Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

WINES FOR THANKSGIVING DINNER

This year we really do have a lot for which to be thankful. First and foremost, the insidious pandemic that has haunted us all for the past two years seems to be under control, and we’ll now be able to join our friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner. And if you love food and wine, there’s another good reason to be thankful because we’re about to enter a period full of holiday celebrations that begin next Thursday and continue right through the New Year.

As a matter of fact, we will purchase and consume more good wine and food during the next six weeks than we have for the previous ten months. The only people happier than us will be the business owners of health clubs, diet centers and clothing alteration shops who depend on first quarter sales to survive for the rest of the year.

I know I’ve said this before, but of all the upcoming celebrations, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving! That’s because the Thanksgiving meal features a wide variety of foods that can accommodate just about any red, white, rose or sparkling wine. And it all starts with the turkey.

Turkey is blessed with meat that has a variety of flavors, colors and textures which present opportunities for us to try with a variety of different wines. And, when you add the dishes that traditionally accompany Thanksgiving dinner, things really get interesting. So today I’m going to present you with a typical Thanksgiving menu accompanied with wines that pair seamlessly with each course. Here goes.

The Aperitif
In our home, the first bottle we uncork for Thanksgiving is a sparkling wine to toast each other and the holiday. My suggestions for your Thanksgiving toast are one of these effervescent sippers: Iron Horse Brut; Segura Viudas Brut Reserva; Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir Rose; Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne; and Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Reserve.

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Not Your Mama’s Stuffed Bells

I must have been conceived in a pepper patch because I’m obsessed with all types of peppers. From mild bells to near thermonuclear Scotch Bonnets and just about everything in between, I am simply addicted to these little devils, especially ones with a hefty dose of capsaicin. That’s the stuff that makes peppers hot.

I also love the fall! Football season is in full swing, the leaves are painting the mountains with vibrant colors and I’m in the process of fermenting a blend of red grapes that will produce about 70 gallons of homemade wine. With sunny days, cool temperatures and the harvest season upon us, it’s also time to transition from the lighter wine and food choices of summer to more flavorful fare.

Autumn in these parts also means you still have access to the last vestiges of the harvest, including one of my favorite foods-the red bell pepper. While red bells are not at all spicy or hot, they become sweet, smoky and richly flavored when you roast them to the point where the pepper skin is scorched and blackened.

Every autumn for the last several decades, I’ve waited anxiously for locally grown green bell peppers to turn large and red. Then I roast, peel and slice them into strips, cover them with good olive oil, minced garlic and balsamic vinegar and devour them with crusty bread and a glass or two of my homemade wine.

Just last week, I decided to take four of those roasted red bells and stuff them with a mouth-watering concoction of farro, (the low carb barley look-alike grain) bacon and mozzarella cheese along with diced and sauteed onions, yellow bells and one hot banana pepper. You will need a red wine that is both rich and able to compliment these spicy roasted peppers so you might try the ones below.

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Wine, Food and Music

Where, when and how you enjoy your regular glass of wine is, of course, a personal choice. Most of us sip the fruit of the vine with dinner, as an aperitif before the meal or even as a cocktail at our favorite watering hole. And while most of you are probably not as wine-obsessed as I am, I suspect you may get bored with the same old wine routine. There’s no question that the adage “too much of a good thing” can certainly apply to even the moderate consumption of wine. So, the challenge is to keep things interesting.

One of the most common complaints I hear from folks is they are tired of sipping the same types of wine day in and day out. Whether it’s cabernet sauvignon with beef, chardonnay with seafood or some other “safe” wine choice, it can certainly be boring to consistently drink the same thing. That’s why I focus on providing information on the variety of wines that are available to you from different vineyards all over the world. But even if you are a consummate wineaux (like me) who has experienced bottles from the greatest wine regions, it’s still exciting to find new ways to enjoy the elixir we all love.

Well, as a decades-old codger who has probably had more wine caress his palate than anyone not named Robert Mondavi, Earnest Gallo or W.C. Fields, I have found a new way to enhance the appreciation of wine – to keep it fresh and make it even more enjoyable. Of course, we all know how important food is to wine and vice-versa. That’s why I always provide you with a complimentary food choice whenever I recommend a particular wine.

