December 2006


Let’s nip this little trend in the bud right now.

Our January issue of Food & Wine magazine arrived Saturday. The main feature is “100 Tastes You Must Try in 2007,” an extension of the magazine’s annual attempt at “hip and happening” that’s so pathetic it’s almost cute. They actually write about “groovy” restaurants and “power couples” and “the next baby lettuce.”

I couldn’t help focusing, however, on Trend No. 14: “House-Infused Bourbon.” The writer says: “Bartenders have been infusing vodka for years; now they’re joyfully” — joyfully? — “infusing bourbon with everything from black cherries to bacon. Chris Beveridge from 12 Baltimore in Kansas City, Missouri, favors apples, cinnamon and vanilla.”

I guess everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City.

The recipe that follows calls for “3 cored and quartered medium Granny Smith apples, 4 cinnamon sticks and 2 whole vanilla beans.” The bourbon? A bottle of Woodford Reserve. That’s where I say, “Say what???” bourbon_01.jpg
There’s a reason why vodka manufacturers create and sell millions of cases of fruit or spice or herb-infused vodka. The whole point of vodka is that it possesses no distinguishing quality except pure, glacial characterlessness. You can distill vodka seven times if you want, make it from the finest mountain waters never lapped by humans or animals and filter it through an Escalade packed with diamond dust and it will reflect nothing except high alcohol and formidable neutrality. So sure, hell yeah, go ahead, stuff it with rose petals, mangos and truffles for all I care.

But Woodford Reserve is one of the finest of the hand-crafted bourbons that appeared on the market over the past 10 or 15 years. Reading this squib in Food & Wine led me to break out my bottle, pour out a couple of fingers of the golden-amber ambrosia and have a few sips of smooth, mellow, sweet liquid naturally tinged with wood, orange rind, toffee and allspice from its time spend meditating in oak barrels; it rolled over the tongue and down the throat like warm money.

O.K., infuse a bottle of Heaven Hill if you want, but the last thing my Woodford Reserve needed was a soul-destroying infusion of apples and cinnamon and vanilla. I mean, we’re not talking about a Thanksgiving pie here.

I will say, just to be nice, that we use recipes from Food & Wine constantly, often going back to favorite dishes we cooked from the magazine years ago.

At the risk of lulling you into slack-jawed insensibility, I have to quote the text on the front on a bottle of Gold, which is, by the way, very difficult to read:

“In the ancient world, rulers of kingdoms long lost and some still part of current memory made wine and mined gold.Their armies fought to keep it and ranged over the earth to obtain it. Legends stretched across the millennia, steeped in mystery and religion. Tales of kings living for generations, ancient tribal leaders speaking of battles they fought hundreds of years before, the holy grail, knights templar, women wise and young, all of their non-believing friends old and gone forever. Their secret … was kept hidden by open display. Sprinkling gold into their freshest white wine they drank to their health, happiness and long lives. This they did with a pure heart, over the very heights of summer and the depths of winter needing to believe that summer would come again. Summer is a time of legend, so let us embrace the golden sun that makes this wine, warms our bodies and hearts. Have fun my friends and be good to each other … 999.9 Pure.” gold2_01.jpg

100 percent pure bullshit, more like. I mean, really, to whom is this exercise in oratory, like something written by Dan Brown with Tolkien and Madame Blavatsky looking over his shoulder, intended to appeal? Certainly not to intelligent wine consumers. Nor will the wine, which is white with real 24K gold leaf sprinkled in it and for all the hype and complicated back-story actually pretty damned boring, though it costs $20 a bottle.

Nothing on the bottle indicates a vintage — it says “Bottled in June, 2006″ on the back — nor are we informed about a region or appellation, only the words “Product of Australia,” or a grape. The wine, we are informed, is bottled by Gold in St. Helena, Ca., but imported by Angels’ Share in Brooklyn.

