VERMENTINO DINNER-JUNE 2009

Branzino and RhubarbWines:

2007 Donnikalia, Ferruccio Deiana, Vermentino di Sardegna, 13%, $12.99

2007 Casamatta, Tuscany, 12.5%, $11.99

2007 Domaine St-Felix, Southern France (60% Vermentino, 40% Savignon blanc) 12.5%, $10.99

2007 Domaine Maestracci, E. Prove, Corse Calvi, Corsica, 13%, $17.99

Menu:

Main: Grilled Whole Branzino stuffed with oregano and lemon

Grilled Asparagus

Salad: Spinach with sheep’s milk feta and toasted almonds

Dessert: Ice Cream, Roasted rhubarb with crystallized ginger

Carlita:

Great architecture can elevate the human spirit to high levels indeed.  The  Big Apple, a heavyweight champion of grand spaces, provides an arena of interiors and passageways that can lift one out of the most serious of funks.  The school of rats that almost ran over your toes waiting for the subway that is now going local due to track work on a 100 degree summer day? The bus that just turned the corner and completely saturated your smart sexy outfit during the June downpours? Luckily there are enough high notes to transcend the dirge.  Climbing the stairs to the Met takes me back to the sublime elegance of this incredible city.  Upon arriving at the top there is the grand hall with super-sized floral arrangements and yet another grand flight up to the European Painting galleries.  Momentarily, all my New York woes are behind me and I feel like a million bucks.   The other space that really shouts “I HEART NYC” is the romanesque aquatine beauty of Grand Central Terminal.   What a great feeling to walk through the buttressed tunnels into the huge main room surrounded by the turquoise cosmos and pick up train tickets to escape the city.  And after a trying day at work my destination was a suburb 30 minutes north on the Hudson: off to Gastronomeg’s Aunt’s condo where she and Jason are housesitting before their move to Vermont.  Track 39 and I’m off in style to the Vermentino June Dinner….

When I arrived Gastronomeg was prepping the rhubarb and Branzino.  Last summer her rhubarb strawberry sauce was blue ribbon quality and this sauce with the cystallized ginger is also superb.  The rhubarb is cooked just enough to release juices but retain its shape and the chewy bites of ginger added a burst of spice.

Branzino with oregano and lemon was the perfect choice for the Vermentino  and played nicely off of the citrus and herbal notes.   Years ago when I was working in an Italian restaurant in Seattle we would occasionally have Italian salesmen come through and request grilled fish and vegetables for lunch.  They would drizzle the whole plate with olive oil and enjoy a glass of wine.  It seemed like a smart way to eat in the middle of the day.

Most of the  Vermentinos we tried were perfect for this menu: light, and crisp, with citrus, salt, green melon, dried herb and wax.  I can almost smell the Mediterranean air when I drink these wines.

Jason arrived a few trains behind me, and we started to  taste through the wines.

The first wine, the Donnikalia from Sardegna, was a hit  with everyone.  Its vibrant fresh citrus/floral nose,  honeydew notes and bitter finish really exemplify  Vermentino at its best for a great price.  We all were thumbs down on the Casamatta from Tuscany, which was not as aromatic. The acids were a bit harsh and it missed the complexity of the Donnikalia. The Domaine St. Felix Cuvee, 60% Vermentino and 40% Sauvignon blanc nicely picked up the herbal qualities of the south of France with a waxy texture and white grapefruit from the Sauvignon Blanc.  Not my favorite but not a bad cuvee for the price.  Domaine Maestracci from Corsica was by far the most complex with more weight on the palate.  The richest of the bunch, it had apricot, white peach and floral notes on the nose with honey, almond and a slightly bitterBranzino

finish.  It did seem to change throughout dinner with the bitter notes becoming a little too pronounced.  We were missing the Argiolas Costomolino which I just had the other night and is another perfect example of this grape and a great value.  Vermentino is also grown near the coast in Ligura along with Pigato which has very similar scrubby brush, salty qualities of Vermentino.  If you can find it, Colle Dei Bardellini makes both Pigato and Vermentino (they are a rare find here).  Both are excellent with the local fish, seafood and pesto from the region.  And don’t forget the fritti, calamari, zucchini blossoms etc….