But there’s another sensory element that elevates the wine and food experience to a whole other level: music. Whether it’s Vivaldi, Tony Bennett or Hank Williams Jr., I love to pair up my wine and food with a complimentary selection of tunes. I’m sure many of you add music to special dinner occasions at home like birthdays, anniversaries or date nights with your significant other, but probably only on an episodic basis. I’m suggesting you increase the inclusion of music on a regular basis to see if that pleasant auditory element enhances the overall wine and food experience.

Whether we’re eating in or cooking out, there’s always a musical play set with which to match our meals. It doesn’t need to be a special occasion or a five-course dining extravaganza either. And there are a number of ways to select your play list: CD’s, records, the radio or from music streaming services like Spotify, or Pandora. The fun is finding a musical theme that seems to match your evening meal, picnic or brunch. Here are three examples of how you might wish to combine wine, food and music (taken from the Brown family dining archives).

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WineSpeak: sorting the wheat from the chaff

The wine lexicon is full of more cryptic and confusing words than a software “Terms of Agreement” statement. You know, the one with the electronic box we’re all required to check before using the software (even though no one who reads the fine print, understands it).

Winespeak can be full of bombastic, hyperbolic, thesaurus-busting synonyms, as well as bizarre and outrageous phrases that are not only confusing, but also many times inappropriate. I’ve read words like flamboyant, ethereal or orgasmic to describe a wine. Or, incongruous phrases like “liquefied charcoal,” “wet dog,” or “mesmerizing texture” used to define the characteristics of a particular bottle. Descriptions like these do more to discourage folks from drinking wine than any fire and brimstone spouting, snake-handling preacher ever could.

So, brothers and sisters of the vine, I’m going to help you “sort the wheat from the chaff” when it comes to the language of wine. Below is a list of some of the most commonly used (and appropriate) words and phrases to describe the various attributes of the beverage we all love.

Common Wine Descriptors

Acid – Refers to the sharpness in the taste of wine. Good acid is balanced by alcohol, sweetness or both.

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Pork Mojo with Vino

I know it’s weird to feel a sense of loss and to grieve for an inanimate object. Nonetheless, I nearly shed a tear when I felt compelled to euthanize my rusty old grill by burying it on Mount Trashmore – our local landfill.

However, on the way back from the malodorous burial mound, I stopped at the local hardware store and purchased a brand, spanking new Weber Performer Charcoal grill. I’ve been using Weber grills for decades because they can accommodate everything from burgers and steaks to large roasts and even 20 pound Thanksgiving turkeys. As soon as I got this shiny – but soon to be grimy- new grill assembled on my deck, I put it immediately to task. And, as it’s name so aptly suggests, the Weber “performed” flawlessly.

Today, I’m going to share a meat, vegetable and fruit recipe my wife concocted and I grilled to perfection on the new Weber. Of course, I’m also going to suggest a couple of special wines to pair with the meal that will greatly elevate this whole dining experience. And while I prefer to use charcoal, the following recipe can also be successfully prepared on a gas grill.

The origin of this dish is Cuba where a wide variety of foods are marinated in – or basted with – a sauce called “mojo” (pronounced “moe-ho” in Spanish). Here in the US, mojo is pronounced just the way it looks and it’s defined as a trait that involves a bit of magic or good luck. In the recipe that follows, you won’t need to use any mojo to make this exceptional “moho” dish.

Grilled Pork Mojo with Seared Avocados and Oranges

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Wine of the Century

I’m not a “save it for a rainy day” type of guy so sometimes being disorganized and even, forgetful, can be a blessing. Case in point: A few decades back- before my receding hairline and tavern tumor made their unwelcome appearance -I was a true gourmand. When I had the opportunity to taste a special wine (even one way before its time), I did so with reckless abandon and then just, literally, swallowed my disappointment.

Such was the case with a very storied wine, the 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The ’82 Mouton was widely considered the best wine of that fabulous vintage in Bordeaux. And then the most esteemed wine critic of the time (Robert Parker) declared that bottle to be the best Bordeaux of the entire 20th century -up to that point!

A few years before the wine was available for sale on the open market, I had purchased two bottles as part of a Bordeaux Futures program. Once a particular Bordeaux vintage is evaluated (usually in the spring following the harvest), prices are established and wine shops offer consumers the opportunity to buy Bordeaux wines at steep discounts. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t receive the wine for at least two years after you make your purchase.
So, you might imagine my surprise and elation to discover that the two bottles of 1982 Mouton that I had purchased as futures were now rated as the best wines of the century. In a fevered rush to experience the other worldly flavors of this exquisite wine, I immediately opened a bottle of the Mouton and carefully decanted it into crystal carafe. I let wine breathe for an hour before pouring it into our best stemware and then swirled the Mouton to help release the aroma.

