Dinner Gang 13

New World Food, Old World Wine

It was Kathryn and David’s turn to host this installment of Dinner Gang, and they came up with what I think has been the most clever theme to date:  New World food paired with Old World wine.  Generally, I like to pair food with wines from the same place the food comes from, so we knew going in that this would be a great challenge and force us all into some unconventional thinking.  Everyone stepped up like I knew they would.

COURSE 1:  Tuna Stackers

Tuna Stackers, Round One

Tuna Stackers, Round One

Nothing is more New World than fusion cuisine.  Jim and Neal assembled a great starter by combining seared yellowfin tuna and homemade Asian slaw and putting it between two salted, lightly sugared crispy wontons dusted with black sesame seed.  They finished the plate with sriracha sauce for a spectacular zing.  Despite generous portions of tuna, they were quite light.  I had three of them without threatening my appetite for the rest of the meal.

They paired it with two wines.  The first was 2008 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett.  Crisp and clean with good acidity and tropical notes, it was the more elegant of the two wines, and one I could see drinking just on its own.  The second was 2008 Eugen Wehrheim Niersteiner Ölberg Riesling Kabinett.  This was a great pairing.  More residual sweetness than the first and a slight effervescence, it created a perfect contrast with both the distinctness of the sesame flavors and the heat of the sriracha.  A fantastic start.

COURSE 2:  Maryland Crab Soup

Crab meat, corn, and water turned this into soup

Crab meat, corn, and water turned this into soup

Gretchyn and I grew up in Baltimore, and the food of the Chesapeake Bay still resonates with us.  When we first mulled over the theme, we thought about lobster or turkey, but nothing really spoke to us as all that interesting.  When she suggested crab soup, I knew we had a winner.

When it came to the pairing, I gave it some deep thought.  We knew going in that Kathryn and David were pouring a sparkling rosé with their dish, so I didn’t want to dip into that well.  The trouble with the pairing is that most of the Old World wines are far more restrained than their New World cousins and the crab soup would trample on restraint due to the Old Bay seasoning.  I could have easily paired a Russian River Valley Pinot or Australian Shiraz with it, but those are both New World.  I considered a nice, rustic French Syrah or maybe even Bandol.  Then going back to the idea of pairing the wine with the region the food comes from, I wondered what Old World food crab soup was most like.  Cioppino and bouillabaisse came to mind, but the heat of the dish drove me to Spain.  Cava Rosado might have done the trick, but I wanted to stay away from duplicating what was coming in the next course.  I wanted big and bold, so I went with 2004 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial.  It had the great body and structure that I expected.  The dark, heady fruit and tobacco notes went surprisingly well with the soup.  The pairing was way outside the box, but worked.

Crab soup is not a difficult dish to make, but you have to allow time to let the flavors settle in (not to mention making the house smell great all day).  This is Gretchyn’s own recipe.  Some folks will put in cabbage, lima beans, or even peas.  We like both the flavor and texture of green beans instead.


1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

3 tablespoons Old Bay

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups of water

28 ounces can diced tomatoes

3 carrots, sliced

1/2 pound fresh green beans

1 medium-large russet potato peeled and diced

1 medium onion, minced

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup frozen corn

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Pinch red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

1/2 pound lump crabmeat

1/2  pound claw crab meat

She simply prepped all the vegetables and mixed them together with the liquid in the medium-sized Le Crueset Dutch Oven.  She simmered on medium-low heat for about 3 hours, getting the vegetables to cook but still have texture to them.  We tasted it along the way to make sure the spice profile was what we wanted (which is where the third tablespoon of Old Bay came in).  Then, an hour before we left the house, she added the crab meat.  When we got to Kathryn & David’s, we put it on the stove on low as we had the first course.

Instead of a second bottle of wine to go with the soup, we offered a palate cleanser.  Knowing that our dish was spicy and the wine was bold, we wanted to create a clean slate for the main course.  We brought along a bottle of Calvados, and when we arrived, we got six cordial glasses of their shelf, poured about an ounce-and-a-half shot into each, then put them in the fridge.  They were just the right temperature—chilled without being icy—by the time we were clearing away the soup bowls.

MAIN COURSE:  Shrimp and Grits with Bacon Crumbles

Spicy shrimp and grits, dusted with bacon bits

Spicy shrimp and grits, dusted with bacon bits

Kathryn & David confessed that they came up with the theme so that they could make this, one of their favorite dishes.  David has worked on the recipe for many years to get it where they like it.  He did his mise en place just after we arrived, telling us that everything would cook rather quickly.  It did, as he started working just after the Calvados and was plating the dish in about 20 minutes.  The bacon made a nice contrast with the shrimp, but thing that tipped this dish over the top for me was the inclusion of jalapeno.  It provided exciting, expressive flavor and the right amount of heat, contrasting with the creamy goodness of the grits.

They paired it with 2008 Louis Roederer Champagne Rosé Brut.  Slightly more yeasty than I expected from a rosé, making it quite pleasant on its own, its great minerality—with a kind of sea salt flavor it to—made a fine companion to the shrimp, while the bright red sweetness set off the spicy dish extremely well.  This is another dish that I would have just snap-called a pairing of Russian River Valley Pinot, and I’m quite happy that that wasn’t a choice.  Outstanding pairing, and evidence that you don’t need to save sparklers for special occasions.  A meal with your friends is special enough.

