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Perfection, or When Everything Works Together…

October 1, 2018 11 comments

Il Poggione Rosso and EVOOIf you are into the wine and food (or food and wine, whatever your preferences are), I can safely bet you were looking for that climactic moment of combining the food and wine to reach the new, higher level of pleasure. Yes, I’m talking about that “oh my God” moment when your taste buds experienced that already exceptional bite of food becoming something beyond exceptional in combination with the sip of the wine. By the same token, if you were looking for that moment, I’m sure that more often than not (actually, a lot more often than not) you couldn’t find it – those beautiful pairings are often equally evasive.

Here I want to share with you my account of recent encounter with perfection, that climatic experience if you will.

A few months ago I got a box in the mail (one of the little perks of the wine blogger). Inside, there were a bottle of wine, a bottle of olive oil, a jar of sea salt and a recipe – for Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Bistecca all Fiorentina is a dish coming from the Tuscany (Florence) and depending on the historical account, it traces its origins either to the 16th or the 19th century – well, the history of Bistecca all Fiorentina is definitely not something we will be talking about here, so let’s move on. I’m sure you understand that “Bistecca” simply stands for the “beef steak”. However, the recipe calls not for any steak, but specifically for the porterhouse or T-bone steak, which should be simply prepared rare or medium-rare over the charcoal. As the recipe is very simple, here it is in its entirety:

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 (1.5″ thick) bone-in porterhouse steaks (3.5 lb)
1/4 cup Il Poggione EVOO
Tuscan sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 sprigs rosemary

Get the charcoal ready. The distance between the hot charcoal and steak should be about 4 inches (10 cm). The steak should be at the room temperature before you start grilling (it should be out of the fridge for about 10 hours to get to the room temperature). Grill steak on one side for 5-8 minutes, flip it with tongs (no forks of any kind!), salt the top surface with Tuscan sea salt and pour some olive oil. Cook for another 5-8 minutes, then stand the steaks on the bone and cook for another 5 minutes. Take it off the heat, put it down to rest, salt the other side and put some olive oil on it. After 5 minutes of rest, you can slice and serve your steak. See, can it get any simpler?

Now, it is time to talk about the perfection.

First, the perfection started from the exceptional meat. In addition to what I already described, the box contained a gift card for Pat LaFrieda. The story of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors started at the beginning of the 20th century when Anthony LaFrieda arrived at the USA and opened his first butchery – you can read the rest of the story on Pat LaFrieda website. Whatever the story is, the proof is always in the pudding – or on the fork in this case. I have to honestly tell you that I never had a better a steak than this – the meat was sublime and was simply melting in the mouth – a good start for the perfect experience.

The second element of the perfection was, of course, the wine – 2016 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino (14% ABV, $27, 12 month in large oak barrels). Tenuta Il Poggione is one of the oldest producers in the Montalcino area, started to make Sangiovese wines – now known as Brunello – at the beginning of the 1900s. Today, it is one of the largest wineries in Montalcino, with 1500 acres, out of which more than 300 acres are under vines and 170 acres planted with olive trees (that Il Poggione EVOO in the package was superb).

The wine actually happened to be one of the best Rosso di Montalcino wines I tasted in a long time. The key word to describe this wine is finesse – it had a welcoming nose of the tart cherries, medium intensity, and a hint of the herbs. That profile perfectly continued on the palate, where delicate fresh cherries were joined by sage and rosemary, with clean acidity and excellent balance. Definitely one lip-smacking, delicious wine (8+).

Let’s not miss any details – we are talking about perfect pairing here. As the devil is in the detail, there was one more element  – little, but essential – to this amazing pairing, besides superb meat and outstanding wine. The last element? Tuscan sea salt. This was not some random sea salt – this one was Tuscan Sea Salt from AG Ferrari, listing the following ingredients: “Italian sea salt, fresh rosemary, fresh garlic, sugar, fresh sage, ground black pepper” – this Tuscan Sea Salt became the bridge which connected the flavor of the seasoned meat with the perfectly aligned flavor profile of the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino, delivering the genius pairing and an amazing experience.

I have to honestly tell you – I tried to replicate this experience two days ago – and failed. I used the same Tuscan Sea Salt, but I had a steak from the local supermarket butcher shop (1/3 of a price compare to Pat LaFrieda), and the wine was 2015 Collosorbo Rosso di Montalcino. The steak was simply not good (happy to be blamed for it as a cook – but I cooked the one from Pat LaFrieda too). The wine was okay, but a lot fruitier than Il Poggione, thus the pairing simply didn’t work. Which once again proves my point about the evasive nature of a great wine pairing.

Did you have any climactic food and wine pairing experiences you care to share with the world? Or maybe you want to recount the worst moments? Will be happy to hear about it either way. Cheers!

Flavor, Next Level – Beyond Salt And Pepper

April 17, 2018 11 comments

I love cooking. Cooking allows you to be creative, and you are only limited by your own imagination in what will show up on the table in the end. That and maybe some skill – but skill, of course, can be learned and mastered.

While creativity, imagination, and skill are important, one quality will separate success and failure in the final dish – flavor. Of course, the situation is not that dramatic in real life – this is what “not too bad” and “interesting” descriptors are for, but the flavor rules. This for sure is true in the home cooking. If dish on the table looks great – excellent, definitely a bonus. The texture typically is important too – if the rice more resembles mashed potatoes, that is not really cool. But flavor rules – once we take the first bite, the presentation becomes secondary and the flavor is what we are looking for to either jump of joy and pleasure or make face and say “ouch” (don’t strangle that inner kid in you, let the reaction come out).

