Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dining Solo

E is off with her parents while her mom is in the hospital. Unfortunately, I can't be with her due to logistical issues.

Cooking for one makes me realize I've grown unaccustomed to it. While I'm happy not to be condemned to take-out or frozen dinners, cooking for myself is less than inspiring.

There have been times in my life when I did it without a second thought, but it's been a long time. The only upside is that I can experiment and not worry about being embarrassed by the results.

Tonight I found myself staring at the contents of the pantry searching for dinner ideas. I spotted a can of baby clams purchased many months ago with the intention of making a red clam sauce. It seemed like a perfect time to experiment and what resulted was a pretty good example of how to use what you have on hand.

I started with a couple cloves of garlic, which I always have. I minced the garlic, sauteed it for a minute or two in a healthy pour of olive oil and then added 1/2 cup of white wine and the juice of a lemon (which was on the verge of being a little too old).

Once the wine and lemon juice had been reduced by about half, I added a box of chopped Italian tomatoes (Pomi, 26.5 ounces). E spotted these at the grocery and the quality is great. I added the tomatoes and the drained clams (10 ounce can) to the pan. It would have been great to have some clam juice, but I couldn't bring myself to add the salty water the clams were packed in. Maybe next time.

While the sauce simmered, I chopped a mess of fresh basil (about 1/4 cup plus some extra) -- thanks to my good idea of planting a late season crop of flat-leaf basil. I just can't get enough of basil. I set the basil aside and put a big pot of salted water on to boil.

Once the water boiled, I dropped in some spaghetti noodles and added the basil to the sauce. Right before the noodles finished, I tasted the sauce and added salt and pepper to taste.

I plated up the pasta and garnished it with the extra basil. Here's the result.

When I'm by myself I tend not to break out new wines. I'd rather save those for when I have someone to talk about them with. So, I chose a lighter-style red we've enjoyed in the past.

Maison L. Tramier et Fils Roncier Pinot Noir NV ($8.99, Green's)

The Roncier is a very nice, simple drink of wine with flavors of cherry, dried herbs, earth and a hint of smoke. It was just the thing for a simple dinner of pasta.

I'm looking forward to making this dish again when I have some company.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sound of Silence

My apologies for the extended blog silence. I fall out of the habit of posting pretty quickly, and once I lose my momentum, it's all over.

Those of you who are bloggers know how much work it is. There are times when I can hardly wait to post, and there are times when it's about as appealing as cleaning up the kitchen. Of course, much like a kitchen full of dirty pots and pans, the untouched blog is always in the back of my mind, causing feelings of guilt and laziness.

On the other hand, there are times when I don't particularly want to take notes and pictures of what I'm cooking or drinking -- I just want to eat it or drink it. Then there are the times when what's on my plate or glass isn't really worth writing about.

I also still struggle with the feeling that, instead of blogging, I should be writing something I hope to get compensated for (although there are increasingly few opportunities for that). I admire those bloggers who have made it a paying endeavor. Good for you.

Not long ago I read something about the number of people who started blogs and have since abandoned them. It's not hard for me to understand why.

Passing the three year mark clearly has me thinking deep thoughts about the nature of blogging. I should probably quit over-thinking things and follow the advice of a tried-and-true Southernism:

Ain't nothin' to it, but to do it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Happy Blog-iversary

Three years ago, I wrote the first post for Brim.

Writing a blog has been an interesting experience. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing – as it's been with most of my endeavors. Along the way, Brim has attracted a surprising, yet modest following. I lost lots of readers when I went silent for a long stretch in 2008, but I’ve picked up some new people and lured back some regulars.

Instead of going on and on about everything that’s gone into writing this and everything I’ve gotten out of it, I’ll just say, thanks.

To all my readers – past, present and future – I appreciate you stopping in to see what’s going on with Brim. Thanks for reading, and I'm humbled by your interest.

Tonight, E and I are raising a glass to all of you. We're toasting with Gruet Winery brut sparkling wine, which is appropriate because it’s a slightly off-beat (like my blog) choice of bubbly.

Champagne wouldn’t be right for this occasion. I also passed over some California sparklers that I love, as well as a couple non-Champagne French sparklers. I picked the Gruet not just for it’s flavor and character, but also because it’s from New Mexico. As my long-time readers know, I'm passionate about the expansion of wine producing regions in the U.S.

For dinner, I'm serving spice-rubbed salmon (wild, of course) fillets with a green tomato/red onion/red pepper chutney (or something close to it), grits and snap peas. Those of you who aren't familiar with grits may not know what you're missing. Columbia just happens to be home to Anson Mills, which grinds some of the best grits anywhere.

I could gush about the yeasty-lemon-carmel notes of the Gruet, but I won't. I'll just raise my glass in your honor.

Here's to you.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Southern Wine

My plan to post some short updates throughout the weekend didn't work out. It was a busy weekend (as busy as it ever gets around here), and I just couldn't bring myself to spend any time in front of the computer.

E and I took today off to stretch the weekend a little. After spending the day dealing with the unpleasant minutiae of life, it was a pleasure a crack open a bottle of white and retreat to the porch.

I picked a recent purchase, a wine that made both of us very happy.

Horton Vineyards Tower Series Viognier Orange County, VA 2006 ($12.99, Total Wine)

I wish I could blog more frequently about the wines of the Southeast. Unfortunately, very few are available in the local retail stores. Although I understand the complexities of distribution channels for wine, I'll never understand why it's easier to find European wines than wines made a few hundred miles away. Sigh.

