TBIFOM #01: Drink Your Backyard

(The Bottle In Front Of Me is a series of regular, brief tasting notes from the Rogue Estate's resident wine guy, Ian.) Drink your backyard. The most important mantra any food obsessive has heard repeatedly over the last decade or so is to eat local, and drink local. In the world of wine, this mantra is largely laughable for 99% of the world's population. I count myself in the 99%, along with large swaths of Asia, Africa, anybody in inland South America, most of Eastern Europe, and all but about six U.S. states. But I'm really close to being able to drink local, and it's getting better all the time. For this, my first regular posting of tasting notes, I chose the most local wine I could find, from my neighborhood store, in its current release (2010) which was a better year than most in recent memory. 2010 Pelee Island Pinot Noir (About $13) Learn more about the winery: http://www.peleeisland.com/index.php Learn more about the bottle in front of me: https://secure1.prositehosting.net/winestore/winestore.php?id=18 SEE: Clear medium red, with a light pinkish rim, indicative of youth. SWIRL: Bright color, with weak legs on the glass. SMELL: Very bright lively aromas of cherries, with a slight fragrance of strawberry and cedar. Clearly Pinot Noir, but reserved. SIP: Very dry, tart cranberry that washes thinly over the tongue, nice acidity with a bit of initial bitterness that softens over time. Tannic, old world style, honest, and designed for food. SAVOR: Tannins last throughout the finish, with hints of graphite and leaves. Final impression: Would buy again, but there may be a few more satisfying Pinot's in this price range, mostly from larger producers in California. Pair with: fresh air, light cheeses, vegetable dishes, and mildly flavored game such as rabbit or quail. P.S. If you live anywhere near southeastern Michigan, you owe it to yourself to spend a day visiting Pelee Island. Drive to Leamington (Canada's tomato country) in the late Summer or early Fall, take the ferry, and spend a day biking and picnicking on a very relaxed, beautiful island.

Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland… (of beer)

Last year I posted an extensive (though, by no means complete) review of some of the most common and some of the most obscure Oktoberfest offerings from Germany and the U.S. I was originally planning a repeat of that, covering exclusively more of the obscure breweries, but I quickly realized that most of the beers I didn't cover fell into the “Fall Seasonal” category and weren't specifically Oktoberfest adaptations. So, to spare you a long list of boring and over rated “Punkin Ales” and the like, I decided to shift focus (and because I got a late start on the project so most of this seasons Oktoberfest batch was sold out). Winter seasonals are not as popular as their autumnal brethren hailing from Munich, but they are a fun variety to explore. Especially in food pairing. Typically lightly spiced with the flavors most associated with the season, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, pine, et al., they provide a great pairing option for roasts and pies. I was surprised by the sheer number that are out there. Equally surprising to me was the relatively low number of them that totally sucked! I covered 15 different Oktoberfests last year, of which 5 of them scored a 5 or lower. This time I'll be covering 10 different Winter seasonals, of which only one scored less than a 6! In fact, they all fell in the 6-8 range, save for the one. None of them scored the highest mark possible, but none of them were unpalatable, and honestly, in my opinion, any bottle sitting in front of me that doesn't say “Guinness Draught” or “Paulaner Oktoberfest” is gonna have a tough fight to get a score of 10 outa me... So, enough gibber-jabber! Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

Run away! Run away!

Noel de Calabaza Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter Michigan $13 for a 25oz. Bottle 9% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- coffee, caramel, sourness Color- dark brown/black Mouthfeel- medium body, light/medium carbonation Taste- sweet, sour, mild citrus, sour malt, roasted malt Pairings- crème brulee, spiced game, goat cheese, anything to overpower the beer, the drain Comments: This was the first one I tried from Michigan, sadly. I've seen other sites giving it high scores, but I have no idea why... Those reviewers must not have a taste-bud in their heads. I get that they were trying to go for a hybrid of the Belgian Sour, but in my opinion at least, they woefully missed the mark. Too sweet, too sour. The kicker is, and this is one of the reasons for it's low score, have another look at the price. I was able to choke down the whole bottle, only because of what I paid for it! Had it been ANY worse it woulda went down the drain... If you're feeling brave give it a shot and let me know what you thought. With all the high scores for it I've seen maybe I got a bad batch or I'm missing something. Failing that, it sucks. Period. After reading up on it, it appears they employ a secondary fermentation for all their beers using wild yeast. Wild yeast in Michigan is NOT the same as wild yeast in Belgium... so knock it off! Score: ...and I'm being generous Jolly Pumpkin

Kerstmutske? WTF?

