Food and Wine

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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Would you like some cheese with your wine?

Wine and cheese. Cheese and wine. They go together like, well, wine and cheese. There’s a reason that this is a classic pairing – because it just works! The acidity in the wine cuts through the richness of the cheese and the fruit flavors of the wine somehow heighten the savory creaminess of the cheese. I’m getting hungry just typing this. The mere thought of my favorite supper is enough to make my mouth water.

In days of my first restaurant job, a Boulder landmark that was open for just about every single holiday, where you had to work every single holiday shift, my mom and I started a family tradition. As I got to my parents house around 11 on Christmas Eve, a bit too late for a holiday meal, my mom would pick up a delicious assortment of cheeses, charcuterie, olives, fruits and peppers and I would bring home a bottle of wine for us to share.

Even after I moved on to other jobs we continued this tradition in part because it was so tasty, but also because with this type of meal you sit and talk, nosh and sip for hours. It’s less of a meal and more of a conversation with food. It also doesn’t hurt that there is virtually no prep and very little clean-up.

I’m carrying on this newfound tradition with my new family as well. My husband and I enjoy antipasto suppers, aka ‘Christmas Eve Dinner,’ at least once a month. I’ve also extended the tradition to my extended family – my in-laws thought it was a great no-muss, no-fuss prelude to Christmas.

Over the years I have tried just about every wine to accompany Christmas Eve Dinner – Pinot to Cab, Sauv Blanc to Sauternes. Every wine is always wonderful with at least one of the cheeses, but quite often it’s also dreadful with another. I went through a phase when I tried to select only cheeses that would pair with the wine. This worked fairly well, except there was always one cheese that I really wanted but couldn’t get because of the wine. Then I went in search of a wine that would more often than not be good with a vast array of cheeses.

I found it in bubbly! I know, I know, as much as I sing the praises of bubbly it should cure cancer and bring about world peace, but as far as food wines go, you can’t beat a good sparkling wine. It has enough acidity to stand up to the richness of cheese, but that’s not what makes it really special. Bubbly has the ability to complement both a tart goat cheese and creamy brie, a sharp cheddar and a stinky bleu. While I won’t try to claim that it is the perfect wine for every cheese it certainly isn’t bad with any. Ahh bubbly….is there anything you can’t do?

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Strawberries, balsamic, and Cabernet

Aaah…strawberry season. That perfect time of year when the full flavor of summer gets parceled up in perfect little heart-shaped packages. Farmer Tom, of my veggie share, is keeping me well stocked with these little bites of happiness. So much so, in fact, that I am having to find ways to use all of them each week (we are currently getting 6-8 pints of strawberries per week. So it’s sliced strawberries at breakfast, strawberry smoothies, strawberry tarts, fresh strawberries for dessert, and strawberries on my salad.

Last night I whipped up a little salad to accompany the pizza that my husband was bringing home for dinner – aah, pizza night – a welcome respite from kitchen duties, and tasty too! Working with what we had on hand I pulled out some strawberries, some sort of beautiful, curly, red-leafed lettuce, now for the dressing. I immediately thought of the classic Italian combo of strawberries and balsamic and proceeded to make a little vinaigrette (drizzle olive oil over the greens, toss, drizzle balsamic over the greens, toss – come on it’s pizza night – let’s not get too fussy). I riffled through the fridge and rustled up some goat cheese. Perhaps not the best salad to accompany pizza, but a darn tasty one none the less. 

 Now on to the wine. What do we have that will complement both pizza, and my tasty salad? I looked over the Italian wines we have, but nothing ticked my fancy. Something French? Nah, although thinking of the expression of a Frenchman when told I was drinking their fine wine with American-Italian food did make me chuckle. What to drink? What to drink?

My eyes drifted towards the remains of a case of a 2000 California Cab Sauv that I got a great price on, and I stopped looking. The older Cabernet would be nice with the pizza, as most reds are, and would be mellow enough not to blow away the salad. 

It was delicious! The softer fruit flavors of an older Cab were delicious with the fruity sweetness of the balsamic, and really pretty against the fresh, bright strawberry flavor. Even if the two parts of the meal didn’t necessarily go together too well, at least the wine was great with both of them – so in the end it all made sense. I do love that a good pairing can bring sanity to a schizophrenic meal!

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Steinbeck and wine

Recently I’ve been reading East of Eden, one of Steinbeck’s classic novels centered around life in the Salinas Valley. Living in the Bay Area, it seems almost mandatory to periodically read one of the Steinbeck novels, as Central Valley life is so, well, central to the Steinbeck stories. As I was reading, one quote caught my eye,

When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God.

While there is an anti-communist undertone there that may not be applicable to wine, the basic tenets certainly hold true to not only the food that Steinbeck mentions, but also to wine.

