Vines & Vittles

Wine Appreciation: keeping it simple

I know you’ve heard the term: “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you that wine appreciation doesn’t need to be that hard. Despite what some folks would like you to believe, it’s not necessary to have a degree in oenology, be a romance language expert or be wealthy to enjoy a glass or two of good wine.

For instance, some critics get way down in the weeds and use obtuse words to describe the sensory characteristics of wine. What, for example, do the terms precocious, unctuous or assertive have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes? Sometimes when I find myself slipping into what I call “snob-speak,” I harken back to an old Waylon Jennings song. In “Back to the Basics of Love, ” Waylon’s words give me swift rhetorical kick, knocking me off my high horse so I can explain in plain English the qualities of a particular wine.

So, when I describe a particular chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste. If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that chardonnay also has the taste of ripe Honey Crisp apples. Well, you get the point.

In evaluating wine over the years, I have detected the flavors of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and countless others. And I have experienced the aromas of toast, grass, butterscotch and leather as well, unfortunately, as mold, Limburger cheese and vinegar too. These are descriptions that are based on solid sensory memories.

But what defines a good wine? Many of us struggle with another major consideration: price versus quality. Most of us assume there is a direct correlation between what you pay for a bottle and the way it should taste.

If you could afford to pay $100 or more for a “trophy” wine, wouldn’t you expect that bottle to be memorable? I had a friend who recently plunked down $150 for a bottle of Bordeaux that, indeed, was memorable, but for the wrong reasons. He described it as “rancid and musty.”

Since that description could fit any number of animate organisms, including cheese, old socks and/or a bevy of over-the-hill  politicians, my friend assured me that he was describing wine. The obvious lesson here is that expensive does not always equate to quality when it comes to buying wine.

Conversely, inexpensive wines are not always inferior. As a matter of fact, in my never-ending quest for excellent wine at bargain prices, I am often pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines I did not expect to be very good. The point here is that often our expectations are colored by the price of wine.

Here are a few tips when you’re looking for a good inexpensive bottle of wine. First, pick the wine that lists the grape varietal (i.e. cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, etc.) on the label. Given the choice of choosing an inexpensive wine labeled as “Red” or “White,” or one described as chardonnay or merlot (for example), choose the one with the grape name.

Next, look for wines with a recent vintage date to insure freshness. With most inexpensive wines, producers concentrate on trying to make wines that exhibit bright fruit and freshness. Unfortunately, these are the flavor components that disappear first as most inexpensive wines age. This is particularly important with white wine which is more prone to losing fruit and freshness as it ages. My general rule (and remember, there are always exceptions) is to pick lower-priced whites with vintage dates no older than three years. With most inexpensive reds, vintage dates should be no older than four years.

There is another very important way to determine the quality of lower-priced wines. You should always try to select wines where the label indicates the specific origin of the grapes. For example, a 2018 merlot that indicates it was produced in Monterey County would be preferable to a 2018 merlot simply labeled as having been made in California. The more geographically specific the appellation of origin is on the label, the more likely the wine will be the better choice.

So that’s it for now, but in future columns, I’ll try to present you with more of the basics of wine appreciation. And a special shout–out to the late and great Waylon Jennings for reminding me to keep it simple.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com.

Pesto Rosso Pasta: a spicy harvest dish!

It’s harvest time all across the “Fruited Plain.” In California, the grape harvest is in full swing while, in other parts of the country, bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables are literally ripe for the picking. I’ve been spending a good bit of time at our local farmer’s market loading up on everything from peaches and apples to peppers and tomatoes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been canning hot and sweet banana peppers rings as well as roasted and peeled red bell peppers. Soon I will purchase a bushel of green tomatoes, fresh fennel bulbs, onions and more hot banana peppers to prepare the stacked and aged Italian vegetable concoction called saliata (I’ll provide the recipe for this complicated, but delicious, vegetable medley in a future column).

