Archive for the ‘Absolutely Necessary Info’ Category

Drinking Cooking with Wine

            For those of you who don’t know me too well, one of my all-consuming passions besides wine is cooking. In fact, once upon a time I had a little blog called The Unlikely Gourmand, where I chronicled my mishaps and triumphs in the kitchen over about the course of a year.

gratuitious staged shot of Farmers Market goodies

I’ve always loved cooking with wine and, in fact, had one of several fake ID’s confiscated for trying to purchase a bottle of Marsala wine (to make, what else, Chicken Marsala). My attempt to explain that I was merely buying the obscure and practically undrinkable fortified wine for purely innocent and culinary purposes fell on deaf ears and I was left sans ID and sans dinner. America is a tough place for the aspiring home cook under the age of 21.

When it comes to cooking with wine there really are a lot of opinions out there, circling around the one consensus that it makes a lot of dishes infinitely better. If you watch anyone on the Food Network, you’ve surely heard that you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. Walk into any restaurant kitchen, however, and you’ll find Carlo Rossi-esque jugs of wine that are used expressly for cooking. So who’s right?

It depends. I realize this is not the answer you were hoping for, so lets get to it, shall we?

A couple of bottles from a few weeks back

Certainly for wine-centric dishes like Coq au Vin or Beouf Bourgignon or even a simple braised chicken dish, the wine you’re using matters a little bit more. If it’s a dish that calls for wine as a significant ingredient, it should be a wine that you would drink. That’s not to say you should go ahead and pour that expensive1987 Bordeaux you have lying around into your Coq au Vin because that would just be a waste. A very expensive and sad waste. But, if you have a decent everyday-quality wine (in the $10-$20 range) that you wouldn’t mind drinking while you cook or, later, with dinner, by all means, go ahead and use it.

Same goes for a bottle of wine that you just never got around to finishing. I, for one, hate to waste so I try to finish a bottle over two nights. However, if I just can’t get around to emptying a bottle and I’ve got a glass or more left on the third day, I’ll keep the bottle corked in the fridge and use it to cook later. It’s also never a bad idea to have a cheap ($7ish) bottle of Pinot Grigio in the fridge to use in everything from Risotto to Soup.

Another reason I would like to believe those Food Network ladies are always hawking drinkable wine is that most of the time you’re only using a cup (more or less) of wine in any given dish and so why not have that wine around to serve with dinner or drink later? However, keep in mind that the wine is going to be cooked so it’s really not necessary to splurge.

Alright, so now that we’ve cleared that up – lets get to the best kinds  of wine to cook with. As I mentioned earlier I think a light Pinot Grigio is a good thing to have around – its bright and acidic (the main reason you use wine is usually to deglaze, or in normal terms, to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of a pan). You don’t want to use an oaky chardonnay because its just got too much character and will impart its own funky flavor. However, an unoaked chardonnay could do quite nicely. I’m also a big fan of cooking with dry reisling – again its got lots of acid and bright flavors that won’t get in the way of your dish. Sauvignon Blanc can be tricky because sometimes the NZ or California examples are just too herbaceous, too grassy, and too fruity. But if you get a flinty French example you should be ok.

You could make this if you had some wine around!

For red wines, the same rules apply. Pinot Noir is a great cooking wine because its got great acid and lighter flavors. For a “dry red wine” Chianti can be pretty fabulous – its tannic yet light and still acidic and I don’t mind using a Cab-Merlot blend that’s not too oaky for richer dishes like beef stew.
Very recently, I tried a wonderful recipe from the ladies at Food 52 – one of the best food websites around if you ask me. It was a dish made with Rose and as soon as I saw it, I just had to make it. It was delicious and a great way to use up some leftover Rose I had lying around. When cooking with Rose, I’d urge you to go for the good stuff from Provence – crisp and herby and just delightful.

The only thing you really want to stay away from is wine that’s really expensive or wine that’s really bold. Anything else is most likely going to better your dish more often than bring it down. Yet another gift of the grape.

Want to try cooking with wine? Head on over to the recipes linked below:

Merrill’s Rosy Chicken

Coq Au Vin

Chicken in Reisling (go for the cream instead of the creme fraiche)

Alice Waters’ (and my favorite) Beef Stew

Risotto with Mushrooms and Peas (can easily swap out white wine for red and change up the ingredients but a great basis for liquid-to-rice ratio)

Strawberry Rhubarb Breakfast Cake - am I bad at photography or what?