Kerstmutske, Christmas Nightcap De Proef, Belgium $4.80 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 7.4% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- caramel, brown sugar, malt Color- deep brown Mouthfeel- medium/heavy body, medium carbonation Taste- sweet, smooth, slightly nutty, hints of spice Pairing- pecans, chocolate, vanilla, sharp cheddar, roasted pork, roasted squash Comments: A good portion of our list today is from Belgium, and I don't know why that surprised me. I guess I just always associated winter seasonals with the Brits, but it seems the Belgians produce far more of these than the islanders do. This one in particular is fairly forgettable. Not vomit inducing, not spectacular. I say this because I actually have forgotten what it tasted like... In my notes I gave it a 6, so we'll go with that. Score: No official link available.

... more goofy Belgian names...

Noel des Geants Brasserie des Legendes, Belgium $4.00 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 8.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- spices, malt, faint citrus Color- amber-brown Mouthfeel- medium body, smooth, mild carbonation Taste- spices dominate up front, brown sugar middle, malty finish, little if any hops Pairing- squash, pumpkin, nuts, spiced game birds Comments: Another from Belgium and another I can't recall. It scored the same as the previous one though, and I had them on the same night so no surprise, I guess. Drinkable, but not mind blowing in any way. Score: No official link available.

Noel again... I'm sensing a theme here...

Brewery De Ranke, Belgium $4.30 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 7% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- mild, white wine qualities, faint maltiness Color- golden amber Mouthfeel- light body, medium carbonation Taste- white grape up front, mild maltiness, mild hop finish Pairings- fish, curry, chili peppers, chili, Mexican, Thai Comments: I wasn't eating anything during any of my tastings, but this one I'm betting would go great with food. The subtle complexities will make this a damn fine pairing. Maybe I'm a little bias because I think it would pair well with some of my favorite foods, but be that as it may. I didn't mention shellfish in the pairings because in my mind beer and shellfish pairing goes without saying, but this one would be exceptional for aquatic critters of all types. Score: No official link available. (What's with these fukin Belgians?)

Bark at the moon!

Howl: Black as Night Lager Magic Hat, Vermont $8.50 for a 6-pack 4.6% ABV Tasting notes: Nose-mild nose, hint of black malt Color- black Mouthfeel- medium body, light carbonation Taste- slight sweetness, mild bitterness from a combination of heavily roasted malts and hops, coffee Pairing- BBQ, chili, grilled meats, dark berries, sharp cheddar, Gruyere Comments: My admiration for this brewery is well documented. This isn't their best effort to date, but it by no means sucks either. Good with food or on it's own. Score: Magic Hat

Brewer, patriot...

Sam Adams Winter Lager Boston, Mass. $8.99 for a 6-pack 5.8 % ABV Tasting notes: Nose- malt, faint hops and spice Color- amber-brown Mouthfeel- smooth, medium body and carbonation Taste- rich malt but not cloying, very mild spice, clean finish Pairing- roasted meats, pilaf, game, aged cheeses Comments: Sam Adams is usually hit-or-miss with me, normally falling to the hit side. While none of their beers I hold as a benchmark for, well, anything, they are damn consistent and produce a quality product. This one is no exception. A solid beer probably better suited to cooking into foods than drinking with, however. Of all the things I can think of to pair this with I can also think of better options. Still a good beer though, and nothing to turn your nose up at. Score: Sam Adams

Pine trees in Michigan are rarely that sparce...

Bell's Christmas Ale Comstock, Michigan $9.00 for a 6-pack 5.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- barley, caramel, mild spice notes, brown sugar Color- deep amber/red Mouthfeel- medium body and carbonation Taste- malt, caramel, ginger, toffe, mild hop finish Pairing- ham, squash, cinnamon, anise, clove, vanilla, curry Comments: Say what you want about Bell's, I like 'em. One of Michigan's better, if not most eccentric at times, micros. But eccentricity is something I admire in a brewery. Why confine yourself to making beer styles that are already well defined and no one will ever top the benchmarks of? Color outside the lines once in a while! Admittedly, this usually only yields good results if the brewers know what they're doing. The fact that I mentioned spices a couple times in the notes belies the fact that there are actually NONE used in it's brewing. All the spiciness in this beer is derived from the malts used and how they use them. Also of note, they use 100% Michigan grown barley that's custom malted and roasted for them by Briess! (The home brew nerds will recognize that name...) Score: Bell's

Two Bell's a'ringing...