But today I’m going to pass along a recipe that combines roasted ripe tomatoes and peppers, along with garlic and onions, to create a red pesto and pasta dish. You’re probably wondering if that’s a typo because you’re certain that pesto is green -right? Well, normally it is and that’s because the traditional pesto recipe is made from handfuls of fresh basil. However, pesto can be made from other herbs or vegetables, and the term is more broadly defined as a sauce.

The main ingredients of this crimson version of pesto are roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes yielding flavors that are rich, spicy, smoky and robust. And because the roasted veggies will be processed through a food mill, I suggest you use either capellini or rotini as the pasta noodle of choice. I call this dish: Pesto Rosso Pasta. To put this dish into the culinary stratosphere, you’ll need to pair it with a medium to full-bodied red wine like the ones suggested below. So here you go!

Pesto Rosso Pasta

Ingredients

Three red bell peppers cut in half
Twenty Roma tomatoes or 10 regular size sweet tomatoes – cut in half
One hot banana pepper (optional) cored and sliced in half long-ways
Three cloves of peeled garlic
One large sweet onion sliced into quarter inch rounds
One-half cup of fresh basil
Three tablespoons of slivered almonds
One cup of pecorino romano or parmesan grated cheese
One-quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil
One or more tablespoons of kosher salt and ground black pepper (to taste)
One pound of capellini or rotini pasta

How To

Coat peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic in olive oil
Roast in a 350 degree oven for one hour
Turn roasting vegetables over in the pan(s) after 30 minutes
Allow vegetables to cool and peel any skins that are loose on the peppers and/or tomatoes
Place the mixture in a food processor with cheese and blend until smooth
Put almonds into processor, pulse a couple of times so nuts are integrated but not pulverized
Boil salted water in a large pot and add pasta
Put the pesto in a large sauté pan over low heat while pasta finishes cooking
Chop the basil finely
Cook pasta until al dente and retain one half cup of pasta water
Add water to pesto in the pan and stir
Place pasta in sauté pan with pesto, mix well and heat over low flame for five minutes
Plate the pasta and sprinkle the fresh basil over each dish

Wines for Pesto Rosso Pasta

2015 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico ($28) This ruby red, medium-bodied Chianti is chock full of dried cranberry and cherry flavors with hints of tea and a nuance of vanilla from the oak aging. Just the right wine to pair with the hearty flavors of the Pesto Rosso Pasta.

2017 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel ($25) A blend of 77 percent Paso Robles zinfandel and small amounts of petit sirah, alicante and primitivo, the wine has dark berry and spicy cola flavors. It is well balanced with a nice dollop of acid to marry well with the red pesto.

John Brown is also a novelist.  His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com.

 

Charleston: a good place to ride out the pandemic

If you’re a food and wine junkie like me, this pandemic has really altered your lifestyle. My wife and I enjoy eating in and opening a good bottle of wine at home more than just about anybody, but we miss those restaurant or bar date nights where we can let someone else prepare our meal and serve us our beverages.

However, visiting restaurants or bars now, though, is not nearly as much fun as in the past. Social distancing, limited seating arrangements and facial coverings – while understandably necessary, present impediments and obstacles to having a relaxing and enjoyable dining experience. And if you are in the geezer demographic or are physically compromised, the fear of contracting the virus in public places – like restaurants -is an even more inhibiting factor.

But guess what? I have come to the conclusion that Charleston is a pretty good place to shelter in place for a while, especially for foodies and wine geeks. Why? Well, in our little corner of the world, we are blessed to have access to purveyors who provide us with some of freshest and highest quality victuals you can find just about anywhere in this region of the good old US of A.

Let’s start with the basics like bread, vegetables and proteins.

