by Rosina Tinari Wilson
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.5
Ever notice there are just too darn few summer holidays? Fourth of July. Over with. Labor Day. Not even party material. So unless you celebrated the summer solstice, Bastille Day, or maybe an obscure festival from some remote corner of the planet, the official-excuse-for-a-bash scene has been truly bleak.
So why not invent your own excuse (holiday)? Your dog’s birthday (so apt for the “dog days” of summer). The anniversary of your first speeding ticket (or the first time you talked the cop out of one). The annual “Bad Karaoke Festival.” Whatever. Just make it something you can turn into a tradition. And whatever it is, why not mark the occasion by pouring some bubbly.
Doesn’t matter if it’s true Champagne, a mid-priced California sparkler, some inexpensive-but-delicious Spanish cava or Italian spumante — the stuff’s a sure-fire party starter. And even though people think “expensive” when they hear corks popping, it’s no stretch to say that you can get better quality in a bottle of bubbles than in a typical chard or cab of the same price.
A few years ago, the folks at UC Davis, along with those from Domaine Chandon, put together a “Sparkling Wine Aroma Wheel” to describe the huge range of possibilities in a flute of bubbly. Depending on the type of grapes used, the production method, the amount of time on the yeast, the sugar level of the “dosage,” and the winemaker’s skill and style, a sparkling wine can taste like anything from lemons and apples to raspberries and cherries to pastry dough and toast to butter and nuts to… You get the point.
What sparkling wines all have in common, in general, is good, crisp acidity (which goes well with both rich, fatty foods and tangy ingredients such as citrus) and a bit of sugar (which works well with sweet, tart, salty and spicy flavors). This opens up lots of options for edibles that’ll do your bubbly justice. And if you can pick up on any of the flavors in the wine by matching them in the food, so much the better.
Nothing has to be complicated. You can get your gig off to a flying start with salted nuts, or sesame or poppy seed crackers with assorted mellow cheeses (try creamy Brie, a nut-studded Cheddar spread, a light blue such as Cambozola, and a plain Monterey Jack). Or serve up some skinny breadsticks wrapped with thinly sliced ham or salami. Even corn chips with not-too-hot guacamole will do nicely.
Since the summer harvest is in high gear, make a simple bruschetta by chopping and mixing together fresh tomatoes (several colors if possible), basil, green onions and a touch of raw garlic, then adding a little olive oil and salt. Spoon the mix onto slices of fresh or toasted baguette or just arrange the tomatoes (whole, quartered or sliced, depending on size) on a platter with a few basil sprigs, and sprinkle the olive oil and salt on top.
Spanish cava, a methode champenoise blend of native varietals (which now can also include some chardonnay and pinot noir), works great with the apps. It’s generally dry but fruity, easy-drinking and a steal at under $10 a bottle.
Once everyone is settled in, bring out the main event — a super-easy do-ahead version of the classic Salade Nicoise, of French Riviera bistro fame. Anyone who can boil water can put it together. Pop open some California blanc de noir or good-quality rose. You’ll find some real gems in the $12 to $18 range. They’re rich enough to stand up to the salad’s punchy flavors, the salty ingredients will bring on the bubbles, and the salmon-pink color is gorgeous.
No need to fuss with dessert. Ol’ Mom Nature has flooded the market with yummy, dripping-with-juice peaches, nectarines, apricots and berries for you to gorge on. Pick up some nice butter cookies (the ones with candied ginger added are especially tasty with the fruit) and some just-sweet-enough muscat-based Italian bubbly. (Look for “Asti Spumante” or some version of “moscato” on the label.) Then just bask in the compliments and start figuring out what you’ll do next year!
