OK, I’m finally going to get through the Rhône whites this time, I promise!
We did tastings on two excruciatingly hot and humid days this past weekend, and served a Rhône white at both of them. Light bodied, with a floral nose, good acidity, some citrus, some apricot, and a great finish that was just a little north of dry. It was a huge hit, the perfect thing for a miserable summer day in DC. And everyone was surprised to learn that it was a blend of different grapes rather than one single varietal.
As I mentioned last time, winemakers in the Southern Rhône Valley blend different grapes together to make their whites. Not only is this the rule under the French AOC authority, but it has the advantage of providing greater consistency from year to year. Wine grapes are an agricultural product, after all, and subject to variations in conditions during each growing season. By blending, not only can the winemaker take advantage of the best properties of each grape, but also vary the blend slightly to overcome any deficiencies in a particular year’s crop. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have some outstanding years, but it does help avoid clunkers.
We discussed Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier in a previous post. This time, it’s on to Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. None of these three is grown in the U.S., at least not to any noticeable extent. But they represent the three highest white wine grape production volumes in the Southern Rhône Valley, and are the backbone of the whites in that region.
- Grenache Blanc is the most widely-grown of the six Southern Rhône white grapes, with a great citrus flavor and a hint of herbs. It lacks acidity, though, so 100% Grenache Blanc wine would have a great first hit of flavor but would emerge a little flat. Since it’s such a workhorse and grows so easily, the temptation is to grow a lot of the grapes on a given plot of land – but higher yields decrease the acidity even further. Some growers in the region are experimenting with very low yields, producing a grape with a bit more acidity. So maybe we’ll be seeing a new 100% Grenache Blanc wine in the not-too-distant future. I can’t wait to try it!
- Clairette is a very sweet grape with very low acidity. When it’s completely fermented, it produces medium-bodied wine with high alcohol content and a flowery aroma. It’s either the main or second grape by volume in white wines from Châteauneuf du Pape, the Southern Rhône’s most prestigious appellation. When it’s only partially fermented, it makes a sweet wine (Clairette de Die, from the Northern Rhône Valley, is a popular sparkling dessert wine). Because of its very low acidity, 100% Clairette wines that aren’t sweet tend to oxidize easily, which can give the wine a mild sherry-like flavor (the sugar helps prevent oxidation in the sweeter wines). We like it, but not everyone does. Fully-fermented Clairette used to be blended in Vermouth with additional alcohol to keep it from oxidizing, although these days Vermouth is usually made from other varietals.
- Bourboulenc is the only one of the Southern Rhône white wine grapes found only in France. It’s almost never seen in wines outside the country. In fact, when we first started importing wines and putting the names of the grapes on our back labels, Bourboulenc wasn’t even on the approved list of grape varietals under U.S. labeling laws! It produces wine with high acidity and a slight citrus flavor, which makes it a perfect blending grape. Most of the blends in the region contain at most 20% Bourboulenc, because it’s truly too acidic to take on its own. But blended with the other grapes, it adds balance and helps the wines keep longer.
So you can see that making Southern Rhône whites is kind of like picking off an old Chinese Menu (one from Column A, one from Column B…not surprisingly, they pair well with spicy Chinese food, too.) There are any number of combinations to end up with wines that have enough acidity (Bourboulenc, Viognier), citrus (Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, and sometimes Marsanne), spice (Marsanne, Roussanne), herbs (Grenache Blanc, Roussanne), floral qualities (Clairette, Viognier), a little fuller body (Clairette, Roussanne, Viognier), and tropical fruit (Roussanne, Viognier). Each winemaker has his or her favorite blends, and we think they’re all great.
Last week, Dare threw down the gauntlet and pretty much called me a cooking fairy princess. I have to admit that it’s not entirely untrue. I do like things to come out well, and although I’m not a total perfectionist, I’m not above a little decoration or going an extra step if it’s going to produce even a slightly better result. It doesn’t mean I don’t take shortcuts, or that I don’t throw together meals I wouldn’t serve to company. I guess I’m just fascinated by cooking and learning new things about cooking and food. And maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I also want to know why things behave the way they do in cooking – which also drives me to try things that might seem too bizarre or time-consuming for others. After that, maybe I’ll try to think of ways to make the dish more easily, but I like to make things “by the book” the first time.
This week’s recipe is a case in point. I had always wondered why it was difficult to make Chinese food at home that’s even as good as an OK take-out place. My first forays into Asian food came from the Time-Life Foods of the World books, and while they were mostly good, they weren’t great. I tried a number of other books claiming to be more or less authentic and had better results with some, particularly for Thai food. But really good homemade Chinese food eluded me until I found Stuart Chang Berman’s Potsticker Chronicles, which gave two clues.