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The other night I attended a lovely event hosted by Sonoma Cutrer. The evening started with a discussion, moderated by one of my idols, Barbara Fairchild. The panel included Chef Michael Lamonoco, who owns Porter House New York, where yours truly worked as a hostess for about 4 months when I first moved and when I still thought that I was the exception to the “magazines aren’t hiring” rule.

Also on the panel was famed Chef Charlie Palmer, cookbook author and writer Dede Wilson, longtime food journalist and critic Ray Sokolov, and Mick Shroeter, winemaker for Sonoma Cutrer.

The prospect of being in the same room with, let alone possibly meeting Barbara Fairchild had me shaking in my boots just enough to zap my appetite for the day. The wine served was a California Chardonnay that was zippy and fruity rather than oaky and buttery. The discussion was centered on the idea of American food trends, so naturally, Barbara asked about the biggest trends of the last 30 years had been.

No matter how many different ways they tried to say it, the answer from everyone on the panel was the same: fresh seasonal and local ingredients. There were jokes about how frozen Dover sole was once an innovation, and about how restaurant patrons back in the day didn’t know the difference between a freshly caught diver scallop and one chiseled out of a frozen bag. The biggest shift, agreed on by all present, was that fresh and quality ingredients had become available, in demand, and had changed the way that everyone was cooking.

The follow up question was, of course, to name three chefs who made a difference in food trends of the last 30 years. Chef Lamonoco went first and mentioned Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer, and the French chef  (my French is nonexistent…) who brought contemporary French haute cuisine to NYC. All of these, I thought, were noble choices and all of the parties mentioned certainly did make a significant contribution to modern American food.

However, after all of the other members of the panel went on and discussed their choices, the feminist in me couldn’t resist screaming inside my head:


(By the way, she had spent that morning with Michelle Obama – you know, the president’s wife? No big deal.)

While the feminist in me can be hot headed,  she also has a point.

To be honest, it should not have been surprising. At the end of the day, though women have made huge contributions to the culinary industry, its still a world predominantly run by men. That’s not to say that women have not been successful – especially outside of New York.

When I think about Los Angeles, where I grew up, and the culinary scene out there, I think about women who have built veritable culinary empires like Nancy Silverton, Susan Fenniger, Suzanne Goin, Zoe Nathan,  and Candace Nelson.  Even the food critic for the LA Times is a woman (though S. Irene Virbilla is hard-up for fans these days) – hell, Ruth Reichl got her start as the LAT critic and Barbara Fairchild ran Bon Appetit from the west coast!

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I’ve rounded up some  California wine makers that make great wine and happen to have breasts, too.

Heidi Peterson Barrett: Winemaker at Screaming Eagle & La Sirena Winery (her own label) via CalWineries.com:

“In 1992, Barrett went to work for Screaming Eagle. Screaming Eagle is one of those wines that everyone has heard of, but not many have tasted. It is an emblematic California wine, perhaps the California wine of the last few decades. And once again, it was Barrett’s exquisite blend of art and science that made this wine a reality.

Her first vintage, the 1992, also received a 100 point score from Parker. (Two in one year!) At the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, a 6 liter bottle of this wine was purchased for $500,000; the most expensive single bottle of wine ever sold.”

Sally Johnson:  Winemaker at Pride Mountain Vineyards. Pride Mountain Winery is located on Spring Mountain, one of my favorite areas of Napa. I’m not alone, here, and Johnson managed to make one of Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of 2010.

Laura Zahtila is the owner of Laura Zahtila Vineyards in Napa Valley. Laura is the owner and winemaker and they make teensy tiny amounts of amazing wine.

Anne Vawter: Winemaker at Oakville Ranch Vineyards. Vawter worked under Heidi Peterson Barret at Paradigm, one of the most prestigious winemakers in Oakville before moving on. Oakville Ranch Vineyards was the first in the area and has always been known for being the best so Vawter’s position is an important one.

Helen Turley: Winemaker at Martinelli, Marcassin, and Turley Wine Cellars.

Via thelifestyleloft.com:

“A name that has become synonymous with truly great California wines is Helen Turley, one of the most sought-after winemakers in the world. […] Now Turley’s efforts are so revered that she recently graced the cover of Wine Spectator beside the suggested title “America’s Greatest Winemaker?” 