Fortunately, Total Wine & More does carry some wines from Horton Vineyards, which is one of my favorite Virginia wineries. Their viognier is lovely. This vintage seemed a little more austere than the last one I tasted, but not necessarily in a bad way.

The flavors lean towards lemon and apricot, with a hint of slate on the finish and a viscous mouthfeel. This is an excellent example of Southeast winemaking.

Here's to the South, y'all.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Local Lunch

Even though it's Labor Day weekend and I'm trying to stay far away from the computer, I'll try to post a few short things to keep my blog momentum going.

This morning started with a trip to Columbia's all-local farmer's market, which now has a permanent home at 701 Whaley Street. A cup of locally-roasted Turtle Creek coffee got my brain going enough to pick out some things to fashion into lunch for us.

We picked up a pound of Carolina Wild shrimp, a bag of local tomatoes, a couple loaves of Heather's bread, and Thai Oakleaf lettuce, among other things. I boiled, peeled and roughly chopped the shrimp, and then tossed it with a mixture of mayo, yogurt, lemon juice and Old Bay seasoning. I served it over the lettuce with a simple salsa of tomato, red onion, fresh basil (thanks Sean), champagne vinegar, lemon juice, a touch of sugar and salt/pepper.

I garnished the plates with a little extra basil's what I ended up with.

It was quite nice, even better with a tasty glass of white wine and fresh, crusty, sesame semolina bread. I poured a couple glasses of Domaine du Vieux Chêne Viognier VDP de Vaucluse 2007, which I've blogged about before in this post. That's good stuff, as we say around here.

A great start to a four-day weekend. Here's hoping you're doing something fun and slightly decadent as well.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

College Ball

It's the first game of the college football season here in Columbia.

The University of South Carolina Gamecocks are my adopted team. My real team is East Carolina University (Go Pirates!). However, I'm happy to reside in a football-crazy town like Columbia. College football is the only sport I follow anymore....

With the notable exception of baseball and, more importantly, the New York Yankees, who are the love of E. When you're married to a Yankee fan, it means two things:

1.) You, also, love the Yankees (if you know what's good for you).
2.) You hate the *%#&@! Boston Red Sox.

But I digress, the subject at hand is college football (not to be confused with the Convicted Felon Football League, also known as the NFL).

I suppose I should be serving chicken wings, burgers or the like, but unfortunately there's my cholesterol to consider. So, I have to chuckle as I watch USC play N.C. State after a dinner of chef's salads and glasses of Le Jade Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux du Languedoc 2008 (Green's, $8.99).

I've blogged about this wine before, it's easily one of the best values in white wine going. It has notes of lemon and pear, with a nice creaminess and a tangy finish. This is good stuff. It could go toe-to-toe with some white Burgundies in the $12-$15 range.

Maybe later I'll crack open a beer. However, you can rest assured it won't be a Bud Light.

No offense intended.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Beer Dinner

Recently we were the fortunate recipients of a care package from Iowa. While that might not make most people giddy with excitement, it's all about knowing the right person in Iowa.

One of E's friends is an award-winning home brewer, as well as a loyal reader of Brim. You may know him as mrT. He was kind enough to send us some of his magic, and to celebrate the bounty we put together a very simple beer-themed dinner.

The first selection for the evening was a double pale. If my beer research serves me right, the "double" refers to adding twice the normal amount of malt and hops, which imparts a stronger flavor and a higher alcohol content. This beer clocked in at just under 10 percent.

You can see the color for yourself. The flavors were bitter orange with a nice balance of carmel malt and green hops. It was a big full-bodied pale ale that called for something rich to go with it.

To go with the pale ale, I put together some mini-pizzas with smoked salmon, caramelized Vidalia onion, goat cheese and sautéed asparagus spears. A very nice combination, I must say. Asparagus can be notoriously difficult to pair with wine. The bold ale paired nicely without overwhelming.

Next up was the Potter Porter. Having a beer named in our honor was enough to predispose me to love it, but there was plenty to love anyway. It was hard to capture the glory of the artfully designed label, but it proclaims this beer as "a marriage of wine and beer" and even features a photo from our own nuptials. I was speechless when I saw it.

Tasting it was even better. Infused with a California red blend, this had the most intriguing nose: raisin, roasted malt and a hint of anise. The flavor was dominated by the rich malt and chocolate with notes of coffee and raisin. The mouthfeel was very lush and smooth.

To pair with such an elegant brew, I cooked up a couple bacon-wrapped fillets (and made sure not to burn them). I know I'm a bit predictable with the balsamic reduction, but it's so damn good. I finished off the plate with some baby greens, chopped heirloom tomatoes, a dollop of potato salad and some crumbled bleu cheese. The smooth, rich beer was perfect, and the flavor opened up even more as it warmed.

The final beer was a chocolate porter, which we paired with a bit of dark chocolate. I served it a bit too cold at first, but as it warmed up the chocolate came through, along with notes of malt, toffee and nuts. It might have been my imagination, but I picked up some more carbonation in this one, which gave it a lighter mouthfeel.

The Potter Porter was our favorite, of course, but they were all exceptional. My beer palate is still developing, but I'm getting better at picking up on the nuances. You might notice the glassware as Riedel "O" red wine tumblers. I love drinking beer out of them.

