When I open a new cookbook, I’m always a little disappointed if it doesn’t include wine recommendations. I like to see what the chef or writer visualizes as the ideal wine with each dish and, of course, if I agree or not. In Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2005), for example, the founder of well-known Greens restaurant in San Francisco recommends with the Brussels Sprout and Mushroom Ragout with Herb Dumplings “a New World Chardonnay with rich fruit and a little oak, from Santa Barbara, such as Sanford or Au Bon Climat.” Now we make this savory, deeply flavorful and autumnal dish at least once during the Fall and Winter every year, and Madison’s recommendation brings a shiver to my very being. “No, no,” I want to shout, “this needs something crisp and incisive, a dry stony Alsace riesling or pinot blanc or maybe a sauvignon blanc that has seen no oak whatever.” It’s also good with a lean, minerally Anderson Valley pinot noir. See how much fun this is!

Anyway, there are several methods of recommending wines in cookbooks, and I’m going to use two volumes, published last year, as illustration. First is The Fire Island Cookbook by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (Emily Bestler Books/ Atria, $30), and the second is The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by celebrated French chef Alain Passard (Frances Lincoln Ltd., $29.95), proprietor of the restaurant L’Arpège in Paris. DeSimone and Jenssen, known as the World Wine Guys — and whom I know slightly, having been on a trip with them and other writers in 2010 — had a busy year in 2012; in addition to The Fire Island Cookbook, they published Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide (Sterling Epicure, $24.95).

The Fire Island Cookbook presents 14 menus, one for each weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so the emphasis is on food for summertime, when the living is reputedly easy. Each menu includes wine recommendations, most for each separate dish on the menu; occasionally the authors offer alternative wines. The menus tend to follow themes — Rainy Day French Menu, Villa in Tuscany, A Midsummer Night’s Dinner — and so do the wines, at least in terms, generally, of their country of origin.

For example, the America the Bountiful menu consists of a corn and tomato salad, grilled romaine BLT salad, peppercorn-brined pork chops with grilled sweet peaches and salted chocolate caramel brownies. The wine recommendations are all American: for the first salad, the Hearst Ranch Three Sisters White Cuvée, a roussanne-marsanne-viognier blend from Paso Robles; for the second salad, a Boxwood Rosé, a cabernet franc-merlot-malbec blend from a winery in Middleburg, Va.; with the pork chops either the Hudson-Chatham Cabernet Franc from the Hudson River valley or the Heron Pinot Noir (Paso Robles, Monterey and Russian River Valley grapes); and for the dessert, with the combination of salt, chocolate and caramel, a tot of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. My choice with the pork chops would be the cabenet franc, though it’s good to have an alternative here because wines from New York state are very difficult to find outside of New York and Connecticut. Of course Virginia wines aren’t easily found outside of Virginia, but one appreciates how the wealth is spread around in this selection.

And so on, with Italian wines for the Italian dinner and also for Peak Summer Produce; French wines for the “Rainy Day”; Spanish wines for the Spanish-themed meal; all California for the Fourth of July Pool Party; an eclectic range of Spanish, Italian, Rhône Valley and Greek selections for the Mediterranean Odyssey. The whole package, deliberately kept light-hearted, is thoughtful and appropriate. No vintages are given for the wines because doing that would date the book. For the majority of the wines, the most recent vintages are the best, or ask your friendly neighborhood wine merchant for advice.

We find a different approach in Alain Passard’s The Art of Cooking with Vegetables. This is a stylish book whose innovative and somewhat radical seasonal recipes are illustrated with the chef’s colorful and cute collages, though I would rather have pictures of the finished dishes; I assume that luxury, with the necessary prop person, stylists and photographer, would have added to the cost of the book.

Forty-four of the 48 recipes in the book come with recommendations for French wines; the remaining items carry endorsements for mint tea, a cocktail and a couple of Spanish wines. The wine recommendations can be maddeningly vague. A nod to “a young Riesling from Alsace” does little help since rieslings from that region range from jarringly dry to off-dry to various levels of sweetness. “A full-bodied Spanish red wine” or “a dry white Spanish wine” open daunting possibilities. Would any full-bodied Spanish red or dry white wine do?

On the other hand, the recommendations in this cookbook can sometimes be annoyingly precise (without mentioning producers or estates), as in “A dry, fruity, white wine from the Loire or from Alsace, preferably made from the Chasselas grape” or “a Chardonnay, preferably from the Jura.” The nits I am picking here don’t actually have to do with the recommendations themselves, many of which sound intriguing if not downright risky, as with the sweet gewurztraminer from Alsace matching Globe Artichokes with Bay Leaves and Lime, as with the difficulty of finding many of the wines in the United States, at least outside markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Wines from the Jura region or Jasnières, at 160 acres the Loire’s smallest appellation making wines sold mostly in the neighborhood, or a Floc de Gascogne or Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh are about as easy to find in American as a June bug on a duck farm. And how do you translate a chardonnay from the Jura region to, say, California? What’s the equivalent in manner and effect?

If I ever get to L’Arpège again — I dined there in March 1990, a decade before Passard took the restaurant vegetarian — I would like to try some of these unusual food and wine suggestions, but as far as making a fit with American cooks, that aspect of the book doesn’t work.

