SOUR CREAM PANCAKES

There’s a magnet on my fridge that says “Eat one.  Eat five.  Eat as many darn pancakes as you want.”

pancakes & strawberries

Can I get an “amen?”

My dad used to make me pancakes on weekend mornings; they belong on a very short list of things he could make better than my mama.  He had the patience for pancakes, never rushing them to be turned, never over-browning them the way I do at times in my eagerness to build up a stack.

Until I sat down to write this blog, I hadn’t consciously connected my own pancake-making habits with the tradition my dad started.  There’s often a “bigger” breakfast made in the Blue Jean Kitchen over the weekend, simply because we have the time.  But more often than not, pancakes are what hit the table.

Normally, I just do a “throw the right stuff in a bowl and get it to the right consistency” kind of gig, but when I saw this recipe in Cook Book Club feature of the March 2009 issue of Gourmet, I knew I’d have to put it in the pancake rotation.  And Lorrrrd am I glad that I did!

This recipe is so easy to make (you can use the blender! come on now!) and yields light, airy, tangy pancakes.  Sour cream may seem like a strange ingredient, but trust me on this one: perfect if you have some leftover from garnishing quesadillas or topping baked potatoes.  Last time, I didn’t have quite enough, so I stretched the sour cream a bit by adding plain yogurt, and the pancakes still turned out beautifully.

If you’re craving breakfast but pancakes aren’t your gig, we’ve got a few other things to offer.  Might I suggest having breakfast for dinner tonight?  I know my dad would approve.

sunday morning

BRIDGE CREEK HEAVENLY HOTS
Adapted, slightly, from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

The original recipe suggests making silver-dollar sized pancakes, which are fun and adorable but can also be a pain in the ass.  Don’t worry, these taste good at any size.

3 eggs
¼ cup + 2 T cake flour*
2 cups sour cream
3 T sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt

2-3 T butter, melted

Preheat the oven to “warm” so you can store the pancakes while working through several batches.

Simplicity at its finest: whisk the eggs by hand, then add the rest of the ingredients and blend well.

(You can also just dump everything into the blender and press a button.  Very convenient if you’re only half-awake.)

Melt the butter in the microwave or in a tiny saucepan on the stove.  Heat a griddle or frying pan on medium-high heat, then brush with melted butter to grease the surface.

Using a spoon or small measuring cup, spread batter onto the surface, either for one larger pancake or two smaller ones.  When the top of the pancake(s) are full of bubbles, flip and cook them briefly on the other side.

Repeat until the batter is all gone.  Serve with maple syrup, powdered sugar, fresh fruit, you know, they’ll pretty much taste good any way you serve ‘em.

*If you don’t keep cake flour on hand, you can make your own with all-purpose flour & cornstarch.  Place 2 T of cornstarch in the bottom of a one-cup measure.  Fill the rest of the way with all-purpose flour, then sift the mixture several times to aerate.

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TORTILLA ROLLS

My apologies, dear reader.  I am so very behind.

My commitment is to blog every Tuesday and Friday, but today I find myself running rather late: to post this, to meet friends for drinks, to clean up my house before company comes.  It’s been a heckuvaweek for this tired teacher, but I feel encouraged knowing that I can present you with these:

tortilla rolls with salsa

My mom’s famous tortilla rolls, adapted by yours truly.  When you read over the ingredient list, you may think “Uh, that sounds weird.”  But rest assured, they are CRAZY DELICIOUS.  Never a one left behind.

These are infinitely adaptable (olives? ham? fresh herbs?) and perfect for football watching.  It’s just so satisfying to dunk things, like fries into ketchup, chicken nuggets into honey mustard, tortilla rolls into salsa.

Since I work in a Jewish school and we’re off Monday for Yom Kippur, day of atonement, consider my tortilla rolls an offering of repentance.  Once you try them, I bet I’ll be forgiven.

PS: We’re reading Fahrenheit 451 in class right now, Ray Bradbury’s classic vision of a futuristic, television-addicted society in which books have been banned to protect citizens from the “danger” of ideas.

