Tom the Terroirble

An Herb to Savor: Pungent Papalo

By Thomas Madrecki

Is there any better feeling as a cook than “discovering” a new ingredient? Whether it’s an herb, a spice, a protein … being able to share a unique, different taste with your guests is a treat.

That’s why I was thrilled when a Bolivian farm worker at the Falls Church market shared a small bunch of herbs with me Saturday. Per my usual routine, I was picking through vegetables and greens, looking for something that rose above the rest of the crop. She pointed my way to a leafy green I’d never seen before — something she called “papalo.”

Incredibly pungent and flavorful, papalo — which I later learned goes by my many names, including Bolivian Cilantro — is a chef’s dream. Its leaves are soft and look vaguely like a cross between nasturtium leaves and clovers. This makes it particularly well-suited to small, plated dishes — and its explosive taste, reminiscent of the most flavorful cilantro you’ve ever had, has the power to elevate plain ingredients.

Certainly, this is not an ingredient for everyone; I imagine that those who find cilantro “soapy” would detest its even more over-the-top cousin. But for those who love the undeniably unique taste that cilantro brings to a dish, papalo offers a flavor that speaks more to the spirit of authentic Central American cooking. If you’ve ever tried a truly authentic taco — real carnitas, glistening in pork fat — or Oaxacan mole — redolent of spice, you know what I’m talking about.

Try to find papalo at farmer’s markets and Central American grocery stores during the summer months. Sold in tight bunches, a little goes a long way. Try it traditionally, with equally flavorful, chili-inflected dishes, or try it this modern way, as a complement to other summer greens:

Marlin With Greens

Ingredients

Four small “mini steaks” of blue marlin or swordfish
Decent handful of papalo leaves, washed and plucked individually
Decent handful of the smallest tatsoi spinach leaves you can find
Decent handful of fresh mizuna
Decent handful of purslane leaves, washed and plucked individually
Reduced chicken stock — please make it yourself!!

Method

1) After picking the herbs and slicing the small “mini steaks,” bring the (homemade!!) chicken stock to a simmer. Reduce until vaguely gelatinous when cool but still liquid enough to sauce the plates.

2) Heat a non-stick skillet to high. Drizzle safflower oil into the pan and when it shimmers and almost smokes, add the fish steaks. Sear on both sides until nicely brown and medium-rare inside. They should be plump and juicy, and have a wonderful buoyancy when pressed.

3) Quickly toss the tatsoi and purslane in a bowl with a bit of rice wine vinegar and salt, then place a fish steak on each plate. Season the fish with crunchy Maldon sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Quickly scatter the raw greens across. Drape longer, bending leaves of mizuna so that encircle the fish, letting the papalo and purslane fall randomly on top.

4) Serve. Finish with a few spoonfuls of heavily reduced chicken stock, letting the hot liquid soak the greens and make them tender.

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Michigan Pinot Noir at Brys Estate

By Thomas Madrecki

Never one to travel without first checking my wine options, I recently headed up to Michigan’s Traverse City area for a family wedding. To my initial delight, I found myself surrounded in vineyards.

Grapes, it would seem, are quickly beginning to replace Michigan’s beloved cherries as the crop of choice in this region. The reasons are economic: The labor and agricultural costs involved in cherry harvesting are higher than those for grapes, and at an even more basic level, it’s easier to grow a large number of grapes than it is a large number of cherries. Plus, the wine business is booming and many people increasingly view vineyards as a tourist attraction.

Winemakers here will quickly tell you that despite being perceived as “quite cold,” Michigan is situated no further toward the North Pole than Bordeaux.

To me, this is beyond deceptive. There is nothing about Michigan wine that resembles fine Bordeaux. The bracing winters; the hot and humid Midwest summers; the glacial soil composition; the breeze coming off the local peninsula lakes — all of these things contribute to a vastly different terroir that has a direct impact on the grapes and the wines produced.

This influence, needless to say, is not always a good one.

At one winery, I had the pleasure (misfortune?) to walk through a truly gorgeous, hilly landscape of vines overlooking the peninsula waters. But as the winemaker at this vineyard told me, he cannot grow grapes in Michigan without using extensive industrial practices. To him this was not an issue; he said it matter of factly and in a very American way. “How else would you grow grapes? We have lots of bugs, so we spray.”

Of course, if the wines he produced were any good, I might cut him some slack. Not everyone thinks natural or biodynamic processes are best, and there shouldn’t be some moral value judgement on that basis. Good wine is good wine. But this wasn’t cutting it — white, red, sweet … it just wasn’t really that tasty.

In other words: Just because you can make wine somewhere doesn’t mean you should. I mourned for the cherry trees uprooted to make room for young grape vines, trucked in from a New York greenhouse.

Thus, it was with very, very low expectations that I traveled to another Michigan winery just a mile or so down the road. How different could it be?

Unlike the first Michigan winery in question, however, Brys Estate is a smaller operation. It isn’t so small as to not have an open-to-the-public tasting room, but they clearly want to make real wine.

The other good news is that they’re being smart about it. Their signature varieties are mostly German — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Ice Wine. The slightly colder climate is better suited to these grapes than the grape varieties many American consumers want to see; local red wine is a gamble when you’re in Michigan.

