You may have guessed by now that I love reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows. Learning from others’ experiences is always a treat for me. But the one thing I have to say that’s missing from nearly all of them is the idea that some things are just out of your control. Especially when it comes to your raw materials.
You typically get told to buy the best ingredients you can find or afford, and that’s good advice. But as I was reminded a week or so ago, even the best ingredients may not be consistent. Francis Lam interviewed Jacques Pépin on “The Splendid Table” podcast, talking about materials, ingredients, and techniques. Jacques told him that technique is what comes to your rescue as a cook because you strive for consistency and good results. Especially in restaurant cooking. But you have to deal with vagaries in your ingredients:
“There are no two chickens which are the same — same amount of fat, the same amount of freshness in it or whatever, the quality of the chicken, the quality of anything else. So each time, in order to get to that same dish and have the same taste each time, then you have minute changes that happen along the way, which are sometimes conscious, and sometimes […] subconscious.”
Naturally this made me think about wine. Obviously, wine changes with each new vintage. But two bottles of the same vintage of the same wine can taste different, too. I was reminded of this last week at a tasting I helped organize. I opened two bottles of a very good 2011 Rhône while setting up, and started pouring from both bottles a half hour later. One bottle was exactly as I remembered it. But the other had a bit more alcohol on the nose and at first in the mouth. It opened up more 20 minutes later, but still wasn’t quite as good as the other bottle. A third bottle I opened later struck me as somewhere between the first two. Again, not a huge difference, but it was there.
I wondered how this could happen, so I started thinking back to my chemical engineering coursework in college – reactors/fermentation vessels, mixing devices, pumps, pipes, various holding/aging tanks, heat transfer, thermodynamics, etc. Then there’s storage and transportation, too. When you consider how much a wine goes through from grape to glass, it’s a wonder we don’t see more variation bottle to bottle.
Pardon my wonkiness here, but there’s a whole lot going on. Most of us probably haven’t considered that even small wineries that do as much by hand as possible still have to contend with equipment that can change the way the wine tastes by the time it gets to the consumer. And those pieces of equipment are pretty much the same for wineries and oil refineries, except for size and the standard of cleanliness.
Take tanks, for example. Keeping the contents well-mixed can be difficult. Most large vessels have so-called “dead spots,” places where the liquid moves much more slowly and doesn’t mix as well. More agitation can help, but the more mechanical work you put into mixing the liquid and solids in the tank, the more energy that goes into the wine as well. Fermentation itself already raises the temperature of the wine, so there’s a limit to how much vigorous mixing you’ll want to do. Even with temperature control.
Then, the mixture has to be moved from fermentation tanks to storage tanks or barrels. Most of the time, this means mechanical pumping. Ask most winemakers which piece of equipment they wish they didn’t have to use, and they’d probably say pumps. Pretty much any pump is going to put a huge energy/motion input into the wine. Some wineries minimize this if they’re set up for gravity feed: grapes come in at the top story of the winery, then each successive tank or holding vessel is on a lower story until you reach the bottle storage at the bottom. Gravity does much of the work, requiring less pumping. (It’s not a new design concept, and it was a way of moving things around before we had pumps, water wheels, or used animals to turn gears. But it has only been rediscovered for wineries in the last few decades, and an 80-year-old winery isn’t going to be set up that way.)
Even if you have gravity feed and less pumping, you’re still using hoses and pipes to get from one vessel to another. One of the things I found fascinating when I started engineering courses was the concept that liquid doesn’t all travel at the same speed in a pipe. The fluid in the center moves the fastest, and the fluid next to the pipe walls moves much more slowly. Friction from the pipe walls and from the molecules of liquid in those layers moving at different speeds all create various forces on the different wine molecules depending on where they are. Changes in pipe diameter, bends in the pipes, and valves along the way also have their effects.
Finally, after filtration and bottling (with more pumping, pipes, and valves), the bottles generally get placed in huge bins for controlled-temperature storage. All that movement can heat the wine up a little bit, and the bottles in the center of the bins are going to cool back down to cellar temperature more slowly than those closer to the outside. When pallets of wine cartons get loaded on trucks or in containers, chances are there will be another temperature change, and the cartons in the center of the pallet will cool or heat more slowly than those on the edges.
Each one of these things may have only a small impact on any one bottle. But if you consider that there are a bunch of different effects happening over the course of making, bottling, and storing the wine, and that each bottle has been subjected to each of those effects differently, the potential for variability increases. These differences can also be amplified by the age of the wine.
