Drinking Inside the Box

I know. I know. I used to think of box wine as a refuge for the trailer park cougar–a lover of cheap chardonnay, light 120 cigarettes, bedroom slippers and bad, bad men who drive trucks. It used to be absolute bilge. Sweet, cloying, sour, smelling of rotten fruit and sadness. However, this is a new century and there are some really good box wines out there. They each contain 4 bottles (3 liters) and they provide not only economy, but a means of lasting shelf-life after opening for those of us who can’t drink a bottle (or two or three) at one sitting. I was first introduced to one good brand by my mother: Black Box. Retailing for about $22.00 on average, they produce a total of eight different varietals. I’ve sampled the Chardonnay, the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Shiraz, all of which are not necessarily the best examples of their type that I’ve ever had, but they are very drinkable everyday wines that remind me of what you get in Europe when you order the house or the cheapest glass of whatever they’re serving in the little cafés in Paris, Barcelona, or Venice.

Another good option is the Bota Box. They also do eight varietals and I’ve tried the Chardonnay (which I’m drinking right now) and the Old Vine Zinfandel, which is quite fantastic. While Black Box sources from various regions (CA Central Coast, Sonoma County, New Zealand, Mendoza, Argentina, and Columbia Valley, Washington), Bota does pure California. It also makes a big deal of being able to take the box on all of your outdoor excursions, like hiking and camping and all that stuff that I can’t stand. However, when you talk about poolside or picnics or the beach, I am IN. (I just wish I had an ocean I could swim in out here in NoCal. Also, a beach that allowed alcohol.) Not to mention, as my husband says, if you go to Saratoga Springs racetrack or any other sports venue that allows alcohol in picnic areas, but not glass, these boxes are a lifesaver.

As I finish my 85-cent glass of Chardonnay ($16.99 Bota Box bought at BevMo), I think about a somewhat recent trip to Venice where we ran into friends who were attending the same conference as my husband on a rainy evening. They suggested we get a glass of prosecco and I said, “I won’t pay more than 3 Euros!” (and I hadn’t for any glass of the local Sauvignon or Prosecco the entire time we were there.) The husband (a know-it-all) laughed and challenged me to find somewhere to get a “decent” glass of wine for that much in Venice. We led them off the main canals and into our back alleyways where we ducked into a tiny café. Needless to say, the prosecco was cold, in beautiful glasses, and delicious. He got served AND he got served. Now, don’t you trust me to steer you in the direction of a good, inexpensive glass of wine?

Cheers, Cin cin, Slaínte!

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Fun With Fractals

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” In my opinion, more often than not, trying to measure every single ingredient in what you are cooking is boring and tedious. Also, you never actually learn to cook this way–because what is cooking, if not learning to do things without a recipe and coming up with your own repertoire in the kitchen? It’s also the only way to develop your palate and eventually will allow you to cook things faster and have more fun. For certain complicated dishes like you might find in Julia Child’s wonderful and essential classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a recipe is quite necessary (at least for the first few times you make it.) The other exception is baking, which, to me, is a combination of alchemy and chemistry.

If you heavily rely on recipes and measure everything, go crazy and make something on the fly. Making a simple vegetable dish is a good start. I was at one of my favorite local markets, Sigona’s, and was pleasantly surprised to find some beautiful locally-grown Romanesco cauliflower, which also happens to be a fractal food. Not only is it strangely gorgeous, but it’s also delicious. I like to break it up so that the little spirals remain intact.

Ingredients:

2 heads of Romanesco cauliflower separated into florets
2 cloves of garlic, sliced or minced
extra-virgin olive oil
capers
good-quality anchovies (if you desire, but I highly recommend using them, as they just melt into the oil and add richness and depth to the dish)
dried oregano
red pepper flakes
grated Pecorino Romano

Procedure:

Heat oil in a skillet and add garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. Fry garlic until golden and break up anchovies. Add florets and oregano, along with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and pan-steam until florets are soft and water has evaporated. Add capers, salt, and freshly-ground pepper to taste. Toss lightly. Remove from heat and add more olive oil and grated Pecorino. Toss lightly. Can be served warm or at room temperature. Actually, letting it sit for a little while allows the flavors to develop and combine.