So, I was not surprised to taste a very good Riesling or two at Brys Estate. But what was infinitely surprising and new to me was their Pinot Noir.

I can’t say for certain why, but Pinot Noir — unlike other red varietals — stands a chance in Michigan if Brys Estate’s 2011 bottling is any indication. For some reason, the most temperamental of grapes oddly takes to one of the most temperamental of grape growing environments. And the results are entirely unexpected. Rather than being green and underdeveloped, this was more akin to easy-drinking Italian Rosso. Smooth tannins with a rich earthiness and a touch of figs — my full review is here.

To be sure, there are still many aspects of Michigan wine that need a great deal of work. It isn’t a rising star quite yet; the quality isn’t high enough and my honest assessment is that most of the wines are vastly overpriced. You can’t necessarily blame the winemakers for this last fault; it’s a product of their small market and their limited production. But wines like Brys Estate’s Pinot Noir should give hope to those clammoring for a new New World wine region to give birth to something unique and different. Whereas even the Rieslings and Gewurztraminers could be duplicated elsewhere at a lower cost per bottle, this is a wine that stands out.

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Olivier Lemasson and My Crush on ‘Vin de Soif’

By Thomas Madrecki

Confession #1: I have an unhealthy relationship with an endlessly flirtatious redhead from Touraine. My girlfriend would not approve — if it weren’t for the fact that I’m talking about a wine.

The redhead in question is “Le Petit Rouquin” from Les Vins Contes, the label of young Loire Valley winemaker Olivier Lemasson. 100 percent carbonically macerated Gamay, it is incredibly affordable, incredibly drinkable and incredibly different than almost every wine you’ve tried before.

Confession #2: I’ve classified this post as the first entry in Wine Lines’ new “What’s New” series, despite knowing Olivier Lemasson and his wines for some time. He is one of the darlings of the natural wine scene, with his sheer disregard for his appellation’s agrement and his proclivity to make simple wines that are just pleasing to drink. But just because the likes of myself, Louis Dressner, Alice Feiring and hipster sommeliers in Paris and New York City have sung the praises of a producer hardly means he receives the widespread attention he deserves. Thus, he will make an appearance here.

A former sommelier, Lemasson exclusively produces unfiltered, terroir-driven natural wines that might be termed “vin de soif,” a phrase that loosely translates as “thirst-quenching or chug-able wine.” These wines, which are usually served lightly chilled, are universally low in alcohol and meant to be enjoyed with food. They are fun and fruity, but also have an indescribable savoriness that speaks to both uneducated consumers and wine snobs alike.

I’ve written previously about lightly chilled Old World wine, but there’s nothing quite like Lemasson’s “Le Petit Rouquin.” Vintage after vintage, it’s a steal at $15 a bottle, with dense, vibrant cherry fruit and a faint fizziness thanks to residual levels of CO2.

In my time traveling the world and tasting wine, I’ve begun to separate bottlings into two distinct but very simple categories: Boring and Exciting. Just because a wine is technically good doesn’t mean I find it particularly unique. Then there are other wines that grab hold of your senses from the first sip and refuse to let go. They speak to something that is very personal and remind you why people started waiting around for grape juice to ferment in the first place.

Lemasson’s wines clearly fall in the latter category. Their uniqueness is rivaled only by their drinkability, which is the only real downside — despite the low alcohol content, it’d certainly be quite easy to imbibe far too much. One doesn’t ponder and think about these wines so much as one drinks a whole bottle while tearing at a platter of pork shoulder and sausages roasted over an open fire.

But then again, that might be the point. To me, “vin de soif” isn’t so much a style as a philosophy. The emphasis here is on hedonism and enjoying life to its fullest. It’s just wine — really tasty, really affordable wine.

Now who can object to that?

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Bargain Hunting in Billings

By Thomas Madrecki

As a wine snob (err, yes, I’ll admit to it) of a younger sort, one of my favorite part-time pastimes is to spot under-priced bottles on out-of-date or out-of-the-way wine lists. There’s tremendous satisfaction in “getting your money’s worth,” and even more so when you’re able to locate an actually decent wine in an area you wouldn’t normally expect (say, the middle of rural America).

The easiest way to do this, of course, is to know a wide variety of producers and vignerons by name. That way you’ll be able to easily spot the gems tucked in around the less-than-desirable rubble. But beyond that, what can you do?

Well, knowing something about vintages and appellations helps, too. Earlier this year, while out celebrating my birthday, I took a chance on a 2004 Chenin Blanc that seemed drastically under-valued at a wine bar menu price of $39.99. The results were stunning; Chenin this old is often uniquely complex. Likewise, a 1990 white Rioja caught my attention at a wine shop for $24.99.

Generally, my belief with these wines is that given the reasonably affordable price-tag, the potential upside of an aged wine outweighs any doubts. If the producer seems like a generally good one — not some fly-by-night industrial operation, but a real producer of wine — and the wine has seen some time in the cellar, I’ll make the gamble. Most of the time, it (quite literally) pays off.

This past week, I’ve had the (mis)fortune of spending a considerable amount of time in Billings, MT, for a work trip. Now, I appreciate open-space and rural America as much as anyone, but I’d by lying if I didn’t think Billings was among the most boring “cities” across the country. Again, I’ll admit to being an East Coast snob. Cowboy hats and bars that have last call at 8:00 p.m. just don’t do anything for me.

