JANUARY 2009 CAHORS DINNER

Welcome to the Vinartculture Blog! With the economic news bleaker than ever, we think it’s the perfect time to cook and drink at home with friends. We will be hosting a monthly dinner party based on the wine of the month from our 2009 Vinartculture calendar.  (The calendar is still available at http://www.vinartculture.com.) We invite you to pull up a chair and join us for fun, feasting and opinions. And be sure to check in regularly for other sundry musings on wine, food, and whatever else we’re cooking up.

JANUARY 2009 WINE DINNER

January Cahor's Dinner 2009

CAHORs Menu: Heads or tails? Tails it is!

  • Oxtails braised in Cahors, porcini mushroom broth and stock
  • Potato and root vegetable mash
  • Hen of the woods mushrooms roasted with thyme and sea salt
  • Salad of baby spinach, roasted shallots, and Roquefort with a  red wine vinaigrette
  • Pumpkin Orange Cloverleaf Rolls
  • Chocolate Amaretto Torte

The following is a list of wines we tasted with prices:

  • 2006   Clos Siguier, Cahors $13.99
  • 2006   Clos La Coutale, Cahors $14.99
  • 2004   Chateau la Coustarelle, Cahors $14.99
  • 2004   Cateau de haut-Serre, Cahors $19.99
  • 2002   Chateau Lamartine, ‘Cuvee Expression’ , Cahors $54.00

Carlita:

I confess I have a weakness for fatty braised meat.  And especially a silky, gelatinous, slow cooked wonder-meat: Oxtail. Yes, oxtail; forgotten and then resurrected thanks to Mario and French Peasant mania.

I grew up in cattle country with sides of beef from my grandparent’s farm but never oxtails.   Occasionally a tongue, and once a stomach, but never oxtails.

I discovered oxtails early in my food career. At the time, I was working at a classic French restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. In the 80’s, American French restaurants were more often French/Continental.  During lunch I could work as a server, but at night women were not allowed to work on the floor, so I was the hostess and fur coat security guard.  The food was elegant, cooked by a very temperamental French chef whose every move I watched (when he wasn’t looking of course). Caesar salad with garlic, anchovy and lemon squeezed through cheesecloth was presented at the table. Sweetbreads, Steak Diane and Creme Caramel were churned out with precision from the kitchen, where the constant onslaught of yelling, reprimands and extreme physical gestures made everyone high-strung. Somehow the atmosphere in the dining room remained calm and elegant. And at the end of the night, all was forgotten with hugs, kisses and an amazing staff meal.

I was friends with the owners’ daughter, whose French mother would prepare oxtail stew at home.  Her stew was a simple affair, with orbs of bone floating in a tomato and vegetable based broth. The meltingly tender meat was served with freshly baked French bread for dipping.  What a contrast to the restaurant food – this stew was so clean and unpretentious. Who knew the tail of the cow could render such a hearty silky stew with so little meat?  This is the moment I decided that French cuisine was pretty darn good and worth investigating.

For the January Cahors dinner I imagined myself transported to a house in SW France in the winter.  What would be available locally from the farmer or butcher?  Cahors, a sturdy, rustic, affordable wine, longed for an economical pairing.  Oxtail stew seemed like the way to go.

Two farmers’ markets and one stop to a butcher later I had gathered all of the ingredients.  Oxtails are not always easy to find, but they are worth the search and braising time.  Whenever I see some at the farmers’ market, I grab them and throw them in the freezer to use in the winter months.  This time, I found a whole one at Ottomanelli and Sons in the West Village which they cut up for me.  Even though oxtail has become trendy in recent years due to the renewed interest in odd and offal cuts of meat, the whole tail only cost $13.00 (although I did need to supplement it with 2 shortribs to feed six.)

After a substantial browning, I braised the meat for 4 hours in Cahors, porcini broth, chicken stock (made with a pig’s foot), tomatoes, aromatic vegetables and thyme. Any shortrib recipe would do nicely for oxtail. The meat disappeared quickly at the dinner; the small amount of leftover sauce I saved to toss with pasta later in the week.

The potato root vegetable mash consisted of 4 potatoes, I turnip and 1 celery root mashed with some half/half and butter.  I usually do oxtails the Roman butchers way.  A traditional Roman dish available at the trattorie around the Roman butcher houses which is a basic braise with white wine, vegetables and a fair amount of celery. I thought it would be a great way to play off the celery flavor.

As for the Hen of the woods mushrooms, which I found at the farmers’ market , I’ve never smelled a more fragrant piece of fungi! It was truly amazing.  I broke up the larger pieces and tossed them with olive oil, thyme and sea salt, skipping the garlic because I really wanted the pure mushroom flavor.  I roasted them for 10 minutes covered and another 10 uncovered.