DESSERT:  Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Blackberry Compote

A perfect ending

A perfect ending

Flipping over the theme for dessert, Kathryn & David put together a brilliant Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta (I think in Italian it means “freaking delicious custard”) and paired it with 2011 Familia Zuccardi Torrontés Santa Julia Tardío from Argentina.

After all the super-charged spice and heat of the three previous courses, I couldn’t have asked for a better dessert choice to cool the fire.  I’m normally ambivalent about lemon, but this was just right—rich without being too tart.  It was the exclamation point on a well-crafted sentence.

I found it interesting with this iteration of Dinner Gang that all of us chose the common themes of seafood and heat—but we ended up with three distinctly different dishes.  It’s a testament to what kind of communication the six of us have developed about these dinners.  They just keep getting better and better.

As we wrapped up we let everyone know that we’d already picked a theme for next time, since it’ll be our turn to host.  Our next meeting happens to fall on “Hug an Australian Day,” so the theme suggested itself.  Everyone will pick an Australian wine and make a course (Australian or otherwise) to go with it—although I’ve already promised that under no circumstances will there be shrimp on the barbie.

The evening's wines.  Not pictured:  a bottle of Calvados and a second bottle of Champagne.

The evening’s wines. Not pictured: a bottle of Calvados and a second bottle of Champagne.

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Dinner Gang 11

Around the World with Sauvignon Blanc

aka “Beurre in the Brrrrrrrrrr”

Sauvignon Blanc (and some friends) from Around the World

Sauvignon Blanc (and some friends) from Around the World

One of the reasons we live in Florida is so we can eat outside in the winter.  Unfortunately, the arctic vortex affected even us, and as temperatures plunged to a bone-rattling 50 degrees, we moved Dinner Gang 11 indoors.  The good news is that the chilly outside temperatures let us use the shelf outside the kitchen window to keep things cool.

For a while, we’ve wanted to do a white wine themed Dinner Gang.  The obvious choice was Chardonnay, and we like to stay away from the obvious.  We picked Sauvignon Blanc, because like two of the wines we’ve previously had (Pinot Noir and Syrah), there are at least three different expressions of the grape in at least three different regions of the world.  We passed assignments out to fellow Dinner Gangers Jim & Neal and Kathryn & David, and here’s what we came up with.

FIRST COURSE:  Creamy Crab Dip

Crab Dip, Creamy and Rich

Crab Dip, Creamy and Rich

I suggested “southern hemisphere” to David & Kathryn knowing that (since they hosted last time), they’d have the first course this time.  I think southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc is more green and citrusy, so it makes a better leadoff hitter.  The bright acidity tends to really get the mouth watering.  I figured they’d explore either New Zealand or South Africa, but they surprised us with one of their choices.

We generally have our first course standing around the bar or kitchen of the host’s home, and the dip was the perfect kind of dish to gather around.  I’m usually pretty skeptical about crab and cheese together, but Kathryn & David allayed those fears with a rich, round, and nicely piquant version of their own design.  It disappeared pretty quickly as we chatted about everything and worked through the two different wines they brought.

The first was 2011 Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  It was exactly what I had expected—lemon grass and grapefruit on the noise, mouth-watering crispness on the palate.  It was the right place to start.  The surprise was 2011 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley.  There was some grassiness to the nose, but the aromas were more like apples or stone fruit.  At a blind tasting, I would have misidentified it as a Chenin Blanc.  The palate had far more roundness than any Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had, which made it an outstanding pairing with the crab dip.

The first course down, food and wine winners all around, we moved to the table for course number two.

SECOND COURSE:  Creamy Mushroom and Vegetable Soup

Perfect Soup

Perfect Soup

With France as their guideline for the wine, Jim & Neal decided to let the “wintry” conditions be their guide, bringing something to fight off the chill of the night.  I raised an eyebrow at the choice of a cream-based soup to go with Sauvignon Blanc, and once again our friends showed us that they know exactly what they’re doing.

Most of the time, the vegetables in cream-based soups get cooked to within an inch of their life.  Jim & Neal left them with a perfect amount of toothiness to be cooked but still have great texture.  I’m not the biggest fan of soups, but this was wonderful, with rich herbal flavors balancing out the cream and earthiness.  They brought a whole tureen of it, which meant they could leave us some extra to have during the week.

I had assumed that they would head to Sancerre for the wine and they kind of did, after a fashion, with 2012 Domaine de Chevilly Quincy, from the Loire Valley, where the appellation of Sancerre sits.  The expressive minerality of the wine matched it up extremely well with the herbs in the soup.  The flint on the nose contrasted deftly with the citrus on the palate—still acidic, but not nearly so much as to clash with the soup’s cream.  Another nice pairing.

Congratulating ourselves on being two-for-two, we rested for most of an hour, finishing both bottles of Quincy, before moving on to the main.