Bittman being Mark Bittman, and the recipe was the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese from his recently published The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35). Mondavi being the Robert Mondavi Winery and its Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. The match: Exquisite, though allow me to emphasize, as anyone writing about food and wine pairing should, that there’s no such thing as one wine being the sole Platonic beverage to sip with one particular dish; both food and wine are more versatile than that “perfect marriage” trope would have you believe.

Anyway, I think Bittman wouldn’t mind that we added a handful of diced applewood-smoked bacon and a scattering on top of homemade breadcrumbs to enhance the dish, since he offers variations on many of the book’s recipes himself. And the combination of bacon, figs and blue cheese seemed a triumvirate almost unholy in its synergistic appeal. Cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts (and, notoriously, artichokes) can be difficult to match with wine because of the presence (Education Alert!!) of phenylthiocarbamides, which produce bitterness — the ability to detect PTC, by the way, is genetic — and the sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. Still, in this dish the Brussels sprouts are chopped and distributed throughout along with other ingredients and the whole shebang baked. For the wine, I chose the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010 almost randomly and with a trace of doubt. I need not have worried.

The grapes for the wine derive from the Wappo Hill Vineyard in the Stags Leap District (51 percent), from Mondavi’s well-known estate vineyard To Kalon in Oakville (30 percent) with the remaining 19 percent from other vineyards in Napa Valley, the point being to balance grapes from different microclimates in terms of the effect that varying temperatures and soils have on their development and character. Sixty-nine percent of the grapes were fermented and then the wine aged five months in French oak barrels, the rest in stainless steel tanks. The blend is 94 percent sauvignon blanc and six percent semillon grapes. Winemaker is Genevieve Janssens.

The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010, notable for restraint and elegance, offers a pale straw-gold color with faint green highlights. Aromas of lemongrass, roasted lemon and verbena sift from the glass with back-notes of freshly mowed hay, lime peel, fennel seeds and a bare whiff of fig and gooseberry; you detect just a touch of oak in a sort of blond shimmer of wood and spice. This seeming welter of sensations is subdued to an admirable structure of harmony and poise, though there’s nothing delicate or fragile about it. It’s a mouth-filling wine, not quite dense but certainly displaying pleasing heft on the palate; at the same time, there’s an element of fleetness and transparency, abetted by crystalline acidity. To the citrus and herbal qualities are added hints of quince and ginger, a slightly more emphatic dose of fig — there’s that semillon! — and an ineffable quality of sunny leafiness through the finish. Again, you feel the oak as an influence on the wine’s spicy nature and the suppleness of its texture. Somehow the wine made a terrific match with the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese (and Bacon), allowing everything rich and savory and slightly sweet about the dish to have complete integrated expression and in turn bringing out the savory, spicy qualities of the wine. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $20, an Incredible Bargain.

This wine was a sample for review.

Not really with Mark Bittman, ha-ha, but from his new publication, The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35), which we have pledged to cook from through the month of January, starting last week. Here’s a report on what we have prepared so far and the wines we tried with the dishes. The wines were samples for review.
The first recipe we tried from this inventive and thoughtful cookbook was the Pasta with Smoky Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Bacon, to which LL added broccolini to get something green in there. This is a breeze to make, occupying about an hour, “largely unattended,” as cookbook writers say, and absolutely savory and delicious. Bittman recommends wholewheat pasta; we used penne rigate made from farro, a grain the name of which always makes me feel as if I’m standing in a field in Denmark under a sky laden with rushing gray clouds while a brisk sea-wind tosses the heads of numberless wildflowers.

Anyway, we have been drinking quite a bit of wine made from the albariño grape recently. Though not quite as versatile as riesling, which we tend to chose over other white grapes, albariño offers plenty of charm and distinctive qualities; it’s a signature grape of Spain’s Rias Baixas region, in the extreme northwest, right above Portugal by the Atlantic Ocean. The Zios Albariño 2011, Riax Baixas, from the 6,000-case Pazos de Lusco winery, is a perfect example of what the grape delivers. Made all in stainless steel, the wine shimmers with a pale straw-gold color; it’s clean, fresh and bracing, showing blade-like acidity for intense crispness and liveliness and a combination of spicy, savory and salty that’s very appealing. Notes of roasted lemon, grapefruit and spiced pears are highlighted by hints of dried thyme and rosemary; the wine is dry, spare, lean and lithe, yet supple in texture, and it gains subtle depth and layering as the moments pass. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.

Imported by Opici Wines, Glen Rock, N.J.
Next, the Miso Soup with Bok Choy, Soba Noodles and Broiled Fish, a dish so easy to prepare that you’re surprised how delicious it turns out. We used salmon for the fish, though it could just about anything that stands up to broiling.