Here's a great big "thank you" to mrT for sharing his hard work with us. It's amazing to see what's possible with home brewing, and it was lots of fun to match such amazing beers with food. I need to do it more often.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chicken on the Grill

It all started when I started making my own spaghetti sauce instead of opening a jar.

Once you taste the difference between things made from scratch (or close to it) and things that come from a factory, you’re hooked. At least, that’s been the case with me.

Processed foods – even the best versions – taste processed. There are plenty of pre-made sauces, dressings and such that I truly like, but usually after I make my own version I just can’t go back.

I've recently made the switch from using bottled barbecue sauce to making my own. Of course, in my house "barbecue sauce" can mean either of two completely different sauces. Barbecue sauce can be sauce you add to pulled pork, or a sauce you brush on chicken, pork chops or ribs during the final minutes of cooking. The latter is really a basting or brush-on sauce.

Remember, this is Carolina. Barbecue is a noun, not a verb. If someone from the Carolinas asks you what kind of barbecue sauce you favor, what they’re really asking is: vinegar, tomato or mustard?

When I make pulled pork, I want a vinegar-based sauce (recipe at the end of this post). For a long time, I've been using Sticky Fingers, Sweet Baby Ray’s or Stubb's (or a combination thereof) as a brush-on sauce and – in a pinch – I’d still use any of those.

However, one night when I was out of bottled sauce I decided to make my own. It was easier than running to the store. From there it's all been history.

The other night I had a whole chicken I wanted to do on the grill. I started by removing the backbone and flattening it out. Whole chickens cook much easier that way. Next, I rubbed it down with a little spice mix. I'd tell you what the mix was...but I have no earthly idea.

My house spice mix tends to get a little out of control, and I lose track of what's in there.

Here's the chicken ready for the grill.

Removing the backbone from a chicken is easy with the right kitchen shears. These were my grandmother's. They're vintage Washington Forge with Bakelite handles. They slice through chicken bones like warm butter.

I'd show you the chicken on the grill, but I wouldn't want anyone to call the health department regarding my ancient Weber. Instead, here's the chicken, fully-cooked and brushed with sauce.

This is a very simple summer meal in the South: barbecue chicken with potato salad and a green salad (not pictured). I just cut the chicken in half to serve, because it was a pretty small bird. What we didn't eat made an excellent lunch for me the next day.

Something sweet and slightly hot like barbecued chicken calls for just the right wine. Garnacha is perfect. This little Spanish number has bright cherry and raspberry notes with a hint of white pepper. It was a great choice for this meal.

Altovinum "Evodia" Garnacha Calatayud 2007 ($9.99, Winestore)

Here's my sauce recipe. I know this sounds like a witch’s brew, but I swear it’s quite tasty.

John's #7 Sauce

2 cups ketchup
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup mustard
1/4 honey
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup finely minced red onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Simmer gently for 30 minutes or so, until flavors meld.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Home Brew

I grew up in Delaware – Wilmington, Delaware to be precise.

It’s not a well-known state. Although our current vice president is a Delaware politician, he’s not a native. When I tell people I’m from Delaware, they usually say, “Oh yeah, I‘ve been through there on 95.” The swath of Interstate 95 that cuts through northern Delaware actually runs right behind where I went to elementary school.

Fortunately, my home state can now boast a distinction other than being someplace you pass through while running drugs to New York. It’s also the home of Dogfish Head.

Okay, Dogfish Head is in Milton, which is to Wilmington what Sagaponack is to New York City, but it’s still in the same state.

And, Dogfish Head is one of the best small breweries in the entire country, along with being a brewpub and, most recently, a distillery. Sam Calagione, the founder, is a certified madman, passionate brewer and marketing genius. If you love beer, you know about Dogfish Head.

Since it’s not available here in South Carolina, I’ve been bootlegging it in from Charlotte. Well worth the effort, I might add.

On my last run, I picked up a some of the India Brown Ale. Wow. This is the perfect example of their irreverent take on beer. It’s a three-way cross between a Scotch ale, a brown ale and an India pale ale.

Here’s a link to some info from the brewery and a quick video of Sam himself talking about it.

I’ll just say it’s currently one of my favorites. The balance between hops, malt and sweetness is sublime. The flavors lean towards coffee, dark chocolate and caramel malt without being cloying, and it finishes very clean and refreshing.

Go Delaware.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Something New

Change is good.

My wine drinking habits tend to fall into a rut rather easily. Making an occasional jaunt to Charlotte has been refreshing as far as finding different wines. Although I still gravitate towards the same types of wine, not shopping in the same place week after week makes me a bit more adventurous.

My go-to wine shop is a little weak when it comes to South American wines. I’ve worked my way through most of what they have, so I tend to ignore it except for the occasional bottle of malbec. Thus, I was excited to discover this wine at Winestore in Charlotte (I'll have more to say about this place later).

Urban Uco Torrontés 2008, ($8.99, Winestores)

Torrontés is a native to Argentina and seems to be gaining respect in the wine world. South America has amazing potential for winemaking, and it's nice to drink a native wine versus something made to satisfy the palates of foreigners.

The nose on this wine is wildly tropical with notes of melon and peach. There's more of the same in the mouth with pronounced banana and a refreshing mineral finish. A crisp acidity holds it all together.

It also showed wonderfully with our dinner. I was on my A-game this night, so I have to share some pictures.

