Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sipping Port in my smoking jacket

This morning while kneeling over one of those irritating table-top ironing boards, I looked over at what I'm calling "The Wine Rack That Ben Built"* and noticed that it was fully stocked with an amazing assortment of wines. I think that this is my initiation into adulthood for many reasons: 1. I have a wine rack aka furniture that didn't come with the room; 2. I have an existing bottle of wine, not just a recycling bin full of empties; 3. Each bottle of wine cost more than $10.

In the wine rack I have an Alamos Malbec, a Pinot Noir from Sonoma (from Lot18.com, a great wine site with super values), a French and a Californian Rose (also from Lot18), a Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon and a few other easy to drink table wines. I will be tasting and testing and writing about them all... but in a fit of adulthood inspired writing, I wanted to write about something that makes me feel (and seem?) rather ancient: Port.

Port is one of those things that you immediately associate with elderly men and cordial glasses. Maybe a smoking jacket, too. Happily it's not only something pulled out of musty cellars by British men with bad teeth, but it's also pulled out of liquor cabinets by my father, who has decidedly less bad teeth than the British.

My Dad loves port and first served it to us as part of one of my parents' anniversary dinners. We had it with cheese and pears, in tiny little crystal glasses. And I thought it was the worst thing in the world, besides peas, that I'd ever ingested. Lucky for me, my Dad forced me to finish my glass (isn't this backward?)... and continued to make me finish my port glass from then (I was maybe 16) on. I remember having port on the holidays when we were visiting my grandmother, and then at home a few times in the evening while playing cards. And I don't remember liking it very much until a few days ago when I had an amazing port that was on sale at Trader Joes (you can find it at Safeway too). The Warre's Warrior Porto Wine Special Reserve (normally $18, marked down to $14.99), is one of the oldest brands of port still in existence. Warre's was founded in 1670 in Portugal by the British.

Though I don't have any tasting notes to offer you, but that it was a lighter, more palatable port (without sacrificing richness or that fortified sweetness), it did pair amazingly well with the strong cheese we had it with. If you're interested in port already and want a great one, check out the Warre's. It's consistently rated between 88 and 91 points by Wine Spectator and I don't think you can find a better port for under $20.

Some helpful Port drinking hints: If you're going to buy port, buy some pairings too - I prefer Stilton cheese, but a blue cheese will work as well. I also love pears or apples with port. Though some people prefer dark chocolates, but I think the sweetness can be overpowering. When tasting the port with a strong cheese, if you take a small piece of cheese and start to chew it, then have a sip of the port, the two together will combine to become a brand new flavor. For people that are new to port entirely, it's best as a dessert substitute. Port isn't meant to be gulped or chugged, but instead is best sipped leisurely in teensy glasses while talking about your land holdings and your impudent serfs.

*"The Wine Rack That Ben Built" is a long story with a happy ending. About a month and a half ago, as I went to order a wine rack on Amazon.com, Ben decided he was going to make me one. He designed a rack in class, calculated the angles, the lengths, the sizing... and then we went to Lowes, where it cost more than the online wine rack to buy the cart full of tools and supplies. A few mis-cuts, a few more trips to Lowes, one injured shoulder muscle, and weeks and weeks later: he was able to finish it. In summation: it may have taken forever and cost more than the $30 rack on Amazon, but it's gorgeous and a lot more love went into building it than would have gone into a credit card swipe.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ode to Gourmet Grocery Stores (and wine, of course!)

We have a gourmet grocery store in Tacoma (and the greater Seattle area) called the Metropolitan Market and it is a magical place where you feel so happy that you empty your wallet on needless things like caramel lace cookies and five dollar creme brule desserts that come with free shaped rammakins. About once every few weeks I need something so obscure that I have to go to the Met to find it - like Japanese rice flour for mochi or coconut milk, instant polentas or pre-made tapenades. And about once every few weeks I walk out of the store with whatever obscure item I needed and about forty dollars poorer.

Because yesterday was a part of one of those weeks, I want to write a mini ode to the Met (and don't worry, their wine selection is included here!). Ben and I consider the store our special occasion/fancy/treat store. If I'm having a bad day, it's inevitable he'll suggest that we go to the Met and get a picture sugar cookie (they're always seasonally or event-themed by shape and coloring - fall leaves, Oscar figurines, peaches). And if we want a fancy 22 oz. beer that we can neither afford nor find anywhere else, it's to the Met for an 9% Black Boss Porter in tiny bottles or a regal looking bottle of unpasteurized Trappist monk-brewed Trippel Ale.

