Rebooting with a Dinner Gang

There were a number of circumstances which let this blog slip away.  It no longer matters what they were; it just matters that we’re bringing it back.

Appropriately, the subject of that reboot is our most recent Dinner Gang, which was number 49.  The theme was cherries.

DG 49 Table

Calm Table, Pre-Storm

As the hosting duties were ours, it fell to us to choose the theme.  We knew going in that we wanted a simple ingredient, one which would test all our abilities to come up with something compelling.  I originally suggested the potato.  Since fresh cherries are in season at the moment, we went for something a little more flavor and a lot more room to build around.  As normally happens, our friends rose to the challenge.

Course 1:  Duck “Slaw” Bruschetta



Course 1 Pairing: NV Champagne de Margerie Blanc de Noirs

The bruschetta was first layered with a rosemary cream cheese, then topped with the slaw made of shredded duck, onion, celery, and a little habanero.  Jim and Neal explained that they wanted the duck itself to have the heat, as opposed to what would be the sort of normal choice of putting the heat into the sauce.  The dish was awash in delicious contrasts, from the smoothness of the cream cheese to the crunch of the slaw, with the cherry sauce providing a silky bridge.  The Blanc de Noirs pairing set it off perfectly, picking up cherry notes which a normal Champagne wouldn’t have.

Course 2: Duck Confit Crepe with Cherry Gastrique


Course 2 Pairing: 2014 La Crema Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

Kathryn and David, to the disappointment of exactly no one, also went for duck to go with the cherry.  David said that he knew precisely what the dish was going to be as soon as they heard the theme (which we gave everyone about 3 weeks lead time on).  The icing on this particular cake were the Port-reconstituted Bing cherries, adding a beautiful darkness to the whole dish.  The contrasts of the rich duck, the airy crepe, and the expressive cherries melded together into flavor symphony.  The ripeness of the 2014 La Crema Pinot Noir struck the perfect chord with the rest of the dish.  To be honest, I’ve previously been ambivalent about La Crema wines.  After drinking this one, I realized that I’d only had their Sonoma Coast version.  There was nothing to be ambivalent about here; the powerful fruit and racy mouthfeel of the Russian River Valley cuvee made it not only a great pairing, but wine I’d be happy to drink on its own.

Course 3: Stone Ground Mustard-Crusted Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin or Oven-Roasted Sockeye with Cherry-Bourbon Reduction, Cherry Kalamata Fennel Ciabatta Stuffing, Braised Fennel.

DG49 Salmon

Course 3 Salmon Pairing: 2012 Martinelli Vineyards Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

Because we had an abundance of cherries, we had a few weeks earlier macerated some of them in bourbon.  At the time, we didn’t know what we wanted to do.  We obviously figured it out.

For the meat-eaters, we marinated pork tenderloin in some of the bourbon from the cherry jar.  I covered the tenderloins in stone ground mustard and vacuum-sealed them for their two-hour trip in the sous vide bath at 136F.  When they came out, I gave them a quick sear all around before slicing into medallions.  Searing didn’t change the internal temperature too much, but concerned about over-cooking them, I didn’t get the sear as crispy as I otherwise might have.  In the future, I’ll probably cook the pork to an internal of 130 and sear it a little longer.

We marinated the salmon in the cherry bourbon for about an hour.  I didn’t add any acid (a little freshly-squeezed lime juice) until right before putting them into a 425F oven for about eight minutes.  I could have eaten it at six.  The sockeye was almost buttery without any help from us save in the reduction.

The reduction we used for both proteins was made from equal parts of the bourbon-soaked cherries and reconstituted dried cherries, finished with a tablespoon or so of butter just to bring some richness to it.

The stuffing, which we did a test drive of the week before, will become a dish we go back to again.  Ripeness from the cherries, darkness and a touch of saltiness from the olives, and the licorice aromatics of the fennel combined into an explosive side dish.  The caramelized notes of the braised fennel brought it all together.

We knew going in that we’d pair two different wines with the two different meats.  What would work for the pork–with its much higher fat content–wasn’t going to work for the salmon.  We nearly immediately settled on the Martinelli Moonshine Ranch Pinot.  Without the bourbon flavors, I would have suggested an Oregon Pinot, but the bourbon brought a kind of darkness to go with the cherry flavors, which suggested a high-octane Russian River Valley offering instead.

My initial instinct was to go with Barolo to pair with the pork.  During a discussion about the meal with Ric, proprietor of Ric’s Wine Market here in Lakeland, he agreed that Barolo was probably the right way to go, but I might also want to think about something from Rioja.  During one of our test runs, I pulled a 2010 Bodegas Numanthia Toro Numanthia.  This enormous wine was exactly what the pork needed, a surprising ripeness in the fruit complimenting the cherry elements while the towering tannins perfectly complemented the rich pork, and it’s the pairing I’d choose again.  To be fair, the wine on its own is spectacular; it took this dish into the stratosphere.

Course 4: Homemade Pistachio Cherry Bourbon Ice Cream and Dark Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti

DG49 Dessert

Course 4 Pairing: Cordial of Du Monte Pistachio Liquer

We made both the ice cream and the biscotti the night before.  The bourbon-soaked cherries went into the ice cream mixture toward the end of the cycle in the ice cream maker.  The alcohol content made the freezing a little trickier, but the ice cream still turned out nicely rich.  The double contrast of the nutty, crispy biscotti and the heady dark chocolate made it a fitting wrap to the meal.  We were mixed on finishing with either a little of the Du Monte or drinking up the last of the wine.

I actually left about half a glass of the Numanthia in the decanter until the next day. Normally, if I’m saving some wine, I’ll vacuum-seal it and put it in the fridge.  This particular wine was so titantic I wanted to see what it was like 24  hours later, still open to the air.  I drank it with the few bits of leftover pork, and it was still singing.  I can’t imagine too many other wines with that kind of staying power.


