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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 2011 Puzzling Grape Harvest in Europe

Throughout much of Europe the wine masters are puzzling over the 2011 vintage, which has been harvested over the last month. They say they have never seen a harvest quite like it.

After a lot of rain last winter — "perfect," says Michel Gassier of Château de Nages in the Rhône Valley of France — a good spring followed, but July and August were rainy and cold. The grape bunches stayed tight, letting in little air circulation. The Syrah grapes in the Rhône were drying out on the vine. The vineyard tenders waited and waited. Now they are rushing.

The white grapes are off the vines, but the wine makers found that while the grapes were barely ripe, the seeds inside were overripe, dark and turning bitter, instead of the almond taste they should have had at this point. The pulp inside the skins is still solid and holding onto the seeds tightly.

The aromatic maturity should match the maturity of the pulp and the skins. But it doesn't, so they'll have to pick their grapes and try to work some magic in the winery.

What does it mean for the 2011 European wines you will be drinking for the next 10 years? No one is quite sure. But they are harried and just a bit panicked in the world-famous vineyards of France, Italy and Spain. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Arles, France: Land of Van Gogh and Spanish Influence

The city of Arles ("arl") is where Van Gogh painted sunflowers, starry nights and his apartment — and left part of his ear behind. The sunflowers are far past their prime in September, but Van Gogh's name is on many streets and businesses.

We happened to arrive on the day of the town's festival of the bull, which shows the influence of nearby Spain and the caballeros who work the nearby camargue on their white horses. Although we didn't have any, the meal of the day was paella, served as a special at every restaurant and the many street tents set up for the day.

The other dramatic influence here is in the form of huge stone amphitheaters and other buildings built by the ancient Romans, and still being used today in many cases. This is a rebellious part of France historically, much more Protestant than the heavily Catholic rest of France, and a place where the rulers in Rome or Paris could always expect trouble and an argument that led to violence.

But like the rest of France, the food is wonderful. We lunched on salads because we were still sated from our rich restaurant meal the previous night. Salad Niçoise is one of the regional favorites, and ours was refreshing, light and just the right amount to keep us walking and gawking.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

France: Eat Your Way Through the Country

There is one adjustment you have to make as an American when you go to France. You have to eat like the French. They typically eat small portions and don't snack. But the food is divine — and rich. And despite the photo above, usually not so obviously rich.

On our first full day, we went to the local market, not the supermarket but the building full of stalls with luscious vegetables, beautiful cheeses, olives of may flavors and meat and fish of every stripe. We were stocking up for the pantry at our villa in a little village near the Rhône River.

Once weighed down with bags and bags of produce and other food, we stopped into a little brasserie for lunch, where Ruth had the Cappuccino
 pictured above.

Despite our haul of goat cheeses, fresh green olives in brine, cranberry beans, tomatoes, leeks, eggs, eggplant tapenade, we decided to eat at the local restaurant, Chaverdille, because it is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

It is the only restaurant in the little village, but the food was wonderful. Our theory is that it's difficult to find a bad restaurant in France, because they won't last.

The sauces are deep with flavors, and the preparation is almost always stopped at just the right line. And the wine is incredibly cheap. What's not to like?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bargain Wine of the Week: 2009 Chateau l'Ermitage Costieres de Nimes

One of the wineries we will visit during our stay in the Rhône region of France is Chateau l'Ermitage outside the city of Nîmes, where denim was invented and where the wineries blend the good taste of the Rhône with the low cost of the Languedoc and produce wines that are perfect for Eat Well, Eat Cheap.

We've tried both the 2007 and the 2009 red wines from Chateau l'Ermitage and they are a great bargain. Ruby red in color and fruity enough to enjoy before dinner, the wine also carries some hints of cinnamon and stone. But the tannins are very soft, so the taste is always pleasant.

This red is a combination of 50% syrah, 30% mourvedre and 20% grenache.

We've also tried the white blend from Chateau l'Ermitage, which is also widely available for around $10, and it is equally pleasing. The grapes are Roussanne, Grenache blanc and Viognier, and the taste is of peaches. This is a great summer sipper.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Arugula Pesto: Pesto di Rucola

Why all of the pesto recipes? Well, mostly because Saveur magazine celebrated pesto by publishing dozens of recipes. But also because you get a lot of ideas by exploring one type of food and seeing how subtle ingredient changes make for big flavor differences. It also helps when you crave a dish, but the key ingredient is missing from the pantry or fridge.