Our big discovery of the night was that grilling and wine tasting need to be done in separate spaces as our wines picked up a petrol smell from the grill.  Jason, a science and engineering nerd among other things came up with a formula for comparing the weight of the wines according to their alchohol content………………

Jason:

Oh, and here are the results of my weighing last night’s St. Felix:

Full 750 mL bottle with screw cap = 2 lbs. 11 oz. = 43 ounces

empty bottle with screw cap = 1 lb. 0 oz. = 16 ounces

wine = 27 ounces = 1.69 pounds

750 mL = 0.20 gallons

1 gallon of wine = 8.45 pounds

A gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. That makes sense, since I suspected there are things in wine that are denser than water. However, ethyl alcohol’s specific gravity is 0.789, which means it weighs 6.59 pounds per gallon. St. Felix if I recall correctly is 13% alcohol by volume. Therefore, there are definitely things in the wine, besides the alcohol, that are denser than water.

If I were more ambitious — or had more time — I would perhaps use that percentage to figure out the specific gravity of the non-water, non-alcohol components.

Also, the experiment should be controlled for temperature since the figure I used is for water just above freezing. But I don’t think that error amounts to very much.

dinner grilling......

Gastronomeg:

The latest Vinartculture dinner was a welcome reminder of the restorative power of good simple food, wine, and friends. Things have been a little chaotic of late, Chez Gastronomeg…. In part because there is not really a “Chez” Gastronomeg at the moment. We’re still camped out in style in Westchester, mid-the-Big-Move to Vermont. Given all the little administrative details of moving (as we tend to settling in, unpacking, and setting up house, all long-distance) things are a little akimbo, to the tune of one or two wide-eyed sleepless nights of late.

In face of all our hectic activity, making the June wine dinner at first seemed to me a bit of an indulgence. Instead it turned into a godsend – we were more relieved than we could have anticipated to have a night to just kick back and think about making dinner, to gather and talk about wine, to find and use some amazing spring produce, and through it all to get some perspective on what it is that brings us happiness in the crazy world.

Circumstances demanded a simple meal, but fortunately so did June’s grape (Vermentino). Vermentino said to me grilled fish, served preferably al fresco beside the sunny Mediterranean. We would substitute the lush, rainy banks of the Hudson and a small back deck with a Weber. I had a hearty handful of oregano I’d remembered to cull from my mother’s Vermont garden on Sunday, and what is June for in the Northeast if not for gorging on asparagus and tender greens? So the menu fell naturally into place: Grilled whole Branzino with Vermont oregano, Grilled asparagus (courtesy of Dutton Farm, also from our Vermont weekend), and Spinach Salad (courtesy of Dutton Farm and our wonderful Vermont CSA). Having convinced my mom to finally cut back her towering rhubarb plant over the weekend, dessert would be a simple spring favorite that Carlita and I learned from Gabrielle Hamilton in a class a few years ago: Candied Rhubarb (served over ice cream, or for those of us watching our 3rd-trimester sugar intake, greek yogurt).

About the first 2 courses, there is little to be said. Light the grill (miraculously, given our soggy June, it stopped raining for several hours!) stuff the fish cavities with coarse salt, pepper, lemon slices, and oregano; brush their outsides with olive oil. Barely blanch the asparagus, then roll it in salt and pepper and olive oil. Wash the greens, toast some slivered almonds and crumble some mild goat feta to go on them.  Throw the fish, then the asparagus, on the grill (we left the fish covered for about 4 minutes on one side, then flipped them and grilled open for another 5 or 6, meanwhile throwing the asparagus on and trying not to lose too many spears   between the grates). As simple as can be.Meg and Baby Gastron prepping the branzino

