Super Tuscan Groove

On the surface, the concept of a wine that is made outside the governing controlling bodies is an idea we as Americans applaud. After all, we tend to celebrate individual efforts, and revel in Horatio Algers rags to riches stories. Pioneers in every art form and industry take the norm and follow the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” to create something unique, even if appreciated only posthumously. Not so for so called Super Tuscans, incredibly rich, opulent wines crafted by the hands of a maverick with the means and a dream. Add to that great terroir and old vines, necessary components, and the result is the possibility of a great wine.

The problem is that these conditions help to create a sort of wine cult following, driving the price through the roof. Yes, you get what you pay for, but how much are you willing to pay? You have to ask yourself why you want to seek out these particular wines. If you’re buying these wines to enjoy, be sure to check out other wines with the same flavor profile for the price to compare value. You might find similar wines for less. If you’re collecting for later consumption, buyer beware. Do your research, because as super as some of these wines are, some do not age well past five or six years. That’s good news if you want instant gratification, bad news if you sunk over one hundred dollars on a wine, and then stored it for ten years, only to have it take a turn downhill.

Recently I tasted a 2000 Super Tuscan by Castello Di Querceto called Cignale. The wine boasts a signed artistic drawing of a wild boar to commemorate when these creatures wiped out the first vintage. The wine is 90% cabernet sauvignon, rounded out by 10% merlot and is fashioned in an international style, yet another factor to consider, should you be an old world fan.

It was luxurious, smooth, and a pleasure to drink. The tannins were well integrated. It was not an intellectual or complex wine, just a wine to enjoy. But here’s the thing, after an hour in the decanter, the wine started to fade. It lost its luster, its pinnache, its joie de vivre. Which is to say that this wine wouldn’t improve if it spent one more minute in the cellar. I suspect this isn’t the only Super Tuscan that won’t hold up under old age. Perhaps if the style is old world, the wine is constructed for the long term. If the style is new world, drink it within its first ten years of life. This is not a hard and fast rule, but certainly a guideline to consider.

When treading through the treacherous world which is the wine market, know what you like, and don’t be swayed by critics. That is to say seek out as much info from as many sources possible, and buy according to your drinking needs and budget. So depending on your scenario, a Super Tuscan could be just right for you, or fall back on some other wines, old, reliable friends.

Shake It Up Baby

Sometimes it snows in April. Or it rains real hard. I got the marvelous notion in my head the other day to see what all the hype was about the Shake Shack. This wasn’t my first attempt. No, last year I went determined to try the infamous vanilla custard which Grand Crew member Jay says I gotta have. I rushed down there, only to discover that the shack was closed for the season. Strike one.

Fast forward to April 2006, and after a long workout, I convinced myself to give her a whirl. Thursday night, beautiful skies, body count in line – 250 strong. Genius. Strike two.

Saturday, thirty degrees and April showers – Eureka. No line, no wait, no hassle, just me and the shack. Where would I sit? Deal with that later. What to order? Order the works.

The FAQ board that is posted by the menu explains various policies and recipes the Shake Shack is known for, such as the inability to serve the masses in a fast food nation sort of way, especially because everything is made to order, and even offers advice as to the best time to come – rain. Duh!

I ordered a Shack burger with fries, a Chicago dog, a black & white shake, and a vanilla custard. A good cross-section, I felt. Besides I wasn’t famished or anything.

The service was friendly and prompt, and under storm-like conditions, I needed all the warmth I could get. The burger reminded me of something from my youth, good flavors on a potato bun. The fries were crispy and delicious. The hot dog seemed like a vegetarian’s dream. The shake was adequate but the balance between chocolate and vanilla was off. So far, not a bad experience, but nothing to write home to Kansas about. I imagine on a cool summer’s eve, eating under the clouds and stars, feeling very suburban, in a New York County Fair sort of way.

There’s a very short, but proper wine list if you’re the type who likes champagne with his burger or a riesling with a hot dog – I am certainly a fan.

Then I slipped a spoon of vanilla custard into my mouth. And fan or not, it was the best I ever had. A cup of ethereal firm whipped vanilla flavor, unceremoniously served in a plastic cup that says “sweetheart”. This is no gelato from Roma, or even an helado from Manresa, but stack it up there with the best of American classic desserts.