DG 49 Wines

The Wine Lineup

Once again, the folks we’ve cooked with at least once a month for now more than four years showed that they know what they’re doing.  We wrapped Dinner Gang 49 and eagerly await the decision on what we’ll be doing next month, when we hit the half century mark.

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Dinner Gang 21: Vegetarian and Bordeaux

Representing Both Banks

Representing Both Banks

Dinner Gang 21, Vegetarian and Bordeaux, demonstrated that you don’t need meat to make a top-shelf dinner.  We had Bordeaux as a theme in mind for a while, but we wanted to up the ante a little, make it a bit more challenging for everyone involved.  As normally happens, the combination of drinking a bourbon and ginger beer while soaking in the hot tub yielded answers.  We had also been considering vegetarian for quite some time, so marrying the two seemed inspired.

I wasn’t worried about being able to pair Bordeuax with vegetarian dishes; the Bordelaise have been doing it for a long time.  I was a little concerned with pouring a big, tannic monster without the dish having a significant fat profile, but those fears were laid to rest as we got into our experimentations.

FIRST COURSE:  Homemade Gnocchi with Sautéed Mushroom and Bordeaux Reduction

GnocchiAs the hosts of the last Dinner Gang, Kathryn and David drew the first course this time.  They got us started in spectacular fashion with fresh gnocchi.  The mushroom and wine reduction was set off perfectly with the smoky mushroom and pencil lead aromas of the first wine, 2009 Château Poujeaux Moulis en Medoc.  Strong tannins and structure came from the 50% Cab and 40% Merlot; the deep color and expressive flavors from the rest of the blend being Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.  They took it to the next level by going over to the Right Bank with 2010 Château Barde-Haut, a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cab Franc. Big blueberry and cherry fruit gave it a sweetness that touched off the mushrooms into an explosion of flavors.  After saving the last few bites of the dish to taste with the second wine, we enjoyed finishing the rest of the bottle on its own.

SECOND COURSE:  Curried Squash and Mushroom Soup

Squash SoupWhat’s better than delicious curried soup?  Delicious soup made with Jim and Neal’s homemade curry, topped with just a spoonful of plain yoghurt for some tang.  It was a cool night (cool by Florida standards—it had plunged into the 50s), so this course warmed us up.  Or maybe it was the wine, which we got into before serving the course.  We started with the fresh and lively 2012 Château Dalem Fronsac, which expressed great minerality on the nose (I called it a salt lick) along with great floral aromatics.  Up front and ripe fruits made it a nice bridge between courses.  Along with the soup, we had 2010 Château La Rose Perrière from Lussac-St.-Emilion, its fleshy fruit marrying with both the flavor and texture of the soup.

MAIN COURSE:  Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd PieThe idea for our main course was similarly hot tub-and-bourbon fueled.  We started with the wine.  Not specifically knowing what we wanted to pour out of the cellar, we focused on the beautiful rusticity of Bordeaux wines.  We knew we’d be getting into all those earthy, loamy flavors, so stew of some kind jumped right to mind.  The problem would be not having the fat of any meat to render down into the dish.  I’m not 100% sure how we landed on shepherd’s pie, but it was definitely an “Ooh!” moment.  We worked out general ideas on how to instantiate it, then experimented.  We knew we wanted a “meaty” bottom layer with a sautéed vegetable of some kind in between and naturally topped with mashed potatoes.  We used mushrooms and lentils to give the bottom layer heft, replacing the texture that the meat would normally have.  We settled on parsnips and fennel in the middle to pick up the fruit and aromatics of the wine, then left the butter and cream in the potatoes to carry the dish’s fat content.  Here’s the final version:

Meaty Layer (inspired by a ragu from The Simple Veganista)

2 cups lentils

8 oz. mushrooms, diced

2 large carrots, diced

3 shallots, diced

1 tsp garlic powder

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes

1 tbl extra virgin olive oil

1 tbl dried Herbs de Provence

2 cups vegetable broth

1 pinch red pepper flakes

1/2 cup full-bodied red wine

2 tbl soy sauce

1 tsp sugar

1 tbl cornstarch

1 bay leaf

black pepper to taste

We simply sautéed the shallots in the olive oil then added the other ingredients, cooking them long, low, and slow.  It took a few hours until the lentils had the right texture.  We wanted them meaty without being mushy.  After the dish got to the right consistency, we cooled it and put it in the fridge for three days, letting all those flavors soak in.

The red wine we used was 2011 Martinelli Zinfandel Giuseppe & Luisa because it happened to be the day we ordered the spring allocation of the 2012.  We have a “rule” that we drink an earlier vintage of something on the day we order the new release, so this was serendipitous.

Vegetable Layer

2 small fennel heads, diced

2 medium parsnips, peeled and diced

2 tbl extra virgin olive oil

1+ cup parm broth (vegetable broth is a fine substitute)

We sautéed the vegetables in the olive oil for about five minutes, just melting the fennel a little.  We added the broth, covered, and simmered until the vegetables were soft but not mushy.  We then removed the lid to cook off most of the liquid.

When we were considering what liquid to use, we discarded the idea of white wine because we felt it would clash with the red wine in the other layer.  We were going to use vegetable broth until Gretchyn remembered that she had made a batch of parmigiano reggiano broth the previous week (it’s pretty simple to turn parm rinds into delicious broth—we’ll write it up eventually).  It lent another layer of great flavor to an already-flavorful dish.

Potato Layer

6 medium Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

6-8 tbl butter

salt and pepper to taste

We boiled the potatoes until tender, ran them through the food mill, then added the cream and butter, just like we would with normal mashed potatoes.


While it would be easy to simply use the pot that the meat layer is already in, we chose to make individual servings because we happen to have cool pedestal bowls that are just the right size.  Using a large scoop, we layered in the “meat” mixture, then the vegetables, then the potatoes.  We used an icing knife to flatten out the potatoes, then sprinkled some smoked paprika on top.  We put the bowls on a tray in the oven at 250F, intending on keeping them warm until serving time, then crisping the top under the broiler.  Two hours later, the top was perfectly crispy on its own, so we went right to the table.

