Recipe for a Happy New Year

This past New Year’s Eve the wife and I toyed with the idea of celebrating New Year’s Eve in a restaurant. Between us we have worked probably 25 New Year’s Eve galas in various restaurants, and thought it might be nice to have someone else pouring the bubbly for a change. An online-search revealed interesting tasting menus offered at both Refectory and Handke’s, both priced around $90.00/person, food only. Adding the price of cocktails and wine could easily boost the tab between $75-100, bringing the grand total to well over $300 with tax and tip.

We love to dine out, but a quick glance at our holiday-enhanced credit card statements gave us pause. In the end, frugality and fear of DUI prevailed. We settled on a romantic dinner at home—cooked by yours truly—with wines chosen to compliment the food and buoy the celebration. I figured that for less than half of what we’d spend going out, we could create a memorable meal, and drink more wine than possible if we were driving(and send the money we saved to MasterCard).

There had to be Champagne, of course. But I wanted other wines along for the ride as well, their choice determined by the menu. When I asked Mrs. Wineward what she wanted me to cook, her reaction was swift and predictable. “You know what I want you to make—my favorite,” she beamed.

“Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, isn’t very festive, my dear!”

“Think you’re funny, don’t you”, she replied, whacking me in the arm.

She was actually craving Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese, a dish I make perhaps 2-3 times throughout the fall and winter. I’ve included a link to the Tyler Florence version from Food Network dotcom, but several additional variations of this dish are listed in their recipe archives as well.

Braised veal shanks are one of my favorite dishes, too. Slow-cooking the meat in the wet-heat provided by an aromatic braising liquid yields tender, flavorful results, and the liquid can be strained and reduced to serve as an easy, flavorful sauce. The ratio of bone-to-meat in the shanks adds extra flavor, and offers an additional bounty—creamy marrow. Some chefs add this bone marrow to the risotto; I prefer digging mine out at the table as an accompaniment to the veal.

In my mind, nothing pairs better with this dish than an Italian red from Tuscany or Veneto. I would have loved to splurge on a Barolo with some age, but after budgeting for Champagne, didn’t want to spring for $65-100 for one bottle. Likewise Amarone. It didn’t fit the budget. As I surveyed the Italian wine selections at our local Andersons store, my wife complained. “I hate shopping for wine with you. You could spend an hour staring at those shelves.”

“You can’t just walk over here and grab the first thing off the shelf that catches your eye. You have to study them, analyze the choices.”

“How about this,” she countered, holding aloft a bottle of Valpolicella. “We always like Valpolicella.”

My first impulse was to dismiss her hastiness, but I didn’t want to sleep alone that night, so I reluctantly considered her bottle. She had chosen well, a bottle of Domini Veneti Classico Superiore Ripasso 2000. “This might work,” I admitted sheepishly, silently cursing her ability not to overanalyze every purchase.

The best Valpolicellas are often referred to as “baby Amarones.” During the aging process, the lees from a previous batch of Amarone can be added to the barrels for several weeks to impart extra flavor and richness. The current release of this particular wine is 2004, so this 2000 bottling was a steal at the sale price of $22. Score one for Mrs. Wineward. Into the cart it went.

Those of you in greater Columbus not familiar with the Andersons chain should check them out soon. Part country store, part home improvement warehouse, and part gourmet grocery, Andersons was a welcome surprise when we moved here last December, and deserves a blog post all its own. First-time shoppers adventurous enough to make it past the ubiquitous housewares, kitchen cabinet displays and eye-high stacks of Adirondack chairs might be startled by the discovery of the gourmet oasis within.

In my neighborhood, Andersons boasts the largest selection of fine wine, and specialty beer. It’s also the only place to buy saffron threads (essential for Risotto Milanese) or whole vanilla beans, and contains an in-store butcher shop aptly named The House of Meats. They have the cheapest prices on meat in town. Some examples: Prime Rib is priced at just $7.95/lb, and jumbo-sized boneless/skinless chicken breast is only $1.99/lb. In fact, everything they sell is priced less than the equivalent available at the grocery store, and I have never been disappointed with the quality.

Because the wife had dictated the entrée—and bruised my arm—it was only fair that I decided on the first course. I wanted to do something luxurious and rich, preferably with lobster. Perusing the Epicurious website I stumbled across a version of Lobster Thermidor. The tasting notes on this recipe were intriguing:

“None of us expected to fall in love with this dish when we tested it, but we all did. Most Thermidor recipes yield something that tastes stodgy and heavy, but this version, by 1940s Gourmet chef Louis P. De Gouy, is almost sleek.”