When you first walk into the met you're greeted on the right by pastries, and petit fours, decorated cakes and bursting eclairs. On the left, a whole host of hydrangea flowers and potted orchids with gigantic purple sprays. And directly in front of you: every single kind of bread and cheese you'd ever want. They have plates of cheese for tasting - 26 month Goudas and Asagio Parmesan wheels and giant stinking hunks of french blue cheese. The bread wraps around the cheese like a happy food shawl, rosemary breads and little loaves stuffed with garlic - all for about $4-6 a loaf and baked fresh. It's a scary place to walk around in when you're hungry.

After winning some money from a wine contest I entered on Snooth.com (yay!) and deciding to celebrate with... well, wine, we went into the Met to get some cheese to pair with it. They have this amazing little basket in the cheese section where they throw the ends or irregular cuts of their cheese loaves. And you can get a great piece of cheese to try for $1-3. We ended up picking out an English White Cheddar, that 26 month aged Gouda, a French Raclette (a soft cheese that was a bit stronger than brie), and finally an Emmental (a cheese from Switzerland). We added to that the Met's marinated mushrooms and a loaf of French bread and then a wine I'd bought there a while back and hadn't had a chance to drink.

I had been hearing great things about the 2009 Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône Reserve and, eager to branch my wine tastes into France a bit, had picked it up. I was worried that the wine would be a bit too spicy and rustic for my tastes, but after opening it up and drinking it next to all of these fantastic cheeses, I fell in love. This wine, for about $10.99 at the Met (it ranges from $9-$15), was everything you'd want in a pairing wine. It went well with cheese, and the salmon I later had for dinner, but I can see it as being a delicious addition to a pork meal as well. The wine smelled extremely peppery and acidic, but the bouquet softened considerably when I actually drank it. Though the pepper and spice remained a prominent feature of the wine, the tannins were smooth and the wine was hardly acidic at all. The finish was remarkably smooth for such a spicy wine. I would highly, highly recommend this wine, especially as a great initiation into the Côtes du Rhône region.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fall is here, feel the chill

The days have gotten cold, not yet the bone-chilling, chattering-lower-jaw dampness of Washington winters and yet also not quite the 60 degree blustery weather of summertime. And fall here means pumpkins, and oddly shaped squashes that look decorative rather than delicious. It also means that apples are finally back in their fill-the-grocery-stores glory. Honeycrisps and Pink Lady's and Gala apples abound. And then there are the Asian Pears replacing the peaches and the big heads of cauliflower and thick, earthy carrots lining the Farmer's market booths. The trees are in every single color but green, smoky reds and deep oranges and soft yellows that remind me of salt water taffy. And on top of all of it - everyone is wearing scarves and watching their breath fill the air in front of their faces with whispy, smoky trails.

It's officially fall in the Northwest.

And so I have been spending an ungodly amount of time on Foodgawker looking for recipes to inspire me for Thanksgiving. Ben and I are doing our first non-family Thanksgiving this year and I'm already nervous that the turkey will indeed take four more hours than I anticipated and my house won't have enough non-stick pans for making every single dish... but that's all over a month away.

In order to start practicing, I picked up a jar of canned pumpkin puree the other day and set to work on two small loaves of pumpkin bread. So last night, covered in eggs, sugar, and pumpkin, with a glass of merlot in one hand and a horribly inefficient electric hand mixer in the other, I made my first successful pumpkin treat of the year. Besides the understated cooking time (recipe's suggestion: 50-60 minutes, real life: 90-120 minutes), the bread came out moist and dense and perfect for chilly mornings with coffee. I toased it in the toaster this morning and buttered the crisp deep brown bread and it was delicious.

But more about that merlot... I'm fighting that wine rut I mentioned in the last post, with all the income that I've got. I picked up two bottles of recommended wines at Fred Meyer the other day that looked warm and inviting for the cold nights. The first, which I tried the other night, was a 2008 Washington Hills Merlot ($8.99). It was a nice warm merlot, perfect for the weather and perfectly Washington-oriented as it comes out of the Columbia Valley. The wine smelled well-rounded and turned out to be so. Though the bouquet started out light, it developed into a spicier and fuller wine with a hint of oak. The finish had a bit of mineral to it and the wine ended with soft tannins that left a great mouthfeel. The wine felt great to drink.