I put my nose into the glass and sniffed…. and sniffed again…nothing! No ethereal aromas of black currants, toasted oak, underbrush, or mint either. Just a vague and understated red fruit smell. Heck, there were more vibrant aromas in grape Kool-Aid than in this wine, I remembered thinking. And then I tasted the Mouton. Tannic, tight and a bit of sour grape flavors predominated. My wife and I were both disappointed, but we persisted and drank the whole bottle over a couple of hours, hoping those two hours would coax the wine of the century to show up. It didn’t.

Over the next few decades and through a couple of moves, I misplaced and eventually forgot about the remaining bottle of Mouton. As a matter of fact, I assumed it had gotten lost or that one of my children had poached it during a raid on the old man’s wine stash. But earlier this year, I found the remaining bottle of ’82 Mouton. I decided that my wife and I would open it on our anniversary where we had booked a weekend at a very lovely southern resort. I contacted the resort sommelier and asked if he would open the wine for us, decant it and let it breathe for a couple of hours before serving it to us at dinner. Keep in mind, the ’82 Mouton is 39 years old so my concern before sipping the wine was whether or not it would still be drinkable.

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Grilling favorites with paired wines

My wife can really turn a phrase. She claims I avoid work as if it was a “four letter” word. I will admit, though, there are certain tasks – like cleaning out the garage or doing the dishes – which I do not willingly seek out. But give me something to cook and I am a diligent, energetic and enthusiastic laborer; give me something to grill and I’m in Nirvana!

And since the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is the official kick-off for summertime, that means we will be enjoying more of our meals in the great outdoors. That also means I can use my grill more frequently and that’s the type of work I truly love.

Over the years I have espoused the virtues of charcoal over gas grilling, but whatever your preference, nothing beats the flavor of outdoor cooking. Whether you’re searing a hunk of red meat, slow roasting a rack of baby backs or smoking a filet of salmon, grilling improves the flavor of just about any food – even vegetables. And there are myriad wine choices to pair with the foods we enjoy this time of year.

Here are a few of my favorite warm weather on-the-grill dishes, and the wines I think will pair especially well with them.

Hamburgers: I love to chop a few slices of bacon into small pieces and add them to a pound and a half of ground chuck. After pressing them into quarter pound burgers, I shake a generous portion of McCormick’s Montreal Grillmates Seasoning on them before placing them on the grill. Try pairing the burgers with zinfandel from producers such as Frank Family, Edmeades or Dry Creek. These California zins are all medium-bodied wines with delicious dark berry flavors that will accentuate the beefy goodness of the bacon-enhanced burgers.

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Restaurants Reopening: a time for celebration

With most of the restrictive, covid-related regulations now lifted on state restaurants, gourmands, including yours truly, are smiling like Cheshire cats. And, with facial masks secured, we’ve also begun to once again to sup and sip at our favorite dining establishments.

That’s great news! In fact, I’ve been patronizing some of my favorite local eateries and I can happily report that the quality of the food is as good as ever. Today, I’ll tell you about two restaurants I visited and share my favorite menu items from each establishment. I’ll also suggest reasonably priced wines to pair with the menu items chosen from each of the restaurants’ “by the glass” list. In future scribblings, I’ll review my favorite dishes and wines from other area establishments. So, let’s get started.

Ristorante Abruzzi, located at 601 Morris Street in the building adjacent to Appalachian Power Park, is a culinary gem. Owned by Mark and Libby Chatfield, Abruzzi features a fine cross-section of menu selections many of which are inspired by dishes from the eponymous Italian region.

Mark’s family (on his mother’s side) hails from Abruzzi and, while he is a college professor during the day, he has always dreamed of owning a restaurant that focuses on offering many of the same foods he relished growing up. Here are two pasta dishes and accompanying wines you might like to try the next time you visit Ristorante Abruzzi:

Radiatore Bolognese – Bolognese is a thick meaty sauce that is a combination ground beef, veal and pork with just a little tomato paste to color it slightly. The radiatore are small, squat pasta that kind of look like tiny radiators and they really absorb the Bolognese quite nicely.