I was hooked. This recipe would provide the richness and luxury I desired, without the heaviness of many “old school” dishes. Risotto is heavy enough as it is. I originally thought the Champagne could serve double-duty, both as a NYE toast and as a pairing with the lobster dish, but was afraid that a single bottle would never last until midnight. A magnum would have sufficed. However, the selection of large bottles in my local shops was negligible. The Champagne we selected, Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV, was available only in 750 ml bottles for $40 at Andersons.

Grower Champagnes such as this have become the darlings of the wine press over the last few years, as more small-production Champagne becomes available outside of France. Instead of selling their grapes or bulk wines to one of the giant houses like Moët or Clicquot, these ambitious growers produce, bottle, and age their own wines. Most growers who sell to the big houses go for maximum vineyard yields at the expense of quality because they are selling by weight. Conversely, many Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyard owners gambled that they could make even more money focusing on grape quality, retaining control over the entire production process, and selling the product themselves. In theory these Champagnes should express more terroir, and exhibit fuller, more lively flavors due to superior vineyard practices and artisanal winemaking. I was anxious to see if this wine lived up to the hype.

We headed over to Giant Eagle for the lobsters, which are not available at Andersons. To make the Thermidor preparation easier and quicker, I had the seafood counter partially steam the whole lobsters. While we were waiting, we decided to browse the store’s wine selection, as I still needed something to pair with the first course. I entered the “premium room”, possibly to pick up another Champagne, but a sale tag caught my eye. Nestled atop the wooden shelves was a single vineyard, estate Chardonnay from Clos Pegase, the “Mitsuko’s Vineyard” Carneros 2003 for $22. Single vineyard, estate grown Chardonnay can easily triple that in price. I was intrigued, but leery.

The prevailing style of California Chardonnay—overblown fruit lavished in new oak—doesn’t appeal to me. Hell, I’ve got a bottle of vanilla extract up in the cupboard if I wanted to taste that. Instead, I prefer a more nuanced wine. I’ve got nothing against ripe fruit, but there must be equal acidity to keep things lively on the tongue, and the oak must be well integrated. Pine Ridge “Dijon Clones” is one example of this style Chardonnay.

I studied the Clos Pegase label looking for clues to its style. The first thing I noticed was 14.2% alcohol. “Potential fruit-bomb with enough alcohol to sear the palate”, I fretted to myself. Then I saw something encouraging on the back label. It stated that the wine was “aged sur lies for eight months in 33% new French oak”. That sounded like Burgundian winemaking and judicious use of oak to me, and advanced my hopes it would be a worthy dance partner to the Thermidor. Into the cart it went. Retrieving the lobsters, we headed to the checkout. Our culinary quest was done.

The total bill from both stores came to just over $153. Not exactly cheap, but not bad considering all it bought: two lobsters, two veal shanks, saffron, four bottles of wine—including a $17 bottle of Dry Sack Sherry I bought for the Thermidor sauce—and various lesser items needed to complete the cooking. Dinner was delicious, and the wines were great too. But the best part was a midnight kiss from Mrs. Wineward. We skipped dessert.

Tasting Notes

Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV (42 months en cave, disgorged December 2005) $40
Its golden color and warm-fruit nose confirm the high percentage of red grapes in the blend. Full-bodied and mouth-filling, red fruit predominates on the palate with a hint of nuttiness. We weren’t blown away by this wine as we expected to be, but to be fair, we had already consumed two bottles prior. I would like to taste it again, perhaps in a flight with some of our perennial favorite Champagnes for comparison.

Clos Pegase Chardonnay Carneros Napa Valley Mitsuko’s Vineyard Estate 2003 $22
Bottled with a Stelvin screw cap for freshness, this Chardonnay exhibits good balance, with pear and apricot nuances predominating. The oak component is well integrated. Finishes long, with just a hint of butter. This is a Chardonnay I would gladly drink as an aperitif. Despite the 14.2% alcohol, it never felt fatiguing to the palate. It paired well with the Lobster dish, but perhaps a Chardonnay with a bit more tropical fruit would have been even better.

Domìni Veneti La Casetta di Ettore Righetti Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2000 $22
This wine was the star of our NYE, and complimented the veal dish superbly. Black cherry and plum with a hint of spice and cedar. Silky tannins and refreshing acidity balance the fruit. I would definitely by this again. A steal at $22.