Bell's Winter White Ale Comstock, Michigan $9.00 for a 6-pack 5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- light spice, canned meat? Color- light golden, some starch haze Mouthfeel- smooth, medium body and carbonation Taste- well balanced, malt, faint spice, little hops Pairings- plainly put, holiday foods. ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, ect... Comments: Duped again by the alchemists in the Bells brewery. No spices were used in the brewing of this beer, they relied on the mixture of barley and wheat malt and Belgian yeast to deliver the mild hint that there may have been spices involved. At a meeting of the Rogue Estate where I had this on offer everyone present enjoyed it. R.E. Tested, R.E. Approved! And to those of you who bitch and moan about Bells, fuckin buy some of this and get back to me... Seriously! Go! NOW! Score: Bell's (again)

Twelve Days of good English Ale!

Twelve Days of Christmas Ale Hook Norton Brewery, U.K. $4.50 for a 16.9oz. Bottle 5.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- roasted malt, coffee, toffee Color- deep brown, nearly black Mouthfeel- full bodied, medium/light carbonation Taste- heavier black malt bitterness than a porter, but essentially the same as in all other ways Pairing- roast beast, pudding (both the American and Brit variations) vanilla, aged cheddar, plums, spices Tasting notes: Another great food beer if you pair it with the right things, and the right things happen to be popular Christmas and winter foods. Not spiced like many of the others on this list, but I certainly don't think that's a requirement by any stretch of the imagination. I'm a huge fan of porters and Irish Stouts (see intro) so the fact that this beer is kind of blending those two styles won me over pretty quick. The score might be predictable then, given that admittance. Score: No official link available. The Brits too? Really?

Samuel Smith, say "what" again!

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome U.K. $5.00 for a 550 ML bottle (18.7oz.) 6% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- malty, nutty Color- red/amber Mouthfeel- medium light body, mild carbonation Taste- caramel, vanilla, spice, smooth hop finish Pairing- game, oily fish, nuts, squash, mushrooms Comments: Sam Smith has a reputation as a truly world class brewery that is completely deserved. If a beer newb asked me to recommend an English beer the first words outa my mouth would be “anything from Sam Smith or Fuller's”. This may be my bias talking again, as I'm a huge fan of beers from the British Isles, but I'm sure my comrades in beer snobbery would agree. I've never been disappointed by this brewery. 'Nuff said... Score: No official link available. (Bloody hell!) I would love to hear feedback on this post, so please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you've had any of these and agree or disagree with my assessments. The holidays are soon upon us, and some of these (at least the best of the batch) are not hard to find. Tote a 6 or 12 pack of one to grandmas for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But not the Jolly Pumpkin crap... leave that one on the shelf lest you want your family to hate you... Live well and drink better! -Jack

Squash for Adults

When I was a child, any kind of winter squash was my enemy. My mother was fond of acorn squash, roasted in the oven until soft, and pureed with brown sugar and margarine (ugh). To me the uniform texture, midway between watery and gummy, held no appeal. And I associated the sweetness of squash with the gagging texture, which may be partly why I've always been a fan of savory foods over sweet ones. My mind was set until a Thanksgiving at my grandmother's house, where she served a squash dish that included onions and a breadcrumb topping. It made a difference - both the savoriness and the sweetness from only the natural sugars in the fruit. Moreover, there was a textural contrast that I loved. Now, I like almost all winter squash. But when I prepare it, I like to marry differences in texture, PLUS invite the right balance between sweet and savory. Today I dreamed up a dish I call "Squash Three-way", a naughty name you would never find on an insipid jar of over-processed baby food. Essentially it's a two layer dish with a favorite simple topping - roasted pepitas, which are the hulled seeds of certain varieties of pumpkins or squash. The first layer is a basic savory latke, replacing the potato with shredded winter squash. The second is a sweetened mash of winter squash, upon which rests the slightly crunchy pepitas. Squash Three-way Recipe for 3 servings (scale up as necessary, swingers!) For the mash: 1 small to medium French variety winter squash (Sucrine Du Berry, Rouge D'Etampes, or Baby Golden Hubbard) 1/2 cup chicken stock (optional) 4-5 Tbsp butter Pumpkin pie spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice blend) 2-3 Tbsp brown sugar For the latkes: 1 medium (7-inch) Delicata squash 1 large shallot 1 extra large chicken egg, beaten 1 tsp baking powder 3-4 Tbsp All Purpose flour Salt & Pepper to taste Ground dried sage to taste Ground dried oregano to taste 2 Tbsp corn or canola oil for frying For the topping: Handfuls of roasted, salted pepitas (available in Mexican or health food stores, and many Trader Joe's) Prepare mash: Preheat oven to 350°. Halve French squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Roast cut side down in a pan with 1/2 cup stock or water for an hour or until soft (while roasting, prepare latkes as below). Let cool. Scoop pulp into bowl, discard skins. Add butter and spice. Mash with a fork to a smooth consistency. Keep warm. Prepare latkes: Halve Delicata squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Peel skin from flesh. Grate raw flesh with a box grater (better yet, one of these: http://www.germandeli.com/bohachgr.html). Thinly slice shallot and mix with grated squash. Add baking powder, flour, salt, pepper, herbs, and mix well. Add beaten egg and stir thoroughly. Heat oil over medium heat until hot. Drop mixture in 1/3-1/2 cupfuls into hot oil, pressing down slightly. Fry 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain and blot, keep warm. Assemble by topping latke with mash, and sprinkle pepitas on top. Enjoy, but be careful any photos don't find their way onto the Internet!