Applaud chefs like Danny Meyer who try to offer better, fresher food to the masses. It’s about time we upgrade our choices and transition to better “fast food”. I was well satisfied, and could even see myself trying the Shake Shack again. Maybe when it snows.

A Chip and a Chair

I have a confession to make. I like to play poker. My father taught me when I was a little boy, and I was hooked then as I am now. But for several years I left the game, choosing other sporting arenas to satisfy my thirst for competition. That is until the World Series of Poker became televised and brought poker back from the dead.

So now I host a weekly poker night (usually Friday), and am just as fascinated and passionate about it as a good bottle of single grower champagne.

I read books, watch poker on the tele, and even have an on-line account. I have also played at underground poker clubs which are hard to find, especially since they are being raided every other week.

Anyone who says they play poker for fun and not money is lying, but I do not feel like I will be turning pro anytime soon. We play for low stakes ($20.00) and only play No Limit Texas Hold’em, with an emphasis on tournament style. Every player buys in for $20.00 and receives 2,500 in chip value. First place keeps the pot, second place gets their money back.

Winning is nice, but love of the game comes first. Oh, sure we keep score – I’m comfortably ahead in earnings – but it is outsmarting your opponents that brings the real rush. You can go “all-in” at any moment, putting your tournament life on the line. Poker is a mixture of psychology and nerve, competitiveness and acting, patience, and above all luck. It is better to be lucky than good, and no matter how much you play and try to master the game, you can never master the luck part.

Before you judge that poker is an expensive habit, let’s compare costs. For thirty bucks (ten on food or beer or wine) you can play several hours of cards with your friends in the comfort of your own home. You can bring whatever you want to drink, and snack on whatever everybody else brings to eat. Try to spend the same for a night on the town with your buddies, and check out the difference in cost.

Poker night is a perfect venue for sharing food and wine and discussing topics other than poker. Poker allows the flexibility to eat, drink, and talk between hands, and can be a very satisfying, social gathering.

Being the foodie that I am, I often take these opportunities to experiment with food and taste out of the ordinary beers and wines. You have to think outside the normal box of pretzels, peanuts, pizza and everyday lagers. Live a little.

As an informal panel, my poker/martial arts buddies, Scott, Neil, & Blake, aside from possessing fearsome fighting powers, also have very discerning palates. Scott usually brings party favors from the 1970’s like Pez or Sweet Tarts, as well as an oddball humor and propensity for TV trivia. Just ask him to recite any TV show theme song and be amazed. Neil can always be counted on for his extensive beer knowledge and zanyness, a quality needed on some slower nights, and Blake brings his chiseled smooth singing voice and voracious appetite for quaffing.

Over the course of two months, my friends and I have been sampling barley wines, which are beers originally brewed by the British, but currently is also being crafted here in America. Barley wines require a prolonged fermentation, thus yielding a higher alcohol content, ranging from nine to fifteen percent.

We sampled over thirty barley wines and enjoyed the quirky names of the bottles and the general nutty, creamy bitterness of the beers. Some of our favorites include the Old Marley, Hog Heaven, and Old Boardhead. For a unique, mind-blowing taste, tops on our list was the 2004 Thomas Hardy’s Ale and the bizarre 1999 Harvest Ale.

On other occasions we tried some Trappist beers, world- renowned for their complex and distinctive styles, made ever more enticing because the Belgian monks are responsible. The flavors ranged from sweet to dry, and the colors were opulently rich, from dark nut brown to golden amber in hue. These ales dazzled us with creaminess, and wild, spicy aromas of fruit. Aside from the well-known Chimays and Duvels, we really swooned over the Westmalle Trappist Tripel, the Allagash Tripel, and the Bavay Biere de Gard. The consensus favorite was the Chimay Peres Trappist Grand Reserve.

Wine is always a welcome guest to poker night, and we have sampled several interesting bottles from all over. Recently we tasted a cabernet franc from the North Fork of Long Island, the 2005 Pindar Pythagoras. The wine displayed good fruit and expressed balance while demonstrating the strength of Long Island’s terroir for this particular grape.

Just last week we tasted a 2001 Boscarelli Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which after an hour of aeration, paired admirably with a quick, one-hour perciatelli and Bolognese sauce.

My friend Peter played on his birthday, and we toasted to a very solid Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, which was medium-bodied and slightly nutty. Served with a spicy roast pork tenderloin (Kala’s recipe) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, it was pure delight.