A coworker (who lives in Billings) had a suggestion, though. “Why don’t we go to Bin 119, the wine bar,” he said.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly jumping at the prospect. A wine bar … in Montana. Uh-huh. Oh, and their sign says they also offer tapas.

Uh-huh.

Well, despite me having less optimism than a horseless rancher, I’d like to report that you can indeed have a decent wine experience in Billings.

You just have to know what you’re looking at.

See, the wine list at Bin 119 was littered with the usual suspects. A $45 bottle of Syrah there (that would be $15 in your everyday supermarket), a $60 bottle of Pinot Noir there (that would be $30 in your Whole Foods), a $110 red blend (that would be $50 in your local wine shop), and … wait, what? A 2005 Merlot from Columbia Valley-based Merry Cellars? For $50?

Deal. I’m rolling the dice on that one.

Did I know that the winemaker behind Merry Cellars, Patrick Merry, is a native Montanan? Nope. Did I know that he hand-selects and hand-picks his grapes? Nope.

And I’ll go even further. Had I even heard of Merry Cellars prior to tonight? Nope.

But trust me, I have an eye for dumb pricing schemes in restaurants and can also spot “small-scale producers” from a mile away. Industrial wines don’t have such … mm, how do I say this … non-marketing-friendly names, nor do they come in bottles sealed with wax.

So yeah, I’ll have the 2005 Merlot for $50 when Duckhorn’s tasty but arguably unremarkable Decoy brand is $45. And you better have bet it paid off.

Spotting under-priced wines isn’t actually that difficult. It just takes a careful eye — and a willingness to take chances.

Kind of like a wine bar in Billings…

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Simple Cooking for Maximum Flavor

By Thomas Madrecki

I may have worked in some of the most acclaimed and technically demanding kitchens in the world (Noma and Le Chateaubriand) but when it comes to my own cuisine, I first and foremost emphasize simplicity. That doesn’t mean the food lacks artistic flair or complex flavor combinations – it just means that I don’t see any point to spending five hours and $400 on something that could be done in 1 hour for half the cost. There’s good technique – and then there’s wasteful, pretentious technique.

More often than not, I believe simple, minimalistic recipes also tend to be more rewarding and interesting from a taste standpoint. The key is doing them right – fewer ingredients mean fewer ways to cover mistakes. It puts a premium on doing things the right way and carefully selecting ingredients. You really have to think about the food and ask yourself a series of questions over and over: Can I do this another way? Can I break it down even further? Can I get rid of something? Do I really need this? Should I even be making this dish if all the ingredients that appear fresh are different?

The reward for your time and effort, though, is food with ”cleanness.” Chefs say this all the time: “Dude, that dish’s flavors were so clean.” I have no idea how to explain what is meant by such vague word choice, but I suppose it’s an approximation of “fresh-simple-pure-straightforward-but-still-really-interesting.”

Last night, I was in a bit of a personal bind – I wanted to eat a great meal, but I also had a bunch of extra work on my plate and needed to pack for a conference in Billings (thrilling, I know!). The time crunch meant eating at some fancy four-star establishment was out of the question; so, too, was a painfully long prep process for a complicated home-cooked meal.

The answer was to push simplifying to its extreme. The pair of recipes that follow do just that, starting from traditional concepts – Fish with Thai flavors and a pina colada, respectively – and then warping and reducing them to something entirely new and exciting. It only takes three steps to build layers of flavor, especially when using pungent ingredients like Thai fish sauce. The pina colada ice cream, in particular, will surprise you – there’s only four ingredients and it requires no “cooking”!

With a focus on color contrast and making the most of fewer ingredients, this quick and easy meal would pair stunningly with a crisp, faintly sweet German Riesling. Try the 2010 Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp Riesling Fass 6 “Senior” from Saar-Mosel. It’s a deliciously complex wine, with a vibrantly floral nose and lush, wild, almost herbal tropical fruit.

Tom’s Thai Fish

2 fresh skin-on filets of yellowtail snapper, sea trout, rockfish or similarly mild, flaky fish – just buy what’s freshest!
2 Serrano chili, sliced into thin rounds
2 green onions, sliced into thin rounds
2 tablespoons fresh lemongrass, lightly blanched and finely chopped
Jicama, cut into thin rounds
Plum, cut into thin rounds
Belgian endive, leaves cut in half
Fish sauce (available in many Asian grocery stores and increasingly everywhere else)
Pomegranate Molasses (available in some Whole Foods as well as most Middle Eastern specialty stores)
Fresh lime juice, maple syrup, tomato vinegar and water to taste

Step 1

Make your sauce. In a small bowl, combine equal amounts fish sauce and pomegranate molasses, which here substitutes for the Tamarind paste used in traditional Thai cooking (it’s thinner, equally tart and makes an “uncooked” sauce more easily). You don’t need much sauce in all, so a few tablespoons of each will go a long way. Season with fresh lime juice, maple syrup, tomato vinegar and water. It’s all about personal preference, so taste frequently. Your main goal is just to create a sauce that is salty, sweet, tangy and has a distinct savoriness to it.

