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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

From Carolina To France

After 20 years of living in the South, just about the only native thing I haven’t grown to love is NASCAR.

Southern cooking, in particular, has earned a special place in my heart. So, it’s natural that at some point I had to start making my own barbecue (being a resident of the Carolinas, that means pulled pork).

Wednesday night after work, I fired up my ancient Weber grill and thoroughly seared a Boston butt pork roast. I wrote about using a slow cooker to finish the pork in this post. It's worth mentioning that if you partially cook it on the grill like I do (an hour or more), you won't need to drain off any liquid during cooking. Just drop the butt in your slow cooker with a beer and give it 18-24 hours on low or about eight hours on high.

The other thing I’ve been doing different lately is experimenting with spice rubs prior to searing. A mix of cumin, smoked paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, black pepper and salt adds to the depth of flavor in the finished product.

Last night, it was time to enjoy it. I chopped up a batch of coleslaw (my philosophy on coleslaw is in this post) and made a simple salad of fresh tomatoes, julienne basil, and some crumbled Gorgonzola drizzled with really good olive oil and four-leaf Aceto Balsamico de Modena.

(Local note: The Gourmet Shop sells California-certified Arbequina extra virgin olive oil by West Coast Products. It's by far the best olive oil I have ever tasted.)

I spent my formative Southern years in Greenville, North Carolina, which means my reference point for barbecue is vinegar-based sauces. I’m proud to say I’ve had many a barbecue sandwich at B’s Barbecue. While I can’t match what they do, I’ve gotten pretty good at putting together my own sauce and creating my own version of barbecue sandwiches. The end result is pictured below.

The brown sugar in my sauce recipe (see below) is not quite traditional, depending on who you ask, of course. Barbecue sauce recipes are closely guarded. This is really just a guide. I always add one or two more ingredients in the spirit of adventure. However, this recipe works just fine as is.

Barbecue sandwiches can be a little tricky when it comes to wine pairing. You could, of course, enjoy them with beer (or sweet tea), but I just happened to have the perfect wine.

La Ferme Julien Rosé Côtes du Ventoux 2007

I’ve had La Ferme Julien Rouge in the past, and it’s a reliably good, easy-drinking French red. The rosé is also very nice and (better still) only $5.99 at Trader Joe’s. It was crisp and pleasantly fruity, reminiscent of strawberries, cherries and peach, framed with appropriate acidity. A cool glass of French rosé and a barbecue sandwich -- it's probably as close to heaven as I'll ever get.

Cheers, y’all.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

3 cups cider vinegar
3 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine vinegar, red pepper, brown sugar and salt in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. You might want to do this in a well-ventilated kitchen or outside on the grill. If that's not possible, you'll at least have very clear sinuses.

Let sauce cool down a little and then add black pepper. Serve with pulled pork.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Road Trip!

Living in Columbia, South Carolina, has its ups and downs. I like lots of things about living in a big, small town (or small, big town, depending on how you look at it).

The downside is that there are certain things you just can't get here. So, every couple weeks, we need to make a run to the nearest "big city." Charlotte, North Carolina, is only about an hour away, and it offers most of what we can't acquire here.

First Stop: Durango Bagel

My wife is a Jewish girl, born in Queens, New York. This may explain her inability to live without decent bagels. Alas, there are no worthwhile bagels to be had in Columbia (at least that I know of).

There are only the usual-suspect chain bagel stores, frozen supermarket bagels and a local place that used to be good but is now overpriced and underwhelming. It’s completely unacceptable for a city of this size.

Bagels are a tricky item to bake – a round roll is not a bagel. Nothing tops New York bagels, but a plane ticket really adds to the cost per bagel.

Fortunately, we’ve discovered Durango Bagel in Rock Hill, South Carolina. These folks make some seriously good bagels. How good? Good enough to make the drive up there every couple weeks to get several dozen and freeze them.

Is it a perfect solution? No. But until someone realizes this glaring gap in the local food scene and decides to bake a decent bagel, it’s just what you do when you’re in love with a Jewish girl from Queens.

Next Stop: Trader Joe’s

I’ll admit that I didn’t understand for a long time what all the fuss was about Trader Joe’s. All I knew was that while working at Green’s, I was probably asked a couple thousand times if we carried Two-Buck Chuck/Charles Shaw.

Now, however, I get it.

Since Charlotte is quick trip from Rock Hill, it makes sense to continue on up to the Trader Joe’s on Rea Road. We stock up on an assortment of miscellaneous food and some wine. Their wine selection isn’t extensive, but they do have a nice selection of perfectly good $5.99 wines, as well as some decent prices on some other interesting wines.

Final Stop: Brawley’s Beverage

Since we’ve been going to Charlotte anyway, I’ve started poking around looking for other places to stock up on big city provisions. This is how I discovered Brawley’s Beverage. It’s a little place on Park Road not far from the intersection with Woodlawn.