On another night we tasted a couple of Albarinos, white wines from the Rias Baixas of Spain. We tried the 2004 Nora, a 2004 O Rosal, and the 2004 Gran Bazan.These rich, young, citrusy whites went down very smoothly and accompanied the jamon Serrano and salty bar snacks.

We try to steer clear from spirits – it clouds judgment – but bottles which made an indelible impression to me recently were the Balvenie 10 year and the Havana Club anejo reserva. Single malt scotch transforms the man, and if you can get it, the Havana Club is one of the most refined rum drinking experiences in the world.

Instead of the standard deli sandwiches, one night we all chipped in to buy tasty salumi, an herbed Rosette de Lyon, Spanish Palacios ham, Portuguese prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Garnished with piquillo peppers, enveloped by flat onion nan and a little Dijon, and off to the Delonghi panini press. Follow that up with a nutella panini for dessert. Sweet bliss!

I’ll often put out some blue cheese and serve it with honey, crushed black pepper and nuts. There is never any left over. And if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make some homemade bread pudding with crème anglaise, a welcome sweet break from the tension of a late night.

I will always pursue new adventures in food and wine, and I guess for me, poker is also here to stay. If you can mix your passions in a similar way, don’t hesitate. Wait… What’s that? I think I just got dealt pocket rockets (two aces). I’m all in!
For recipes, refer to the recipes section of my website

Seder in the City

My family has always celebrated Easter in the traditional way. Immediate and extended family get together for a day of rejoicing, food & wine, laughter and play. The menu changes from year to year. Sometimes we’ll bake a ham or roast a leg of lamb. More often than not my grandmother will prepare her famous Haitian turkey, as my family need not wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy this specialty of the house.

Despite living in New York my whole life, I’ve never capitalized on the opportunity to attend a formal seder for Passover. When it rains it pours, because this year I had to turn down two dinner offers, but finally I managed to attend one at the home of my best friend on Thursday.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of what happens during a seder, and I have to say that a night of storytelling and eating has always appealed to me. In fact, I try to arrange dinner parties in just this way.

I admit to being a bit leery of the food and the wine. I’m not a big fan of Kosher restrictions, with its archaic by-laws concerning pork and dairy products. I respect those who follow this regimen, and have also noticed the gradual improvement in the overall quality of Kosher wines.

At the home of Dr. L. and Dr. Y., charter members of the Grand Crew, the food and the wine would be prepared with precision, care and expertise.

But before I get to the meal itself, I would like to focus on the importance of the seder. Dr.L.’s father, John, was the patriarch and sort of emcee for the dinner, and he performed his task with love, humor, vivacity and compassion. He assigned roles appropriately and with ease, incorporating the two children present (David and Allison), and utilizing every adult perfectly. Much of the symbolism was explained carefully and colorfully. Dr. Y.’s mother speaks fluent Hebrew, and she orates as if she had been a rabbi in a former life. Her enunciation had such spirit and depth of feeling, I felt as is she were chanting.

The ceremony was kept to about an hour, and because of the choice of program (haggadah) did not feel lengthy at all. The family and friends retold the story of Moses and Exodus, as well as employed several storytelling techniques and role playing to discuss the importance of remembrance and commemoration of things past. The universal message I came away with from Passover is that as long as people are suffering in the world under tyranny or oppression, we must remember, pray, and not tolerate this for our brothers and sisters.

Four cups of wine are sipped throughout the service, and nearing the last song and blessing, my appetite was sufficiently whetted and prepared for a feast. Dr.Y., an excellent baker, diligently prepared some classics using only the best ingredients and recipes.

First up was an elegant matzoh ball soup, hand rolled, light, ethereal matzoh balls floated in a rich, luxurious broth prepared by her husband, no slouch when it comes to soups.

This was followed by gefilte fish, a curiously ethnic dish that would normally strike fear even into an adventurous eater such as myself. Again, fresh fillets were used to create light-bodied dumplings, an acquired taste, and certainly a better tasting and looking version than I have ever had. They resembled French quenelles. The family ate it up.

For the main courses, Dr.L.’s mother prepared two beef briskets, which were succulent, moist and a bit fatty, all qualities I admire and enjoy. It was easily the best I had ever tasted.