Dessert can have a little more space, as this is one of the best ways I know to cook rhubarb. I adore rhubarb, which is always the first thing we have to make fresh ‘fruit’ desserts with in Vermont – long before strawberries, which don’t come to our they-say-it’s-zone-5-but-it’s-really-more-like-zone-4 gardening world until late June. My mom’s plant is a large, hale, and hearty one, and she had waited for a while to cut it back. So the stalks we had were nice and tough, which is actually best for this preparation. I had about 1 ½- 2 lbs of rhubarb, which I cut into coarse (about one-inch) chunks. It is important not to chop it too fine or you can end up with rhubarb mush. I sprinkled these with about 2 cups of sugar (no need to measure too closely) and tossed them in a baking pan. The recipe I got from the Gabrielle Hamilton class stops there, but I’ve experimented and found that adding some spices adds interest. So I tossed in about ½ tsp of cinnamon and a sprinkle of ground cloves. On a whim, I also finely chopped a handful (probably 2-3 oz?) of crystallized ginger I had lying around and planned to add it just before the rhubarb went in the oven. I’ve experimented with powdered and fresh ginger for this dish, neither of which was terribly satisfactory. After this try, I can attest that crystallized is by far the best option – it was delicious! Let the rhubarb/sugar mixture sit for at least an hour (it will go faster if you use superfine sugar, but I never have any). This draws some of the juices out of the rhubarb, which also helps it from getting mushy when you cook it. Once you see some nice juices mixing with and dissolving the sugar, you can heat the oven to 300. Mix in the chopped crystallized ginger and throw the rhubarb in for about 40 minutes, checking once or twice and probably stirring once to make sure the rhubarb is not getting mushy. When it is cooked but still intact, you should have a nice sugar syrup in the bottom of the pan. Pull it out and let it cool while you eat dinner….Yummy Rhubarb

The wines – I’ll let Carlita do the bulk of the commenting there (and maybe Jason, who is always a delightful wine-experiencing companion, will add his two cents). But suffice to say they were all fresh and lively. At its best Vermentino has an intriguing aromatic spectrum – from honeysuckle to melon to ripe apricots – and a hint of bitterness somewhere about its person, either on the nose (which was the case of the Corsican offering from Maestriacchi; it got quite pungent as it opened up) or at the finish (as with the more delicate and quite lovely Donakalia, from Sardegna).  At its worst, it makes a high-toned and completely forgettable white (as was the case with the Tuscan Casamatta), and somewhere in between it is a nice supporting player (as in many Southern French blends. Definitely true with the St. Felix, where it lent weight and tempered the citrus of Sauvignon Blanc).  Missing from the tasting was a bottle from Antoine Arena, one of the leading lights of the natural wine movement in France, and certainly producer of Corsica’s most interesting Vermentinos. I’ve had them, and can attest that they are complex, intriguing, and powerful…. But at $50 retail, we decided to forego taking our tasting to that level.

As the long almost-solstice evening fell over the backyard trees, we sniffed, sipped, noted, and ate simply and well. We discussed life changes and how we weather them, enjoyed how the wines changed with the food, savored the crunch and flavor of fresh spring asparagus, and basked in the cool evening breeze that washed over.  Dessert, with the tart-sweet-spicy combination of rhubarb, sugar and ginger, refreshed and satisfied our palates (and while all in favor of ice cream, I think it is best with the greek yogurt, which adds a bit of tang).  We appreciated how the grill simplifies life at the end of summer dinners (no dishes!) and toddled off to bed sated and soothed.

A perfect June night

MAY 2009 – PINEAU DES CHARENTES – Cocktails at Storm King Art Center

Di Suvero at Storm King Art Center

Carlita:

Memorial Day weekend was perfect weather for our outdoor cocktail party at
Storm King Art Center.   About one and a half hours up the Hudson river from
the Big Apple, Storm King is a sprawling property filled with awesome
contemporary sculpture.  In particular, we went to see the new Maya Lin
³Wave Field² earth sculpture that was recently finished this spring.  The
fifty waves in eight rows are sculpted into the ground and can be viewed
from the hill above and experienced, as well, by walking through the paths
that go up and between the rows.  Up to 12 feet high and covering 11 acres
of land, their scale is hard to comprehend from the viewer¹s perspective.Waves from above
Unfortunately the park closes at 5:30, so we missed the early evening
shadows, which must be dramatic.  Maya Lin really knows what to do with an
empty lot!   As Martha  would say, “Repetition is a good thing²……..