The dish was an absolute winner.  The flavors and textures came together exactly as we had hoped they would.  The bottom layer was strongly reminiscent of beef stew (the Herbs de Provence and bay leaf were big factors there).  There wasn’t much mushroom flavor, but they provided a major part of the texture for that layer.  The tomatoes in it provided acidity; the vegetable layer’s sweetness then gave way to the creaminess of the potato layer.  It had great aromatics all around, and stood up to an insistent wine.

First pour, bottle not even turned upside down!

First pour, bottle not even turned upside down!

I pared down our wine selections to three strong candidates before settling on 2003 Sociando-Mallet (the others in consideration were 2003 Clerc-Milon, which I thought might still be too young, and 2005 Chasse-Spleen, which didn’t quite match the flavor profile of the dish as well).  It’s still a wine just coming into its maturity.  We opened it three hours before we were going to serve it, with the intention of decanting it at about the one hour point.  One taste of the grippy tannins told us to get it into the decanter right away.  Even being careful pouring it, it threw as much sediment as I’ve seen in a long time.  I poured into a second decanter (still more sludge), washed out the first, then poured it back in through a strainer (which picked up even more).  It wasn’t until nearly the four hour point that we got to it, and it was singing:  graphite and barnyard on the nose, dark black fruits, bracing minerality, low acidity, and excellent balance.


Cheese PlateI believe in having a little cheese before dessert.  We made individual plates with a wedges of Cambazola, Mimolette, and Noce Del Piave, plus a little quince paste and fresh honeycomb.  Keeping it in the region, we served the plate with 2010 Château Doisy-Daëne Barsac.  It was a nice intermezzo.

DESSERT:  Dark Chocolate Pate with Crème Anglaise and Cocoa Nibs

Chocolate PateWe had experimented with the (relatively easy) recipes for the pate and crème the week before.  This time, we used Scharffenberger 81% Dark instead of the Tcho 66% of the previous week.  Gretchyn said she was happier with the consistency of the crème anglaise the second time.  We went with cocoa nibs instead of a nut because we thought a nut would be too oily.  The dark bitterness of the chocolate contrasted with the sweetness of the crème and provided a rich accompaniment to coffee and espresso (Stumptown Coffee French Roast if you’re curious).  It was the exclamation point the evening wanted.  Just under six hours after we pulled the cork on the first bottle, we were done.

Everyone brought their A game to a very challenging and rewarding theme.  We reflected on how much we had each learned about both cooking and pairing wines over the previous 20 iterations and wondered what we might learn over the course of the next 20.

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Dinner Gang 17: Big and Bold

The Big and Bold Lineup

The Big and Bold Lineup

The last three times we’ve done Dinner Gang, we happened to have reasonably light wines.  Our last hosting experience was with white wines, Neal and Jim did Rosé, and then Kathryn and David did Germany.  I thought it was time to head to the opposite end of the spectrum.  I wanted gigantic wines.

Our planning started with what wine to have.  We don’t have too many huge tannic Californian monstrosities in the cellar, and none of them are ready to drink.  Bressler is certainly a cult-level Cali Cab, but it has an elegance that I just wasn’t looking for this time.  I wanted a gorilla.  I turned to where some of the best Cab in this country comes from, Washington State, and the inimitable Quilceda Creek.  We have two different vintages of their Bordeaux-style blend, and I thought it would be interesting to taste them side-by-side because the blends are different (after the high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon).  After reviewing the tasting notes on the 2010, we realized that it would also pair well with the dessert we had in mind.  We had a plan.

COURSE 1:  Spicy Crab Salad, Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Crusted Filet

Spicy Crab Salad on top of Filet Mignon

Spicy Crab Salad on top of Filet Mignon

David and Kathryn had the toughest job of all.  Having a burly wine for a first course is difficult enough; pairing food with it takes it to another level.  True to form, they nailed it.  The spiciness of the crab salad, the smoky flavor of the tomatoes, and the richness of the filet mignon melded together, delivering an explosion of flavor.  Pairing it with the Chianti Classico Riserva, which must spend at least two years in oak and at least three months aging in the bottle, was inspired.  Broad-shouldered and velvety, it was elegant enough to be the first wine, powerful enough to go with the theme.  A spectacular effort.

Pairing:  2009 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva

COURSE 2:  Roasted Portabellas Stuffed with Carmelized Root Vegetables, and Homemade Paneer

Roasted stuffed portabella

Roasted stuffed portabella

We knew that Neal and Jim were experimenting with the cheese.  We didn’t know what else they had in mind.  In addition to the meaty flavors that the mushrooms and root vegetables provided, the texture of the dish was deliciously thick.  Bringing it all together was a ripe balsamic vinaigrette, which provided just enough acidity to brighten the dish but not clash with the wines.  They paired two wines, one a classic choice from the Medoc and one an outside-the-box selection from southwest France.  The Medoc, 2009 Château Les Grands Chênes, was spot on.  The right amount of tannin, fruit, and balance to call out all the layers of the dish.  The other wine, 2007 Château Bouscassé Madiran is a blend of 60% Tannat (a grape I’ll confess to never having heard of), 25% Cab Franc (now we’re talking my language) and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.  With slightly more residual sweetness and aromatics, it took the pairing to another level.  It turned the Medoc (which objectively as a straight drinker, I liked better) into a baseline for showing off the dish.  Another inspired piece of work.

Pairing:  2009 Château Les Grands Chênes and 2007 Château Bouscassé Madiran

Honeybell and basil sorbetto

Honeybell and basil sorbetto

INTERMEZZO:  Honeybell Orange and Greek Basil Sorbetto

With all the giant flavors, we realized that we needed something to cleanse the palate after the second dish.  We lingered more than 90 minutes between the second course and the third, giving our taste buds a good scrub and a little rest.  This was 100% Gretchyn’s idea.  She wanted to do blood oranges, but they’re seasonal (even the juice), so we found used the honeybells instead.  The basil came right out of the garden.  She made it the night before and we pulled it out of the freezer just a few minutes before serving.  The blend of the citrus with the greenness of the basil worked like nobody’s business.  It definitely reset us for the next course.