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Wines for Passover and Easter

It’s beginning to look a lot like ….Easter. That’s right friends, it’s officially springtime and we’re about to ring in this season of rebirth by observing two of our most cherished holidays. Over the next few weeks, Passover and Easter will share the calendar and both holidays will feature special foods. I’ll tell you about those edibles and suggest a bevy of compatible wines to pair with them.

Passover and Easter, of course, are religious holidays and, in addition to their spiritual significance, they remind us that wine has always played an important role in our Judeo-Christian traditions and culture. And today, I’ll provide you with some vinous choices to pair with these important celebrations.

The Seder meal, which occurs on the first day of Passover, can consist of everything from brisket to chicken as well as gefilte fish, potato- type casseroles and other specific Jewish foods. And, if you’re like me, you’ll especially love the Seder tradition requiring each adult to sip four cups of wine with the meal. The problem is finding a diverse selection of Kosher wines in our state.

If you wish to sip only Kosher wines for Seder, you might be able to find a few at your local wine shop, but make sure they indicate they’re “Kosher for Passover.”  However, you’ll probably have better luck by ordering from online retailers like kosherwine.com. If you are able to choose from non-Kosher wines, I recommend either – or both – of these two wines:

2018 Willamette Valley Vineyards ($26)– This Oregon pinot noir is a very versatile wine with earthy, black cherry flavors and excellent balance. Should pair well with a variety of Seder foods, especially brisket.

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Wine for everyday meals

If you’ve followed my scribblings over the years, you know that I’ll never tell you about a wine without recommending specific foods with which to pair that particular bottle. However, a friend of mine (who is less than subtle) recently admonished me for always seeming to suggest wine compatible foods that she referred to as “Saturday night” or celebratory meals. You know, special dinners you might prepare for birthdays, anniversaries, or when Uncle Homer gets out of prison.

And you know what? She may be correct. So in an effort to dispel a myth which I may have been unintentionally espousing (that wine is only for special occasions), I want to offer you a sincere Mea Culpa. Let me also make this clear: wine could and, in fact, should be a part of your everyday meals!

I know that most of you don’t drink wine every night of the week. But when you do open a bottle on say, a Monday or Wednesday, you shouldn’t feel like you need to whip up some elegant repast like Beef Wellington or Peking Duck. So today, we’ll concentrate on some of the foods that comprise our everyday meals, and I’ll suggest wine pairings for them.

Meatloaf is a menu mainstay that some families enjoy regularly. Instead of boring yourself with diet cola or iced tea, you might open a bottle of inexpensive and medium-bodied red wine to spark up that meatloaf entrée. Marietta Old Vines, which is a blend of zinfandel and other red varietals, would be a good pick. Or, you might also pair it with malbec from Argentinean producers such as Susana Balbo or Catena.

Macaroni and cheese still graces our table as a main dish at least once a month. Sometimes, we’ll add roasted red peppers or jalapenos to the dish to spice it up. This is a meal that can be paired well with both white and red wine. For plain mac & cheese, try a medium bodied white such as Soave from Allegrini or pinot gris from Oregon’s King Estate. For spicy versions of the dish, I recommend pinot noir from producers such as Cline Family Cellars in Sonoma County or Erath in Oregon.

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A wine for every holiday taste

I’m really looking forward to this Holiday Season! Many of us have suffered and all of us have had to hunker down and endure a year unlike any other. And one of the ways I plan on enjoying the spirit (s) of the season is to give a gift of wine to family and friends as we celebrate Christmas and the New Year, and as we look forward to a much better 2021.

One of the greatest attributes of wine is the almost limitless variety of grapes from vineyards around the world that produce bottles with an incredible diversity of aromas and flavors to please the palates of just about everyone. Whether you’re just an occasional sipper, someone who drinks a glass or two each day or a wine-obsessed individual, you’re probably always on the lookout for a good bottle, especially this time of year.

With that premise in mind, I’m going to suggest several bottles of wine you might consider giving to family or friends that fall into the classifications I mentioned above. I’ll suggest red, white and sparkling wines for each of the groups so you’ll have a variety of purchasing choices and prices. And keep this snarky thought in mind: giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have an ancillary benefit since there is a chance you’ll be invited to sip along once that particular bottle is uncorked.

