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.