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?