Thursday, December 20, 2012

Comfort Food and Red Bordeaux: A Heavenly Match on a Cold Day

In anticipation of this winter’s cold weather, I’ve already switched my wine orientation here in New York City to heartier, bolder reds.  I’ll pair them with anything from the stick-to-your-ribs osso bucco at Casa Nonna to a hanger steak at my local bistro Demarchelier or even the fabulous fried oysters remoulade at the Seahorse Tavern.  I love the website from the Bordeaux Wine Council for ideas for pairing either at a restaurant or at home. The tips are useful and the website is quite comprehensive.  Through it, I found Rob Moshein, a Bordeaux wine buff from Texas, who I interviewed about some of his favorite recipes to accompany these fabulous reds. 

Rob, who works with the Austin-based wine specialist store,The Wine Cellar at Bee Cave, noted that the tannins and acids of red Bordeaux go especially well with the protein-heavy nature of winter comfort foods.  I totally agree.

Here are three suggestions from Rob for wines and recipes to match three of my favorite winter dishes, cassoulet, French onion soup, and cauliflower (now on menus everywhere and rapidly replacing Brussels sprouts as the side vegetable of choice):

Cassoulet - serves 6-8
Pairs well with Château Segonzac, Blaye, Côtes de Bordeaux, 2009: Rich, black fruits, silky tannins and solid structure.

4 cups dried white beans, flageolet or cannellini

1/2 pound not-too-smoky slab bacon

1/4 thick sliced prosciutto or pancetta

small bunch fresh parsley -- leaves chopped, stems saved

10 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

3 whole cloves

salt and black pepper

1 pound boneless beef for stew, cut into 1-inch cubes

oil or fat as needed

2 medium onions, sliced

duck confit (if you can't find this, roast two whole turkey thighs and reserve)

8 garlic cloves, peeled

2 cups chicken stock, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 pound garlicky sausage, preferably in one piece

1 cup bread crumbs

1. Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan and add the beans. Remove from heat and let soak for 1 hour.

2. Cut the bacon slab and prosciutto or pancetta each into 4 large chunks and cover in water in another saucepan; turn the heat to medium, and when the water boils, turn it down to a gentle simmer.
Cook for about 30 minutes.

3. Make a bouquet garni by combining the parsley stems, thyme, bay leaves and whole cloves in a piece of cheesecloth and tying it into a bundle.  Add it, along with the bacon/prosciutto, to the beans; bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook, skimming occasionally, until the beans are just tender, 45 to 90 minutes. (Add water if necessary; ideally the beans will be moist but not swimming when they’re done.) Taste and adjust the seasoning to taste if necessary.

4. Sprinkle the beef with salt and pepper. Put 3 tablespoons oil or fat in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the beef and brown the pieces well. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 or 6 minutes; turn off heat.

5. Remove the duck confit or turkey from the refrigerator and scrape off the fat; debone and shred the meat. Add the meat and garlic cloves to the pot with the beef, along with 2 cups chicken stock, chopped garlic and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer; cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is very tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

6. When you’re ready to assemble the cassoulet, discard the bouquet garni. Cut the fat from the meat and cut the meat into small pieces.

7. Heat 2 tablespoons oil or fat in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, add the sausage and cook, turning as necessary until well browned; transfer to a cutting board and slice into quarter-inch rounds.

8. Heat the oven to 375. Transfer the beans to a large enameled cast-iron pot with a slotted spoon to leave behind most of the cooking liquid. Add the sausage and bacon on top, then the duck-and-lamb mixture; gently stir to blend well

9. Put the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer, uncovered, then turn off heat. Cover with bread crumbs and chopped parsley leaves and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325.

10. Bake the cassoulet until it’s hot, bubbling and crusted around the edges, 30 to 40 minutes; add a little water or stock if it starts to look too dry. Then, enjoy!

French Onion Soup  - makes 4-8 servings
Pairs well with Château Puy-Blanquet, Saint Emilion, Grand Cru, 2009.  This elegant Merlot-based wine has a vibrant cherry tone, is clean and crisp on the palate, but not too heavy for soup.  It has nice spice and pepper flavors on the finish.

The stock:

3 lbs. meaty beef soup bones

2 bay leaves

4 whole peppercorns

salt to taste.