I have travelled in some of the most famous epicurean capitals of Europe where the local bread is spoken of reverentially, but none of those bakeries is any more accomplished than Charleston Bread located on North Capitol Street in our fair city. Their baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain, honey whole wheat, sour dough and other breads are delicious while the salt, pepper and olive oil focaccia is otherworldly. They even crank out delicious and varying styles of pasta noodles you can buy right there at the bakery. Oh, and the pastries are the real deal too, especially the cakes, brownies, cinnamon rolls and biscotti.

But man does not live by bread alone, right? If you love to consume locally grown produce, you’ve been to the Capitol Market’s outdoor farmer’s market to buy tomatoes, fresh corn, beans, peppers and just about anything else that grows in the fertile soil around these parts. Just last week, I bought a bushel of locally grown red peppers which I promptly roasted, peeled (and packed with basil) and then put in the freezer for use as a taste of summer in the dead of next winter. Inside the market, you will also find excellent produce at the Purple Onion.

Of course, the Capitol Market also features a wine shop where you can pick up a few bottles of vino to accompany your home cooked feast. I recently purchased a bottle of 2018 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay (see the description below) to accompany a home made dish of linguine (from Charleston Bread) with broccoli and Italian sausage in a béchamel sauce. Also, in the market, you’ll find a great selection of fresh meat at Johnny’s. Everything from chicken to just about any cut of steak and pork is available or can be cut for you while you wait.

And if you’re a seafood lover, you’ve probably been to General Steak and Seafood (formerly known Joe’s Fish Market) on Quarrier Street in downtown Charleston. This place is an institution and the home of the freshest seafood you’ll find just about anywhere. They even hot smoke whole salmon filets over apple wood! And in the past several months, the business has added meat to the array of fresh goodies – hence the name change. Brothers Joe and Robin Harmon have owned the place for years and remain in charge. The new butcher shop is amazing! I’ve ordered (and grilled) Berkshire pork chops, prime filet, dry-aged steaks and free-range chickens.

So, while all of us are doing our level best to survive these weird times in good health, we’re very fortunate to have exceptional businesses that provide us the opportunity to purchase and prepare quality meals in the safety of our own homes – and sip a little wine too. It certainly makes this pandemic more tolerable!
***

2018 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay ($24) From Santa Barbara County, this wine is Burgundian in style, but with California ripeness and intensity – a chardonnay of structure and restraint melded with richness. In the glass, a touch of vanilla enhances the ripe apple flavors to produce a very full, but balanced wine. The wine was a very compatible pairing with the linguine, broccoli and Italian sausage meal we enjoyed in our semi-isolation.

John Brown is also a novelist.  His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com.

 

Summertime Red Wine

Even though temperatures are approaching meteorological hell, I refuse to give up the pleasures of sipping red wine with the foods of summer.

Sure, I drink more refreshing whites and rose’s this time of year than I do of those purple monsters, but I still open and enjoy red wines. I just modify that old (and hackneyed) adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. Of course, when the Medieval wine snob who offered that advice did so, room temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I simply put my red wine in the refrigerator for about a half hour before opening it and then keep it in an ice bucket after pouring a glass or two. I do, though, usually prefer lighter styled reds such as pinot noir and Valpolicella this time of year. The beauty of these two varietals is that – while they are not full-bodied like cabernet or zinfandel- they do stand up to and pair well with picnic foods like sausages, ribs and foods with spicy heat.

Pinot noir like those produced by Elouan and Erath from Oregon, J. Lohr, Buena Vista and Cline Family Cellars from California, Kim Crawford from New Zealand and Cono Sur from Chile are all priced around or below $25 a bottle and make very nice accompaniments to the foods of summer.

However, one of the best warm weather reds is Valpolicella. Produced from a combination of the relatively obscure corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, this red wine can be a very pleasant sipper, as well as an excellent accompaniment to barbecue and other warm weather foods.

Producers to look for are Allegrini, Masi, Zenato, Bertani, Tommasi, Farina, Righetti and Mazzi. I am especially fond of Allegrini Valpolicella Classico, but all of the above mentioned wines are exceptional summertime and picnic food accompaniments, and they are mostly priced under $20 a bottle.

Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when the grapes are planted in select vineyard sites and when a process called ripasso is employed during wine making. To make ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is re-fermented by combining it with the pressed skins or pomace from Amarone (which is essentially Valpolicella on steroids).

The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. And while a ripasso is definitely a step up in weight and intensity from regular Valpolicella, it is still a very nice complement to your favorite summertime dishes.

In the past, I have written about my affection for Palazzo Della Torre – one of Allegrini’s Valpolicella red wines that is made in the ripasso method. Several years ago, I visited the Allegrini estate in the Veneto region of Italy. The winery is located on property where an actual medieval palace – Palazzo Della Torre – has been restored and is used as a tasting facility. On that particular day, I tasted through several vintages of that lovely wine.

Today, you will find the 2016 Palazzo Della Torre ($22) for sale at area wine shops. It is medium-bodied, almost zinfandel-like and chock full of ripe blackberry and cola flavors. It is, simply put, Molto Bene (that means ‘durn good’ in American).

Perfect Wines for Summertime

I will admit that summertime is a great season to enjoy refreshing and thirst quenching beverages, particularly ones that are in sync with the picnic style foods that grace our tables in warmer weather.

While some of you may choose that frothy option as a suitable quaff for hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs, my preferences for those same type foods – and just about any others that we enjoy this time of year – is the fruit of the vine. That probably doesn’t surprise you since, after all, I am a certified winophile. So today, I’m recommending two categories of wine for your summertime sipping pleasure.

My first recommendation is that you open up a style of wine that most of us only uncork on special occasions. I’m suggesting sparkling wines to go with the foods of summer. And since we’re patriotically observing the Fourth of July, you’ll have a celebratory red, white and blue reason to pop the cork and toast this great – if troubled – nation we all call home.

Hey, and you don’t need to limit your sparkling choice to Champagne. Champagne is the most famous and most expensive of all sparklers and is only produced in that eponymous region of France. No, that’s the beauty sparklers where almost every wine-producing region on the planet makes their version of bubbly. And sparkling wine pairs especially well with picnic foods that are spicy, salty or rich.

It might come as a shock, but you really do have a wide variety of reasonably priced domestic and international wines from which to choose. There is Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and Champagne-like wines from the US, Australia and Germany too.

The next category of summer wines I’ll suggest you open this summer is Rose’. I’m sure some of you may have a jaundiced view of this (sometimes) pink wine, harkening back to a time when Rose’ was bottled in heavy clay-like crocks (remember Mateus?) and tasted like strawberry soda. Or you may think of Rose’ as a sweet white zinfandel type wine.

Today, Rose’ is made in nearly all fine wine regions using just about every red grape imaginable from cabernet sauvignon to carignan and from pinot noir to mourvedre. While there are many slightly sweet aperitif Rose’s, there are even more that are produced to accompany food, and they are a perfect match to summertime meals.

Rose’ is really compatible with grilled foods, particularly sausages. Whether you prefer Italian, Polish, Bratwurst or some other pork-encased tube steak, Rose’ is a great choice. They’re also delicious with dry-rubbed (cumin, black pepper, salt and brown sugar) baby back ribs brushed with barbecue sauce.

Want the best of both the sparkling wine and Rose’ worlds? Two of the wines listed below under Sparklers – Anna de Codorníu Brut Rosé and Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé – combine sparkling wine’s effervescence with bottles produced from Rose’.

So now that your mouths are watering, here are several of my favorite sparkling wines and Rose’s for you to try. These wines are widely available and priced from about $12 to a little more than $50 (for some of the Champagnes).

Champagne: Moet & Chandon Imperial; Veuve Cliquot (Yellow Label); Nicolas Feuillatte Brut; and Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut.