As part of our fantastic class discussions, students have been batting around the idea of banned books and the power of reading, how society controls and shares information, etc.  So, we’re curious: what book has had the biggest influence on you, made an impact, changed you in some way, made you think? It can be from middle/high school, college, or more recently.  Any book works!  We’re compiling a list and would love to add yours.

TORTILLA ROLLS

Buy the freshest tortillas you can; they’ll be softer and more pliable, thereby rolling easier.  If you’ve never bought corn relish before (and really, why would you have?), grocery stores tend to stock it in one of two places: with the marinated artichoke hearts or with the olives, usually on the highest shelf.  You won’t need the whole jar, but fear not, the stuff will keep forever in the fridge.

ingredients: tortilla rolls platter

8 oz. cream cheese, softened (use reduced fat if you wish)
½ cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup corn relish
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried parsley (if using fresh, increase to 1 T)
fresh flour tortillas

accompaniments: salsa of your choice

Combine the first five ingredients in a small bowl, blending thoroughly (you can easily do this a day or two ahead).  Smear a large spoonful or two of the mixture onto a tortilla, spreading thinly and leaving a border around the edge.  Roll up the tortilla tightly; place on a platter.

Repeat until all of the cream cheese mixture is gone.  Cover the plate of tortillas with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 10-15 minutes to firm them up, making them easier to cut.  You can also leave them longer like this, just make sure they are covered well.

When it’s time, slice each tortilla roll-up into half-inch rounds with a sharp serrated knife.  Re-arrange on the platter and serve with a bowl of salsa.

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WINE TASTING BASICS PART II – KNOW THY WINE

Picking up where we left off last time– you’re on a date and have averted embarrassment, confirmed that the selected wine is sound and perhaps even impressed your companion with a theatrical display of swirling and sipping. But how do you know if you are treating your sweetheart to a magical bottle that transforms itself with every sip or if you just paid $60 for bottle that is on sale for $9.99 at your corner gas station?

wine tasting set-up

In a lot of ways, wine tasting is a very personal experience and ultimately your opinion is the only one that matters. That being said, there are widely accepted guidelines for what constitutes a good bottle of wine and understanding these guidelines can make your imbibing that much more rewarding.

There are four basic ways of analyzing a wine: by its visual appearance, the aromas it gives off, the way it tastes in your mouth, and the sensations it causes in your mouth. Really, you can break this down further into three simple components:

Appearance
Nose
Palate

Last time we covered the visual and olfactory sides of tasting but didn’t delve that deeply into what happens on the palate. There are 4 primary tastes that we encounter when tasting wine and one of them is almost entirely exclusive to fino sherry (saltiness).  The other three are sweetness, sourness (or acidity) and bitterness (astringency).  The sensations that wine can cause include mouthfeel (smooth, coarse, oily, sticky, etc), weight (body), temperature and the drying sensation caused by tannin.

None of these necessarily make one wine better than another, rather the collective taste mixed of the with the visual and aromatic components of the wine tell us whether this is a Jackson Pollock or just an over-excited toddler hurling paint at a canvas.  Again, wine tasting isn’t an exact science, but here are some factors that help inform you of a wine’s quality:

BALANCE: Do the aromatic, taste and sensation pieces meld together seamlessly?  Are the wine’s fruit-flavors in balance with its tannin and acidity?  Is this Riesling’s sugar well balanced with its acidity or does it taste flabby?  Does the oak character in the wine blend into the other flavor components or does it awkwardly stand out?

INTENSITY: Can you easily smell the wine or does it seem tight and closed?  Is it excessively obvious or is it wonderfully and mysteriously subtle?

COMPLEXITY: Does this Chianti taste like you just chomped on a big sour cherry and nothing else or does it have awesome layers of leather, violets, clay and oak as well?

DURATION: How long does the taste of the wine linger after you swallow? One minute? Three? Five? What do you taste?

VARIETAL CHARACTER: Does this wine taste like what you expect from this varietal(s) or a wine from this region?  If not, is this lack of varietal character to its detriment or advantage?

