more of a dry cheese, with a nutty flavor. The salami added some saltiness and richness to the platter.

Again we have a somewhat Mediterranean theme here, and I paired this snack plate with the 2007 Heredad Ugarte Crianza from Rioja in Spain. This red wine is made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, blended with a little bit of Garnacha, which is the Spanish name for the Grenache grape.

This wine is extremely fragrant, full of fruit flavors of sour cherry and a hint of vanilla. Very seldom do I comment on the mouthfeel of a wine, but this one was remarkably velvety and pleasant. It had some herbal and spice notes, such as clove, and just enough tannins to make your mouth water and want another sip right away.

Ah, what a lovely lunch... The golden fig spread invokes scenes of the sunlight through the fig trees in Dalmatia along the Adriatic coast, and with a wine from Spain and knowing that the manchego cheese came from La Mancha, I can literally see Don Quixote's windmills in front of my inner eye... I know, I sound as if I seriously need a vacation, and I probably do!

July 5, 2011

Zucchini Boats and a Virginia Rosé

As promised, more updates on the first fruits of our labor from the garden. Or first vegetables, to be exact. Seems like the different types of squash are in first, so the other day, we had two zucchini to be creative with. The easiest route is always to just make them into a side dish with some onions, herbs and butter, but the other day, I really felt like making my famous zucchini boats. Here's a picture of the boats lined up at the zucchini marina... Yes, I know, they are sort of overflowing, but the more filling, the better!

I guess I once had a recipe for this dish, but I have made it so often since, that I just use whatever I have on hand for the stuffing. The main ingredient to the filling is always ground beef, or you could use ground turkey or really any other type of ground meat. Or you could even make it vegetarian with an all-veggie stuffing. I also mixed in onions, garlic, corn, roasted red peppers and feta cheese. Before it went in the oven, I topped it with some shredded mozzarella, and added some chopped parsley at the very end.

Here's a recipe to give you a general idea, but please, just throw in some ingredients that you like. I have also learned that by just baking the zucchini boats, the zucchini do not get as soft and tender as I like them, so I blanche the scooped out zucchini halves for about 4 minutes in boiling water before I stuff them. Oh, and in the baking dish, I spoon some tomato sauce around them.

For this flavorful summer dish, I chose the quintessential summer wine as a pairing partner, a rosé. It was the 2010 Cardinal Point Rosé from the Monticello area in Virginia, which is made from Cabernet Franc grapes. I am very picky about the rosé wines that I like, and it's uaually a "love" or "hate" relationship. Rarely do I feel indifferent towards a rosé. They definitely have to be dry and have to have some strawberry fruitiness to them.

The Cardinal Point definitely fit the bill. It had aromas and flavors of lots of red berries and almost fools you into thinking that it is sweet with all that fruity goodness, but in fact, it finishes very dry. What a lovely wine. Definitely have to file this one in the "love" category. As you can see in the picture, I loved it so much that I did not even get to snap a photo until I was already on the last glass... oops.

I think the rosé was a great match with the zucchini boats. While the ground beef and tomato sauce would steer one towards a red wine, and the zucchini and corn towards a white, the slightly chilled rosé was just perfect for this summer dish. Final verdict: an amazing combination.

June 30, 2011

Red Wine Risotto with Côtes du Rhône

The other day we harvested the first vegetable of the season from our own garden. Or I should probably say, out of my hubby’s garden. He’s the one with the green thumb in this family. It was one solitary yellow squash. Hardly big enough to even amount to a veggie side dish, really. So what did I do with it?
I had the idea to use it in a risotto. Once you have mastered the basic concept of making risotto, there are really endless variations possible. Here is a good recipe, and then you can just substitute any number of vegetables, and any variety of liquids (broth and wine), and you can even add some cooked meat or seafood in the end. The important parts to keep, in my opinion, are the Arborio rice of course, and the parmesan cheese. Lots of cheese.
I also like the concept of a red wine risotto. It adds some interesting color of course, and an earthier flavor. For me vegetables, I had the yellow squash, a red bell pepper, onion, garlic, and some parsley.

The wine I picked to put in the risotto as well as to drink with my meal is the 2009 Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône Réserve. Wines from this area in Southern France are red blends made from a large number of different varietals, but usually Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (or GSM, for short) are the predominant ones.

Grenache is probably my favorite red wine varietal. Never had one I didn’t like. And the Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône can basically be called my “house wine”, as I always have it on hand and turn to it when I don’t want to have to think too hard about which red wine to choose. One day I will just have to splurge and shell out some cash for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which is usually made from the same grape varieties, but from much more strictly defined vineyards.
The wine has aromas of red berries, cherries and black olives. The taste is very smooth and earthy, with some herbal notes of thyme. It was a great match with the risotto, which is not surprising, as the same wine was used in the dish, of course. Always a fool-proof way to have a successful food and wine pairing: drink the wine you put into your dish. My personal addendum to that is: provided the bottle cost less than $12… And stay tuned for more dishes containing ingredients from our garden!