A letter from Jason Woodbridge, the “proprietor” of Gold, explains that he likes “making wines that break the rules.” He does say that the wine is made primarily from chardonnay with “other varietals that are also aromatic, and rich on their own and beautiful in combination.” The wine is shipped from the “Southern Hemisphere” “in an ocean-going freezer container while still on the lees at 25 degrees.”

Boy, that’s a lot of effort to produce a wine that smells vaguely floral, tastes generically citrusy and sports a modest texture and a bit of bitterness on the finish. I tasted two bottles with similar results.

This whole project reeks of over-determined marketing, shaky syntax and bad faith. Leave the pseudo-mysticism to the pseudo mystics and the winemaking to real winemakers. All that glitters is not Gold.

We don’t expect a Cotes-du-Rhone that originally cost about $10 to last for six years, so I was surprised when the owner of a retail shop in Memphis urged me to buy a bottle of the Jean-Luc Colombo “Les Abeilles” Cotes-du-Rhones 2000. “This was the last that the importer shipped,” he said, “and I bought the last three cases the wholesaler had. It’s drinking beautifully.” jlclesabeillescotesrouge200.jpg
No joke. Well-worth $13, this wine is certainly at the limit of its maturity, yet the rich, warm, meaty bouquet, wafting scents of spicy red and black fruit, briary-brambly qualities and a touch of mushroom-like earthiness was irresistible. That spiciness blossoms in the mouth, as does the fleshy-gamy nature of the slightly over-ripe and macerated currant and plum flavors, lending a hint of decadence. Lively acid cuts a swath on the palate; the wine retains plenty of grip in the form of tannins that have lost their shagginess, though there’s an edge of austerity on the finish.

Jean-Luc Colombo’s “Les Abeilles” — “the bees” — 2000 is definitely Worth a Search but needs to be consumed within six months or so. The importer is Palm Bay Imports. The 2004 vintage is available now at about $8 to $11.
What would you do with this wine? To me it cries out for a rabbit fricassee or quail with polenta or dove on toast, the sort of fare that hunters serve at breakfast.

I like cookbooks written by (or organized around) famous chefs and have willingly enslaved myself to concocting dinner parties with menus taken from Charlie Trotter or Joaquin Splichal or Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The New Year’s Eve that I did Jean-George’s sauteed foie gras and potato terrine and a salt-crusted pheasant with foie gras sauce (a recipe that had been in The New York Times) remains an epic in the annals of my chefdom. I seem to remember washing a pan and then realizing that the sauce for the pheasant was in it. Big Oops.
I also like cookbooks that provide wine recommendations with recipes. Too often in their books even great chefs simply ignore the fact that the best foods and the best wines go together, a matter they would not ignore in their own restaurants, where of course they make tons of money on wine mark-ups.

So I was pleased to see, released in September, Ducasse Flavors of France (Artisan, $40), a monument to the ingenuity and enterprise of Alain Ducasse, the French chef who has won more Michelin stars than most rooms-full of his colleagues put together, for Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris and La Bastide de Moustiers in Alain Ducasse Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Though he had to retool his restaurant at the Essex House in New York, from which patrons left scorched by the after-burners of high-octane pretension — diners were offered a choice of pens with which to sign their checks and so on — still, Ducasse is probably the world’s most successful chef-entrepreneur.

Anyway, I was looking through the book when my eye fell upon the first recipe that carried a wine recommendation, the “Mediterranean Vegetable Tourte.” Suggested Wines? “A lively Chenin Blanc, such as a Vouvray Sec Le Mont 1995 from Domaine Huet, or a Washington State Hogue Chenin Blanc 1996, from the Columbia Valley.” Whoa, I thought, those are pretty esoteric choices. First, where would you get such wines? And, second, no criticism intended of Hogue Cellars, but my estimation of a 10-year-old chenin blanc from Washington state would be a resounding, “No way.”

Next recommendations, for the “Tart of Young Lettuces and Tomato Confit”? “A flavorful, slightly spicy red wine, such as Chateau de Calisanne 1989 Cuvee Prestige, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, or a Napa Valley Merlot, such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1994.” “Say what?” I said.