MAIN COURSE:  Broiled Scallops in Red Navel Orange Beurre Blanc with Broccolini and Medallion Potatoes

Scallops, Broccolini, & Medallion Potatoes

Scallops, Broccolini, & Medallion Potatoes

Going in, we knew we were making the navel orange beurre blanc after Gretchyn had found a guy selling the oranges on the side of the road.  Twice the size of a blood orange and darker inside, the juice is sweet and powerfully intense.  We decided to see what looked best at the seafood counter before deciding what to put under the sauce, narrowing it down to corvina, halibut, or scallops.  They didn’t have corvina, and the 12-15 count scallops looked and smelled great.  We had our winner.

We decided on a whim to broil the scallops.  We love searing them, but it can be quite tricky to get the consistency right.  No one wants jelly scallops, regardless of how deliciously crispy the tops and bottoms are.   We were delighted at how they turned out.  Tossed in some extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and few tablespoons of the red navel juice, they cooked to the right consistency—firm but not rubbery—in about 11 minutes under the broiler.  What made the dish, however, was the beurre blanc.


Juice from 2 large red navel oranges

Juice from 1 medium blood orange

Juice from 1 small lime

3/4 pound of butter, cut into 1 tablespoon squares

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Roughly 1 cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper to taste

This one was all Gretchyn’s doing.  I merely served as taster along the way.  Juicing the oranges yielded right about a cup of juice.  To that she added enough wine to make two cups of liquid.  In this case, we used the very tasty and very affordable Graham Beck’s Chenin Blanc since we had opened a bottle the night before and not finished it, but any white wine with good, crisp acidity will do.  On a low heat, she reduced that until it was about three tablespoons of liquid.  Ticking up the heat to medium-low, she added the cream and then the butter, one square at a time, until they were all melted in.  When the broccolini (steamed just under 11 minutes) and the medallion potatoes (roasted in olive oil, salt, and pepper for half an hour) came out, we plated it all and then drizzled the beurre blanc over everything, lightly on the vegetables and potatoes, slightly heavier on the scallops.  It was spectacular, and now we’re dreaming up a hundred other excuses to make the sauce.

Our wine assignment was California, so we chose 2012 Buoncristiani Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley on the recommendation of our friend Giovanni at the wine shop.  I told him that I wanted a big, Robert Foley-like choice, and he didn’t disappoint.  Interestingly enough, if I was drinking the Buoncristini just as a “cocktail” wine, I might have not been as pleased.  The understated fruit character, acidity, and minerality were all in great balance, making it a fine pairing for the meal.  As a wine for poolside, it just wouldn’t have had enough punch.

DESSERT:  Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

Another idea from the fertile mind of my lovely rocket scientist, she took the basis of one of her most popular creations, and orange cream roulade (featured previously on these pages), and turned it into a parfait, garnishing it with some fresh strawberries.  The picture does all the work.

Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

To go with it, we poured 2007 Inniskillin Ice Wine, a gift from my Monday Night Gamers.  It was a sweet, sweet exclamation point on a sweet, sweet evening with four remarkable friends.  Five and a half hours in, we closed the books on Dinner Gang 11 and laid immediate plans for number 12.

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Dinner Gang 9

ScallopsSettingI’m obviously behind the curve.  I’m sitting here writing up the details of Dinner Gang 9 with our dish for Dinner Gang 10 on the stove.  I guess we’ll get to that later.

Preparations for this episode began a few weeks before when we heard that friends Nate and Mary, who had moved away more than a year ago, would be visiting.  Since they were part of our old crowd, it seemed natural to invite them along.  Knowing that they were traveling, we didn’t want them to have to cook, but Nate (who happens to be a world-class bartender) said they’d bring a special cocktail.

Since it was October, hosts Jim and Neal chose the theme “Fall Flavors.”  We knew exactly what we wanted to make.  We put Ina Garten’s bleu cheese and walnut crackers alongside a variation on a gorgonzola-stuff endive dish that we’ve had great success with.  We wanted to capture the depth of fall flavors with sautéed pears, adding the crunch and smokiness of toasted pecans—and ended up finding a recipe on Food Network.  Figuring that gorgonzola (or Stilton as this one called for) might be too over the top, we used Danish bleu instead.

Bleu Cheese and Sautéed Pear-Stuffed Endive with Toasted Pecans

One-handed appetizer = free hand for wine glass

One-handed appetizer = free hand for wine glass

Our biggest debate wasn’t over what to make, but what to pair with it.  Our first idea was a sparkler, but we discarded that because we didn’t want to simply default to Champagne for a first course pairing.  We ended up stuck between the residual sweetness of Riesling and a nice, brambly Zinfandel, so we did what any reasonable people would:  we brought both (2011 Ch. Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen Riesling “Eroica” and 2011 Bedrock Old Vine Zinfandel.   The crowd was divided 4-4 on which was the better pairing, although we all agreed that they were both good in different ways.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised any more when the endive goes.  The bitterness is something that I think will turn people off, but they scarf it all up.  We made more than I expected than we’d eat.  I was wrong.  Somehow both bottles of wine disappeared, too.

Pan-Seared Scallops on Celery Root and Potato Puree

The dish so nice you had to see it twice.

The dish so nice you had to see it twice.