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Wine can be just as seductive as a beautiful woman. Long legs, intoxicating perfume, and an intriguing reluctance to open up are all qualities that could be ascribed both to a femme fatal and to a great wine. Not to mention that too much of either (or both) has been the downfall of many great men.

And just like with a beautiful woman, it’s best, with wine, not to rush into things – to take the time to appreciate all of its attributes and pay homage to each one in turn. Whenever you see someone swirling their wine, inspecting the sides of their glass, and sticking their nose into it, what you’re seeing is the equivalent of foreplay for serious wine drinkers.

So, knowing just how important it is (if you don’t you probably have something dangling between your legs and need to go buy as many back issues of Cosmo as you can get your hands on and perhaps peruse the sex books section on Amazon), I’ve provided you all with a nifty little guide to the essential moves and know-how to getting the best performance from the next glass of wine you get involved with.

The Swirl

The move: Place two fingers on the base of the glass, one on each side of the stem and, without lifting the glass from whatever surface its resting on, start to swirl the glass in a counter clockwise motion. You want to achieve a motion that causes the wine to rise up and wash the sides of the glass. You don’t have to do this for very long – a couple seconds should do the trick.

The point:
For a long time it was thought that the Swirl helped encourage a wine to “open up” by getting air into it. However, the Swirl, it turns out, is pretty inefficient towards this goal – a wine will open up better with time or a decanter than with a few spins around the wine glass.

While the Swirl doesn’t do much to open up a wine’s flavors, it does prove rather effective in amping up a wine’s scent. For wines like Pinot Noir, Viognier and Riesling (to name a few) getting a good swirl is essential and by coating the sides of the glass, the wine gets closer to one’s nose and enables more subtle scents to be detected.


Legs Inspection


The move: Holding a wine up to the light post-Swirl in order to watch the wine on the sides of the glass drip back down into itself, leaving thin trails of wine that are called “legs” or “tears”

The point: As it turns out, legs are just another long-standing and wrong supposition. A wine with “good legs” or “long legs” was once thought to be an indicator of a wine’s high quality and also to indicate the levels of sugar present in a wine. As it turns out however, legs are just a visible side effect of the evaporation of alcohol – the higher the alcohol the thicker the legs. So, I guess if you’re at a blind tasting and you only have a few tastes and you’re and looking to get hammered, this trick will come in handy. Otherwise, they’re just kinda pretty.

The Sniff:

The move: You can tell just how serious someone is about wine by how far they stick their nose into a wine glass. To get all the benefits of the sniff, you want to swirl    your wine and tilt the glass towards your nose, to get the wine as close as possible to your nostrils. Then go ahead and inhale deeply and take the wine away from your nose as you exhale.


The point: The reticent who only venture to sniff the air at the top of their wine glass are missing out on all the pleasures afforded by a good deep sniff. Half of taste is smell and sometimes half the pleasure of a glass of wine is its perfume. The nose of a wine can be just as essential to its enjoyment as its taste. Smell is an intensely personal sense and powerful in its ability to trigger memories – similarly, sometime’s a wine scent is much more revealing about its past than its taste can be.

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Often as soon as I mention to people that I write a wine blog, the first question asked is, “What’s your favorite wine?”. I hate that question. And not just because it puts me on the spot, but because, honestly, my taste for wine changes with my mood, with the weather, with what I’m eating – the variables are endless.

(Favorite Everyday Reds: )

However, I can say that there are wines that I return to and tend to defer to for special occasions. Generally, I’m a red drinker and generally I like wine that is far more masculine than my petite frame and girlish charms would seem to suggest. There are a few things that I look for depending on variety; I like spice in a Syrah, leather with a touch of vanilla in my Merlot, and muscle in my Priorat.

(Favorite Everyday Whites: )

I have a strange fondness for Beaujolais – a wine that lies on the complete opposite end of the spectrum as the wines I just mentioned. Beaujolais is a light wine, and it’s endlessly quaffable, but when it’s good it is sooo good and, I would argue, largely unappreciated. It can be delicate, poetic, and pretty at it its best, and the fact that it’s best served chilled doesn’t hurt it’s go-to status come summertime.

(Go-to gifting wines: )

When it comes to whites, I’m picky. I like clean, minerally and dry on one hand and floral, succulent, and crisp on the other. Pinot Noir is a tricky grape for my palate, and unfortunately I’ve found that – with a couple exceptions – I’m more inclined towards the expensive stuff as a matter of taste. I like a long lingering finish, firm structure and obscure flavors like lavender and smoke. All that being said, I’ve compiled a few short lists for my some of my favorite wines and categorized according to price. Next time someone asks me what my favorite wine is, I can simply direct them here.