X FACTOR: Also known as the “Wow” factor, the excitement factor or distinctiveness.  This is what makes a good wine great or pushes you over the edge from like to love.

Here’s my challenge to you!  If you have two hours and $50 to spend on wine (if not, try halving the wine list), go out and find following wines and then taste them side by side. For an extra challenge, have a friend pour them for you and write down which is which.  If you both would like to taste, line up 4 glasses for each person and number them 1 to 4. One person pours the wines, the other person switches the glasses. Both record what they did and neither should know which is which until they compare notes.

2008 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) $10.99
2006 A to Z Riesling (Oregon) $12.00
2007 Angeline Pinot Noir (California) $13.99
2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington State) $13.99

Taste through these wines organizing your thoughts by accessing the appearance, nose and palate. Then rate wines based upon the metrics above. Which wine do you think is of the highest quality?  Which do you like the most?  Finally, if you are tasting “blind,” reveal the wines’ true identities. Any surprises?

I find tasting wines next to each other a lot of fun and a great way to highlight differences. I hope you do too!  Below are my impressions of wines [see: Anders’ Wine Rating Scale]. Until next time… Sante!

nobilo 2008 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) $10.99
Notice the rampant acidity- when you hold the wine on your tongue and then start to move it around in your mouth it makes your cheeks squeeze in.  I really like this wine.  New Zealand sauvignon blanc is always an easy wine to pick out of a multi-varietal blind tasting because they are typically quite fruity. This Nobilo delivers on this promise of fruit with juicy flavors of grapefruit, lime and passionfruit. I also got a little bit of cream on the nose and healthy bit of minerality on the finish. Made me think of licking wet rocks in my mouth as a kid. A classic example of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and stellar for the price.  I think it would be delicious with French bread and chevre.

Anders’ RatingTop Notch

2006 A to Z Riesling $12.00 a to z
Exotic spice, candy note, bosque pear, golden raisin and musk on the nose.  Distinct honey and citrus flavors on the palate- slightly sweet (off dry) with a voracious acidity.  I chose this one to demonstrate sugar in a wine but its generous acidity actual reduces the perception of the sugar quite well. Think about the sweetness when it hits the tip of your tongue. Really quite different from the Rieslings I am used to.  This probably will not appeal to everyone but I found it quite fun. Slightly fuller bodied than the Sauv Blanc, quite complex.

My Rating: Class for the Coin

angeline 2007 Angeline Pinot Noir $13.99
It has an unctuous mouthfeel, tastes slightly bitter and displays sweet aromatics of cooked fruit and vegetables (beets especially) eucalyptus and herbs. I think it is made from overripe and overpressed grapes.  It is not as acidic as Pinots can be and shows its alcohol on the nose. Not bad for a Pinot at this price point, but what does that say?

My Rating: Maybe Next Year

2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon $13.99 h3
Amazingly soft for a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Herbal aromatic notes, maybe a little thyme.  Some dairy notes on the nose as well. Shows its oak, but the wood doesn’t drown out the fruit. Lush berry flavors on the palate hang on through a finish that is impressively lengthy. Well balanced and a steal for $14 greenbacks. It is a wine that I think is easy to like and would appeal to a large group of drinkers.

My Rating: Class for the Coin

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: MOLASSES COOKIES

It’s raining in Memphis, and I may have to make these cookies today.

molasses cookies stacked

Since I work in a Jewish school, today was a half-day for Rosh Hashanah (L’Shana Tovah, ya’ll!), which I decided to take all the way off so I could fly home for a few days. As many of you know, I spent most of the summer here with my mom, writing, blogging, eating her amazing food, and few weeks ago, I realized that I just couldn’t hold out until Thanksgiving to see her again. So here I am. This is a strictly “Mom-visit” weekend, which means I have kept my plans secret up until now so as to avoid the flurry-of-plan-making that inevitably occurs. There are many people I love here, many people I’d love to see, but Veena takes priority. With one exception: these boys.

boys

I’ve written previously about how my sense of family has much more to do with love, proximity, and knowing than about blood and marriage. That’s why I claim John and Henry, my dear friends Kate and Stephen’s twins, as mine even though I’m not related to them in any way, shape, or form. As John put it this summer, I’m their Nishta.