Step 2

Lightly sear the filets of fish in a nonstick pan with a bit of oil. Naturally, please don’t overcook them!

Step 3

Plate your quick and easy gourmet meal. Slather each fish filet with sauce and top with green chili, green onion and lemongrass. Artfully arrange Belgian endive leaves and rounds of jicama and plum to complete the presentation.

Pina Colada Ice Cream

1 can of coconut milk
1 can of coconut cream (the thick, gooey, unhealthy and overly sweet stuff used in pina coladas)
Fresh lime juice to taste
Splash (or two) of excellent rum – I suggest Plantation 1998 Gold Reserve

Step 1:

Mix all the ingredients. Yup, that easy.

Step 2:

Put ingredients in ice cream machine. Press button. Wait.

Step 3:

Chill for an addition 2-4 hours in the freezer until firm. I told you this was easy…

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Toying in the Kitchen #12: Popcorn Ice Cream with Caramel and Cheddar

By Thomas Madrecki

If you grew up (or have since spent a considerable amount of time in — Bob, I’m looking at you) Chicago, you likely won’t need an extended primer on why I’d marry the three ingredients listed in this recipe title. After all, it’s the trademark blend of popcorns — caramel and cheddar cheese — that stirs fans of the famous Garrett’s Popcorn in the Loop into a craving crazy.

But for those outside the Windy City:

It’s salty. It’s sweet. It’s salty. It’s sweet. And you can’t stop eating it.

To me, that’s enough for a dessert. But at a recent dinner party I wanted to push the combination further, into the world of dreamy ice cream sundaes.

I don’t say this lightly — it might be the best darn dessert I’ve ever made. And I have no qualms sharing such a recipe — after all, I can’t take credit for the flavor combination, and can barely take credit for the ice cream custard base (it’s inspired by an old Fredy Girardet recipe, with my addition of honey as an invert sugar and a bit of salt for added flavor).

Putting it all together is, as they say in the dessert world, a piece of cake:

Popcorn, Caramel, Cheddar Cheese

Ingredients

For the popcorn ice cream:

2 cups of heavy cream
1 3/4 cups of milk
7/8 cup of sugar
2/3 cup of honey
pinch or two of salt
3 bags of microwave butter popcorn (buy one that looks normal — go for the big-name brand, as you want that industrial movie theater popcorn taste, but don’t go for the outlandish “butter butter butter” or “crazy pepper pizza” flavorings)

For the caramel sauce:

1 1/2 cups of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of maple syrup
Water
1/2 stick of butter
pinch or two of salt

For the dehydrated cheddar cheese powder:

You thought you were going to make this on your own? Psh. Visit your local spice store. The high-end ones in Chicago and Washington D.C. both carry 100 percent pure cheddar powder, which is amazing stuff. Like if Kraft macaroni and cheese was actually real food.

Method

Step 1:
Pop two of the three popcorn bags in the microwave, being careful not to burn their contents. It’s more important not to scorch the bags than it is to have all the kernels pop.

Step 2:
Combine the milk, sugar, honey and salt in a pan and bring to a high simmer. When the ingredients have combined, take the pan off the stove and dump in the popcorn. Mash it down with a spoon and let the popcorn cream steep at room temperature for four hours.

Step 3:
Strain the popcorn mixture through a chinois or fine sieve into a clean pot. Push down hard on the popcorn to extract all the cream and flavor. Bring the cream back to a high simmer.

Step 4:
Temper the egg yolks. Pour a small bit of the hot cream into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour a bit more. Repeat the process until all the cream is incorporated. This is your custard base. Chill overnight.

Step 5:
The next day, make the caramel sauce. Add the sugar, syrup and a bit of water to a pan and bring to a boil. When the sugar starts to really bubble and froth, remove from the heat and add a touch or two more of hot water. Whisk and add the butter in small cubes, making sure to incorporate it gently and slowly. Pour into a heat-proof glass. As the brown sugar caramel cools, a layer of dirty looking, firmer molasses and other brown sugar additives will form on the surface. When it’s cool enough to touch, remove this layer with a spoon, being careful not to mix it back into the sauce.

Step 6:
Finish your ice cream. Pour the base into a pre-chilled ice cream machine bowl and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap until service.

Step 7
Plate. Pour a circle of caramel sauce, top with a scoop of popcorn ice cream and dust with cheddar cheese powder. Delicious!

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Pairing for Success

Note: This post was originally published on The Wine Key, a consulting business run by fellow wine blogger Charlotte Chipperfield.

By Thomas Madrecki

A guest at one of my recent dinner parties asked me a question about how I, as a chef who has worked at restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Le Chateaubriand, conceive of wine pairings.

To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought, at least philosophically. Certainly from a taste perspective, but not in some well-articulated way that would mirror my very vocal opinions on food itself, the nature of good cooking, etc.

So I gave the question some thought, and quickly came to a realization: There are actually three kinds of wine pairings in most restaurants:

1) The dish with which you’re pairing the wine has flavor and aroma components that resemble or are the same as the potential beverage choice, and vice versa. This is perhaps the most common and “expected” wine pairing, like serving roast duck with blueberry balsamic sauce alongside a Pinot Noir from Oregon, or a citrusy shellfish dish with a young, minerally Muscadet from the Loire Valley.