Other Sparklers: Saint Kilda Brut Cuvee-from Australia; Schramsburg Brut (Napa); Domaine Carneros (Sonoma); Gruet Sauvage Blanc de Blancs (New Mexico); Anna de Codorníu Brut Rosé (Cava from Spain); Roederer Anderson Valley Brut (Mendocino); Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé (France); and Zardetto and Lamarca Prosecco from Italy.

Rose’: Lucashof Pinot Noir Rose (Germany); Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose (South Africa); Elizabeth Spencer Rose of Grenache (California); MiMi en Provence Rose (France); Reginato Rose of Malbec (Argentina); and Pico Macario Rosato (Italy).

A hidden gem from Friuli

As I have stated many times before, Italy is a boot full of wine. Each of its 20 regions have multiple wine appellations within them where an incalculable number of distinct grape vines are harvested each year and produce mind boggling amounts of vino.

When Americans think of Italian wine, most of us conjure up visions of Tuscany where the wines of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino take center stage. Some of us know about the Veneto region where Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone are the principle wines, or in the Piedmont where Barolo and Barbaresco are highly prized bottles.

Today I’ll tell you about a wine in the little known region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (pronounced Free-ull-ee Ven-eat-see-uh Julia) in the far north eastern section of Italy bordering Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north. The capitol city of the region is Trieste located across the Adriatic Sea from Venice.

The two most respected wine appellations of Friuli are the Colli Orientali and the Collio both of which are located in the north eastern part of the state. While some red wine is produced in Friuli such as merlot and refosco, the region is known primarily for whites, the most notable of which are Friulano, ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot grigio

I recently tasted a wine from Colli Orientali that took my breath away, especially when paired with (in this case )the appropriately compatible dishes. This bottle is produced by a family better known for its exceptional Italian restaurants than for its wines. If the name Bastianich sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the public TV shows hosted by Lidia, the chef and founder of the family’s restaurant empire.

And if you’ve been to any of the Eataly establishments located in Chicago, Las Vegas or other major US cities, or if you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Dell Posto or Felidia in New York, you understand that the Bastianich name is synonymous with great Italian cuisine. Lidia’s son, Joe Bastianich, founded the eponymous winery in 1997 in the very region of Italy where his mother was born.

The 2016 Bastianich Vespa Bianco ($30) is a medium to full bodied white that has ripe pear flavors with hints of honey and almonds. It is round and rich, yet crisp, with balancing acidity that should allow it to age gracefully for several more years. If you can’t locate it in your favorite wine shop, simply ask your purveyor to order it for you. The wine is a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a local Friulian grape – picolit.

While this wine was a match made in heaven when we paired it with grilled Chilean Sea Bass, it blew us away when we sipped the last few ounces with our salad! My wife created a salad of arugula, thinly sliced fennel and Vidalia onions, fresh orange slices in a dressing of DiTrapano Extra Virgin Olive oil, some freshly squeezed orange juice and just a touch of aged Balsamic vinegar.

Oh My!! Can you say serendipity? I know it was just dumb luck because I probably would never have thought of intentionally pairing the wine with a salad, but I’m glad we had a sip or two remaining when we finished the Chilean Sea Bass. Goes to show you, it pays to be adventurous (or at least save a little wine for salad or dessert).

You might ask your wine shop folks to show you the bottles they have from Friuli. These are wines worth searching out.

Chimichurri with a Twang!

We’ve been hunkering down in the mountains for the past few weeks trying to avoid crowding other human beings and doing our best to social distance. It’s not hard to do because there just aren’t that many people wandering around in the forest.

That’s the good news. The challenge, of course, is to maintain some semblance of sanity through our self-imposed isolation. It’s easy for me because I’m naturally lazy and content to just lounge around watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies or reading the works of authors like Elmore Leonard, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.

My wife, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning, and then re-cleaning, the house. Our home is so immaculate now that she doesn’t seem to mind when I dirty up the kitchen or when I crumb-bomb the carpet. In these strange times, I’m finding that being slovenly might actually serve a higher purpose.