Put the bones onto a large baking pan and roast at 375 for 20 minutes until browned.  Transfer the bones to a large stock pot.  Add a cup or two of water to the baking pan and scrape up all the browned bits on the bottom and add to the bones in the pot.  Add the bay leaves and peppercorns and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat then cover and lower the heat and let simmer for at least 90 minutes. (This can be done in advance, just strain when cooked, cool, cover and refrigerate until needed for the soup).

The soup:

3 pounds onions, sliced both thick and thin.

3 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

beef stock (from above)

ground pepper and salt to taste

1/2 brandy or cognac (optional)

1/2 pound Gruyere cheese grated

Melt the butter in  a large soup pot.  When the foam subsides, turn the flame to medium and add the onions.  Stir well and often until the onions are soft and golden, about 30-45 minutes.  Add the flour and stir well, cook about 5 more minutes, stirring, to cook out the raw flour taste and start to color the flour golden.  Add the stock, cover and simmer on a low flame for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Add the brandy if using and cook another fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.  Put equal parts of the grated cheese into individual soup bowls and ladle in the hot soup on top.  Serve with good crusty bread.

Chou-fleur Gratinée - serves 4
Pairs well with Mouton Cadet Bordeaux Rouge, 2010.  A light, easy wine, with typical currant and cherry aromas on the nose. This wine is silky with moderate tannins.

1/2 pound bacon

large onions, sliced

1 pound potatoes thick sliced

1 pound fresh cauliflower, cut up bite size

1/4 pound Gruyere cheese, grated

Heat oven to 350.

Put a tablespoon of oil into a frying pan and cook the bacon until just crisp.  Add onion and sauté until the onions are just soft and turning golden.

Put the potato slices in a large pot and add enough water to more than cover. Add salt to taste and bring to a gentle boil, add the cauliflower and cook until both are tender, about 5-7 minutes.  When cooked, drain thoroughly.

In a gratin dish, layer 1/3 of the potato and cauliflower, and then scatter 1/3 of the bacon onion mixture across and top with 1/3 of the cheese.  Drizzle the layer with 1/3 of the cream and repeat until all is used.  Bake in the 350 oven for about 30 minutes until bubbling.  Let rest two or three minutes before serving piping hot!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paris Retro: Fine (or not so fine) Dining, Cheap Living and Offbeat Graffiti

Travel and Food Notes welcomes back guest blogger Peter Hochstein, author, biographer, journalist and award-winning advertising copywriter. Check out his new autobiographical ebook for more of his inspired, witty and irreverent observations.  

They say that after a while we begin to regress to childhood. I’m a case in point. As I’ve grown older, my hairline has retreated toward the near-zero state it was in when I was born. To be honest, I’m shrinking, too. I’m an inch shorter than I was at 35. And now even my travel habits are slipping backwards .

Until quite recently, a trip to Paris meant I’d been staying in the charmingly fashionable Sixth Arrondissement or the ultra chi-chi Eighth. But due to the current economic situation, I decided to skimp a bit and go back alone to where my love affair with Paris began. That would be the Fifth Arrondissement, or the Latin Quarter, named for the days when classes at the Sorbonne were taught in Latin.

The bible of student travelers in Europe when I was a student was Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on $5 A Day.  One of the cooler places recommended was the Hotel Cluny Sorbonne at 8 Rue Victor Cousin, directly across the street from the Sorbonne. Here, I learned that while you can’t really go home again, you can sort of do it.

I actually got my old room back at the Cluny Sorbonne. Well, anyway, half of my old room. Renovations in the 1980s split some of the rooms in two, so more guests could be accommodated. Additionally, every room now has a bathroom. No more toilet down the hall, or paying the equivalent of 50 cents for a shower.

But the room rates have been renovated, too. My old room, a double, used to cost roughly $4 a night and was furnished in slightly tired Belle Epoque satins, with red and gold the predominating colors. My renovated half of my former room, ran 101 Euros a night. Unfortunately, that’s what passes for a bargain price these days in Paris and you get what you pay for.

The renovated space was spartan, the colors less colorful than my student days, and the bedding, though pristinely clean, was probably well on the low side of any thread count you’ve experienced. The blankets were covered with fuzzy nubbins, presumably from punishing trips to the washing machine. But the room’s view of the Sorbonne hadn't changed at all.

Without even unpacking my bags, I grabbed my camera and ran down into the street to record what else had or hadn’t changed.

I am happy to report that the urge to post graffiti in the Fifth is proudly unchanged, except for subject matter. While there are still hooligans with magic markers doing just as they do in the United States to post their “tags” in impossibly difficult places, much of the graffiti is clever. Here and there it’s even beautiful, and some of it appears to be pasted-on, like wallpaper, so that eventually it can be taken down.