David and Kathryn found a slice of heaven in the simplicity of this dish.  I absolutely cannot describe its perfection.  The celery root and potato puree was a cloud that would have floated away without the scallops to hold it down.  David seared the scallops to exactly the right temperature and consistency, no easy feat considering that you want the right crispiness on the outside and just enough doneness inside (and no one wants a gelatinous scallop).  The crusting was so good that I wandered what they seasoned with.  The answer was simply salt, pepper, and olive oil.

Their wine pairing also struck the right chord.  2012 Loveblock Vintners Sauvignon Blanc was just crisp enough and had the right hint of citrus to compliment the dish without dominating it.  A virtuoso performance all around.

Prosciutto-Baked Halibut with Butter Sauce and Fall Vegetables

Spectacular presentation of a spectacular dish

Spectacular presentation of a spectacular dish

The scallops were a tough act to follow.  Jim and Neal rose to the challenge.  The smoky saltiness of the prosciutto melted right into the slightly browned butter sauce, providing a dark contrast to the light flavor and firm tenderness of the fish.  Parsnips, carrots, and potatoes wrapped the whole thing up in a neat fall-inspired package.

A rich, buttery Chardonnay would have been the obvious pairing, and I was happy that they avoided it (although I wouldn’t have said no to some crazy good White Burgundy).  Even my current Pinot Noir heater aside, 2009 Maison Champy Savigny-lès-Beaune Aux Fourches put a bow on this present.  Burgundian Pinot has an austerity to it that was just right for the dish.  Too much fruit, like in the Californian instantiation, would have knocked the whole thing off balance.  An inspired pairing.

Steamed Pumpkin Pudding with Tennessee Rum Hard Sauce and Pumpkin-Seed Brittle

PumpkinPuddingI’m not sure what kind of rum they make in Tennessee, but I sure liked it.  I’m not much on desserts in general because I think they tend to be too heavy, but this was airy while still being rich, slightly sweet, and powerfully savory.  Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Port added a toffee-and-caramel exclamation point.  Of all the amazing dishes in the meal, this one best captured the theme with its warm and heady fall spice aroma and flavor.

Classic Pimm’s No. 1 Cup

Pimm's Cup

Fall Classic

Nate chose the Pimm’s Cup as the finisher because it’s a great digestive.  Low in alcohol and high in flavor, it was a refreshing departure from something heavier, like Cognac.  Based on gin and thoroughly spiced, Pimm’s is reminiscent of the English countryside–where it’s always autumn.

Pro tip from a pro mixologist:  when a recipe calls for a lemon-lime soda, use 7-Up and nothing else (not even 7-Up knockoffs).  Its lower sugar and higher carbonation make for a better drink.  You heard it here first.

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Dinner Gang 8

The Calm Before the Storm

The Calm Before the Storm

Dinner Gang time rolled back around and it was our time to host.  We’ve decided that for our turns, we’re most likely going to focus on particular styles of wine, whether it’s a varietal or region, in order to lay out the theme of the meal.  The last time we hosted, we did Syrah, demonstrating three different ways it can be instantiated.  Following those same lines, we chose Pinot Noir, which comes across very differently depending on where it’s grown and made.

We asked the others to decide between them who would bring California and Oregon examples, and we took on Burgundy.

Kicking things off, Jim and Neal brought a bottle of N.V. Moutard Pere et Fils Champagne Rose de Cuvaison to pop first, celebrating their 34th anniversary.  It’s from 100% Pinot Noir, so it even fit in with the theme.  It was delicious, bright, rosy, and creamy.  It was a nice treat.

Appetizer:  Bruschetta Two Ways

Bruschetta Two Ways

Bruschetta Two Ways

Kathryn and David brought the pieces for and then assembled a great bruschetta plate.  The first had goat cheese with macerated fig in a reduction of balsamico di Modena, which brought out the raspberry flavors in the wine.  The other included mushrooms sautéed in garlic topped with parmigiano reggiano, which went quite nicely with the spice elements in the wine.  The wine started right away with a beautiful spiced nose and followed it up with bright red fruits and good length.  This was an excellent start.

Wine:  2011 Loring Wine Company Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard

First Course:  Roasted Duck and Citrus Salad

Roasted Duck, Endive, Field Green, and Fruit Salad with Pecans

Roasted Duck, Endive, Field Green, and Fruit Salad with Pecans

Neal and Jim put together a perfectly-dressed endive and field green salad with pecans, orange wedges and raspberries, topping it all off with duck that they had roasted themselves.  They had hoped to find smoked duck breast, which might have made an even nicer contrast, but couldn’t find any locally.  The salad had multiple flavor elements:  bitter from the endive, sweet from the fruit, earthy from the greens.  I’m always skeptical about pairing wine with anything vinegar-based, but their deft touch with the dressing meant no worries.  The wine shone with the duck especially, fruit forward with a nice cranberry note to it.  It was light bodied, which was the right choice for the salad course.  Check out the Maysara web page for their thoughts on biodynamic agriculture.