One of my favorite shows on the TV is “Beat Bobby Flay” on the Food Network. Bobby Flay, who is an Iron Chef and a well-known restaurateur, is challenged by some other, also well established and well-regarded chefs, to cook the dish of their choice, their own “signature dish”. The panel of three judges decides on who made a better dish in a blind taste test. Quite often, Bobby Flay wins even when he has to cook the dish he only tried once in his life and never cooked before – and sometimes even those which he never tried. What makes him the winner? When you listen to the judges explaining their decision, there is one most important word which you hear over and over again – flavor. The dish might not look anything like the classic version, and sometimes even not taste anything like the classic version, and nevertheless, the Flavor is the word you hear the most often, explaining the vote of A versus B.

If you see home cooking as a chore, this is probably not the post you want to continue reading. If, however, you are after the pleasure of both cooking and then eating the tasty food, let’s talk more about flavor. As a home cook, you have an arsenal of tools available to you to achieve the flavor – you start simply with herbs and spices, and then enlist the help of various techniques and methods – marinating, basting, slow cooking, pressure cooking and on, and on, and on. I personally like cooking with open fire, and thus grilling is definitely one of my preferred methods, especially when the weather is cooperating.

One of the things I like using to enhance the flavor of the food on the grill is a cedar plank. I would typically make salmon on the cedar plank so the salmon would have that delicious sweet smokey flavor. There is only one problem with this – I typically forget to pre-soak the plank at least for an hour – and unless the wood is soaked, it will burn in no time on its encounter with open flames.

It appears, that my problem (don’t tell me it is only my problem, and looking on a gorgeous piece of salmon you never had to hit yourself on a forehead saying “why I didn’t prepare the plank before”) had been solved! Here comes Beyond Salt and Pepper – a company which was founded (I’m very happy to give you full disclosure here) by my close friend Henry. We always shared our love for cooking with Henry, but Beyond Salt and Pepper takes that passion to the next level.

Pre-soaking of the plank is required before using it for cooking. I’m sure that when you think about soaking of the wood, you think water. But why only water? Wine is a liquid too, and wine is used in cooking, so maybe…? That’s right – we can use the wine, but not only the wine, also beer, rum, bourbon and any other type of alcohol – each one bringing its own unique flavor profile to the table – your table.

I visited my friend – and essentially, the headquarters of Beyond Salt and Pepper, located in the garage, as any self-respecting startup should – and we had a blast (a feast would be a better word).

First, I saw the process – the pre-cut planks of cedar – but not only cedar, Henry uses white oak too and says that imparts particularly nice flavor on the steaks – are soaked in the liquid of choice for days. Then the planks are getting into the machine where they are vacuum-sealed. Put on the label, pack, and voilà, ready for shipping.

And then there was cooking, lots of cooking. If you are still thinking planks are only for salmon, forget this notion as soon as possible. Unleash your imagination – you can make anything you want on the planks – and you can see the proof here in the pictures.

When cooking with the planks, there is a bit of technique which goes into the process – all explained in the recipes available on the Beyond Salt and Pepper web site. In most of the cases, you need to pre-heat the plank by putting in on a hot grill for 1 – 2 minutes on each side. And then you slightly pre-cook the food – for instance, sear steak on one side, and then flip it over on the plank and let it continue cooking as usual – that’s about all the special technique you need.

We had asparagus, artichokes and snap peas cooked on the Chardonnay-soaked planks – we couldn’t keep the snap peas on the table, everyone loved them. How about some little red wine infused smoke on the mushrooms and potatoes? Salmon and tiger shrimp on the Bourbon soaked planks? Yes, please! Chicken with some Merlot smoke on it – yum! Then the steak on the white oak and rum planks – superb. And then some cheese for dessert – but of course, made on the Chardonnay infused plank. Flavor, flavor, flavor – there are no limits to one’s creativity.

 

Here you are, my friends – a simple tool to add to your cooking tools arsenal, to get the flavor to the next level. If you are interested in trying these planks for yourself (and you should, seriously), you can get them directly from the website, or on Amazon (the website offers a bit wider selection). If you need some inspiration and cooking ideas, follow Beyond Salt and Pepper on Instagram. And by the way, while on the website, look for their selection of gourmet peanut butter… Mmmmm… Happy cooking!

Thanksgiving Day Experiences

December 3, 2017 5 comments

Thanksgiving is one of my most favorite holidays. It revolves around food. Before you beat me up, of course, it is about family, friends and lots and lots of good reason to be thankful – but still, the food is at the core of this family gathering. This makes me double-happy – I get to spend time with the family and cook my heart out – and let’s not forget the extra bonus – I have a reason to chose special wines.

Since this blog started, there was only one year when I didn’t post about Thanksgiving. Otherwise, I did my best to talk about food and wine experience of this special day, sometimes even with few posts on the subject (you can find those posts here). This year, I had two resolutions for my Thanksgiving dinner. First, it will be simple – which means no Turducken, for instance. Second, I will serve only an American wines – to be more precise, only the wines from California. As Napa and Sonoma greatly suffered from the recent fires, this was only logical to embrace Californian wines to support the people there.

Thanksgiving Wines 2017

First, let me say a few words about the food. Turkey is a cornerstone of Thanksgiving – at the same time, it is hard to cook a whole turkey in really an exciting way. Over the years, we tried lots and lots of different recipes – with stuffing and without, turducken, smoked, deep fried, deboned… Some were definitely better than the others (turducken is typically a standout), and some of those preparations can be very laborious. Thus this year, I decided the smoked turkey is the way to go.