The mushroom farmer happened to have some gorgeous baby spinach and shallots.  I roasted the shallots and pummeled a few in my mortar and pestal and added red wine vinegar and olive oil.  Tossed the salad with the dressing and some roquefort.

For the meatless out there, if you’re still with me,  I would suggest making a stew of cannellini beans cooked in vegetable stock, porcini mushroom broth, aromatic vegetables and tomatoes with thyme.   Top it  off with buttered bread crumbs, bake and serve with sauteed greens, roasted mushrooms and a crisp salad.

Meg’s shiny glossy dense chocolate multi-textured tart was perfect.  No petite pieces here, everyone went back for seconds.  It is hard to go wrong with a dense chocolate dessert, but this one had it going on!

Gastronomeg:

Meg's pumpkin orange cloverleaf rolls

On a visit to Southwest France several years ago, I found that the country around Cahors is one of the places on earth that spark in me a sense of instant recognition. It reminded me of Vermont, the place that I have always called ‘home,’ even when I have not lived there. When I visited Cahors, it was still years before I would realize that Vermont is truly and deeply my home, in the sense of being the place that I have to go back to in order to be most myself. But the landscape of this corner of Southwest France, with its rugged rocky hills, thin-grassed pastures surrounded by stone walls, and scrubby forests, resonated with me.

It was great fun to revisit those memories with a tasting of Cahors wines and a dinner imagined as one that could have been made in an old stone farmhouse on the edge of a scrubby oak forest in Southwest France.  Carlita’s creative process relied on imagination, availability of ingredients, and experience rather than starting with a recipe – Cassoulet, for example – that would have relied for authenticity on being “by the book.” But doesn’t true authenticity come from ingredients that are easily found? While we could have scoured our New York markets for duck legs and sausages, the result would have been quite unlike a cassoulet in made Cahors, in the end. This rich but simple braise was a much better evocation of a region whose cuisine is (even more than in other parts of France) the cooking of the home.

It was clear that the wines were going to be a perfect match for this meal when we tasted them in the kitchen, just before dinner. The rich smells of root vegetables, braised oxtails, and roasting mushrooms seemed to enhance the wines. For the most part, the aromas synched so well that it was hard to tell what came from the food and what came from the wines. Only the Chateau Coustarelle’s aromas tended to clash with the smells in the kitchen, and ultimately this was the one clunker in the tasting. I found it to be acetone-y, with a slightly artificial fruit smell on the nose… probably attributable to a poor choice of laboratory yeast intended to produce bright, fruity tones. During the tasting, my favorite wine of the night (the rustic/elegant little Clos Siguier) picked up a note from the celery root in the puree and sang with it.

The best wines of the night were the ones that were not trying to be anything more than simple and sturdy, something you would reach for every day and which evoke a sense of being at home.  I felt the same way about the meal.  Oxtail soup garnished with slices of orange was a childhood staple in my house; the smell of the oxtail stew brought me back home in a comforting way as soon as I walked into the kitchen. I love that Carlita left the root vegetable puree largely unadorned instead of buttered and salted up to the level of richness a restaurant would have felt necessary. As beautiful and as delicious as it was, this was not a restaurant-fancy meal.

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Similarly, it became clear that additional polish and winemaking flourishes do not seem to add much to Cahors – or at least don’t much enhance the pleasure of what may ultimately be best left as a simple wine.  The “star” wine, Chateau Lamartine’s Cuvee Expression, was certainly seamless and elegant. But it didn’t offer much complexity and profundity for the price tag (we all agreed that for half the price itt would have been fine).

Similarly, new oak barriques rendered the Ch. de Haut-Serre impressive but made it seem a bit more generic in my mind.  And the aforementioned Coustarelle was the only bottle that remained more than half full throughout the night.  My two favorites were the  most ‘humble’ wines.  First the Clos Siguier, whose vineyards are located on the more limestone-rich vineyards of the hills located quite a bit south of the Lot river and thus produce a lighter wine, one that has a wonderfully cool texture and flavor. I was also fond of an old friend, the Clos la Coutale. Despite its nods to modernity by way of Merlot and microbullage (to give a brighter, juicier flavor) this wine remains unpretentious and easy to drink.

The food was yummy; the wines made their way around the table to keep glasses full and tasters tasting. We talked about the food and wines but we also talked about music in restaurants and why we like/hate/don’t notice it, movies, and politics (Bill and Jason enjoyed getting each other into a full-blown rant, though we all know that they will never change each other’s minds). The food and wine came in and out of our focus as we enjoyed a hearty meal on a cold night with good friends – a sure sign that all was well-matched and well-prepared.

  • For notes on my current baking binge (and the treats that came with me to dinner) read more here: gastronomeg.com
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