‘Cueing Up Summer

the difibulators, a bluegrass band from nyc

Is there anything better than barbecue, bluegrass, and good booze to get you excited about summertime? Maybe ice cream. And cornhole. And great company to share in these marvelous things.

bobwhite lunch and supper counter nyc fried chicken potato salad pimento cheese sandwich

What’s better than fried chicken? Cold fried chicken. (Seriously.)

Last week, I got all that and more at Tasting Table‘s ‘Cue Up Summer party. Yes, it’s already late July. But after an intensely oppressive heat wave, I think we all needed a reason to get excited about summer again. With great food by local purveyors, twangtastic bluegrass from the Difibulators, and unlimited booze, it perfectly renewed my love of the season’s simple pleasures. (And it didn’t hurt that the day itself was unseasonably cool!)

Delaney Barbecue, brisket and ribs.

Serving up brisket and two kinds of ribs, and you still want more.

It all went down in the Elizabeth Street Garden which, under normal circumstances, is lovely enough with its antique statuary and rampant greenery. This evening, marquees strung with fairy lights sheltered tables laden with picnic pleasures—cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento cheese sandwiches from Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter; brisket, pork AND beef ribs, and fixins from Delaney Barbecue; some guilt-free gazpacho and veggies topped with Tabasco Buffalo Sauce; and amazing desserts—cookies by Mah-ze-Dahr Bakery; Imperial Woodpecker sno-balls; and massive ice cream sandwiches by Melt Bakery.

Melt ice cream sandwich s'most

There’s a marshmallow hiding in that ice cream sandwich.

And what would an outdoor summer party be without bottomless booze? Guests had their choice of Santa Margherita wines, Goose Island beers, and cocktails made with Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s Gin. I’m a big fan of both of the latter and stuck to those. The Hendrick’s lemonade suited my unusual preference for having lemon with Hendrick’s (and only with Hendrick’s—with other gins, it’s always lime), and the Summer Jam, mixing Monkey Shoulder with strawberry jam and lemon juice, was everything a July whisky cocktail should be—cool, slightly sweet, and far too easy to drink. Check out the recipe below.

Joshua Feldman, the Coopered Tot and whisky aficionado

Josh fits right in with the mood lighting.

My buddy Josh, of the Coopered Tot and Morgan Library whisky fame, along with some new friends, ensured that the company was as good as the comestibles. Thanks to Nick of Exposure USA for hosting with aplomb and Freddy of William Grant & Sons for sharing his extensive boozey knowledge. Summer might be half-gone already, but I plan to carry on with the outdoor eating, drinking, and merry-making, getting all I can out of the few weeks we have left.

Summer Jam
1 1/4 parts Monkey Shoulder Whisky
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1 dollop of strawberry jam
Dash of sugar to taste
Splash of seltzer

Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.

Today’s Bordeaux Won’t Break the Bank

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

I don’t write much about it here, but I love wine. When I lived in France for a year, it was all I drank, besides the odd demi-pêche at the pub from time to time. Because I’ve traveled there frequently and have family there, I’m particularly partial to Alsatian whites, but the truth is I never tasted a French wine I didn’t like.

Stateside, it’s not always affordable to slake my thirsts with French vintages; most for sale in my neighborhood tend towards the higher-end—good for special occasions, but not priced for my daily drink. Or at least, I thought they did. I rarely look at the French wine shelf because I just assume it will be too expensive.

I won’t be making that mistake again.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Last week, I sampled nearly 50 Bordeaux priced under $55—and the majority under $35. Bordeaux have a reputation in the US as high-quality (read: expensive) wines suitable for older drinkers, in part because their so-called “old world” characteristics have fallen out of fashion as more fruit-forward (and affordable) offerings—like those from Argentina and Chile—are in their ascendency. It hasn’t helped that Bordeaux futures have led to some producers overpricing certain vintages, creating a difficult market situation where many bottles are priced beyond what consumers are willing to pay. (See this excellent Wine Spectator article for a detailed explanation, and take a look at the comments to see the disenchantment of many US consumers.)

But let’s put those notions aside for a moment. I’m here to tell you that there are remarkable, delicious Bordeaux in reach of even budget-conscious non-profit workers. Some of my favorites from the tasting were priced well under $15. If you’re not obsessed with labels and if you can get past the “expensive=better” hangup that so many of us seem to fall for, you too can enjoy high-quality Bordeaux without breaking the bank—or even bending the budget.