The story of how I came to be their Nishta has very much been on my mind of late. You see, Kate was my teacher in high school. She taught me World Religions as a junior, and my locker was fortuitously located across a narrow hallway from her office. I thought she was so, so cool and lovely and smart and kind and I did what some of my students do for me now, finding every possible reason to ask her a question, to linger after school, to bring her little gifts and notes and read the books that she suggested and work really hard in her class.

It’s a wonder to me, looking back on it, that I didn’t drive her totally nuts. Even more a wonder that we grew to be friends over time, via emails and letters and packages and long talks over chai. I got to know her husband Stephen, who is pretty fantastic in his own right; I got to play fairy godmother for one very magical summer, a role I reprise every time I’m in town. I cannot overestimate the space that her generosity takes up in the file cabinet of memories from that time of my life. Her attention and encouragement, which I know from experience require heaps of patience, gave me a great deal of space and comfort.

Kate can and should be credited with many things: planting the seed for me to be a Religious Studies major, dismantling my irrational fear of poetry, gifting me a first-edition Annie Dillard, and sending me off to college with the excellent advice: “Drink the beer while it’s still cold.” And so I show my gratefulness to the world by reversing the roles, sitting behind my desk while students fill my room after school, reaching out for handfuls of snacks, advice, hugs, love.

As for Kate, well, there’s really no way to adequately thank her and her family for allowing me so intimately into their lives. I mostly just show up with love, joy, and gratitude, as I will tonight when my mom and I go over for dinner. There will probably also be some molasses cookies in tow, and hopefully they will manage to say all of the things that language feels inadequate for.

molasses cookies with milk

MOLASSES COOKIES

These are taken from an NPR story my mom sent me years ago. I had been trying to perfect a recipe for molasses cookies, but quickly discarded my own efforts because this is really the only recipe you need. I’ve bumped up the spice quotient because, well, I’m brown. I like spice!

Plan ahead to make sure you’ll have adequate chilling time for the dough, which you can leave overnight if need be. Also be sure to watch the cookies carefully in the oven—they’ll still seem mushy to you when you take them out, but will firm up when cooling, leaving a perfectly chewy cookie behind. They won’t last long, I guar-an-tee.

ingredients: molasses cookies before baking

3/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup molasses (grease your measuring cup with baking spray before pouring, it will save you clean-up trouble!)

1 egg

1 cup sugar, plus extra for dipping

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cloves

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly before sifting the dry ingredients into the same bowl and mixing again. Chill dough at least two hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls, then roll them sugar. Place them on a greased cookie sheet VERY FAR APART—they will spread a lot! Flatten each one with a fork, making a cross-hatch pattern to encourage the cookies (can cookies be encouraged?) to promote even spreading.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. Cool on racks, as the cookies will be very delicate until they’ve cooled a bit. Perfect with a glass of milk or milk-substitute!

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ROASTED BEET SALAD

[A quick note: Anders, our fine sommelier, had hoped to bring us Part II of his Wine Tasting Basics today, but due to travel & time constraints, I’m afraid we’ll have to anticipate his return for one more week.  In the meantime, roast some beets!]

beet tops 2

The people we love come with us.  They show up in the form of a borrowed word or phrase, an acquired habit, or an inside joke.

File respectively under:
-my photographer Sonya and the adjective “junky,”
-my new bff Coco who’s given me her oh-so-satisfying “Okay then!,”
-my Hindu mother who went to parochial schools in India and the fact that I cross myself when an ambulance drives by,
-my college roommate Rebecca’s many nicknames for me, including “Furlybum”  and “Mighty Mighty OJ.”  (Don’t ask because I’m not really sure I can explain.)