Wine:  2008 Maysara Winery Pinot Noir Jamsheed

Main Course: Coq au Vin

Purple Chicken is Weird but Delicious

Purple Chicken is Weird but Delicious

To me, Burgundy is about the countryside and small winemakers as opposed to the massive houses of Bordeaux.  We wanted to capture that rustic feel, so we went with a classic rustic dish.   We started with Ina Garten’s recipe, then modified to suit our needs.  First off, we determined that everyone exception Gretchyn prefers dark meat chicken.  Instead of getting whole chickens cut up, we simply got a package of thighs and two split breasts.  We didn’t use any bacon in the first sauté, so I added enough olive oil to the pot to approximate the amount of grease we would have gotten off the bacon.  For additional flavor, I heavily salted and peppered the meat.  The other difference was using half cippolini and half shallots instead of pearl onions, putting them in right before the pot went into the oven instead of waiting until the last ten minutes, as the recipe instructs.  The comparative size of the cippolini and shallots meant that they’d need to cook quite a bit longer, and I wanted their flavors to infuse into the sauce.  Even though we took the Burgundy assignment, I used a California Pinot to cook with because I thought that it brought a livelier fruit character and sweetness to the dish.

For sides, we simply roasted some small Yukon Gold potatoes and some fresh green beans, both with just a touch of olive oil and sprinkles of salt and pepper.  We roasted the potatoes until the outsides nice and crispy to contrast with the tenderness of the meat.  We had never roasted green beans before, and were extremely happy with the way they turned out.  We mixed in some toasted almonds right before serving.  The roasted and toasted flavors they gave off hit exactly the countryside note we were looking for.  We were extremely happy with the way the dish turned out.

Unfortunately, there was a problem with the first wine we opened.  Being a 1995, I didn’t want to open it until right before serving it.  I knew that it wouldn’t take long to go downhill.  When I pulled the foil off the bottle, I immediately saw mold on the cork.  This isn’t a death sentence, but it’s an indication.  As I started pulling out the cork, I saw that there was seepage that had come all the way to the top.  Again, in older wines not necessarily the hangman’s noose.  Pouring it, the nose was fine.  It demonstrated that Burgundian funkiness that I wanted to highlight.  There was no wet cardboard or moldy smell to it.  The first sip was pretty much what we had expected—a fading expression of the terroir, coupled with an austerity that demonstrated the Pinot arc of style from California to Burgundy via Oregon.  After the first sips, things went bad fast.  We agreed that opening something else would be better, and it was.  The younger Vosne-Romanée put us right where we wanted to be.  The wine expressed the soil that it was grown in, topping it off with a rich fruit profile.  Nice pairing.

Wine (for cooking):  2011 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Meiomi

Wine (that didn’t make it):  1995 Domaine Rene Leclerc Griotte-Chambertin

Wine (that did):  2005 David Duband Vosne-Romanée

DESSERT:  Pecan Caramel Tart with Bourbon Whipped Cream

Pecan Caramel Tart with Bourbon Whipped Cream

Pecan Caramel Tart with Bourbon Whipped Cream

We knew what wine we wanted to serve with dessert, an Argyle sparkler that’s 59% Pinot Noir.  We picked up two bottles and last week tasted the first alongside some classic dessert elements—chocolate, raspberries, and caramel.  We agreed that caramel seemed the best, so we set out to find the right kind of recipe—one that wasn’t super-sweet, like pecan pie, but rich and with a residual sweetness.  We found one on the Southern Living page and ran with it.

The Bourbon Whipped Cream was just normal whipped cream—a pint of heavy cream and tablespoon and a half of powdered sugar—with a tablespoon and a half of bourbon added.  We used the good stuff—Pappy Van Winkle 12 year old—because I thought it had a little more candied flavor to it, which we agreed would set off the pecans.  It absolutely did.  Gretchyn put together individual tarts for everyone instead of a bigger one that would have to be cut.  The crust was perfect, the sweetness ratio dead on.  I couldn’t finish it due to the richness, but I loved every bite that I had.

Wine:  2009 Argyle Brut

Once again, six hours had passed like it was six minutes, always the way it happens with great friends.  There are some people you just can’t get enough of.  We laid our plans for Dinner Gang 9 and said good-night, knowing that we had put another outstanding evening into the books.

As Always, We Finish with a Shot of the Lineup

As Always, We Finish with a Shot of the Lineup

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Sandwich Basics

Thanks to the Earl and his chess obsession.

First of all, let’s agree we’re not just talking about slapping some ham and cheese on bread for a quick lunch.  While that’s certainly useful for getting yourself fed, we’re going to talk about something that takes a little more thought and preparation, for when you want something a little nicer.

There are four basic elements to a good sandwich, although there can be more:  bread, protein, moisture, and contrast.

Bread:  Bread includes traditional sliced (or sliceable) breads, pitas, wraps, rolls, and buns.  Choosing the right bread for your sandwich gets you off to a solid start.  You want to pick one that does something important for your sandwich.  That might only be serving as a platform for the rest of it, or it might involve adding a complimentary or contrasting layer.  A bread’s weight if often overlooked.  There are some sandwiches that want a hefty bread, like pumpernickel, there are some that want a very light platform like a croissant.