MAIN COURSE:  Grilled Tuna Steaks, Classic Mashed Potatoes, Shallot and Nutmeg Creamed Kale, Port/Shallot Reduction

Course 3Serving enormous tannic wines screams steak to me—fatty rib-eyes.  The problem with that is we have two folks who don’t eat beef or pork.  That generally doesn’t stop us from using beef (like Kathryn and David did on the first course), it just makes us be creative.
During our brainstorming, we came up with the idea of taking high quality tuna steaks, seasoning them like beef, and grilling them.  We happened to be at Mise en Place the week before, so I asked Chef Marty if we were headed in a good direction.  He said “Absolutely.”  We were off to the races.  We had considered a kind of surf and turf with both tuna and regular steaks for the folks who eat it, but the tuna looked so good that we abandoned the beef altogether.  From there, it was answering the simple question “what goes with steak?”  We chose kale instead of spinach simply because we like the texture better.  Even boiled and creamed, the long-leaf kale keeps some of its toothiness, which contrasted quite nicely with both the creamy potatoes and the meaty tuna.  I oiled the steaks and then crusted them with Penzey’s Chicago Steak Seasoning.  I heated the grill to its max, about 750F.  Stopwatch in hand, I cooked them for 2 minutes per side.  They rested for 5 minutes as we plated up everything else.  I don’t recall ever cooking good tuna steaks at home before.  We’ll definitely do it again.

The 2005 QC is made in the style which I love, namely using a noteworthy amount (in this case 9%) of Cavernet Franc.  It’s then rounded out with 7% Merlot.  Descriptors like “ample,” “plush,” and “enormous” come to mind.  The cedar and pencil lead aromas merged with the flavors of the tuna’s seasonings as the tannins gripped the meat.  Everything would have been right at home at a high end steak house.  The 2010 also worked as advertised.  About 84% Cab, 15% Merlot, and a few drops of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, the fruit was slightly riper, making it both a great finisher with the last few bites of the main course and excellent companion for dessert.  Our allocations of the wines of Quilceda Creek are small, so it’s great to be reminded on the infrequent times we drink them just how amazing they are.  If you can, get on their mailing list.

Pairing:  2005 and 2010 Quilceda Creek Red Wine Columbia Valley

DESSERT:  Chocolate Crust Cheesecake with Fresh Dark Cherries

Dessert 2Inspired by a recipe we found at, we substituted the darker cherries (pitted and halved) for the sweeter strawberries.  We also used 6 4-inch individual tart pans instead of a larger one.  We passed on drizzling it with chocolate, thinking (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be too chocolatey, adding instead a little homemade vanilla whipped cream to bring out the vanilla flavors in the wine.  It was the perfect dessert to close the evening.  The richness of the chocolate blended perfectly with the creamy cheesecake and bright bite of the cherry.

Five hours later, we were done, another successful Dinner Gang in the books, with Jim and Neal already throwing out idea for number 18.  Dinner Gang is certainly one of the highlights of our month, as we get to do some of the things we love most with some of the people we love most.

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Dinner Gang 15: Rosé

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken and Apricot-Mint Couscous

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken and Apricot-Mint Couscous

Summer comes early to Florida, so we think about having refreshing drinks in the evening a month or two before everyone else does.  When it comes to refreshing wine, rosé does nice work.  In this instantiation of Dinner Gang, Jim & Neal challenged us to take rosé to the next level:  featuring it for the entire meal.

Because we hosted last time, it was our turn to bring the appetizer.  As we always do, our discussion of the next Dinner Gang took place while having a hot tub and drinking one of the wines we might want to pour.  It just so happened that an allocation of 2013 Martinelli Winery Rosé of Pinot Noir had arrived.  This is a new effort from them (which started with the 20120) and our first foray into it.  Our rosé of choice up to this point has been the excellent Ode de Lulu from Bedrock Wine Company.  We won’t stop, but the Martinelli jumped right over it.  First of all, they’re different, since the Bedrock is made from Mourvedre.  What we like about the Martinelli is the remarkable color and classic Pinot character, especially the expressive fruit, is evident in the wine.  This of course led us right to salmon since the two are a true heavenly match.

FIRST COURSE:  Smoked Salmon Two Ways (Stackers and Rolls)

Stacks on the left, rolls on the right.

Stacks on the left, rolls on the right.

We brainstormed a number of versions of both.  We wanted the stacker to be a basic platform of cracker, spread, salmon, topping.  We wanted the roll to have something creamy inside the salmon’s smoky flavor.  All the while, we wanted to pick up the fresh summer character of the rosé.

We made a puree of butternut squash, maple syrup, and fresh nutmeg, then blended it with crème fraiche until we had a consistency that would both have a great mouth feel and not simply squirt out the end of the roll.  We took the most regular pieces of salmon, spread on some of the puree, put on two slices of fresh chive, then rolled them, securing with cocktail forks.

The stackers involved a fair amount of prep.  First, Gretchyn pickled some thinly-sliced red onions in apple cider vinegar and a little sugar.  We let that sit for about a day.  Right before assembly, she diced a ripe avocado and mixed it with just a little bit of diced red onion (not the pickled stuff).   While she was doing that, I made some horseradish crème fraiche.  I played with the mixture a little and ended up with well more horseradish than I had suspected would be necessary.  The final blend ended up being about 2.5 parts crème fraiche to 1 part fresh horseradish.  Right after we arrived at Jim & Neal’s, we assembled them:  a rosemary crisp (from 34 Degrees, which we got at Whole Foods), 1/2-3/4 teaspoon of avocado, half an ounce of salmon, a dollop of the horseradish crème, and finished with a little of the pickled onion.