I'd thoroughly recommend checking out Washington Hills wines, if you live in Washington and want a great local wine that's inexpensive. Washington Hills repeatedly recieves Best Value awards from Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. And enjoy the fall! It's a great time to drink great warm red wines and eat savory foods made of those rather decorative squash.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Wine Rut

I've been in a wine rut lately. I have all of these great plans to buy a half-case of some wines I've been dying to try, but I keep putting it off, paycheck after paycheck. I even have three bottles on my nightstand that need to be opened, and yet, I just don't feel like drinking them. I'm not sure why I've felt so stuck, but I think it might have to do with not having wine on hand that I particularly want to try. I'm hesitant about the 2009 Reserve Perrin Cotes Du Rhone I currently have, because I'm worried it'll be too spicy and rustic for my tastes, though I know that it got great reviews. The other two wines I have are beautiful salmon colored Roses that it's neither cool enough or sunny enough to open. 

And so the other day, the only thing that got me to hold a glass of wine in my hand was a surprise bottle. Ben ran out on an errand to the other day and brought a 2009 Gabbiano Chianti Classico ($8.99) because it was cheap and he really loves Anthony Hopkins films. I promptly distrusted his judgement and the idea that a drug-store had a wine buyer, and was worried that the wine wouldn't pair with anything but human skin. When I googled it, the first result said that "Gabbiano Classico Chianti is...the Heinekin of Chianti." Well, at least the wine wasn't in a straw bottle.
And then I tried the wine with some dal curry, on a cold night, and it was an extremely drinkable, basic table red. Though the first sip was a bit sharp and the tannins harsh, after a few minutes, the wine rounded out nicely. The best sip was full of warm plum flavors with a smooth, full-bodied finish. The bouquet had mineral notes, which added to the body of the wine very nicely. I was expecting something a little more rustic in this wine than what we tasted. Instead the wine was full bodied and warm, without being sharp. It went well with a movie and some curry and I'd definitely buy it again to pair with just about anything.

This being said, I need some suggestions. Some pairings, some great recommendations, some mind-blowing (and cheap) bottles that will make me want to dash to the store and pick up a bottle or two. If you have any, let me know! In the meantime, I'll try to find some inspiration in this really amazing chart from the NY Times with suggestions of great wines under $12. Check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/02/magazine/02-winechart.html

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cooking time and wine

The best part about graduating from college and getting a full time job, is that I have the time, energy, and money to do things I’d never been able to do before. I’m speaking specifically about cooking, but other things like doing laundry also apply.

I’ve never been a cook. I baked sporadically with my Mom in high school, and I used to make myself a fried egg once every six months just to prove to myself that I had it in me… but other than that, I let my boyfriend do the cooking. I did the dishes. I blame my parents. They raised me with absolutely amazing food. When I woke up in the morning, there were eggs and toast (or sourdough pancakes) being made for breakfast. And for dinner, my Mom always had a recipe book open, making something elaborate and delicious (like hand-wrapped Chinese dumpling soup). The lesson I took away was: why cook something mediocre myself, when I can ask Mom or Dad to cook something delicious.

And then magically, a few weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to bake cookies. Which turned into me deciding I wanted to bake another batch. Which morphed into two Sundays spent making stacked roasted vegetable enchiladas for dinner. Which turned into me spending most of my Sundays baking and cooking. It feels really good. I like moving about the kitchen by myself, surrounded by flour and food, the great smells coming out of the oven... and most of all, the happy faces that peer in waiting for the food to be finished (the cat and Ben).

This weekend was a great weekend for kitchen-y activities. This Friday, my friends and I had our weekly Friday night potluck dinners. We started this week with a heritage/ethnicity-based theme. Maria made blinis, which are like thin pancakes or fat crepes. We stuffed them with everything we could think of: sweet meats, sautéed vegetables, cooked mushrooms, sour cream, and finally jams and condensed milks. We had a great time, and while everyone else drowned themselves in White Russians, I jumped off of the Asian continent and headed back down to Chile for a Pinot Noir.

I drank a 2010 Cono Sur Pinot Noir, Adolfo Hurtado winemaker ($8.99) from Chile. The wine went surprisingly well with the medley of flavors in the blinis. I think a Pinot is versatile enough to compliment a heavy meal with its spicy bouquet and yet light enough to pair well with fillings like jam and sour cream. The nose was extremely acidic and I was worried that it was a bit young, but it turned out to be exceptionally smooth. The high acidity was nowhere to be found when I tasted it. I found it to be light and spicy on the first sip, with the lightest hint of fruit (maybe cherries). It finished with smooth tannins that melted away. This is the best Pinot Noir I’ve had under $15 and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

We finished the weekend off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market where we picked up delicious in-season fruit. Then I did a whole bunch of cooking (I made pink Japanese chi chi mochi, spam musubi for the house to try, and a haupia macnut dessert). It feels good to have the time and energy to cook, and it makes the house smell delicious.