Anyway, like many of you, we also pass the time cooking – especially recipes of dishes that have been in the “on deck” circle for decades. So today, I’m going to share one of those on-deck recipes that should enhance just about any protein dish you wish to prepare. And I’ve added a special West Virginia ingredient I’ll call a “twang” to the recipe that will intensify the flavors even more.

Chimichurri has been variously described as a piquant sauce or a condiment; while others use it as a marinade. Argentina is given credit for originating the dish, and the ingredients can vary according to the style of chimichurri you want to concoct. I’m going to provide you with my take on chimichurri that includes the addition (or Twang) of that odiferous West Virginia lily known as the ramp. I actually harvested the ramps for this recipe in the woods near our home during one of our regular social distancing hikes.

In Argentina, Chimichurri is used as an accompaniment to grilled beefsteak, but it works equally well with pork, chicken and even fish. I love to use it with cuts of beef like chuck or skirt steak grilled over charcoal, and I always suggest pairing the chimichurri-enhanced beef with a rich red wine. Because chimichurri is made with a good dose of vinegar, you will need a wine that is round and even soft. Wines with a lot of acid, such as pinot noir or barbera, will clash with chimichurri. You might try merlot, red blends or even malbec like the one I’m suggesting below.

So strap on your big-boy pants and get ready for a real explosion of flavors!

Chimichurri with a Twang

Ingredients

One each, red bell pepper, sweet onion and jalapeno
Three cloves of garlic
One-half cup each Italian parsley and basil
One-quarter cup of fresh cilantro
One teaspoon each of red pepper flakes, kosher salt and coarse black pepper
One half teaspoon each dried oregano and ground cumin
Four ounces each of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar
Ten or 15 small grape tomatoes
Two medium ramps (optional)
One medium size bowl

Preparation

Dice red pepper, jalapeno, onion, basil, cilantro, ramps and parsley
Mince garlic
Cut grape tomatoes in half
Add olive oil, vinegar and above ingredients into a medium bowl
Stir mixture and add salt, cumin, oregano, red pepper flakes and black pepper
Allow to sit for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator
Serve at room temperature and spoon over or next to beef

2013 Luna de Esperanza Super Premium Malbec, Uco Valley ($40)- This malbec is comprised of ninety percent malbec and five percent each of cabernet franc and syrah. With blackberry, mocha and coffee flavors, the wine’s richness and soft tannins marry nicely with the beef and chimichurri sauce.

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up this week, so I thought I would wow you with a great Irish recipe. So, while I’m not a Bangers and Mash or Soda Bread kind of guy, I am one-half Irish and I feel obliged to celebrate my Gaelic heritage by cooking up a Saint Patrick’s Day meal. However, I just couldn’t find anything that tickled my culinary fancy.

Then I had what I thought was a solution to the problem. Since I am also one-half Italian, why not find a recipe that uses the traditional culinary ingredients of Ireland and Italy to prepare a dish that pays homage to both storied nations.

Unfortunately, as I searched my treasure trove of cookbooks, I was unable to find any Irish-Italian dishes. I suppose I could try and create one. How about something like this: Corned Beef Marinara over Cabbage Fettucine; or Skirts and Kidneys Bolognese in Blood Pudding?

I must admit neither of the above mentioned combos excited my taste buds. So I decided to go in another direction. Since everyone knows that green is the national color of Ireland and that pasta is the national food of Italy, I’ve decided to combine these two characteristics to create a dish I’ll call Saint Patty’s Day Pasta.

Okay, I know, this is a bit of a stretch, but hang with me a bit longer because I think you’re going to love this recipe.

Two of the main ingredients in the recipe are Charleston Bread’s homemade spinach fettucine, and the lovely extra virgin olive oil from locally-owned Villa Ditrapano. Both the pasta and olive oil are green and they share the culinary stage in the recipe with arugula and basil to give this dish a definite emerald hue.