IMG_2019

We were feeling oh so French carrying the wicker basket with our goodies as
Billy, Aldo and I set out to find a shady spot by the large pond adjacent to
the “Waves” and set up our Pineau des Charentes cocktail picnic.  I broughtCheese and Farro Crackers
radishes  and homemade rosemary-and-thyme farro crackers with sea salt and a
Belgian-style cheese, Bridgid¹s Abbey from Cato Corner.  This local producer
from Connecticut uses  raw milk from Jersey cows and has a booth at the
Union Square farmers market.  Here is my recipe for the farro crackers,

which I adapted from an old rye cracker recipe:

Cartlita’s Farro, Rosemary, Thyme and Sea Salt Crackers

1 cup Farro or Spelt flour
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 teas. Salt
2 teas. Finely chopped rosemary and thyme
4 T. Fruity extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup cold water, plus more if needed
Thyme leaves to sprinkle on top
Course sea salt to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 425F.  Mix first 4 ingredients in a bowl and stir in 4 T. Of
the olive oil.  Work the mixture with your fingers until it has the
consistency of cornmeal.  Stir in the milk and water, add more water if the
dough is too stiff.  Be sure to not overwork the dough.

Roll out the dough and place it on a cookie sheet, 16² x 12² lined with
parchment paper.  With a pastry wheel or ravioli cutter cut the  dough into
squares, 24 or so.  Brush the dough with the remaining olive oil and
sprinkle course sea salt and thyme leaves.  I run the rolling pin lightly on
top to secure the salt.

Bake at 425 for 15-18 minutes.  Cool on rack, store up to 1 week in airtight
container.

Cheers Billy!

Billy Vivos introduced me to the pleasure of Pineau des Charentes, which I had for the first time this year.  There are some recipes for cocktail versions but Billy buys the best, so I certainly wouldn¹t dilute this with anything.  With a less expensive Pineau I might mix in sparkling water or soda, ice and a slice of lemon.  In The Cooking of Southwest France, Paula Wolfert gives several recipes for dishes prepared with Pineau des Charentes‹a great way to use up the leftovers.  Just yesterday I read about Pineau des Charentes vinegar in the New York Times Dining section.  It is made by Francoise Fleuriet’s company in Rouillac.  The vinegar comes in a white or a fruitier rose and is aged four years in oak barrels.
Here are Billy¹s notes on the Pineau:

Cocktail Hour
A Note on the Wine . . .

Pineau des Charentes is a vin de liqueur of the Cognac Region.
Typically, the alcohol level is 17 to 18 percent. It is made by adding
year-old Cognac straight from the cask to grape juice just at
fermentation, then by maturing the cuvée in a cask until the July
following the harvest. The wine is derived from the ugni blanc grape.  In the
case of Jean-Luc Pasquet, this Pineau des Charentes – the ugni blanc
is organically grown – is a blend of two or three different Cognac
vintages. The result is a light, refreshing aperitif. Carlita, Billy and
Aldo assessed this wine while staring out at the monuments of art at
Storm King:

Time to pack up........

Billy:  This wine has a lot of fruit and concentration, yes?

Aldo:   I don’t know if I love it. It’s a distraction from the beauté of my surrounding.

Billy:  Who invited this Puritan?

Carlita:  I think it would pair better with a saltier cheese – a
Morbier, for instance.

Aldo:   I also think it would benefit from greater chilling.

Billy:  Well, throw some ice in your glass, Aldo.  It’s great on the
rocks.  What are we tasting here?

Aldo:   I’ll throw some ice at you!  I get pear and ginger.

Carlita:  Starfruit, apricot, ripe peaches.

Billy:  And I think there is a little spiciness to it.

Carlita:  Aldo, do you get ginger on the finish too?

Aldo.   Yes, Carlita. It’s like you, just the right amount of spiciness.

Billy:  Yawn.

Carlita:  Pineau des Charentes definitely works better with ice. But I
wouldn’t add anything else. Why adulterate a perfectly good drink?

Billy:  Exactly my thought. Like converting a delicious Guy
Charlemagne Champagne into a Mimosa. Aren’t people silly?

Aldo (with strange,  inexplicable irony). Yes—aren’t they?

Carlita:  Without ice, I can see how this drink cuts through the
sweetness of a dessert.

Aldo:   Carlita, I love these crackers. They’re as perfect as the day!

Lichtenstein Sculpture