Monday, May 30, 2011

How to be a wine snob without knowing anything about wine

Dear Tricia, I know that pairing red wines with red meat is and white wines with white meat is the standard rule, but that's really all I know about wine.   I'm not good at this kind of thing- is there anything else you can tell me that's easy to remember, but makes it sound like I know what I'm talking about?

You sound just like me.  "Just tell me enough to make people believe what I'm saying."  This didn't go over well with my chef instructors at the Culinary Institute of America, so I stuck around for the whole 2 years to learn everything I could instead.  But with wine, you'd have to start reading now and not stop until you were 120 years old to learn everything. And then after a 5 minute break, you'd still have to keep reading because trends change so quickly.  There's a lot to learn, so here's the Cliff's notes.

You can stick with the red wine and red meat rule or the white wine and white meat rule, but you also want to think about sauces or how the meat is prepared and go with that.  For example, chicken or pork with something lighter like pine nuts and braised leeks is going to do well with a white.   But chicken or pork in a hearty caper and shallot sauce would pair well with a red.   All you have to remember is with something is heavier, you want to pair it with a red.   Did you just pair a red with a white meat?  You rebel, you.  

Anytime you've got a super rich, heavy food, like duck or sausage, you want a really tannic (read: it makes your mouth start to pucker) red to help cut through the fat.  This is where you leave the realm of drinking wine that tastes nice and move into really complimenting your dinner and making it taste even better.  It's yin and yang.  Regis and Kelly.  Cheech and Chong.  The same goes for something fried- you want something help help cut through the oily flavor and texture.  Think of your basic tempura shrimp, and this counts even if its just take out, you want to pair it with an acidic white to help cut some of the oil.  Think pinot grigio or any un-oaked* white from Chile or Argentina.

Let's talk "oaked" and "un-oaked."  All this means is whether or not the wine was aged in oak barrel or a steel barrel.  Steel barrels give white wine a crisp, drier flavor and body.  California wines are mainly aged in oak barrels, and that gives them a heavier, richer body, which I happen to hate.  Millions of people think otherwise, but whatever, it's my mouth.  I once had an organic chardonnay that tasted like I was making out with an oak tree.  It was Bonterra and it was nasty.  Never again, Bonterra. You disappoint me for life, regardless of your organic namesake.

Food and Wine magazine came out with a list of new wine pairing guidelines a little while back and there were a couple of good points for you to remember if you want to sound like you know what you're talking about.  "Serve an un-oaked wine with anything you would squeeze a lemon or a lime on." That citrus, clean flavor acts like a little squeeze of lemon on any kind of fish, even salmon.  Yeah, throw that one at your friends and watch them look at you like you know a thing or two.

For spicy foods, alcohol makes things taste spicier.  So drink something lower in alcohol content.  (Remember that post I wrote about getting jalapeno in your eye?  You would not want to pour wine in your eye.  Just a heads up.)  You can't go wrong with a reisling when you're eating spicy food.

For desserts or hors d'oeuvres, you can never go wrong with champagne.  And as I've said before,
offering your host or hostess of a dinner party a bottle of champagne will always go over much better than a Chinese finger trap.  Who doesn't love a little bubbly?  Someone with no soul, that's who. 

The most important rule of wine is to drink what you love and not take it too seriously.  If you're going with what's trendy, just know that wine trends change all the time.  Remember when "Sideways" came out?  Paul Giamatti's character made his love for pinot noir and his hatred for merlot very clear.  Coincidentally, merlot sales dropped 2% that year, while pinot noir sales went up by 16%.  But if you love merlot, then keep drinking merlot with whatever you like.  Having the confidence to know what you like and what you don't makes you more much more credible than spewing off a bunch of random wine vocabulary words.   And if anyone gives you any bull, just tell them you're into non traditional, alternative wines right now.  No one ever knows how to respond to that one.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Your Alfredo Sauce Blows and This is Why

Dear Tricia, Alfredo sauce is supposed to be one of the most basic Italian sauces to make but mine never seems to come out just right. I've used several different recipes some with a roux some with out but it just doesn't taste as good as the ones in the restaurants. Any suggestions?

After a couple of emails with this particular reader, I received a couple of links to recipes that produced said less-than-stellar results.  Tyler Florence's recipe on the Food Network website was one of the culprits, that bastard.