Even beyond the silly, surface ways, our relationships change us, hopefully for the better.  I like to think that the measure of a healthy partnership of any kind is knowing that you are an improved, fuller version of yourself in the context of that related space, and that the other person enjoys the same benefit as well.

I can identify dozens of things that are different about me since I first met Jill seven-and-a-half years ago.  Some are direct descendants of her habits & quirks, others have come more obliquely as I’ve grown in relationship with her, but I am grateful for all of them.

Witnessing her deep patience has allowed me to slow down a bit in my own life; I’m able to sit out in the backyard for a while and be still, be quiet.  My appreciation of animals, the two cats and dog in our house, the birds we feed in the back, even the little lizards who greet me on the gutter drain in the mornings, have all swelled by observing her.

When I look in the mirror now, I see through a lens tainted by her bias, which is a much more flattering light than I used to put myself in.  I really like the person I am, and I wouldn’t be that person without Jill.   She has converted me to the cult of football, transferred over her cinematic obsessions with Greta Garbo & Meryl Streep, and all-in-all brought out the very best parts of myself by cheering, supporting, & loving me fiercely.  And what have I done for her?

I got her to love beets, of course.

beets, pecans, & feta 2

Jill was a total beet skeptic before I made this salad, but it had such an impression on her that she planted beets in our garden soon afterwards.  Even if you don’t grow them on your own, consider adding fresh beets to your fall staples.  They’re usually not so expensive, keep in the fridge forever, and roast up so easily, I’m going to call them foolproof.

Serve this salad over lettuce or on its own, and feel free to tinker with the ingredients—adding dried cherries or cranberries, switching out the nuts, etc.  Come to think of it, this mixture would go nicely over a bed of couscous or quinoa, too!

ROASTED BEET SALAD

ingredients: finished beet salad

beets
feta cheese
pecans, toasted & chopped
thyme, fresh or dried (optional)
olive oil
salt  & pepper

oven: preheat to 425

Cut the tops & bottoms off of the beets.  [If you like, save the beet greens to wilt down in a pan with a little olive oil & garlic—yum!]  Dice into pieces that are roughly the same size and easy to eat.

Transfer the beets to a roasting pan or baking dish.  Drizzle generously with olive oil, then season with salt, pepper, & a few sprinklings of thyme.  Toss to coat, then roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the beets give when nudged with a fork (if you like yours softer, roast longer).

Let the beets cool a bit but not too long before combining with crumbled feta and pecans.  Serve on its own or over lettuce, spinach, greens.  If the latter, I recommend making your own quick vinaigrette with balsamic vinegar & some olive oil.  (I’m especially partial to a fig-infused balsamic, which complements the flavor of the beets perfectly).

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FRIED PLANTAINS

Stephanie had an African-American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, and taught me how to make tostones, twice-fried, salty plantains. By luck of the subletting draw, I was her roommate for six weeks one summer in D.C., and I still remember her frying up a storm in our tiny Columbia Heights kitchen.  I stood with Jill, who was visiting for July fourth, over a paper-towel lined plate, waiting eagerly for the next finished batch and crowding our good-natured cook.

plantains frying again

Plantains had never been presented to me this way before, with a crust of toothy resistance on the outside and smooth goodness on the inside.  Though I lost touch with Stephanie soon after my sublet was up, I still make tostones the way I learned from her—frying once, then smashing each slice inside a Ziploc bag with the back of a water glass before returning it to the hot oil a second time.  A generous sprinkling of salt, and there is arguably no better accompaniment for a cold beer on a hot day.

Is anything more universally satisfying than fried food?  Is there a single human culture that has yet to discover the joys of dropping, well, just about anything into a pot of scalding-hot oil?  The French, of course, have given us their pommes frites, our beloved fries.  Japan is the home of everything tempura-battered, and samosas are now ubiquitous at Indian restaurants.  Italians perfected the art of frying baby artichokes and succulent rings of calamari, and Southern fried chicken is a near-universal craving.  As my mother in one of her cruder moments put it, you could probably fry shit and it would taste good.

lone plantain

I must make a confession.  I’ve become one of *those* people.  Those people who structure their entire fall around a televised game schedule, who politely decline invitations that conflict with home games, who scream and yell for a bunch of guys running around on a well-tended field of turf.  I’ve crossed over to the dark side now.  I’m officially a football fan.