PS. If you are eager to try any of the above or just want to copy me (don’t worry…it happens all the time – you’re not alone. My roommate copied my shampoo just the other week!) but you can’t find any of the specific bottles above just check out something from the same region, producer, or grape and let me know how you liked it…you can never have enough go-to’s when it comes to wine.

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*Note: I spent hours slaving over my computer hand-crafting a quiz to help you find the wine you should be drinking!

The link is all the way down at the bottom of this post to encourage you to actually read it.

Also, please take the quiz, post your results, then, if you are so inclined, go out and grab a bottle of the suggested wine and let me know how it goes!

Just the other day I got into a conversation with a coworker who considers herself a passionate, knowledgeable, and sophisticated foodie (one of her twitter accounts is her initials followed by “loves food”) about the fact that she knows nothing about wine – not even what kind she likes. My coworker went on to mention that she usually goes for white wines that are “really sweet” but has recently been falling for Shiraz – but that’s about the extent of her wine knowledge and tastes.
I was reminded, then, of my own developing tastes in wine and how I started off drinking only whites, too. When I was first starting to drink wine I loved a Pinot Grigio that was light, crisp, vaguely fruity and super easy to (Santa Margharita was a favorite). Next, I had a brief fling with Sauvignon Blanc that was really ripe and tropical-tasting and had the kind of pineapple acid that gently fizzed on my tongue. I guess these very early affairs precipitated a lot of what I would come to look for and love in wine later, yet also illustrated something I always knew, right from the start, that I didn’t – sweetness.

Even when the only thing on hand for a rebellious teen to sneak was my mom’s saccharine KJ, I said nooo thank you! And a little later when I visited a cousin who was also just getting into wine, her deference for Reisling that was on the sweet side, put me off Reisling for a very long time – I had so firmly associated it with syrupy sweet wine.

As I grew older and my tastes developed, I started what I refer to as “my descent” into red wines, starting with lighter fare like Pinot Noir. When I first started drinking reds, anything that was fairly tannic was too much for me and something I sucked down rather than sipped pleasantly. The very first glass of wine I ever truly loved and described, with enthusiasm, as “delicious” was a glass of Dolcetto. I was so delighted and enchanted by this little glass of wine that I believe the fling I’d been having started to develop into something serious.

All that being said, I think that as a newcomer to wine, whites are a safer place to start than red. They’re generally more approachable to an untrained palate and they’re, frankly, just more fun to drink sometimes. And while it’s easy to go with one of the big three (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc), there are more interesting wines that are also easily accessible, affordable, and sublimely delicious than ever before. Take the quiz I crafted to find which one of these white wines best matches up with your taste and get started on your own guide to that perfect revelatory glass.

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How to Successfully Navigate a Wine List

Part One : The Basics

It shouldn’t be a big secret that restaurants jack up the prices on wine. I’ve seen bottles marked up to two to three times what it would have cost me to buy the same bottle in a shop. While a 200% mark-up may seem ludicrous, the reality is that restaurants pay the rent with their wine (and liquor) sales – its hard to make much of a profit selling food, surprising as that may seem. Why bother with the quick lesson in restaurant economics 101? Because keeping that in mind is essential to successfully navigating a wine list!

Step 1: Wines by the glass

There are some great reasons for ordering wines by the glass rather than springing for the whole bottle:

• You, a sworn red drinker, are dining with an absolutely resolute white drinker, a compromise is nowhere to be found and god help you, you’d rather drink dishwater than rosé!

• Driving is an issue; you really only have the time and tolerance to get down one glass before you become a danger to yourself and everyone else on the road.

• You are feeling adventurous and not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for anyways. Maybe you want to have a different glass with your appetizer than your entrée, or maybe you’re just intrigued by a couple different options – the wines-by-the-glass menu is a wonderful place for exploration if you’re feeling curious.

• Every once in a while, there will be a fantastic wine sold by the glass – a wine that would otherwise be too expensive. In this case, go for it – it will be on the more expensive side for a single glass but sometimes just experiencing a great wine is worth sipping slowly.

All that being said, however, there are also some good reasons to skip the wines-by-the-glass page if none of the above apply:

• Generally, but certainly not always, the wines offered by the glass are usually lower end and not as good as everything else. That’s not always the case and a good wine director will offer decent, if not remarkable, wines by the glass.

