A grateful palate

The bounty of harvest is definitely upon us. My husband and I  had a laborious Labor Day weekend, pressing our Pinot Noir grapes and starting the primary fermentation (there will also be a secondary fermentation because we are attempting to make a sparkling wine). Now the juice is happily bubbling away, converting all of its sugars into alcohol and CO2.

On top of our wine harvest, we also just picked up this weeks veggie share, and holy cow – are we talking bountiful. Romaine, peppers, tomatoes (regular, heirloom, candy-sweet Sungolds – yum!), eggplant, apples, Concord grapes, basil, raspberries, arugula, carrots, kale, chard, and fresh garbanzo beans.Fresh Garbanzo Beans

While I love farmer’s markets, and still think that they are a wonderful way to get your hands on delicious, fresh, local produce, taking part in a veggie share has opened my eyes to vegetables I would have walked right past in a farmer’s market. Take fresh garbanzo bean for instance. I’m so accustomed to getting my garbanzo beans from a can, or rehydrating dried beans I had never considered the natural state of the garbanzo.

They come in these pretty shells that make the most delightful pop when you shell them, and they are absolutely delicious when given a quick blanch in pasta water and tossed with olive oil, garlic, and a bevy of fresh herbs. How is it that I have made it this far in life without knowing where a garbanzo bean comes from? I guess we are that far removed from our food in America.

Off the soapbox now, I would suggest that you get yourself to a farmer’s market pronto and take advantage of all of the beautiful produce available right now. Maybe even have a little fun with your food and try something you’ve never tried before – who knows, it might just be delicious.

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Moving, unpacking, cellars, and wine

We have recently moved, and sadly I had to leave my beautiful custom wine cellar in the process. Moving is always a hassle, but packing and moving some twenty cases of wine from a custom built cellar into a house with little in the way of storage has proven to be quite a headache. Fortunately packing wine is rather easy – throw all the bottles into case boxes and try your best to keep an organization system in the process. Once we moved into our new house we realized that the interior closet that we had intended to use for wine storage didn’t stay nearly as cool as we thought it did, it was upward of 80 degrees on the hottest days. So what now?

CellarFor us the answer was easy, rather than sacrifice our wine to the heat we turned to Craigslist. Call it good fortune, or call it the current state of the economy causing people to liquidate their luxury goods, either way I was impressed by the sheer volume of well priced wine coolers currently available. Working with a fairly modest budget, we found a functionally perfect, cosmetically slightly imperfect wine cooler that stores about 250 bottles for $350 dollars. One heckuva deal if you ask me, and a small investment to assure that our wine stay in pristine collection.

By the way, for you collectors out there, it seems that now is a good time to troll Craigslist in search of great deals. That turn in the economy is causing some folks to clear out there wine cellars to get some extra cash. Couldn’t afford that 2000 Bordeaux on it’s release? You might be surprised at what people are asking for some great bottles right now.Bottles in the cellar Woe is me that my wine budget went to purchasing a wine cellar, rather than snatching up a few killer deals. I guess since the cellar is pretty well stocked right now there wouldn’t even be room for the new bottles.

So the move is complete, the cellar installed in the garage, the glassware cleaned and put away, the kitchen up and fully functional….now, on to the rest of the house. But really, who needs pictures hung in a bedroom? As long as you can cook a great meal and find a bottle of wine to pair with it, you’re set if you ask me. Oh, and don’t forget to clear up a place to sit down and eat it. Now, you’re set!

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Break from the ordinary

We just got back from a week in the Midwest at a family reunion (my family) which was a sheer delight. I got to catch up with cousins that I haven’t seen in ages, and in honor of my grandmother, the cook and matriarch of the family, we shared many a meal together. 

Apple PieIt was fun to see how my grandma’s recipes had evolved overtime, and how the basics of her Midwestern cooking had translated into new family traditions. The one thing that was sorely missing were Grandma’s pies – oh how that woman could bake. I don’t think any of us wanted to beg the comparison of our attempts at mimicry to Grandma’s stellar baking skills. 