My father did his best to cultivate my appreciation for the sport when I was younger, so I at least had a basic sense for how to watch the game.  But football never “clicked” with me until last year. Jill and Sonya, who have long been avid fans of the game, played fantasy football for the first time.  And when I say played, I mean became obsessed with.  While their team, the Junky Cowboys (not a comment on the state of Dallas’ team, rather an inside joke resulting from confusion over the band name, Cowboy Junkies) didn’t win the league championship (still a sore subject), fantasy football became the vehicle through which I learned to love football.

It’s a famous joke that football is the most widely-practiced religion down here in Texas—I think that’s probably true.  We have our rituals, our superstitions, our weekly gatherings, a shared sense of purpose, and our foods.  On Sunday around noon, while Jill and Sonya are obsessing over stats and lineups, I’m usually messing around in the kitchen, whipping up something to snack on over the course of the afternoon.  All of that screaming at the TV works up an appetite, you know.

So the Feelin’ Kinda Sunday Series will feature various football snacks, from the savory to the sweet, that have been met with success in my NFL-happy household.  Every Friday from now until the Super Bowl, I’ll share recipes that will translate easily to the weekend.  Even if your house is not a football house, I think you’ll be able to find a place for these goodies.  As always, we’ll feature a random-but-seasonally-appropriate smattering of posts on Tuesdays–coming up next week, Part II of Anders Wine Tasting Basics & some really, really good cookies.

In the meantime, I’m curious, Blue Jean Gourmet readers, are you into football?  And what’s your favorite thing to eat fried?

TOSTONES (twice-fried, salty plantains)

These are Sonya’s absolute favorites; I try to make them regularly so as to keep bribing her into taking gorgeous pictures for me!  While a bit time-consuming to make, tostones are totally worth it.  If you are not using to frying things at home, don’t be intimidated–these don’t require all that much oil, and are pretty forgiving.  While they’re lovely plain, we also L-O-V-E them dipped in guacamole.

Plantains are part of the banana family, but contain much more starch, like a potato.  If the idea of a fried banana wigs you out, don’t worry, I feel you.  These taste far milder and fry up beautifully–a perfect crunch on the outside, with a creamy give on the inside.  Look for plantains that are ripe (yellow with a few brown spots) but still firm.

ingredients: plantains & guac

2-3 plantains

canola or a similarly-flavorless vegetable oil

salt

To peel the plantains, slice off both ends with a sharp knife.  Then run your knife down the length of each plantain (don’t cut too deep!), front and back.  Remove the peel.  Cut each plantain into thick slices, about ½ inch thick.  Genly press the slices between paper towels  to remove excess moisture.

Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with a shallow (¼ inch) pool of oil.  Heat on medium-high until the oil is shimmering–test it with a plantain–if the oil immediately bubbles around the slice, it’s ready.  You may need to adjust the temperature of the oil as you go, if your plantains are taking too long or, conversely, getting too brown.

Fry the plantains in batches until they are light brown, about 2 minutes on each side.  Remove to a paper-towel lined plate while finishing.  Turn the heat down on the oil while you smash the plantains.  To smash, simply place each plantain (you can do a few at a time) inside a Ziploc bag and smush with the bottom of a heavy glass.

Once all of the plantains have been smashed, re-heat your oil for a second frying.  Because the second round of plantains will be thinner, I recommend you heat your oil a bit less–say, if your stove was at a “7” the first time around, turn it down to a “5.”

Fry the plantains, once again in batches, until golden brown.  Serve hot, sprinkled with coarse salt.

