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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Crémant - the sparkling path past Champagne

Let’s chat about Crémant, those sparkly French wines from regions other than Champagne.  Specifically, I have four bottles, two each from Burgundy and Alsace. Crémant de Bourgogne and Crémant de Alsace.

I could write all day and all night about wines from Burgundy and the Alsace, but that would severely impact my drinking time, and yours.  And you'd end up like one of those effete jazz aficionados who can talk your ear off about rhythm, but can’t keep a beat with a tin drum and a jackhammer.

Let’s keep the blather to a trickle, concentrate on Crémant, and pop some corks!  But, I know you want to impress the sweet thing you’re sharing your bottle with, so here’s a “leeetle beet” about what you’re drinking, so you can make a good impression before you start to drool and pass out.

Scan this map of French wine regions and realize we’re having a chat about Burgundy (centered on the city of Beaune, pronounced Bone) and Alsace (whose capital is Strasbourg).

Alsace is especially noted for white wine, from a variety of grapes. But in the past twenty years, the bubbly versions have grown by leaps and vines.

Same may be said of Burgundy.  Although in Burgundy, reds rule the viniculture and the bubbly output does not reach that of Alsace.

The word, Crémant (Cray-mont).  The Frenchies are huge on protecting the sanctity of wines from specific regions.  Can’t call a bottle of bubbly ‘Champagne’, unless it comes from the Champagne region.  Can’t call brandy ‘Cognac’ unless it comes from the Cognac region. Not at all sure American companies follow these rules.  Pretty sure I've seen sparkling wine from California labeled Champagne.  Don't get me started on American food and beverage companies...

We do something similar with bourbon.  According to many international agreements, bourbon must be made in the United States to be called bourbon.  Tennessee distillers chose to call their whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey.

No reason I can see why Detroit and Idaho shouldn’t jump on the elitism bandwagon and insist on exclusivity with ‘Car’ and ‘Potato.’

But, back to Crémant.  How is it made?  Same way Champagne is created. But, another caveat.  Wine makers from other regions cannot call  it méthode champenoise, so they say the methode traditionelle,’ meaning the same thing.

1.    Age the grape juice in wooden casks (minimum of 9 months)
2.   Bottle it
3.   In each bottle, add a mixture of wine, sugar, and yeast for a second fermentation, which produces carbon dioxide bubbles
4.   Rotate the bottles to permit the dead yeast cells to float to the top for extraction
5.   Add a wine, sugar mixture to control the final result

We’re going to taste, sip, gulp, and ingest great quantities of Brut (3 bottles) and one bottle of Demi-Sec.

Brut = very dry
Sec = dry
Demi Sec = medium dry

Fashionable to lean toward Brut, which means as much sense as wearing your hair like Brittany Spears, or buying a watch after seeing a celebrity’s wrist on a billboard.

Don’t pass on the Sec and Demi Sec out of a misplaced loyalty to fashion, or preconceived notions.  Of the four wines, each of them had different flavors, and aromas. I thoroughly enjoyed each of them.

On to the Crémant!  One bottle each of Turckheim (Brut, Alsace), Wolfberger (Demi Sec, Alsace), and two bottles from Burgundy, both Brut and from the vintner Veuve Ambal. (  Wasn’t intentional to have two from the same spot, but they turned out to also be very different, and nicely balanced, without a hint of harshness.

Turckheim (Brut) – Light and fruity, with an uncluttered fragrance(almost invisible nose). Perfect with desserts and balsamic flavored salads.

Veuve Ambal (Brut) – A noticeable tart smoothness, with fruit undertones, and a very light nose. This is ‘tart’ without curling your tongue, or wrinkling your lips.

Marie Ambal (Brut) – Full bodied, slightly tart.  Will stand up well to steaks and other roasted meats. Want to concentrate your taste buds on the grape and not be distracted by fruit flavors?  This is the one!

Wolfberger (Demi Sec) – fruity, with a beautiful nose.  In both the nose and the flavor, hints of citrus and pear.  As with many Demi Sec, this one has a rounded finish.  With or without food, this is a nice sip.

I often hear people say they are not fond of Champagne. The chalky soil of that region does induce a strong and not always comforting flavor.  Acquired taste, one might hint.  But when you think of sparkling wine, don’t stop with Champagne. Crémant offers a full spectrum of flavors, most of them softer due to the granite soil.

The skinflint in my genes also tends to genuflect at the altar of price.  Feel free to mix in more tangled metaphors.  Crémant may be purchased at a fraction of the cost of Champagne, and to my taste, loses nothing in the bargain.  Total cost for these four bottles was about $25.  I say, “Pop another cork!  Drink up!”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Deviled Crab -devilishly simple

My mother used to make deviled crab to rave reviews.  This recipe follows hers as closely as my sagging memory allows.

One evening over supper a guest asked how hard deviled crab was to make.  “Oh, it’s very simple,” my mother said, nonchalantly.  “You just toss everything together and slip it in the oven.”