This was not a random decision – earlier this year I discovered so-called PBC (Pit Barrel Cooker), which I absolutely fell in love with. In the past, I had to spend literally a whole day, dancing around my simple smoker, trying to maintain the temperature and still ending up cooking all the food in the oven. PBC changed that dramatically – no need to precook ribs anymore, just start the fire, hang your piece of meat and come back in a few hours to enjoy. Based on all the prior success, smoking the turkey was simply a done deal.

This might be the simplest turkey I ever have done. Buy already brined turkey (many stores sell pre-brined turkey, which greatly simplifies your life), rub it generously with PBC All-purpose rub, start the fire and just hang it inside the PBC – you can estimate the cooking time based on the size, and of course, use the meat thermometer to make sure the turkey is cooked through.

Thanksgiving smoked turkey

Another dish I want to mention is the dessert. I got a recipe from a friend, many years ago – however, it was also a while since I made this dessert. I wanted to find a similar recipe online, just to use it as a reference – but failed. So here is the recipe without the usual ingredients and measurements, as here you can make everything approximately. Let’s call this dessert

Crepes Napoleon with Wine-poached Pears and Cranberry sauce

You will need the following:

  • 4 firm pears, I recommend Anjou, carefully peeled, halved and cored
  • 10-12 crepes (can be more, can be less, depending on how many layers do you want)
  • 1 lb cranberry sauce (canned is fine, fresh is better)
  • 1 bottle of port – you can use red wine too, but then you would need to add sugar.
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Put peeled, halved and cored pears into the large pot, cover it with wine, add cinnamon stick and nutmeg, and put it on the stove. Once liquid started boiling, reduce heat and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let peras to cool off completely in the wine, preferably overnight (when cool enough, put the whole pot into the refrigerator). Next day, thinly slice pears and put aside. You can also reduce the wine for a later use – it is quite delicious.

You can buy crepes or you can make crepes. If you will decide to make them, Alton Brown has an excellent recipe – this is what I used.

Crepes Napoleon

Once crepes are made and cooled off, you are ready to start making the Napoleon! Take a plate you will serve the dessert on. Put the first crepe on the bottom. Thinly spread cranberry sauce. Cover with another crepe. Now take slices of pear and put them around the crepe in a single layer. Cover with another crepe, spread cranberry sauce, cover, put pears and continue the process until you will be satisfied with the overall height of the Napoleon. I recommend a round of pear slices on top with cranberry sauce in the center, but of course, you can make your own decoration. Cover (plastic wrap will do) and put it in the cool place for the flavors to be absorbed into the crepes. Later on, slice and enjoy!

Time to talk wines!

Holiday celebration should start with the sparkling, isn’t it? Finding tasty California sparkling wine is really not a problem. One of my favorite California producers, Field Recordings, offers an interesting selection of the sparkling wines, with most of them packaged in the cans (yes, cans). I had a can of NV Field Recordings Methodé Aluminum Edna Valley (11.9% ABV, 100% Pinot Noir), and it provided a perfect start for the evening – fresh, supple, with good body weight and a nice touch of a fresh bread – definitely was a crowd pleaser.

I wanted to have a full California wine experience, so next, we moved on to Rosé – 2016 Conundrum Rosé California (13.1% ABV). Truth be told, I’m not a fun of Wagner family wines – Conundrum, Meiomi, Caymus – doesn’t matter, they generally don’t work for my palate. So I threw in the bottle of this Conundrum Rosé simply because it was available – I thought we will open it, taste it and move on. Boy, was I wrong. This wine had beautiful strawberries all the way on the nose and the palate, supported by tons of herbs – lavender, mint, basil. Perfect mouthfeel with very good presence, but not overwhelming and with good acidity – this wine was enjoyed to the fullest.

We drink with our eyes first – thus the label on the 2014 Durant and Booth Blanc California (14.6% ABV, $36, blend of Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Roussanne, Greco di Tufo) was extremely drinkable and very promising (the label represents the art technique called water marbling – you can read more here if you are as intrigued as I was). I brought this wine from California after attending Wine Bloggers Conference 2017, where this wine was presented to us at the Napa Valley Vintners lunch – I plan to write a separate post about this event).

As you can tell, this wine is made from quite a few grapes, and I’m typically a bit concerned if the chorus will sing harmoniously. Oh yes, it was  – starting from the beautiful touch of butter and vanilla on the nose and the palate, then immediately offering silky plumpness of Roussanne with a gentle touch of butter and tropical fruit on the palate – this delicious wine was gone in no time.

Next, it was the time to move on to the red wines. We started with 2014 Acorn Alegria Vineyards Cabernet Franc Russian River Valley (12.5% ABV, $38, 93% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 2% Petite Verdot, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat). All Acorn wines are made from a co-fermented blend of grape varieties which are growing at Acorn’s Alegria Vineyard. This Cabernet Franc had a beautiful open nose with a touch of mint and cassis – the same continued on the palate with more cassis in a smooth, round package, supported by some herbal notes and perfect acidity. It was unmistakably Cabernet Franc, but also unmistakably California Cab Franc, without much of the green bell pepper presence and fruit dominant, but perfectly balanced.