In wine, you'd call it a vertical tasting. Sip a bunch of chardonnays or syrah side-by-side and compare the difference between France, Chile, Spain and California — or between northern California and southern California.

We have a friend who loves pesto so much that she probably eats it weekly. We have another friend who loves it so much that he wants to be slathered in it when he's buried (presumably to have something good to eat in the hereafter).

This might be our favorite pesto. Since making it from the recipe in Saveur magazine's paean to pesto, we've tried it on pasta, vegetables, tomatoes, toast, tofu and chicken. This spicy concoction makes them all taste better.

Admittedly, we like arugula. We've mixed it with lettuce and spinach in salads to add a peppery flavor. We've put it on pizzas. We've even had salads that consisted of nothing but arugula and dressing. So, yes, we like it.

But this is arugula in a totally different context, and many people who eat it have to ask what the green ingredient is in this pesto. Along with the cilantro pesto, this was the most popular when we served a spread of pestos. The magazine says it's great drizzled over steamed artichokes or grilled fish.

Pesto di Rucola

2 cups packed arugula
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (we used 3/4 and it was fine)
1/2 cup finely grated percorino or romano cheese
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1 clove garlic, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Process all ingredients in a food processor and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Great Pesto Spread: Pesto Calabrese

Some pesto doesn't look or taste like pesto at all. But this great spread is from Rocco Arena, owner of San Rocco Restaurant in New York, and Rocco swears it is pesto. We found the recipe in Saveur magazine's big article in praise of pesto.

The magazine says this pesto is spicy, but we didn't find it spicy at all. We found it pretty bland, in fact, so our suggestion is to add a little hot red pepper to the mix. But even in its bland state, this spread will be a hit with your guests.

Pesto Calabrese

1 small eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes
2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
1/2 small yellow onion, minced
2 plum tomatoes, cored and minced
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup packed basil
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Place eggplant in a colander, toss with 2 tsp. salt and let sit for 20 minutes.
Drain and dry on paper towels, and set aside.

Heat oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, add pepper and onion, and cook, stirring often, until soft and lightly caramelized — about 10 minutes.

Add eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a good processor and add ricotta and basil. Puree until smooth.

Season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cilantro Pesto: A Happy Marriage of Mexican and Italian Flavors

As we've said many times before, pesto does not have to be made with basil. Instead you can use parsley, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, pistachio, sage, broccoli, red pepper, garlic scapes or cilantro.

We gave Mark Bittman's recipe for Light Cilantro Pesto that can be used as a dressing on vegetables or as an underlayment for any entree that needs just spark of pep. For example, we've smeared it on the plate under the stuffed roasted peppers we serve as an appetizer.

Saveur magazine's celebration of pesto includes a cilantro pesto made heartier by the inclusion of roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). This pesto was the biggest hit when we laid out several pesto spreads as appetizers before a recent dinner party. It's salty. It's hearty. It's aggressively tasty. Saveur recommends it with roasted squash or grilled fish.

We made a lot of this cilantro pesto, so we've used it as a sauce on pasta (delicious!), as a dressing on blanched green beans and as a topping for fresh sliced tomatoes. This is a very versatile pesto indeed!

Pepita and Cilantro Pesto (from Saveur magazine)

2 cups packed cilantro
1/2—2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup toasted pepitas
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Pulse cilantro, oil, pepitas, parmesan, lime juice and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped; season with salt and pepper.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Pesto Rosso: Substituting Red for Green in Delicious Pesto

We normally think of pesto as being green and made with lots of basil right out of the garden. Saveur magazine's recent celebration of pesto noted that it is merely a paste, usually made in using a mortar and  pestle, so it can be made with lots of different ingredients.

Today we tried a pesto that doesn't even depend on fresh greens from the garden (except a small amount of rosemary). Instead it's foundation is sun-dried tomatoes. We found it to be absolutely addictive and a wonderful hors d'oeuvre when spread on a nice slice of crusty peasant bread — or a cracker.

Pesto Rosso

1 cup virgin olive oil
1/2 cupe toasted almonds, chopped
2 Tbsp. rosemary leaves, minced
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. paprika (or Aleppo pepper, if you've got it)
20 pitted oil-cured black olives
10 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Process oil, almonds, rosemary, vinegar, sugar, paprika, olives, tomatoes and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped; season with salt and pepper.