Heirloom tomato salads with red onion, basil and goat cheese

Spicy scallops and roasted-garlic pasta

I did the pasta for this dish a little differently than my normal garlic pasta and it worked out pretty well. I roasted a head of garlic first. Then I made a slurry of two tablespoons of melted butter, one tablespoon of olive oil, the garlic, the juice of a lemon and salt/pepper. I tossed the cooked pasta with the slurry and a generous amount of chopped flat-leaf parsley.

It was not bad at all.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cold Beer

Of all the things I’ve come to love about the South, the way people talk is certainly high up on the list.

The southern accent is great, whether it’s a country twang or a sophisticated drawl. My brother once told me that a southern accent can make anyone sound stupid. To some people I suppose it might, but – to my ears – a Yankee accent can make anyone sound like a jerk.

Southern people also say things that you just don’t hear anywhere else. A heavy downpour is a “gully-washer” or a “frog-choker.” A good looking woman is “hotter-than-a-$2-pistol.”

I used to work with a bunch of good-old boys (and girls) from Eastern North Carolina, and they schooled me in the finer points of Southern-Speak. I picked up enough colloquialisms to last me a lifetime.

Woven into the southern accent and local terminology is an ever-present hospitality. One of things I loved about going to college in the South was that you could walk into a party where you didn’t know a soul and you’d be welcomed – most of the time anyway.

You knew you were okay when somebody said, “Get ya a cold beer, man.” That’s pronounced as one word – colebeer. I like that – “cold beer” – as if someone would offer you a lukewarm beer.

Even though I’ve graduated from keg beer in plastic cups and 16-ounce cans of Natural Light, there’s still something appealing about really cold beer in a can. I once had a friend in the distributing business that would slip me free cases of Coors Light every now and again. After a hot day spent working in the yard, an ice-cold Coors Light tastes mighty good.

Nowadays I get my canned beer fix with Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues Grill and Brewery. Although I can’t quite bring myself to actually drink it out of the can, I do enjoy cracking one (or two) open after work – even if my work mostly occurs in an air-conditioned cubicle.

Dale’s is certainly in the running for the best beer available in a can. It has a nice balance between malt and hops with an earthy citrus flavor. I’ll definitely be trying the other beers from these folks.

It’s Friday. Get ya a cold beer (or other libation).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good Wine, Bad Label

Dr. Jebediah Drinkwell's Meritage Paso Robles 2007 ($6.99, Trader Joe's)

Here's a great example of what Trader Joe's does well. They have some really good, inexpensive wines.

Despite the ridiculous name and cheesy label, this is a tasty bottle of wine. Why anyone would choose Yellow Tail Shiraz or the like over this is way beyond my comprehension.

Did I mention the cheesy label? Let me draw your attention to the back label.

I'm guessing the way it works with wines like this is: TJ's contracts with a big wine outfit (Central Coast Wine Warehouse in this case) that creates a custom blend and an exclusive label for the chain. To their credit, TJ's does a great job of picking interesting, drinkable blends (which I have a particular affection for).

This is a Bordeaux-via-Paso Robles blend of mostly cabernet franc with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petite verdot in descending prominence. The flavors and aromas are black cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate and bell pepper with a firm grip of tannins at the end.

It's tasty and amazingly well-balanced for the price.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

White Wine Is for Women?

This a follow-up to this post. I should have known that The New York Times would have the perfect quote on the subject. In his article, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," Michael Pollan writes of Julia Child:

Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that cooking — done correctly — can also be an act of seduction, whether you’re a man or a woman. Cooking is art and alchemy rolled into one. If I could sum up Pollan's article in one sentence, it would be: We should all be cooking more.

Thinking about the gender dynamics of cooking got me thinking about the gender and wine. As with cooking, I’m thinking about the way that wine is viewed in this country.

If you look around at most parties, you’ll see men drinking beer or liquor and women drinking wine. It depends, of course, on what kind of a party it is and what part of the country you’re in, but I’ll bet it holds true more often than not.

However, if you look at the wine business, you’ll find more men making wine and selling wine, more men working as sommeliers and even more men blogging about wine.

Just as with grilling is more masculine than baking, red wine is somehow more masculine than white wine.

It reminds me of a guy who came into the wine store one day and asked me to point him to the Arbor Mist. This big, burly guy picked up a bottle of Peach Chardonnay and said, “I know it’s not very manly, but on a hot day at the beach — there’s nothing better.”

I say, Go for it, brother. Drink what you like.

If I’m at a party, I don’t think twice about grabbing a glass of wine — red, white or sparkling. I make my choice based on what looks good and what I’m in the mood for.

Although, I won’t touch Arbor Mist. That’s just nasty.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Weekend Update

We're in the midst of the worst of summer here in South Carolina, which means that Friday night called for something cool to sip on after work. Dinner was salmon fillets, so white wine seemed too thin. Instead, I opened a bottle of Les Vignerons de Tavel "Cuvée Royal" Tavel 2008 ($12.99, Green's).

Tavel is arguably the best place for rosé in the world. This wine certainly supports that argument. It's mellow and sophisticated with flavors of dried cherries and herbs and a smooth, long finish. It was the perfect match for the salmon.

Speaking of which, here's dinner sizzling on my stovetop grill. A couple weeks ago, I was cooking crab cakes on the other side of the grill (here's the post). I've had the grill for years, but didn't appreciate it for a long time. I've finally figured out how useful it is.