The beer selection is pretty impressive and they have some things we can’t get in S.C., like Dogfish Head Brewery. They also have a small, yet eclectic selection of wines at decent prices, coffee from Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C. and an old dog hanging around (which I believe every small business should have).

The guy working the store the day we stopped in was a little…brusque, shall we say. But, he was helpful when needed and even helped me carry some beer to the car.

All in all it was a successful trip. I'll be posting later about some of the stuff we bought.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Very Good Year

It's been one year since E and I exchanged really wonderful year.

Yesterday was our anniversary. Although it didn't turn out quite like I hoped, we spent it together and that's what really matters. I had planned a special dinner, but the day just got away from us.

So, while we were happily eating a large cheese pizza for our "special" dinner, I reflected on how fortunate I am to be married to such an amazing...and very understanding woman.

We did, however, open the wine I had picked out earlier, Rotllan Torra Reserva Priorat 2001. There are so many words I could use to describe this wine: luscious, silky, deep, complex, musty and ripe. It's one of those wines that every sniff and sip reveals something new: black cherry, raspberry, milk chocolate, mint, vanilla and smoke -- just to name a few.

Since my plans fell flat yesterday, I had some serious recovering to do tonight. I cooked up two bacon-wrapped fillets from the Ole Timey Meat Market, made a batch of roasted garlic mashed sweet potatoes and whipped up a balsamic-red wine reduction. I crumbled Gorgonzola over the steaks and drizzled them with the reduction and served it all with a salad of mixed greens, Gala apple, red onion and red pepper with a balsamic-blueberry vinaigrette.

Not a bad meal, I must say.

Tonight's wine was Domaine du Crampilh Madiran l'Originel 2005. It's 100 percent tannat and probably could use a couple more (at least) years in the bottle. But, after decanting it showed very nicely with the rather rich food. The nose is pungent with anise, herbs and alcohol, and the flavors run towards plum, dried cherry and smoked meat with mouth-puckering tannins.

One of the things E and I bonded over was our mutual love of food and wine. Both are meant to be savored with loved ones. I count myself very lucky to have found someone like her to share my meals with.

Here's to us.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Saturday Shopping

Here are a couple notes from our Saturday errands. I promise I have no affiliation with Green's Beverages; that's just where I do most of my booze shopping. I'll be including more posts like this in the future for the benefit for anyone in Columbia. Hopefully, you out-of-town readers will be able to locate some of the same stuff.

Domaine de Saint-Antoine Rosé Vin de Pays d'Oc 2008 ($8.99, Greens)

I just can't get enough of rosé lately. It's hot outside, but a shady porch and a glass of cool rosé make it much more bearable. This is not meant to be complex wine. It's fresh and fruit-forward, but bone-dry with flavors of cherry, raspberry, melon and peach...a perfect match for porch sipping or a light summer meal. This is yet another Robert Kacher Selection.

Say What?

I have to mention this. Look closely.

That's right. The coupon is for $20 off (mail-in rebate) a 1.75 liter bottle of Tenure Vodka, which retails for $20.89. With the hefty Columbia sales tax, that's $2.45 for a rather large bottle of vodka. I'm admittedly not a vodka snob, but...$2.45? I had to give it a try.

I'll mix up a vodka martini later in the week and let you know.

Friday, July 17, 2009

White Italians: You Can Do Better

It's such a shame that pinot grigio has become the default Italian white wine. I once went into a (somewhat) nice Italian restaurant for lunch craving a glass of wine and was dismayed to find nine pinot grigios and a pinot grigio/chardonnay blend as my only white wine choices.

If I want cheap Italian white wine, I'd just as soon have Frascati or Orvieto. The truth is that Italy produces some interesting and very good white wines; it's just that restaraunts get lazy about writing their wine list or just stock what they know will sell.

After a long week at work, it was nice to come home to a glass of Torre Solaria Insolia Sicilia 2007 ($11.99, Green's Beverage Store). This is so much more interesting than the dreaded grigio. Crisp and dry with flavors of granny smith apple, lemon and wet rocks, it's a real mouthful of wine and lingers on your palate in a very pleasant way.

What a nice start to the weekend.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wine? What Wine?

As I look back over my recent posts (amazingly, there have been some), there’s quite a variety of topics – but really not much about wine.

Now, Brim has always had a tendency to veer off into non-wine topics. If you’re looking for serious writing about wine, you’d be better off reading Good Wine Under $20, Brooklynguy, Joe's Wine or The Pour. If you’re one of the handful of people that still follow Brim, it’s probably because…well, I really don’t have any idea, other than you’ve developed a curious fascination with what might come next.