Our last red was coming from the California region I was not really familiar with until now – El Dorado County (it is not only gold you find there, yep). 2015 Boeger Barbera El Dorado (15% ABV) was another wine I brought back from California after the same wine bloggers conference. I tried few of the El Dorado wines at the conference and was not very impressed, so I looked at it as an interesting experiment. Another score! This wine was dense and brooding, with tar and tobacco on the nose, and surprisingly polished dark fruit on the palate with sweet tobacco undertones. To make things even more interesting, I can tell you that we didn’t finish the wine during dinner, so I pumped the air out using the usual Vacuvin, and put the bottle aside almost for 10 days. After 10 days, the wine was still perfectly fresh and enjoyable, which makes me wonder how long this wine can actually age.

Time to finish our Thanksgiving dinner with the dessert. As our planned dessert had cranberry sauce in it, I decided to go with Cranberry wine for dessert. Tomasello Cranberry Wine New Jersey (9% ABV) was a perfect pick for it – good acidity, tart cranberry profile, it played perfectly with our dessert – while the wine was not from California, it still provided a perfect finish for our celebration.

Here we are, my friends. How was your Thanksgiving? Did you enjoy more the turkey, the wines or the company? Cheers!

 

The Dinner Party Collective – Full Spring Menu and Smoked Salmon Recipe

October 10, 2015 8 comments

TDPC Logo The Dinner Party CollectiveAs Fall settling in the most of the Northern Hemisphere (slowly, I have to admit – it is still very warm and green here in Connecticut), the Spring is coming to the people of Southern Hemisphere, who are I’m sure very happy to forget the cold and embrace the sun. With Spring comes The Dinner Party Collective Spring Menu (if you need more information about The Dinner Party Collective, please see one of my previous posts about TDPC, as we call it for short).

Our Spring Menu had been fully published, and I was very happy to pair all the delicious dishes the wines, as you will see below in the wine pairing suggestions post:

Spring Menu 2015

Wine Pairings – Spring Menu

Appetizer – Smoked Salmon Salad

Main course – Lemon Thyme Lamb Racks with Goat Cheese Aioli

Dessert – Lemon & Coconut Cheesecake with Strawberry Purée

I think all the dishes are absolutely spectacular, and I hope you are all already inviting your friends over for a delicious dinner (and let me know how the wine pairings would work).

This time around, I want to take a liberty to add a little trick, if you will, to one of the dishes on this menu – a Smoked Salmon Salad created by Margot from Gather and Graze. You see, my family loves smoked salmon in any shape and form – on the bagel, in the salad, in the appetizer, anywhere. When you buy smoked salmon from the store, there are couple of issues. First one is the taste and overall quality – sometimes it can be oversalted, dry or even rubbery. Second, the better quality smoked salmon is often quite expensive – Fairway store in Stamford charges $24 – $30 per pound of that smoked salmon. So instead of dealing with uncertain quality and high prices, you can make smoked salmon on your own – it is very easy – and you fully control the flavor profile. That’s right – when making smoked salmon on your own ( and you don’t have to make it taste “smoked” if you don’t like it), you can add any spices – dill, pepper, herbs – anything – and it is really easy to make.

Here is what you will need:

  • 3 lb fresh salmon fillet, preferably with the skin (make sure all the pin bones are removed)
  • 1 cup kosher salt (Kosher salt without iodine is a must for curing and brining)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (I use “sugar in the raw”)
  • pepper – by your taste
  • liquid smoke (if you want to make “smoked salmon”)

Smoked Salmon RecipeAbove you see everything you need – please note the bottle of Liquid Smoke there  – available at most of the supermarkets or you can order it online. Few drops will impart smoke flavor on any dish you are making.

Prepare the mix of kosher salt, brown sugar and pepper – feel free to add any other spices here you would want to use, and mix it all up  – I do it right in the measuring glass:

Kosher Salt and Raw Sugar in the cupPut a very thin layer of the mix at the bottom of the large glass cooking dish (I’m sure you can use the foil tray as well, but I prefer using the glass tray), and put salmon filet on top:

Smoked Salmon - Step 1Now, completely cover the salmon with the mix, top and sides:

Smoked salmon - Step 2Cover with the plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, take it out of the fridge, and you will see something like that:

Smoked Salmon 24 hours markDrain the liquid (as much as you easily can, don’t strain it completely). Technically, salmon is now ready to eat – it is completely cured. From now on, I like to make it “smoked” so I add a few drops of Liquid Smoke all over salmon and around, cover with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for another 12 hours. Important note – the longer you will keep salmon with the salt, the drier and denser it will become, as it will lose more juice.

After 12 hours, your smoked salmon is fully ready – get it out of the fridge, wash it thoroughly to rid of any salt, and lay it to rest on the board – you can keep it there for an hour or even longer. This is how it will look like:

Smoked salmon  - doneI like to give it even longer rest time if I’m not too hungry, so I would typically wrap it completely into the plastic wrap and put it back in the fridge for a few hours. Salt dries the surface completely, so by letting the salmon rest, it will redistribute the juices so it will become all moist and delicious. Last step – slice and enjoy!

smoked salmon - slice and enjoy!I would typically slice it off the skin as needed, and keep the rest wrapped in the plastic wrap in the fridge. As it is cured, it will last for a pretty long time – between a week and two for sure. It is also very easy to freeze as it is, right in the plastic wrap – and it can be thawed quickly as needed.

There you have it my friends – a simple smoked salmon recipe. Yes, do that at home!

If you will decide to make it  – let me know how it will come out. Cheers!