When the weather isn't cooperating or I'm too lazy to fire up the grill, it's a lifesaver. I use it for French toast, burgers, crab cakes, fish, pancakes, potato croquettes and any number of other things. You can find it here, although my model didn't have a non-stick coating. I took me a while to season it properly.

Here's dinner in it's final form.

A hot summer Saturday at our house requires enough white wine for a couple glasses in the afternoon, a glass for an unexpected guest and some leftover to serve with dinner. Lenz Moser Grüner Veltliner 2008 1-liter bottle is the perfect thing. It's fresh, lively and uncomplicated with flavors of tart green apple and pear.

The subtle flavors and tight acidity were perfect with a simple dinner of spicy scallops and garlic pasta served with broiled asparagus (we had some we didn't use Friday).

Sunday has been a long day, as we made a jaunt to Charlotte for provisions. Dinner is going to be barbecue (pulled from the freezer) sandwiches with coleslaw, some sort of potatoes and a very simple salad.

Just as soon as I finish my beer.

Old Brown Dog Ale, Smuttynose Brewing Company, $9.29/six-pack 12 oz. bottles, Green's

Happy Sunday, y'all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wine Blogging Wednesday #60

Zinfandel has a special place in my pantheon of wines. When I was starting down the road to being a wino, I became friends with a guy who had been buying zins since the late 1970s.

Needless to say, being friends with a complete zin-nut exposes you some really great wines. He was a big fan of Ridge Vineyards, and I tasted some extraordinary Ridge wines and other magnificent zins thanks to him.

So, I was thrilled that Megan at Wannabe Wino selected zinfandel for the theme of Wine Blogging Wednesday #60. It gave me an excuse to seek out something new and different…and to spend a little more than my usual budget.

The wine I picked was Fritz Winery Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2005 ($17.99, Green’s). Dry Creek is a great region for zinfandel, and 2005 was a good year overall for California. It’s also an estate-bottled wine, which I always like.

Right next to the bottle I selected was a Fritz 2005 “barrel select” zinfandel for almost double the price, which had received a 91 point rating from one of the wine magazines. This told me that the winery most likely had a stellar vintage worthy of a top-dollar wine. That also told me that their front-line wine was probably pretty damn good.

I was correct. One whiff of the nose gave up a heady mixture of red and black fruits along with menthol and spice. The first sip was more of the same with a lush, rich mouthfeel and a wonderfully long finish culminating with a firm grip of tannin.

I don’t throw around that kind of wine speak lightly. It’s really good stuff.

Megan asked us to grill or barbecue something to go along with the zin, but rainy weather kept my cooking efforts indoors. I ended up pan-searing some tenderloin fillets and serving them up with my go-to favorites: balsamic reduction and some goat cheese to top the steaks, and roasted garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach on the side.

Any longtime readers know that steaks are my Achilles Heel. I’ve been on a roll lately, so I was due for a screw up. For all my talk about being a decent cook, I've ruined more steaks than I care to think about, which is somewhat astounding because I like them pretty rare.

You wouldn’t think it would be that damn hard.

But, they were thin fillets, and I left them in the pan a little too long. The steaks ended up being served with an extra helping of profanity. Sigh. At least I had an excellent wine to distract me.

Over the course of dinner, the Fritz zin opened up even more. We tossed around descriptors as we sipped: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, raisin, cinnamon, anise, mint and few more I forgot.

Thanks to Megan for picking a great theme and to WBW founding father, Lenn Thompson.

Cheers, y'all.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Confessions of a Kitchen Bitch

In her recent article, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” in The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh writes about marital relations and divorce. Along the way, she makes a few snarky comments about men who cook or—more accurately—a certain type of man who is obsessed with cooking.

“To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule 'date night,' only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal.”

She really hammers one particular man who is devoted to Cooks Illustrated and his "online fennel club," but you get the feeling she's going after a certain type of guy.

Since I’m a man who cooks (although not usually obsessively), this got me thinking about the gender implications of cooking. Is cooking a masculine or feminine thing?

In some homes, cooking has been traditionally regarded as “women’s work,” along with housecleaning and laundry. But, the world of commercial cooking has long been dominated by men.

Certain types of cooking are thought of as more gender specific than others. Baking is stereotypically feminine, while grilling is the epitome of manliness.

I grew up in a home with very traditional roles in the kitchen. Dad went off to work; mom took care of the kids and put dinner on the table every night. I have some vague memories of my dad doing something in the kitchen, but they are few and far between.

I’ve written before about my mom teaching me the basics of cooking. She was a firm believer in showing her three boys essential life skills such as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. Such things were never considered women’s work in our house. She cooked because it made sense.

My dad is retired now and, ironically, has enthusiastically embraced some culinary activities. As a former chemical engineer, I imagine he appreciates the alchemy of cooking. He also likes to eat, much like his son.

I spent a number of years working in a café where the duties were well-defined: the women ran the register and the guys made the food. In the last kitchen I worked in, there was one female chef. Women in restaurant kitchens are fairly common these days, but men vastly outnumber them.

In the current era of celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows ad nauseam, lots of men are getting into cooking. Some might even be a little obsessed with it. I am certainly familiar with this phenomenon, although it’s probably a bit more common in Tsing Loh's social circle than mine.