For the occasional sippers: White: Martin Codax Albarino (Spain); Anselmi San Vincenzo (Italian, Soave-like); and Hess Select Monterey Chardonnay (California). Red: Allegrini Valpolicella Classico (Italy); Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Foris Rogue Valley Pinot Noir (Oregon); and Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel (California); Sparkling: Chandon Brut (California); Nicholas Feuillatte Blue Label Champagne (France); and Dibon Cava Brut (Spain).

For the daily wine drinker: White: Chalk Hill Chardonnay (California): Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (Australia); and Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc (France); Red: Easton Amador County Zinfandel (California); Franciscan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Torbreck The Woodcutter’s Shiraz (Australia); and Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape (France). Sparkling: Iron Horse Brut (California); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); and Veuve Cliquot (The Widow) Brut Champagne (France).

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Thanksgiving 2020: Scaling back, but still celebrating

Thanksgiving is next Thursday! Under normal circumstances, our family would be gathering to stuff ourselves with all manner of goodies including, of course, a varied selection of wines to pair with – not only the “National Bird” – but with the multitude of delicious side dishes such as chestnut dressing and pumpkin pie.

But this year, Mother Nature has morphed into the “Wicked Witch of the Earth” with a dark and catastrophic menu of her own. She’s been conjuring up hurricanes, floods, wild fires and other global weather anomalies as side dishes to accompany the main course, Covid 19.

So, what can we do to celebrate Thanksgiving  this year, and still stay safe and virus free? Well, in our family that means limiting the number of guests at the holiday table to two: my wife and I. Oh, we’ll probably Face-Time with our kids and grandkids, but we will not be able to share food and wine or have any physical contact with them.

 

But the biggest problem for many of us in similar circumstances will be how to scale back on the Thanksgiving meal. Creating meals for two is not difficult under normal circumstances, but preparing the menu for the best food-centric holiday of them all will be a challenge, especially with regard to the main course – turkey.

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Wine Appreciation: keeping it simple

I know you’ve heard the term: “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you that wine appreciation doesn’t need to be that hard. Despite what some folks would like you to believe, it’s not necessary to have a degree in oenology, be a romance language expert or be wealthy to enjoy a glass or two of good wine.

For instance, some critics get way down in the weeds and use obtuse words to describe the sensory characteristics of wine. What, for example, do the terms precocious, unctuous or assertive have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes? Sometimes when I find myself slipping into what I call “snob-speak,” I harken back to an old Waylon Jennings song. In “Back to the Basics of Love, ” Waylon’s words give me swift rhetorical kick, knocking me off my high horse so I can explain in plain English the qualities of a particular wine.

So, when I describe a particular chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste. If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that chardonnay also has the taste of ripe Honey Crisp apples. Well, you get the point.

In evaluating wine over the years, I have detected the flavors of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and countless others. And I have experienced the aromas of toast, grass, butterscotch and leather as well, unfortunately, as mold, Limburger cheese and vinegar too. These are descriptions that are based on solid sensory memories.

But what defines a good wine? Many of us struggle with another major consideration: price versus quality. Most of us assume there is a direct correlation between what you pay for a bottle and the way it should taste.

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Pesto Rosso Pasta: a spicy harvest dish!

It’s harvest time all across the “Fruited Plain.” In California, the grape harvest is in full swing while, in other parts of the country, bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables are literally ripe for the picking. I’ve been spending a good bit of time at our local farmer’s market loading up on everything from peaches and apples to peppers and tomatoes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been canning hot and sweet banana peppers rings as well as roasted and peeled red bell peppers. Soon I will purchase a bushel of green tomatoes, fresh fennel bulbs, onions and more hot banana peppers to prepare the stacked and aged Italian vegetable concoction called saliata (I’ll provide the recipe for this complicated, but delicious, vegetable medley in a future column).

But today I’m going to pass along a recipe that combines roasted ripe tomatoes and peppers, along with garlic and onions, to create a red pesto and pasta dish. You’re probably wondering if that’s a typo because you’re certain that pesto is green -right? Well, normally it is and that’s because the traditional pesto recipe is made from handfuls of fresh basil. However, pesto can be made from other herbs or vegetables, and the term is more broadly defined as a sauce.

The main ingredients of this crimson version of pesto are roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes yielding flavors that are rich, spicy, smoky and robust. And because the roasted veggies will be processed through a food mill, I suggest you use either capellini or rotini as the pasta noodle of choice. I call this dish: Pesto Rosso Pasta. To put this dish into the culinary stratosphere, you’ll need to pair it with a medium to full-bodied red wine like the ones suggested below. So here you go!