We all, about 40 of us, arrived at different hours over the course of the day on Friday and said our hellos. But the moment the food hit the table the hugs became closer, the stories were told and retold, and the belly laughs resonated over the Lake of the Ozarks. Funny how food does that to family. A few secret recipes never fails to bring a family together. 

My sister, the organizer, compiled a collection of all of Grandma’s recipes in a book aptly titled ‘Great Meal Mom,’ which was how my grandpa closed every meal. It’s heirlooms like this that are truly valuable, heirlooms that provide a way to reconnect with the past and help to build new memories for the future. As valuable as heirloom tomatoes seeds are to farmers, heirloom recipes are to me. Great meals, warm memories, and the love of a family. Amazing how all of that’s within a list of ingredients, isn’t it?

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Super Tuscans

If you’ve been reading my series on Italian wines, you’ve no doubt heard several mentions of Super Tuscans. While it would be a great name for an Italian crime fighting team (or super villain, I can’t decide), the Super Tuscans actually refer to a group of producers in Tuscany who balked at the archaic labeling laws and extreme restrictions imposed by these laws, and made exceptional wines from non-traditional grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, and sold these high-quality wines as Vino da Tavola for astronomical sums of money. Super Tuscans

The laws, at the time, allowed for only traditional Italian grape varieties, required that the grapes be blended (so no 100% varietal wines, all wines were sold as regional blends), and  aging in French oak barrels was frowned upon. Several Tuscan winemakers thought that these restrictions were forcing them to make inferior quality wines, so rather than make wines they didn’t believe in and sell them with the ‘esteemed’ DOC label, they made the wines that they wanted to and sold them as Vino da Tavola, a classification usually reserved for the everyday wine sold in large quantities. These wines quickly gained notoriety, and soon became ultra-pricey, ultra-premium and highly sought after. 

The social revolution spurred the wine regulators to look at the laws in place and investigate whether traditional methods were the best, or whether it was time for reformation. It took a few decades, but finally the rules loosened to accommodate this new style of wine and elevated the Super Tuscans through the ranks of IGT, DOC, and finally DOCG. I guess social revolution really can cause governmental change.

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Summertime Picnics

There is something genius about a picnic. You think about food differently when you plan a picnic. Menu planning requires that you assemble all the ingredients. think of all the steps, and take every dish to its logical conclusion, so that all that is left is a little hand waving and dinner is served.

While, yes, it is a bit of work to get ready to picnic, the genius of it is that you front load all of the work. All of your prep is complete (or, at least most of the way complete) before you even leave for your dinner destination. It’s al fresco dinning at its best – the food is simple and fresh, and clean-up is a snap. 

Tonight, I am meeting my husband for a little sunset picnic at a winery. One of those things that was incredibly romantic a year or two ago, but now days is a fun family outing (be sure to pack the Cheerios!!). On the menu for this evening – grilled salmon, shaved summer squash salad with carrots, radicchio, fennel, basil, and parsley in a lemony vinaigrette, and radishes with cheese and chives as an app while the salmon is cooking. So far the salad is assembled, dressing made, fish cleaned, and radishes cut and slathered with cheese. We have a beautiful collection of fruit, so I’m thinking I might throw some plums, and apricots in foil pouches to toss on the coals for a yummy dessert. 

As for the wine – why a rosé, of course! Fortunately, the winery that we’ll be heading to has plenty of delicious rosé (from Pinot Noir, perfect with the salmon!). That way we don’t have to be tacky, and sneak wine into a winery. I know I’ve extolled the virtues of rosé before, but you really can’t beat it for a picnic. It starts off nice and cold, but still retains good flavor as it warms up, so you don’t have to worry about the temp of the wine, it’s going to be tasty at any temperature. (Disclaimer – if it’s 90° outside, you’ll need to throw your wine on ice – reds to! No wine is tasty when hot.) Aah… summertime – delicious!

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These are a few of my favorite things

Smoked salmon

After a long day, sometimes you just want easy food. The other evening, I was beat, I was starving, it was 6:45, my husband was just getting home from work, and I hadn’t even considered what to fix for dinner. Appetizers to the rescue!