Protein:  I was going to call this meat, but you can certainly make sandwiches with just cheese.  Protein is generally the feature element of your sandwich, whether it’s traditional deli meat, a slab of leftover steak, a thick cut of mozzarella, or some nice barbecue.  Protein is what you want to play your other elements off of, making it the wheel around which everything else revolves.  Obviously protein can include both meat AND cheese, but I find that it’s nice to use cheese for a contrast as well.

Moisture:  I find that all sandwiches that I make need a moisture element.  This includes mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and anything you might spread onto the bread.  The moisture element serves both the function of helping your sandwich stay together and adding a flavor layer.  It can be a complimentary element or your contrasting one—although I think that even if you’re using it as a contrast, it helps to add additional contrast.

Contrast:  This can take one or two forms.  It can be flavor contrast, textural contrast, or both.  Tomato, for example, provides both if you put it on your ham and cheese.  If I’m using the moisture element for flavor contrast, I definitely want to add texture here.

So let’s put all this together into a sandwich which we recently made.  We made pulled chicken barbecue and some bleu cheese coleslaw expressly for the purpose of making these sandwiches.  We chose some nice onion rolls as our bread, adding thinly-sliced onion and a little smear of habañero jelly for contrast.

Bread:  Onion Roll

Protein:  Chicken BBQ

Moisture:  BBQ sauce and coleslaw dressing

Contrast:  Red onion, bleu cheese, habañero jelly, slaw

You can see that our some of our elements cross the lines.  The BBQ sauce mixed in with the chicken and the slaw dressing mean that we don’t need a moisture element on its own.  The slaw is great with this sandwich because it creates both a flavor and textural contrast, especially the crisp bite of the cabbage contrasting with the tender meat.  I hadn’t planned on it, but there was a little leftover arugula in the fridge, so at the last minute I put some on the top.  The peppery flavor went very nicely with the BBQ.  It didn’t provide addition crunch, since it’s softer than the slaw.  Still, I’m happy I added it.  The heat and sweet of the jelly did exactly what I wanted it to–it even left me wishing I had added a little more.

BBQ Chicken and Blue Cheese Coleslaw Sandwich

BBQ Chicken and Blue Cheese Coleslaw Sandwich

Building a great sandwich is relatively easy.  Just start with the basics blueprint in mind and let your imagination run free!

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Dinner Gang 7

Bellavitano and hearty bread made a warm welcome

Bellavitano and hearty bread made a warm welcome

Our monthly meet-ups with friends Kathryn & David and Neal & Jim have become one of the evenings we look forward to the most.  Great food, great friends, and great wines equal a great time, and this month, the seventh installment, was no different.

We’ve settled on a regular SOP:  the host couple chooses the theme and makes the main course and dessert; the other two couples are either assigned specific courses (like we did with the Three Faces of Syrah evening) or work out between them who’s bringing the appetizer and who the salad or soup course.  We each pair a wine or wines with dishes we cook.

When David emailed us the “Enchantment Under the Sea” theme, two things sprung to mind.  A Michael J. Fox costume (which didn’t materialize) and a shrimp pasta dish that we had made for Day of Thrones 3.  The only real change we made to the dish was substituting in leeks for the asparagus.  We changed the proportions since we weren’t feeding hungry gamers, we were providing the second course of a large meal, settling on roughly two-thirds of what we had previously serving.  Here are the proportions; you can check out the Day of Thrones link to get the process.  Note that we added a little mayo to the mix to add some texture.  In the end, I might have added even a little more.


1 lb ditalini

3 medium leeks, sliced thin

2 medium fennel bulbs, diced

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tsp celery seed

Salt and pepper to taste

1.25 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tbl Old Bay

1 tbl mayo

Kathryn & David had laid out a nice cheese for when we arrived, Bellavitano, a balsamic-crusted hard cheese much like parmigniano reggiano (say it with me:  “The undisputed King of All Cheeses”).  They paired with it dark, heavy-grain and fruit bread, thinly sliced.  It was nice to snack on while I was opening wine bottles.

FIRST COURSE:  The Spreads

Salmon and trout spreads, seafood terrine, and J Schram

Salmon and trout spreads, seafood terrine, and J Schram

Neal & Jim put together a marvelous first course of two spreads and a terrine.  The terrine was made up of scallops and cod, firm in texture, deep in flavor, with a whisper of piquant on the finish.  They topped it with creamy dill mayo, adding a green roundness to it all.  The two spreads were salmon and trout, both relatively simple and both quite delicious.  Gretchyn & I both preferred the trout because it was densely layered with the flavors that Jim had woven into it.

They went with the classic pairing of a sparkler with it, choosing one of their favorites, NV J Schram, from Schramsberg Vineyards, in my estimation the finest of America’s sparkling wine purveyors.  The sparkler went best with the terrine, but it was the right choice for the plate as a whole.  If I were picking individual wines to go with each of the three, I would have still gone with a champagne with the terrine, a rustic Oregon Pinot Noir with the salmon, and a mineral-laced Alsation Riesling with the trout.  Kathryn had opened a Viognier to go with the cheese, and that would have been just fine with the trout as well.

SECOND COURSE:  Fennel-Leek Ditalini with Roasted Shrimp

Fennel-leek ditalini salad with oven-roasted shrimp.