For the “Lobster Ragout with Potatoes”? “A big chardonnay, such as a Pouilly-Fuisse ‘Les Carrons’ 1992, R. Denogent, or a Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve 1995, from the Napa Valley.”

“Chicken Fricassee with Morels?” “An elegant, not too concentrated red wine, such as an Aloxe-Corton 1990, from Tollot-Beaut, or a Pesquera Crianza 1991 Ribera del Duero, from Spain.”

“Roast Veal with Vegetables in Garlic Shallot Butter”? “An elegant Pinot Noir, such as a Clos de Tart 1986, Bourgogne Grand Cry Mommessin, or a Pinot Noir Reserve from the Te Kairanga Vineyard in New Zealand.”

By this time, my mind is reeling, and I’m checking wine websites to see if any of these wines are actually available anywhere and if their prices could be anything less than astronomical. I mean, talk about impossibly pretentious! A cookbook published in 2006 that doesn’t make a recommendation for a wine dated after 1996?

And then it occurred to me — and you’re probably way ahead of me here — to look at the book’s copyright page, where we learn that this present book is the second edition of the volume first published in 1998. Repackaged but with the wine recommendations left intact from eight years ago. In other words, these wine recommendations are largely useless. Did an editor at Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Co., decide that up-dating the wine recommendations (originally made by Gerard Margeon) was too much trouble or would take too much time or cost too much or that even people who care about food and cooking and wine — the people who would purchase this book — really don’t give a damn?

Whatever the case, the matter stinks of cynicism and neglect.

Five days before Thanksgiving, my daughter got married, each occasion — the wedding reception and the annual feast — a welcome excuse for choosing wine to serve to family and friends, the difference being that we had 12 at Thanksgiving and 200 at the wedding.

Here are the wines I picked for the reception. My daughter wanted all French (there was sort of a French theme), and that’s what she got.

*Macon-Lugny “Les Charmes” Chardonnay 2004, Maconnais. About $10-$12. One of the world’s most dependable and tasty chardonnays. charm_01.jpg

*Les Tuileries 2005, Bordeaux blanc, a crisp and floral blend of 80% sauvignon blanc and 20% semillon. About $12.

*Chateau de Pennautier 2004, Cabardes, a robust blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, grenache, merlot, syrah and cot, or malbec. About $10-$12.

*Le Pin Parasol Reserve Shiraz 2002, Vins de Pays d’Oc. About $10-$12. This syrah from the south of France, goofily called “shiraz” to entice consumers familiar with the inexpensive shiraz wines of Australia, was a softer and spicier counterpoint to the forthright flavors and rusticity of the Pennautier.

*Bailly-Lapierre Cremant de Bourgogne Chardonnay 2004. About $15-$19. A terrific sparkling wine with surprising character for the price; it belongs on every restaurant wine list.

Since Thanksgiving is a thoroughly American holiday and banquet, I always serve a variety of American wines, trying to appeal to a range of tastes. I wish that I could include wines from New York and Virginia and Michigan and so on, but outside of New York and Virginia and Michigan and so on, such wines are hard to come by. Anyway, here was our wine roster for Thanksgiving:

*Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2005, Carmel Valley. About $22-$25. The best chenin blanc made in California. heller_01.jpg

*Trefethen Dry Riesling 2005, Napa Valley. About $16-$19. This scintillating and authentic riesling surprised me by being the hit of the dinner; people kept asking for more. riesling.jpg

*Ridge Vineyards “Three Valley” 2004, Sonoma County. A blend of zinfandel (68%), carignane (11). syrah (10), petite sirah (7) and grenache (4) that boldly faced up to the Thanksgiving feast’s multitude of flavors, spices and textures. And it was great the next day with left-overs.