It used to be that any wine from a specific region would have a definable quality, something unique to that part of the world. The French call it terroir, that certain oh, je ne c’est quoi that comes from the land, and gives the fruit coming off of it a flavor unique to that land. It’s not limited to grapes either – coming from Colorado you always knew to wait for the Rocky Ford melons, Palisade peaches and Olathe sweet corn because they were so much better than the rest.

It seems that the ’sense of place’ is becoming increasing less important in food and wine, and as a result it gets easier and easier to pass off mass-marketed wine as a quality product, rather than soulless, sterile big bottle business. I can certainly understand the appeal of the mass market wine for the producer. As long as you can make something consistent and drinkable, you’ll have an easily marketable product that will move off the shelf no matter where the shelf happens to be. Smart business, but it seems that there should be more to great wine than business.

There’s a bit of me that longs for the days of the craftsman. A time when skill and thought were required to produce a product rather than the push of a button. A time when local cheeses tasted differently because the greens that the animal grazed on were unique to that area. A time when food and wines were something special, and the greatest ones were worth seeking out. Mass production is reaching nearly every product, and because of this it is nearly impossible to find special and unique food and wine anymore. I guess that is the price of globalization. I just have to wonder if it is worth it.

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Guests, and company, and entertaining… oh my!

Recently we had the pleasure of having an old college friend in town for the weekend. Concurrently, I have been speaking with both my mom and my mother-in-law about their respective trips to visit us and see their granddaughter. It’s not uncommon for folks to stress about house guests, myself included. After the arrival of our little one, I was quite sure that there weren’t going to be enough hours in the day to get everything done, much less prepare for and host company. That’s where I was wrong. I had a bit of an epiphany after our friend left – we planed ahead for meals, had everything on hand (okay, I admit it – there was an ‘emergency’ trip to the store, but I inevitably always forget at least one ingredient), and popped open a bottle of wine while we were cooking, and our friend couldn’t stop raving about our hospitality. Having been in the restaurant business for so long, I am inclined to think of hospitality mainly as a function of food and beverage, and it seems that with a bit of forethought in planing simple, delicious, easy-prep meals, a little wining and dining goes a long way in being a great host, especially since I never got around to vacuuming before our company arrived – oops! The first night I planed a simple pasta and prepped the few ingredients that required prep before our company arrived, so that I could toss dinner together whenever we were ready, and it would be on the table within fifteen minutes. Since travel plans are always subject to change, I thought a simple supper suited the evening best, that way there was absolutely no stress about timing.  Night two – pork chops, mashed cauliflower, sauteed chard – homey, comfortable food that everyone loves, and no the cauliflower was not because we are on some crazy Atkin’s diet, merely because we had cauliflower on hand, not potatoes. Again though, an easy meal to get from fridge to table quickly, and super satisfying. On night three, we changed it up a little and made my all-time favorite Chicken Enchilada recipe (thank you Tyler Florence). It’s not hard, but it does take a bit longer, but you can get everyone in the kitchen together and have a little cooking party to assemble everything and suddenly dinner becomes entertainment.  Night four, Memorial Day, it had to be burgers. The great part about this menu was that my husband, aka Grill Master, took care of most of the cooking, and there was minimal clean-up. Delicious and low maintenance - what could be better. I guess my epiphany boils down to this – your company is there because they want to see you. What better way to reconnect than around the dinner table. Good food, good wine, and good times. 

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Most versatile food wine

If I could stock my cellar with only one type of wine, it would have to be bubbly. Not only is it ridiculously versatile as a food wine, but it’s quite refreshing and quaffable on its own, and no other wine is so exuberant and yet so sophisticated. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of your cellar – it does it all, and it’s wrapped up in an elegant little package.

You’ve got your cellar stocked with bubbly, now what to eat? Pretty much anything! The only thing I have found that I didn’t love with sparkling wine was a green peppercorn sauce, and heck, even that wasn’t bad. Sparkling wine works well with cheeses, other dairy, spicy foods, seafood, shellfish, meat, vegetables, and old shoes. Okay, maybe I’m kidding about the old shoe, but I wouldn’t put it past the superpowers of a good bubbly. What is it about those intoxicating little bubbles (pun shamelessly intended) that makes sparkling wine so fantastic with food? Three things – acid, texture, and balance. 

Acid. Not only do you have the natural acidity of the wine, but also the carbonic acid from the bubbles. Typically, the grapes harvested for sparkling wine are picked with a higher acid to sugar ratio than most other wine grapes, because you want the wine to be fairly low alcohol to make the secondary fermentation (the one that makes those glorious bubbles) easier to start.  So, you have a good bit of acidity to start with and then you add even more acidity when you put the bubbles in, now that’s what I call crisp. Acidity in wine makes your mouth water, and it cuts through rich, creamy sauces, prepping you to get the most from your next bite.