 

 

The Dinner Party Collective – Full Fall/Autumn Menu

September 29, 2015 3 comments

TDPC Logo The Dinner Party CollectiveA quick update on the fun project I had been involved with – The Dinner Party Collective (TDPC for short). For those of you unfamiliar with TDPC – it is a collaborative project of food and wine bloggers, aimed at creating full dinner menus with focus on seasonal ingredients in both northern and southern hemispheres, and with all the dishes on the menu coming with suggested wine pairings. TDPC is a brain child of Margot from Gather and Graze, which started early in 2015. TDPC was mentioned in the WordPress article in July as one of the 4 food blogs to watch. Earlier in the year, we published a set of Winter and Summer menus.

Now the time has come for the Fall/Autumn and Spring menus. First, the Fall/Autumn menu was fully published, so here are all the links:

Autumn/Fall Menu Overview

Appetizer – Trio of Root Vegetable Dips

Main Course – Beef Bourguignon

Dessert – Blackberry Tart

All the recipes include wine pairing notes and suggestions from Stefano (Flora’s TableClicks & Corks).

Spring menu overview will be coming out tomorrow, with the wine pairings and all the dishes to follow. Happy cooking! Cheers!

The Dinner Party Collective – Full Winter Menu

June 24, 2015 4 comments

TDPC Logo The Dinner Party CollectiveLast week I presented to you a complete Summer Menu from The Dinner Party Collective project – and now the winter menu is published. Here are all the links for you in one place:

The Winter Menu | June 2015

Cremini Mushroom Soup | Winter Menu | Appetizer

Pan Fried Quail with Vincotto Glazed Grapes | Winter Menu | Main Course

Poached Pear Chocolate Puddings | Winter Menu | Dessert

Wine Pairings | Winter Menu | Southern Hemisphere | June 2015

Now we really need to hear from you, our readers – did you cook the full dinners or any of the separate dishes? If you did, how did you like it? Did you try the suggested wine pairings? If you did, what was your exact wine? Did the pairing work for you? Did you like the format of the menus? What would you change?

Bottom line – The Dinner Party Collective is a young project, and we need your feedback to help us grow, so get to it – set the date, call your friends and start cooking.

Meanwhile, I heard the season will change soon – and TDPC team is already back to the drawing board… Cheers!

Grenache! Grenache? Grenache!, Few Rare Grapes and a Recipe

January 27, 2015 20 comments

Grenache tastingWhat’s up with Grenache? One of the most planted grapes in the world, a star of Spain, and often a foundation of greatness in the wines of Australia, France, California and Washington. A grape with the range of expression from light, fruity and frivolous to the dark, firm, brooding and confident. Yep, Grenache is well worth an oenophile’s attention. And a special wine dinner.

The theme was set, and then the dinner’s day arrived. This time around, we were a small group (6 adults), so we decided to skip the usual formal blind tasting with the multiple glasses, and instead simply integrate the tasting (still blind) into the format of the dinner. Each couple brought a bottle of Grenache wine, wrapped in  paper bag. The wines were numbered at random and then poured one by one. All in all, quite simple.

But before we got to the Grenache, I wanted to share two special bottles. Don’t get all jumpy at the word “special” – it means different things for different people. Your idea of special bottle might be Chateau Latour, Penfolds Grange or Amarone from Quintarelly – well, if you want to share any of those with me, I’m available any day of the week. However, my idea of special is often limited to something simply unique and different, such as “rare grapes”, for instance – an opportunity to add to my grape count and reach the coveted Wine Century Pentavini (500 grapes).

Along these lines, the first “special” was the white wine from Spain, which was made mostly from Roussanne, but also contained the grape called Albillo2011 Navaherreros Blanco de Bernabeleva Vinos de Madrid DO (14.5% ABV, $14.99, 50% Roussanne, Albillo, Macabeo and other varieties) had beautiful golden color, inviting nose of white fruit, touch of vanilla. Full bodied, creamy, luscious on the palate, touch of earthiness and baking spices, touch of vanilla, good acidity. (Drinkability: 8). This was definitely a delicious way to start the evening.

The next wine was Rosé. It was not just some generic Rosé – it was actually made form the grape which is practically impossible to find, at least in US – and it was on my “target” list for the very, very long time. Just to explain – if you will look at the original Wine Century Club application, you will find 186 grapes listed there, so we can consider those 186 to be a mainstream. In that list, there are still 6 grapes which I never tasted. Well, let me take that back – now there are 5.

There is a good chance that you heard of or even tasted the wine called Picpoul de Pinet, a light, crisp white wine from Rhone made from the grape called Picpoul Blanc. Picpoul Blanc has a cousin, a red grape called Picpoul Noir, which is literally impossible to find. During one of my countless searches online, I found that Picpoul Noir Rosé was available in one (!) single store in US in San Francisco – and luckily, I had a friend there who was kind enough to get it for me. Here is what I thought of the Rosé made out of this super-rare grape: 2013 Julie Benau Pink Poul Rosé Vin de France (12.5% ABV, $17, 100% Picpoul Noir) – restrained nose with a hint of strawberries. The same restrained profile continues on the palate – limited fruit expression, medium to full body, good acidity, food friendly. (Drinkability: 7+)

Okay, now we can finally talk Grenache, which I mentioned 3 times in the title of this post, right? I think when it comes to the range of expression among 7-10 most widely known red grapes, Grenache offer the most versatility, competing may be only with Syrah. From over the top dark chocolate, tar and sweet cherries to the soft, earthy and even acidic, Grenache can showcase quite a range of winemaking styles and terroirs. Thinking more about our tasting, it served exactly as a confirmation to this statement.