So you’re thinking, “Ah ha, we know FK. He’ll choose a riesling to drink with this Asian-themed soup!” Yes, you know me well, but to confound expectation, even my own, I slipped a bottle of the Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, from the white wine fridge, and it fit with the dish like fine silver spoons in a felt-lined drawer. As is traditional at this venerable winery, which has been run completely on biodynamic principles since 1996, winemaker Ivo Jeramaz gave the Chardonnay ’10 moderate exposure to new oak (40 percent new, 60 percent neutral; 10 months aging) and did not put it through malolactic fermentation. The result is a wine that allows its grapes to speak for themselves in terms of expressive tone, texture and presence. The color is mild straw-gold with faint green highlights; heady aromas of lemon and lemon balm, yellow plums and camellias and back-notes of lime peel and limestone waft from the glass. This chardonnay resonates with crystalline clarity, purity and intensity, yet its overall raison d’etre is balance and harmony; one marvels at how a wine of such brightness and elevation can be grounded in elements of clean earth and limestone minerality and possess a texture that’s both fleet in acidity and talc-like in density. More than just a successful chardonnay, it’s an epitome. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Exceptional. About $42.
Finally in this trio of dishes is the most unusual we tried so far: Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese.” Good thing for the quotation marks, because this “Milanese” has about as much to do with the classic preparation — veal escalopes pounded thin, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and sauteed in butter — as Madonna has to do with, you know, the Madonna. But never mind, this seemingly strange sauce — onion, garlic, bell pepper, sardines, tomatoes, cauliflower, raisins and pecans — is actually quite tasty, with a cannily blended panoply of flavors and sensations. Despite the sardines, which cook away to richness and depth, this is definitely a red wine item.

Something based on grenache would have been appropriate, like the vivid, spicy Chamisal Grenache 2009, Edna Valley, that I had with a cheese toast lunch recently, but instead I pulled out the Steven Kent Folkendt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Livermore Valley. (I wrote about the complicated history of the Mirassou family and its winery and vineyards and the La Rochelle and Steven Kent labels here.) This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels for 24 months, with an alcohol content of 14.6 percent. Expecting something like an aggressive blockbuster, right? No, friends, the Steven Kent Folkendt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ’09 is a model of how the right grapes can soak up that oak and turn it into a eature of spicy, supple resonance and understated yet persistent support. The color is dark ruby shading to magenta at the rim; the bouquet of ripe, slightly smoky black currants, black cherries and plums is permeated by notes of lavender and violets, bitter chocolate and a powerful graphite element that emerges from the background. This cabernet is characterized by superb balance, tone and bearing, though that graphite-like mineral quality intensifies as the moments pass and silky, dusty tannins burgeon into dimension from mid-palate through the finish, which delivers (after 45 minutes or an hour) a healthy dose of brambly, walnut-shell austerity. Improbably, this seemed perfect with Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese.” Production was 82 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $65.

Randall Grahm sold the certified biodynamic Ca’ del Solo Vineyard in Soledad in 2009, so this Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, is the next-to-last vintage. The vineyard’s name is a pun typical of Grahm’s well-known wit; though it sounds Italian, the name refers to the state penitentiary at Soledad, outside of whose gates the 160-acre vineyard lay, hence, House of Solo. (Ca is short for casa; the locution is common in Venice.) The presence of the prison also gave rise to Bonny Doon’s Big House brand of inexpensive wines, a label of which Grahm divested himself in 2007.

Not much nebbiolo is grown in The Golden State. According to the annual California Grape Acreage Report, in 2011 there were only 166 acres of nebbiolo, accounting for a crush of 380 tons; total number of tons of all red grapes crushed in 2011 was 1.9 million, so we can see that nebbiolo is a specialty, nurtured principally by devotees, if not fanatics.

Nothing heavily extracted here, the color of the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is a lovely, limpid cerise-scarlet color with a faint garnet rim. The bouquet offers aromas of dried currants and black and red cherries with spiced and macerated aspects and hints of black tea and dried orange zest with leather and rose petals. About half the grapes for this wine were air-dried before being crushed, lending subtle notes of fruitcake in the nose and succulence on the palate, though the wine is completely dry and far more elegant than obvious. The wine sees neither new wood nor small barrels (aging in tanks and puncheons of French oak), and we wish that more producers in Piedmont would return to this old-fashioned way of making Barolo and Barbaresco from their nebbiolo grapes, instead of being slaves to the allure of the barrique. Anyway, for a wine as spare and reticent as this is, it delivers juicy black and red fruit flavors supported by smooth and slightly dusty tannins that provide a bit of earthy grip on the finish; otherwise, this nebbiolo goes down like warm satin. Nor is the grape’s legendary acidity lacking; the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is lively and vibrant. 13.7 percent alcohol. Production was 765 cases. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.

This wine was a sample for review.

We drank the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, with medium rare tri-tip roast cooked (with a slight variation) according to a recipe in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, 2009). This requires you to coat the meat with salt, pepper, sweet paprika and piment d’Espelette, the latter made from ground chili peppers grown only in the French Basque commune of Espelette and which I could not find anywhere, so I substituted smoked sweet paprika, Urfa pepper and chili maresh. Anyway, you wrap the roast in plastic and leave it in the refrigerator for 24 hours and take it out 30 minutes before it’s time to sear it in oil and butter with a smashed garlic, a sprig of rosemary and five thin lemon slices; the garlic, rosemary and lemon slices are placed on top of the roast and it all goes into a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes. Be sure to let the roast rest on a plate or cutting board for half an hour before slicing to let the juices redistribute. Tri-tip is not the most tender cut (which is why it’s relatively inexpensive) but it delivers a lovely, mild meaty flavor, enhanced, in this recipe, by the piquant spiciness of the coating. If you don’t have the cookbook, the blog Rocket Lunch reproduced the recipe here. We ate the tri-tip, sliced thinly, with roasted potatoes and a succotash of fresh corn, edamame and red bell pepper. A great dinner and bottle of wine.

