Italian Slow Wine Tasting USA Tour 2016

Crowd at the Slow Wine tasting

Slow Wine Tasting in New York, February 3, 2016

The other day I attended a wine tasting event in commemoration of the release of the 2016 Slow Wine Guide. According the press release, “Slow Wine Guide critiques wine through the perspective of the Slow Food philosophy giving prominence to small-scale winemakers who are using traditional techniques, working with respect for the environment and terroir, and safeguarding the incredible biodiversity of grape varieties that are part of Italy’s heritage. Slow Wine is the only Italian wine guide that visits all of the winemakers included in the guide, in their vineyards.”

2011 Cento su Cento from Castel Di Salvo, amazing negroamaro

2011 Cento su Cento from Castel Di Salvo, amazing negroamaro

The last part of that statement is the best, because the sponsors have uncovered some brilliant small (production as low as 40,000 bottles per year) wineries, and many of the winemakers were on hand at the Highline Ballroom in NYC  to pour their wines. I especially liked two wineries from Puglia, Cantine Amastuola and Castel di Salve. They offered rustic, almost herbal reds made from primitivo, malvasia and negroamaro (an especially earthy variety of primitivo).

I also happened upon a really nice, well balanced Chianti from Castello di Monsanto in Tuscany. Compared to something you might find in a better wine store or order by the glass at a good eatery, these were astonishingly good and yet they were not rare or expensive wines. A search on the very useful wine-searcher.com shows prices in the $10-30 range. It also shows, unfortunately, that most of these bottles are currently unavailable in the U.S.

Testun Al Barolo truffled cheese

As a bonus, Italian snacks were on offer. Testun al Barolo is a truffle-infused pecorino which can be ordered from iGourmet.com

You’ll probably be able to find some Castello di Monsanto through Wine-Searcher, and Cantine Asmastuola is distributed by wine4all.com, which has no “where to find it” links but some great wine information on its pages. Try using their contact form to ask for a local retailer. Castel di Salve is “currently seeking representation” according to the program; I hope they find some because it’s great stuff.

It may be the only way to really enjoy these esoteric wines is to visit the wineries in Italy. If you do that, or if you want to do some window shopping you’ll need the Slow Wine Guide which can be ordered here. (The 2016 guide will be released in a few weeks; the 2015 guide is currently available. Since these are slow wines, I bet there is not a lot of change from one year to the next.)  You can also download a complimentary issue of their magazine.

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Stuck on sticky rice

Sticky Rice with fillings

My sticky rice is not much to look at, but the flavor is good.

Turns out it is incredibly easy to turn out perfect Asian-style sticky rice… why didn’t somebody tell me about this before? Cheap, simple and delicious—that’s what we are all about at Burnt My Fingers.

You can use it as a utensil like they do in Laos and Northern Thailand and push your brisket and beans around the plate with a sticky ball of rice instead of a slice of Mrs. Baird’s. Or, add your favorite fillings, wrap in a piece of parchment paper, and make your own version of Chinese Lo Mai Gai.

My bag of sticky rice

My bag of sticky rice

But you need the right kind of rice—you can’t take ordinary jasmine rice and make it sticky. You want khao neow, sold in Asian markets as “sweet” (it’s not) or “glutinous” (it contains no gluten). It looks the same as regular rice (actually it’s less translucent, like koji) but is very low on amylose, the starch component that preserves the identity of the individual grains.

Start by soaking the rice—overnight or longer. Drain and transfer to a steamer, where you will probably need to spread some cheesecloth or some other layer to keep it falling through. Don’t worry about those grains rolling around, though; it will become more cohesive as it cooks. Check in about 20 minutes then test a bit; when done it should be tender and sticky. The traditional method is to serve in a central bowl or basket and guests take out small portions with their fingers, then roll them into a ball which they eat or dip in sauces.

Sticky Rice Bundles

Rice wrapped in parchment paper goes into the steamer. The bundles will plump up as they cook.