When it’s political, the focus of graffiti in the Fifth sometimes shifts from France to the United States. And, reflecting the new cosmopolitanism of Parisians, a great many of whom now speak excellent English, some of the graffiti are in English, too.

Moreover, there’s a tendency toward images that make you stop and think. At  Place de la Sorbonne, in front of the venerated university, there’s a statue of  August Compte, said to have been the father of sociology. At the base of his statue, somebody has gratefully scribbled “Merci pour tout!” 

How about a fashion statement? I found a wall scrawl that declared, “Praise be to Prada.” Yes, in English. Possibly sarcastic English.

All this walking around in seach of graffiti made me hungry. So in keeping with my budget-minded plans, I used a street map and the kindness of strangers to direct me to Rue Mouffetard, about a 15-minute stroll from Place de la Sorbonne. “Rue Mouff” has become a restaurant row. It’s filled with bistro after touristy bistro, many offering moderately-priced French specialties beloved by visitors – fondues, raclettes, escargots, boeuf bourgignon and steak pommes frites.

For considerably more upscale dining in the Fifth, I took some French guests another night to L’Atelier Maitre Albert, one of celebrity chef Guy Savoy’s establishments. This one, at the corner of Rue Maitre Albert and Quai de Montebello, even wowed my French friends. It specializes in rotisseried meats (roasted chicken unlike you’ve ever had before), and while I suppose we could have racked up a king’s ransom there, a three-course prix fixe “seasonal” dinner ran only 35 Euros a head. A luscious bottle of Haut Medoc cost 69 Euros extra, and went perfectly with the meal.

In fact, the food was so good that I had to struggle with myself to avoid stepping outside and scrawling praises for the restaurant’s cuisine on its walls.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pisco: The Favorite Liquor of Peru (and Chile)

In this season of holiday parties with much eggnog and other fattening drinks, I prefer to choose regional cocktails as a combination dessert-drink.  One of my go-tos has always been the Pisco Sour, a favorite in Peru and Chile.  Pisco is the national liquor of Peru, with a National Pisco Day on July 21, but there is much debate between Peru and Chile as to which country originated the drink.  No matter, pisco is still relatively unknown here.  A wonderful base for a variety of cocktails, pisco is a clear brandy which is made by fermenting one or more grapes mixed together, all grown in the coastal desert plains.  It’s also a nice lower-calorie choice for a shot if you’re tired of tequila (which, by the way, has its only national holiday just three days later on July 24).

Piscos are divided into ones that are aromatic and those which are not, depending on the grape or grapes used, similar to other brandies.  Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Uvina and Mollar are made from just one type of non-aromatic grape; aromatic piscos include Moscatel, Italia and Torontel.   You can also try Acholado or Mosto Verde which contain at least one non-aromatic and one aromatic grape.

I have to admit that I’m a novice when it comes to pisco; I’m much savvier about the varieties of blanco, añejo and reposado tequilas.  What I’ve started to notice, however, is that there are quite a few pisco producers, and this becomes important if you prefer to drink your liquor straight up.  Some of the best brands come from Peru and include Huamani, Campo de Encanto, Cholo Matias and Torres de la Gala.

Machu Picchu
My preference when choosing a pisco drink is the famous Pisco Sour, though, which I got hooked on during my visits to Chile a few years ago.  I guess I’m not the only one, as Peru has a National Pisco Sour Day in February (there are more and more holidays dedicated to liquor, it seems).  This cocktail is simply made with pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg whites. To me, this is the best, but you can always experiment with other pisco variations such a maracuya sour made with passion fruit or a chilcano which has ginger ale in it.
If you’re planning a trip to Peru – I only had a brief layover in Lima, sadly – try to visit the area around Ica, south of Lima, where most pisco is produced.  A worthy reward after hiking Machu Picchu, pisco can be sampled and venerated at the Museo del Pisco in Cusco.  The bar there is dedicated to everything pisco and will give out samples – oh, for a museum like that in the US!  In New York City, I always head to Pomaire in the theater district for a Pisco Sour fix.

While I don’t have another South American itinerary planned for the near future, I hope to go back to Chile soon (Easter Island is probably my favorite exotic destination) and I’m looking forward to spending real time in Peru.  If you’re researching an itinerary or just want help in planning a trip, South American Vacations can assist.