Wine tasting – Why?

A lot of people are intimidated by wine tastings and ask me why I do it. The answer to why I do it might be slightly different than the average person’s reason, but one thing should be consistent to all is that the main reason should be pleasure. The actual goal of a tasting might vary greatly between individuals, and I normally separate the tasters in two main categories. The professionals who do this for business and the rest of the world who should be doing it for the pleasure of discovering new wines or of revisiting old friends.

The approach of each individual varies greatly and the pros tend to take standardized notes that can be revisited years later to follow vintage trends, or the development of specific wines. Of course those who attend tastings strictly for pleasure can also take copious notes, as they are very useful, but note taking and using esoteric terms is not a prerequisite for enjoyment. Trying to find out what you like in a wine and enjoying the experience should be the main goal. If you do not like a particular type or style of wine, why go to a tasting of those wines? Of course, as a professional, you might be called in to taste and evaluate types of wines you are not too fond of, or at times or locations not conductive to tasting. I remember that 20 years ago I was attending lots of tastings to blend some wines in Eastern Europe and the managers of the estate insisted that we met at 7am to do the work as later in the day they were too busy. 7am after a long night of meetings is not a fun tasting experience, but it is part of the routine of a pro. We will not emphasize this side of the business here, as we will concentrate in the hedonistic aspects instead.

In the coming weeks I will start going through the basics on how to approach wine tasting and get the most information and pleasure out of them. I will also go through the mechanics of it and explain some simple terminology. As with any human endeavor wine tasting has its own jargon that can seem off-putting to people new to the field, but there is actually a good reason to some of it as you need to standardize you vocabulary so that you are able to describe a sensory experience consistently enough that other people can relate to it, and so you can also go back through your notes and revisit tasted wines so that they have a meaning for you even years later.

As mentioned above the main reason one should be formally tasting wines is for pleasure, and also to find the wines that you like best. Other reasons are only ancillary to the process, but for some people they could be the most important aspect. Like a lot of things in life relating to sensory experiences, there is no good or bad ways and reasons to do things.

Lucito

Recipe – Orange bread

I am finally catching up with work enough to start posting regularly. It has been a hectic last week and to get back into the heart of things here is a nice recipe that I have adapted from one of Normita’s. It is simple to make and is a great addition to the holiday table. I noticed that when it is freshly baked it has a tendency to be a little dry, but if you wrap the cake in aluminum foil for 3-4 days it ripens to perfection. If you want an extra special version you could soak a piece of clean cheesecloth with a few tbs of Grand Marnier and wrap the cake first in the soaked cheesecloth before wrapping in foil. To bring this to the next level you could also inject a small quantity of Grand Marnier all over the cake with a basting syringe on a daily basis for 4-5 days before serving. This will yield a very flavorful alternative to fruit cakes that people will actually eat.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sodium bicarbonate
2 tbs butter melted
1 egg, beaten
2 tbs finely chopped orange zest
2 tbs Grand Marnier or orange liqueur
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup chopped candied walnuts (nuez grapiñada)
1/2 cup golden raisins soaked in 3 tbs of dark rum

Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Grease a bread pan (~9"X5"X3")
3. Sift all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and mix well with a large spoon
4. In a large measuring cup or bowl mix the melted butter, the egg, the orange zest and juice, and the Grand Marnier
5. Add the soaked raisins and the nuts to the dry ingredients and mix well with your spoon
6. Add the remainder of the rum from the raisins, if any, to the liquid ingredients
7. Add the liquid ingredient to the large bowl and slowly incorporate them well with your spoon, but do not mix to the point of a smooth batter
8. Pour the mix into your prepared bread pan
9. Cook in the middle of the oven for about 60 to 70 minutes when a toothpick inserted into the middle will come out dry and clean
10. Take out of the oven and let cool for 15 minutes
11. Demold and let the bread cool on a rack until it reaches room temperature
12. For best results, wrap the bread in aluminum foil and let ripen for 3-4 days at room temperature

Lucito

Long weekend

Sorry for the light posting in the last few days. Our Padrino Kurtito was visiting from Vienna for a few days and we were very busy discussing serious business matters until late at night and forcing ourselves to taste a lot of tequila, but just for professional purposes, of course…

The Padrino is leaving at the end for the afternoon so I will get back to business shortly. Later in the day, if I can manage to finish catching up with work, I should be posting a new recipe. In the meantime here is a nice picture of the lentil soup from recipe that we posted last week.