You can also add fillings, as in my photo at the top of this post. For a poor relation of Lo Mai Gai, I sliced 2 dry Chinese sausages (Lap Cheong) on the bias and deboned and chopped 4 oz of smoked duck from the Chinese BBQ place. I mixed this with 2 t dark soy sauce, 1 t toasted sesame oil, 1 t oyster sauce and 1 t Xiao Xing cooking wine. The day before I had soaked 1 dry cup sticky rice which had expanded somewhat; I drained this and put a couple spoonfuls onto each of four 6 inch squares of parchment paper, added a couple spoonfuls of the meats, then a couple spoonfuls of rice. I then folded the parchment paper in on itself and secured with kitchen twine. Since the ingredients were already cooked they were done in half an hour, but Serious Eats (in the recipe where I also got the simple marinade above) recommends steaming for 90 minutes if you are using raw chicken (gai). If you do this, be sure to check and replenish the water regularly.

The result was definitely within striking distance of a Clement Street product and I look forward to trying pork belly, mushrooms and maybe some roasted garlic as fillings. I’ve since procured some dried lotus leaves which are a more authentic wrapper than parchment paper (though the paper works fine).

Note that because sticky rice does not take on as much water, it’s denser and you need less to fill you up. It’s good stuff but go easy.

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Ribbon cutting day at Chester’s Smokehouse in Albany

Chesters Mini Dog

Mini dog from Chester’s Smokehouse, Albany NY

Chester’s Smokehouse is a throwback to the days when refrigeration was spotty and every town had a smokehouse to preserve meat. It recently opened in an ungentrified district of Albany, taking over a building that allegedly housed a pretty rough bar. As a result, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and other local business promoters were quite happy to give it a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Chesters ribbon cutting

The ribbon has been cut! That’s Chester in the baseball cap next to the Mayor in the red coat.

I stopped by to share the festivities and taste a broader range of product than on a previous visit. Chester’s mantra seems to be “if it’s not moving, I’ll smoke it”. He boasts some 80 smoked meat varieties, including a “chunky, meaty, slightly garlicky” kielbasa which met Martha Stewart’s exacting requirements when her favorite Polish meat shop closed down. There’s also cheese (made elsewhere, smoked in house) and a dozen varieties of excellent pierogies.

Chesters counter

Lunchmeat counter

Chesters smoker

Kielbasa in brine, waiting to go into the smoker

I was especially interested to try the do-it-yourself mini dogs which can be doctored with Chester’s bacon sauerkraut and sautéed onions as well as the usual toppings. I liked the smoked blue and Cotswold cheeses and, of course, the head cheese. Chester uses a mild, crowd pleasing brine but the prices are so good (most items under $7 a pound) I have no right to complain. Combine several of these meats piled high on a sandwich and you’re in business.

My order at Chesters

I planned to just sample, but ended up picking up a few things…

Chester’s Smokehouse is at 15 Watervliet in Albany (yes, that’s just a couple of blocks from the excellent Honest Weight Coop). Open 7 days but with shortened hours on the weekend. Check the website for details.

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Recipe: Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff, over potatoes

Beef stroganoff was a staple of my supper club back in college. It was basically beef stew with some sour cream mixed in at the point of serving to add richness and a bit of tang. I’m grown up now, plus have a cabinet full of seasonings, so today’s recipe is a little more complex. But I’ve stopped short of fussing over the sour cream separating and curdling as many recipes do nowadays. Makes 4 main dish servings.