June 25, 2011

Chicken Paillards and Artichokes with Sauvignon Blanc

Sometimes I am too lazy to think of a good wine pairing myself, and that is the time when cookbooks come in handy, where each recipe comes ready with a pairing suggestion. One such book is 100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes to Enjoy with Wines You Love by Jill Silverman Hough.
Its chapters are divided by wine varietal, six chapters with recipes to match white wines, and six for reds. So here I was with a bottle of 2008 Kellerei Cantina Tramin Sauvignon Blanc from the Alto Adige (Südtirol) region in Italy. I usually like to drink my white wines rather young, and here I had found a bottle in my basement, ahem... cellar, that was still from the 2008 vintage. All I had to do was go through the Sauvignon Blanc chapter and pick a recipe that I was in the mood for.

I still had some chicken breast in the freezer, so I finally settled on the recipe for Chicken Paillards with Baby Artichokes, Garlic and Lemon. Hm, what is a paillard? It’s a French word, and I guess in an Italian dish it would be called scaloppini, and all you have to do to get one, is pound a chicken breast with a meat mallet until it is evenly thin.
Then there were the artichokes. Love ‘em, but I have to admit that I have never worked with fresh ones before. They look a little intimidating, and the main challenge is to know which parts have to be peeled off. Well, in my opinion, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the illustrations at the bottom of this article really helped me.

And let me tell you, fresh artichokes are so much better than the canned ones. It was worth the effort. But definitely have plenty of lemon juice on hand to avoid oxidation, i.e. the artichokes turning brown. This happens literally within seconds, not gradually, like you may have seen it with avocados or bananas. The dish came out great, and I loved the lemony flavor. I served it over some bowtie pasta.

The Tramin Sauvignon Blanc was a perfect complement to the dish. It had citrus aromas and crisp flavors of lemon, with a long and complex finish. Wow, citrus for days… I had not known what kind of style to expect from a Sauvignon Blanc from this region in Northern Italy, and I was pleasantly surprised. None of the green and grassy notes you often find in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or the tropical fruit sometimes present in California wines of this varietal, or the mineral and stony notes from the French version…
Now don’t get me wrong, I love all of these styles, Sauvignon Blanc is one of my go-to varietals, where I feel I can never really go wrong, and I haven’t… But for this dish, the prominent citrus notes where just perfect. And the complexity was just significant enough to match the white meat of the chicken. Final verdict: an amazing combination.

June 21, 2011

Cupcake with Moscato

The phenomenon of cupcake shops springing up like mushrooms has been around for a few years now, but lately, this occurrence has spread from urban centers to small-town America. So the other day I walked by Lola’s (they have been around for a few years, by the way), and was trying to think of a good excuse to go inside to check out their offerings.

And then I remembered: I still had some of that sparkling Moscato from the other day in the fridge! Now wouldn’t that be perfect with some cupcakes…
I purchased an Orange Creamsicle cupcake and a Coconut Margarita cupcake. Good thing I took this picture with my phone as soon as I got in the car. Because the Orange Creamsicle cupcake never made it home. A victim of a road rage incident, so to speak… Ah, what can I say, it was a warm day, and I couldn’t risk for the icing to melt on the way, right?

However, the Coconut Margarita cupcake did make it to my house and on a plate. And I paired it with the rest of the Mionetto “IL” sparkling Moscato. The bubbles had held up nicely for a few days, by the way. I have to do a little bit of guesswork in describing the cupcake, but I the cake portion was made from a light batter with coconut, and the icing had the flavor of margarita mix, with some coarse salt sprinkled on top. So here we had sweet, a little tart, and a little salty, all in one bite. Yum!

The Moscato added some fruitiness and creamy bubbles. It was delicious! Having enjoyed the wine with a savory dish before, I was honestly surprised as to how well it worked with something sweet. One wine to go with both your entrée and your dessert! That’s definitely worth noting. Final verdict: a great combination.

June 18, 2011

Shrimp Eggplant Stir-Fry and Moscato

My favorite dish at Thai restaurants is, hands down, Basil Eggplant. I really love any kind of dish that has eggplant in it. In my opinion, the lovely purple eggplant has a little bit of an image problem, which not in small part probably has to do with its name. I think the eggplant growers of America should get together and rename this tasty vegetable to what it's called in much of the rest of the world: the aubergine. Sounds so much better and more interesting already, doesn't it? And it already sells as number 100-F7 on the color wheel of your local paint store, so why not at the greengrocer's?