The rolls were a nice baseline (I think maybe a little more sweetness would have made a great contrast), but the stackers were a triumph.  They had everything: smokiness from the salmon, creamy, ripe unctuousness from the avocado, crunchy texture top and bottom, and just enough acid from the pickled onion to set off the whole thing.  Despite all the elements, it was still sufficiently light to serve as a perfect starter.

WINE:  2009 Graham Beck Brut Rosé Vintage and 2013 Martinelli Pinot Noir Rosé.

Speaking of perfect starters, we kicked off the evening with a recent find, vintage sparkler from Graham Beck.  We buy their non-vintage rosé sparkler by the case because it’s inexpensive and delicious.  Gretchyn came across a random bottle of the vintage version, so we gave it a whirl.  It’s deeper, darker, and less sweet than the NV, which is right up my alley.  At $19/bottle, the alley is now a fully-paved road.  We had hoped to do a side-by-side comparison of the sparkler with the still wine, but the sparkler somehow disappeared while we were still assembling the stackers.

SECOND COURSE:  Cream of Asparagus Soup

CremeofAsparagusSoupUnfortunately for both Kathryn and the rest of us, she was off on a business trip.  She had insisted that we still meet and that David fly solo.  Fly he did.  The soup, topped with a little crème fraiche (sensing a theme?) and sprouts, was both rich and light at the same time.  I’m not much on soup in the summer, but this course hit the center of the mark.  It made the perfect intermezzo between the appetizer and main.

WINE:  Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Scalabrone

David’s wine choice was exciting and stumped all of us.  Guado al Tasso is a Tuscan winery, so we figured that this would be rosé made from Sangiovese—but it had no Sangiovese character to it.  We were confused until someone looked up the blend:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, all grapes not native to Italy.  Then we realized that Guado al Tasso is owned by Antinori, the people who brought you the Super Tuscan (and invented blending Tuscan and non-Italian grapes).  More orange than pink, probably reflecting a little extra time in oak barrels, it was slightly sweeter and a bit more aromatic than the Martinelli.  A fine, fine drink.

MAIN COURSE:  Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Kalamatas and Apricot-Mint Couscous

Moroccan Chicken in BowlJim said that the dish was an amalgam of recipes.  What I said was that it was delicious and dove in for seconds.  The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender without becoming mushy.  The juices made for an excellent topping for the already-excellent couscous.  Homemade lavash and flatbread completed the authentic North African dish.  Certainly a major shift from the first two courses, it reminded us that there’s more than one way to have warm-weather food (since there are some places that are warm all the time).  The heavily-cumin based spices in the dish created more than just flavor for the chicken, but an atmosphere for the whole meal.  It sculpted a setting, creating the tone by which the evening moved along.  It was meta-cooking at the next level.

WINE:  2012 Chateau de Pibranon Bandol

Neal said they wanted to make the south of France/north of Africa connection with the wine and food.  The Bandol did exactly what they wanted it to.  The sweetest of the non-dessert wines (although still not sweet by any measure), the sweetness made a great contrast with the heady spices of the chicken while complimenting the apricots in the couscous.  A little piece of pairing genius.

DESSERT:  Lemon Custard

LemonCustardNeal said this was his mom’s recipe and that he wanted to capture both the mood of Mother’s Day and once again make the France/Africa connection with custard and lemons.  The late harvest Vouvray, which evolved quickly in the glass, picked up the lemon quite nicely.  Another clever pairing.  Although it wasn’t strictly on-theme, we were more than willing to call it close enough, since it’s from the Loire Valley where they make some rosé.  And it was tasty.

WINE:  2008 Domaine de la Poultiere Vouvray Moelleux Les Perruches

We once again triumphed over a fun and challenging theme and had a great night with some of the people who most matter to us.  As they always do, the evening ended too quickly.  The consolation at ending Dinner Gang 15 is that number 16 is not that far away.

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Dinner Gang 14: Going Down Under

Dg14 lineupThe theme for Dinner Gang 14, which we hosted, was Australian Wines.  We wanted a challenging theme with accessible wines.  We were not disappointed.

Our path to what we made (as hosts, we’re responsible for the main course and dessert) was relatively straight.  We first figured out what we wanted to pour—in this case, some kind of Cab/Shiraz blend—and then made food to match.  I’m pretty sure that everyone else did the same.  Cab suggests beef, although Aussie Cab tends to have riper fruit than others.  Because there are two non-beef eaters in the group, we also had to consider something beef-like that fit the same recipe.  We decided on individual Beef Wellingtons, substituting whole portabellas for the non-beefivores.  Wellingtons—used generically here for beef wrapped in some kind of pastry—leant themselves quite nicely to what we had in mind.

Course 1:  Vietnamese Spiced Duck with Pickled Jalapeño, Cucumber, Carrot, and Red Onion

Duck goodness

Duck goodness

Kathryn and David, last month’s hosts, had first course duties.  They hit it out of the park by pickling their own vegetables and putting them on top of what David described as basically “pulled duck.”  Using Vietnamese spices, they slow-cooked the duck and then shredded it for easy topping on baguette slices.  Anchored to the bread with a lemon aioli, the toppings had it all:  rich, lively flavors, great textures (from the creamy aioli all the way to the crunchy veggies), and just enough heat.

They paired it with 2009 Dandelion Vineyards Shiraz Red Queen of the Eden Valley.  The deep, dark color of the wine matched its flavors.  Heady chocolate and tar on the nose with a big, black fruit palate, the wine matched well with the rich flavors of the dish.  The slight residual sweetness set off the spice just so.  Inspired pairing and bonzer start to the meal.

Course 2:  Peach and Tomato Salad with Crumbled Feta in Cherry Basil Vinaigrette

Peach Tomato SaladI have to admit being skeptical about the peach and tomato salad.  It seemed such an odd coupling.  I ate it, and was a skeptic no more.  The sweet fruit of the peaches made a stark contrast to the tartness of the tomatoes, brilliantly mirrored and brought together by the sweet and tart of the dressing.