The recipe for this terrific soup, which includes a drizzle of balsamic reduction, came from New Flavors for Soups: Classic Recipes Redefined, a Williams-Sonoma book published by Oxmoor House in 2009 ($22.95). This is an easy dish, which requires some fine chopping — onion, carrots, celery — but mainly involved sipping a glass of wine and reading the newspaper while things simmer on the stove. The smoked turkey legs came from Whole Foods. The “balsamic drizzle” is just 3/4s of a cup of balsamic vinegar boiled down to 1/2 cup, though I took it down to the point above still runny sludge. Other items we have prepared from this nifty volume include Chicken and Hominy Soup with Ancho Chiles (excellent); Spicy Turkey and Jasmine Rice Soup with Lemongrass (not so successful but our fault for not working well with lemongrass); and Cumin-Spiced Shrimp and Chorizo Gumbo, which was fabulous. Anyway I prepared the Split-Pea Soup with Smoked Turkey on the night when LL teaches and had it ready when she got home, along with hunks of crusty bread and a simple red-leaf lettuce salad. For wine, I opened the Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc 2009, Napa Valley. I include, below, notes on the 2008 version of this wine that I somehow neglected to write about last year. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramez. These wines were samples for review.
The Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, displays all the subtlety, suppleness and confidence that this wine typically offers. Made from certified organic and biodynamic estate vineyards in American Canyon and Carneros, the wine receives thoughtful treatment: 80 percent of the grapes ferment in 900-gallon French oak casks, with 20 percent fermented in used small French oak barrels; after fermentation, the wine rests on the lees in neutral barrels for six months. The result is a sauvignon blanc that balances richness and ripeness with nuanced details and elegant dimensions. Enticing aromas of peaches, yellow plums and roasted pears are permeated by hints of jasmine and honeysuckle and touches of nectarine. The wine is delicately grassy and herbal, with emphasis on juicy lemon and pear flavors beautifully set-off by fluent acidity, a finespun, almost lacy limestone element and that gently shaping hand of lightly spicy, nearly illusive wood. The texture is a seductive combination of graceful spareness and moderate lushness, with talc-like softness balanced by keen vivaciousness. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $30.
The Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc 2008, Napa Valley, received the same treatment in the winery as its younger cousin from 2009, yet the result was a different sort of wine. The ’08 is just as lovely, no, even lovelier, but the emphasis is on smoky grapefruit and lime with slightly more obvious spiciness and a swaddling of oak that warms and frames the wine even as vivid acidity and a burgeoning limestone factor provide balancing crispness and liveliness. Ginger and quince, orange blossom and a touch of green leafiness underlie refined peach, pear and grapefruit aromas and flavors set into a structure that’s a little more rigorous, perhaps even more powerful than the structure of the ’09, though this model (2008) never loses touch with its essential elegance and sophistication. The sense of presence and tone, the wine’s assurance and self-possession are utterly convincing and gratifying; also, it’s completely delicious. We drank this wine with seared tuna, bok choy and sweet potato salad. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2013 or ’14. Exceptional. About $30.

We were introduced to sorrel soup by Justin Young, who was chef at the now closed La Tourelle (in Memphis) in the early 2000s. Not having had such a thing in years, we bought a pound of sorrel at the Memphis Farmers Market last Saturday — the market will not open again until April — and looked for a recipe, which we found in the essential Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (HarperCollins, 1996).

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a green leafy vegetable, accounted more as an herb that vegetable in some national cuisines, whose chief characteristic is a sour grassy character that derives from oxalic acid, which is fatally poisonous in large quantities. How large? Sources aren’t very specific about that point. More than a pound certainly. Perhaps a bale.

Anyway the issue that intrigued me was what wine to drink with sorrel soup. That notable sour quality, which possesses a hint of sweetness — LL likened it to pulling up a grass stem and sucking on the root, a memory from childhood — might be a challenge to any number of wines. (The sourness is leavened somewhat by the gentle stewing in chicken stock of diced potatoes, carrots and onions.) In the interest of research, I lined up five white wines, several of which seemed probable matches and at least one of which seemed doomed to failure by its very nature. These were the wines we tried: Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008; Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009; Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008; Mendel Semillon 2009; Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009. These wines were samples for review.
Among this experiment’s surprises was how well, even how profoundly so, the Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008 went with the sorrel soup. The domaine was founded in 1840; the Burgundian negociant Louis Jadot acquired the property in 2008. The wine is, of course, made completely from chardonnay grapes; it ages half-and-half in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels and sees no new oak. I had doubts about chardonnay pairing with the earthy sourness of the sorrel, but the wine’s purity and intensity, its crystalline acidity and minerality created a risky synergy that practically vibrated in our beings. The wine is a medium gold color; aromas of roasted lemon are permeated by ripe peach and pear, with traces of quince and ginger and a hint of camellia. Befitting its pedigree and reputation — “the Montrachet of Pouilly-Fuissé” — the wine delivers wonderful presence and body yet remains delicate, fleet and racy. Citrus flavors dominated by lemon with a touch of lime peel are deeply imbued with baking spices but even more with depths of limestone-like minerality and scintillating acidity. Drink now through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Kobrand, New York.
Let’s turn to the simplest of these wines, simplest yet definitely lively, tasty and appealing. This is Aveleda’s Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009, from the vast Vinho Verde region that stretches north from the seacoast town of Oporto to the river Minho and also east and southeast of Oporto. (You drive east through this area to reach the Port estates of the Douro Valley.) The wine is a blend of loureiro grapes (55%), trajaduras (32%) and alvarinho (13%). These “green wines” are fresh and vigorous and intended for early drinking. Made all in stainless steel, the clean, fresh Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009 bursts with scents and flavors of apples, pears and spiced lemons bolstered by heaps of earthy limestone and vivid acidity. There you have it, and you could not ask for anything more from such a fresh, delightful wine. Drink over the next six months. Alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Very Good+. About $14.