Fennel-leek ditalini salad with oven-roasted shrimp.

We often spent quite some time figuring out what we’re going to bring to Dinner Gang, then spend more time on getting it right before putting it in front of our friends.  This time, we went straight for the pasta dish as soon as we heard the theme.

We spent far more time trying to figure out what wine would be the best pairing.  We agreed that minerality would be important (which is probably what got the Alsace on my mind).  We started out sure that White Burgundy was the direction we would go because of the light amount of seasoning on the shrimp—about a quarter of what I’d use if I were truly spicing it (in which case the choice would be, Australian Shiraz, California Zinfandel, or a nice dry Riesling, all of which have sufficient residual sweetness to them).  We didn’t have any White Burgundy in the cellar, so we went to the wine shop.  We engaged in a discussion—no kidding a half hour long—on whether or not said Burgundy was the right call.  We tried to go outside the box some.  Sauvignon Blanc came up, but we quickly agreed it’d have to be California or Sancerre; southern hemisphere stuff would be far too citric.  We asked ourselves which reds we might consider, but quickly abandoned that because we thought that anything red would dominate the dish.  In the end, we went back to our first instinct, ending up with a bottle of 2008 Rene Lequin-Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Clos Devant.

The dish isn’t difficult or time-consuming to make, but it turned out perfectly.  The balance of the herbal flavors of the fennel and leek blended extremely well with the light seasoning on the shrimp.   All of it made harmony with the aromas and flavors in the wine—bananas, apples, and stone fruits.  I’m ready to write down apple as a primary flavor to go with fennel.  I’ve liked the way they’ve worked every time we’ve put them together.

THIRD COURSE:  Crab-Topped Plank-Fired Corvina with Grilled Corn, Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Red Pepper, and Saffron Risotto Cake

Pictures Talk

Pictures Talk

Man, was this a beautiful dish.  The great smoke flavor of red oak infused into the perfectly-cooked corvina blended with roasted elements of the corn, heirloom tomatoes, and red pepper, and contrasted exceptionally with the texture of the risotto cake.

Their pairing was 2009 Soléna Pinot Noir Hyland Vineyard, absolutely the right direction to compliment the plate.  It would have been easy to head toward a buttery Chard here, but I think the slightly outside-the-box choice of Oregon Pinot would have been the way I went as well.  First of all, the light tannins meant the wine wouldn’t fight with the fish.  Second, Oregon Pinot often has a nice smoke character to it, and the Soléna delivered.  Wood fire and lavender on the nose and black cherry and raspberry across the nicely curvaceous palate was absolute aces.


A sweet ending

A sweet ending

If you’re a regular reader you know that sweets tend to be my least favorite part of a meal, and I know the pastry chef in this house works overtime to make sure that our desserts stay in my wheelhouse, so I always go into desserts that other people make with a little trepidation, not out of worry about their skill, but my tastes.  I’m happy to report that this Tres Leches was the right exclamation point to this meal.  Just creamy enough, just sweet enough, just perfect enough.  The N.V. Mailly Grand Cru Champagne Demi-Sec that they served with it struck exactly the chord it needed to, a great pairing with a wonderful dessert.  There are certainly worse ways of going through a meal than starting and ending the courses with bubbly.

The meal as always featured great conversation (film and TV were the popular subjects this time), and before we knew it, five and a half hours had passed.  We wrapped up another successful Dinner Gang and laid our plans for the next one.  Here’s counting the days.

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Three Faces of Syrah

Our Dinner Gang with friends Kathryn & David and Neal & Jim is in its fifth or sixth month now.  Once a month, one of the three of us hosts, there’s a theme, and we cook.  Simple as that.  The first few times we started with the hosts cooking everything, but have now changed the model so that the hosts guide the meal, making the main course themselves, and suggesting or assigning other dishes for the others to bring.

Herb-Roasted Turkey with Cherry Compote, Chioggia Beets, Sauteed Swiss Chard

Herb-Roasted Turkey with Cherry Compote, Chioggia Beets, Sauteed Swiss Chard

This month was our turn to host.  We decided to build the theme around Syrah, which conveniently has three major styles from around the world:  French, Australian, and American.  We took the American and the main course (and dessert), gave Kathryn & David Aussie Shiraz and the first course, and Neal & Jim took French with the second course.  The idea was to make foods that bring out the character of the particular wine.  Everyone did a great job.

One other thing we changed this time was to start earlier.  We convened at three in the afternoon.  We knew we were going to go quite a few hours, figuring that ending earlier in the evening is better for the folks who have to drive.

Venison “Chili” Pot Pie and Australian Shiraz

VenisonPotPieAn excellent way to get the meal started, the deer meat and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, among others) combined with cranberry beans created a dark, piquant, and slightly sweet dish that paired perfectly with the dark ripeness of the Shiraz.  Served in individual ramekins, topped with a deliciously light pie crust, it was the perfect size for course number one.

The wine was 2009 Henry’s Drive Shiraz “Dead Letter Office.”  It had the extracted fruit that you want out of an Aussie Shiraz without being over-oaked, which is one of the reasons Kathryn said that they chose it.  Great pairing.