I'm going to back up for a minute and talk Alfredo sauce.  Alfredo is one of those sauces that has been adopted by Americans as one of our favorite comfort foods.  Its what you want to eat when you want to eat your feelings or maybe when you take your high school girlfriend on a fancy date to the Olive Garden.  Its predominant ingredients are butter, cream and parmesan cheese.  And a heart attack.  Italians don't recognize Alfredo as a traditional sauce.  Their version of Alfredo is simply pasta with butter and parmesan, or Fettucine alla Romana.   Our bastardized version has upped the ante with the extra cream and lots of it.  Here's Tyler's ingredients:

1 pint heavy cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly cracked black pepper
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

You know why this recipe doesn't taste like the ones you've had in restaurants?  Because there's no effing salt in it.  That doesn't make it a bad recipe either, because parmesan has salt in it.  But it's not nearly as salty as what your line cook is preparing behind the scenes and that's why you think its lacking.  Cooks are notoriously heavy handed with the salt: that's just how we're wired.  Hell, I'll salt a filet mignon 3 times while its on my grill in the back yard.  It brings out the flavor.  Salt is our taste buds' friend.  Do not be afraid of it.  Embrace it and your taste buds will reward you.  Start with 1 teaspoon and work from there.  If you want more, add some more.  Want less?  Be my guest.

I started looking around at other Alfredo recipes (which you won't find in a traditional, credible cookbook because it's not a classic sauce.  The closest thing you'll find to it is bechamel.)  and noticed only about half of them use salt.  Again, this isn't to say it's a bad recipe, but if you're used to tasting the Alfredo sauce at the Olive Garden, then there's your culprit.  Talk about heavy on the salt: corporate restaurants have their stuff jam packed with sodium and preservatives.  Holy crap its scary.   I have a hard time believing that stuff doesn't come frozen out of a bag, thawed out and serve en masse.  I hate to burst your bubble.  The Culinary Institute of Tuscany that you see advertised in their commercials isn't a REAL school.  They do not send their $8.50 an hour cooks to Italy to learn authentic cuisine.  That.  doesn't.  happen.

Sorry, done with my rant.

The other culprit is your cheese.  Real parmesan reggiano has a much stronger taste than Americanized, fake parmesan cheese.  If you're not using the real thing, you're not getting the real flavor.  That's like ordering a Red Bull and vodka at the bar, and the bartender handing you a stale cup of coffee with cough syrup in it.  So try the real parmesan reggiano along with the extra salt.  That should solve your dilemma, because the technique of the recipe is fine.  Let me know how it works out for you.  You can thank me with a bowl of endless bread sticks. 

*Side note, I have no problems with Tyler Florence, whom I've never met.  Sometimes I just get a kick out of calling people names for no reason every now and then when I'm having a rough day.  Sorry Ty Ty.  Can I call you Ty Ty?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Corn Porn

Dear Tricia, My cousin and I were discussing fresh corn. Some people like to eat it fresh off the stalk, (if they’re lucky to have a garden), some like it cooked soft. How long should it be cooked?  Is it a personal choice?  What’s the best way (to keep the fresh taste) to cook corn,  boil, grill?  

Excellent question.  First off, if I may, I'd like to give a shout out to the great state of Colorado and their Olathe sweet corn because it's the BEST corn I've ever had.  Its so good, in fact, that they have a sweet corn festival every August, in honor of their lovely local export.  Loverboy performed at the festival in the early 2000's wearing a purple jumpsuit and, rumor has it, he looked more like a singing eggplant than a rock star.  I can't blame the guy for shaking his purple ass for a paycheck.  Hey, everybody's working for the weekend.

There are 5 different types of corn and the corn you're referring to is sweet corn.  Pop corn is an entirely different type of corn than the kind you eat off the cob.  And the corn that is grown for animal feed (its called dent corn) is different as well because its higher in protein.  Flour corn, which is really high in starch, is meant for grinding.  Have I lost you yet?  Sweet corn is higher in sugar than the other types, which is why it tastes so damn good.  This is why some people prefer it raw- its sweet right off the stalk.

When you cook corn, the starch inside of it converts to sugar.  And since sweet corn is already higher in sugar, the extra starch that turns into sugar makes it even sweeter.   So, raw sweet corn isn't going to be as sweet as cooked corn.  There is no rule for how long to cook it- its entirely your preference.   The best way to keep the taste is also your decision.  The only difference between grilling and boiling it is that you'll get that roasted, grilled taste if its cooking over an open flame, while boiling will just soften and cook the corn.