How did this match with the sorrel soup? It didn’t. The sourness of the sorrel washed right over it, tromped on it, obliterated it, left it for dead.

Imported by Winbow, New York.
Let’s go back to France for the Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008, from Alsace. The estate is the result of the joining of two venerable grower families in Alsace, the Manns and the Barthelmes, each of which has been cultivating grapes since the first half of the 17th Century. The Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008 is absolutely lovely in every aspect. The color is bright, shimmering medium gold; aromas of apple and spiced pear, with a touch of leafy fig and orange rind, all founded on the dominent presence of limestone, balloon from the glass. The paradox of a texture that’s both suave and elegant, on the one hand, and nervy and crisp, on the other hand, contributes considerably to the wine’s charm and fascination. It’s quite lively and dry, vibrant with limestone- and shale-like minerality, and its spicy, slightly earthy citrus qualities increase through the finish. The estate is organically managed and certified by Ecocert. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Closed with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $20.

This was lovely with the sorrel soup, having the interesting effect of bringing out the herb’s hint of sweetness.

Imported by Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Penn.
Another very attractive match with the sorrel soup was the Mendel Semillon 2009, from the Altamira-Uco Valley area of Argentina’s Mendoza region. The vines, which stand at 3,600-feet elevation, are more than 60 years old, lending the wine irresistible depth and character. Fifteen percent of the wine aged eight months in new American oak barrels. Hay, honey and waxy white flowers, roasted lemon and lemon balm are woven in the seductive bouquet. If you can tear yourself away from these heady aromas, you’re treated to a wine that in texture and structure is as refined and ingratiating as you could ask for, though I don’t mean to imply that the wine is wimpy or over-delicate; in fact, it feels rather as if it had been honed from limestone and slate and burnished to a sheen with a little of that oak (and plowed by keen acidity). It’s sunny, leafy, with touches of fig and fresh-mown grass, hints of cloves and ginger, greengage and pear. Quite an experience, round, complete, balanced, complex. 900 six-packs were imported. 13.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25 and Worth a Search.

Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
Last, we come to a wine that was fine, you know just fine, with the sorrel soup but opened to more astonishment than the other wines because of its amazing quality and price ration. I wrote previously about the great bargain called Agustin Cubero Unus Old Vine Garnacha 2007. Today it the turn of that wine’s stablemate, the Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009, likewise from Spain’s Calatayud region, situated about halfway between Barcelona and Madrid (but closer to Zaragoza). The macabeo grape is also known, perhaps better-known, as viura, though clearly we’re not taking sauvignon blanc here. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is beguiling, intriguing and really pretty. Grass and hay, dried wild flowers, cloves and allspice, apple and pear, quince and ginger — all combine to charm and enchant. Now in truth these sensual qualities so seductive in the bouquet also characterize what goes on in the mouth; there’s no sense that flavors develop beyond the aspects of the bouquet (though the texture — the “mouthfeel” — is graceful and delightful), but who cares when the price is — ready? — a wallet-busting $9. Buy this by the case for drinking over the next year. The rating is Very Good+. A Bargain of the Century and Worth a Search.

Scoperta Imports, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

We continue to work our way through one of our favorite cookbooks, Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), by British chef and cooking personality Jamie Oliver. Many of the dishes he presents are eminently suited to the ferociously hot weather we’re enduring, that is, cooking is at a minimum (well, risotto takes some time at the stove) and the effects are light and delicious. We prepared these two meals on consecutive nights this week.

First was the Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili. This is basically a risotto, made the usual way, with minced onion and garlic (or shallot), white wine, a little butter, but halfway through, you add the thinly sliced fennel that you’ve slowly sauteed with pulverized fennel seeds, garlic and olive oil. You add ricotta, Parmesan and lemon zest before the cooking is finished and at the last minute sprinkle on the crushed — or “bashed up,” as Oliver says — dried red chilies, fennel tops and more Parmesan. This was a seriously tasty dish, bursting with sweet, earthy flavor and heat but not heavy or too spicy.