R E C I P E
E-Z Spaghettini Nicoise
(serves at least 12)
This dead-easy version of the classic French Salade Nicoise is adapted from my book, Seafood, Pasta & Noodles — The New Classics (Ten Speed Press).*
1 lb. spaghettini (skinny spaghetti), cooked al dente
1/4 cup olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
1/2 t salt, or to taste
3/4 cup olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 t dry mustard
1/2 cup finely minced red onion
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic (or more), finely minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 bag washed raw spinach (throw out any yellow or brown leaves)
3 6-oz cans oil-packed tuna, flaked with a fork
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut into 6 wedges each
1 lb. fresh or frozen string beans, cooked crisp-tender
1 cup roasted red bell pepper (from a jar), cut into strips
1 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup Nicoise olives, halved and pitted, or plain canned pitted black olive halves or rings
2 2-oz cans anchovy fillets
1/4 cup capers
The night before the bash, or early in the day, toss cooked spaghettini with olive oil and salt; refrigerate. An hour or two before party time, whisk together all ingredients for the dressing. Toss the pasta with about three-quarters of the dressing, and spread out on a serving platter. Arrange the spinach leaves around the outside, then arrange the toppings on the pasta. Just before serving, top with remaining dressing. Serve chilled.
By Lora White
Wine X Vol 2.5
we’ve got a lot of post-nuclear-family angst brewing in our generation, and we’re working it out on our dinner plates
Yankee pot roast. Mashed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. No matter how grown up and fin de siécle cutting edge we’ve become, we all cherish an American Mom Dish that takes us back to the good old days; some casserole or party mix whose effect on our psyches is as soothing as footie pjs and Saturday morning cartoons. Most of us gave up (or at least denied) the satisfaction we received from such declasse´ classics when nouvelle and ethnic cuisines started cooking in the mid-eighties. The world was changing at breakneck speed, and the foods of our youth didn’t fit on the plates of the technological lives we found ourselves growing into. As college-educated, forward-thinking, 21st-century wunderkinder, we couldn’t be caught dead indulging in PB Fluff sandwiches or carrot-and-raisin salad; we forsook the foods that gave us warm fuzzies in favor of anything that was lightly grilled or presented on a bed of organic baby greens.Hold the aioli. Just when it seemed that nineties cuisine had pushed American classics so far onto the back burner that they’d fallen off the stove, the old standbys are making a comeback. Restaurants everywhere, from diners to supper clubs to three- and four-star hot spots, are bringing Mom Dishes back to menus, and diners are rediscovering the recipes of their youth. Grab a slice of white bread and get ready for gastric reminiscence. Whether it’s Salisbury steak at an uptown restaurant or glazed ham on the patio at a swanky wine-country bistro, comfort food is back to do Betty Crocker proud. This time around, it smells like it’s here to stay.
What’s cooking up this hankering for comfort food? It’s no secret that eating is our most common way to satisfy emotional yearnings. While some foods (most notably turkey) contain high levels of the nutrient l-tryptophan, which induces a drowsy state of well-being, most of the peace and satiety we get from certain edibles has more to do with the positive associations they inspire rather than their specific nutrient content. If our favorite babysitter fed us sloppy joes, chances are we’ll get a serious craving for messy ground beef on a bun after a rough day or while stuck in nightmare traffic.
Not surprisingly, comfort foods are finding the greatest popularity with diners in their twenties and thirties, who, having finally accepted that the American dream ditched us somewhere between Reaganomics and the O.J. trial, wonder if our only hope isn’t for a sense of comfort and security suspended in Aunt Alice’s Jell-O salad. We may have lost our faith in relationships and job stability and even a decent housing market, but we can always count on mashed potatoes to make everything right (at least temporarily) with the world.
Most devotees of comfort cuisine are quick to recognize the connection between their love for the old favorites and the often unsettling complications of being a young adult in today’s world. Let’s face it: we’ve got a lot of post-nuclear-family angst brewing in our generation, and we’re working it out on our dinner plates.
The yearning for the simpler times of days past is also reflected in the recent trend toward retro nightlife for the post-college set. No longer naive or bored enough to embrace gleefully every new sound, style and cuisine, many of us are grooving on social scenes that hearken back to the easy and familiar sophistication of past eras. Most major metropolitan areas host a number of night and supper clubs that offer live bands and swing dancing complemented by classic culinary delights. These joints are perfect for a night of cocktails, comfort foods, dancing and conversation and offer a relaxing, yesteryear experience for the mind and tummy.