Ingredients:
1 lb or so sirloin or other lean beef (round steak is fine)
½ lb button mushrooms
1 medium onion, sliced thin
4 T butter
½ t dried thyme
1 c red or white wine
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T fish sauce
½ t Kosher salt, or to taste
¼ t ground black pepper
2 T cornstarch
½ c sour cream

Method: Freeze the meat (or defrost frozen steaks) to the point that you can just cut it with a sharp knife. Slice as thin as you can. Clean the mushrooms, cut into thick slices and sauté in 2 T butter until well browned. Add the sliced onion to the pan (which will be dry at this point) and sweat until tender. Reserve the onions and mushrooms and add remaining butter, thyme and pepper to the pan. Saute the meat until all pieces are browned, no more than 5 minutes. Reserve. Add wine to deglaze the pan and cook down somewhat; remove ½ c and mix with 2 T cornstarch into a slurry without lumps. Return to the pan along with Worcestershire and fish sauces and simmer until sauce thickens. Return the mushrooms, onions and beef to the sauté pan and toss gently until hot. Taste for salt and add as needed; you probably won’t need much.

Add sour cream and toss a few times until the cream is warm but not heated to the point where it will curdle. Serve over egg noodles, rice or chopped boiled potatoes. If you like, serve with more sour cream on the side to be added to the preference of your guests.

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Food for Thought: Chef Jacques La Merde unmasked!

A typical Chef Merde creation

Dunkin Munchkins, Snickers haché, birthday Oreo soil on Shamrock Shake creme

We have previously heaped praise on Chef Jacques La Merde, a wise guy who makes beautiful compositions out of junk food. Now it turns out the culprit/heroine is Toronto chef Christine Flynn. This interview on Eater explains how and why she did it and, sadly, suggests that now that the cat is out of the bag she may move on to something else. Check it out, and also see the Instagram link in my original post so you can enjoy Chef Flynn’s creations before she decides to take down the account.

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Recipe: Main Dish Quinoa Salad

Quinoa Salad

Main Dish Quinoa Salad

The carb-avoiders in my household have been gobbling this up. Even though it is full of protein and fiber and other healthy stuff, it’s pretty tasty. Makes 6-8 main-dish servings or a dozen side salads.

Ingredients:
½ c red or golden quinoa
1 c vegetable stock or water
¾ c cooked chickpeas (from 1/3 c dried)
½ medium red onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped, about ¾ c
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped
A few leaves kale or other dark green, finely chopped (about ¾ c after chopping)
3 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 T champagne vinegar
¾ t Kosher salt
¼ t ground black pepper

Method: Wash the quinoa in a fine strainer under running water, working the seeds with your hands to be sure all are exposed to the water and any bitter coating is removed. Add rinsed quinoa to vegetable stock and bring to boil; simmer 15-20 minutes until all stock has been absorbed and quinoa is soft and fluffy. Transfer to a serving bowl and mix with other ingredients. Allow flavors to meld an hour before serving if possible. Will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

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How Cheese Traveler sells artisanal cheese in the land of mild provolone

Eric Paul

Eric Paul talks about his passion at the Cheese Traveler

Eric Paul was one of the first food people I met when I moved to upstate New York in 2008. He’d been depicted by Daniel B of FUSSYlittleBLOG as an iconic figure who roamed the land in an overcoat filled with cheese. Eric says this was not typical, but the first time I met him he did indeed reach inside a long black, adult movie theater-style trench coat and extract a carefully wrapped stinky for our friend Deanna Fox.

Eric has come a long way since then. The Cheese Traveler has evolved from a man into a store in Albany’s DelSo district which most would say is the premier cheese destination in the Capital District. A number of restaurants consult with him on their cheese selections and he’s designed the menu at least one very trendy place, as well as expanding to his own charcuterie, beer, meat and confections and occasional in-store eating events.

Best of all, he’s achieved this success without compromising his principles or the quality of his product—something that’s unusual in a region where restaurants and retailers seem to struggle whenever they deviate from a safe middle ground of familiar tastes. I asked him how he did it.

First, a word about Eric’s background. He has a degree in Classics from Bard, a field of study which requires you to fill your brain with large amounts of information that has no everyday application. I don’t know if Latin conjugation or Greek mythology is still in there but he seemingly has an anecdote about every scrap of cheese or cheese maker represented in his shop, from the French family that creates its product in an abandoned bomb shelter to the monk on the run who invented Camembert. Many of these stories are represented on the charming, hand-lettered signs atop the cheese wheels as well as the elaborate descriptions printed on the label for your purchase.

