Tait: The Ball Buster 2005

I bought a bottle of this Aussie shiraz blend on the recommendation of a friend. Wow! He was right. I have been drinking it over the past few months and it’s getting better and better. This is not a sissy wine. Lots of alcohol balanced by a ton of fruit and licorice and a hint of sweetness (maybe that is a touch of oak) that is not cloying at all. There is a bit of tannin and acid for structure, but the wine is so well balanced that it goes down a bit too well. It is incredibly rich, but because of its balance it is a pleasure to drink, and drink and drink. I am paying for that this morning however.

I realize that I am babbling, but this is the kind of wine that will put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. I have tasted a lot of wine over the years and much has been forgettable. Not this one. Oh, I wouldn’t call it a great wine; it doesn’t have the complexity and aging possibilities to be great. On a warm night, sitting outside with good friends, eating grilled pork chops (brined, of course), Caesar salad and molten chocolate cake? Perfect. And for $16 it is a steal.

Brining: A Big Bang For Your Buck

Brining is a very simple and useful way of getting lots of flavor into meat. You know those award-winning pork ribs that you can’t quite duplicate at home, even though it should be straightforward? The secret may very well be that the ribs were brined. And for great roast chicken a quick brining is fantastic. The technique seems to work well with pork and poultry. Aside from corned beef I can’t think of any reason to brine any other meats. It just doesn’t seem…right. Of course tomorrow I will find a simply incredible recipe for brined porterhouse (I doubt it, but anything is possible).

I think that brining may reach its ultimate expression with big thick pork chops. A quick brine and then a sear on a very hot grill, followed by 10-15 minutes on a cooler grill with the lid closed is pretty much the best way to cook them. If they are really thick, and they should be, I will tip them up onto the bone for the slow part of the cooking.

I use an 8:1 ratio of water to salt and brown sugar, and usually toss in some fresh thyme if I have it and several grinds of pepper. But any flavor that can be extracted by water will get into the meat. So go to town! however, I limit the brining to several hours. Any more than that and the meat tends to get too salty, especially ribs.

As for why it works, or what it does? I could guess, but I would rather just enjoy those juicy pork chops that are grilling as I type this.

3 Bean Salad

1 can Kidney Beans
1 can Black Beans
1 can Cannellini Beans
1 can Black Eyed Peas
1 red pepper, minced
½ red onion, minced (any onion will be fine)
1 green onion, minced
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste, but 1 teaspoon each will work.

In a bowl large enough to hold everything, whisk the oil and vinegar together. Drain the beans and rinse gently, then dump into the bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients and correct the seasoning. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving to allow the flavors to blend together.

Most beans will work, so whatever you have in your cupboard will most likely be fine. And the more the merrier; as you can see, I have 4 kinds of beans in my 3 bean salad!

The Perfect Margarita

Margaritas are very simple drinks. And there is nothing difficult about making them. What is difficult is finding a good one in a bar. The problem? Most bartenders are too lazy to squeeze fresh limes; they would rather open a bottle of ersatz lime juice. Or the bar owner doesn’t want to spend a few extra dollars on top quality ingredients. Either way, you get a lousy Margarita. I am not going to debate the merits of the many excellent tequilas that are available. I use Hornitos in my Margaritas, but I am sure that there is someone out there who is aghast at my poor choice. I don’t care. My Margaritas are really good, so if you don’t like my choice of tequila; don’t drink it. Don’t worry, I’ll find someone who will be glad to drink the extra.

2 parts good quality tequila
1 part Triple Sec                                  (Cointreau is best)

1 part fresh squeezed lime juice.          This is not debatable. Either use fresh squeezed or don’t bother making the drink.

Simple syrup* to taste
Thinly sliced lime as garnish 

Toss everything into a shaker with a lot of ice. Shake for several seconds until it becomes frothy, then pour into a chilled martini glass. Taste, then correct the sweetness with the simple syrup. You will find that this recipe makes a tart Margarita, so don’t worry if you use a bit of the syrup. I vacillate wildly between no syrup and about ½ teaspoon per drink.

If you want salt, wet the rim of the glass with lime juice
and rotate it in a plate of kosher salt.