Pesto Rosso Pasta

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Charleston: a good place to ride out the pandemic

If you’re a food and wine junkie like me, this pandemic has really altered your lifestyle. My wife and I enjoy eating in and opening a good bottle of wine at home more than just about anybody, but we miss those restaurant or bar date nights where we can let someone else prepare our meal and serve us our beverages.

However, visiting restaurants or bars now, though, is not nearly as much fun as in the past. Social distancing, limited seating arrangements and facial coverings – while understandably necessary, present impediments and obstacles to having a relaxing and enjoyable dining experience. And if you are in the geezer demographic or are physically compromised, the fear of contracting the virus in public places – like restaurants -is an even more inhibiting factor.

But guess what? I have come to the conclusion that Charleston is a pretty good place to shelter in place for a while, especially for foodies and wine geeks. Why? Well, in our little corner of the world, we are blessed to have access to purveyors who provide us with some of freshest and highest quality victuals you can find just about anywhere in this region of the good old US of A.

Let’s start with the basics like bread, vegetables and proteins.

I have travelled in some of the most famous epicurean capitals of Europe where the local bread is spoken of reverentially, but none of those bakeries is any more accomplished than Charleston Bread located on North Capitol Street in our fair city. Their baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain, honey whole wheat, sour dough and other breads are delicious while the salt, pepper and olive oil focaccia is otherworldly. They even crank out delicious and varying styles of pasta noodles you can buy right there at the bakery. Oh, and the pastries are the real deal too, especially the cakes, brownies, cinnamon rolls and biscotti.

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Summertime Red Wine

Even though temperatures are approaching meteorological hell, I refuse to give up the pleasures of sipping red wine with the foods of summer.

Sure, I drink more refreshing whites and rose’s this time of year than I do of those purple monsters, but I still open and enjoy red wines. I just modify that old (and hackneyed) adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. Of course, when the Medieval wine snob who offered that advice did so, room temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I simply put my red wine in the refrigerator for about a half hour before opening it and then keep it in an ice bucket after pouring a glass or two. I do, though, usually prefer lighter styled reds such as pinot noir and Valpolicella this time of year. The beauty of these two varietals is that – while they are not full-bodied like cabernet or zinfandel- they do stand up to and pair well with picnic foods like sausages, ribs and foods with spicy heat.

Pinot noir like those produced by Elouan and Erath from Oregon, J. Lohr, Buena Vista and Cline Family Cellars from California, Kim Crawford from New Zealand and Cono Sur from Chile are all priced around or below $25 a bottle and make very nice accompaniments to the foods of summer.

However, one of the best warm weather reds is Valpolicella. Produced from a combination of the relatively obscure corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, this red wine can be a very pleasant sipper, as well as an excellent accompaniment to barbecue and other warm weather foods.

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A hidden gem from Friuli

As I have stated many times before, Italy is a boot full of wine. Each of its 20 regions have multiple wine appellations within them where an incalculable number of distinct grape vines are harvested each year and produce mind boggling amounts of vino.

When Americans think of Italian wine, most of us conjure up visions of Tuscany where the wines of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino take center stage. Some of us know about the Veneto region where Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone are the principle wines, or in the Piedmont where Barolo and Barbaresco are highly prized bottles.

Today I’ll tell you about a wine in the little known region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (pronounced Free-ull-ee Ven-eat-see-uh Julia) in the far north eastern section of Italy bordering Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north. The capitol city of the region is Trieste located across the Adriatic Sea from Venice.

The two most respected wine appellations of Friuli are the Colli Orientali and the Collio both of which are located in the north eastern part of the state. While some red wine is produced in Friuli such as merlot and refosco, the region is known primarily for whites, the most notable of which are Friulano, ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot grigio

I recently tasted a wine from Colli Orientali that took my breath away, especially when paired with (in this case )the appropriately compatible dishes. This bottle is produced by a family better known for its exceptional Italian restaurants than for its wines. If the name Bastianich sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the public TV shows hosted by Lidia, the chef and founder of the family’s restaurant empire.


And if you’ve been to any of the Eataly establishments located in Chicago, Las Vegas or other major US cities, or if you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Dell Posto or Felidia in New York, you understand that the Bastianich name is synonymous with great Italian cuisine. Lidia’s son, Joe Bastianich, founded the eponymous winery in 1997 in the very region of Italy where his mother was born.