We had a bit of smoked salmon leftover from one of our favorite Jamie Oliver recipes, some horseradish cream, leftover bread – so smoked salmon crostinis seemed a natural extension. The abundance of radishes quickly taking over our veggie drawer, and a recipe that my hubby emailed me from the kitchn and dinner was rapidly taking shape.

Radishes

We toasted off thin slices of yummy bread, topped them with a little smoked salmon, a dollop of horseradish cream, and a sprinkle of dill and we had one facet of our appetizer dinner. For the other half of the schizophrenic meal, I sliced radishes, spread a little Laughing Cow cheese on top (as we didn’t have any cream cheese – but work with what you’ve got I say!), and cut some garden fresh chives over the top. Naturally, a bottle of bubbly was popped to celebrate an instantaneous appetizer feast, and because it seemed like a great choice for both the salmon and the radishes.

The meal was perfect! Quick, easy, satisfying, and absolutely delicious. In fact, we loved the radishes so much that I have fixed them three out of the past four nights. Somehow, I don’t foresee us having trouble using up our radishes any longer. I love finding new favorite things!

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Northeastern Italy

Northeastern Italy encompasses the provinces of Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an Trentino-Alto Adige, and as I said earlier the wines are the least ‘Italian’ in style and the winemaking is the most technologically advanced. The close proximity to Austria and Germany strongly influences the food and wine culture, label style, wine technology, and well, pretty much everything about this Italian wine region.

Many of the wines coming from this area are white, but there is a good bit of red produced here as well. The foods of this area are a far cry from the red-sauce intensive menus of American Italian restaurants, so the wines are also a far cry from the bright, tart reds coming from further south. The best known exports from this neck of Italy include Prosecco, Valpolicella, Soave, and the Pinot Grigios coming from Fruili. For me these are the diamonds in the rough of the Italian wine market – the whites are bright and fruity – an unusual trait for Italian white wines, and the reds are fragrant and fruity. 

Prosecco has quickly become the recognizable name in Italian sparkling wine since Asti Spumante has fallen off the proverbial map. Popular not only as a crisp and appley bubbly in its own right, Prosecco is the key ingredient a Bellini, the cocktail made famous at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Prosecco is a wonderfully bright alternative to Champagne, and for the price of one bottle of good Champagne you can buy three or four bottles of Prosecco. Not a bad deal at all, if you ask me. 

Valpolicella is the red wine coming out of Northeastern Italy, Veneto specifically. If Orvieto is a red-wine drinkers white, then Valpolicella is a white-wine drinkers red. The tannins are almost imperceptibly soft, and the blend of Molinara, Corvina, and Rondinella produce a bright and cherry-scented, highly-quaffable red.

Also coming from Veneto and from the same trilogy of grapes (Molinara, Rondinella, and Corvina) are the wines of Amarone. The soft, sexy wines of Amarone are made from grapes that are allowed to dry out and raisinate.  The resulting wine has a texture unlike any other – smooth and velvety, and the flavors are concentrated and a little raisinated in their own right. Try Amarone with game meats, fruit sauces, soft cheeses, or as an after-dinner alternative to Port. 

Soave is and always will be my wine pairing for mussels. The blend of Trebbiano and Garganega (go ahead, say it, Garganega – fun isn’t it?) makes for a lovely companion to shellfish. Soave is a dry-white with a lemony, mineral quality. If you are going to try a bottle of Soave, I would skip over the end-cap of Bolla, and look for a bottle of Soave Classico. Believe me, the extra money you shell out comes back four-fold in flavor. 

As for the Pinot Grigio and other whites from Northeastern Italy, there is more to this region (thankfully) than Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio. I was so underwhelmed by Santa Margarita when I first had it that I discounted all Pinot Grigio for far too long. Good Pinot Grigio is fresh and clean, and a surprisingly good value. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio, which I find thin, watery, uninspired and blah.

The wines of Fruili and Alto Adige are often labeled by grape variety rather than region, as is the custom in the rest of the Northeast of Italy. Additionally, the wines of Alto Adige are often label in Italian and German, or occasionally just German. I love the wines from this area – you get the heart of an Italian winemaker with the precision of a German manufacturer – consistent, high-quality, and absolutely delicious. 