I wrote just recently about cooking. I cook because I like to cook. E is a good cook, but she’s happy to sip wine and keep me company. True to the stereotype, she’s much better at baking than I am.

But, am I a male kitchen bitch? At the very least, E doesn't call me that publicly.

I don’t think cooking is either masculine or feminine. I do have to chuckle at a strong, independent woman like Tsing Loh mocking men for being overly interested in cooking, after so many years of women demanding more sharing of household responsibilities. Maybe it's a case of, be careful what you wish for.

I would encourage any young man (or woman) to develop some ability in the kitchen. It will reap major dividends for your health, your waistline and, quite possibly, your love life. Do not, however, forgo the affection of your wife, husband, partner or significant other for an evening curled up with the latest issue of Cooks Illustrated.

That just seems like common sense.

Cooking should be an act of love, regardless of your gender. It should be about providing delicious and healthy food for yourself, your loved ones and your friends. A good meal is also time well spent: talking, laughing, possibly drinking and enjoying the company of others.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back in the kitchen.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Pour Decisions

Thanks to one loyal reader (that's you, mrT) and one new friend (that would be you, J), I've gained a renewed appreciation for malted beverages as of late.

Beer deserves a place at the table, just as much as wine. As with sports and politics, most people fall clearly in the beer drinker or wine drinker category. I'm happy to say that I refuse to choose sides. I like both. Here are a couple brews I've enjoyed lately:

Mikkeller All Others Pale ($9.99, 22 oz. bottle, Brawley's Beverage)

Ten bucks for a 22 ounce beer is a little pricey for my blood, but I suppose it's nothing compared to what I'll spend on the right bottle of wine. The design on this label suckered me in.

It's very different from what I'd expect in an American Pale Ale, which it is an homage to. It's more woodsy than citrusy with pronounced dry hops and smokey barley flavors. I want to taste more from these crazy Danes. Be sure to check out their impressive Web site.

Smuttynose Brewing Company Star Island Single ($10.49, six-pack of 12 oz. bottles, Brawley's Beverage)

I can't say enough good things about Smuttynose. I've been (somewhat) slowly drinking my way through their line-up, and I've yet to find one of their brews I don't like. This ale is very smooth with flavors of orange peel, dried herbs and just a hint of sweetness. It's a bit different, in a good way.

Here's to beer.

(I have to apologize for the cheesy word play in the title of this post. Sometimes I just can't help myself. It occured to me that I could write a post called, "Poor Decisions," which would be about my 20s. But, that's probably best left unwritten.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Full Circle

One of the first wines I loved was Chianti Classico. I read somewhere that they represented a very good value, so I started seeking them out. It was also a good match for the first thing I learned to cook—spaghetti with red sauce.

I thought of all this the other night when I made a batch of red sauce and opened a bottle of Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico 2006. This is a great time of year for my red sauce, because I can step out to the garden and snip some fresh oregano, thyme and sage. Toss that in with some crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, olive oil, a little bit of ground beef, a splash of red wine and season with salt and pepper, and you've got some serious comfort food.

I can never remember what the black rooster (the gallo nero) means, so I consulted Wikipedia. They have a really good write up on Chianti.

The Rocca delle Macìe is dark and rich, with flavors of black cherry, licorice and dried herbs. It's the perfect match for a hearty red sauce.

Cin-cin, y'all.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Word From Our Sponsor

There been lots of talk lately about bloggers, free swag, advertising and ethics. I don’t accept any advertising, although I do get the occasional pitch–even with my paltry site traffic.

I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with receiving sample wines and reviewing them fairly, assuming that you’re forthcoming about where they came from. There's really nothing wrong with putting advertisements on your blog either. Astute readers can easily spot someone who's just schilling for a corporate buck.

Because I’m not a big name blogger, it's been a long time since anyone offered up any samples. The last one came from Twisted Oak Winery (here’s the post). I can say without any bias whatsoever that any wine from Twisted Oak will be the best you’ve ever had, serving Twisted Oak wines will win you the admiration of friends and loved ones, and drinking Twisted Oak wines will add years to your life.

The wineries and businesses I write about are the ones I like and patronize. My job offers me ample opportunities to write a bunch of bogus junk for the sake of a dollar.

A couple years back, my brother and sister-in-law sent me a tasting pack of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena from Ditalia. At the time I knew very little about balsamic vinegar, except that some were better than others.

The tasting pack was great, as it gave me the opportunity to taste them side-by-side, which really shows the differences. For a good explanation of making and grading balsamic vinegar, take a look at this. I ended up ordering another tasting pack, before deciding to buy a large bottle of inexpensive stuff and a small bottle of the really good four-leaf stuff.

The cheap stuff is for making salad dressings, sauces and reductions; the good stuff is for dipping bread and drizzling on vegetables, cheese and whatever else suits you. It’s absolutely wonderful with fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream.

We ordered a new bottle of the good stuff a week or so ago from Ditalia. When it hadn’t showed up, a check of the Fed Ex tracking showed it had been left at our door several days prior. Apparently one of the neighborhood lowlifes had walked off with it. (I can just imagine him or her enjoying the heist with some fire-roasted tomato bruschetta.)

E contacted both Fed Ex and Ditalia. Someone from Ditalia immediately contacted her, apologized and told her they would send a replacement, which is what I expected would happen. However, neither of us expected the Fed Ex truck to roll up the next day with the replacement. They had it sent overnight.