Not in direct competition, Dr. L. served a sort of Kosher choucoutre garni. Replacing all the traditional pork products, Dr.L. inserted beef brisket, beef tongue, beef sausage and of course sauerkraut. Slow-cooked overnight, this one pot wonder was a masterful display of ingenuity and religious observance, illustrating the importance of technique and imagination necessary to cooking. I had three plates and took home leftovers.

As accompaniments to the main dishes, Dr. Y. baked a potato kugel, airy with a crunchy crust, and a carrot ring, unleavened and also sporting a tasty crust, exuding a light carrot flavor and aroma.

On a recent trip to Israel, Dr. L. & Y. brought back a few bottles of red and white wine. The majority tasted like standard table wine, forgettable, but some paired well with food. A 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was enhanced by the brisket, and I even tried some good old-fashioned Manischevitz, a favorite of mine since childhood – I’m not afraid to admit. Finally we switched to a Julienas and a wine from the Coulloire, both good, friendly matches for the food.

No successful seder would be complete without dessert, and Dr. Y. met the challenge with a flourless almond cake with orange, a delectable creation with a refreshing, moist filling. Only crumbs were left.

Sated, I retired to play tic-tac-toe and Gameboy with the kids (they whipped me), and I felt like part of the family. Everyone was happy to be with each other, and this is no small task considering the effort required to pull off a dinner of this magnitude in the midst on NYC holiday traffic.

Nothing is more important than family traditions, and if you can prepare and enjoy the best food possible, food filled with love, than you too can recline, like kings and queens for a day.

L’Idiot Affineur

Cheese is all the rage in New York, thanks to Steve Jenkins of Fairway markets, Terrance Brennan of Picholine/Artisanal, and other pioneers. Mr. Jenkins’ cheese primer just about educated the hungry masses, and Terrance Brennan stylized the cheese cave in a restaurant. Some proponents of cheese would have you believe that cheese is part of the culinary DNA, that no matter what type of eater you are, there’s a cheese out there just for you.

Growing up, the best cheese I could get my hands on was young gouda and american slices. Parmesan cheese came out of a green tin. Sometimes in the fridge there would be a wheel of cheese cut into triangles with silver wrapping on it, featuring a happy cow as if to remind me where cheese comes from.

Gradually, I learned about other cheeses through burger choices: swiss, cheddar, muenster, and weird bleu. Never the blue for me. Then parties with bad, off the block brie. Ho hum, but a necessary transition.

Then a brave new world opened up when I tasted the undisputed king of all cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano. This Italian cheese, full of umami (a sort of sixth, savory sense packed with glutamate), opened my mind and my palate to the undiscovered country, a land filled with cheese courses to come for a lifetime. If nothing else, always stock this versatile food.

There’s a turning point in a culinary lifespan, when you have something proper and no longer turn back, like the day you taste great sushi or aged beef. There’s just no way you can compromise for anything less, at least not while attentive and sober.

As in an informal culinary education, you seek friends who are interested in good food, cooking, wine, etc. Cheese is no exception. Jay is the resident cheese guy in our group, the Grand Crew, and I have benefited from his lifelong appreciation of cheese, the process, and its rightful place in any top-notch meal.

If there is someone in your life who fills this role, cherish that person, listen, take notes, and above all, always bring him/her proper cheese.

Jay has inspired me not only to look at cheese in a different, more meaningful way, but also to try to age my own cheese in my refrigerator at home. I’m known as the idiot affineur of the group due to my ability (or luck) to age cheese in a humidity-free drawer at the bottom of my refrigerator, thereby aging fresh cheeses and transforming them into something very advanced. Don’t ask me how I do it. Like I said, idiot affineur.

Passing along some advice, what helped me get over my distaste for blue cheese was a “gateway” blue. The gateway cheese is that which helps you over the hump, and sets you off looking for radical forms of cheese. For me it was the Cabrales, a Spanish blue that marries well with red wines, is in between mild and strong both in flavor and in nose. If you don’t like Cabrales, blue cheese is just not for you. Because following this are English stiltons, dirt French bleus and so on. On second thought, you might try Maytag blue. I’ve used it to make great blue cheese dressing for hot wings.

For bries, step up and try a wheel of Pierre Robert or Explorateur. Just don’t blame me for not being able to keep it in the fridge.