Lucito

Lentil soup

Recipe – Lucito’s Lentil Soup

A few days ago I mentioned that one should never prepare a new recipe for a special occasion unless you have tried it before, or you have enough time to do something else or correct the recipe before the guests arrive. I had told you that I had written a new recipe for the occasion, but that I was planning to do the recipe a day ahead just in case, and also to save cooking time as tomorrow we will have company all day. Our Padrino, Kurtito, is coming to visit us from Austria and he will be arriving at the airport in some hours, so I wanted to get the bulk of the cooking out of the way today. I baked some orange bread, some Aztec chocolate puddings, made a salad dressing, and prepared the new lentil soup recipe. The soup has about 5 minutes of cooking left and it is stunning. We had a lot of fresh herbs and spices leftover from other cooking earlier in the week and I wanted to use them all, so the results are a very earthy pungent soup. The house smells wonderful and I just tasted a small bowl of it and I think that our guests will enjoy it a lot. I know I just did…

As usual I cannot leave alone a recipe as written. I wrote it 2 days ago and I have already made some changes as I was preparing it for the first time. The recipe bellow is the version that is now making me very hungry just by its smell. I hope that you will try it, and let me know if you like it. Now I have to go get ready for the trip to the airport in heavy traffic.

Ingredients

8 cups chicken stock (can be made with powder)
1 cup dried lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 medium leek finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbs chopped parsley
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp chopped basil
1/2 tsp rosemary
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
1 tbs chopped fresh ginger
1 tbs curry powder
2 bay leaves
2 drops vanilla extract
6 ounces chorizo sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 ounces smoked bacon cut into small cubes
2 tbs olive oil
2 tbs butter
2 tbs cooking sherry
Brandy
Fresh limes
 
Preparation

1. Put olive oil and butter in a large soup pot. Heat over a high fire until butter is melted.
2. Sauté the leek, bacon, and chorizo until the leek takes on color. (~10 minutes)
3. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté for a few minutes more.
4. Add the carrots, spices, and herbs and mix well with the ingredients already cooking.
5. Add the chicken stock and cooking sherry.
6. Stir in the lentils.
7. Bring to boil over high heat, and then simmer on medium/low fire for 45 minutes until the lentil are cooked stirring occasionally.
8. Put a tbs of brandy in the bowls in which you will serve the soup.
9. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime on top.

Lucito

The kitchen wine cache

Yesterday I hinted at the topic I will to discuss today. What kind of wines should somebody, who does not want to invest a lot of money into a wine cellar, keep at home for regular consumption and for culinary emergencies? There is no unique answer to the question as it depends on individual tastes and on where each and every one of you is located. One thing to first look into is what is readily available where you live. There is no need to find a special wine for daily consumption and having no ready supply nearby. If you have to drive across town to get a few bottles of your favorite wine, then you might be better off to buy a few cases and cellar it and this is another story entirely.

I am talking here of having a ready supply of wine at hand to drink occasionally and to help if you have unannounced guests coming in at the last minute. Let’s put an upper limit to our fictitious kitchen cache at about a dozen bottles, what most small wine racks or built-in wine storage areas would hold. We will talk about cellaring another day, but today let’s focus on what those dozen bottles should be.

First, think about what you like to drink yourself and also about the taste of the people in your social group. Do you prefer red or white wines? Is your taste for the more robust styles, or for the light and fruity? This should point you to the types of wines you should keep at hand. Remember we are talking here of wines for daily consumption, so lets not concentrate for now on those special bottles that we keep for special occasions. We want to look at wines that are good to drink now and that you will need to drink in the coming year for them to be at their peak.