2) The restaurant unfortunately hasn’t been able to sell a certain wine by the glass or bottle, and so now resorts to forcing it upon diners as an appropriate (sometimes unusual!) pairing. What’s sad is just how frequently this occurs, and how readily unsuspecting diners are willing to gulp down a glass of wine they KNOW doesn’t work with the meal. Of course, all pairings born out of business desperation aren’t bad, but they’re rarely remarkable.

3) The dish with which you’re pairing the wine has flavor and aroma components that complement or add to the potential beverage choice, and vice versa. The rarest of all wine pairings, these tend to be truly phenomenal. Rather than merely mirroring flavors and aromas, they build upon them, heightening or expanding experiences. The sum of the two – the dish and the wine – is here greater than the parts.

I explained to my guest that my aim with wine pairings is chiefly to capture the third experience. While it’s arguably the riskiest, it has the highest pay-off.

Why is it the riskiest? That’s simple: When you’re looking to add flavor or heighten a flavor, it’s significantly more difficult to identify what wines will work and which won’t. Comparatively, it’s reasonably easy to match rich cherry and oak flavors with a dish that delivers much the same.

So first and foremost, you have to be willing to take a chance if you’re going to come up with a stunning wine pairing. If you’re not open to pushing boundaries or are afraid of displeasing your guests, this column probably isn’t for you.

The next step should be obvious: Taste the dish. That sounds easy, too, but this isn’t a time for simply evaluating whether the dish is tasty or not. Of course it’s tasty (why would you serve bad food to your guests?).

What you want to do is expand a range of flavors, textures, aromas and even emotional experiences. Chew and taste with a goal in mind, asking constantly, what’s missing? Is it acid? Is it a buttery-ness? Is it bitterness? Is it something vaguely smoky and foresty? Build an ideal dish and wine pairing in your head, placing sensory ideas in touch with your own knowledge of grape varietals, wine regions and all the unique variations therein. In a certain way, as you explore the dish on your plate, you’re mapping out and coming to know, almost geographically (if your plate was a globe), the ideal wine.

This mapping can take you in many directions, and as a risk-taking sommelier, you shouldn’t be afraid of going wherever your senses take you. Follow instinct and gut feeling.

That last sentence, “follow instinct and gut feeling,” reveals the true difference between wine-pairing options No. 1 and No. 3. The first, which puts similar or deeply contrasting flavor and aroma profiles together, relies chiefly on reason and logic. It makes sense to do that.

No. 3, on the other hand, relies chiefly on something beyond reason. Is it emotion? Is it feeling? Is it passion? Is it ignorance? Whatever it is, it moves past the limits of the human mind and aims to capture something only your fives senses can appreciate and translate. It doesn’t make sense, but it does sense.

The recipe and suggested wine pairing below goes a long way to capturing what is meant by the above paragraphs. My advice is simple: Start with the following, taste the dish and wine together, and then try to articulate (to yourself – maybe even on paper) why the combination works. Or if it doesn’t work for you, articulate that, too. At the end, regardless of the exercise’s outcome, you’ll have come closer to an understanding of your own pairing preferences.

Ultimately, it’s that individuality and distinctness that separates the good from the bad. Food and wine, after all, is a matter of personal taste.

Lamb, Charred Eggplant, Caramelized Onion

Serves four as a light main course

Ingredients:

1.5 pounds boneless lamb leg, preferably from a young animal reared locally in a humane, free-range environment
1 large eggplant
5 Sweet Vidalia onions
A bit of heavy cream

Technique:

Step 1:

Cut the five onions thinly and place them in a hot pan with oil. Cook the onions until deeply browned, stirring regularly and adding water as needed to prevent the onions from burning too much.

Step 2:

Keep cooking the onions. Whereas “browned onions” typically are taken off the heat after they take on a nicely burnished hue, you want something more like the color of mahogany wood. Carefully watch the moisture level of the pan; you’ll need to keep adding small amounts of water to extend the cooking time. The whole process should take upwards of two hours.

Step 3:

Let the browned onions cool briefly. While still warm, put them in a blender and add just enough heavy cream to loosen the mixture. Blend to create the equivalent of an “onion ganache.” It should be thick but easily spreadable, with a rich caramel flavor and a wonderful mouth-coating quality. Reserve until service.

Step 4:

Over an open flame, deeply char the exterior of the eggplant. Burn the skin black; don’t hold back. A grill works well and is reasonably clean; you can also use a gas burner (place the eggplant directly on the stove, like you would a pot). An “elite” move would be to stoke the grill with grape vine cuttings, which naturally burn extremely hot and will give a characteristic flavor to the charred eggplant.

Step 5:

After the eggplant cools, remove the charred skin using your hands, leaving trace amounts of char behind on the eggplant flesh. Break the eggplant into four long sections, pulling away as many seeds as possible. Reserve the flesh in a small pan.

Step 6:

Using a sharp knife, carefully butcher the boneless lamb leg, cutting in long, smooth cuts to remove excess fat and tough membranes. Aim to cut four “steaks” from the leg meat – look to isolate similarly sized pieces of the lamb, which are naturally broken up in the leg by virtue of the aforementioned fat and membrane.