With the risotto, I opened a bottle of the Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, from the Coastal Region of
South Africa. Traditionally, the chenin blanc grape is called steen on labels, but that usage is becoming rare as the country’s wines are imported more widely into the United States. What a beauty this is! Scents of quince, yellow plum and pear are wreathed with crystallized ginger and cloves and a touch of honey. There’s more of a citrus tang on the tongue, like lime peel and grapefruit, with a hint of mango. The wine is notably crisp and lively, yet the lovely texture is neatly balanced between spareness and almost luxurious lushness. This aspect is tempered, as the minutes pass, by a tide of piercing minerality in the form of limestone and damp shale. At a bit more than two years old, the Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008 offers an alluringly mature example of the grape. The winemaker was Erika Obermeyer. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $16, representing Great Value.

The wine was terrific with the risotto, the richness and fruitiness of the chenin blanc working well with the sweetness and richness of the risotto yet playing off the heat from the dried chilies.

Imported by Graham Beck Wines, San Francisco. A sample for review.

The next night, we tried grilled swordfish with salsa di Giovanna, which could also be done with tuna. Giovanna sauce is really just a vinaigrette, but in addition to the olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper, it contains finely sliced garlic and chopped fresh mint and oregano. I mean, that’s it, but, mama mia, what a sauce it made for a wonderful, thick swordfish steak LL bought at Whole Foods. You just grill or saute the fish, and when it’s on the plate, dribble the sauce over it. Oliver gives credit to Giovanna, a cook at an estate in Sicily for teaching him this method. We tend to under-cook swordfish, so this was incredibly moist, tender and flavorful in the way swordfish can be when it’s not over-cooked, as it almost always is in restaurants. LL made roasted potatoes and bok choy sauteed in olive oil and garlic to go with the swordfish.

On this occasion, I opened the Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 2009, which carries a designation of “American.” That means that the grapes were grown in one state, in this case Washington, and the wine was made in another state, in this case, California. According to the TTB — Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — you can make a cross-county wine and list the counties on the labels –as in, say, 65% Napa 35% Mendocino — but not so with an interstate wine; those have to be called “American.” “Klickitat” is a county in southern Washington named for a Native American tribe of the Yakima group. The winery is in the town of Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

The Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 09 is a super-attractive wine on the model of the versions of Alsace, where the pinot gris grape can reach its apotheosis. Apple, lemon and pear aromas are woven with apple blossom and jasmine that develop, after a few minutes, lovely notes of tangerine and orange blossom. Plenty of flowers, yes, but the bouquet remains charming, balanced and compelling and not overwhelmingly floral. Spicy and herbal elements — spiced pear and lemon; dried thyme — make themselves known, both in the nose and mouth, and they increase their effect at the same time as the wine takes on more damp gravel-like minerality; while delicate in its constituent parts, the wine adds up to a substantial presence in its weight and lively, slightly lush texture. This all went down so easily, and it paired beautifully with the swordfish and Giovanna sauce. Winemaker was Doug Margerum. Production was about 1,450 cases. Drink through 2012. Excellent. Suggested retail price is about $16 (I mean at the winery), but here in Memphis, I paid $22.

There’s no need to dilate upon the extraordinary career of Manhattan chef and (now) entrepreneur David Chang, so this recapitulation will be brief. Chang is Korean American, and his culinary stomping ground is the East Village. First, in 2003, came Momofuku Noodle Bar, then, in 2006, Momofuku Ssãm Bar and then, in 2008, Momokufu Ko, which propelled Chang into the heady glare of celebrity, multiple awards and two Michelin stars. Adjacent to Ssãm is now Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar, and in April, Chang made a move into Midtown Manhattan and opened the French-Vietnamese restaurant Má Pêche in the Chambers Hotel; chef is Tien Ho.

Much of this brilliant career is related with verve, considerable drama, good humor and surprising modesty by Chang and Peter Meehan in Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, $40), a cookbook and autobiography written as closely as possible in the chef’s own salty language. It’s a tale of fits and starts, of experimentation, insane goofiness, failure, lots of beer and incredible success. The recipes fall into the order of the successive restaurants, Noodle, Ssãm and Ko. The Asian influence is profound, but more pronounced is the willingness of Chang and his various chefs to work New World variations on Asian themes, such as making the traditional Japanese dashi soup stock with bacon or to serve Brussels sprouts with a fish sauce vinaigrette.

I have not eaten at Noodle or Ko, which has only 12 seats, but I have dined at Ssãm four times: twice on consecutive nights in March 2007, again with LL in September 2007 and in May 2009. Every dish is a revelation of strangely complementary flavors and textures, but there’s nothing weird or excessively (that is, phony) witty about the food.

I was excited to get a copy (not free) of the cookbook, and of course I wanted to make something from it, but ingredients are sometimes exotic, and while many dishes seem entirely simple, others require several prep and cooking steps before the dish is finally put together. After reading the book several times and poring over the recipes obsessively, I settled on a dish from Ko, the Roasted New Jersey Diver Scallop, Kohlrabi Puree and Iwa Nori, part of the multi-course dinner from the original menu at Ko. These are the elements of the dish: 1. the scallop (I used two for each of us since this was our main dinner course); 2. kohlrabi puree; 3. pickled chanterelles; 4. finely julienne scallion; 5. bacon dashi; 6. iwa nori, or unpressed nori, the kind of seaweed (when compressed) that sushi rolls are made from.