The first thing we need to look into is price. I cannot quote a specific price as each geographical market play by its own rules. There are some general rules of thumbs, in most markets, that we will look into that will help in making the right choices. In most markets there are the low end wines. We are talking here about the price range of the cheapest wines available locally. In some markets they are predominately screw top bottles or bulk packaging like wine-in-the-bag, or TetraPack. Strangely enough, in our neighborhood of Mexico City, the low end is almost entirely populated by cheap Spanish or Chilean wines in regular corked bottles. The new packagings are almost non-existent. For example, those wines are in the USD$2-4 range here. With the exception of a few wines in the high end of this price range, I tend to stay away completely from them. Let’s call that category the ‘Cheap And Awfuls’ (CAA) and try to forget about them for now.

The second category is what I call the ‘Cheap And Decents’ (CAD). The first category we looked at are normally not numerous, but the CAD are normally populated by a huge variety of wines. They are normally more geographically diverse, and also more diverse in the varietals types available. In our neighborhood their price tend to go from USD$5 to USD$8. This is the category where we will concentrate our search in.

The third category is what we will call the ‘Cheap And Premiums’ (CAP). There is normally a price gap between the CAD and the CAP wines, and normally they are less numerous in most stores. In our local market we are talking about wines in the USD$10-15 range. A lot of time they can be premium bottlings from the same producer as the CAD.

Of course there is a lot more wines available at higher price, but let’s not look at them for now. Instead let’s look at the CAD wines where you will normally find the most value for your money. Once you have figured out what price are the CAD wines in your neighborhood, look around if there are any that you like in the lot from past experience. You can ask for advices if your store has properly trained staff that will know their products instead of just point you to what management wants them to push at the time you ask. If not on both counts, then pick some bottles at random. You will never know what they taste if you do not try them.

Based on your personal taste, and since the prices of those wines are pretty low, select a few different bottles to try. Over the next days try the bottles you brought back home and see if there is one that stands out, and that you like a lot. If so note it down. The following week pick up a few new ones and one of your favorites from the previous tasting. After some weeks of doing this you will be able to find some wines that you like, and those will be the ones that you should use for your kitchen cache.

As you can see this type of wine tasting will not break your budget, and can be real fun to do. We are not talking here about taking extensive tasting notes using esoteric terms, but in finding which wines you drink you like the best and want to drink again. This is the core of what tasting wine should be. Pleasure is at the forefront of the experience.

After a few months of fun tasting what is available locally, select a variety of wines for you kitchen cache to suit your needs. If you are like me and have a very eclectic palate and normally like most types of wines, you should try to select various wines to match different situations. As a rule of thumb I would keep in the kitchen a few bottles each of robust red wine, lighter-fruiter style red wine, sharp and acidic white wine, and of fuller and fruiter style white wine. Add to that a couple bottles of dry sparkling wine, a bottle of sweet fortified wine like port for after dinner, and maybe a bottle of cooking sherry and you have a perfect and useful kitchen cache that can provide wine for daily drinking and to cover most needs. Don’t forget to replenish your cache whenever you open a bottle, and you will never have a wine emergency again.

Later we will discuss some suggestions for the various categories and styles of wines and start discussing wine selection in more details. In the meantime enjoy your weekly wine tasting and the pleasures of setting up your kitchen wine cache.

Lucito

Planning a special meal at the last minute

Years ago I remember that some friends were amazed that we had talked one afternoon at work and when I learned that they had no specific plans for their wedding anniversary that night, I invited them for a nice meal at home and prepared everything from the time I left work at 5pm to the time they arrived at 7pm, and this included shopping for the food.