Now, that is exceptional customer service. We would have been fine with waiting a couple more days, even though our current bottle was dangerously low. When a company goes above and beyond what you expect, that’s when it’s worth writing about.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Scenes From Friday Night

Friday night starts with a well deserved beer after a long week at the office. This is an organic pale ale from Thomas Creek Brewery right here in South Carolina. I can't describe beer to save my life, so I'll just say it's very good. If you want to read a bunch of beer-geek talk, check this out.

Cats are notoriously difficult to photograph.

Tonight's wine is Domaine du Vieux Chêne Viognier VDP de Vaucluse 2007 ($9.99, Green's). This is wonderful stuff. Inexpensive California viogniers can be overblown and almosy syrupy. French viognier is rarely inexpenisve. The Vieux Chêne is very balanced with restrained flavors of peach and apricot. The finish is very tight and focused with good acidity and a hint of slate. (How's that for wine-geek talk?)

Here's part of dinner sizzling on my beloved flat-top skillet. The recipe for my crab cakes is in this post.

Sorry mom, no vegetables. is made from grapes. Does that count as a serving of fruit? I really should have added some color to this very brown meal, but I got lazy.

Uh, excuse me. Where's my plate?

I've been using quite a bit of Hoisin sauce lately. It makes an fast, tasty, dipping sauce for seafood. Just mix it with soy sauce, lemon juice and ginger. For the crab cakes, I've been adding some yogurt which makes for nice, creamy texture. It's worth seeking out a really quality brand from an Asian grocery store. The flavor is worlds apart from the cheap commercial stuff.

Here's to Friday night, y'all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Cooking

A friend recently told me if any cooking endeavor involved more than three minutes and a microwave, it was too much trouble. Fortunately, her husband is an enthusiastic and good cook, so my friend isn’t condemned to a life of Hot Pockets and Ramen noodles.

I cook primarily because I like to eat. Good food is one part of my larger enjoyment of life’s sensory pleasures. A great meal has something in common with a stunning vista, a beautiful piece of music and soft kisses from someone you love.

My own culinary journey began when I realized I couldn’t afford to eat out very often. However, even after I win the Powerball (I’m sure it’s inevitable), I’ll still cook. In fact, I’ll probably use my extra leisure time to tackle even more ambitious dishes.

Most nights I can be found banging around the kitchen with a glass of wine or beer nearby. Some nights it’s hard to find the energy after a long day at work, but once I get cooking—my day is soon forgotten.

Of course, sometimes I forget about my bad day because I’m so mad about whatever I’m trying to cook. My cooking technique involves a great deal of swearing.

The other night I was annoyed at myself for screwing up the timing of a meal…a very simple meal at that. I realized too late I should have plated up my salads before I put the (store-bought) gnocchi to boil. The gnocchi ended up over-cooked, of course.

As I stormed out of the kitchen, I glanced at the pile of dirty dishes I had created making tomato sauce, pre-packaged gnocchi and a salad. The kitchen looked like I had made a four-course meal for 10.

Why do I do this to myself? I thought.

This brings me to the other reason I cook—a sense of accomplishment. My day job mostly involves occupying a cubicle. When I leave at five o’clock, I can rarely see the fruits of my labor; when I can, it isn’t exactly inspiring.

Cooking is something I can do from start to finish in a manageable amount of time. If I screw up, it’s over relatively quickly. The meal is typically edible, and I can focus on what to do differently next time.

As my cooking skills have improved, the ratio of hits to misses has increased dramatically, along with a slight drop in profanity. There’s nothing like putting out a meal when I know I got everything just right.

I’m also lucky enough to have an appreciative audience for my cooking. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having E gush over something I’ve made. It makes me feel like I’m good at something. Even the over-cooked gnocchi was pretty good.

Here's a snapshot of one of my recent successes: a barbecue sauce-chicken-goat cheese pizza.

I didn't make the dough, but I did make my own barbecue sauce. At the rate I'm going, making my own dough may have to wait until I win the Powerball.

The sauce for this is actually a sweet-hot basting sauce, which is what most people think of as barbecue sauce. Stay tuned for my thoughts on making a basting sauce.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shopping Notes

N.V. Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé

If my wine buying philosophy could be summed up in one sentence, it would be: good wine doesn't need to be expensive. This non-Champagne French sparkler is the perfect example. It's not the most polished sparkling rosé I've ever had, but it's very tasty. It was a perfect match to a simple dinner of spicy shrimp and scallops.

I thought it was a really good deal at $10.99 (Trader Joe's). You might be able to find it even cheaper where you live. Dr. Debs from Good Wine Under $20 provides a nice write-up here. Even though her review is a little old, I completely agree with her assessment.

Tenure Vodka

What else needs to be said about a $2.45 1.5 liter bottle of vodka? As long as it doesn't blind you, it's already accomplished something. However, this Polish vodka is actually quite good. I gave it a whiff of vermouth, a quick shake and three olives on a stick. The result? Yum.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The End Of An Era

A little over eight years ago, I drove down to Columbia from North Carolina to look for a house. I checked into a hotel and started exploring what would become my new home.

Since I’d be spending the night by myself in a hotel room, I thought it would be a good idea to pick up a bottle of wine. That way I could read and enjoy a glass of wine, while not getting burned by over-priced, mediocre, room service-provided wine.