So the other day, I took the basic idea of Basil Eggplant and ran with it. First up, there were eggplant and basil of course. Instead of the small and slender Japanese eggplants and the Thai basil with the purple stems, I only had one big Italian eggplant and sweet basil to work with. Slightly different taste and texture, but no problem. I also added some stuff that I had in my fridge and that had to be used up, namely some shrimp and the rest of the garlic scapes. And since this was to be Thai inspired, I threw in some red curry paste, fish sauce, and soy sauce for good measure. It was pretty tasty, if I may say so myself.

Conventional wisdom of which wine to pair with Asian, slightly spicy foods always suggests Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Yada, yada, yada. I get it. Something slightly sweet or "off-dry". So... why not try a Moscato for a change? Maybe even a sparkling one!

I chose the Mionetto "IL" Moscato from the Veneto region in Italy. I bought the Mionetto because I am familiar with their "IL" Prosecco, which is one of my favorites. Both wines have a crown cap closure, which is sort of unusual for wines, and suggests that they should be consumed young.

The IL Moscato is a sparkling wine, but the bubbles are extremely light and soft. It has a wonderful mouthfeel that makes me think of cotton candy. It has aromas of Golden Delicious apple and apricots. It is pleasantly sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.

This moscato was a nice alternative to a Riesling or Gewürztraminer as a pairing wine with Asian food. The fact that it was sparkling actually gave the combination an extra kick, as it created an invigorating effervescence on the tongue right after the spicy flavors. Final verdict: an amazing combination.

June 15, 2011

Steak Salad and a Red Summer Wine

Last weekend I finally went to my local farmers marker for the first time this season. I decided to let the available products there inspire me what I would make for lunch. Almost every vendor was selling salad greens, so it was an easy decision to make a large fresh salad. Other ingredients I picked up were baby beets and garlic scapes, two things I had never worked with before.
I’ve had pickled beets from a jar many times, but had never worked with fresh ones. I oven-roasted mine, and they tasted wonderful. I oven-roasted the garlic scapes along with the beets, and that brought out a great flavor as well. (In the picture they sort of look like green beans.) Only later did I learn that garlic scapes can actually be eaten raw, for example in a pesto.

I can never walk by the goat cheese vendor without tasting a few of the samples, and of course I brought some fresh chevre home with me, also to be used in my salad. On the side, I would eat a few slices of olive bread from the baked goods vendor. Other ingredients I still had at home were fresh peaches and toasted pecans. Finally I tossed the salad with a simple citrus vinaigrette.

As I have learned from my better half, no meal is complete without meat (or SOME kind of protein) though. Flank steak was on sale at my grocery store, and I had already made up my mind that with that day’s lunch, I would overcome my fear of pairing a salad with red wine. The earthy beets and the flavorful steak would be the ingredients to make this combination work. I prepared a tasty marinade for the flank steak, basically following this recipe, minus the shallots.

For my wine, I selected the 2010 Passeggiata from Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland. This is a light and young blend of a red wine, sort of reminiscent of a well-made Beaujolais, however, the main grape type is Syrah. This wine is a very “easy drinking” red with aromas of red berries and just a whiff of cookie dough. The flavor is surprisingly complex with flavors of Rainier cherry and clove. It’s great slightly chilled for the summer. And I admit it, I am also a sucker for the little story on the back label of the bottle, which explains what the name “Passeggiata”, the Italian tradition after which the wine is named, is all about…

I must say, my farmers market lunch was a complete success and I really loved the pairing with the Passeggiata. So there you go, I will never hesitate to pair a salad with a red wine again, if the main ingredients ask for it! Final verdict: an amazing combination!

June 10, 2011

Mid-Atlantic Smorgasbord: MD Crab Cakes and VA Viognier

I am staying with a regional and seasonal theme here. It is summer and hot outside, and I therefore do not feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The other day we picked up some crab cakes at a local seafood market, and all I had to do to them was put them under the broiler.
There are very few places where I would buy pre-made crab cakes, as I am not a big fan of fillers (usually bread crumbs), but love the lump crab meat. So you might have to do some searching before you actually find a place whose crab cake recipe you like. The ones we found were huge. Almost monstrous. I was convinced that I would not be able to finish mine in one sitting. But you know how that is, when something tastes really, really good…

I also boiled some fresh corn-on-the-cob and mixed together a quick coleslaw. Sometimes dinner can be so simple, yet so delicious.
I decided to match this Maryland-inspired food with the 2009 Barboursville Reserve Viognier from the Monticello region in Virginia. The wine has elegant aromas of white flowers, green pear, mango and the usual tropical fruit one would expect from this white wine varietal. The taste of this Viognier was somewhat of a surprise, as it has a lot of crisp citrusy acidity with a long finish.