More importantly, this is one tasty dish! Check this out.

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

One red bell pepper, small fennel bulb, medium onion,
Six Italian Roma or plum tomatoes
One pound spinach fettuccine
Four peeled cloves of garlic
Two links each of Italian and Andouille sausage
One 8 -ounce can of tomato sauce
Two ounces of cooking olive oil
One ounce of premium extra virgin olive oil
One-half teaspoon each of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Four ounces of grated parmesan cheese
One-half cup of pasta water
Two ounces each of fresh, chopped basil and arugula

Cut bell pepper and tomatoes in chunks; onion and fennel in eighth inch rings
Place vegetables and garlic cloves on an oven pan, drizzle with regular oil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes
Roast the sausage in another pan in same 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, turning once at 20 minutes
Chop cooked garlic in small pieces and combine with cooked vegetables in a sauce pan
Add tomato sauce to pan, cook at low heat for 30 minutes- add salt and pepper to taste
Cut sausage into half inch rings, set aside; then add to the sauce after 25 minutes
Cook pasta Al-dente and drain in colander
Combine pasta, sauce and half the parmesan to a large sauté pan over low heat
Toss together with fresh basil and arugula then add pasta water if needed
Plate pasta and sprinkle parmesan and drizzle premium olive oil over top of pasta

My wine choice to pair with Saint Patty’s Day Pasta is the 2016 Alexander Valley Vineyards Redemption Zinfandel ($25). This medium-bodied Dry Creek Valley red is round, rich and well balanced with spicy, blackberry flavors and just a hint of toasty vanilla.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. And may all your Leprechauns be green!

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

I made the mistake of walking past a mirror right after the first of the year. The reflection of a rotund stranger stared back at me, and it took me several seconds to realize that the portly visage I was staring at was – ME!

Unfortunately, I have been having this same New Year’s wake up call for decades. Once again, I am vowing to moderate my excessive appetites in the hope of sculpting a visually more appealing version of myself. In other words, I’m going to try and eat less and choose foods that are healthy – and that actually taste good too.

I’m going to share a recipe with you for a dish that accomplishes both of the above-mentioned goals. Of course, I’ll give you a couple of wine pairing suggestions that will significantly enhance the enjoyment of the dish. It will be up to you, however, to moderate your wine intake. In my case, that means cutting back to only half a bottle.

Spoiler alert: If you do not like mushrooms, you won’t want to read any further.

I’m sure many of you have eaten Portobello mushrooms. You may have cooked them on the stovetop, or oven baked them with stuffing. You might have sliced and sautéed them with onions, garlic and other spices, and used them as a side dish. My recipe, which is meant to be an entrée, uses a little bit of each method just described, and you’ll have the option of making the dish with or without meat. In addition, this recipe also includes shitake mushrooms as part of the stuffing. And since mushrooms are full of vitamins and are a terrific source of fiber, this entree is also extremely healthy. So here you go.

 

 

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

Ingredients:
Four to six Portobello mushrooms
One-half pound of sliced Shitake mushrooms
Four ounces of chopped onion, one tsp chopped garlic, one tsp of red pepper flakes (optional)
One-half cup each of shredded mozzarella and smoked gouda or provolone
Four ounces of bread crumbs
Two links of Italian sausage (optional) finely chopped
One half red bell pepper finely chopped, a handful of chopped spinach
Two ounces of extra virgin olive oil and a tsp. each of salt and ground black pepper

Preparation:
Wipe Portobellos clean and scrape and discard gills from the mushrooms
Use one ounce of olive to rub Portobellos inside and outside
Place Portobellos on an oven rack and bake for 5 minutes in a 400F oven
Set aside Portobellos to cool
Discard stems from Shitakes and slice
Fry or microwave the Italian sausage and then finely chop
Sauté onions, garlic, red peppers and spinach using the remaining oil – set aside in a bowl
Add salt, pepper, cheese, bread crumbs and sausage to the bowl – stir and allow to cool
Spread the mixture evenly among the Portobellos and bake in 400F oven for 12 minutes
Serve immediately

My wine suggestions for the dish involve bottles that pair well with the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the overall spiciness of the dish. Pinot noir from Oregon has a ton of earthy nuances and also pairs exceptionally well with spicy food. You might try the 2017 Chehalem (Willamette Valley) Pinot Noir ($37).