*Domaine Serene “Yamhill Cuvee” Pinot Noir 2004, Willamette Valley, Oregon. About $28-$33. A pretty damned perfect pinot noir (and Domaine Serene’s least expensive pinot), one bottle fine with dinner, the next wonderful with left-overs a few days later. Go figure.serene2_01.jpg

*Beringer Nightingale 1997, Napa Valley. I had been saving this blend of 70% semillon and 30% sauvignon blanc since it was released. Its unctuous combination of roasted peaches and apricots, muscat-like floral elements and a sort of liquid bananas Foster quality were terrific with the pumpkin and pecan pies.

That measured out as a week and more of great eating and wine-drinking. And my birthday, Christmas and New Year Years are coming right up! One has to plan ahead for these things!

This has happened to me twice this year at high-end, white-tablecloth restaurants.

RiceNot RiceI order an entree that comes with cauliflower risotto, thinking, “Hmm, that sounds pretty good.” Waiter brings the plate, there’s a white, slightly lumpy, slightly liquidy substance, I dig in, there’s no rice; it’s not risotto; it’s creamed cauliflower. And when I say to the waiter, “Uh, that’s not risotto,” he replies, “Oh, no, sir, that’s cauliflower chopped to look like risotto.”

I’m the victim of menu wit.

Now is when I want to grab my plate, burst through the metal swinging doors into the kitchen, confront the chef, perhaps grabbing him by the collar and knocking the tocque (or Red Man cap) from his head, and shout, “Risotto means rice, got that, Jack?”

It was bad enough in the 1990s and a bit into the 21st Century when ingredients or elements of a dish described on a menu were placed inside quotation marks to indicate coyly that a little joke was being played on the diner, that chef was exercising culinary cleverness. So a salmon “chop” isn’t like a lamb chop — salmon don’t have chops or “chops” — but a fillet rolled up and sauteed, and a lobster “sandwich” isn’t a sandwich at all but a piece of lobster and other stuff balanced atop a large crouton, and mushroom “marmalade” isn’t marmalade, of course, but mushrooms cooked down with white wine, butter and truffles and lightly caramelized, and so on. Ha-ha.

Apparently, however, chefs are abandoning the tendency to hint at their whimsy, leaving diners to guess why their cauliflower risotto seems, oddly, like the creamed cauliflower their mothers made at home, sans Velveeta.

These matters run about the country’s restaurants in waves, and we will soon see “cauliflower risotto” disappear from menus as surely as the kiwi, the ostrich (thank god) and Parmesan foam. I’m not saying that chefs shouldn’t be creative and work their ways and wills upon ingredients, but it would be nice if they didn’t think they had to be magicians and wave their wands and capes to mystify us with outrageous daring, yoking disparate foods in unholy alliance or manifesting ponderous jollity that falls flat at the table. Just good, authentic, tasty food is enough for most of us.

So, what is risotto? Let’s allow Marcella ‘May Her Name Be Goddess’ Hazan to tell us, from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992):

“The risotto technique exploits the uncommon properties of certain Italian rice varieties whose kernel is enveloped by a soft starch known as amylopectin. When it is subjected to the appropriate cooking method, that starch dissolves, creamily binding the kernels together and fusing them, at the same time, with the vegetables, meat, fish, or other ingredients in the flavor base. The resulting dish is a risotto.

The “appropriate cooking method” is the time-honored procedure of standing at the stove and gradually adding warm stock to the mixture of sauteed rice and onions, stirring constantly, a process that usually takes 25 or 30 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all the broth and is cooked al dente. There’s no other way to do it. The rice varieties that work best are arborio and carnaroli.

Notice that Hazan says “creamily binding.” I have never understood why chefs, after cooking, add cream or butter to risotto, which, by its nature, is already plentifully rich and creamy. Additional cream or butter makes risotto, to this palate and stomach anyway, beyond the pale with richness.

The risotto we prepare at home mainly is a shrimp risotto from that funny and poignant restaurant-and-eating movie, The Big Night — The New York Times ran a series of recipes from the movie back then — and the hardest part of this dish is peeling the shrimp. The actual time spent standing there slowly stirring the broth into the rice I find sort of meditative. Think of it as Zen through cooking.

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