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Perfectly Awful Pairings

Things have been rather busy around our house recently. We did some serious spring cleaning, both of the house and the wine cellar. To really do the wine cellar justice it was necessary to bottle our homemade wine – a Pinot Noir and a blush of Pinot Noir. Since we don’t have all of the required bottling equipment, we have to rent it, and as this seems to be the height of bottling season for home winemakers, the only time we could rent the equipment was mid-week. Yuck!

So, after my husband got home from work we needed to go through the whole process of bottling. We tasted all of the carboys of wine, to be sure that all of the wine was good prior to bottling. Then came the process of setting up a ‘bottling line,’ a big fermenter (aka giant food-grade plastic bucket), stacked on top of another fermenter so that we could get a gravity siphon going. After filling all eight cases of bottles individually, it was then time to cork them. Individually. It’s a long process, but we were much better, cleaner, faster than our last experience with bottling. 

As we started this whole process at about 6:30, we had to incorporate dinner into the middle of the bottling process. The remaining vegetables from last weeks veggie share pick-up dictated that we have a stir-fry with green beans, oyster mushrooms, and scallions. Since we were in the heat of bottling our Pinot when we stopped for our dinner break, it made sense to celebrate the occasion with a glass of Pinot Noir, and it was perfectly awful? But at the same time I wouldn’t have wanted any other wine – it was perfect, in its own weird way.

The spicy, Sriracha heavy stir-fry was not even close to the right food for our Pinot, which is highly acidic, and has bright raspberry fruit. Its our favorite stir-fry recipe and the Pinot is the best wine that we have made by far. Even though the wine was awful with the food, it was a perfect meal because of the situation. Sometimes the best match is the food that you want and the wine that you want, compatibility be damned!

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Central Italy

Central Italy comprised the provinces of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise, but for the sake of wine the star of the show in Central Italy is Tuscany with Abruzzo and Umbria singing backup. Tuscany has been synonymous with Italian wine exports since American Italian restaurants first stuck a candle in a Chianti bottle.Chianti Bottle 

While Chianti has changed significantly in both composition and reputation since those days, it is still the first Italian wine that comes to mind for most.   The vinoscape of Tuscany, while famed for Chianti, is also home to Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano as well as numerous other DOC regions that are not extensively exported. It is also home to the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) wines known as ‘Super Tuscans,’ but more on that later. 

Chianti laws have changed significantly in the last few decades, resulting in much higher quality wines. The primary grape (75-100%) of Chianti is Sangiovese with the remainder of the blend comprised of several red grapes that few outside of Italy are familiar with and possibly up to 10% white grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia), although this tradition has fallen out of favor in recent years.Within the region of Chianti, lies the subregion of Chianti Classico, which is considered the historical heartland of the Chianti region. The blends of Chianti Classico will be basically the same, but Chianti Classico requires a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, rather than the 75% required in Chianti. 

The town of Montalcino, in Tuscany, is known for its pricey Brunello di Montalcino and slightly more affordable Rosso di Montalcino. Brunello is a clone of the Sangiovese grape, whose name translates to ‘little dark one.’ The wines are big, deep, intense reds with long-term aging potential, and some of the most expensive wines coming out of Italy. Rosso di Montalcino wines are essentially the same as Brunello di Montalcino, only not aged as long prior to release, only six months for a Rosso as opposed to the four years required for a Brunello. The result is the Rosso di Montalcinos are fresh, fruity and far simpler than their big brothers Brunello. 

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (remember here that Montepulciano is the place name, not the grape name) is made from yet another clone of the Sangiovese grape referred to by its local name of Vino Nobile. The wines comparable to Brunello di Montalcino, but aged only two years, as opposed to the four required by the Brunello DOCG. So, basically what all of the hubbub in Montalcino and Montepulciano boils down to is this

Rosso di Montalcino – fresh, fruity Sangiovese clone. Aged only six months. Rather simple. Rather cheap

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – more full-bodied and structured Sangiovese clone. Aged minimum two years. More complex. Still fairly affordable.

Brunello di Montalcino – most full-bodied and intense Sangiovese clone. Aged minimum four year. Very complex, long-term aging potential. Amongst Italy’s most expensive wines.