The tasting, presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council, featured 100 wines representing 22 appellations as part of the Today’s Bordeaux selection, “value wines [that] can be enjoyed by wine aficionados and novices” alike. I put myself firmly in the latter category, as well as the “value wine buyer” box. (In general, most of my booze budget goes to whisky.) And while I might not drop $20 on every bottle I tasted, there were quite a few that I intend to look for in my liquor store. If you’re in New York, every bottle listed is available here, while other states may offer a selection.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

The wines were poured by professionals in the industry who were more than happy to talk about the characteristics of these Bordeaux. One of the comments I heard again and again was that wine doesn’t have to be complicated to be good—and that’s something I can agree with as a whisky-drinker. Sure, who doesn’t love to spend an hour or two rolling the liquid around in the glass, sniffing and sipping and contemplating the deeper mysteries of the bottle? I take deep pleasure in those moments. But when it comes to everyday life, they are rare. I’m much more likely to pour a glass of something familiar and comforting just to soothe my soul after a wearying day, enjoying the taste for itself and nothing more.

These Bordeaux fit that bill nicely, being fairly uncomplicated (many were young, 2011 or 2012) and well suited for food. As I was tasting, I ran through pairing possibilities in my mind, and I couldn’t think of any food without one wine or two presenting itself as a suitable accompaniment. To be fair, French wine, like most Old World wines, evolved to be drunk with food. That attitude—that wine is meant for everyday consumption—pervaded this tasting, and was well supported by the pricing.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I learned this when I spent a year drinking on a student’s budget in France, and I’m happy to continue in this vein stateside. I have no doubt that $300 bottles would excite my palate and transport me to realms of ecstasy hitherto unknown—but I don’t need that. I’m just looking for what tastes good!

Check out the Bordeaux Wine Council’s website for full list of the 2013 Today’s Bordeaux, searchable by color and tasting notes, grapes, price range, and occasion. You can read more about the tasting here. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite pours of the day, all well under $20. If you see these, snatch them up! They are a delicious bargain, albeit by no means a complete list of the top affordable offerings from Bordeaux.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Whites

Château La Maroutine, 100% Sauvignon Blanc. $11.

Château Fonfroide, 76% Sémillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Muscadelle, 2% Colombard. $13.

Château Les Clauzots, 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. $16.

Reds

Château de Ricaud, 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc. $12.

Château La Croix Saint-Pierre, 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec. $15.

Château de Paillet-Quancard, 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. $15.

Special thanks to Creative Feed and Tasting Table who graciously presented the tasting and provided the photos.

Caramelized Belgian Endives with Lemon and Wine

Raw endives

Don’t choose green-tipped endives like these;
go for those with pale yellow tips which have been shielded from light exposure.

Who doesn’t love the film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (English title, Amélie)? I think it typifies “feel good movie” for me—plus it’s full of gorgeous shots of French food. (The crème brulée cracking scene, oh!) One of my favorite bits (and I’m not the only one, apparently) is when Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, holds up an endive to his ear. “He handles each endive like a precious object, to be treated with care.” His boss might scorn such foolish behavior, but I’m with Lucien. Endives are beautiful, poetic vegetables whose shape and form make them an absolute dream to handle and prepare. I too cannot resist treating them with reverence and a bit of awe.

While I’ve found Belgian endives a bit bitter on their own (though a suitable vinaigrette usually solves that), I most enjoy cooking them with just two main ingredients: wine and lemon. The wine helps soften their crunchy texture and, together with the lemon, adds sugars which enable caramelization. As an accompaniment to a main dish like roast chicken or beef, this preparation adds a marriage of sweet and tart flavors with a toothy tenderness and the added bonus of being good for you (they are a green, after all). Feel free to adjust the amount of lemon juice to taste: I like very lemony endives so I use a whole lemon.

Note that this recipe is for Belgian endives, which are bullet-shaped and mostly white (look for ones whose tips are pale yellow rather than green, like those in the photo, which indicates light exposure and deterioration of flavor). Chicory or frisée is another type of endive for which this preparation is less suited.

Braised Endives

Braised and Caramelized Belgian Endives 

Ingredients: 
4-6 Belgian endives, ends trimmed, sliced lengthwise in half
1/4 c. white wine
juice of 1 lemon
olive oil, salt, pepper

Directions: 
1. In a braising pan or skillet with lid, heat 1 Tbs. olive oil on medium-high. Place endives cut-side down and cook for three minutes.

2. Add wine, salt and pepper to taste and reduce heat to low. (Optional: Add half the lemon juice here for extra-lemony endives.) Cover and cook 3 minutes.