Texture. We all know the feeling of the bubbles dancing across your tongue, whether it be from your last glass of sparkling wine or your last glass of soda. The texture the bubbles create in your mouth is unlike anything that you are eating, and it provides an interesting counterbalance to the texture of the food. It also seems to me that all those bubbles wake up a sleepy palate and get you primed and ready to taste.

Balance. The key factor in any good food wine is balance. You don’t want the wine to swing too far in any one direction or it will overwhelm the food. Sparkling wines are made in a clean style, so that there is not too much of any one flavor, most notably oak. The also have the distinct honor of being a relatively low alcohol wine in these days of monster 17% alcohol wines, also a big plus in the food pairing department because the high alcohol wines numb your palate prior to numbing your senses. 

Since bubbly is such a celebrated beverage, as well as an awesome food wine, I think it is a delightful hostess gift any time you find yourself invited to a friend’s for dinner. Regardless of the menu, bubbly will be great with the food and it gives the evening a very festive tone.  Bubbly, it’s a food lovers best friend.

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Leftover wine

I realize it may be hard for you to believe, but you may, occasionally, find yourself with a bit of wine left in the bottle. Call it the homesteader in me, or a trait passed along to me from my mother, but I cannot bring myself to throw anything away – wine, food, or other. So over the years I have found a few ways to use that last glass of wine, even if it is something that I don’t want to drink.

One possibility is to use it for cooking. As they say ‘don’t cook with something you wouldn’t drink,’ and isn’t drinking the wine the reason you’re left with a partial bottle. I typically reserve this application for bottles that are still quite fresh, typically two to three days on the counter or a week in the fridge. You can use the wine as poaching, or braising liquid, in place of vinegar in a vinaigrette, to brighten a dull sauce, or even in desserts. I posted a few interesting recipes for small quantities of wine.

If faced with lots of open bottles after hosting a party, pour the leftover wine into ice cube trays. Then, the next time a recipe calls for wine, pop a wine cube straight from the freezer into your sauce and you’re set. Another option for massive quantities of leftover wine is to mix it all together with sliced fruit and some fruit juice, make a big batch of sangria, and throw another party, but that’s another blog post.

Once a bottle has been around too long, and started to oxidize, it is no longer good for cooking. Cooking will concentrate all of the flavors, including any bad, or off, flavors.  If the wine starts to turn, I say go with it. Let it turn.

Online or with a quick trip to a local home brew shop you can purchase a ‘mother of vinegar,’ a bacterial culture that converts alcohol into vinegar. When you have your mother, take a clean, empty gallon jug (glass works best), pour the mother of vinegar in the jug, and then continually add little bits of leftover wine to the jug. Shortly you will have some absolutely delicious red wine vinegar. Plus, for the one time investment in a mother of vinegar, you have a never-ending supply of vinegar. Not a bad use for wine you weren’t going to drink.

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French Paradox

My husband and I went to the French and Italian countryside for our honeymoon, where I was faced with my own French paradox. I spent two weeks eating brie and foie gras on an almost daily basis, having wine every day with both lunch and dinner, and yet, we both lost weight. How is this possible?

Well, we spent our days walking to museums, restaurants, and markets. Suddenly I came to the realization that Americans have it all wrong. Let’s see – fast food, convenience stores, the degradation, if not total abolition of family meals, not to mention city streets that were designed for driving rather than walking — is it any wonder that we are fat?

Looking at the American diet it seems that we could take a pointer or two from the Europeans. In addition to eating seasonally and locally, they enjoy the richest foods in moderation, get regular exercise walking to the market to buy fresh ingredients for dinner, and treat wine as the fifth food group. Now, that is a diet I can get behind. 

First, we need to reclaim the meal. When was the last time you sat down to enjoy a meal? Probably the last time you treated yourself to a nice restaurant. In the interim meals become something we are forced to take part in on a daily basis – rarely more exciting than a trip to the post office. Think of the last movie you watched featuring an Italian family meal, or a lunch at a European cafe. People sitting down, talking, laughing, arguing, lots of food, a couple bottles of wine, and the sense that life has stopped for a moment. Sounds great doesn’t it? Well, don’t just dream about it, make it a part of your life.

Then, get yourself to a farmers market, or join a CSA. Nothing brings me more epicurean delight than strolling the aisles of a farmer’s market looking at all of the fresh produce, artisanal cheese, composing menus, and wondering if these blackberries really would taste good with the rosemary from a few booths back. Not only do you get to touch, smell and taste the food, but you get a sense of ownership and pride in the bounty that you carry home with you. Your inner hunter/gather is brought to the surface and suddenly you are excited to cook the broccolini and fava beans you found. Plus, walking the aisles of a farmers market can’t exactly hurt your waistline.