This dish was all about the wine pairing.  Neal and Jim chose 2011 Nugan Estate Chardonnay Nugan Family Third Generation, ripe with stone fruit that perfectly—and I mean perfectly—matched the flavor of the peaches in the salad.  I got the aroma of popcorn on the nose, an understated buttery scent which resolved into that great palate.  I had wondered if anyone was going to bring an Aussie white wine since I haven’t had too many which I’ve enjoyed.  Neal and Jim rose to the task to find this diamond in the rough (which I’ve since found out is a terrific value).  It was so good that we drank a second bottle even after the salad was gone.

Course 3:  Individual Beef Wellington, Duchess Potatoes, and Broccolini

WellingtonThe Wellingtons were amazingly easy to make.  It’s a platform that I want to experiment with more and more.  The idea of wrapping delicious meat in puff pastry just gets my motor running.  We picked up 5 ounce center cut filets (they were supposed to be 6, but the butcher didn’t get it right and we didn’t check until we got home—remember, trust but verify!) and whole portabellas—the beefiest of all mushrooms.  We prepped the filets by rubbing them with a little olive oil and then searing them on all sides.  We cooked some of the moisture out of the mushrooms by salting them and roasting at 350F for about 20 minutes (after de-stemming and scooping out the gills).

I took the recipe for the duxelles from Tyler Florence:

20 oz. baby bellas

2 shallots

4 cloves of garlic

2 sprigs of fresh thyme

2 tbl each of butter and olive oil

After peeling and rough chopping the shallots and garlic, I threw the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulsed until fine.  I then sautéed the mixture in the butter and oil for about 10 minutes, until the mushrooms stopped giving up moisture.  I set it aside to cool while I was prepping the meat.  We rolled out the sheets so that we could get two servings from each sheet.  I slathered some Dijon mustard on the steaks before laying them on a bed of the duxelles.  I then topped them with another layer, Gretchyn folded them up, and they were ready to go.  We prepped them half an hour before everyone arrived, covered them in plastic, and put them in the fridge.  We brought them back out half an hour before we cooked them.  We prepped them early to save some time, but the process was so fast and easy we could have done it between the second and third courses.

The potatoes were another matter.  This was the It was good that we prepped them early.  We pulled a recipe from to make sure we had the proportions right.  The first part of the process was easy.  Piping them onto the tray proved a little more difficult.  We had to put them back in the mixer a second time to get them to a consistency smooth enough to come out of the piping bag.  With all the frustration, it still only cost us about 20 minutes—no time at all in the big picture.  Just like with the beef, we tucked them into the fridge until it was time to cook.  The broccolini went in the steamer, and we were loaded for koala.

I audibled at the line and added a bottle of 2006 Clarendon Hills Grenache Kangarilla to start off the dish.  I had hoped the low tannin and mellow fruit of the Grenache would mesh with the mushroom mixture and set up the power of the wine to follow.  It did.  When we were about halfway through the course, I poured 2006 Glaetzer Anaperenna, which had been in the decanter about two hours.  I chose the Anaperenna because of the 75/25 blend of Shiraz/Cab.  I don’t like pouring heavy Cab to go with filets, since there simply isn’t enough fat in them.  The Cab here provided structure, power, and silky smooth tannins, while the Shiraz gave an explosion of ripe, black fruits plus a little peppery spice that melded with the aromatics of the dish.  As pairings go, I’d call it good, not great.  As wines go, however, it was the bomb.

Dessert:  Pear and Apple Crisp with Marscapone Ice Cream and Bourbon Caramel Sauce

Pear Apple CrispDessert also sprung from what we wanted to pour.  RL Buller & Sons makes a great Fine Muscat, which has a fantastic caramel and golden raisin flavor to it.  Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up a bottle.  I ran to the store, but they were out.  The good news is that we still stayed down under because Buller also makes a decent Tawny Port.  It was less perfect than the Muscat would have been, but paired well nonetheless.

The crisp is something that Gretchyn has been working on for a while, tweaking and experimenting.  Here’s her recipe:


4 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced

3 pears, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup sugar

1 Tbl flour

1 Tsp cinnamon

1 Tsp orange zest

1-2 tbs orange or lemon juice



1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

10 tbs butter

1 1/2 cups oats

We did individual portions for this, we normally use a medium-sized baking dish.  Simply layer in the filling, then top with the crisp part.  Bake at 375 for 45-50 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.

The ice cream and bourbon caramel sauce recipes both came from Food & Wine.  The sauce is so good that you’ll find yourself buying or making extra ice cream just to have something to drizzle it on.

We’re all getting pretty good at this Dinner Gang thing.  Everyone again rose to the challenge of the theme and made outstanding dishes with excellent pairings.  It makes me want to do it even more often.

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Dinner Gang 13

New World Food, Old World Wine

It was Kathryn and David’s turn to host this installment of Dinner Gang, and they came up with what I think has been the most clever theme to date:  New World food paired with Old World wine.  Generally, I like to pair food with wines from the same place the food comes from, so we knew going in that this would be a great challenge and force us all into some unconventional thinking.  Everyone stepped up like I knew they would.

COURSE 1:  Tuna Stackers

Tuna Stackers, Round One

Tuna Stackers, Round One

Nothing is more New World than fusion cuisine.  Jim and Neal assembled a great starter by combining seared yellowfin tuna and homemade Asian slaw and putting it between two salted, lightly sugared crispy wontons dusted with black sesame seed.  They finished the plate with sriracha sauce for a spectacular zing.  Despite generous portions of tuna, they were quite light.  I had three of them without threatening my appetite for the rest of the meal.

They paired it with two wines.  The first was 2008 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett.  Crisp and clean with good acidity and tropical notes, it was the more elegant of the two wines, and one I could see drinking just on its own.  The second was 2008 Eugen Wehrheim Niersteiner Ölberg Riesling Kabinett.  This was a great pairing.  More residual sweetness than the first and a slight effervescence, it created a perfect contrast with both the distinctness of the sesame flavors and the heat of the sriracha.  A fantastic start.