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WINE TASTING BASICS–PART I

Dragging your feet on this why-did-you-taunt-us-with-one-day-of-vacation-and-then-make-us-come-back-to-work Tuesday?  Yeah. I feel you.  But fear not!–our Blue Jean Sommelier is here with the first in a two-part series designed to help transform the idea of wine tasting from fussy and intimidating to approachable and fun.

wine pour

I hope you enjoy today’s post and find it as useful as I did.  As always, if you have questions or suggestions for Anders, our fine sommelier, please do let him know via comments below!  He’ll be back with Part II next Tuesday, and I will see ya’ll on Friday as we kick off a new food series on BJG.

yours in post-holiday fogginess, Nishta

WINE TASTING BASICS–PART I Andersintastingroomcropped

Anders, Blue Jean Sommelier

You’re on a date and the question, “What about a bottle of wine?” arises.  Your extremely cute companion looks at you expectantly.  So, you put on your most knowledgeable face and pick a bottle that sounds enticing.  Except then, the waiter pours you a short glass from the newly-opened bottle and once again you are on the spot…

What do you do with that little taste of wine?  How do you know if it’s any good?  How can you impress your date with your wine knowledge, or at the very least, keep from making a fool of yourself?

Don’t panic–wine is a complex and dynamic little juice, but it can be analyzed in ways that will minimize trepidation and increase enjoyment.  We’ll start today with the 4 S’s and continue next week with a Blind Tasting you can follow along with at home!

PART I: STARE, SWISH, SNIFF, & SIP

STARE

There is glass of wine sitting enticingly in front of you, so what do you do? It’s time for the 4 S’s: Stare, Swish, Sniff and Sip.  First, look that glass in the meniscus and stare it down (Ok, so you don’t really have to stare). Basically, wine can tell us a lot simply by looking at it. Is it red, white or rose?  Does it have bubbles?  Is it browning on the edges? Is it dark purple or a light garnet in color?  Is it clear or hazy?

A couple of guidelines: wines from cooler climes are often lighter in color than those from warmer climates, a browning in color (especially around the edges) indicates oxidation – which usually means the wine is aged, and if the wine is not perfectly clear, that’s alright.  Many wines have sediment floating in them and this is typically just an indication that they have not been filtered.  If you see little white crystals in the bottom of your wineglass, fear not! These are just crystals of tartaric that have fallen out of solution–if you are feeling adventurous, you can even eat them.  They’ll tase, not surprisingly, like acid.

SWIRL

Next up, the ever so fun swishy-swish!  DO NOT be ashamed of this step as it is perhaps the most important thing we can do to enhance our tasting experience.  When we swirl our glass of wine we are vastly expanding its surface area and volatizing some of its aromatic particles.  We are also exposing it to oxygen which can help it open up.  From experience I would recommend making sure you have a glass with a nice spherical or tulip shape before swirling.  This will also help funnel the aroma of the wine to your nose.

Nice Legs! Everybody talks about them, but what do they refer to?  Legs are the streams of wine that course down the side of your glass after swishing.  The thing to know is that they are an indication of the viscosity of the wine and therefore its alcohol content.  The more plentiful and vigorous the legs the higher the alcohol count.

SNIFF

Bring the glass up to your nose and take a big sniff.  What are you looking for?  You can read about and study various aroma wheels, but I like to break it down into fruit, floral, earth, and wood.  While “fruit” and “floral” are straightforward, “earth” refers to notes that remind me of underbrush, topsoil, minerality, clay, etc.  “Wood” refers aromas like cedar, vanilla, dill and coconut that result from the oak that wine is aged in contact with.

SIP

Now it is finally time to get your mouth wet.  Take a sip of your wine and let it sit on the top of your tongue.  Did you taste sweetness on the tip of your tongue? Are you experiencing a puckering sensation from the acidity?  Get a sense of the wine’s weight, which clues you into the body of the wine (heavy = full body).  Now draw in a short breath over the wine- this will take its aroma up to the olfactory receptors in your nose.  Start moving the wine around in your mouth and note any feelings of dryness; this is the tannin in the wine binding with the protein in your saliva and literally drying out your mouth.  Make sure you are thinking about any fruit, earth, wood and floral characters the wine might have.  Finally, swallow (or spit) and note how long the flavors and aromas linger.