The first Grenache we had was that exact over the top style – dark, concentrated, firm, loaded with sweet pleasure in every sip. The second Grenache couldn’t be more different than what we experienced – smoke, mushrooms, forest floor, earthiness, herbs – a restrained beauty which I would never even think of as Grenache – but it was. And the last bottle was all too shy and closed at the beginning, showing again differently from the first two – but as it opened up, it became a younger brother of the first wine – same traits, only dialed down. The 3 bottles we chose completely at random managed to demonstrate that tremendous Grenache range. When we removed brown bags, we learned that we traveled from Spain to Washington and then to France – a very interesting journey.

Here are a bit more formal notes for the the wines, in the tasting order:

2007 Vinyes Doménech Teixar Garnatxa Vella Montsant DO, Spain (14.5% ABV, $75) – Delicious! Dark chocolate on the nose, very intense, ripe red fruit. The same continues on the palate – firm texture, dark chocolate, touch of plums, earthiness, perfect balance and long finish. 8+/9-

2008 No Girls Grenache La Paciencia Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (14.2% ABV, $65) – very interesting. Both nose and the palate show a profile of concentrated Oregon Pinot Noir. Smokey fruit, earthiness, very concentrated, touch of coffee, licorice, raspberries, sage and lavender. Very unique. 8

2012 Domaine La Manarine Côtes du Rhône (14% ABV, $16) – closed nose, similarly closed palate. Opened up after a while, just enough to show some dark fruit (plums, cherries) and a touch of chocolate on the palate. 7+

Okay, enough about wines. Now, this was a dinner, and I promised you the recipe, remember? The dish I made, and the recipe I would like to share will perfectly pair with the cold weather, and it is one of the ultimate comfort dishes ever – braised short ribs. Starting from the ease of cooking and the simplicity of the recipe, and then admiring the goodness of the smell during the long, slow cooking – this is definitely one of the ways to properly spell the word comfort.

Braised short ribs

Doesn’t it say “comfort”?

Here is the recipe:

Braised Short Ribs

Prep time: about 1 hour. Cooking time: 4-5 hours

Yield: 10 servings of two ribs each

8-10 lb beef short ribs – I don’t go specifically by the weight – I generally like to cook considering 2 ribs per person

1 bottle of red wine – Pinot Noir or Beaujolais

5 medium yellow onions

8 sticks of celery

4 large carrots

BBQ/Grilling spices – I use Penzeys spices

4 tbsp Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Serve with: mashed potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.

First of all, decide on what spices you want to use. I generally combine different Penzeys spices, but really – feel free to use anything you have:

Penzey spices

Next, take the meat out of the fridge and line it up on the prepping board, then sprinkle with the spices on both sides, add salt and pepper as needed:

Let meat warm up to the room temperature. Preheat over to 325ºF. While the meat is warming up, you can start working on your “trifecta”. Dice the onions and start sauteing them in the skillet or dutch oven with 2 tbsp of olive oil on the medium heat. Dice carrots and celery. Once onions become soft and translucent and then start gaining color (usually takes about 20 minutes), add carrots and celery and sauté all together for another 10 minutes, then set aside.

roasted carrots, onions, celeryNow, put remaining olive oil into the dutch oven, and heat it up to the high heat. Start searing the short ribs, meaty side down first. You might have to work in the batches, as you want all of the ribs to be nicely seared on both sides:

Roasted short ribsOnce all the ribs are seared, combine them all in the dutch oven, then add the onions, carrots and celery:

short ribs are doneAdd a bottle of wine, cover, put it in the oven and forget it for the next 4-5 hours (you really don’t want to rush this process). When done, you probably will find something like this:

short ribs are doneAs you can imagine, hearty Grenache is a perfect pairing for such a hearty, homey dish – but of course this shouldn’t be your only choice.

Here we are, my friends. A few rare grapes, an amazing range of Grenache wines, and winter-storm-alleviating-ultimately-comforting dish. Stay warm and drink well. Cheers!

 

From Family Recipes: Olivie Salad

June 12, 2014 12 comments

There are recipes. And then there are family recipes. What is the difference, you ask? Family recipes are more of a traditions. They don’t have to be secret recipes (well, let’s leave the secret recipes discussion for another time), but they are passed from a generation to generation virtually unchanged. They are treasured, and they have a lot of memories connected to them.

It just happened that for me and for my wife, as we were growing up in the same city (large one, mind you – with about 1.6M people living there), one and the same salad was a food icon. This salad, called Olivie, was probably the most popular and famous salad in Russia, or may be I’m simply biased. The origin of the salad is unclear. I was always under impression that this salad came to Russia from France – but according to many sources on Internet (well, they all might be copying from each other), the salad was created in 1860s by the Belgian Chef Lucien Olivier (hence the name of the salad), who was working in Moscow in the French-style restaurant called Hermitage. It seems that the list of ingredients supposedly in the original salad varies widely from the source to the source, and really has nothing to do with the Olivie salad as I know it. But, at this point, I think this is rather a matter of historical curiosity, and not overly important  for what we are talking about here.

The salad essentially is very simple, and has only 7 ingredients – potatoes, carrots, meat, pickles, boiled eggs, sweet peas and mayo. Of course a number of variations exists, firstly evolving around the use of different kinds of meat (bologna, boiled/roasted chicken and boiled beef are all possible options), but then some of the other ingredients sometimes can be omitted or substituted. But – once the recipe is changed, it is not the family recipe anymore, it becomes “some other recipe”. In a nutshell, here are all the ingredients of the Olivie Salad:

Deconstructed Olivie Salad
Here is the same, but zooming in on all the individual ingredients:

The family recipe is often associated with the happy moments in life, as it would be typically invoked for the special moments, whatever they are. While now we can make this salad any day (it was not always the case growing up back in Russia – some of the ingredients, like sweat peas, for instance, were very hard to find), it is still typically associated with holidays or at least special dinners of some sort (like a visit of good friends). Also, it is almost a privilege to make this special recipe – 95% of the time my wife simply doesn’t let me to make this salad, exactly as my Dad was, as I don’t always cut all the ingredients uniformly, and this is a big issue in her eyes (and I can’t argue with perfection).