COURSE 2:  Maryland Crab Soup

Crab meat, corn, and water turned this into soup

Crab meat, corn, and water turned this into soup

Gretchyn and I grew up in Baltimore, and the food of the Chesapeake Bay still resonates with us.  When we first mulled over the theme, we thought about lobster or turkey, but nothing really spoke to us as all that interesting.  When she suggested crab soup, I knew we had a winner.

When it came to the pairing, I gave it some deep thought.  We knew going in that Kathryn and David were pouring a sparkling rosé with their dish, so I didn’t want to dip into that well.  The trouble with the pairing is that most of the Old World wines are far more restrained than their New World cousins and the crab soup would trample on restraint due to the Old Bay seasoning.  I could have easily paired a Russian River Valley Pinot or Australian Shiraz with it, but those are both New World.  I considered a nice, rustic French Syrah or maybe even Bandol.  Then going back to the idea of pairing the wine with the region the food comes from, I wondered what Old World food crab soup was most like.  Cioppino and bouillabaisse came to mind, but the heat of the dish drove me to Spain.  Cava Rosado might have done the trick, but I wanted to stay away from duplicating what was coming in the next course.  I wanted big and bold, so I went with 2004 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial.  It had the great body and structure that I expected.  The dark, heady fruit and tobacco notes went surprisingly well with the soup.  The pairing was way outside the box, but worked.

Crab soup is not a difficult dish to make, but you have to allow time to let the flavors settle in (not to mention making the house smell great all day).  This is Gretchyn’s own recipe.  Some folks will put in cabbage, lima beans, or even peas.  We like both the flavor and texture of green beans instead.


1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

3 tablespoons Old Bay

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups of water

28 ounces can diced tomatoes

3 carrots, sliced

1/2 pound fresh green beans

1 medium-large russet potato peeled and diced

1 medium onion, minced

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup frozen corn

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Pinch red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

1/2 pound lump crabmeat

1/2  pound claw crab meat

She simply prepped all the vegetables and mixed them together with the liquid in the medium-sized Le Crueset Dutch Oven.  She simmered on medium-low heat for about 3 hours, getting the vegetables to cook but still have texture to them.  We tasted it along the way to make sure the spice profile was what we wanted (which is where the third tablespoon of Old Bay came in).  Then, an hour before we left the house, she added the crab meat.  When we got to Kathryn & David’s, we put it on the stove on low as we had the first course.

Instead of a second bottle of wine to go with the soup, we offered a palate cleanser.  Knowing that our dish was spicy and the wine was bold, we wanted to create a clean slate for the main course.  We brought along a bottle of Calvados, and when we arrived, we got six cordial glasses of their shelf, poured about an ounce-and-a-half shot into each, then put them in the fridge.  They were just the right temperature—chilled without being icy—by the time we were clearing away the soup bowls.

MAIN COURSE:  Shrimp and Grits with Bacon Crumbles

Spicy shrimp and grits, dusted with bacon bits

Spicy shrimp and grits, dusted with bacon bits

Kathryn & David confessed that they came up with the theme so that they could make this, one of their favorite dishes.  David has worked on the recipe for many years to get it where they like it.  He did his mise en place just after we arrived, telling us that everything would cook rather quickly.  It did, as he started working just after the Calvados and was plating the dish in about 20 minutes.  The bacon made a nice contrast with the shrimp, but thing that tipped this dish over the top for me was the inclusion of jalapeno.  It provided exciting, expressive flavor and the right amount of heat, contrasting with the creamy goodness of the grits.

They paired it with 2008 Louis Roederer Champagne Rosé Brut.  Slightly more yeasty than I expected from a rosé, making it quite pleasant on its own, its great minerality—with a kind of sea salt flavor it to—made a fine companion to the shrimp, while the bright red sweetness set off the spicy dish extremely well.  This is another dish that I would have just snap-called a pairing of Russian River Valley Pinot, and I’m quite happy that that wasn’t a choice.  Outstanding pairing, and evidence that you don’t need to save sparklers for special occasions.  A meal with your friends is special enough.

DESSERT:  Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Blackberry Compote

A perfect ending

A perfect ending

Flipping over the theme for dessert, Kathryn & David put together a brilliant Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta (I think in Italian it means “freaking delicious custard”) and paired it with 2011 Familia Zuccardi Torrontés Santa Julia Tardío from Argentina.

After all the super-charged spice and heat of the three previous courses, I couldn’t have asked for a better dessert choice to cool the fire.  I’m normally ambivalent about lemon, but this was just right—rich without being too tart.  It was the exclamation point on a well-crafted sentence.

I found it interesting with this iteration of Dinner Gang that all of us chose the common themes of seafood and heat—but we ended up with three distinctly different dishes.  It’s a testament to what kind of communication the six of us have developed about these dinners.  They just keep getting better and better.

As we wrapped up we let everyone know that we’d already picked a theme for next time, since it’ll be our turn to host.  Our next meeting happens to fall on “Hug an Australian Day,” so the theme suggested itself.  Everyone will pick an Australian wine and make a course (Australian or otherwise) to go with it—although I’ve already promised that under no circumstances will there be shrimp on the barbie.

The evening's wines.  Not pictured:  a bottle of Calvados and a second bottle of Champagne.

The evening’s wines. Not pictured: a bottle of Calvados and a second bottle of Champagne.

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Dinner Gang 11

Around the World with Sauvignon Blanc

aka “Beurre in the Brrrrrrrrrr”

Sauvignon Blanc (and some friends) from Around the World

Sauvignon Blanc (and some friends) from Around the World

One of the reasons we live in Florida is so we can eat outside in the winter.  Unfortunately, the arctic vortex affected even us, and as temperatures plunged to a bone-rattling 50 degrees, we moved Dinner Gang 11 indoors.  The good news is that the chilly outside temperatures let us use the shelf outside the kitchen window to keep things cool.