Grilled Steak Four-Leaf Salad and French Syrah

SteakSaladNeal and Jim put together a beautiful and creative dish that they said was pretty simple.  They grilled some steak and a little red onion then put it on a bed of butter leaf, radicchio, red-leaf, and romaine, wild mushrooms (chantrelles and buttons) in a honey, truffle oil, and balsamic dressing.  They sliced the steak thin and lightly-dressed the salad, choices we all approved of.  The dressing accented the flavors of the salad instead of disguising them.

The wine was the delicious Bernard Magrez Mon Seul Rêve 2009 Côtes Du Roussillon.  My only dream indeed.  It had greatly funky nose with a hint of Band-Aid on it.  The fruit was beautiful, dark, rich, and while certainly not sweet by any measure, sweeter than I had expected from the French style.  That sweetness paired wonderfully with the salad dressing, while the wine’s barnyard undercurrent when awesomely with the earthy elements of the salad.  Another triumph.

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and American Syrah

Since this was our contribution, I can tell you a little more about it.  It started with fresh cherries.  Gretchyn had gotten a couple of bags of them and wanted to do something other than just eat them.  During some research on how to make good, homemade maraschinos, she came across the idea of a cherry compote.  Knowing that we were doing the main course for the Syrah dinner, an idea was born. The entire time we were thinking about this, I had visions of pork tenderloin in my head, the great pairing of roast pork and dark fruit echoing through my brain.  Gretchyn and Kathryn both don’t eat pork, so I wanted something that seemed pork loin-like.  At first, I thought of a turkey roulade, but the last time we did that we weren’t happy with the way the meat turned out.  I decided to simply crust it with herbs and roast it using butter as the fat.


2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and tied (about 4 pounds)

1 ½ sticks of butter (12 tablespoons)

2 tbl sage

2 tbl ground black pepper

2 tbl fresh thyme, chopped fine

2 tbl fresh chives, chopped fine

2 tbl marjoram

1 tbl salt

I simply melted the butter, then added the spices.  I brought it to a quick boil then set it aside to cool.  When it did (roughly a half hour later), I put the breasts on a rack in the roasting pan.  I brushed them with the mixture, liberally applying the herbs.  I rotated the breasts and continued until they were completely coated.  I left a few tablespoons of it out for basting later.

It took about 1 hour 45 minutes to get to 165F.  I basted it, first with the mixture I had set aside, then later with its own juices, five times in total.  I let it rest while we put together the rest of the dish.

Our idea for sides included Chioggia beets and the sautéed beet greens, a contorno after the Italian fashion, not a huge side dish.  Unfortunately, the beet tops didn’t look all that healthy.  We got the beautiful beets then picked up some Swiss chard for the greens, crumbling some goat cheese on top.

Earlier in the day, we roasted the beets, skin on, oiled and seasoned with salt and pepper (a little more pepper than we’d normally use because we wanted to pick up the peppery nature of the Syrah) at 425 for just over an hour.  When they were cool enough to pick up, we sloughed off the skin then sliced them, wrapping them in foil and leaving them in a warm oven.

The cherry compote was as simple as pitting a dozen or so cherries, adding a tablespoon of water, and a tablespoon of sugar, then cooking it down on a very low temperature for two hours, occasionally mashing the cherries a bit.

We were both extremely happy with the way this dish turned out.  It evoked the feel that we wanted and paired well with the 2007 Martinelli Syrah Zio Tony Ranch that we poured with it.  It had a great nose of black fruit, spice, and sizzling bacon and a peppery palate of stewed blueberries.  Low tannins, great length.  Fantastic food wine.

Dark Chocolate Dipped Amaretto Cherries and Shortbread Cookie

CherryCordialWe soaked a dozen pitted cherries in Di Saronno for a day, then dried them before dipping them.  Gretchyn made a quick batch of dark chocolate to dip them in.  Toothpicks standing straight up, she put them on wax paper on a plate in the fridge overnight.  One fell over at some point before the chocolate hardened, sitting at a 45 degree angle, and I think presentation-wise that was the interesting one.  We’ll try to recreate it at some point.

She made a batch of shortbread cookies from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook to go with the cherries.  Like most things Thomas Keller, they were rich and buttery.  We served it with half a cordial glass (barely an ounce) of Amaretto.  The cherries were outstanding.  I think we got it right on the amount of time we soaked the cherries.  If you do this once yourself, you’ll never buy store-bought cherry cordials again.


We had three cheeses and some homemade crostini (thin slices of a baguette brushed with olive oil, lightly salted) with the last half of the second bottle of Mon Seul Rêve:  Five-year aged Gouda, Mahon, and Seaside Smoked Cheddar, hitting three radically different cheese styles.    Coffee and tea finished up the evening on the right note—some six hours after we had started.

The lineup of delicious Syrah: Australian, French, American

The lineup of delicious Syrah: Australian, French, American

Thematically, this was the best Dinner Gang event we’ve done.  The idea of tying all the food to different versions of the same grape gave the meal both a flow and a cohesion that were amazing.  Obviously, doing it with great friends was a big part of the enjoyment.  I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do next month.

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