The 2016 Bastianich Vespa Bianco ($30) is a medium to full bodied white that has ripe pear flavors with hints of honey and almonds. It is round and rich, yet crisp, with balancing acidity that should allow it to age gracefully for several more years. If you can’t locate it in your favorite wine shop, simply ask your purveyor to order it for you. The wine is a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a local Friulian grape – picolit.

While this wine was a match made in heaven when we paired it with grilled Chilean Sea Bass, it blew us away when we sipped the last few ounces with our salad! My wife created a salad of arugula, thinly sliced fennel and Vidalia onions, fresh orange slices in a dressing of DiTrapano Extra Virgin Olive oil, some freshly squeezed orange juice and just a touch of aged Balsamic vinegar.

Oh My!! Can you say serendipity? I know it was just dumb luck because I probably would never have thought of intentionally pairing the wine with a salad, but I’m glad we had a sip or two remaining when we finished the Chilean Sea Bass. Goes to show you, it pays to be adventurous (or at least save a little wine for salad or dessert).

You might ask your wine shop folks to show you the bottles they have from Friuli. These are wines worth searching out.

Chimichurri with a Twang!

We’ve been hunkering down in the mountains for the past few weeks trying to avoid crowding other human beings and doing our best to social distance. It’s not hard to do because there just aren’t that many people wandering around in the forest.

That’s the good news. The challenge, of course, is to maintain some semblance of sanity through our self-imposed isolation. It’s easy for me because I’m naturally lazy and content to just lounge around watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies or reading the works of authors like Elmore Leonard, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.

My wife, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning, and then re-cleaning, the house. Our home is so immaculate now that she doesn’t seem to mind when I dirty up the kitchen or when I crumb-bomb the carpet. In these strange times, I’m finding that being slovenly might actually serve a higher purpose.


Anyway, like many of you, we also pass the time cooking - especially recipes of dishes that have been in the “on deck” circle for decades. So today, I’m going to share one of those on-deck recipes that should enhance just about any protein dish you wish to prepare. And I’ve added a special West Virginia ingredient I’ll call a “twang” to the recipe that will intensify the flavors even more.

Chimichurri has been variously described as a piquant sauce or a condiment; while others use it as a marinade. Argentina is given credit for originating the dish, and the ingredients can vary according to the style of chimichurri you want to concoct. I’m going to provide you with my take on chimichurri that includes the addition (or Twang) of that odiferous West Virginia lily known as the ramp. I actually harvested the ramps for this recipe in the woods near our home during one of our regular social distancing hikes.

In Argentina, Chimichurri is used as an accompaniment to grilled beefsteak, but it works equally well with pork, chicken and even fish. I love to use it with cuts of beef like chuck or skirt steak grilled over charcoal, and I always suggest pairing the chimichurri-enhanced beef with a rich red wine. Because chimichurri is made with a good dose of vinegar, you will need a wine that is round and even soft. Wines with a lot of acid, such as pinot noir or barbera, will clash with chimichurri. You might try merlot, red blends or even malbec like the one I’m suggesting below.

So strap on your big-boy pants and get ready for a real explosion of flavors!

Chimichurri with a Twang
Ingredients

One each, red bell pepper, sweet onion and jalapeno
Three cloves of garlic
One-half cup each Italian parsley and basil
One-quarter cup of fresh cilantro
One teaspoon each of red pepper flakes, kosher salt and coarse black pepper
One half teaspoon each dried oregano and ground cumin
Four ounces each of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar
Ten or 15 small grape tomatoes
Two medium ramps (optional)
One medium size bowl

Preparation

Dice red pepper, jalapeno, onion, basil, cilantro, ramps and parsley
Mince garlic
Cut grape tomatoes in half
Add olive oil, vinegar and above ingredients into a medium bowl
Stir mixture and add salt, cumin, oregano, red pepper flakes and black pepper
Allow to sit for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator
Serve at room temperature and spoon over or next to beef

2013 Luna de Esperanza Super Premium Malbec, Uco Valley ($40)- This malbec is comprised of ninety percent malbec and five percent each of cabernet franc and syrah. With blackberry, mocha and coffee flavors, the wine’s richness and soft tannins marry nicely with the beef and chimichurri sauce.

