Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Makes my Hobbies Possible

I love my family. I love giving presents. I love getting new things. And I love eating like there are no consequences at least once a year!!

I just love the holidays. I'm very happy that this year the ice was broken between me and my parents regarding my consumption of my brother Jeremy got me some delightful stemware and stemless stemware. Sweet! I also used a gift certificate from my brother Jesse to purchase a decanter, among other kitchen appliances. AND, my sister bought me the board game Winerd, which is supposed to a fun way to explore your palate with friends! So, now, I am completely set to pursue my passion for wine in the new year! I cannot wait to break in that decanter, and maybe put all my new stemware to use at a little wine-tasting party with some friends!

Christmas evening, my brother, sister and I decided to go see the newly released movie, Juno, a tongue-in-cheek film about a teenage pregnancy. The dialogue is fast-paced, sharp, and utterly ridiculous, but somehow it works well enough to keep you laughing at a pretty constant rate. I highly recommend this film, even though the ending was rushed, and, frankly, really stupid. The rest of the film is worth it. The cast is pretty great, including Jennifer Garner, Michael Cera (George Michael, from Arrested Development), Jason Bateman (also from Arrested Development), and a cameo from Rainn Wilson (Dwight, from The Office). Juno, the title character, is played by Ellen Page, a less-well-known name, but the perfect actress for the part. Go check out the film!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Trying New Things (Malbec)

My friends and I thought it fitting to celebrate being half-done with law school with half-price bottles of wine at Shady Grove, a regular Wednesday special. Granted, half-price in a restaurant is still more than you'd pay at a wine shop, but it's a fun way to celebrate with your friends.

I am not a fan of the wine selection at most bars, but this time, Shady Grove had the Pascual Toso Malbec on the list ($7/glass, $32/bottle (or $16 at half-price), and I have been wanting to try a Malbec!

Most people who are casual wine drinkers, or are new to wine, are unaware of the amazing variety of wine that is available. At the most basic level of distinction, there are red and white wines. Then you get into the various grape varietals that compose the wines (which also give them their names).

Most will recognize the popular grape varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz, and maybe even Pinot Grigio. It is less often that the casual drinker knows about Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of lesser-known grape varietals that make fantastic wines, whether alone or blended. For an idea of just how many varietals there are, see the Wikipedia list of grape varietals.

Malbec is a grape that has been gaining in popularity (hence its inclusion on the wine list at Shady Grove), and is typically grown best in South America. The Pascual Toso is from a vineyard in Chile (which, by the way, has a fantastic website that you should check out). This is not a blended wine, which means it is made of 100% Malbec grapes, as opposed to being a mixture of two or more grape varietals.

I was really glad I got this Malbec, even if the first glass I had was about 80˚F (I actually asked the waitress to put it in the fridge for 10 minutes, since red wine should be drunk closer to 65˚F). It was very black-fruit driven, but the tannins were really soft. There was still a little bit of a pepper kick to the finish, though, which I thought really rounded out the wine.

It was a great wine to drink with friends, and I got a chance to talk about wine and pique my friends' interest (a little...).

So try new things! Don't always go for what you know you like...if you are unsure, you can always ask for a taste before you buy (especially if you're buying at a place like Shady Grove where they serve all available wines by the glass).

If you are interested in learning a little more about grape varietals and wine, check out the excellent Wikipedia article on wine.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hearty Seafood Potage and a Weird Wine

I wanted soup.

So, Karl and I braved the impending ice storm and horrible drivers and went to the store to gather all the necessary ingredients. It was well worth it. One of the ingredients was wine, so we stopped by the Wine & Spirits shop to pick up an irresistible Italian Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay blend ($6.99) and a Bandit boxed-liter Pinot Grigio ($9.99) as a backup.

Check out that bottle! Supposedly, this bottle, which I have mixed feelings about, is an homage to the glass-blowing traditions of the region. It just looks weird to me. The wine itself is a really yellowy gold color. It almost looks like melted butter. It smelled nice to me, like melons and white grape juice. Karl said it smelled like pears and that was it! I didn't smell any pears.

It did taste like pears, though! I really didn't know what to expect from this blend. I'd never heard of a Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay blend. This was clearly not aged in oak, so that was a blessing.

We concluded it was good but not awesome, and we did get what we paid for. I've had worse white wines, but we probably won't buy it again. I just had to try it, if only because of the ridiculous packaging!

On a side note: try Bandit boxed wine!! Great value, eco-friendly, simple-but-delicious wine (at least the pinot grigio). Check it out!!

The soup recipe follows: try it! It's simple, hearty, and pretty decadent for a $15-20 effort (depending on how much shrimp you put in).