There was nothing amazing in the process, and all it took was preparation and organization. Knowing your limits also helps. If you like to entertain at home like I do, you always end up with some failsafe recipes that you can always whip up at a moment’s notice. If you always keep the basic ingredients at hand and you have made the recipes many times before, you can easily make a nice meal after simply shopping for perishables you might not have at hand. This is exactly what I had done that evening. I do not remember exactly what I had cooked, but I remember running across the street from my office to pick up some small shrimps for a seafood first course, then to the butcher for a nice piece of meat, and throwing together some blueberry desert with some nice blueberries I picked from the over 50 acres of brush I used to own at the time. It also helped to have a well stocked wine cellar with a few thousand bottles where I could always match what I was planning to cook with one or many different wines. Like everything in life it only takes a bit of practice and confidence to end up with great results.

Another thing that you should do is to always think about what you can do with what you have at hand in your house. One of my favorite things to do in cooking is to look into the refrigerator and see what we can put together with whatever things we have laying around, including leftovers. At times it can be a challenge, but it keeps you culinary mind well exercised.

One thing to remember though is that if you are planning a special event where you want to show your best, do not try to do a new recipe for that event, unless you practice it first. Not doing so would be asking for big trouble. I have never met a new recipe that I have not fiddled with to make it work the way I like. The time for the fiddling is when you are relaxed in your kitchen and do not have a bunch of guests to attend to. Unless you have lots of experience you should not try to improvise something for that special meal. ‘Iron Chefs’ antics should be left to the pros, and even for them the results can be very hit and miss.

Saying all this, I wrote a new recipe today for a lentil soup that I plan to serve on Saturday when special friends will come over for supper. I am pretty sure that it should come out well, but in a way I am contradicting all that I have said above. The rest of the meal will be tried and true recipes though. I really do not have time to try the new soup beforehand, but I will probably make it either Friday afternoon, or on Saturday morning so if things do not go as planned I can always prepare something else or try to fix the mess without the pressure of our guests being there.

So remember the following, if you have to do something special at the last minute, do some of you favorite recipes that you are comfortable with. Try to have most of the ingredients for them always at hand, so you have to buy a minimum amount of ingredients at the last minute. Always keep at hand a few bottles of red and white wines of different types so that you have something that can match most dishes without having to run around for wine at the last minute. We will talk about what type of wines to keep at hand for regular and/or emergency consumption in the coming weeks. If you have a bit of lead time and want to try a new recipe, practice it before to make sure that it turns out as you expect and you do not run into major problems with your guests waiting at the table. At least, do as I will do next weekend, prepare it with enough time before the guests arrive to be able to cook something else or change the recipe without being under pressure.

Lucito

Software roadmap

As you might have noticed we have started again to post regularly. We also have been very busy working on the first version of the recipe viewer, and as we work on it we have been broadening the scope of the core product. What started as simple way to share recipes will grow into a much more useful product for the cooking enthusiast community. It is a bit too early to start listing too many features, but let me assure you it will be a nice product that will be worthwhile to wait for. With the help of Kurtito in Austria, who by the way still has not delivered the blog entries he had promised me, I am building the core database of the product. To help make creating recipes easier we are creating a logically-arranged list of ingredients that we will be able to use in the recipes. We have gone through 3 revisions already and hopefully we will finalize the final structure in the coming days.

The primary database, as most of our software is, will be in English, French, Spanish, and German since they are the languages in which we work internally in our group. Other languages will later be added as we get demand and find external resources to translate. We are also currently working on a universal unit converter so recipes written using one system of units can be transparently converted to the user’s system of choice.

Once this basic database is completed, we will release the first version of the basic free viewer and all our posted recipes in the .rxf format. We also plan to establish a repository of recipes on our main website at www.igourmand.com. I will keep you posted regularly as we progress on this project.

Lucito

Recipe – Cream of cashew soup

A week and a half ago we celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary. For the occasion I prepared a special meal and we decided to celebrate the occasion alone together and renew our vows in a nice ceremony we designed. Normita had told me that she wanted some cream soup to start the meal, so I designed a special recipe that we tried for the first time that afternoon. It was both stunning and filling. We each had a solid bowl of it and then we were so stuffed that we barely touched the main course. I would recommend that this soup be served in smaller portions than a lighter soup. It makes a great starter for a late autumn meal when you want to bundle up in front of the fireplace and relax.