If you can’t find a local restaurant that’s traded in mesquite chicken for liver and onions, or if you don’t have the gumption to hit the city hot spots, try sating those down-home cravings at neighborhood diners, long-time havens for secret comfort-food seekers. Blue plate specials still exist out there, and there’s nothing like a late-night snack of chicken-fried steak with potatoes and two sides of veggies to transport you back to the delights of mom’s kitchen.
If you really want to plumb your Brady Bunch roots and start the comfort food tradition from your own stove, there are several recent cookbooks that can teach you the basics on classic and revamped American favorites. Check out All-American Comfort Food: Recipes for the Great-Tasting Food Everyone Loves, by Emily Anderson (Cumberland House, 1997); American Favorites: Streamlined and Updated, by Betty Rosbottom (Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1996); and Blue Plate Special: American Diner Cookbook, by Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett (Cumberland House 1996). If you can’t make a recipe work, just give Mom a call.
Wherever your tastebuds take you in the search for comfort food, be forewarned: as you rediscover the satisfaction of classic dishes, you’re likely to feel a little embarrassment at indulging wholeheartedly in what was so recently considered the most banal of cuisines. Don’t let it get to you. In retro-crazed 1998, what’s old is new, what’s familiar is fresh and what’s square is hipper than hip. If your spoon is in the tapioca pudding, you’re dipping right into cutting-edge culture.
Eat hearty, be contented and please pass the gravy.
Quick. What’s sweet, pink and simple as candy? Think ZIP! Or dry, purple-red, packed with rich flavor and ageworthy? Think ZING! Or inky, dense and as berry-jammy sweet as port? Think ZAP! And so varied and versatile you can pour a glass with just about everything? Think ZEST- FOR- LIFE- IN- A- WINEGLASS!!!
You guessed it. Zinfandel! No contest. California’s heritage wine puts its so-called “noble” French-pedigreed cousins to shame when it comes to flavor, food-friendliness and pure drink-it-down fun. So what if we can’t pin down its European origins? Who cares? Zin tastes great. And whether you’re splashing soda into tall ice glasses of blush-pink white zin for a laid-back, fried-chicken-by-the-pool party; uncorking some mainstream claret-style bottles for a rainy day chili bash; or doling out weensy portions of your most precious late-harvest version for a ’round-the-campfire S’more-a-thon, zin, and zin alone, can do it all.
Matching food with zin is as easy as it gets. Practically anything goes. Pizza, pasta, ribs, Cajun-style blackened steaks, spice-rubbed chops, fast-food bacon cheeseburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, gooey chocolate indulgences, popcorn, picnic fare, even such ethnic esoterica as pork tamales, tea-smoked duck, chicken teriyaki and peanut-sauced beef satay.
Sic those flavor bombs on a $50 cabernet or the latest megatrendy, oh-so-elegant merlot and you’d be wasting your big bucks on a no-win outcome. As it happens, we at Wine X — seasoned professionals that we are — have already done this grueling research for you. And trust us, the pricy demigods-in-a-bottle just didn’t stand a chance.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with cab or merlot. Quite the contrary, in fact. By themselves they’re generally ranked among the very top wines anywhere. But at the table they take a royal pummeling alongside sweet, salty and spicy foods. With these macho perps-on-a-plate to deal with, you need something much gutsier in the glass. Something like zinfandel.
Why does zin work so well? Well for several reasons. First, it comes in so many styles that you’re just about guaranteed of getting a good match. Even white zin, on which many — perhaps even most — wine writers refuse to waste ink, has its place. Second, zin’s typical flavor profile suits tough-to-pair flavors well. Even a bone-dry standard-issue (red) zin can have so much fruitiness going on that it can make you think it’s a bit sweet. This helps zin match up nicely with food that’s also slightly sweet. What’s more, zin can also do an “opposites attract” number with both salty flavors and low-to-moderate doses of spice. Third, zinfandel’s image and typical low-to-medium price go better with robust, hearty foods than those of cab or merlot ever could. Whereas zin wouldn’t normally be your best bet with classic French preparations of, say, lamb, duck or venison (here’s where the upscale Bordeaux reds shine), heap on the hollandaise, trot out the hottest Chateau du jour or its American equivalent and make sure your credit card is nowhere near maxed out), zin is right at home with mid-priced casual fare. Zinfandel, in all its incarnations, works like a charm with easy going “peasant food” that’s so readily served up — free of wine snobbery fanfare — at bistros, trattorias and other bastions of rustic dining. Things like lamb shanks. Veal osso buco. Oxtail soup with toasted cheese bread. And as a very welcome bonus, the bill won’t send you to the loan sharks.