Step 7:

At service, preheat your oven’s broiler and a stove-top pan with a bit of neutral oil (like grapeseed) until raging hot. Season the lamb leg pieces with a bit of coarse sea salt. Slide the eggplant under the broiler and while it reheats, sear the lamb. The pan should be hot enough and the steaks small enough that only about 1-2 minutes on each side colors the exterior but leaves the interior rare. Remove the pieces from the pan and allow them to rest briefly while you pull the eggplant out of the oven.

Step 8:

Finish the dish. Smear onion puree across the edge of the plate and lay a sliver of eggplant flesh across the opposing edge. Drizzle the eggplant with only a touch of extremely high quality olive oil. Place the lamb squarely in the middle of the puree and sprinkle lightly with coarse sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.

Suggested Pairing:

2008 Masseria Fatalone “Teres” Primitivo, Puglia, Italy (serve lightly chilled!)

Fatalone translates as “lady killer,” and though we cannot vouch for its effectiveness in that regard, this Primitivo — with its relatively low alcohol content — is certainly quite quaffable.

Appearances are often deceiving, but here, there is much to learn and appreciate. A dirty-looking pour, somewhere between brown and burnt red, is hot with funky smells of pork, open fields and dried cherry. Then there are deeply roasted almonds, raw ceps and juicy strawberry-inflected fruits.

Opened at room temperature, this wine seems lost in translation; served slightly chilled, it becomes a unique expression of an organic winemaker’s vision at a very affordable price point. No word yet on whether the winery’s “application of music therapy” to the grapes makes any difference, but at the moment, seeing how drinkable this wine is, we’ll allow for that sort of new age nonsense.

MSRP: $14 (May 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90

What You Should Be Tasting:

Smoke, ripe strawberry fruit, roasted mushrooms, forest berries, blood minerality.

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‘Chilled Out,’ the Euro Summer Fashion

By Thomas Madrecki

Ah, May – a ripeness just past the verdant green of early Spring, full of bountiful farmer’s market strawberries and fair weather days. Long-awaited during the dreary months of January and February, it’s finally here, lounging at the precipice of full-blown summer, fighting to sustain its place of moderation and seemingly perfect temperature.

But soon it will be gone. And in its place, a scorching heat only made livable by the existence of backyard BBQs, peaches and sweet corn.

For savory wine lovers, those summer times are often rough. Even well-informed drinkers typically unfazed at the thought of selecting a wine in a store might work up a sweat just trying to figure out how to still drink full-flavored red wine while not falling victim to drought of the mouth. Sure, a crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand might be refreshing and easily found, but such a wine rarely has the body to stand up to richer “summer” fare, like quickly seared lamb chops or medium-rare duckling with green garlic.

A fine dry-aged steak, barely grilled and still pulsing red on the inside, seems the ultimate test: On the one hand, it might easily be served outside on a depressingly hot and humid day – and thus necessitate a cooling beverage – but on the other hand, a white wine or beer hardly would do justice to such a royal slab of beef.

Thankfully, the world of wine is nearly infinite in its variations. All red wines are not created equal, and there are some from lesser-known regions that fit the bill as both deliciously savory and fit for the dog days of summer.

Though each is different and certainly unique, what unites the following wines is that they should be served slightly chilled. But please don’t take them from the refrigerator and open them immediately. Rather, take your time and wait until they come back to life – it’s an obvious and visible change, when the bottle starts to sweat but still feels brisk to the touch. Then the wine is ready.

The act of chilling red wine is, especially in America, now considered something of an impermissible travesty, a crime committed only by drunken adolescents and the embarrassing masses. Many self-proclaimed wine snobs are quick to laugh at those who consume chilled red wine, but the reality is that those snobbish types are in fact the ones who are ignorant; in Europe, there is a long tradition of drinking wine at varying temperatures, depending on the type of wine and the day on which it is served. This, I imagine, is one of the reasons you will never see an impeccably dressed Roman sweating through his designer suit, even while he is out and about and consuming a bowl of spaghetti with sweet shrimp and Calabrian chili.

Note, of course, that I wrote, “varying temperatures,” as this article is not meant to serve as a prescription to pour world-class Burgundy over ice. Rather, it is intended to acknowledge that certain wines “gain” at lower temperatures, which mask some aromas and flavors and thus cause others to gain in prominence.

For some reason no wine scholar has yet been able to explain succinctly, many of these “summer reds” come from Italy. To this mix, I’ve also added a handful of favorite Jura wines; you would be hard-pressed to find a Poulsard that does not take a chill well. Fruity yet full-bodied, acidic yet earthy, red yet refreshing, these are all wines deserving of your attention in the months ahead.

2010 Semplicemente Bellotti Vino Rosso, Piemonte, Italy

This “vino da tavola” biodynamic blend of mostly Barbera and Dolcetto grapes, hand harvested from the Cascina Degli Ulivi farm and fermented in large oak “botti” and bottles with minimal sulfur, would be a welcome addition to any summer BBQ. Served slightly chilled, its bounty of fragrant Bing cherry flavors, rounded with notes of Tahitian vanilla, ripe olives, spring wildflowers, rustic barnyard, rare fennel pollen and gently crushed herbs, offers an electrifying and tasty finish. Its low alcohol content and reasonably high acidity, characteristic of many Italian “summer sippers,” makes for a scary drinkable beverage.