Outside of Tuscany, the wine production of Central Italy can be attributed mainly to Abruzzo and Umbria. Abruzzo is known for Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the confusingly named Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (confusing because here Montepulciano is a grape, not a place as in Tuscany). Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is a fresh, simple white wine best served as an aperitif, or apertivo if you want to be Italian about it, or with simple fish dishes. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is an affordable, widely available Italian red, that is still (thankfully) underrated. Look for the wines of Arboreto or Casal Thaulero. 

Though there is red wine produced there, Umbria is best known for its white wine Orvieto. I always think of Orvieto as a white for a red wine drinker as it has a mouthfeel more akin to a red wine than a white, but it has all of the fresh flavors of a white wine. It’s an outstanding accompaniment to all seafood, but I do love it with calamari.

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Italian Wine Regions

Since Italy didn’t become a unified (and I do use that term loosely) country until the 1800s there is really very little unified about the wine, food, and local culture. For argument’s sake you can break Italy down into four geographic areas that are similar enough to draw a comparison rather than having to learn the ins and outs of all 20 provinces. 

Starting at the toe of the boot and working our way up you have Southern Italy, Central Italy, Northwestern Italy, and Northeastern Italy. Now I’m not trying to say that every province within these regions is exactly the same, I’m simply trying to break Italy into manageable chunks, draw some comparisons, and convey the differences in local food (and wine) culture. 

Southern Italy

Geographically, we are talking about the boot from about mid-shin down, and for simplicity, we’ll toss both islands of Sicily and Sardinia in here too. This region produces nearly half of the wine consumed in Italy, but most of this can be attributed to low-quality, high-quantity bulk wine. Very little of the massive wine production is fine wine, and very little of it is exported – with the Marsala of Sicily being the one notable exception.

The food and wine culture is far more Mediterranean than the rest of Italy, probably due in large part to the colonization of this area by both the Greeks and North African Muslims at different points in its history. Food and wine are ubiquitous and ever-present. None of the finest foods or the finest wines come from this region, leave that hype to others. When it comes to food and wine, it must be simple and delicious.

Central Italy

Central Italy encompasses the area from the curve of the calf on up, well, pretty much all the way up. Food and wine are serious business here, with the region accounting for about one-third of Italy’s wine exports, and all things alla fiorentina housed here. Chianti, arguably Italy’s most famous wine region, is situated in the heart of Tuscany alongside the Brunellos, Rossos and of Montalcino, Orvieto, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. Basically, a good chunk of the Italian wine section of your local wine store comes from this region.

The food and wine culture here isn’t just big business, it’s also serious business at the dinner table. Florence is often touted as the birthplace of Italian cooking, at the dinner table of the Medici court. Here food and wine are painstakingly prepared to be their very best, and once you’ve tasted Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Orvieto you’ll thank your lucky stars that the locals put so much stock in and take so much pride from their preparation. Read more about Central Italy.

Northeastern Italy

Some extraordinary, not to mention underrated, fine white wines come from this little crook of Italy, nestled between the foothills of the Alps and the Adriatic coast. This is the most technologically advanced and possibly least Italian (coincidence?) wine region in Italy.  

Most of the wines are fresh, bright, clean whites which pair beautifully with the local cuisine full of cream, risotto, potato dishes and polentas. The climate is quite cool, and the food shows a definite influence from nearby Germany and Hungary, so it is no wonder that white wine grapes would grow better (cool climate) and white wines would pair better with the food (germanic influences). Read more about Northeastern Italian wines. 

Northwestern Italy

This region is possibly the hardest to group together as one cohesive unit, because the provinces are rather divergent. The relative proximity to France, Monaco, Switzerland, and Germany change the local culture significantly. When it comes to wine – the best is in Piedmont. When it comes to food – the best is in Emilia Romagna. 

The consistent vein weaving through the local food and wine culture of this disparate region is richness. The food is laden with truffles, Parma ham, Parmesan Reggiano, cream, butter and the finest chocolate of Italy. The wine is equally rich with the Nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, Dolcetto d’Alba and the creamy bubblies of Franciacorta. If you visit the Northwest of Italy, make sure to bring your walking shoes. You’ll need them to work off the rich delicacies which are too delicious not to indulge in. 

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