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.

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