GRAB A GLASS!

Here’s my challenge to you.  Find the closest bottle of wine… wait, put the bottle of cooking sherry back by the stove!  Grab the closest bottle of palatable wine and pour yourself a glass.  Now run through the process doing your best to think about the wine, what it’s telling you and how you feel about it.  Take your time, have fun with it.  The idea is to build your own wine vocabulary at your own pace.

Flashing back to our date scenario, keep in mind that all you really need to do when tasting wine in a restaurant is to give it a little swirl and a sniff.  If it smells clean (we will discuss wine faults later, but for now, just know that a cardboard odor is not a good sign!), smile, approve, and proceed.

blue moon

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MARINATED SALAD

I can’t take any credit for this recipe. All of it goes to Veena.

marinated salad top view

This is one of those dishes that acquires a following, the kind that makes people come back for seconds and beg a recipe card, the kind they start making themselves and hooking others onto. Like those charts they showed us in high school about how quickly & widely an STD can spread, only far less terrifying.

There’s nothing unlikeable about this dish (I know, Emma, I can hear you protesting—go ahead and leave out the capers, okay?)

a) You can make it ahead of time, in fact, in tastes much, much better that way.

b) It lasts an incredibly long time in the fridge.

c) Works equally well in all seasons.

d) Is dirt cheap.

e) OH YEAH, it’s also crazy-delicious & good for you.

I’ve served this alongside sandwiches and burgers, in the midst of a potluck spread, with pita & hummus, as an easy dinner-party vegetable. I bring it to work on a regular basis because it keeps so darn long and goes with almost anything else I decide on for lunch. This salad is also a great choice to make for a family who is grieving, just had a baby, or is in a similar state of overwhelm—you can provide a healthier counterpoint to the usually carb-and-cheese-laden dishes that tend to be delivered in such circumstances.

My mom’s been making this salad for as long as I can remember; the tradition in our family evolved such that we always had it on New Year’s Day, along with the equally famous shrimp creole (that’s coming this winter, ya’ll, don’t worry) & wild rice. Marinated salad works wonderfully alongside this main course, but also serves another purpose; allowing everyone to fulfill their black-eyed pea quotient in a tasty way.

If you are not familiar with the food commandments down here below the Mason-Dixon line, one very strong and non-negotiable one is that you must eat black eyed peas on the first day of the new year, or face twelve months of bad luck. For kids who were tortured by the taste, the compromise became one bean per month, but I’m pretty sure with this dish, you and/or your kids won’t have any trouble eating more than twelve peas.

MOM’S MARINATED SALAD

This is dead easy to make, I promise you can’t mess it up. Feel free to substitute fresh herbs for the dried or dried beans for the canned. You can also used canned corn instead of fresh, but since corn on the cob is so plentiful, cheap, & delicious right now, I recommend you go that route.

Any combination of beans will work, so throw in what you have on hand (cannelini beans are nice, as are pintos). Make sure not to use any with added salt or flavor. If you normally object to red onion, I heartily encourage you to try it here—the vinegar will cut much of the bite, and it just looks so much prettier than white or yellow would.

ingredients: marinated salad

1 can each:

dark red kidney beans

garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas)

black eyed peas

green beans*

2 ears’ worth of fresh corn kernels corn

1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped

Drain the beans in a large colander & rinse. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, then add corn and artichoke hearts.  Heat the following in a small saucepan:

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

Once the sugar has fully dissolved and the mixture boils, remove from heat.

Stir in:

½ red onion, very thinly sliced

2 T capers

1 T dried parsley

1 T garlic powder (less if you aren’t a garlic fan)

1 tsp. chives, minced salt & pepper (be generous!)

Let the vinegar mixture sit for about 5 minutes, then pour over the vegetables. Mix thoroughly and then drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. For the best taste, allow to sit on room temperature for 1 hour before serving or storing in the fridge for future use.

*If you want to use fresh green beans, you’ll need to blanch them first.

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