When tasting Viogniers in Virginia, I have often found them to be in a style that almost reminded me of over-ripe fruit. Personally, I prefer my white wines very lean and crisp, and therefore really appreciate the style that Barboursville went for. Unlike my better half, who likes his Viognier very viscous and opulent. I assume that the Barboursville tastes the way it does because it was stored in stainless steel tanks exclusively (no oak barrels at all).
The sweetness of the crab meat and the corn, as well as the creaminess of the coleslaw dressing actually brought out more fruit flavors in the wine.  I enjoyed this meal tremendously. Final verdict: an amazing combination!

June 7, 2011

Everything Peach

Summer weather is here and I just can't wait for my favorite roadside farm stand to sell all those fragrant peaches which are just pure summer time under some fuzzy skin. But until local peaches are available, it will probably be another six weeks or so.

I literally could not wait though, so I bought some peaches at the grocery store, labelled as "Southern peaches", wherever they may be from... Also the blueberries looked plump and juicy, and they could go into my first peach crisp of the season as well. This recipe is absolutely addicting.

I try to convince myself that it must be sort of healthy with the oatmeal topping.... if it just wasn't for all the butter and sugar! But it is oh so good. I had always been a little suspicious of recipes for cobblers and crisps that have fruit on the bottom, thinking it would be a juicy, and eventually soggy, mess. But the cornstarch really takes care of that problem and makes it all hold together nicely. This is best enjoyed warm out of the oven, or at room temperature.

I paired this peach dessert with -surprise, surprise- a peach wine from Linganore Winecellars in Maryland. This is labelled as a semi-sweet wine, and first I thought that must surely be an understatement, but they are right, it's pleasantly semi-sweet, not cloyingly sweet, as some might expect. And it almost goes without saying, that it of course tastes like wonderfully ripe peaches.

I have to admit, part of me must be a little bit of a wine snob, as every time I am at a wine tasting, and we get to a wine on the list that is a pure fruit wine (meaning from fruit other than grapes), or a wine blended with other fruit than grapes, I just ever so slightly lift at least one eye brow and have a quizzical expression on my face. On a bad day, you might even detect an eye roll...

But then I take a sip, and if it's a well-made fruit wine, it instantly transports me back to my college days. For a moment, I am carefree and 21 again... And how can that be a bad thing? Love the peach wine, but give me a strawberry wine, and I become downright nostalgic... There was this great place in my college town where we would go for strawberry wine in the summer. It was up on a hill, and the city lights were below and just the stars above us... Ah well, let me just stop, but my college friends will know exactly the place I am talking about.

The peach wine with the peach crisp... just perfect for the summer. The cinnamon and ginger in the crisp with the fruity wine create something really magical. And really, it's not too sweet. I would call this an amazing combination!

June 3, 2011

15-Minute Pizza and Merlot

During a recent weeknight, I wanted a quick dinner, but still with a touch of home-made. So what's easier than to throw a few ingredients on a store-bought pizza crust? I don't think I have ever made a pizza crust from scratch... I am always worried about the yeast, that it won't rise... And it's definitely not fast! But with this, I only had to figure out what I could gather from the refrigerator and the pantry as pizza toppings.

My first step is usually to mix some canned tomato paste and olive oil with dried Italian herbs as a quick pizza sauce. Hm, no tomato paste in the pantry. I did however have fresh tomatoes. I found some canned mushrooms in the pantry though. Can't compare those to fresh mushrooms whatsoever, but they would have to do. I was hoping to find canned artichokes in the pantry, but no such luck. Artichokes are my favorite weird pizza topping that you definitely cannot order from one of those take-out chains... My fridge also offered some baby spinach, an orange bell pepper, a green onion, fresh garlic, and some ham. There you have it, my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pizza.

As you can see, I put the shredded mozzarella cheese on my pizza as the last ingredient. I like it melted over all the other ingredients. Ten minutes in the oven, and dinner was ready!

As my wine pairing, I selected the 2009 Redwood Creek Merlot from California, which is very inexpensive. It has somewhat sweet aromas of dark berries and cherries, almost reminiscent of twizzlers. The taste reveals some cranberry and nice tannins, very well-balanced though. What can I say, it tastes like a well-made Merlot.

Of course it was a great pairing with the pizza. I have never had a red wine that didn't go well with pizza, really... My pizzas always have a tomato base, and in my opinion, a red wine is the natural match for the acidity of tomatoes. Final verdict: a good combination! What is your favorite or most unusual pizza topping?