For a memorable feast, splurge on dry-aged grass-fed beef, then grill the steaks the Italian way, briefly over scorching coals then low-and-slow to barely warm the interior. Throw down a few bottles of this rosso plus some grilled ramps scented with rosemary, and your friends will never look at you the same way again (in a good way, of course).

MSRP: $17.99 (May 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90

2007 Les Chais du Vieux Bourg Poulsard, Cotes du Jura, France

Winemaker Ludwig Bindernagel is a cult name in French natural/biodynamic winemaking, and the praise heaped upon his unique, groundbreaking wines by smartly dressed bobos and hipsters is well-deserved. A favorite of many “cool” Parisian restaurants, his no-sulfur-added Poulsard is a cherry-inflected expression of the Jura region in radiant red. Served slightly chilled, this remarkably fruity and balanced summer wine pairs strikingly with a wide range of dishes, such as a recent ode to the humble forest pigeon at Le Chateaubriand.

Is this high-minded wine? No, and that’s not its intent. It’s flirty, passionate stuff – open on a second date and have a little too much.

MSRP: $20 (December 2011)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2008 Masseria Fatalone “Teres” Primitivo, Puglia, Italy

Fatalone translates as “lady killer,” and though we cannot vouch for its effectiveness in that regard, this Primitivo — with its relatively low alcohol content — is certainly quite quaffable.

Appearances are often deceiving, but here, there is much to learn and appreciate. A dirty-looking pour, somewhere between brown and burnt red, is hot with funky smells of pork, open fields and dried cherry. Then there are deeply roasted almonds, raw ceps and juicy strawberry-inflected fruits.

Opened at room temperature, this wine seems lost in translation; served slightly chilled, it becomes a unique expression of an organic winemaker’s vision at a very affordable price point. No word yet on whether the winery’s “application of music therapy” to the grapes makes any difference, but at the moment, seeing how drinkable this wine is, we’ll allow for that sort of new age nonsense.

MSRP: $14 (May 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90

2009 Frank Cornelissen ‘Contadino 8’ Rosso, Mt. Etna, Italy

Frank Cornelissen’s wines don’t just have “a bit” of a cult following – they are more like the definition of “love-hate.” Count me in the first camp, as I find Cornelissen’s unfiltered, no-sulfur added bottlings delightfully peculiar and lovably evolutionary, insofar as they’re capable of profound change over time in the glass.

For his Contadino Rosso, Cornelissen’s introductory wine made from 8-11 varieties of white and red grapes, an initial whiff of funky barnyard blows off, becomes cherry-inflected wild game, then finally balsamic-soaked plums and oak. The taste is acidic, startling and yet … there is no doubt you will take another sip.

Given that the Flemish Cornelissen grows his grapes on the side of Europe’s largest active volcano, we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s not afraid to play with fire – and volatile aromatics, for that matter. These are not technically perfect wines (the incredible amount of sediment swirling at the bottom of the bottle should tell you that much) but they are alive. A highly personal rating.

MSRP: $27.99 (March 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90

2005 Domaine Andre and Mireille Tissot ‘Les Bruyeres’ Poulsard, Arbois, Jura, France

Straddling the line between the sometimes overly fruit-forward, cherry-inflected wines of the Jura and the more savory, rustic wines typical of the Rhone Valley, this no-sulfur-added natural Arbois from Stephane Tissot easily pairs with almost any dish. Its acidity and freshness could speak to seafood and vegetable dishes; its fruitiness could go with a rich dessert; its more complicated flavors of toasted oak and dark fruit could be a foil for seared duck breast. Every modern cellar should have at least one Poulsard — it’s too versatile and food-friendly to pass up.

MSRP: $25 (March 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90

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Toying in the Kitchen #11: Steamed Haddock and Snowpeas

By Thomas Madrecki

Everyone has one — a lazy Sunday morning and afternoon, where time slips away and the world comes to a standstill, where nothing really matters and you just want to stay in bed … until a nagging desire to be social again strikes and you try feverishly to assemble last-minute dinner plans.

This is a meal for those days. Fresh, simple and quick, and yet so full of flavor. It is nouveau cuisine for the everyday, a “cuisine gourmande” for even the least mindful of cooks.

The inspirations are simple … a good chef draws from what is available and in season, paying heed only to those vegetables and products that catch his eye for their natural beauty and “placed-ness” at that moment in the market. Wandering aimlessly through the aisles of the store, he ignores inquiries of assistance and favors intuition — not only what looks good, but what seems the very best. And of those products, what goes together?

How does one construct a dish? Many a time, it’s color alone that serves as the perfect indicator. Here’s a painterly landscape on a plate: The gray and black skin of the haddock, flecked with green, set against its own white flesh. The flecks of green are duplicated and expanded upon: flat parsley leaves, delicately plucked and stewed in olive oil and water with shallots and garlic. Then sweet snowpeas and floral Muscat grapes are added to the mixture, providing a base to steam the fish and marry the harmonious ingredients.

Steamed Haddock and Snowpeas

Ingredients:

1 pound of fresh haddock or similar firm whitefish, cut into portioned squares
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
2 shallots, minced
1 1/2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound of snowpeas
10 green cabbage leaves
1 bunch of Muscat grapes, destemmed
1 lemon
butter
olive oil
water
salt

Step One

Steam or gently boil the cabbage leaves until barely tender and flexible. Add to a pan with a few drops of water and juice from the lemon, heat again and then whisk in the butter to form a light sauce.