By the way, if you ever have the urge to make ice cream, save the corn cobs (rinse them off first) and make corn ice cream.   Its kind of amazing.  Just take your basic vanilla ice cream recipe:

2/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat the eggs and sugar together.
Heat the milk, cream, salt and vanilla.
When simmering, slowly pour the hot milk into the eggs while whisking.
Put the entire mixture back over low heat and constantly stir until it coats the back of a wooden spoons.
Strain and chill overnight.
Pour into ice cream maker and freeze (follow the manufacturer's instructions)

Except, you want to let about 2 or 3 corn cobs steep in the hot milk and cream for about an hour first.  Get the milk and cream hot, put the corn cobs in and just leave it on super duper low heat.  Then take out the cobs before you mix it with the sugar and eggs.  Its to die for.  It reminds me of Corn Pops cereal.  I gotta have my Pops...

Corn season officially started in May and goes until about September, so its the best time of year to find out how you like your corn cooked best.   And then it'll be October, when the Texas State Fair begins and we can enjoy corny dogs with gusto.

And yes, that cornfield in the photo above is real.  Uh huh.   America is funny.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wine and Dessert and Yum and Yes Please.

Dear Tricia, Can you make dessert with wine?  I need something new to make for dessert and I think I want to try doing something with wine, but I'm not sure how or with what.

Absofreakinlutely.  There's a couple of ideas I have for you- one is super amateur if you're not feeling so adventurous or if you're pressed for time, and one requires just a little more work. 

1.  Pouring a really yummy dessert wine over fresh fruit.  Seriously, it's that simple.  Cut up some strawberries and peaches, put them in a little bowl and pour a sweet dessert wine over it- no more than a quarter cup or so.  Then toss the fruit in the wine, sprinkle some raw sugar (the brown sugar that has really big grains) on top, and put a little dollop of whipped cream on it.  You can use the stuff from the can- I don't judge.  It's really light and summery, and it takes like 18 seconds.  You can also do the same thing with sorbet.  Just pour a little bit of wine on top and serve it in a martini glass.  You just took dessert and made it uber fancy.   Your rich neighbors will be oh so impressed.  Even better, take the fruit, top it with the sorbet, AND pour the wine on top and serve it all in a nice glass.   Holy yes please.

My favorite wine to do this with is St. Supery Moscato.   All of their stuff is awesome, but the Moscato is good enough to make you want to drink it straight out of the bottle with a straw.

2.  Poaching.  Don't be afraid of that word.  Poaching is not as hard as it sounds, especially when it doesn't involve eggs.  You can poach pears in white or red wine here, just pick whatever you like the best. 

Pour 3 cups of wine and 1 cup of sugar in a pot.  Bring it up to a boil so that the sugar dissolves.  While you're waiting on that pot to boil (because that's kind of boring and I'm sure you'd rather be doing something else), take a pear and peel it with a vegetable peeler.  Then you want to cut it in half, lengthwise.  When your wine and sugar has come to a boil, turn it down until its just barely bubbling.  So if you boiled it on 10, you want to turn it down to about 4.  When it's simmering, take the pear halves and put them in the wine/sugar/heaven concoction.  All you're doing is cooking them so that they get soft, but while they're softening up, they absorb all the flavors of the wine, that lucky little pear. 

The pear slices will want to float up- sometimes you can take a big metal bowl and press it down on the pears just until they're submerged.   If you pour water in the bowl it keeps it weighted down and the pears in the wine.  See that?  You're like a poaching McGyver.  You want to cook the pears until they're tender, just enough so that if you try to put a butter knife in the pear, you shouldn't have to push very hard at all.  Think of the texture of canned pears- that's what you're going for.  When the pears are soft, leave them in the pot and put the whole thing in the fridge.  If you stir the liquid around often, it'll cool down faster.  I know, you're thinking "But Tricia, why don't I just take the pear out of the liquid?  It'll be so much faster that way."  It'll also dry the pear out and no one will want to eat your gross dried fruit with a thick skin on it.  This way the pear stays moist and keeps absorbing the flavors at the same time. 

When it's cool, scoop out the middle part where the core usually is and get rid of that.  Serve the pear with a little spoonful of creme fraiche in the scooped out part and drizzle it with honey, straight from the bottle.  Throw a few crushed pistachios or almonds around it and you're done.  Freaking sweet, my friend.