Hope mom doesn't see this!

Sunday Morning Breakfast: Pretzel Bread French Toast

This one is worth getting out of bed for: chewy, salty pretzel bread meets the cream & cinnamony egg wash of french toast with a quick dip of sweet maple syrup an that awesome bit of salt for a killer quick and impressive breakfast to ward off any hangover. The software:
  • 2 small pretzel bread baguettes
  • 1 chicken egg
  • 1 duck egg (or a second chicken egg)
  • 2 tbls buttermilk (plain milk works fine here, too.)
  • 1 tbls sugar
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • pinch of cardamom
  • pinch of sea salt
  • butter
  • 3 tbls real maple syrup
  • pretzel salt (optional)
The method: The pretzel bread I buy from Zingerman's is about 7" long, 2-2.5 inches wide on average. The recipe scales up or down easily - add 1 pretzel bread per additional mouth and increment the rest of the ingredients accordingly.  As for the egg portion - I use duck eggs whenever and where-ever possible. They taste better and they are just fantastic in anything even slightly resembling pastry. That said, if you can't find duck eggs, chicken eggs work fine. Organic and free range farm fresh being the preferred choice in any situation. First order of business here is to grab that pretzel bread you picked up a couple days ago and forgot to eat and slice it into 1/4 inch thick medallions and set them aside. Put your griddle or fry pan to the fire. Your heat target is the high side of medium, enough to get a sizzle from an egg without scorching your cooking fat. In an appropriately sized mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine the eggs, buttermilk, flour, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. Whisk it for at least a minute while your pan warms up to get everything distributed and get some air in there, too. When the pan is ready, lube it up with some butter, dredge your pretzel medallions, shaking off excess egg and place in the pan.  If you have any soft pretzel salt, sprinkle 2 or 4 grains onto each while the sticky uncooked side is still up. Like any other french toast variety, we're going for a just browning stage before turning, same on the other side and remove to a plate. This will go pretty fast, so don't get distracted or the smoke detector will wake everyone up. If you have a large quantity, put the oven on warm when you begin and keep the finished piles of pretzel french toasts in there until service time. Use real maple syrup if you can get it - it is SUCH A better flavor than the bizarre space aged chemical "maple syrup flavor" found in things like Mrs Butterworth. Pour syrup into a small bowl for dipping and warm it up in the microwave for 15 seconds.  Arrange everything and serve immediately. Hooray, you are now the champion of breakfast. -///

Quick Shot – Oliver Farm’s Chicken Bratwurst

New for Autumn 2011 from our friends at Oliver Farms, of Fostoria, Michigan: 100% organic chicken bratwurst!  What could inspire me to write about chicken anything? Read on! I received a pack of the brats for review, slow cooked 'em sealed in the vac-bag sous-vide method for 45 minutes, then brought them out to brown & finish in the cast iron. The result: a straight up honest chicken sausage. Oliver Farms uses a light hand on the herbs and seasoning which compliments the meat without overpowering the delicious subtleties of meat which came from real chickens, not battery birds homogenized into briny oblivion. The texture is fantastic. No gristle and chew, nor finely ground mush like mass produced products, but a real pleasant "hey this is real meat" mouth-feel and a satisfactory snap from the casing. As this is a chicken product, the bratwurst can be used as a lighter protein addition in any number of dishes that call for sausage or related forcemeats and will play well with most seasonings and sauces. This and other Oliver Farms high quality organic products can be ordered from their website and picked up at Farm markets located around southeast lower michigan, including Detroit's Eastern Market. See the Oliver Farms website for more information. -///