In general, when I cook, I take very relaxed approach to the substitution of the ingredients, use of specific brands etc. – I believe it is totally okay to perform substitutions as needed. Except when it comes to this Olivie salad. If you want to make Olivie salad according to the Levine family recipe, no substitutions or changes are allowed, outside of what I will mention below. Don’t get me wrong – you are free to do what you want, it just not going to be the Levine family Olivie salad.

Okay, time to get to it. Below is the list of the ingredients you will need, and the instructions (very simple, mostly in pictures!) are follow. One more important note – the recipe below will yield the amount good enough to feed a small army, but this is the only way we make it, so feel free to cut it down accordingly.

Levine family Olivie Salad:

4 Medium Potatoes, whole, unpeeled (Russet, White or Idaho – don’t use Yukon gold, it will not retain the shape after it is cut)

4 Large Carrots, unpeeled

1.25 lb good bologna, whole or sliced into quarter an inch rounds (don’t use supermarket deli Bologna, go to the German or Polish specialty deli)

8 medium size pickles, use only Vlasic Whole Kosher Dills, no substitutions!

8 medium hard boiled eggs

1 large can of sweet peas (any brand :))

About 1/2 cup Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise – no substitutions!!!

Wash potatoes and carrots, don’t peel, and boil them for about 20 minutes (start timer after the water started to boil). You can check readiness with the knife – you should be able to poke through with very little resistance. You want to boil carrots and potatoes with the timer, as you don’t want them to overcook – if they do, they will lose shape once cut. Once potatoes and carrots are boiling, boil eggs for about 10 minutes. When potatoes and carrots are done, transfer them into the cold water to stop cooking process, also cool down the eggs. Get all the ingredients on the plate, and let them cool off so you will be able to handle them.

Next step – peel off and discard skin from potatoes and carrots. Peel off the shell from the eggs, then wash them and dry – you don’t want any pieces of shell in the salad. Okay, now all the prep work is finished, and all you have to do is to cut the ingredients (dice might be a better word).

Dice potatoes into about quarter of inch squares, same goes for carrots, eggs, bologna. Cut the pickles and put them in the strainer – you don’t need extra liquid in the salad. Open sweet peas, drain them completely (again, use strainer), and add them to the bowl.

At this point you need to mix everything together – tread lightly, as you don’t need a mush instead of a salad. Once you are done mixing, taste it – you looking for the balance of flavors. If you think you need more salt or acidity, add more pickles – in the end of the day, you just want to arrive to the tasty combination.

Now, the last step – you need to add mayo. This should really be done “by the taste”. Start from the small quantity, mix it, taste it, and add more if you think you need it. This salad must be served cold, so you have to put it in the fridge before you will serve it. The best thing to do is to let the salad chill, and then add more mayonnaise right before you will serve it – this way it will look and taste the freshest.

There are few possible modifications to this recipe. One is to replace bologna with chicken or beef. The trick is that to cook either one just enough that it will be ready, but not overlooked, because overlooked meat will just break down and it will not be Olivie salad anymore. You can bake or boil chicken breast (should be breast only, as you don’t need any extra fat). If you will use beef, you have to boil it – or if you will decide to roast, it will have to be well done, as you can’t have any blood in this salad.

Last modification you can make is to add a tiny amount finely finely diced white/yellow onion. My dad used to do this, and it adds a nice note to the salad in my opinion, but it is a big no-no in our house now.

There you have it – Levine family recipe Olivie salad. Feel free to comment, especially after you will try it. Cheers!

Having Fun With Crock Pot Cooking

February 23, 2014 16 comments

DSC_0472Do you like French Onion soup? Okay, this is not necessarily the question I want to ask. It is not about the soup, the question is really about the small, typically glazed and bright brown in color crock pots in which the French onion soup is often served in the restaurant. I don’t know about you, but for me the sight alone of such a crock pot is heartwarming and homey, it has the words “comfort” and “relax” written all over it in the big bold letters.

The great things about those little crock pots is that their versatility allows you to go well beyond just the french onion soup – this is a mini casserole dish, which is perfectly suitable for making any type of stew. Also, because of the small size and somewhat individual portioning, while you might be making mostly the same dish for the family, you can make adjustments to each small pot based on the individual preferences – no broccoli in this one, no mushrooms in that, and triple jalapeno for the last.

The dish which I want to talk about today is pretty much chicken and potatoes stew. My original idea was to use the chicken sausage, but – my daughter doesn’t like sausage, so this is where the small pot versatility comes to the play – I can easily make an adjustment for her and use just chicken instead of the sausage. And yes, of course, the same is true about all other ingredients. I’m sure you got my point.

Okay, here we go:
Crock Pot Chicken and Potatoes Stew (makes 4 crock pots)

Prep time: 40 minutes, cooking time: 1 hour

1 lb of chicken thighs (you can use sausages, chicken breast, anything), cut up in a small pieces about an inch in size

2 large onions, diced

1.5 lb carrots, sliced into small pieces (1/4″)

4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced

1 lb mushrooms, sliced

1/2 lb fresh peas

4 tbsp chicken broth (can be substituted with water, wine, any cooking liquid)

salt, pepper to taste

[olive] oil for frying

4 dry bay leaves

whole allspice (optional) – few berries per crock pot

Cut up chicken and/or sausages you will be using and start searing it in the pan using the olive oil (if you are using just the chicken, season with salt and pepper prior to searing). You don’t have to cook it completely, but you want to give it a nice sear, so it will take you about 10 minutes on the medium to high heat. Put aside.