First, I couldn’t find kohlrabi, so I emailed Peter Meehan and asked if fennel would work as a substitute; he said that fennel would be fine. Then last week, at the Memphis Farmers Market, several vendors had kohlrabi, so that was taken care of. The bacon dashi called for konbu, another form of pressed seaweed. Whole Foods stocks konbu but not iwa nori, used as a garnish on the dish, so I substituted the dried seaweed wakame, which looked very pretty on the plate as well as providing a welcome bit of crunch. Nor could I find chanterelles, so I substituted shiitakes. (Mea culpa, chef!)

Last Sunday morning, I made the bacon dashi, the kohlrabi puree and the pickled mushrooms and put them in the fridge. No food processor used here; the kohlrabi puree is made the old-fashioned way, simmering chunks of kohlrabi until they’re soft, mashing them with a hand masher and forcing the mash through a fine sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. That night, it was just a matter of slicing a scallion “incredibly fine,” as the instructions say, and soaking the strips in cold water, where they curl around very nicely, and gently warming the dashi and the puree. From that point, things happen quickly. I had the plates ready and warmed. I salt-and-peppered the large sea scallops and seared them in grapeseed oil and after about 90 seconds, added butter to the pan and when it had melted used a spoon to scoop the butter over the scallops. This all takes about three and a half minutes, tops.

The assembly is: A smear of kohlrabi puree and then the scallops on top of that, in a wide, shallow bowl; the slices of pickled mushrooms, the tendrils of scallions, artlessly arranged; a scattering of wakame; a few spoonfuls of bacon dashi ladled into the bowl; sea salt. The result is captured in the image above. I was, frankly, damned proud of myself; the dish looked beautiful and tasted fabulous, with layers of contrasting and complementary textures and flavors that were playful and satisfying. Particularly important were the smoky bacon dashi and the briny pickled mushrooms and the manner in which they infiltrated the rich succulent sweetness of the scallops and the smooth, sapid earthiness of the kohlrabi puree.

For wine, I opened the pale straw-blond Plantagenet Riesling 2008, from Western Australia’s cool Great Southern region. Founded in 1968, Plantagenet was the first winery in Great Southern.

A few sips taken while I was cooking were quintessentially lively with scintillating limestone and actually puckery with animated acidity. The dish gently moderated the wine’s aggressive stance and emphasized the camellia-jasmine floral elements and scents and flavors of lemon and pear delicately touched with notes of lemon-grass, lime peel, ginger and quince. This is a riesling of lovely purity and intensity whose pert cool crisp character is enveloped in a seductive texture of talc-like softness. The alcohol content is a comfortable 11.7 percent. I’ll drink to that! Drink now through 2015 to ’18 (well-stored). Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

Earlier this week, I had Jamie Oliver’s Parsnip and Ginger Soup and Coda alla Vaccinara (Roman Oxtail Stew) ready for LL after her teaching night; she gets home about 8:45 or 9. The soup is from Jamie’s Food Revolution (Hyperion, $35); the oxtail stew is from the April issue of Saveur, and can be found here. While both dishes require some chopping and mincing, once you’ve done that, they’re easy.

Oliver’s book is subtitled “Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals.” Recipes are simple but inflected with the chef’s habitual enthusiasm. The soup truly is delicious, smooth and earthy, but needed more gingery flavors. Oliver calls for “a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root,” and I guess that thumbs come in different sizes.

The triumph was the Coda alla Vaccinara, a superbly rich and flavorful rendition of oxtail stew in an intense tomato sauce that simmers for about three hours, the last 40 minutes or so with stalks of celery that turn meltingly tender. This is the dish that requires a lot of mincing: pancetta or guanciale, onion, celery, carrots, garlic. After you brown the oxtails, which are cut into small sections, and remove them from the pan, you soften all the minced stuff in the remaining, highly flavored olive oil, add red wine and cook until it evaporates — this process adds to the intensity — and then put the oxtails back in the pan with the contents of a large can of tomatoes (squashed by hand) and some water. Cover the pan and go about your business for two hours. Then, for the last 45 minutes to an hour, with the celery stalks, you leave the lid off the pan, so the sauce reduces and the flavors and texture become concentrated. Altogether, it cooks about three hours. Yeah, this is a great dish, and the sauce alone would be fabulous with pasta. In fact, I prepared the recipe for four people, so I think when it’s time to hit the leftovers, I’ll scrape the meat from the bones and serve meat and sauce with penne or farfalle.

I know that I should have served an Italian red wine with the oxtails, but the only Italian reds I have on hand are some Barolos and Barbarescos from 2005, and I’m not touching those for five years. Instead, I turned to the Loire Valley, cabernet franc and the Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur 2008, from the Saumur-Champigny region. Along this stretch of France’s longest river, the appellations of Anjou, Saumur, Bourgueil and Chinon all cultivate the cabernet franc grape, known in these areas as côt. Unlike in Bordeaux, where cabernet franc is an integral factor among other grapes in the red wines, in the Loire cabernet franc is not blended with other grapes.

Since 1928, profits from the Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur wines have benefited a local children’s hospital.