Saint Patty's Day Pasta

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up this week, so I thought I would wow you with a great Irish recipe. So, while I’m not a Bangers and Mash or Soda Bread kind of guy, I am one-half Irish and I feel obliged to celebrate my Gaelic heritage by cooking up a Saint Patrick's Day meal. However, I just couldn’t find anything that tickled my culinary fancy.

Then I had what I thought was a solution to the problem. Since I am also one-half Italian, why not find a recipe that uses the traditional culinary ingredients of Ireland and Italy to prepare a dish that pays homage to both storied nations.

Unfortunately, as I searched my treasure trove of cookbooks, I was unable to find any Irish-Italian dishes. I suppose I could try and create one. How about something like this: Corned Beef Marinara over Cabbage Fettucine; or Skirts and Kidneys Bolognese in Blood Pudding?


I must admit neither of the above mentioned combos excited my taste buds. So I decided to go in another direction. Since everyone knows that green is the national color of Ireland and that pasta is the national food of Italy, I’ve decided to combine these two characteristics to create a dish I’ll call Saint Patty’s Day Pasta.

Okay, I know, this is a bit of a stretch, but hang with me a bit longer because I think you’re going to love this recipe.

Two of the main ingredients in the recipe are Charleston Bread’s homemade spinach fettucine, and the lovely extra virgin olive oil from locally-owned Villa Ditrapano. Both the pasta and olive oil are green and they share the culinary stage in the recipe with arugula and basil to give this dish a definite emerald hue.

More importantly, this is one tasty dish! Check this out.

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

One red bell pepper, small fennel bulb, medium onion,
Six Italian Roma or plum tomatoes
One pound spinach fettuccine
Four peeled cloves of garlic
Two links each of Italian and Andouille sausage
One 8 -ounce can of tomato sauce
Two ounces of cooking olive oil
One ounce of premium extra virgin olive oil
One-half teaspoon each of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Four ounces of grated parmesan cheese
One-half cup of pasta water
Two ounces each of fresh, chopped basil and arugula

Cut bell pepper and tomatoes in chunks; onion and fennel in eighth inch rings
Place vegetables and garlic cloves on an oven pan, drizzle with regular oil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes
Roast the sausage in another pan in same 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, turning once at 20 minutes
Chop cooked garlic in small pieces and combine with cooked vegetables in a sauce pan
Add tomato sauce to pan, cook at low heat for 30 minutes- add salt and pepper to taste
Cut sausage into half inch rings, set aside; then add to the sauce after 25 minutes
Cook pasta Al-dente and drain in colander
Combine pasta, sauce and half the parmesan to a large sauté pan over low heat
Toss together with fresh basil and arugula then add pasta water if needed
Plate pasta and sprinkle parmesan and drizzle premium olive oil over top of pasta

My wine choice to pair with Saint Patty’s Day Pasta is the 2016 Alexander Valley Vineyards Redemption Zinfandel ($25). This medium-bodied Dry Creek Valley red is round, rich and well balanced with spicy, blackberry flavors and just a hint of toasty vanilla.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. And may all your Leprechauns be green!

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

I made the mistake of walking past a mirror right after the first of the year. The reflection of a rotund stranger stared back at me, and it took me several seconds to realize that the portly visage I was staring at was – ME!

Unfortunately, I have been having this same New Year’s wake up call for decades. Once again, I am vowing to moderate my excessive appetites in the hope of sculpting a visually more appealing version of myself. In other words, I’m going to try and eat less and choose foods that are healthy – and that actually taste good too.

I’m going to share a recipe with you for a dish that accomplishes both of the above-mentioned goals. Of course, I’ll give you a couple of wine pairing suggestions that will significantly enhance the enjoyment of the dish. It will be up to you, however, to moderate your wine intake. In my case, that means cutting back to only half a bottle.

Spoiler alert: If you do not like mushrooms, you won’t want to read any further.

I’m sure many of you have eaten Portobello mushrooms. You may have cooked them on the stovetop, or oven baked them with stuffing. You might have sliced and sautéed them with onions, garlic and other spices, and used them as a side dish. My recipe, which is meant to be an entrée, uses a little bit of each method just described, and you’ll have the option of making the dish with or without meat. In addition, this recipe also includes shitake mushrooms as part of the stuffing. And since mushrooms are full of vitamins and are a terrific source of fiber, this entree is also extremely healthy. So here you go.

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