Cheesy Header Photo

People often ask why we left the sunny shores of South Florida for Columbus. The short answer is that my wife grew up here and was becoming homesick. The long answer is more complicated.

We have friends who own a gourmet carryout and catering business in the mountains of Western Carolina. They call it Good Food Incorporated, and specialize in Chef-prepared meals that can easily be finished at home. They’ve done a tremendous business for themselves; back in the Spring of 2005 they decided to open a second shop focusing on artisanal cheese, Good Food Pantrycharcuterie, caviar, and other delights. One weekend they flew us up to Asheville, then drove us another 90 minutes west for a visit in order to enlist our help. Lured by the beautiful scenery, and the potential to make enough money during the nine-month season to take the rest of the year off, we agreed to run the new store, and work the catering jobs.

The centerpiece of the new store was a shiny display case artistically arranged with our wares. The header photo captures a corner of the case featuring various blue cheeses. Two fantastic selections share the stage. On the left is a Valdeon DOP. Wrapped in Chestnut leaves, these crumbly wheels are made in Leon, Spain from a mixture of cow’s and goat’s milk. Valdeon is fantastic when slathered on a slice of Spanish fig bread.

Its partner to the right is New Zealand’s most celebrated cheese, Windsor Blue, made lovingly from cow’s milk by Whitestone Cheese in Oamaru. Dense and creamy, Windsor can develop a rich ivory-colored pate like Stilton as it ages. Try this with toasted walnuts and a glass of 20-year tawny port.

Big CheddarAlthough I’d worked for years in the restaurant biz, before we took the job, I new little about traditional cheeses or artisanal cheese-making. As time wore on, I learned alot. And ate a ton of fantastic cheese. You can look forward to many future posts related to cheese. Anyway, back to the the answer for the original question.

At the end of the first season we had done pretty well, but not well enough to skip working for three months. We needed other jobs to get us through the winter. Trouble is, Jackson County in Western Carolina may be a winter wonderland, but there ain’t no stinking jobs available that time of year. The nearest real town to us was 40 minutes away, and the main attraction was a trip to Walmart. We had to punt.

After bowing out gracefully from another season working with our friends, we had a decision to make. Back to Florida or perhaps somewhere else. Mrs. Wineward was homesick for Ohio, and my research indicated that Columbus had a strong job market. So for the second time in a year we loaded up the U-Haul with all our worldly possessions and hit the road. After 16 years of South Florida weather (with a short layover in Carolina), I arrived in central Ohio on December sixth in the midst of a snow storm.

I do miss the ocean and the palms. Sometimes I even miss the mountains. But it’s been fun exploring my new hometown the past year. I look forward to a fantastic 2007, and hope I don’t find myself behind the wheel of a U-Haul any time soon.

Culinary Homesick Blues

I’m not going to lie. Moving to the midwest was an adjustment for me. I spent my formative years mostly in the hectic Baltimore-Washington corridor, them moved to the sprawl of South Florida at age 24. Things are different here in Cowtown. People are friendlier, for one thing. And practically everyone drives below the speed limit.

Last December when we arrived, I was excited to explore my new hometown and uncover its culinary treasures. Instead, I quickly began to miss many things I had once taken for granted. Great seafood, for instance. Neighborhood taverns that serve food you’d actually want to eat, not food that comes frozen or out of a number-ten can. Having three fantastic sushi restaurants within two miles of the house. Being able to get a fresh-dough pizza with homemade sauce until four in the morning. More than one Whole Foods Market in the entire metropolitan area. Sunday afternoon dim sum for which I’d drive an hour to enjoy.

Things haven’t been all bad, though. I discovered the meaty, tender ribs at the Hickory House. The wife and I had a memorable dinner at Barcelona, including a sublime dish of gnocchi with shrimp in a paprika-laced cream sauce. We were thrilled to learn that Rossi in the Short North serves delicious food well past midnight. The ride to the Whole Foods Market on Sawmill is only ’bout 30 minutes from my house, and last week I had sushi at Hama in Easton—Toro so rich it made my head spin, and a Japenese style oyster shooter with ponzu, quail egg, scallion, and tamago.

This year I hope to uncover more of Columbus’s treasures. I hope you’ll come along for the ride. I still haven’t found a good Jewish Deli, but am told that Katzinger’s is excellent. If anybody has a line on good New York style pizza, or dim sum, let me know.