My father’s eyes got big.  He dropped his fork.  “Easy for you to say!  You didn’t spend two goddamned hours dicing every goddamned thing!”  Of course, my father took his dicing responsibilities as seriously as a talented machinist in a watch factory.  If he had made jigsaw puzzles, the pieces would all have been one inch square and you could have measured them with a micrometer.

As for me, as my greedy family constantly reminds me, I am not that perfect, least of all when I’m mincing hard boiled eggs.  Still, when I feed the hungry hordes, they have no problem bellying up to the trough and fighting for the last scraps. Your hordes are going to love this dish, too.

Besides the delicious mingling of flavors, another thing I like about deviled crab is the eye appeal.  Tiny bits of this and that flecked together, lighted browned on top, and served in ramekins, or scallop shells, as my mother used to do…well, they beg for the time honored delight of  rapidly moving the fork to the mouth.

Unlike what my father exclaimed, this recipe only takes about half an hour, including the slicing and dicing, and another 25 minutes baking in a 350ºF (180ºCº) oven.

To keep it simple, and to give the deviled crab first billing, I often serve it with oven-roasted vegetables, which I toss with only a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper. The vegetables also bake at 350º, for the same 25 minutes.  Finger-sized cuts of carrots, petite green beans, slices of red bell pepper, a few broccoli flowerets, and slices of onion add color, and a rough-cut bistro texture to the plate.  Often I drizzle a bit of balsamic vinegar over the vegetables before serving.

Deviled Crab

1 lb. crab meat – I used a one-pound can of pasteurized and refrigerated mixture of claw and body meat.  Two recommendations:  Fresh crab is best.  Steer clear of the canned crab that requires no refrigeration – absolutely tasteless!

1 Cup mixture of green and white onion, diced
1 Stalk of celery, diced
½ Red bell pepper, diced (use the other half in the mixed, roasted vegetables)
3 Hardboiled eggs, minced (You can use a fork.  I used a pastry blender, the tool for cutting butter into flour)
½ Cup plain breadcrumbs  (a stale baguette and my food processor do the trick)
1 Tablespoon yellow mustard
½ Cup mayonnaise (careful with this; the idea is to moisten, not saturate)
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
3 Lemon wedges

Pick through the crab meat to take out any bits of shell.  Put the crab meat in a bowl and squeeze the lemon wedges over it.  Mix well. 

Add the other diced and minced ingredients and breadcrumbs to the bowl. Toss.

Add the mayonnaise, mustard, and a dash of cayenne – how big a dash depends on you!  I favor truly just a dash.  Crab is a delicate flavor.

Mix and toss well, using forks.  You want to keep the mixture light, not at all packed down.

Again, using forks to keep the mixture from packing, fill the ramekins.  This recipe will serve 4 or 5 as a main course, or 6-8 as an appetizer.

Prior to going in the oven.

Put the ramekins on a cookie tray and pop them in the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.  The bits deviled crab sticking up should just be turning brown.  If not, leave them in the oven another five minutes, but take care not to overcook!

Fresh out of the oven

A solid supper and devilishly easy.  Serve with dry to semi-dry white sparkling wine.  I suggest two bottles.  One for the meal and one for sipping while you cook.  It makes the time go so much faster and will make you a jolly host.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Flowers From Berlin - A spy thriller

Flowers From Berlin by Noel Hynd, takes place in one of the most turbulent times in the history of the United States, the period encompassing the last years of the Great Depression and the lead-in to World War II.

We know about one attempt on then President-elect FDR’s life, on 15 February 1933, in Miami, Florida.  (In those days, before the 20th Amendment, the President took office on 4 March.)

This riveting spy thriller, hinges around another attempt on the president’s life.

The last election had given FDR an unprecedented third term, but even so, unemployment was high, and so was opposition to U.S. involvement in Europe.

The European dictators sat stronger than ever.  War clouds bloomed and prominent Americans loudly voiced their opposition to American involvement.  They were in the majority. FDRs hands were bound, but it was no secret he sided heavily with the western democracies. 

By the time the Lend Lease Act, was signed in 1941, the tide had shifted somewhat, although most Americans wanted to help our friends without being directly drawn into the conflict.  Japan viciously invaded China.  Nazi Germany’s army spread across Europe like a virus.  China needed help.  England needed help.  Free France needed help.

What if?  is the one question that pushes a thriller over the cliff and into the abyss.  What if Hitler decided killing Roosevelt would stop the Administration in its tracks and prevent the United States from entering the war that raged in Europe?

In this novel, the war had already come to America.  A sleeper spy, or perhaps more than one ravaged the east coast.

American counterintelligence was in its infancy.  The Black Chamber cryptology effort was closed in 1929.  New attempts to organize CI devolved into clashes between agencies and also clashed with American ethics, most clearly stated by former Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Then there was the distrust, not to mention personal animosity between FDR and J. Edgar Hoover.