• Remember that whole mark-up situation we talked about at the beginning of this little guide? I hate to tell you, but…it gets worse for wines by the glass. I’ve seen a glass of wine being sold for the price of an entire bottle if it was being sold retail.

• Depending on how many people are drinking, you’ll almost certainly get a better bang for your buck if you order a bottle – which typically gets you five glasses when poured correctly.


Step 2: Asking your server for guidance

Asking your server for help is always a good idea. That being said, keep in mind that, though they’re there to serve you, they’re also, in a lot of respects, salespeople working on behalf of the restaurant.

If you ask the waiter what he or she recommends without any guidance, they’re going to try to steer you towards the more expensive wines. That is their job. Instead, a better approach is to let your server know what you’re thinking of ordering food-wise, give them a brief run-down of things you like in a wine or any wines you can remember having that you know you liked, and do not be embarrassed to give your server a price range.

Lastly, listen to your server’s suggestions – a good server wants you to enjoy whatever you order. Don’t ask your server to go on and on about various wines if you have no intention of ordering them or if you’ve already made up your mind – it wastes their time and its annoying.

Step 3: Ordering your bottle

We’ve all found ourselves in the position of wanting to order a wine with a name we can’t pronounce. Rather than attempt to say it, we usually just hold the wine list up, point, and say, “That one.” While this is surely one way to order wine, it’s not the best way to do it.

• If you absolutely cannot even begin to comprehend the way to pronounce something look to the left of the name of the wine you’d like to order. Chances are it may have a BIN number attached to it and you are welcome to use that to order your wine.

Just try to say it and don’t be embarrassed if you bungle it – or try to find at least part of the whole description that you do know how to say along with the year attached to the bottle. If you can’t pronounce the year, I don’t know if I can help you.

Now, for wines that you do know how to pronounce it can be awkward figuring out which parts of those long title you need to read out loud and which parts can be left behind.  Here are a few examples:

5032  Louis Jadot ‘Clos des Ursules’ Beaune 1er Cru 2008

5015   Simon Bize ‘les Bourgeots’ Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru 2006

3718   Hendry ‘Blocks 7 & 22’ Napa 2006

3716   Robert Biale ‘Black Chicken’ Napa 2008

Each of the wines above list a wine-maker (Louis Jadot, Simon Bize, Hendry, and Robert Biale respectively), the name of the particular wine (‘Les Bourgeots’ and ‘Black Chicken’) or the vineyards from which the wine was sourced  (‘Clos des Urseles’ and ‘Blocks 7 & 22’), the region in which the wine was grown, and the year that the grapes were harvested (we’ll skip the 1er Cru for now – just know that its not important when ordering).

The best way to order each of these wines is to say the winemaker and the year, except for the ‘Black Chicken’ because its just plain fun to say. You can forget about all of the stuff in the middle unless you come across something like this:

3507             Bond ‘Pluribus’ Napa 2005

3543             Bond ‘Pluribus’ Napa 2006

3508             Bond ‘St.Eden’ Napa 2005

3544            Bond ‘St.Eden’ Napa 2006

In this case, you should read out as much as the information as you can to avoid any confusion with the waiter. Lastly, speaking of confusion – that thing the waiter does where they present the bottle? Pay attention! You want to make sure that they’ve brought you the wine you ordered, so make sure you look for the winemaker’s name, the year, and the name of the specific bottle you ordered. 

Step 4: Tasting your wine

When the server pours the wine for you to taste, take the time to actually try it. You’re not tasting it to see if you like it so much as you’re tasting it to make sure that it hasn’t been corked or otherwise compromised.

If you have the slightest suspicion that something’s not right, don’t be afraid to speak up. Ask someone else at your table to taste it and if they agree, most likely, the waiter will take the bottle to a manager or wine person to taste, as well. They will replace the bottle if it is, in fact, bad.

Unfortunately, if you order a bottle that you taste and just plain hate, that’s not a good enough reason to send it back. Unless the wine has been grossly misrepresented by your server (another good reason to ask for their advice), not liking the wine you ordered is not a good enough reason to send it back.

Lastly, don’t sniff the cork. The reason that servers and sommeliers may do this is to make sure that the bottle hasn’t been compromised before they pour it for you – there is no reason to pick up the cork and put it to your nose after the wine has been poured.

Step 5: Enjoy!

Just don’t get sloppy, ok?


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