Why don’t we notice these variations more? Mixing between tanks and batches before bottling helps if there’s enough wine for that. As far as serving goes, even when I open multiple bottles of a single wine, I’m not tasting them all at the same time. While one bottle might taste different than another, chances are I’m eating something that outweighs the difference in the wines. Also, it depends on the particular wines themselves. For example, you probably won’t taste the variation in more acidic wines as much as you would in less acidic ones. The same with sweeter wines.
So in the end it may not be as big a deal as Jacques Pépin made about his chickens. But we should all be aware that these variations exist. Looking back on my tasting, was I just lucky with that one bottle? I’ll have to open more to see! (A hardship, I know, but someone has to do it…)
Last post I promised I’d talk about wine for Thanksgiving. Although there’s a good argument for just drinking whatever you like anytime, for any meal, there’s also something special about everyone sharing the same wine during a meal like Thanksgiving dinner.
The trouble comes with trying to pair wine with all those different foods on the table. As I’ve said before, Thanksgiving dinner is a combination of savory and sweet that many of us rarely eat at other times of year. It’s also pretty rich food. So I think it needs a wine that cuts through the richness, but also has more fruit and body than a white wine would have.
In the years I’ve been in the wine business, I haven’t found a wine that fits the bill better than Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado ($13). The first thing you notice (other than the cool label) is that the wine is a lot pinker than most French rosés. More skin contact with the Tempranillo and Grenache gives it more color, but also more body. (Plus, it looks great on the table.) But it also has some Verdejo in it – the wine rules for Cigales, Spain, where the wine is made, insist on adding Verdejo for acidity. Other rosé producers in hot, dry places might add something like tartaric acid to the wine. But the white Verdejo grape provides that liveliness and also a bit more flavor. I think you’ll really like it.
In years of blogging I’ve given you a bunch of Thanksgiving recipes, both for the meal and leftovers. This time, I’m abandoning decorum and posting a recipe for a guilty pleasure: deep-fried stuffing. Cy and I made up this recipe one year because we have good friends who, like us, love nearly everything deep fried. It has become a joke between us over the years, and every once in a while we’ll try frying something we hadn’t thought to fry before, just to share with them.
Think of this more as a guideline than a strict recipe. Everyone’s leftover stuffing is different. Some is moist, some dry, some already has eggs in it, etc. For many years I didn’t stuff the bird because I brined it and didn’t want the stuffing to get too salty, so my stuffing was on the drier side. It’s definitely a play-it-by-ear sort of thing. The stuffing should stick together but not be a mushy paste. I add egg whites for binding my drier stuffing, but you could also add leftover mashed potatoes. Coating the stuffing balls before frying is also up to you, but I like to dip them in egg white and then roll in Panko bread crumbs. The extra crunch is hard to resist. You could use whole egg for binding and coating, but I always have egg whites in the freezer, and this is a good way to use some of them up.
I like a size of about two tablespoons per morsel. For two cups of stuffing, you’ll get 16 of them, which is enough for four people to enjoy as a snack or appetizer. Feel free to fry up more if you like, though.
Chances are you’ll have leftover cranberry sauce or relish, too. Heat it up to use as a dipping sauce – thin it out with a little of the Lágrima Rosado if you need to.
Don’t worry if these don’t all turn out the same – consistency isn’t necessarily the goal here. Deep-fried goodness comes in many forms!
Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!
Serves 4 as an appetizer
2 cups leftover stuffing (made without eggs), lightly packed
3 large eggs, or 6 egg whites
1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups Panko bread crumbs
1 quart peanut or canola oil, for frying
1 cup cranberry sauce, heated and thinned out with white or rosé wine
Heat the oil to 375 degrees in a large pot or Dutch oven. Set up a three-station breading line: Put the flour on a plate, then beat 2 eggs or 4 egg whites with a big pinch of salt in a shallow bowl. Spread the Panko on another plate. Also set up a cooling rack set over a baking sheet
Beat one egg or two egg whites in a small bowl. Mix gently with the stuffing. It should just hold together. Portion out the mixture in 2 tablespoon amounts, roll each gently into a ball. Gently roll the stuffing balls in flour, then in egg, and in the bread crumbs. Set the coated stuffing balls aside on a plate until they’re all coated and ready to fry. (You can do this a few minutes ahead, but don’t wait too long.)
Fry in two batches for a few minutes each, turning the stuffing balls occasionally. They should be nicely brown. Remove to the cooling rack with a slotted spoon, sprinkle with salt, and fry the rest of them. Serve hot, with warm cranberry dipping sauce.