My favorite white wine to do this with is any riesling, but like I said- just pick your favorite and go with it.  There's no wrong way.   For reds, anything by Fall Creek is killer.  Again, their wine, especially the shiraz, is so good you want to just take a bath in it.  The thought has totally crossed my mind on multiple occasions. 

Now go impress your friends with your new found dessert skills.  Go forth and be fancy.  And if someone will buy me one of those wine rack bras, I totally promise to use it and give you a full review of its merits.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The refrigerator nazi is ruining my lunch break

Dear Tricia, At work we have a fridge Nazi who doesn't want anything stored in the fridge. I used to go shopping for my lunches each week and store them in the crisper bin. With my busy schedule of full time work and full time grad school, I need to leave my lunches at work. Now that I can't, what do you suggest I can buy that doesn't require refrigeration and can be kept in my pantry that the Nazi has lovingly dubbed my "Holocaust cabinet?" (Seriously).  Side note: I usually have tuna in packets, nuts, canned soups and Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers.

Heh, you said crisper bin.  That's so funny- it makes you sound so polite and stuff.  Except when you call people Nazis.  Its weird though that Fridge Nazi gives you space in the pantry, but not the fridge.  That makes no sense to me.  Who is this person??!

You've got a good start going with the tuna packets, etc.   I like that.  Don't forget that chicken and salmon also come in cans and packets.    Toss that stuff in some mayo, mustard and relish and slap it on some bread for a quick chicken salad sammy.   Keep a can opener at work.  Amy's also makes really good organic chili that kinda blows my mind.

Here's something that's kinda interesting though when it comes to making sandwiches or tuna salad with mayo: people freak out about mayonnaise being left out.  I had a super Type-A client (we recognize our own kind in a heartbeat) who was really specific about her gourmet picnic menu because she didn't want any mayonnaise in it.  "It'll get us all sick in the hot sun!," she told me.   Ok, I get that.  I don't want hot mayonnaise either.  If you read my deviled egg blog in April, you'll know that I HATE mayonnaise, whether it be hot or cold or covered in kisses from David Bowie in his Labrynth costume.  But guess what?  It won't get you sick if you leave it out.  The pH of mayonnaise is actually too acidic to host any kind of bacteria.  For instance, if potato salad goes bad, it's the potatoes that get you sick, not the mayonnaise.  If anything, the mayonnaise helps preserve the potato salad longer.  So if you decide to make a sandwich with some mayo on it, don't worry about keeping it cold.  It's the other stuff on the sandwich you want to think about.

When it comes to keeping things cool, people tend to forget that you've actually got a 4 hour window of leaving food out at room temperature before you're at risk of getting sick.   This comes in handy if you get to work at 9 and eat around 12:30.  You're good to go.  Seriously.  Don't worry about it.

You know what's really good?  Asian tuna salad.  It's just like regular tuna salad with mayo and mustard, but instead of relish, you throw some sesame oil and sriracha in there and add some sesame seeds.  All of those extra things are non-perishable.   Yum yum doodle dum.

Peanut butter and bananas rolled into a tortilla is such a guilty pleasure of mine.  That little bit of heaven is A.O.K. to leave out, the bananas just turn brown.

I know that, should the health inspector read my blog, they would freak out over me saying this... but cooked bacon is safe.  Bacon is so well-preserved by the salt that its cured in, that you should have nothing to worry about when you wake up on Sunday morning and find the bacon you left out after cooking it at 2am on Saturday night.   I fully support your decision to eat that.

I wish I had a better solution for veggies and fresh fruit- those guys just need to stay refrigerated after they're cut.  But if you're game for stocking up your Holocaust closet for a few days, a lot of it will be fine for a few days if its not cut.  Think about shopping in your local grocery store: which veggies and fruit are set out at room temperature?  Apples, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, onions, pears, oranges... use that as your reference. Other really yummy non perishable things to add to your lunch to make it feel more veggie-friendly: dried sugar snap peas (I think they're marketed as snap-eas), dried carrot or beet chips, and dried cranberries. 

I looked up the definition of Fridge Nazi on and here's what I found:

One or a group whose sole purpose of existence is the stocking of delicious, predominantly gourmet, food in a refrigerator. In the case that said sustenance is consumed, Fridge Nazi becomes livid with indignant fury at perpetrator of such a heinous and ignominious infraction of eating food from a refrigerator.

