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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wine Week: d'Arenberg Shiraz 2008 The Stump Jump

Finding a 90-point wine at your local store's Saturday free tasting is a very pleasant surprise. Finding it at $10 is even more pleasant. And then realizing that this very same wine placed 82 on the Wine Spectator's annual list of Top 100 Wines of the year is just a very happy coincidence.

We had tasted The Stump Jump white, one of the other low-end "Stumpies" made by this great Australian winery, but had not tasted the Shiraz, which is what the Australians call their Syrah grapes. This Rhone-style wine, which had been sitting open for some time, tasted great at the store. We bought a couple of bottles because our local dealer only had a couple left.

When we opened the first bottle two nights ago, it was a bit rough and sharp tasting. So, we let it sit open for a couple of hours, then vacuumed the air out and put it up for the night. Two days later we opened it to pleasant aromas of berries.
Despite sitting open for the two hours, the taste was fresh and fruity (in a good way). This is an everyday wine that would sit well with pork or chicken, pasta or salad. It went incredibly well with the Chinese stir-fry we happened to be having for dinner.

If you see it, buy it. Only 5,000 cases were imported.

Wine Week: Chateau de Nages 2008 Reserve Rhone White

This is Wine Week. You might ask, isn't every week? Well, somebody designated this wine week somewhere, so we're going to review a different $10 bottle every day this week.

Today's wine is a white sibling of a red Rhone wine we reviewed a few months ago: Chateau de Nages Red Rhone Wine. Both are less than $10 and are well worth carting home from your local wine store. French wines can be a tough decision these days unless you're familiar with the wine, because the inexpensive ones, especially from Bordeaux, can be just awful.

Unlike Robert Parker, wine taster extraordinaire, we like Rhones and a few Languedocs. And in these regions you'll find your French bargains.

The Chateau de Nages Costieres de Nimes 2008 Reserve White Rhone Wine is a product of the Michel Gassier family of wines. This wine, made with grenache blanc and roussanne grapes in a 60-40 mix, tastes of pears and grapefruit.

While it is a light wine — somewhere between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc — it stood up well to the pasta with blue cheese and cream sauce. Yet it is light enough to sip or to accompany a delicate fish dish.

Drink now or through 2013.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: 2007 Ramal Road Carneros Chardonnay

One of the tricks of merchandising and marketing is to use leftovers to produce a product similar to the main brand. Thus, every drug store has store-brand products that are actually made by the big-name companies. Wineries often do the same thing. They create a second-tier wine, give it few if any marketing dollars and use the off-cuts of the production process and sell it at a much reduced price.

It would seem that
Buena Vista Winery, one of the oldest wineries in California, has created Ramal Road wines, which it sells at $10 a bottle. (The label at the top of the bottle says "Buena Vista" in mouse-sized type and Ramal Road is the address of the Buena Vista winery.) The $10 price tag on sale (it is normally $15, we discovered later) is impressive for any Chardonnay that good. It is particularly impressive when the grapes are grown in the Carneros region that sits at the south end of the Napa-Sonoma border in California.

When you are at the wine store, remember that any Carneros Chardonnay is predictably great drinking. The best sells for more than $50 a bottle and most sell for $30-$50. This particular label, which doesn't even show up in a Google search, is easily worth $20.

The flavor that comes through in spades is pear and honey.

It also tastes of apple and citrus, with a little vanilla in the finish. A great bargain. Put away a case. This probably won't stay undiscovered for long, and then the price will undoubtedly go up.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Favorite Kitchen Utensils: Orka Mitts

We'll admit it—the first time we donned our Orka oven mitts, we found them stiff and unwieldy. And the first time we used them to reach into a 450-degree oven, we flinched, wondering if the thin silicone really would protect us.

Years later, we're hooked. Our trusty Orkas have shielded us from spattering ovens, boiling water, and red-hot barbecue grills. You can't pick up a needle with these gloves, but you never have to worry about getting burned from wet or worn-out fabric.

After years of use, they show no signs of wearing out. Best of all, they're washable. Those embarrassingly brown, greasy, smelly cloth oven mitts we used to own—and hide from guests—are only a dim memory at this point.

At $30 a pair, these aren't the cheapest oven mitts you'll ever buy, but they'll be the last oven mitts you buy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cheap, Fast, Delicious Fried Cheese Appetizer

This photo of the fried queso fresco does not do the dish justice. It is a delicious crispy treat made even better by the homemade salsa we served with it.