Ingredients

4 tbs butter
1 tbs sunflower oil
1 1/2 cup salted cashews
1 large leek cleaned and chopped
2 cups chicken stock (can be made from powder)
1/4 cup sweet cooking sherry
1 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 Oz brandy
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chopped chives for garnish

Preparation

1. Put butter and oil in a pot and melt
2. Add chopped leek and cashew and cook covered until the leek in nice and golden (~10 minutes)
3. Add 1 Oz of the brandy and carefully light to flambé
4. Once the flames die down add the chicken stock, the milk, and the cooking sherry and simmer for 20 minutes
5. Once the cashews are nice and tender purée the soup in a blender until very smooth
6. Strain the soup back into your cleaned pot and add the heavy cream and the rest of the brandy
7. Fold the cream in and add salt and pepper to taste
8. Simmer for a few minutes more
9. Serve with chopped chives as garnish on top of the soup

Lucito

Recipe eXchange Format

Later this week, if time permits, I will be posting a fist draft of the recipe exchange software program. This first version will be a simple recipe viewer running on the Windows platform. It also will be able to create files in the Recipe eXchange Format (.rxf) that people can submit to this site or trade with others. This program will be a free viewer that will be regularly updated with new features. I have a good idea where we are going with the software, but before announcing any specific plans, I prefer testing those advanced features internally to make sure that they are useful and that we are going in the right direction. The ultimate goal will be to create a useful suite of tools that can be used by everybody from people who are interested in cooking to professional chefs. As all the software we design it will be modular in nature and users will be able to customize it to suit their exact needs, and add features as they need them. The basic viewer and tools will always remain free and unencumbered by advertisement or other forms of annoyance. I do not like using software that nags me all the time or that is always trying to push things down my throat. We will eventually release some commercial versions of the software that will build on the basic set of features. The method of distribution or the exact features still remain to be determined and will ultimately be decided based upon the feedback from users. We will setup a discussion forum for the software once the project starts to be operational, and a user base is established. I’ll have more on this project later today or tomorrow once I have time to prepare things for distribution.

Lucito

Recipe – Pasta with Spinach, Blue Cheese, and Tequila

There are some recipes that are born from combinations of favorites with a twist. Some years back we used to make ‘Penne alla Vodka’ pretty regularly and liked the tangy burn that the vodka brought to a simple pasta dish. When we moved to Mexico, to work with local flavors, we tried it with some tequila with tasty results. More recently we were doing, once in a while, some pasta with spinach and blue cheese and one day I added some tequila to yield fantastic results. It is one of those dishes that can be made in less than half an hour for some very fancy results with minimal efforts. The perfect dish for a Friday night when you are not going out after work and want something to eat that is a little more upscale but without the fuss of preparation. To save you the effort of washing and removing the stems of the spinach, you can pick up a bag of washed baby spinach and cut the most time-consuming part of the recipe. Paired with a robust red like a Madiran to hold it’s own against the strong flavors it is a stunning meal that is both quick and easy to prepare. If you want to treat yourself warm us some nice thick-crust rustic bread and some nice butter mixed fresh basil and all of your worries will go away. The ultimate comfort food.

Ingredients

Pasta
1/2 pound dried pasta of your choice
3 quarts water
1 tbs coarse salt
1/2 pound spinach well washed, stemmed and chopped if large

Sauce
2 tbs butter
1/4 pound blue cheese
2 oz tequila
2 tbs pine nuts toasted and finely chopped
Salt and white pepper to taste
Freshly grated parmesan cheese for garnish

Preparation
1. In a large pot put water and salt and bring to boil at high eat.
2. When the water is boiling, reduce heat and put the pasta in it and cook according to the package until tender.
3. When the pasta is almost ready put the spinach in and blanch for 30 seconds until wilted.
4. Drain the water from the pot return it to the fire with the pasta leaving a few tablespoons of the cooking water.
5. Put the butter, the blue cheese, the pine nuts, and the tequila on the pasta and stir until melted and well incorporated.
6. Serve topped with a white pepper and some grated parmesan.