The first impression is of a smoky, dusty, earthy wine that faintly emits hints of black currants and black cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring out touches of cedar and tobacco, powdered shale, and more deeply spiced and macerated black fruit. Dusty, graphite-laced tannins deliver not a little austerity for the first few hours the wine is open, though the next morning the wine had smoothed out beautifully, revealing lovely balance and tone– and more smoke and a whiff of black olive — though retaining a tight grip on vibrant acidity and a spare, reticent character. A textbook model of Loire Valley cabernet franc that could be a bit less unbending. I recommend opening the wine three or four hours before serving. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Very Good+. About $20 to $25.

A Bourgeois Family Selection, Asheville, N.C. A sample for review, but not from the importer.

So last night, we did use the rest of the oxtail stew for a pasta sauce, first carving and scraping all the tiny shards and shreds of meat from the chunky little bones. This was such a rich, hearty and deeply flavorful sauce that we didn’t even grate any Parmesan cheese; it would have been superfluous.

For wine, I opened the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley, made from a biodynamic vineyard certified by Demeter (if that means anything to you and if you care). The year saw much less rainfall than normal, so yields were reduced and grapes were smaller, a factor reflected in this wine’s intensity and concentration. What’s interesting is that in contrast to the ideal (or delusion) of heavily extracted zinfandels in California, this zinfandel offers a lovely medium ruby color rather than the dark purple nigh unto black that we so often see. (Remember, the opaque darkness of the color of a red wine has nothing to do with its quality.) This zinfandel is very spicy and peppery, bursting with notes of blackberry and blackcurrant with a back-tone of strawberry. Dusty, velvety tannins are palatable but firm, while the oak influence — 15 months in large French casks (no new small barrels) –contributes subtle shape and suppleness. Layers of briers and brambles, a distinct mossy/foresty element add complexity to the ripe black fruit flavors, which include hints of mulberry and boysenberry, and the wine finishes with a filigree of wild fruit and exotic spice. Alcohol content is 14.9%. A model zinfandel made in a thankfully non-exaggerated manner. Drink now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $35.

A sample for review.

LL teaches on Tuesday nights in the Spring semester, so dinner duty falls to me. It’s a good opportunity to try new dishes, some of which are all right — the green lentil curry was O.K. if you like hippie commune food circa 1968 — and several of which are keepers.

A definite keeper is the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Citrus Sauce, from the January issue of Food & Wine magazine. The recipe is a simplified version of the dish created by chef John Sedlar at Rivera in Los Angeles. According to the article, Sedlar uses “a range of citrus, including Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and pomelos,” though “the dish is just as delicious with a simple mix of navel oranges and limes.” Blood oranges would have been good, but we don’t see them in markets here until late April. And, I’m here to tell you that segmenting a lime is about as easy as picking the white off rice. Even navel oranges don’t segment that easily; they tend to shred. Satsumas, on the other hand — Citrus unshia, formally speaking — peeled and separated easily and beautifully. They’re in the foreground on the accompanying image; the frowsy-looking navel segments are in back, hiding behind the chicken. As you can see, I served the dish with a little farfalle pasta, to soak up the

Anyway, this is a terrific, intensely flavored dish, and LL heartily approved.

To drink with the Citrus Chicken, I opened a bottle of the Hugel & Fils Pinot Blanc Cuvée Les Amours 2006, from Alsace. Nothing mysterious or obscure here; Hugel’s Cuvée Les Amours Pinot Blanc is widely known and, in this house, admired. The 2006, with three years on it, delivers a muscat-like floral-oily musky-funkiness that immediately draws you, delicately yet inevitably, into its sensuous and slightly outré precincts. The wine is loaded with notes of roasted lemon and lemon curd, smoked orange rind and lime peel, cloves and ginger, all stretched upon taut strings of bright acidity that keep it fresh and vibrant. Just lovely, for drinking through 2011 or ’12, well-stored. Excellent and Great Value at about $17.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
A review sample.

Last night’s Pasta alla Norma came from Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), a very engaging book by Jamie Oliver. This was a real winner on any scale of judgment or comparison. The preparation is pretty simple. You fry small skin-on slices of eggplant sprinkled with dried oregano in olive oil until golden brown — and I’m here to tell you that golden brown segues to black ‘n’ burned really quickly — then add some dried red chili, sliced garlic, finely chopped basil stems, a dollop of white vinegar — I used agrodolce — let that cook for a bit and then pour in a can of diced tomatoes and the juice. Give it 10 or 15 minutes to simmer and throw in some basil. Add the pasta and a little of the pasta water. Garnish with more basil, some grated pecorino and crumbles of salted ricotta. This was seriously great and intense, and I have a feeling that I’ll be cooking it fairly often.

Here I opened a bottle of the Easton Wines Zinfandel 2008, Amador County. What a classic of zinfandel purity and faceted completeness! The wine is rich and succulent, deeply spicy and flavorful yet restrained and balanced by a structure that’s stalwart and rugged without being rustic, dense and chewy without being ponderous. Black cherry and blackberry flavors, sporting an edge of molten mulberry, black pepper and crushed gravel, get earthier and fleshier, more briery and brambly with a few moments in the glass; you also feel the wood more, a slightly spicy, dark graininess, from 10 months in French oak. There’s plenty of substance here, a flirtation with black leather allure, but the wine is also clean and forthright, an eloquent and rather wild expression of the grape. Excellent and a Great Bargain at about $16.

A review sample.

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