On Super Bowl Sunday, we were still pretty much snowed in, with little inclination to go out and forage for snacks. But we did have half a round of queso fresco, the white cheese that's often crumbled on Mexican dishes. Remembering that you can make a fine appetizer simply by grating parmesan onto a nonstick pan, we wondered if we could do a similar thing with wet but firm queso fresco.

So we cut the cheese into quarter-inch slices, carefully placed it on a nonstick griddle, turned the heat up to medium-high, and watched: After just a few minutes, the cheese had released its liquid and browned on one side. A few minutes on the other side completed the cooking process.

Good so far, but the appetizer needed a garnish. Salsa, for example.

Unfortunately, the cupboard was bare, and we remained disinclined to venture into the frozen streets to search for a jar, particularly on the biggest salsa day of the year. We did have half a can of crushed tomatoes and a leftover roasted red pepper. Along with a chopped jalapeno and a couple of sliced scallions, lime juice, cumin, cilantro, and chili powder, this made a fine improvisation—and tasted great on the hot fried cheese. Not the best salsa we've ever made — mainly because diced tomatoes would have been better than crushed — but excellent in a pinch.

If you can't find queso fresco at your supermarket, Costco usually carries it. Or you can find it at any Hispanic market. It freezes well and also makes a good quesadilla filling mixed with cheddar or Monterey Jack.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: Three for Less Than $10

One of the great advantages of writing a blog about wines that cost $10 or less is that guests often bring such wines to dinner parties and introduce you to bottles, regions, or grapes that you might not know.

We had some friends here for dinner, and one guest who reads the blog religiously brought a three-pack as a house-warming gift. It contained:

Casata Monticello Barbera D'Alba 2008, a red table wine from northwest Italy;

Loma Gorda 2005 from the Santa Quiteria co-op in the Almansa region in the southeast of Spain and, like the Barbera, grown close to the Mediterranean; and

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, an Italian white table wine from the Adriatic (east) side of Tuscany.

Verdicchio wine often comes in a signature hourglass or vase-form green amphora bottle and is often described as Italy's best white to serve with fish. The Verdicchio was a serviceable sipping white, but our least favorite of the three. (It should be noted that we're not big fans of most Italian whites—either too watery or too grassy-sharp.)

Ruth's favorite was the Barbera D'Alba. Just as its name implies, it is made with barbera (Nebbiolo) grapes from the area around the town of Alba in the Piedmont of northwestern Italy. If you drew lines between Turin, Genoa and Nice, Alba would be in the middle of the triangle.

The somewhat warmer climate than the nearby Barolo means earlier picking, lighter constitution and less complexity than Barolo. Thus it's a bit less expensive, but also a very easy drinking wine that would be good with most foods.

Tim's favorite was the Loma Gorda 2005 from Spain. It is made with two-thirds garnacha tintorera grapes (65%) and Syrah (Shiraz in Australia) makes up the other third.
If you like the strong hint of vanilla, with some tart fruit, in your red wine, this is the wine for you. Lots of flavor for the price. Wine Review Online rated it with an 88. Robert Parker gave it an 87. This is an unknown wine from a little-known region, but definitely worth a try.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Enough! And a Blizzard Makes Three

We're eating up our curried vegetables and the black-bean chili we made for the Superbowl as well as the chocolate chip cookies, the rice, last week's peppers and onions over chickpea pancakes.

Most people here in the nation's capital had Monday off. The federal workers also had Tuesday off because the roads aren't clear and the metro trains aren't running anyplace that the tracks are above-ground.

And today we're in the middle of our third big storm in six weeks, the second in five days. This one has wind to add insult. Forty miles per hour at times, so the shoveling (which is getting old, even for a couple of experienced shovelers from South Dakota and upstate New York) is undone the minute after you clear a path.

(The tree in the photo is not on fire. It's a reflection of lights in the window.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hot Sauce: Ignore the Hype and Visibility

We're big fans of Cook's Illustrated and its TV show, America's Test Kitchen. We were charter subscribers to the original Cook's Illustrated, which died an untimely death. We think that Fine Cooking actually channeled the original Cook's, but that doesn't take away from the great cooking advice found at the current Cook's media empire outlets.