To tell you the truth, I really don’t know what's coming next anymore. I’m not much of a wine writer; I’m more of a writer that loves wine. Writing about just wine is way too constraining for my scattered mind. So, thanks for coming back for whatever it is that keeps you coming back.

That being said, now I’ll write about wine.

I really adore rosé wines, and we are smack dab in the midst of rosé season. It’s really a springtime wine, in my opinion, but my local stores don’t usually get their stock until mid-summer.

The other night we opened a bottle of Domaine des Cantarelles Vin de Pays du Gard Rosé de Fayel 2008. There’s a bit of confusion on the name here. Cantarelles is the name on the bottle, but it’s listed as Domaine des Sources on the Robert Kacher Web site. Either way, it’s produced by Jean-Francois Fayel.

Domaine des Cantarelles is located in Costèries de Nîmes, or as I like to say, right near Nîmes. I’m guessing the name confusion arises from Fayel sourcing some of the grapes for his rosé from neighboring vineyards that aren’t classified as Costéries de Nîmes.

Bobby Kacher really needs to have chat with someone, because his Web site doesn’t agree with the label on the blend either. I guess when you import as many wines as he does, it’s hard to keep them all straight. (It’s probably fair to mention that the French aren’t exactly famous for clear or accurate wine labels.)

In any case, the 2008 Fayel rosé is mostly cabernet franc (65-ish%), with syrah (30-ish%) and 5% grenache (they both agree on that). It’s fresh and crisp with notes of strawberry, cherry and melon–a perfect example of French rosé.

We enjoyed it with some pan seared mahi-mahi brushed in lemon-hot sauce and herbed potato salad. The fresh fruit and bright acidity went very well with the spicy fish and savory potato salad.

The lemon-hot sauce is another Mark Bittman concoction: fresh lemon juice, hot sauce, olive oil, salt and pepper mixed to your liking. Give it a try.

I've been using Valentina Salsa Picante quite a bit lately for my house hot sauce. It's not overly hot, but wonderfully flavored and spicey.

And to you–the few, the proud(?), the curious, the loyal readers–I raise my glass. Cheers.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Happy Dog-iversary

It’s been two years to the day since an old friend drove down from North Carolina with a 16-week-old puppy on board. I’ve blogged about Hogan before, and I’ve blogged about him being the reason I wasn’t blogging.

He’s grown up so much in the time we’ve had him. It’s one of the amazing things about dogs – they go from helpless little puppies to fully grown adults in a couple short years.

He’s still a very young dog, of course, and we still refer to him as “the puppy.” However, to someone who doesn’t know him, I’m sure he makes a very different impression.

When people ask what kind of dog he is, I usually tell them he’s a Belgian Shepherd. “Belgian Malinios” usually just draws a confused look or a “huh?” It’s a great breed of dog, though.

I think of a Malinios as a cross between a Border Collie and a German Shepherd. They have the smaller stature and more pronounced herding instincts of the BC, but they have the guard nature of a GSD. They don’t make particularly good herding dogs, because they tend to “grip” instead of “nip.”

Hogan is everything I love about a Malinios. He’s smart, fun, sweet, athletic, gentle, and tough when needed. Bringing him into our lives was a really good decision. Having a young dog has shaken all of us up in the best of ways.

Here’s a little video of our boy in action. Our other dog, Peanut, calmly looks on. She’s retired from such frivolous antics, but back in the day she was just as athletic. She's still pretty tough herself, for a dog that's going on 14.

In case you hadn't noticed, I love them both very much. I've said it before, but I just can't imagine my life without dogs.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Morning

I’ll never be accused of being an overachiever.

However, Sundays during the summer are usually a low point of ambition, even by my standards. This morning was fairly typical of what constitutes a good beginning for a summer Sunday in my mind.

We woke up a little late after being out a bit past our usual bedtime. E went off to get a New York Times while I tackled the disaster in the kitchen left from the night before. After some damage control, the kitchen was back in working condition.

Earlier this week we froze a loaf of bread that had sat out too long, designated for weekend French toast. We are devotees of Heather’s Artisan Bakery, a true godsend to Columbia. I don’t ever like to waste food, but tossing even a small hunk of her bread feels criminal.

I recently discovered a great recipe for Blueberry sauce. The fresh blueberries from my neighborhood farmer’s market go into a small saucepan. While the blueberries start to simmer. I heat some water for coffee, using the Larry’s Beans Woodstock Morning Blend we got yesterday at Rosewood Market.

With a cup of coffee in hand, I make up the egg wash for my French toast: two eggs from my friends' chickens, 1/3 cup milk, a splash of vanilla and a heavy dose of cinnamon from Penzeys Spices.

It’s not long before the French toast is nicely browned, the sauce is thick and hot, and the second cup of coffee is in my hand. The paper is spread across the table and Jack Johnson is on the stereo.