Step Two

In a wide skillet, heat olive oil. Add minced shallots and garlic and cook until translucent and fragrant. Add snowpeas and parsley leaves and saute for a minute; add a half-glass of water and the Muscat grapes and continue cooking. When peas are tender, add haddock portions, placing them atop the peas and covering the pan so that the fish steams. The fish is done when it barely starts to flake and is still full of moisture.

Step Three

To plate, place a haddock square in the center of a dish, then cover with a buttery cabbage leaf. Top with snowpeas and grapes and spoonfuls of each “sauce” — the collected butter- and olive oil-inflected liquid at the bottom of each pan. Season with salt; the sweetness of the peas, the complex acidity of the cooked grapes and the delicate fattiness of the sauces naturally evoke fragrant white wine, perfuming the soft whitefish.

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A Cava Caveat

By Thomas Madrecki

I’ve now written three consecutive posts extolling the virtues of Cava, and by now – unless you’re getting paid to promote Spanish sparkling wine – you’ve probably thought at least once, “Wow, does he ever stop?”

Of course. And that’s why I decided to write this “Cava Caveat.”

See, for all the good things that can be said about Cava – its value, its versatility in the kitchen, and its broad resonance with Spain itself – there are still many aspects that could be improved. Until that happens, Cava will always live in the shadow of regions such as Champagne, and even if it does, it’s still a distinct possibility.

So what are the complaints or short-comings one could list about Cava? Where do producers like Segura Viudas need to focus their energy in coming years, so that the wines produced measure up to the best sparkling wines in the world?

No Signature, No Glory

As I mentioned previously, Cava’s primary advantage compared to other sparkling regions is its consistent ability to manufacture a “smart buy.” It wins easily when price is involved, but on the merits of taste alone, how does Cava measure up?

Not awfully. To use a baseball analogy, Cava’s affordable and quaffable entry-level wines allow it to stake an early lead. But as the game drags on, Champagne’s pitching rotation depth holds Cava’s run advantage to a minimum until finally, in the bottom of the ninth inning, some brut-ish (har har) French slugger steps to the plate and crushes a three-run blast to deep center.

The reason for this is simple: To date, Cava hasn’t delivered more than a handful of truly standout wines (in the 94+ range) at a premium price point. To go toe-to-toe with a major French Champagne house, a producer such as Segura Viudas would need to deliver more than its current signature wine, the Reserva Heradad. While good, especially considering its rather affordable $23 MSRP, how could it ever truly compare to a luxurious Champagne?

I’m not the only one who has ever noticed the lack of “premier” Cavas, as The New York Times’ Eric Asimov did so in a 2010 tasting of 20 bottles.

While the pursuit of a spectacular release shouldn’t get in the way of continuing to produce affordable “smart buys,” it’d be nice to see a handful of “blow you away” Cavas that go far beyond the straightforward acid-fruit flavor profile. In my opinion, the 2005 Segura Viudas ‘Tore Galimany’ Brut Nature (currently unavailable in the U.S.) is a start, offering up more complex, yeasty aromas and a more glycerine mouthfeel. How far can a Cava go?

Where’s The Little Guy?

My guess is that if the Cava region is ever to deliver a wine that floors critics and wine snobs, it’ll come from a small, artisanal producer, who perhaps even dares to think outside the box and eschew some of the stringent D.O. provisions in favor of natural/biodynamic principles. But the very nature of Cava’s arrangement prevents that, as major producers like Segura Viudas and the larger Freixenet brand buy grapes from local growers to supplement their own yields.

This set-up has worked for decades, but it also means there are but a handful of “little guys” willing to produce independent, daring wines. The Loire Valley this is not, and in that respect, Cava is very similar to Champagne. Its main assets, again, are consistency and value, which naturally come at the expense of eccentricity and flamboyance.

Make It Easy, Make It Delicious

While writing my post about Cava’s great value proposition, it struck me that when it comes to sparkling wines, there is a major opportunity across the board to help consumers better understand what they are drinking. A more informed consumer is a more comfortable consumer, and if he or she knows what they’re going to get, they’re also more apt to buy that product.

One of the great fears about buying a sparkling wine is that it’s so hard for many average buyers to understand what’s behind the label and elaborate packaging. That issue is compounded when little-known Spanish grapes are involved.

But where there is difficulty, there is also opportunity. Would it be possible for Cava to lead an educational charge?

The assemblage experience is a great example. When understood simply as a blend of three grapes, each with unique personalities, Cava becomes infinitely more accessible. The right proportions and expert blending, together with aging, produce the best Cavas. So it goes without saying that to sell more (and more expensive) wines successfully, producers in Cava should tout not only the labels on the bottle, but also the process, so that they can stake their claim as the most informed / knowledgeable / experienced blenders.

Taken together, these three “caveats” indicate the room Cava as a region has to grow. Just as in anything, there’s always a way to improve on current work, and it’ll be up to Spanish winemakers and vine growers like those at Segura Viudas to continue building the legacy of sparkling wine in Catalonia.

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