Six things I learned about wine and food this year

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

It’s that time of year when we reflect back – or not, as some of my friends tell me that 2016 was a year they’d rather not dwell on.  Nonetheless, if you ignore the election-related memories (not easy, I grant you), you’ll probably find some things you appreciated learning.  I know I did.  Here are six of the things I found out about wine and food this year, in no particular order.

1 — In talking with a Naturopath Physician on the health effects of wine, I learned that some people are genetically predisposed to experience cardiovascular benefits from drinking wine, while others will find exactly the opposite, all else being equal. Most of us aren’t predisposed to either extreme.  I’m slogging my way through the studies and plan to write about it next year.

I tried to get myself tested since I drink a fair bit of wine.  My doctor told me that the gene controlling the wine effects is also a marker for a particular form of Alzheimer’s disease.  That meant my insurance wouldn’t pay for the test if I didn’t have a family history of the disease.  And while I could pay to have it done myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what it might tell me – not to mention that it could inadvertently become part of my medical record.

2 — I have always been puzzled by cookie-making instructions that tell you to chill the dough before rolling and cutting it. Cookie dough made with lots of butter hardens like steel in the fridge.  You’ll sprain your wrists trying to roll it out.  So the conventional wisdom is to take it out a few minutes before you plan to roll it.  But by the time it’s soft enough to roll, it will stick to any surface, including parchment paper.

Well, help is here!  In Dorie’s Cookies, Dorie Greenspan’s new baking book, she details a better way.  Make the dough, then roll it out right away between pieces of parchment paper until it’s the thickness you want.  Put the whole parchment-surrounded package in the fridge for a couple of hours.  Peel off the paper, put the dough back on one of the pieces of parchment, and cut out your cookies.  You can bake them on that same parchment, too.  No sticking, no wrist fatigue.  (I admit this is an issue for me, as you’ll see below.)

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don't normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don’t normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

3 — You might be surprised to know that I don’t really enjoy reading books about wine in my spare time. It’s probably because I spend nearly all day every day in the wine business, and already have some required reading to do to keep up.  The exception, though, is a wine book with a great story.  And this year, my blogger friend David White wrote a fun one:  But First, Champagne – A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine.  It’s getting a lot of good press, all well-deserved.  David gave me an early manuscript copy to read for comment, which is why I didn’t write a separate post reviewing it.  There’s history – regional, wine, and individual makers – plus a whole bunch of interesting facts.  Even though I sell champagne and have been in the region a few times, I learned a lot.  The photos are stunning, too.  All of which leaves you wanting to drink more champagne.

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the “Secreto.” It’s one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten.

4 — One of my Spanish wine producers also raises pigs in western Spain, along the Portuguese border. These lovely animals are used to make the fabulous Jamón, for which Spain is justifiably famous.  But only the hind legs, and sometimes the shoulders, get used for the ham.  My producer told me that the rest of the pig is of course delicious too.  (He even tried to convince me that I should import the meat, which would be a logistical nightmare.)  But it wasn’t until this year that I got to try the ribs, loin, and belly from an acorn-fed pig.  Oh. My. Goodness.  While the Jamón may be available in the U.S. in certain places, you won’t find the other meats over here.  So I guess now you have an excuse to visit Spain, Portugal, or southwestern France if you want to try them.  You’re welcome!

5 — This year I had to move my alcohol license and wine stock to a new warehouse location. As you’ve probably found in your own wine collections, there are bottles that are past their prime, even if they’re still tasty.  Well, I’m sure you can imagine what happens when you have pretty much unlimited space for storing wine.  Some of them I can put on sale or donate to a worthy cause.  But there’s a limit to how many of these bottles I wanted to take to the new warehouse.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just leave them to be recycled without emptying them.  So over five days I emptied out 10 cases (120 bottles) per day, opening each bottle and dumping the wine down the drain.  And I tried a bunch of different styles of openers to see which would work the best.  The answer is, well, none of them was ideal for opening this many bottles.  Plus, I ended the five days with sore wrists.  And I didn’t even have to open the bottles cleanly or contort my arms to make sure customers could see the label at all times.  I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear about carpal tunnel syndrome or shoulder problems in the wine industry.  Sommeliers, take note!  I hope your employers’ workers comp is current.

6 — Finally, something that’s more of a trend. When I interviewed cookbook author Lucinda Scala Quinn about wine, she told me that her cooking has started to focus more on the simplicity of individual ingredients rather than a bunch of them together.  I definitely heard more about recipes where the main ingredient is the star in 2016.  Especially vegetables.  A couple of years ago, I wrote about how flavors in general were getting bigger for all kinds of dishes, but not necessarily due to the main ingredients – additions of things like bacon and hot sauce.  I’ve got nothing against either of them.  But they tend to make everything taste the same.

Admittedly, some of the single-ingredient stuff can go too far.  Like a restaurant recipe I heard about for carrots that were roasted, chilled, and smoked.  I’m sure they’re delicious, but probably too much work for most home cooks.  In general, though, if you go to the trouble to buy good ingredients, a return to relative simplicity is a welcome direction.