Hearty Seafood Potage
(serves 3-4)

2-3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 onion, chopped
1 14-oz. can of quartered artichoke hearts
1 14-oz. can chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 TBSP fresh, flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3/4 cup half-and-half (or light cream)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 lb to 1 lb raw, peeled shrimp

Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, and cook until softened (about 5 minutes). Add the artichoke hearts, broth, and white wine, then increase the heat to bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat, and, using an immersion blender, puree the soup. If you don't have an immersion blender, you can use a food processor or a regular blender, but do it in batches and be careful to take the necessary precautions!
Return the pureed soup to medium heat, and slowly whisk in the half-and-half. Add the parsley, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the soup to a simmer, and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.
Add the raw shrimp to the soup and cook just until the shrimp are done (about 3-5 minutes). If you let them cook too long, though, they'll be tough and rubbery, so remove the pot from the heat the earliest you dare!

Enjoy hot with fresh parsley as a garnish.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Two Finals, Four Beers, Three Soups, a Book, and a Movie

Today was a very busy day. I was up at 6:30 and cramming at school by 7 a.m. (after waiting in a calm, cold drizzle for the 54-C, which blessedly was on time!).

Two final exams later, I was on my way home again. The first two things I did when I got home were crack open a Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA and look up a Thai takeout menu: I was craving some Thai soup!

Karl and I ordered Chicken Tom Yum, Shrimp Tom Kar, and Shrimp Jurd Sari from Thai Gourmet for a grand total of $10.70. I just love cheap food. The soups were delicious. I didn't get to taste the Jurd Sari, which I had never had, because that was Karl's and he's fighting a bit of a cold, but it smelled delicious! It was a seaweed soup with spinach, onions and scallions. The Tom Yum was very interesting: it actually smelled like rigatoni with marinara sauce to me, but it was a broth soup with mushrooms, tomatoes, chicken, and lemon grass with chili flavoring. And of course, the Tom Kar was awesome. Any coconut milk based soup is going to be a winner in my book!

I was reminded, however, that shrimp in soup just doesn't work for takeout. Because shrimp has such delicate flesh it cooks up very quickly and can easily be overcooked and become rubbery. Because of the transit time when you get takeout, the shrimp in your hot soup will just keep cooking until you get you're almost never going to get that tender shrimp that is so tantalizing. I suppose I'll stick with vegetarian or chicken options next time!

After we ate our delicious soup, I had another beer and we watched Wine Library TV. Then Karl left to meet up with his study group, and I decided I wasn't studying tonight!

Instead I started J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). So far, it is quite delightful! A few chapters in, I opened another beer.

Karl came home and we decided to watch Jackass 2. Too many snakes for me...but another beer helped calm my nerves.

A rather delightful day, except for the 6 hours of exam-taking!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc 2006

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Sauvignon Blanc
Price: $7.99 (sale)

I was having a study crisis. Luckily, there is a wine shop across the street from my apartment building. Unluckily, their selection stinks.

I thought I'd give Robert Mondavi another try. I have had a couple of his Woodbridge label wines, and one or two of his cheaper wines, without much success. They just never taste very good! But the Sauvignon Blanc was on sale, I was jonesing for Sauvignon Blanc, and the rest is history.

This wine smelled uncannily like Pabst Blue Ribbon (a cheaper lager) on the nose: yeasty, carbonated, and a little malty. My sister, a staunch hater of wines, said she liked the way it smelled (because it smells like cheap beer). She still refused to taste it.

As I thought it might, the wine tasted like an average white wine that you'd get at an open bar or as the house wine at the Olive Garden. It's not really distinguishable as a Sauvignon Blanc, which is disappointing. I so love the citrus burst that is characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc.

The wine is off-dry (and I like my Sauvignon Blanc dry) and almost if I had the bottle open for a week instead of an hour: Vinegar-esque, maybe? There are some hints of citrus rind, maybe lemon, but it's just not enough to make this wine tasty.

In short, this was just a flat, less than one-dimensional wine that I would not recommend, and it certainly doesn't excite my passion for a good glass of wine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Panarroz Jumilla 2005 (and a cool coincidence)

Panarroz Jumilla 2005 (Spain)
ABC: 14 %

This wine has a very nice color: dark red in general, and ruby red at the base.

The nose, to me, smelled really strange at first, though I couldn't put my finger on what was putting me off. I later figured out that it smelled kind of like what my hair dryer smells like when I switch it from the "Hot" setting to "Cool". The nose also smelled like sour red fruits (raspberries and cherries).

Karl also smelled the raspberries and a nuttiness on the nose, like walnuts: I assume that was the tannins.