First, the sauce recipes are (or were) closely-guarded secrets. The best ones mostly contain homemade chicken broth, which has more flavor. You can mimic this with low-sodium canned or boxed chicken stock by reducing it (boiling down a 14-ounce can to one cup, for example). Then they’re made with combinations of different soy sauces for more layers of flavor. They’re also made ahead and kept hot so that they don’t stop the cooking when you add them to the other ingredients, which can compromise flavor and texture. If you’ve ever watched Lidia Bastianich cook Italian food on TV, you’ll know she says the same thing.
The other key is that most restaurants use a particular method of cooking the meat – it’s first coated in a mixture of egg white, cornstarch, and water, and poached in 280-degree F oil, not stir-fried, for a couple of minutes. It’s not quite deep frying, because the temperature’s not hot enough. You need at least 2 cups of oil for this, and then you remove the meat with a mesh strainer and let it drain for at least 10 minutes. Then you add the meat to the stir fry when the vegetables are nearly cooked. Boy, does it ever taste good! (This is probably what made CSPI blow a gasket over Chinese food. But it’s the way to get that great flavor and texture.) For the absolutely fat-averse, Berman recommends pouring 2 cups of boiling water over the meat in the strainer to remove more oil, although he says there will be a compromise in taste.
Once you get the techniques down, you can make all kinds of different dishes. I made up a stir fry of chicken, asparagus, scallions, and radishes using Berman’s method and his spicy white sauce. And it goes beautifully with two of our multi-varietal Rhône whites. Cave la Vigneronne Cuvée des Templiers White is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc (and it’s only $10 a bottle). It’s light-bodied and crisp, but with the floral quality and a touch of residual sweetness to go with the spice. Domaine de Montvac Vacqueras White is made from Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, and Viognier. ($24) It’s aged in oak and is fuller-bodied, but has a fabulous flavor and elevates the elegance of any meal. Not your everyday white, but it’s one of the finest white wines from that part of the world and worth a splurge.
The sauce is easy to make, and the oil technique seems like a lot of work, but you owe it to yourself to try it and see if it’s worth the trouble. If you’re like me, you’ll find that it’s not an everyday thing, but you’ll keep it in your repertoire. There — the fairy princess has spoken!
Chicken with Asparagus, Scallions, and Radishes
Makes 4 moderate servings
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half lengthwise, then each half cut crosswise into ¼-inch strips. (You can freeze the meat for a few minutes before cutting to make it easier)
1 egg white
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cold water
2-3 cups vegetable oil
2 cups boiling water (optional)
Mix everything except the oil and boiling water in a bowl until well coated. It should be milky and smooth.
Heat the vegetable oil in a 4-quart saucepan, or a similar pan with high sides and a bottom at least 8 inches wide. You want the oil to get to 280 degrees F, so use a fry/candy thermometer if you have one. If not, heat the oil over medium heat and test the temperature with a piece of the chicken. It shouldn’t sizzle a lot and it shouldn’t just sit there either, but you should see bubbles rising from the piece of meat like champagne bubbles in a glass. Put a large mesh strainer over a bowl and have it ready.
Add half the chicken to the oil and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir the meat slowly and steadily, turning it gently with a slotted spoon. Don’t stir vigorously enough that it goes over the side of the pan. After 3 minutes, remove the meat with the slotted spoon and put it in the strainer over the bowl. Lower the heat, check the temperature again, and then cook the remaining meat. Let the meat sit in the strainer for 10 minutes. If you want to remove more oil, pour the boiling water over it, then empty the bowl so it doesn’t sit and steam over the hot water. Let it sit for a few minutes more to drain.
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth (if using canned, simmer a 14-ounce can to reduce it to 1 cup, about 10 minutes)
2 tablespoons dry sherry
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
4 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili paste (or ¼ to ½ teaspoon hot sauce)
Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Set aside, covered, to keep very warm, or refrigerate until you need it, then reheat before using.
1 large bunch scallions, root ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
16 asparagus spears, hard ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
12 or more radishes, trimmed, sliced lengthwise in quarters
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespooons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons cold water
Cooked rice, for serving
Heat the vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet that’s at least 12 inches wide. The oil will get wavy, and then you’ll see wisps of smoke. Immediately add the vegetables, turn the heat to high, and keep them moving around with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Cook for about 3 minutes. It’s OK if they brown slightly. Add the cooked chicken and heat for about a minute, then add the hot cooking sauce and cook for a minute. Stir the cornstarch/water mixture, then add half of it to the pan, stirring as you add. If it’s not thick enough for your taste, you can add more cornstarch mixture. Serve immediately with rice.