I’ve found that this is finally happening with wines, too, at least on restaurant lists.  There are more medium-bodied wines on lists than I’ve seen in the past couple of years, and not just on seasonal summer lists, either.  As someone who sells a lot of medium-bodied wines, I’m happy to see them touted as great with food.  And they tend to be better values, too.

————-

There’s no shortage of suggestions for holiday foods around.  Most of us tend to go for the things we’ve always made, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if you don’t have family traditions for your December/January festivities, try one from my family:   French onion soup on New Year’s Day.  My father has been making it forever.  Even before he retired, he made it a multi-day process by making beef stock ahead of time.

As you can imagine, it’s delicious – definitely worth the time it takes.  But I have developed a substitute recipe that tastes good and is less work.  There are three things that make it turn out well.  The first is taking boxed chicken and beef stocks, mixing them with wine, and reducing them down.  Go ahead and add the peels and trimmings from the onions while you’re at it.  Just make sure to use low-sodium stock.  I like Kitchen Basics unsalted stocks.  Their unsalted beef stock is sometimes hard to find, but it’s OK to use another low-salt brand as long as the chicken stock is unsalted or low-salt.  Cooking the wine down mellows it out and the tannins get a chance to bind with the stock proteins for extra deliciousness.

The second is to cut the onions the right way.  It may seem silly, but I have found that they brown better if you follow these instructions:  cut the peeled onion in half through the poles.  Then put each half cut-side down on the board and cut crosswise into thin slices.  You can use the food processor for this as long as you put the onions in the feed tube correctly.

Finally, there’s browning the onions.  This takes about 45 minutes, and can’t be rushed.  You want the onions really brown, with a nice brown layer on the bottom of the pot, too.  But you don’t want it all to burn – if it threatens to burn, add some water and scrape everything up, then keep going.  You will end up with what looks like practically nothing in the pot compared to the amount of onions you put in initially, but what’s there will have a lot of flavor.

I am not a fan of soggy bread, but you can do the traditional bread and cheese on top if you like.  (I prefer to toast my bread and cheese separately and eat them with the soup.)  Naturally, you’ll need red wine to serve.  This is one time where you can pull out the stops – despite my extolling medium-bodied wines in the post above, a great big red wine will work wonderfully here because there’s so much flavor.  Cave la Vinsobraise Thérapius ($26) is 100% Syrah and tastes like something much more expensive.  In his Washington Post review a couple of years ago, wine columnist Dave McIntyre rated it a great value, and said it tasted like a Côte Rotie.  No worries with using it for the half-cup of red wine in the recipe.  But you can also use something not quite as special if you have it around – leftover wine works well here since it’s going to get cooked enough.

Many thanks to you all for reading this blog and buying wine this year, and every year so far.  I appreciate the opportunity to share things I feel strongly about, and it’s gratifying to know that many of you feel the same way.  Happy Holidays to everyone, and a very happy new year too!

Cheers!

Tom

French Onion Soup

Serves 6 – 8

Unsalted butter or olive oil

4 large red onions, peeled, cut in half through the poles, then sliced thinly crosswise (save the peels and trimmings to put in the stock while it reduces if you like)

7 cups low-sodium chicken broth*

3 cups low-sodium beef broth*

½ cup dry red wine*

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

12 to 18 baguette slices

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the stocks, wine, thyme, and bay leaf in a nonreactive saucepan (along with the onion trimmings if you still have them), heat to boiling over high heat.  Reduce the heat to keep it at a good boil and reduce until it all measures 8 cups, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the bay leaf and the onion trimmings if you’ve used them.  Set the stock mixture aside.

In a large Dutch oven with a lid, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or heat up the same amount of olive oil.  Add the sliced onions and ¾ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and the sugar.  Stir everything up to coat the onions.  Then put the lid on and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat.  Take the lid off and stir.  There will be liquid in the pot, and maybe a little browning.  Continue to cook, stirring frequently.  The liquid will evaporate and the onions will start to brown.  You’re looking for a nice deep brown color, and a good bit of brown stuff stuck to the pot, too.  If you see that it might be burning, add ¼ cup of water and stir everything up, including scraping the brown stuff off the pot and into the onions – then keep going.  All in all, this will take up to 45 minutes.  You will have something that looks like jam but also has some visible onion structure.

Add the stock/wine mixture, and scrape up the bottom of the pot to incorporate all the brown stuff one last time.  Add the vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste for salt and pepper.

In the meantime, assemble the bread and cheese.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Brush the bread with a little butter or olive oil, then put them on a baking sheet and into the oven for 5 minutes, until lightly golden and a little crisp.  Remove the pan from the oven, mix the two cheeses together, and top the bread slices evenly.  Put them back into the oven to melt the cheese and get it just a little brown, 5 to 7 minutes.  You can float the bread on individual servings of soup, or serve the toasts alongside.

*  You can also start with 9 cups of low-salt vegetable stock and 1 cup of red wine and boil them down to 8 cups.

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