Through FDR’s persuasiveness and in direct opposition to Director Hoover’s desires, William Thomas Cochrane, a semi-disgraced and mistrusted FBI agent is thrust into the maelstrom and handed the job of finding the man or men responsible for east coast sabotage. Cochrane must feel his way, with little help from his own agency, as he tries desperately to prevent a catastrophe that could indeed alter the course of the war.
But, it’s not all war.  Toss in a British agent.  And she’s gorgeous.  And Cochrane is single.  In this thriller, you get wartime spies, political intrigue, breath-taking suspense, all wrapped neatly with a romantic bow.

Do not start this book on a whim. Once you begin, you will forget about eating, sleeping, and sex with your favorite wife until you turn the last page.

Flowers From Berlin is a well-written account of what could have happened. It may even be what did happen.  The page on wartime sabotage in the United States is blank.

The book rates 4.5/5 Stars on Amazon and the Kindle edition costs $3.25.  You paid more than that for Girl Scout Cookies.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Shrimp and Grits - My Way!

Shrimp and grits, my way.  Talk about a Southern low-country culinary tradition!  But, let me explain a few things to un-boggle your so-called mind.  Lots of people who have shivered through snow clogged winters, lived through dust storms on the great plains, and think their football teams can keep up with the teams from the southeast, have no idea what grits are.

First, some basic American history and meaningless trivia.  Native American tribes gifted the early English settlers with corn, or at least that’s how the story goes.

Stick with me….the word grits comes from the old English word, grytt, meaning coarse meal.

Now we get to the difference between cornmeal and grits, and you can stick polenta in there as well.  Grits are corn kernels that have had the husk and germ removed, usually using lye or another alkaline agent, which turns the kernels into hominy.  Looks like a nude kernel of corn that has never seen the sun.  As a matter of fact, grits are sometimes called hominy-grits. 

Now grind the hominy kernels.  In the old days, they used a stone mill for the grinding and you can still find ‘stone ground grits’ today.  Voilá!  You got yerself some grits.  Started out as mostly a breakfast food and I still love ‘em with eggs and sausage.

Flash forward to around 1985 when a New Yawk Times food writer, Craig Claiborne proclaimed the marvel of the sensational shrimp and grits he found at a North Carolina restaurant.  He wrote an article, and being from the Mississippi Delta himself, Mr. Claiborne knew what he was talking about.

A note about Craig Claiborne, who passed away in 2000.  If you want to know about the basics of cooking, don’t go to Julia Child. Pick up any one of Mr. Claiborne’s books.

Claiborne’s article turned into a twelve cylinder, culinary engine that powered grits from the backwoods into the spotlight.  Today, you’ll find shrimp and grits everywhere  from north to south and east to west, from hole-in-the-wall eateries, to the big name restaurants.  Along the way, every major chef in the country has added his two grits worth to the basic recipe.  Barbecue.  Red pepper.  Garlic.  Cheese.  Haven’t seen escargot and grits, but I know it’s coming.

Now, I’m not a purist, but I do like my shrimp and grits to taste like shrimp and grits.  If I wanted to taste barbecue, I’d go to Texas.

So let’s quit messin’ around and git to it!  My recipe is in two parts, as you might guess.  First the grits, then the shrimp.

First the Grits

1 Cup of grits (use the 5 minute variety if that’s all you can scrape up)
2 Cups of milk
2 Cups of water
salt to taste
coarse ground black pepper to taste
1 Stick of butter (using a half stick at a time)

  Note:  Your amounts may vary, depending on the grits you use, but in any case, stick with half water and half milk.

Put the first four ingredients and a half stick of butter in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Stir well. The recipe on your box of grits is going to ignore any mention of milk and is going to tell you to bring the water to a boil first, then add the grits.  BUT, I like my grits creamy, especially if I’m going to layer them with shrimp.  The secret to creamy grits is to bring everything to a boil at the same time.  Then, cover and lower the heat to a simmer.  Stir once in awhile until the grits are done.  Your box of grits will give you a pretty good guess at how long that will take.  If the grits become too thick, add a bit more water or milk and when they’re done, stir in the other half stick of butter.

Now the Shrimp

1 lb of large shrimp  (41 to 50 count per pound)
1 ½ Cups of chopped onions (medium chop on all the vegetables)
1 Cup chopped celery
½ Cup chopped bacon
½ Chopped red bell pepper
2 Tablespoons butter for cooking the vegetables
1 to 1 ½ Cups chicken broth
Splash of Worcestershire Sauce
Two pinches red pepper flakes (too much will overpower the flavor of the shrimp)
Salt to taste

¼ Cup butter + ¼ Cup flour, mixed into a paste

Low-medium heat.  Put the vegetables, the bacon, and 2 Tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan.  Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not brown.  Add the spices and shrimp. Stir.  As the shrimp turn pink, add a cup of the broth.  Stir in the flour-butter mixture and allow the mixture to thicken.  Continue to cook on a low temperature for another three minutes.  Add the remainder of the broth as needed to keep the sauce from getting too thick.  You’re looking for a creamy consistency.

Put a helping of grits in individual shallow bowls and ladle the sauced shrimp on top.  Super for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

Enjoy it with your breakfast coffee and juice, or with a light, white wine.