The wine isn't overly tannic on the taste, but there were definitely some sharp tannins playing along the sides of the tongue and the front of my top lip. The finish was very long, and really tart or sour, almost like a sour orange. I found it rather pleasant, surprisingly! Karl tasted black currants, and his predominant reaction was to exclaim at how dry the wine was.

As a super-cool bonus, the night we bought this wine, we cracked it open and tasted it. Then we thought, while we were sipping on it and eating dinner, we'd watch that day's video podcast of WineLibrary TV with Gary Vaynerchuk. And lo and behold, the man himself was reviewing the Panarroz Jumilla 2004!. It was really fun to actually taste along for once, and despite the different vintage (he was tasting the 2004), there were a ton of similarities (like the nose smelling like a failing electrical appliance, for instance).

Another good wine: Karl has started collecting the bottles of the better wines we've tasted on one of his bookshelves. Presumably, besides just looking cool, this will help us remember which ones we liked.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dogfish Head brewery

So, I haven't yet done a post about beer, another of my favorite things. What better way than to review my one of my favorite breweries?

Dogfish Head brewery is a New Jersey-based, self-described "off-center brewery." I interpret this to mean that they think outside the box, and it's evident in many of their craft beers. They seem to have a real interest in recreating exotic, ancient, or historical styles of beer. The range of their products is truly astounding. See below for a list and short reviews of all the beers I've tasted so far.

If you live in the Northeast U.S., chances are good that you will be able to find Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA on tap at a local bar or restaurant. This is by far the most popular Dogfish Head brew, and for good reason. If you are into hoppy, crisp, cleansing IPAs, you will absolutely love this beer.

At some point, I'm looking forward to making a trip to New Jersey to hit up the Dogfish Head brewery and brew-pub (at which they sample brews that they exclusively serve in the brew pub). I have heard that the tours and service at the brew pub are not stellar (I guess they have trouble retaining good servers and bartenders since it's sort of a tourist-y area), but it would still be worth it.

As a side note, Dogfish Head also distills small batches of its own hard liquors, which you can only get in New Jersey and some parts of Maryland apparently. I'd be interested to taste those as well!

60-minute IPA Like I said, this is the most popular and widely distributed brew from Dogfish Head. A great example of the classic, hoppy India Pale Ale!

90-minute IPA If you like your IPA a little stronger, try the 90-minute. I actually like this one more than the 60-minute, though if you are less into the bitter, citrus-rind elements that accompany many IPAs, you may not enjoy this one as much as the 60-minute.

Indian Brown Ale This is one of the best beers I have ever tasted. It has a delicious roasted, nutty flavor that goes down so smooth you'll swear it's a porter.

Midas Touch Golden Elixir This one is really interesting: it's an honeyed herb-beer that is created to replicate the earliest known fermented beverage recipe, discovered in what is believed to be King Midas's tomb. Interestingly, there was no actual recipe: the components for the beverage were chemically determined by analyzing residue found in some of the gold chalices in the chamber.

In the same vein, I wonder if Dogfish Head will now set about attempting to recreate the fermented cacao beverage that was recently discovered in much the same way in excavations of Mayan ruins.

R'aison D'Etre I didn't really care for this beer or the next: they were both sweeter than I like my beer. If you enjoy Belgian beers, though, these have that caramelly, sweet element that many Belgian beers have.

R'aison D'Extra This one is much like the R'aison D'Etre, but MORE so. Though they are both brewed with raisins, I really didn't taste them, though this is definitely a sweeter, darker beer.

Punkin Ale I cannot encourage you to try this enough: This is one of the best pumpkin beers you will ever have: it tastes exactly like pumpkin pie! Dogfish head brews it with the classic pumpkin pie spices: cinnamon, brown sugar, and nutmeg. But watch tastes like dessert and goes down easily, but at over 7% ABU, it can take you by surprise!!

Enjoy, and please drink responsibly.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Montecillo Crianza 2003 and Saxonshires cheese

Montecillo Crianza 2003
Rioja (Spanish)
ABV 13.5%
$9.99 [on sale, normally $11.99]

Time to study! I bought this wine on impulse to help me through my environmental law outlining. Then, on further impulse, I bought fixings for the perfect study-time snack platter: red globe grapes, crackers, and "Stripey Jack" cheese, more commonly known as "Saxonshires" or "5 Counties."

Saxonshires is a delicious English cheese composed of five layered cheeses, including Double Gloucester, Caerphilly, Cheshire, Leicester, and English cheddar. Not only does it make a stunning display on a cheese platter, but it is truly delicious whether you pick apart the layers and eat them separately or if you eat them all together.