Labels at Cheese Traveler

Hand lettered labels bring you deep into the world of cheese

The cheese selection is not huge but is beautifully curated. You’re not going to see mass marketed brands you’ll see elsewhere, but you’ll most likely find something that is new to you yet has an accessible flavor profile. I think this is the key to Eric’s success. He originally focused on small scale, esoteric producers but shifted to cheeses that “sold themselves” through self-evident quality instead of requiring “hand selling” an unfamiliar taste. His goal is to bring conversions to the point that 80% of the time when customers sample a cheese, they buy it. He’s learned that his clientele enjoys sharp cheddars, smoked Gouda and brie and always has a selection of those categories on hand as the gateway to more adventurous tasting.

The Cheese Traveler buys its cheese from half a dozen reliable distributors and another dozen or so cheese makers with whom Eric has direct relationships. The reduced reliance on middlemen helps to control retail prices so these tend to be objectively reasonable compared to the competing cheese departments at local gourmet boutiques and high-end supermarkets. There are no $4.99 blocks of baby Swiss, but there are plenty of tempting selections in the $10-20 per pound range.

Eric told me he has always had a fascination with cheese, dating back to a cheese-loving grandfather and a favorite childhood book about cheese. He became serious about cheese when working at Honest Weight coop in Albany, where he expanded the selection 200% and grew sales 160% over a 4-year tenure. When he decided he wanted to be a professional cheese monger he spent a year apprenticing at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA, considered by many America’s finest cheese store.

I’ve gotten this far without saying what makes Cheese Traveler absolutely unique in the region: it’s the only local store that “faces” its cheese. This is the process of shaving off a top level periodically to keep the cheese fresh and moist as opposed to sweating and absorbing off-tastes from the standard plastic wrap. For practical reasons, Eric’s cheese is stored in plastic. But it’s faced before tasting and also multiple times a day as it sits in the display case. When you buy it, it’s carefully wrapped in a coated paper to preserve its flavor and freshness on the ride home. I had not given much thought to the benefit of facing until Eric described it to me, but now I want all my cheeses this way; it respects the product in a way that’s appropriate for a carefully made and not inexpensive foodstuff and gives me reassurance that the cheese will be the same at home as when I tasted it in the shop.

I asked Eric, suppose I was from Utica (another midsized upstate city) and wanted to open a shop like this one. What would be his advice? His answer: unless you know a lot about cheese, don’t do it. Eric’s fascination with his wares, his willingness to chase down producers and his savvy for his market probably do make him unique. The Cheese Traveler is at 540 Delaware Ave, Albany, NY 12209 which is a fairly mild detour off I-87 if you happen to be in the area. They offer sandwiches and soup to go in addition to the cheese, beer, charcuterie and assorted crackers, candies and other accompaniments, and there is a regular Friday night cookout. Closed Monday; call (518) 443-0440 for hours other days or check the website.

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Trends from the Fancy Food Show, Winter 2016 edition

Banana Bars

Fruit and fiber bars were everywhere at the 2016 Winter Fancy Food Show.

Spent two days this week at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The two unmistakeable trends were healthy snack bars, typically a combination of fruits and grain, and definitely unhealthy jerky in a blizzard of flavors and fabrications. Obviously we need a bar that combines the fruit, meat, fat and carbs. Oh, wait, that’s pemmican. I’ll look for it in New York in June.

Bacon Jerkey

Bacon Jerky.. the best of both worlds

Two predicted trends that failed to materialize were paleo cuisine (though I discovered the by-the-pound food court at Whole Food has an excellent offering, and it’s also good value by weight because everything is dried out) and earth-conscious preps in the manner of the new Perennial restaurant in San Francisco, which considers every possible option such as composting meat separately, attracting flies, then feeding the fly larvae to the house-bred fish. But some previous predictions held up. High end ice cream/frozen custard is still going strong, as is peanut butter.