Over the years, my favorites have changed, but some are perennials. On a desert island, if I had to pick, I would have an aged Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Torta del Casar, and aged Manchego, a good, runny Epoisse, and a Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton. Anytime you can get your hands on these beauties, snap them up. They’re worth it.

The question remains: Where should I buy my cheese?

As with any food or wine item, of primary importance is the relationship you foster with the vendor. Some vendors are owners, quite skilled, and the great ones get to know you palate and challenge you to new ideas. Just as you should have a fish monger, a butcher, your favorite produce at the farmer’s market, the wine guy, and maybe even a chef on hand for advice, cheese should be no exception.

Next is the quality of the cheese and how the cheese is stored at the location. Price should not come into play. As with any good product, we must pay. Remember this supports the industry.

I have purchased cheese at Balducci’s, the Garden of Eden, Fairway (both locations), Zabar’s, Whole Foods, Artisanal, Citarella, Gourmet Garage, Murray’s (both locations) and a host of other supermarkets not worthy of any mention. Fairway uptown has a good cheese selection and has served me well in the past. Fairway on the upper west side has poor storing conditions for its cheese section, and as a result, my friends and I have returned many a cheese. The shop uptown is better because the cheese breathes in the open, airy space in which it is kept. Zabar’s is good for young, fresh cheese, but nothing exciting. Gourmet Garage has improper storing conditions for its cheeses. You have to inspect the packaging carefully. I often purchase at the Garden of Eden because of its location, and the just is merely fair. Citarella lacks depth, but stores its cheeses properly, and Whole Foods has been surprising me on occasion. Artisanal is a cheese altar, but the prices are more expensive than any other competitor in the city. I do treasure the trendy cheese bags they send me home with my purchase.

The clear winner is Murray’s, and it is most definitely worth the trip. Every time I get lazy and want to buy cheese elsewhere, I either regret it or get lucky. Murray’s passion is cheese and it shows. Just go there on a weekday, when a sales rep. can spend over an hour with you figuring out your tastes and needs. The staff works there because they live cheese. You feel like you are buying from the cheese shrine in the sky. They have the widest selection, and often are privy to raw or hard to find choices. Murray’s offers a multitude of specialty gourmet products, from pasta to chocolate, to Niman Ranch salumi, to olives, to Amy’s bread, to artisanal honeys, etc. My main man Cielo has been hooking me up for some time now. Find your regular too.

Cheese courses should be comprised of four selections if possible, a goat, cow, sheep and blue. If you can find them raw (score!), the better. All cheeses should be served at room temperature so as to bring out all the natural flavors and slight nuances. Try to match cheese and wine with the region of cuisine. This is almost foolproof, although you’ll find that goat cheese is a problem to match with most wines (try a Sancerre or Savennieres). Dessert wines, however, do work well. Think ports and madeiras, as well as ice wines from the Finger Lakes. Jay has preached to me that cheese should always be served before dessert so as not to “blow up” your palate. I have been resistant to this for years because I feel that no one will have room for the cheese. I continue to be wrong about this. Serve one cheese in the beginning if you must, but try not to. That’s what olives and salume are for.

When you are done for the night, wrapping is important to prolong the life of the cheese. Use wax paper and secure with tape, or wrap in plastic wrap. Try not to handle the cheese with your hands. Rather, place the wrapping over the cheese and scoop it up. Then fasten the underside. Plastic wrap doesn’t work as well because the cheese doesn’t get to breath, but it will do for at least one week.

Like a good bottle of bubbly, you should always have cheese in the house for surprise guest visits, emergencies, and your own appetite. After all, serving cheese and wine is a civilized thing to do.

Cheese is great served alone with sliced fruit, but here are some quick and easy goto recipes:

Blue Cheese, Honey & Nuts

½ lb. Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton

Lavender Honey

Walnuts

1 box Finn Crisps

On crisps, spread some stilton, drizzle honey on top, and sprinkle with nuts.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup sour cream

1 cup mayonnaise

¾ cup crumbled Maytag Blue cheese

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley

salt & pepper to taste.

In a mixing bowl, fold in sour cream, mayo, and blue cheese. Add rest of ingredients and salt & pepper.

(Can store for one week in refrigerator)

Ricotta & Honey

1 lb Fresh Ricotta

Honey

Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Place three tbsp ricotta in a small bowl. Grind pepper. Drizzle honey to taste. Repeat for number of guests. (Serves 4)