As for the wine, I couldn't accurately evaluate the color since I was drinking out of one of my sister's novelty goblets that is a translucent blue with air bubbles in the glass. I have got to get some good, basic stemware for my own apartment!

The description on the bottle says: "Bodegas Montecillo, founded in 1874, selects only the finest Tempranillo grapes for this Montecillo Crianza. Aged for more than one year in oak barrels and one year in bottle, this wine is ruby red in color with intense fruit aromas. Ideal with white or red meat. Serve at temperature of 63-64˚ F."

The wine was very, very oak-y on the nose. I couldn't smell too much else. There were some faint whiffs of pepper and blackberry, but mainly, the nose was scarily oaky.

After a taste, my first imipression was that the wine was all oak. On second sip, though it still tasted very oaky, I also picked up some very tart, sour blackberries and black raspberries.

The finish is very nice and pretty long, though I did get quite a bit of that tannic, fuzzy feeling around the front of my top lip at the beginning of the finish. The tannins fade fairly quickly though, to reveal the berries on the finish.

I think I was lucky to find a bottle of the 2003 vintage, or I might have been overwhelmed by the tannins, but maybe not. I'm not very experienced with how wines tend to age.

My overall impression is that this wine is super intense! But I kind of like it, which surprises me, since I tend to hate the overly oaked wines...don't get me wrong, I like a little hint of oak, but when it's the predominant flavor, I usually have problems. I would say that this wine is pretty balanced with the fruits, though I certainly would not call this fruit forward.

As a bonus, this wine seems to go very nice with the cheese! In the future, I may post about how I normally don't enjoy cheese and wine together, so keep an eye out for that!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Budget Gourmet: Microwave Indian Food

If you have ever been a student on a tight budget, you have probably at some point wondered if there was more to life than Ramen noodles, Easy Mac, and Hot Pockets. It is possible to eat nutritious and economical meals without getting stuck in the high-carb, high-salt, high-fat rut of college eating.

One of my favorite budget meals (and Karl's, too), is ready-to-eat Indian food. For less than $2 plus the cost of two or three servings of rice (your choice), you can have a filling, delicious meal for two that would otherwise take hours to prepare or cost at least $10 to order for take-out.

Each package contains a sauce (or a curry, if you will), which can be heated either on the stove top or in the microwave (it takes about 2 minutes to heat up in the microwave!). Some of them are bean-based and some are dal-based (made with lentils). I have only had one or two that I really didn't like.

My favorite kinds of sauces usually include paneer, which is an Indian version of cottage cheese or ricotta. It is usually compressed into cubes or rectangular prisms. It's slightly tangy and pretty dry, but also very rich. I am unashamed of my addiction to paneer! If you are a fan of ricotta, you will love paneer.

If you like spicy food, there are plenty of spicy curries to choose from, and most brands do indicate on the package the product's spice level. Just as a tip, "medium-hot" is usually pretty spicy, so if you don't like spice, go for the "mild" flavors.

Karl and I eat these one or two times a week. There is enough curry for two people in each package. We usually cook up 2-4 servings of rice to mix the curry with, and bake a couple of Pillsbury frozen biscuits to go on the side.

You can find these in any Indian grocery store. You can also purchase them at Trader Joes, the Market District Giant Eagle, and Whole Foods (though they are priced higher in supermarkets than in the Indian grocery stores).

As a bonus, when you spend less than $5 on dinner for two, you can probably afford to spend another $5-10 on a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer. Pairing wines with Indian food can be a bit tricky, but I have had some success with dry, fruity Sauvignon Blanc. I also enjoyed pairing Indian food with the 2006 Santa Isabel Torréntes that I reviewed in a past post (I couldn't think of anything to pair it with at the time). If red wines are your thing, try a wine that you think of as more fruity and off-dry than spicy. The fruitiness will balance out the spiciness of the food and complement it, as opposed to a spicy wine (like a typical Shiraz) that would compete with the food. For beers, something with some dry acidity would be great, like an India Pale Ale or an English Pale Ale. Depending on the food, a sweeter Belgian ale might also be good.

Below are some links to some of my favorite brands of ready-to-eat Indian food (Priya, MTR, and Ashoka) so you can get an idea of what the packaging looks like. A lot of these website grocer's are charging up to $5 for one package, but at the India Bazaar in Monroeville, PA, (where I do most of my Indian grocery shopping), each package is at most $1.99 and they often are on sale. I strongly encourage you to take your patronage to these smaller grocery stores where you will find a greater selection to choose from and, most likely, better deals.

Ashoka Dal Makhani
Ashoka Palak Paneer
MTR Chana Masala
Priya Mango Dal