Waffle Cups

Waffle cups coated inside with chocolate or nutella got a lot of attention

In the “new and different” category (for me anyway) was Piedmontese beef. This is a breed that is grown by a cooperative of Nebraska farmers. It’s naturally lean but without the gamey taste and chewiness of grass fed. It tastes really good and I’m going to look for a local source (for me, and for a chef I know who would do it justice).

Seawater Beer

Seawater beer tastes as good as it sounds

It’s important to note that not all things are good and delicious. Some innovations don’t work, like a waffle cone turned into a cup and coated inside with chocolate or nutella to be melted when you pour in hot coffee or cocoa. The booth was busy, but the execution didn’t work. And beer made with seawater? Tastes as good as it sounds. Also, some producers are deliberately aiming for a lower price point or demo and it’s a shock to come across their offerings while doing a horizontal tasting of, say, blue cheese. (Sartori Cheese, yes I’m talking about you.)

Speaking of commerce, I had packed for the feared El Niño and found myself seriously overdressed on the steamy show floor. Tried Amazon Prime Now through the Android app and a short sleeve polo shirt was waiting when I got back to the hotel. I got $10 off as a first order… download the app and you may too.

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Pickled meal in a jar!

Meal in a jar

My pickled meal-in-a-jar

During a stop at my local smokehouse, my attention was riveted like a raptor who’s spied a wounded stegosaurus. In a section of the cooler identified as “things not for sale” I saw a near empty glass container with a label promising A Meal In A Jar.

What a great idea! Pickled sausages and eggs reside on many bar tops; combine them with a few green beans or carrots and you’ve got a well balanced culinary experience that you might keep in your glove compartment and go out and claim during a long night at the tavern. (The bar might also keep them for regular patrons in the same way finer establishments store bottles of wine, scotch or soju.)

I whipped up a batch of brine using the simple formula of 3/4 c cider vinegar, 3/4 c water, 1 t pickling spice and 1 t salt. I added a pinch of alum (available in the baking department at better supermarkets) to keep the crunch in the ingredients and brought to a boil, then poured into a pint jar in which I’d pre-loaded 2 hard boiled eggs, a worthy chunk of kielbasa and enough pre-blanched green beans and carrot spears to fill the remaining space. This was then packed away in my fridge and brought out again a week later.

The result? Excellent. Everything benefited from the pickling bath and I think the foodstuffs cross flavored one another. I would love to publish this as a recipe but there’s an issue: many authorities caution against vacuum-processing pickling eggs because of botulism issues. So, go ahead and make this but don’t plan to can it for your girlfriend who’s going out to work in the oil fields of North Dakota. Keep cool and eat within a few days–basically the same process you’d follow with pickled eggs on their own.

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Recipe: Porcupines (Meat Balls with Rice)

Porcupines

Porcupines!

I tinkered with Dorothy Crum’s very plain recipe in the Phi Beta Phi cookbook by adding the ingredients marked with a *. Makes six porcupines.

Ingredients:
1 lb lean ground beef
½ c uncooked rice
½ chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped*
1/2 t ground cumin*
1/2 t dried oregano*
1/2 t Kosher salt*
1/4 t ground black pepper*
1 14-oz can condensed tomato soup

Method: Reconstitute the soup by mixing it with a can of water and bring to a simmer. Mix all the other ingredients and shape into six meatballs. Placed in a buttered 8″ square baking dish and pour the tomato soup over the top. Bake 2 hours in a 350 degree oven, turning the porcupines every half hour so all sides get equal time in the liquid. Serve porcupines with their sauce, which will have cooked down considerably.

* my additions. The original recipe did not call for salt, possibly because canned soup had a much higher salt content in Mrs. Crum’s time.

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