For a while, we’ve wanted to do a white wine themed Dinner Gang.  The obvious choice was Chardonnay, and we like to stay away from the obvious.  We picked Sauvignon Blanc, because like two of the wines we’ve previously had (Pinot Noir and Syrah), there are at least three different expressions of the grape in at least three different regions of the world.  We passed assignments out to fellow Dinner Gangers Jim & Neal and Kathryn & David, and here’s what we came up with.

FIRST COURSE:  Creamy Crab Dip

Crab Dip, Creamy and Rich

Crab Dip, Creamy and Rich

I suggested “southern hemisphere” to David & Kathryn knowing that (since they hosted last time), they’d have the first course this time.  I think southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc is more green and citrusy, so it makes a better leadoff hitter.  The bright acidity tends to really get the mouth watering.  I figured they’d explore either New Zealand or South Africa, but they surprised us with one of their choices.

We generally have our first course standing around the bar or kitchen of the host’s home, and the dip was the perfect kind of dish to gather around.  I’m usually pretty skeptical about crab and cheese together, but Kathryn & David allayed those fears with a rich, round, and nicely piquant version of their own design.  It disappeared pretty quickly as we chatted about everything and worked through the two different wines they brought.

The first was 2011 Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  It was exactly what I had expected—lemon grass and grapefruit on the noise, mouth-watering crispness on the palate.  It was the right place to start.  The surprise was 2011 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley.  There was some grassiness to the nose, but the aromas were more like apples or stone fruit.  At a blind tasting, I would have misidentified it as a Chenin Blanc.  The palate had far more roundness than any Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had, which made it an outstanding pairing with the crab dip.

The first course down, food and wine winners all around, we moved to the table for course number two.

SECOND COURSE:  Creamy Mushroom and Vegetable Soup

Perfect Soup

Perfect Soup

With France as their guideline for the wine, Jim & Neal decided to let the “wintry” conditions be their guide, bringing something to fight off the chill of the night.  I raised an eyebrow at the choice of a cream-based soup to go with Sauvignon Blanc, and once again our friends showed us that they know exactly what they’re doing.

Most of the time, the vegetables in cream-based soups get cooked to within an inch of their life.  Jim & Neal left them with a perfect amount of toothiness to be cooked but still have great texture.  I’m not the biggest fan of soups, but this was wonderful, with rich herbal flavors balancing out the cream and earthiness.  They brought a whole tureen of it, which meant they could leave us some extra to have during the week.

I had assumed that they would head to Sancerre for the wine and they kind of did, after a fashion, with 2012 Domaine de Chevilly Quincy, from the Loire Valley, where the appellation of Sancerre sits.  The expressive minerality of the wine matched it up extremely well with the herbs in the soup.  The flint on the nose contrasted deftly with the citrus on the palate—still acidic, but not nearly so much as to clash with the soup’s cream.  Another nice pairing.

Congratulating ourselves on being two-for-two, we rested for most of an hour, finishing both bottles of Quincy, before moving on to the main.

MAIN COURSE:  Broiled Scallops in Red Navel Orange Beurre Blanc with Broccolini and Medallion Potatoes

Scallops, Broccolini, & Medallion Potatoes

Scallops, Broccolini, & Medallion Potatoes

Going in, we knew we were making the navel orange beurre blanc after Gretchyn had found a guy selling the oranges on the side of the road.  Twice the size of a blood orange and darker inside, the juice is sweet and powerfully intense.  We decided to see what looked best at the seafood counter before deciding what to put under the sauce, narrowing it down to corvina, halibut, or scallops.  They didn’t have corvina, and the 12-15 count scallops looked and smelled great.  We had our winner.

We decided on a whim to broil the scallops.  We love searing them, but it can be quite tricky to get the consistency right.  No one wants jelly scallops, regardless of how deliciously crispy the tops and bottoms are.   We were delighted at how they turned out.  Tossed in some extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and few tablespoons of the red navel juice, they cooked to the right consistency—firm but not rubbery—in about 11 minutes under the broiler.  What made the dish, however, was the beurre blanc.


Juice from 2 large red navel oranges

Juice from 1 medium blood orange

Juice from 1 small lime

3/4 pound of butter, cut into 1 tablespoon squares

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Roughly 1 cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper to taste

This one was all Gretchyn’s doing.  I merely served as taster along the way.  Juicing the oranges yielded right about a cup of juice.  To that she added enough wine to make two cups of liquid.  In this case, we used the very tasty and very affordable Graham Beck’s Chenin Blanc since we had opened a bottle the night before and not finished it, but any white wine with good, crisp acidity will do.  On a low heat, she reduced that until it was about three tablespoons of liquid.  Ticking up the heat to medium-low, she added the cream and then the butter, one square at a time, until they were all melted in.  When the broccolini (steamed just under 11 minutes) and the medallion potatoes (roasted in olive oil, salt, and pepper for half an hour) came out, we plated it all and then drizzled the beurre blanc over everything, lightly on the vegetables and potatoes, slightly heavier on the scallops.  It was spectacular, and now we’re dreaming up a hundred other excuses to make the sauce.

Our wine assignment was California, so we chose 2012 Buoncristiani Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley on the recommendation of our friend Giovanni at the wine shop.  I told him that I wanted a big, Robert Foley-like choice, and he didn’t disappoint.  Interestingly enough, if I was drinking the Buoncristini just as a “cocktail” wine, I might have not been as pleased.  The understated fruit character, acidity, and minerality were all in great balance, making it a fine pairing for the meal.  As a wine for poolside, it just wouldn’t have had enough punch.

DESSERT:  Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

Another idea from the fertile mind of my lovely rocket scientist, she took the basis of one of her most popular creations, and orange cream roulade (featured previously on these pages), and turned it into a parfait, garnishing it with some fresh strawberries.  The picture does all the work.

Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

Orange Amaretto Parfait with Caramelized Pineapple

To go with it, we poured 2007 Inniskillin Ice Wine, a gift from my Monday Night Gamers.  It was a sweet, sweet exclamation point on a sweet, sweet evening with four remarkable friends.  Five and a half hours in, we closed the books on Dinner Gang 11 and laid immediate plans for number 12.

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