A quick scan of the phone book (remember those?) turned up a wine shop right down the street. The place was tiny, but had a really cool selection of interesting wines. I found a white Burgundy, paid and on my way out noticed there was a wine and tapas bar attached to the shop.

I ended finding a house that weekend, only a couple miles away from that little wine shop. On subsequent visits, I discovered the wine shop wasn’t the real attraction–the wine and tapas bar was.

It quickly became my local hangout. Even when I was pretty broke, I’d scrape together enough money for a glass of wine and a couple of tapas. The food was great, and the wine selection was–like the store's–small but always quirky and really good.

Over the years, that place figured prominently in my life here. I met several ex-girlfriends directly or indirectly through my frequent visits. The owner actually once vouched for me via mobile phone while he was touring a winery in Oregon.

I’m not sure if I would have met E if it wasn’t for meeting someone there who introduced me to someone else who introduced me to my future wife.

Back in those days, the owner was also the chef and could be found every night simultaneously cooking, chatting up customers and pouring a sample of whatever was especially good.

But, time changes everything. I know all too well what spending 12 or 14 hours a day at a business will do to your sanity, not to mention your marriage. The owner hired an executive chef and a manager, and started spending less time there. The wine shop was replaced by additional seating.

Although I missed the atmosphere of the old days, I was still a frequent customer. Business was booming, even to the point of not being able to find a seat. Even when the quality of the food and service fluctuated, I continued to give it second (and third) chances. There were always far more good experiences than bad.

The last couple times we've visited, it's just been bad. The food is still great, but the service and overall atmosphere is terrible. It’s funny how the person in charge dictates the atmosphere at an establishment. A manager with a bad attitude can ruin an entire staff.

We stopped in Saturday night, a little wary but willing to give it another try. After standing at the host station a little too long while a couple servers gave us – and the people in front of us – disinterested looks, we walked out.

On our way up the street to another place, I looked at E and said, “We’ll never go back.”

I may live to eat those words. I really hope I do. Places change; things get better.

But right now, it’s like losing a friend.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"They Call Me Tater Salad"

If you're not familiar with Ron White, the title of this post will make no sense to you. If you are, it will—and you'll laugh.

I’ve written previously about making coleslaw (see the bottom of this post). There are some dishes that—while a recipe can get you started—you really need to find the right combination of flavors to suit your tastes.

Potato salad is such a dish. I started with a Mark Bittman recipe, which uses mustard, vinegar and lots of chopped parsley. It’s very good and tangy, but I really like a creamy potato salad.

Mayonnaise can be good, but it’s easy to go overboard with mayo. Lately, I’ve decided that sour cream is the way to go.

Today I made a batch of potato salad that turned out pretty good. I’ll walk you through my process, but keep in mind that I don’t measure anything and this is just a guide. Taste as you go and adjust accordingly.

First off, I roasted a red pepper. I’ve been looking for a new addition, and I had a pepper that needed to be used. When the pepper was black, I let it steam while I started the water for the potatoes.

I use red potatoes, but use what suits you. Cut them in bite-size pieces and boil until tender but not mushy (10-15 minutes). I pulled this batch out of the water a little early, so I let them sit covered in the pot for five minutes or so to let them cook some more.

Meanwhile, I peeled, seeded and chopped the pepper; chopped some fresh basil; and mixed a combination of low-fat sour cream (about 1/3 cup), Dijon mustard (about 1 tablespoon), vinagre de Jerez (about 1 tablespoon), black pepper, shallot salt and a bit of sugar.

(On a side note, I usually avoid low-fat and non-fat products like the plague. However, since my cholesterol has been hovering around 220 for the last ten years, I’ve finally decided to become a tad more careful about fat in my cooking.)

I mixed the potatoes with half the sauce, the chopped pepper and the basil. Then I tasted and added sauce, salt and pepper until the flavors were right.

It’s all about balance.

You know if I’m cooking on a Sunday, there’s wine involved. I opened a bottle we got from Trader Joe’s. Their selection of good, inexpensive wines simply astounds me.

Wine Bottlers Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Vin-Koru 2008

There's no point in gushing about this wine. That would disrespect what it is. The world needs more delicious and affordable ($5.99) wines like this. If you want expensive wines to gush about, there are already plenty.

It was a perfect match for a late lunch of chicken wraps and roasted red pepper-basil potato salad.

(One final note: In the last six months, I've dropped my total cholesterol 40 freakin' points! A combination of diet modifications and exercise did it. When I told E, she said, "Well, we have been going through a lot less butter.")

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday Eats



Wine: Pazo de Monterrey Monterrei 2005

Our local Publix has started carrying live hydroponic basil from Sweetwater Growers in Georgia. I've read about it before, but this is the first I've seen it here in Columbia. I just can't get enough fresh basil. The tomatoes are Eva Purple Balls from Rosewood Market.

I layered them with fresh mozzarella and basil over mixed greens with some red onion slivers. The dressing is the olive oil and vinegar I wrote about in my last post. What a great summer dish.

The wine came from Brawley's Beverage ($12.99). When I see a Spanish white from a region I've never heard of -- I'm on it. Here are some tasting notes from the 2006 vintage from Ryan and Gabriella from Catavino; they are much more eloquent then I could ever be.

The 2005 is very similar. It's got a very complex nose, but the flavor is a little more straightforward: lemony, creamy, and nutty with a pleasant twang at the end. It's a great food wine.