3. Returning heat to medium, turn endives over. (The cut side should be caramelized.) Cook 3 minutes, then add half the lemon juice.

4. Continue to cook on medium 6-8 minutes until all moisture has evaporated and endives are well caramelized on both sides. (If the cut side did not caramelize by step 3, turn once more to ensure caramelization.) Adjust seasoning and serve immediately.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

I have always wondered why Christmas has to come at the beginning of the long winter rather than somewhere later on. Wouldn’t it be better for us to have something to look forward to during the long dark nights and bitterly brief days? Why kick off such a depressing season with our biggest to-do of the year? I mostly ask these questions because all the Christmas goodies would be so much more appreciated on say, January 28, when the cold winds are howling and the snow is piling up, than now, when it’s barely gotten cold enough in New York City for me to break out my awesome new Betsey Johnson coat.

Then again, who says we can’t have holiday treats outside the holidays? I’ve had so little time for baking this month that I anticipate making some of my favorite seasonal delights long after the gifts have been unwrapped, simply because I can’t wait another year to have them. Likewise with this mulled wine: it’s too delicious and, frankly, too perfect for chasing away the chill of winter to limit to one month of this long season. So I plan to make it again and again until the trees start budding and I can move on to that warm-weather wine punch, sangria.

This recipe is great because you can play around with all of it. Don’t like Syrah? Use another red wine. Don’t like red wine? Use white. Adjust the spices, sweetness, and flavorings to your taste. Leave out the whisky if you prefer, or use brandy, rum, or schnapps. Try adding other fruits, like cherries or pears. In short, go wild! Experiment and taste often. Mulled wine is a crowd-pleaser and excellent for parties because a) it’s cheap and b) you can make a big batch all in one go. (Pro tip: Keep it hot throughout an event on the “warm” setting in a slow cooker.) You can also make it ahead of time and store in the fridge for up to a week. In fact, I recommend making extra so you can let it macerate for a day or two and come back to it after a busy workday—time improves the depth and complexity, for sure.

Be warned: the smell of this simmering will intoxicate your brain even before you take your first sip! Prepare for a languorous evening and have bon bons on hand to complete the feeling of indulgence.

Mulling spices

Mulling spices: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fresh ginger.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

Ingredients:
1 bottle of cheap Syrah (like Trader Joe’s Three Buck Chuck) or other red wine
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, peeled and thin sliced
1 orange or lemon, peeled and segmented (reserve half the peel)
3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
3 Tbs. honey
1/4 cup whisky (I used Brenne, a beautiful new single malt whisky aged in French oak and finished in Cognac casks. Its light, fruity sweetness marries nicely with the wine.)

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and heat just to a simmer. Barely simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes. Taste, adjust, enjoy.

Cretan Delight


Image

Last week, I took a belated honeymoon to Crete. I’ve been dreaming of visiting Greece for years, and although my finances don’t permit a month-long cruise on a private yacht around the islands, spending a week on lovely Crete turned out to be an excellent Plan B.

The island just teemed with beautiful edibles, like the artichoke plant above. Because it’s just the beginning of the season, a lot of things weren’t ripe yet — grapes and olives, most notably — but still, every day we gobbled fresh oranges plucked straight from the tree and marveled at the abundant lemons and limes in nearly every garden.

We’d deliberately rented a villa with a kitchen, but most of our meals were simple — fresh yogurt and honey in the morning, nibbles on the beach during the day, and sausage, peppers, olives, pasta, wine for dinner. Every meal we ate out was mouthwatering: the best gyro I’ve ever had after an 18 km hike, stuffed with salads and fries; oven-baked lamb so tender I didn’t even need a knife; pan-fried snails with thyme; and, naturally, a delicious whole fish (don’t even remember what kind it was) with nothing but fresh lemon.

Image

Before I tore into him. Doesn’t he look so peaceful? The “after” scene was a brutal business, indeed.

Every meal, even the gyros, included wine or retsina and was followed by a delicious dram (does one call it that? It wasn’t a shot because we sipped it) of ouzo. The local wine was so fruity and fresh, full of citrus flavors and sea salt, with herbal tones and some kind of rich warmth I can’t describe. It did taste just as I imagined the landscape would.

Image

Overlooking Agia Roumeli, on the southern coast.

My only regret is that the week passed too quickly, and at the end, I couldn’t take any of the local wine, honey or raki home with me (thank you, ridiculous EasyJet luggage fees!). I suppose that just means I’ll have to go back again someday with a little more money and, hopefully, a lot more time.