This is Sunday morning at our house. No chores. No to-do list. Just good food, coffee, music and The Times.

Here’s hoping your morning was somewhat similar.

Blueberry Sauce from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

2 cups blueberries, picked over and washed
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
½ cup water
½ sugar, or to taste
Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste

Combine the first four ingredients in a small-to-medium saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is thick and the blueberries are soft, about 10 minutes.

Taste and add lemon juice and more sugar if necessary. Thin with a little more water if necessary and serve immediately or refrigerate for up to a week.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Age Like Wine*

A milestone birthday recently came and went without much recognition on my part. I neither wanted to celebrate nor mourn the passing of another decade. The changing of a number means little in the grand scheme of things.

However, as I glance in my rear view mirror of life, it’s still back there – wanting to be recognized and acknowledged. So, here goes.

I turned 40. Big deal, right?

I’m really comfortable being a middle-aged guy. I’ve thought of myself as such for several years. No use deluding myself with fantasies of youth. Age has brought me many gifts I would never trade for a return to youth.

Of course, there are many things I regret not accomplishing by age 40. Among them are: being a published author, making more money than a convenience store assistant manager and learning to play a musical instrument.

In my younger years, I hoped that if I hadn’t done those things by now, I would have at least been killed fighting for the resistance in a South American civil war. That probably comes from reading too much Hemingway in college.

The fact of the matter is that I have pretty great life. I’ve got a beautiful wife who I love very much, two crazy dogs, the best cat ever, a family that loves me (despite my quirks), a nice home, gainful employment, a fully stocked refrigerator and a couple cases of good wine. Who really needs more?

I've had more than my fair share of good living and try not to focus on the regrets. I hope there are many more accomplishments, good times, and glasses of wine in my future. But, life doesn't come with any guarantees. I've been reminded this week that our time in this world is precious.

An old friend used to say, “I’m like the state fair; I get bigger and better every year.” Well, I’m trying not to get bigger, but I do try to get better every year.

Just like fine wine.

* The title of this post is stolen from a Todd Snider song. It's the first track on the album East Nashville Skyline, one of many great albums by a great songwriter. Thanks, Todd.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Wine Lists and Hidden Gems

We dined out the other night with some friends. Having lived for more than a decade in a small town with limited dining options, I appreciate the diversity of good restaurants in Columbia.

I discovered an interesting bottle of red on the wine list. It’s funny how sometimes something just jumps out at you. I happen to know that the chef has an eye for unusual wines and tries to put some good buys on the list.

It reminded me of something I read on Serious Eats a while back. Deb Harkness (of Good Wine Under $20 fame) wrote about the mark-up on wine in restaurants and corkage fees. The comments reflected a wide range of feelings on the subject – some rather strong feelings I might say.

The more I considered it, I realized her feelings of being ripped off aren’t really justified. Everything has a different mark-up in the restaurant business. Your bottle of wine is a veritable bargain compared to the margin on a glass of ice tea or a cup of coffee. The difference with wine is that you frequently know exactly how much it costs retail.

I know all too well the slim margins most restaurants operate on. I can’t begrudge them making money where they can. I do chuckle at the whopping mark-ups on certain wines. How often have you seen a bottle of $4 white zinfandel for $20? Or better yet, the same $4 wine for $5 a glass? It gives me yet another reason I’m glad I don’t drink white zin.

I will admit that I look for bargains on wine lists. Sometimes you find a bottle that they haven’t marked-up very sharply. Or, I look for something I don’t see in retail stores. Restaurants get access to wines that wine shops don’t. It’s all about being a savvy wine drinker.

If you order a bottle of Cakebread, Silver Oak or Justin, you know you’re going to get your rear end burned on the price – likewise with the popular, low-end wines. It’s the off-beat, middle-range wines that are often the best deal.

Back to our lovely dinner at Motor Supply Company, I picked out a bottle of Tandem Peloton Red California 2006. One of my first rules for shopping a wine list is to go right for the “Other Reds” category.

This bottle was $38 and it retails for $25-ish (which I didn't know, by the way). Not bad, especially when you consider it’s probably difficult to find in my local retailers. It’s a eclectic blend of pinot noir, zinfandel, carignane, sangiovese, syrah, chardonnay, gewürztraminer and pinot meunier.

How's that for an “Other Red?”

The grapes are sourced from all over Sonoma and beyond, hence the California designation. It’s a prime example of what a careful hand can do with blending. It’s shows the delicate raspberry and strawberry of pinot noir, the earthy smoke of carignane, the spice of zin, and the complex undertones of the other players.

I was more than happy to hand over the $38, especially at a time when so many independent restaurants are struggling. Here’s to all the sommeliers, chefs and owners who put hidden gems on their lists for the more adventurous among us.