Finally, enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.  We’ve all heard by now of the numerous health benefits of enjoying wine in moderation – reseveratrol, anti-oxidants, flavonoids et al, but above and beyond all that the simple act of opening a bottle of wine to enjoy with your dinner flips a switch in you head which all but commands you to relax. You’ll find it nearly impossible to rush though a meal when you have a glass of wine in your hand. It may not be as quick or effective as Beyonce’s Master Cleanse, but I’ll take good food and wine over spicy lemonade any day of the week.

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Pairing theory

Last night I decided to test out a couple of wine pairings I had been contemplating - carrot ginger soup with Viognier and a nice ‘vegetarian’ lentils with bacon (bacon is a vegetable, at least in my world it is) with a Rhône style blend. My thought was that the aromatic nature of the carrot ginger soup would pair nicely with the floral components of the Viognier and the earthy/smoky flavors of the lentils would be perfect against the rustic Grenache and Syrah. It turned out that both pairings were scrumptious, but since I had two wines open and two distinct dishes I decided to try each wine with the other dish – and may I say that was a move for experienced professionals only, please do not try at home.

It wasn’t so much that the other pairings were bad, which they were, it was that they were opposite flavors and it ended up amplifying all of the wrong characteristics. The Viognier lost it’s delicacy against the hearty lentils and ended up tasting overly perfumey, and the Grenache/Syrah ended up taking on a muddy or dirt characteristic against the aromatic ginger in the soup. I didn’t think that the other pairings were going to be good, but I didn’t realize just how bad they were going to be either. 

I typically take wine pairings for granted – I’ve been thinking about wine and food together for so long, that it’s almost a second nature to choose wines to complement the flavors of the dish. It had been an awfully long time since I had a truly bad pairing, and tasting it last night I had to scrutinize what went so horribly wrong. I came back to the advice I got about food and wine pairing way back in my first restaurant job – like flavors will always complement unless the flavors are either too similar or too strong. Going back to the Viognier lentil pairing with this advise the answer was clear – the hearty, earthy lentil dish was way too far removed from the ethereal, floral flavors of the Viognier, and vice versa. 

What about the too similar, or too strong part of the pairing theory? This applies to your basic flavor components – sweet, spicy, tart, rich, and bitter. Pairing is all about balance, and you don’t want to go too far in any one of these directions, so here you look to contrasting flavors like a sweet Riesling with a fiery, hot dish, or a soft, smooth Orvieto with a tart Chicken Piccata. In essence you are dampening the strong flavor slightly by finding contrasting  flavors in the wine, rather than amplifying it too far by echoing the flavor in the wine. With that settled, I went back to my original pairings and enjoyed the rest of dinner. It’s fun to play with your food (and wine!).

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Celebrate the everyday

I’m not sure if it is my background in hospitality, my love of sparkling beverages, or a glass half full kind of optimism (mmm… half-a-glass of bubbly!!), but I do think that we let far too many occasions slip by without properly recognizing them. Come to think of it, my mom could have something to do with this. She had a knack for commemorating occasions in perfect, appropriate ways – birthday blowouts, surprise Valentine’s gifts, green milk on St. Paddy’s day (okay, so that one was dad), and magical Christmases. She always made these days extra special, and so much fun. I think that it’s foolish not to bring a festive touch into all of your little victories. 

Now, last night, my husband and I did have something momentous to celebrate – the first day of a new/old job, so we toasted his success with our favorite bottle of sub $10 bubbly, Cristalino, and had a beautiful antipasto plate. Yet, our celebrations are not always so noteworthy – each month we celebrate our little girl’s luniversary, as she turns one month older, we toast our dogs’ birthday every June 3, we celebrate the Calla Lillies coming up, the completion of our beautiful new wine cellar, the munchkin taking a two hour nap, all of the laundry being done (which, if you’ve been around an infant, you know is a big deal), the first fava beans of the year, Farmer Tom’s strawberries, the start of an exciting week, or the end of a long week.

I find that by marking these events with mini celebrations, you don’t risk letting time blur by, leaving you dazed and wondering what you missed out on. Instead, you stop and acknowledge the significance of these moments. It’s like putting a little tick mark on the calendar, and the more tick marks you have the more focused your recollection is. You’re not left holding your champagne flute on New Year’s Eve, feeling that it was only yesterday you were toasting in this year. That year’s worth of celebrations slow down the calendar and let you recall how far you’ve come since last year.

We only get one chance to ride this merry-go-round, why not celebrate the ride? 

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