If it goes with beer, it probably goes with zin, too.
Here’s a radical notion. Check out all the zin-friendly foods I’ve mentioned so far. If wine didn’t exist, and you had only one choice, what would you drink with them? Beer, that’s what. Talk about varied and versatile. And, just as you’d do with wine, you’d match the body of the brew to the body of the dish so that neither would take the upper hand.
But we’re talking about zin here. So let’s start with foods that we’d typically enjoy with beer, work a little simple kitchen alchemy on them, Wine X style, and pull some corks on a wine that’s as easy to like as your favorite, fresh-from-the-keg brewski. And to prove that pairing zin with fun food is as easy as 1-2-3, let’s divide our zins and our eats into three simple categories. Here goes.
1. White Zin with Light Snax
There. I’ve said it. White zin. Though the “serious” wine world might turn its collective nose up at this stuff, America loves it. And what’s not to like about it. If all you’re after is an alternative to soda, Sangria or light (even “lite”) beer for lunch in a T-shirt, apps on the deck or a picnic at the beach, it’s perfect. If you need to rationalize it, think of it as berry Kool-Aid with a gentle kick. Then quit thinking about. Just enjoy it, and try all three of these easy finger foods with an iced-down glass or two.
Wrap strips of good deli ham, or the spiral-sliced kind, around chunks of canned pineapple, and spear with toothpicks. Put on a baking sheet, top with a couple of baby marshmallows and some shredded coconut, and heat under a broiler or in a hot oven ’til warmed through and a bit toasted.
Smear slices of pastrami with whole-grain or brown mustard. Lay on sliced Swiss cheese and some drained sauerkraut, roll up and cut into bite-sized pieces. Stab with toothpicks. Serve as is or heat in oven or nukebox to melt cheese.
Salsa Shrimp Crisps
Spread cream cheese on tortilla chips. Spoon on some salsa, and top with some cooked baby shrimp. Make plenty. They disappear fast!
2. “Claret” Zin with the Main Event
White zin may come and white zin may go, but the real thing — mainstream claret-style zin — endures. (And it keeps getting better and better, too.) Made with as much care and attention to quality as the finest cabernets, but with all the spice and juicy, ripe berry fruit that zinfandel can muster, this could easily be a desert island wine, just as long as the desert island has fennel sausage and calzone with garlic and prosciutto and meatball lasagna and…
Get a good baguette or two, or one nice crusty deli roll per person. Slice in half. Heap with rare roast beef and salami, and top with roasted red peppers, your favorite smoked cheese (go for Gouda if you can find it), sliced tomato and Dijon mustard or horseradish.
BBQ Pork & Beans
Pick up a slab of pre-cooked, vacuum-packed baby back ribs. Slice the ribs between the bones and save all the sauce. Spoon out a few cans of baked beans into an overproof baking dish. Stir in some chopped red and green onions, some shredded cheddar and some zin — if you can spare half a cup. Top with the ribs and sauce. Cover and bake until bubbly hot.
Spicy Chicken Penne
Stir chunks of leftover cooked chicken (your own or from a deli) into some homemade or store-bought spaghetti sauce. Add black pepper, basil and oregano, or cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, to taste. Heat and serve over cooked penne pasta. Better yet, use ridged penne rigate.