Serves 2 people who like to eat lots of vegetables. Serves 4 “normal” people.

Art & Wine: Fantasy, Fruit, and Composition

My husband and I were in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for Christmas this year visiting his family, when we happened to catch an amazing show at the National Gallery featuring the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. I had seen some of his paintings reproduced in books, etc., specifically the “portraits” in which he used things from the natural world (fruits, vegetables, roots, sea creatures) to create composites mimicking the human form. Some say Arcimboldo, who lived and worked in the 16th century, was the first Surrealist, taking inanimate objects and re-arranging them in a way that suggested human faces and busts. Seeing these paintings in-person was a revelation. His attention to detail was amazing, as was his composition.

Needless to say, when I was in my trusty neighborhood wine store, Willow Market and saw this wine that featured Arcimboldo’s “Autumnus” on its label, I took notice. Also, it was right around $10.

The 2007 Pacific Rim Autumnus Red Wine from Washington State boasts a number of traditional Italian varietals, including Sangiovese, Barbero, Pinot Nero, and Primitivo. It drinks very easily and is fruit-forward. It finishes with soft tannins and could easily be paired with a red sauce (what we ate tonight) or anything else Italian, not to mention roast chicken. As someone who primarily drinks white wine, I could really drink this stuff all night long. It has an elegance and balance that belies its price tag, and any wine that references art gets my vote.

Check out Giuseppe Arcimboldo on-line or in-person if you can. His artwork is baroque, yet maintains a sense of humor, and I think his influence on the Surrealists is quite obvious. It’s pretty amazing to think that he was working in the 16th century and doing these “portraits” of royalty that were at once whimsical, yet deeply-studied and deconstructed still-life paintings.

Visit family. Enjoy art. Drink wine.

Nigella Does Bite (In A Good Way)

No, I’m not talking about the beautiful and zaftig English chef. . .I’m talking about a tiny black seed that is alternately called charnuska, black caraway, nigella, fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander. Have you ever had an “Everything” bagel and tasted something amidst those crazy seeds and salt that you just couldn’t place? It was probably nigella sativa, a delicious spice which dates back to the Egyptians and is important to both Indian and Eastern European cooking. I had read about it and then actually came across it for sale at Penzeys Spices when I was there to buy celery seed.

When you open the jar and inhale the aroma, it’s peppery, woodsy and somewhat musty. When cooked, the seeds extrude a mild bitterness that has a “green-nutty” quality, kind of like black walnuts. As a lover of all bitter foods, I’ve become addicted. Since it is used extensively in Eastern European cuisine, I decided to try it in my sauerkraut, which is a recipe learned from my mother and father via my paternal grandmother. This is a sauerkraut that has turned many a hater into a lover. It involves caramelized onions, rinsing, long-cooking, and bay leaves. I’ve had people who will swear up and down that they hate sauerkraut be converted by this dish. Traditionally, we made it vegan, but you can add kielbasa or other sausages or potatoes.*

This is a recipe that serves 2 people as a generous side (sans meat or potatoes), but can easily be multiplied. Getting good-quality sauerkraut in the bag or in jars is better than canned, but these options are sometimes hard to find and/or expensive, so I’ve used Safeway store-brand canned in this version.

Ingredients:

1 14.5 oz can of sauerkraut, drained
1/2 of a large yellow onion, sliced rather thinly
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 T olive or canola oil
1/2 C dry white wine
1 large bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds
freshly-ground black pepper

Procedure:

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan. Add sliced onions and cook over medium heat until onions are browned and nearly translucent. Add garlic and nigella seeds and fry until garlic is golden and seeds begin to pop. Meanwhile, drain the sauerkraut in a colander and rinse lightly under cold tap water. Add to pan, along with bay leaf, wine and black pepper. Stir to incorporate onion mixture. The sauerkraut should already begin to look somewhat brown from the caramelization on the onions. Continue to cook, covered on low heat, adding a little water as needed if it gets too dry for 35 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and continue to cook uncovered, raising the heat in order to remove excess liquid–the finished product should not be swimming in liquid. This recipe is best if cooked a bit ahead and allowed to rest in a warm oven for an hour or so to let the flavors develop.