Slice onions and start sauteing them on medium heat, for about 15 minutes, or until onion becomes soft and translucent. Dice up carrots (I was using tri-color carrots, just for fun) and slice mushrooms, then add to the pan with the onion once it is ready. Continue sauteing on the medium heat for another 10 minutes. Add peas and continue the process for another 5 minutes.  Put aside. Peel and cut the potatoes into the small chunks, add salt, pepper and 1 tbsp olive oil and toss the potatoes well.

Preheat oven to the 350°F. Put the crock pots onto the large oven pan. Put the layer of potatoes on the bottom, then layer of chicken and top it of with the vegetable mix. Of course this is when you can make all those individual adjustments for the ingredients for your picky eaters. Add 1 tbsp of broth (or wine, beer, etc.), put in a bay leaf and 2-3 allspice berries (this is entirely optional). Cover and put into the oven for 1 hour.

And we are done!

DSC_0475

DSC_0479

Bon Appétit and cheers!

Russian Meat Soup – Solyanka

January 23, 2014 12 comments

The polar vortex is back with us again, and we need the tools to fight it, right? Well, yeah, you can’t fight mother nature – but at least you can make her blows a bit more palatable.

This is a wine and food blog, of course, so we are not going to talk about space heaters and Amish miracle fireplaces. Right food is a perfect solution for many of the life’s situations, extreme cold being one of them. When the temperature is in the teens, and every breath makes you look more like a fire-throwing dragon, there are few of the heart-, body- and soul-warming dishes which come to the rescue. The hearty stew is one of them. And rich, concentrated, hot soup is probably what comes to mind first while you are out there shoveling the snow.

So it is the soup we will be talking about today. This soup, called Solyanka (if you can read or just care to see the same in the Russian alphabet, it is Солянка Мясная Сборная) is one of the old and traditional Russian soups. Many people know or at least heard of the Russian soup called Borsch, made out of the red beets (Borsch is also a perfect soup for the cold weather, but it is not a subject of today’s post). Much lesser number of people know of Solyanka, which used to be one of the very few soups traditionally served in the restaurants back in Russia starting from the hundreds of years ago.

I believe many home cooks purposefully avoid making the soup, as it often translates into a quite a bit of hassle. Great thing about Solyanka is that this soup requires very few ingredients and very easy to make!

As you could deduce from the title of this post, the main ingredient in Solyanka is … meat! Actually, any kind of meat is going – pork, beef, veal, chicken – whatever you got. It is important to note that we are not talking about raw meat – we are talking about meat products, such as smoked or cured sausages, baked chicken/turkey breast, ham, all sorts of bacon, bologna, hot dogs, any meat leftovers – anything which goes in the category of “cold cuts”.

In addition to meat there is another important ingredient here. The word “Solyanka” is a derivative of the Russian word for salt. But the second key ingredient is not the salt per se – it is pickled cucumbers. The cucumbers can be brined in salt or vinegar, it really doesn’t matter – but they are essential taste component in this soup.

Ready to see the recipe? Let’s proceed.

Solyanka – Russian Meat Soup

Prep time: about 30 minutes. Cooking time: about 30 minutes.

2 lb meat products (cold cuts style)

3 quarts of broth (any one goes – beef, chicken, vegetable).

6 large Dill Cucumbers, peeled and sliced

3 medium onions, chopped

2 tbsp tomato paste

4 tbsp capers

3 dry bay leaves

1 tbsp olive oil

To serve:

Black pitted olives from the can, quartered

Sliced lemon

Sour Cream

First step is to cut your meat products, whatever you are using. I typically use smoked sausages and some types of ham, but really there are no limitations. You have to slice the meat into the small pieces, make sure you will remove any kind of skin or casing if it is present, as those will not be good in the soup. I generally like to roast all that chopped meat in the pan on medium heat, for about 10-15 minutes, to concentrate the flavor.

While your meat is roasting, chop the onions. Take the large pot or casserole dish where you will be making the soup, add olive oil, put it on the medium heat. Add chopped onions and sauté them for about 10 minutes, or until translucent. Next add tomato paste, 3 tablespoons of broth and continue sautéing for another 20 minutes.

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While onions and meat are on their way, prepare pickles – remove the skin, slice in half lengthwise, and then cut into the small pieces. Put aside.

Once the meat is ready, and the onions were sautéed for the total of about 30 minutes, add meat and pickles to the pot, add all of the remaining broth, put bay leaves, reduce the heat and let the soup to simmer for another 10-15 minutes. This is it! You are done.

This soup can be served as is, or with the optional sliced lemon, olives and sour cream – I personally like to add all three, but again, it is a matter of personal preference.

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And let me present to you the weapon against the polar vortex – a bowl of Solyanka:

Your ultimate vortex weapon - a bowl of Solyanka

Your ultimate vortex weapon – a bowl of Solyanka

To be entirely honest, you really don’t have to wait for the sub-zero temperatures to make this soup. Yes, it is filling and warming from the inside, but overall it has quite a bit of acidity which makes it very refreshing.

So, when are you making it? Looking forward to your thoughts and comments. Cheers!