3. Late Harvest Zin for Afterwards
When left on the vine past normal harvest time to ripen further, zinfandel grapes can build up outrageous amounts of sugar. The winemaker can turn these grapes into three different types of wine: dry, with stratospheric (up to 18 percent!) alcohol levels; semi-sweet to sweet (usually 13 to 15 percent alcohol and 5 to 12 percent residual sugar); and fortified with brandy (or neutral grape spirits) to produce a port-style wine with both high alcohol and sugar content. Blockbusters all, they make a great nightcap, especially with one of the following after-dinner nibbles.
Spoon bits of blue cheese (don’t skimp — get the good stuff) into split dried figs and dates. Top with toasted nuts (preferably hazelnuts and/or pecans). This is the best choice for the dry late-harvest zin, though it’s just dandy with all three.
Scoop some coffee ice cream (even better if it has chocolate chips, cookie bits or other chunky stuff in it) into individual bowls. Top with warmed chocolate syrup and some freeze-dried coffee crystals, and pour the sweet late-harvest or port zin.
Spread storebought or homemade chocolate brownies with boysenberry or blackberry jam. Put a big bowl of chocolate pudding (from scratch, from a mix or readymade — warm it if you like) in the center of the table and let everyone dip. Again, bring on one of the two sweet zins — and don’t even think about using the good tablecloth!
See you next time. Go zin!
Wine X Vol 2.2
By Rosina Tinari Wilson
You’ve been invited to (let’s hope) more than your share of summertime kicks, including a few prime examples of why the Great Griller in the Sky invented the outdoor BBQ. Now it’s your turn. Sure, you could just go snag some burgers and dogs, a few squirt bottles of ketchup and mustard, and a keg of brew. After all, isn’t that S.O.P.? (Standard Operating Procedure) But what if, GASP, instead of that ubiquitous platter of cow disks, endless packs of tube steaks and that all-too-common keg o’ beer, you want to expand your horizons with a more “gourmet” Q? Complemented with a pour of the tasty grape? What then?The plan is a snap, actually. Random protein. Killer sauces. Assorted wines. Mix, match, keep track of what works (and what doesn’t) if you want to. And the result is a blueprint for barbecuing that anyone can follow — even if you don’t know the difference between mesquite (see the Surreal Gourmet’s “The Grill Drill” in this issue) or mosquitoes. (About the mosquitoes: burn citronella candles to keep ’em away.) Just follow these three simple rules for a guaranteed “Super Q.”
Rule #1: KISS (Keep It Super Simple): dead-easy recipes for sauces and sides with two ingredients max.
Rule #2: Round up a dozen or so dedicated “researchers” and tell them to bring an “interesting” bottle of wine and a side dish or dessert (again, Rule #1: 2 ingredients max).
Rule #3: Enjoy your own party. Ask these dedicated researchers to participate in the preparation ritual.
The next idea here is to put together three two-ingredient dips in two minutes flat. (DO attempt this at home — even if your usual M.O. is just to twist open a jar of that infamous salsa from New York City.)
Dip #1: One-Two Aioli — chop two cloves of fresh garlic into a cup of store-bought mayo. (If you don’t even want to deal with peeling garlic, just shake in some garlic powder or garlic salt instead.
Dip #2: One-Two Salsa — mix equal parts salsa – (your call on brand and heat level) and regular or low-fat sour cream.
Dip #3: One-Two Guacamole — blend one package of instant guacamole powder with one large avocado. (If you’re not fixated on Rule 1, you can squeeze in a little lemon juice and a clove or two of garlic to tang it up.)
Once everyone is thoroughly entrenched in the dips, it’s time to start prep on the main event.
I recommend barbecuing a little bit of everything you can get your hands on. The best source is usually the local yuppie meat market. You can always score a cartful of day-old, half-price bargains, like fennel sausages, pork spareribs, boneless lamb steaks, mongo hunks of chateaubriand or flank steak, perhaps even some lamb kidneys for the curious. (Everything but your standard burgers n’ dogs.)
The side dishes (that you asked your guests to bring) will probably be the standard items: baked potatoes stuffed with cheddar sauce from a jar; buttered white corn (grill or ovenroast in the husk for 10 to 15 minutes); crackers and after-dinner cheeses; packaged cookies and funky ice creams; jalapeno corn muffins (packaged mix plus canned peppers); and fruit. These will work fine.