*If you do decide to add kielbasa or other sausage, cut into 2-inch chunks, brown them separately and add for entire cooking time. I would use 1 sausage per person, or about 8 oz of kielbasa for the amount above. For potatoes (as pictured), cut into medium chunks and add raw for the entire cooking time. I would use one large Russett for this recipe.

All Hail the Queen

Snow QueenI finally understand vodka. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been drinking vodka for longer than I care to remember, but mostly with mixers or as the base for a cocktail. I adore Bloody Marys, still contend that a properly-made Cosmopolitan is one the best cocktails ever created, and will staunchly defend the refreshing purity of a Greyhound made with fresh-squeezed Ruby Red grapefruit juice. However, I could never understand how Russians (and people from many other ethnic groups that share that part of the globe) could drink vodka with a meal, much like wine. Growing up when I did, there weren’t many imported vodkas on the market aside from Smirnoff and Stoli. Then came Absolut, Wyborowa, etc. The 90s heralded the arrival of the flavored/infused vodkas, leading to the creation of the famous Farrelly Champagne Cocktail (champagne with a shot of Raspberi Stoli), invented and served at The Front Porch in South Beach, and named for a dear friend. The flavor-infused vodkas were a favorite of mine and my highball of choice was often Absolut Kurant or Stoli Peach topped off with club soda. The fascination with this genre hit its peak at the 2006 Oscar Party when we served a Brokeback Mountain tribute cocktail called the “I Can’t Effen Quit You” made with Effen Black Cherry Vodka, a splash of champagne, and some other ingredients I can’t quite remember. But what about drinking plain vodka? I love all the foods that call out for it: smoked fish, caviar, borscht, potato pancakes, pierogi, and other Russian/Eastern European savories. I could never “get it”, though I continued to taste many, many, many (too many) vodkas over the years.

My “Great Vodka Epiphany” occurred at Red Square, a restaurant located at The Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In the opulent bar and lounge which is dominated by all things red, I ordered my first-ever vodka tasting flight. It consisted of five different brands, three of which were not worth remembering. One of the remaining ones, a Ukrainian brand, made me sit up and take notice. However, the last one nearly made me fall off my chair (and I wasn’t even really tipsy yet.) It was from (wait for it): Kazakhstan! All hail the Queen–Snow Queen, that is. Made from organic wheat and artesian spring water from which all traces of calcium and magnesium are removed, the water also reportedly undergoes some sort of reverse osmosis procedure, which is followed by extensive sand-filtering. The vodka is then distilled five times, resulting in a spirit that is as smooth as a well-worn silk chemise. It’s as sweet as young love and somewhat oily on the palate, like running your hand over a good mink coat.

Problem is, I’m having loads of trouble actually buying it. An update will follow once I can do another taste-test. In the meantime, if you come across some good caviar or smoked sturgeon and can get your hands on the Queen, by all means take a chance on her and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Judging a Wine By Its Label

I love wine. When people ask me what kind of wine I like, I say, “whatever tastes good.” Sometimes that means paying $18 for a glass of Gustavo Thrace Rutherford Cabernet at The Palo Alto Wine Room, sometimes it’s all about the $3.75 happy hour Copper Ridge Chardonnay at The Essex Hotel Lounge in South Beach. It means splurging on a $65 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon one day, and most others stocking up on the $4.99 Rhone Blends from Trader Joe’s.

Trying new wines and searching for bargains is a constant for me. I heavily rely on the newsletter of K&L Wine Merchants, a really great source for finding great deals and rare wines. However, one of the ways I’ve found some really yummy wines is by simply buying a bottle if I’m attracted to the label. Good design is important in all areas of life and should be rewarded. I have to say, unless I’m trying it for free, I will never “cold-buy” a wine with a badly-designed label. On the other hand, if the price is right ($10 or under), I will gladly take a chance on any varietal with an aesthetically appealing one. My criteria include everything from nicely-kerned fonts to interesting artwork to clever images or wordplay. What’s crazy is how often these bottles turn out to be some pretty good to really great wines. My latest discovery is the black/white labeled bottle above, a Paso Robles Cabernet Franc called “Lazy Bones”. The artwork is nice and there’s a bit of a wink delivered via visual double entendre. This is also an example of just how much I can be swayed by a label: I generally do not even like most California Cabernet Franc and steer away from any blends that contain it. Taking a chance on this one turned out to be a winner–at $6.99/bottle at Trader Joe’s, it’s a medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine. Tasting notes as listed on the bottle (ripe cherries, spiced blackberries, sweet wood, fresh herbs) are pretty true-to-form. Try it if you can get it, but more importantly, take a chance on a wine if you really like the label. I’ve found that when the wine-maker cares enough about the label going on the bottle, they tend to care about what goes into that bottle. Cheers!