Sounds like your Fridge Nazi is the kind that doesn't even contribute to the fridge, they just boss you around.  No worries- you're in grad school!  Someday you'll be Fridge Nazi's boss and will be able to stock your own personal gold and diamond encrusted fridge with all kinds of delicately perishable items covered in David Bowie kisses.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

So... do you just boil the wine, or what?

Dear Tricia, I have no idea how I'm supposed to cook with wine.  I don't know what to cook in it, when to add it, or what kind to use.  Please help this clueless reader.

No need to be embarrassed of your clueless-ness here.  I understand how daunting it can be to try something that seems oh so gourmet, but its actually very easy and you have lots of options.  Let's talk fancy pants vocabulary first.  When you're talking about cooking with wine, what you're usually doing with it is deglazing the pan.  You know how after you cook meat or veggies in a pan and there's that layer of brown residue stuck to the bottom?   Well that brown stuff is where all the extra flavor is.  It's called fond and you want to get it off the pan and into some kind of sauce.  Pouring a small amount of liquid in the pan usually does the trick.  That's what deglazing is: pouring some kind of flavorful liquid in the pan to get the fond off the bottom.  You can use stock, you can use vinegar, or you can use wine.  Wine is great because it gets the fond off the bottom and adds tons of extra flavor at the same time. And it looks like you know what you're doing.
So let's pretend you're cooking a nice chicken breast in that pan.  And when you're done with the chicken, you take it out and set it aside and wonder, "Hmmmm, how can I get this delicious fond off the bottom of the pan and create a lovely little sauce to pour over the chicken and impress my girlfriend?  Oh, I know!  I'll use some white wine and it'll be so good that she'll be ready for make-out city later!"  So pour in about a quarter cup of wine (usually you'd want to use something you're ok with drinking, not that bottle in the back of your fridge that's been open since last Halloween)  and stir it around with a spoon or a whisk.  The little brown bits will be released from the pan and then you want to wait while the wine cooks down to a teeny tiny amount, which is called reducing.  After its reduced in half  (which is really a mere few spoonfuls), add some a touch of chicken stock and about a tablespoon of butter.  Whisk in the butter, throw in a bit of salt and pepper,  pour that over your chicken breast and you're done.  See?  You've learned the words reduce, deglaze and fond all in 2 paragraphs.  Watch as I expand your horizons even further.   Yeah.  Get ready.
Let's talk Italian food for a hot minute.   When I make marinara sauce (and I say that word like an American does, not like Giada on the Food Network with her overly-enunciated Italian accent, jarringly thrown in the middle of a sentence) I like to brown my onions, peppers and garlic and then get the fond (yeah, it comes from vegetables too) off the bottom of the pan with some red wine.  I pour in about a half a cup and let that reduce until its almost syrupy.  There's no rule here about how much to pour in.   You could pour in an entire bottle and let it reduce, it'll just take longer.  (And then what would you have to drink while you're cooking?)  After its reduced, I'll add the tomato sauce and then season it up.
 So let's go back and review this.  I know it sounds like a lot at first but it's super easy.  Add the wine (while the pan is still over high heat) and let it reduce by half.  Add a touch of stock, a tablespoon of butter, and season it.  
As far as what kind of wine to use with what, you usually want to use red with something heartier, or with red meat. White wine is great for fish and chicken.  Again, use something you'd want to drink.  Cooking with wine is not a way to get rid of bad or old wine.  Then your sauce will just taste like old wine sauce.  Eww.
When you get comfortable with sauces, start getting creative.  Put some chopped up artichoke hearts and a squeeze of lemon in white wine sauces.  Add some capers and fresh herbs to red wine sauces.  And always season and taste it.  Salt and pepper go a looooong way, especially if you're trying to get to make out city with your lady later. 
Let's also talk about open flames for a second.  You know how when you're watching chefs on TV and they pour some wine in the pan and it all catches on fire for a second?  Looks fun, right?  Well mostly likely that's not going to happen in your kitchen unless you tip the pan and try to invite the fire into the alcohol.  Also, wine doesn't have as much alcohol in it as cooking with sherry or hard liquor.  Those guys will flame up no problem, but if you're using a gas stove and are afraid of becoming a burn victim, just pour it in and don't tip the pan.