Sauce #1: Equal parts smoky BBQ sauce and coffee concentrate.
The actual cooking should turn into a group tag-team match: whoever is closest jabs at the coals, flips the hunks-o’-flesh or brushes on whatever sauce seems right at the time. It will work, trust me.
When the meat starts coming off the barbecue, the real free-for-all starts. Wines, food, sides, apps… too much too soon. Of course, the fun is to mix and match and mix again to find what works and what doesn’t. But, to minimize the “guess” work involved in matching the wines with the foods, here’s a little help.
A bubbly will rule at the appetizer table, cutting through all the fat and salt. Try an Iron Horse Brut (or Brut Rose) or the inexpensive Spanish cava from Freixenet. A dry rose’ wine will also do well with the apps, like the Chateau La Roque (I’ve seen it around for $5.00 a bottle!) and a Vincent Vin Gris from Saintsbury. Perfectly “psyche-deli-icious” with the deli ‘shrooms and olives.
The best guacamole wine I’ve tasted is the roussanne (a white Rhone varietal) from Sobon Estate in Amador County. It’s frisky but not too feisty. A Chateau Ste. Michelle johannisberg riesling seems to pair well with guac, too.
Pairing wines with veggies is probably the toughest. White, bubbly, even some of the lighter reds can work. My fave rave is purple potatoes (if you can’t get ’em where you live, use walnut-sized reds, yellows or whites), double-dipped with guacamole and aioli, with a Rhone-style grenache-shiraz from Australia’s Rosemount Estate. Killer.
In the “real” food category, heavy cabernets and big merlots are way too tannic for lighter foods, and are knocked totally out of whack by sweet/spicy sauces. A light pinot noir, on the other hand, won’t stand up to the heavier meats and spicier sauces. White wines, no surprise, will lose big time with most of the sauces. That pretty much leaves zins, Italian types and Rhone clones. Just as you might expect, the fruitiest and least tannic wines will survive the best with the sauces: it doesn’t matter what meat they’re on. (A bonus here: these wines are easy-drinking and generally pretty cheap.) Some suggestions of wines are:
Foppiano “Grande Petite” sirah – The deep, cherry-chocolatey flavors will marry well with the A1/wine sauce, and the coffee/BBQ. (Try making another batch of the BBQ sauce using chocolate syrup instead of coffee. It’s a “magical mystery match.”)
The “berry-jammin'” Rosenblum zinfandel is a wine that can handle the teriyaki/pineapple mix, as can the zin from Llano Estacado in Texas. Fruity, tart and light, it’ll “grab hold of the spareribs and shake ’em.”
Hint: try the teriyaki/pineapple mix over chicken and serve an off-dry riesling. Yikes!
Overall, the wine that will probably do the best with the widest (and wildest) mix of meats and sauces is a fresh-tasting, medium-weight Rhone-style blend — most anything that contains grenache. And the most wine-friendly sauce of the four will be the Dijon mustard/soy blend. It works best on the lamb and chateaubriand, with bigger wines like the lip-smacker Beringer zin, the rich, spicy Forest Glen California shiraz, or the Swanson Syrah. (FYI: shiraz and syrah are the same grape, but petite si(y)rah isn’t).
Somehow you’re gonna have to manage dessert. And, from experience, the notes will probably be pretty illegible by then, so you may want to abandon the “research” at this point.
The “two-ingredient” rule goes totally out the window. It’s time for complex calories! My favorite: Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food and Cherry Garcia with dried cranberries, chocolate-covered raisins, chopped shortbread cookies, toasted pecans and coffee-covered macadamias. To hit the jackpot with two very different California dessert wines, try the Essensia Orange Muscat from Quady and the zin Port from Benziger. Oh my!
So before summer’s just a memory, go where the grills are. Light some coals, stir up some secret sauces and pull some corks. Add friends and stir. Simple recipe for a Super Q. Enjoy!
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