A recent review by the Cook's crew reminded us of our strong opinions about hot sauce. We're always up for trying any kind of hot sauce that lands on the counter or table in front of us. Many years ago we even made a pilgrimage to the island in Louisiana where they grow and produce Tabasco sauce.

But since that time and for many, many years we've avoided the omnipresent Tabasco as a condiment in our cooking. We found it too hot to taste the flavor. Not that we mind really hot. We don't. But it was just difficult to get through the heat to get to any flavor enhancement for food.

When Cook's ran a blind tasting of hot sauces, its panel found the same thing. The famous one was too watery but exhibited too little flavor to taste.

The winner? Two sauces. First: Frank's RedHot Original Hot Sauce. Not searingly hot, but a bit of tomato flavor coming through with the cayenne peppers and vinegar. We agree. It's a great sauce to add heat AND flavor to dishes.

Second: La Preferida Louisiana Hot Sauce. Hotter, for sure, but also very tasty. The judges split on these two great additives. The panel members who like more spice and heat voted for La Preferida. The judges who wanted more flavor liked Frank's.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snowed-in Update

We got about 30 inches, and yes the electricity did go out.

Fortunately it waited until after we had made the curried vegetables and the spicy channa dhal with rice. We thought about posting a photo of the curried veggies, but food photos are notoriously difficult and curried veggies tend to look yellow and mushy after cooking for an hour. But it was so tasty.

Ruth had the Zabaco Zinfandel with the Indian dishes and Tim had a Silver Peak Pinot Noir (grapes from Carneros, bottled in Lodi).

And after shoveling snow all day in a storm for the ages, we deserved a treat, right? Chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

All in all, a great way to end a stormy day. Then the lights went out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snow: Here We Go Again!

We thought that the big snowstorm before Christmas was the big one for the year — and significantly deeper than normal for the mid-Atlantic region. But we're in the middle of our second of the season. And this one is worse.

We're at two feet deep and counting. The weather service says we're supposed to get six more inches. It's a good excuse to stay in and cook what's in the house. Our only fear is that the power might go out, as it has to 200,000 others in the area. Thank goodness for the gas grill.

Yesterday at noon, the grocery store, which is new and usually short on customers, was so picked over that there was literally no meat on the shelves. The storm mentality that grips even the most snow-weary regions was exacerbated by tomorrow's Super Bowl. What would have been a run on chips and beer today and tomorrow was pushed up to Thursday because of Friday and Saturday's storm. It left the parking lots packed and the counters empty.

So we're challenging ourselves to make due with our stores of dried beans, veggies and other staples.

Last night we roasted peppers and eggplants on the grill and roasted potatoes in the oven. Tim also put a couple of small pieces of tuna steak on the grill. Served with wasabi mayonnaise, along with a Zabaco Zinfandel from California and a Sangiovese from Italy, it was a delicious way to spend a snowy night.

One more late-night trip outside to shovel snow and stay ahead of the storm, and we slept like babies. (No, we did not wake up every hour and cry.)

Even the dogs settled in for a good eight-hour snooze.

Today, maybe cauliflower curry and dhal.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Make It Yourself: Gomasio

A blend of toasted sesame seeds and sea salt, gomasio is a condiment that adds flavor and texture without delivering too much sodium. You may encounter gomasio in Japanese restaurants or health food stores, but there's no need to restrict it to Asian dishes—it gives a flavor boost to everything from sautéed green beans to roasted peppers to tossed green salads. And it couldn't be easier to make.

Toast half a cup of sesame seeds in a dry pan. Keep a vigilant eye on them, as they can scorch very quickly—the toasting shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Then grind the seeds with two teaspoons of sea salt. If you don't have a spice grinder, a clean coffee grinder works wonderfully.

That's it!

You may soon find yourself reaching for the gomasio instead of the salt shaker.

New Validation of the Lettuce-Shaking Trick!

As previously explained, we avoid a lot of waste and save a lot of money by shaking up those big clamshell packages of prewashed salad mix: if air is added to the mix, the lettuce stays fresh longer.

But lately we've been either busy or traveling, and a three-quarters-empty container languished in our crisper for more than three weeks. Last night we pulled it out with some trepidation and were astonished to see that the lettuce was still fresh, with nary a slimy strand of mizuna or yellowed spinach leaf!

If you've never tried this technique for prolonging the life of your expensive salad mix, we hope this convinces you that it works.