My other choice to complement the recipe is zinfandel. I’m recommending a medium-bodied and spicy zin with bright dark berry  flavors. The 2017 Ridge Lytton Springs ($45) will make an excellent pairing with the dish.

Happy food, wine, and family!

Christmas is upon us and I am psyched! So, bring on the seven fishes, the Christmas dinner and even the twelve days because I’m ready and raring to go. And, as always, I will provide you with some vinous choices to enhance your holiday meals.

Of course, my first challenge will be to weather the (sometimes literal) storm of preparing the Christmas Eve fish extravaganza. I will use the outdoor gas grill to heat up the canola oil to 350F and then begin frying cod, smelts, squid and scallops. This can be tricky if the weather is raining or snowing heavily, but I’ll get it done – with the help of my eldest grandchild who has been my sous-chef for most of his post, pre-K life.

I’ll also brine and then hot smoke a side of salmon, while my wife constructs a pasta and clam dish. And there will be cocktail shrimp and other appetizers to get our palates properly tuned up. Since most of the fish will be deep fried, I find it’s best to pair them with white wines that are medium bodied, refreshing and even thirst quenching.

You might give these bottles a try. Italian whites: Arneis; Cortese di Gavi; Greco di Tufo; and Falanghina; California Chardonnay: Cakebread Cellars; Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains; Far Niente; and Mer Soleil.

There is no standard, traditional Christmas day meal in our country. Depending upon your religious or ethnic background, you might enjoy everything from ham to goose, to turkey to beef. In homes where the ancestral heritage derives from the British Isles, Germany or other northern European locales, we Americans tend to lean toward these culinary options: turkey; prime rib roast or filet mignon ; or baked ham as the featured main course.

If you’re preparing oven-roasted turkey as the main course on Christmas day, these medium bodied wines will pair nicely: Chateauneuf Du Pape; Rioja; California merlot, Chianti Classsico or Cotes Du Rhone.

If your Christmas dinner features baked ham with a honey glaze, you have several more options, including red, rose or even white wine. You might select: Tavel Rose from Southern France; riesling from Alsace; Sonoma Coast pinot noir; or malbec from Argentina.

At our home, my wife will dry rub a bone-in prime rib roast with garlic, kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Then she’ll roast it in the oven until it’s medium rare. Here are the wines I’m considering to accompany the rib roast: 2004 Ducru Beaucaillou (Bordeaux red); 2007 La Massa (Italian super Tuscan red); or 2016 Ridge Lytton Springs Vineyard Zinfandel.

Over the next two weeks, you will drink more than half of your yearly total consumption of sparkling wine. It could be Champagne or other sparklers like those produced using the Champagne method or by other vinous means of eliciting bubbles in still wine. So, whether it’s Brut Champagne, Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy or Cremant from Alsace, the apex of sparkling wine consumption will occur between Christmas and the New Year.

There is nothing quite like Champagne to ring in the New Year. Give one or more of these Champagnes a try: Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime; Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut; Veuve Cliquot Brut; and Piper-Heidesieck Brut Cuvée.

Sparkling wine from regions other than Champagne: Gusbourne Brut Reserve (England); Mumm Napa Cuvee, Roderer Estate Brut Anderson Valley and Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ( all from California); Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace (France); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); La Marca Prosecco (Italy); and Gruet Blanc de Noirs (New Mexico

Have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a prosperous New Year!