Soup and Remembrance

Although my parents chose not to baptize me, nor raise me in any sort of organized religious tradition, my grandparents were either Catholic or, in the case of my paternal grandmother (Baba Tita), Russian Orthodox. This past Thursday (January 6th) was Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve, a time when observant people break their fast with a dinner of vegan dishes containing no animal products. During most of my childhood, we ate our version of these dishes on December 24th. The stars of the Christmas Eve table were mushroom soup and sauerkraut with potato dumplings. In the early years, everyone came to our house for Christmas Eve, and my mother made the mushroom soup, while Baba Tita brought the sauerkraut. In later years, after my parents separated, either my grandmother or my Dad would make the soup. There was never a written recipe, per se, but there are the basic ingredients of dried mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, onions, carrots, and noodles.

For the noodles, my Dad liked long, thick pasta like fettucine, which inevitably leads to soup flying everywhere as you try to eat it. This year, I kept it real and used fettucine, but broke them in half. (P.S., you still need to wear your napkin as a bib.) Obviously, you can use any pasta you like, but it should be a “hearty” cut. You could also use barley or wild rice or potatoes.

In terms of the mushrooms, there are Eastern European dried mushrooms that I used to be able get in the Kosher section of the supermarket. For this recipe, I used the last of some dried porcinis that I brought back from Italy. (I announced to my husband: “Hey, I just used the last of the porcinis. Guess we have to make a trip to Italy!”) For the fresh mushrooms, I like using portobellos because they hold up well to extended simmering. They were never available years ago, so I imagine my family used button or maybe crimini.

I hadn’t made this soup in years and the last time I ate it in 2007 was also the last Christmas I spent with my Dad. When I finally tasted my finished soup last Thursday, the memories of so many holidays came rushing in. I could picture sitting at my parents’ dining table covered in the green and red plaid tablecloth my mother had made, eating from her gray and silver wedding china. Maybe the soup wasn’t exactly the same, but the mixture of the earthy mushrooms, sweet onions and carrots, and fragrant bay leaf absolutely transported me. And really, isn’t that what food and eating should be about? Remembrance, love, tradition, and family. . .all evoked by one spoonful of a simple vegan soup.

Ingredients:

2 c portobello mushrooms, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 c dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 one large yellow onion, diced
1 c sliced carrots (about 1/8″ thick)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 T olive oil
4 c vegetable broth
2 T dry sherry
2 bay leaves
1.5 T flour
3 oz dry fettucine (broken in half or smaller)
soy sauce

Procedure:

Soak dried mushrooms in enough water to cover (about 1.5 cups.) Meanwhile, heat 1T olive in a 4-quart dutch oven. Add portobellos and sauté until golden brown and beginning to extrude. Set aside. Heat 1T olive oil in the same pan and add onions; sauté until translucent and add garlic; sauté until golden. Remove dried mushrooms from water, squeeze, and chop into bite-sized pieces (if needed) reserving water. Add all mushrooms to pot, along with reserved mushroom water, being careful to strain off any dirt that may remain in the bottom. Add vegetable broth, bay leaves, sherry. Season to taste with soy sauce and black pepper. Simmer for approximately 45 minutes.

In a separate pan, heat remaining 1T olive oil, add 1.5T flour and continually stir over low heat for about 10 minutes to make a roux. The flour should begin to take on a nutty smell and be light golden brown. Add this roux to the soup by first adding hot soup broth to the roux to thin it–this will avoid any chance of lumps forming. The soup should be slightly thickened.

Cook fettucine to al denté, add to soup and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add juice of 1/2 lemon. Additional garnishes could include a drizzle of truffle oil and fresh minced parsley.

Makes about 4 large-ish servings and can be doubled/tripled.