*Simple Syrup is equal parts granulated sugar and water.
Just use hot water and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Refrigerate before use.

Can The ‘Burbs Support Good Restaurants?

I live in a suburb of New York City that is known for its restaurants. Unfortunately its claim to fame is the number of places to eat, not the quality of the food available. Oh, there are interesting places to eat, but when I want a meal that includes good food, good service, an interesting setting and a martini or two I have to drive into New York City. Why can’t the suburbs support the kind of restaurant that satisfies these conditions? I had a short e-mail exchange with Tommy:eats, a blogger who has obviously spent some time thinking about, and lamenting this situation. I suggested that it may be the pressure to make 100% of the income on food, since liquor licenses are ridiculously expensive, if they can even get one. So each plate has to pay off; no teaser plates and break-even dishes just to get people to drink. He made the very good point that most of these restaurants also push high-end foods. “What kills me, for example, is that a restaurant could make more profit on pork belly and chicken thigh than they do loin and breast, but they choose to not.”

When I say “good,” I don’t mean Per Se or Le Bernardin or Peter Luger or Bouley. What I want is a restaurant that can produce an excellent meal, matched with a reasonable wine list, professional service and an attractive and comfortable physical setting. What this requires is a professional chef, a competent manager, and most of all an owner who is dedicated to his restaurant. I don’t particularly care why; if all he wants is a big pay check and has figured out that the best way to get one is to impress the hell out of his customers so they come back with their friends? Fine with me.

There is enough disposable income in my town and the surrounding area to support restaurants that satisfy these admittedly strict requirements. Why don’t these restaurants exist? Is it the tyranny of low expectations? Do we expect mediocrity? Or is our collective taste so crappy that we wouldn’t recognize good food if it fell in our laps?

Bass Ale Is Not The Cat’s Pajamas.

Okay, I admit it. I had a beer at lunch. Just one, and it was mediocre. What has happened to Bass Ale? Has my beer taste become more sophisticated or has Bass gone into the toilet? The worst part of this sordid mess is that I had the beer with an excellent bar pizza from Kinchley’s Tavern. Great crispy thin crust pizza, and my wife’s tuna melt wasn’t bad either. Maybe I had a bad bottle, but I have had the impression that Bass just ain’t what it used to be for some time. It’s better on tap, but only from fresh kegs. I think the beer world has moved beyond Bass Ale.

To Grill, Or Not To Grill (Chicken that is)

Everyone has grilled chicken. And everyone has failed, at least a few times. Who hasn’t opened the lid of the grill to find little chips of carbon where your beautiful free-range chicken used to be? I got tired of tending the grill and having to deal with the constant flares of burning chicken fat, the skin stuck to the grill and, worst of all, a mouth full of dried, charred chicken.

Obviously, I am talking about high-temperature cooking, otherwise known as grilling. But, the trick to great chicken is simple — low-temperature cooking. I don’t mean the traditional low-temperature, long, indirect cooking that is the backbone of great barbecue. What I am talking about is a modification of barbecuing that allows the chicken to cook to perfection without drying or, even worse, toasting.

I start with the chicken cut into serving pieces. I usually cut the ribs out of the breasts and then cut each breast in half if they are large; otherwise, leave them whole. Trimming excess fat seems to be a good idea, if not for the cooking process, than certainly for my waistline. And that last bit of the wing? Clip it off! Who eats that?

The next step is what makes this dish work. I use my basic barbecue dry rub to season the chicken. Any dry rub will work; it doesn’t have to be traditional. As long as the rub has some sugar in it, you will be successful. Just put the chicken in a 1-gallon ZipLoc bag, along with your dry rub, and shake away! Make sure that the chicken is completely coated and then stick it in the refrigerator for a few hours to as long as a day.

Cooking is simple, and it doesn’t require constant tending. Just heat your grill to about 250 degrees. Most grills have 2 or 3 burners, so use just one of them. If you are using charcoal, pile it up on one side of the grill. Then put the chicken pieces anywhere on the grill except directly over the burner that is on. I try to keep the chicken as far away from the flame as possible. It’s okay if the pieces touch. Close the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes. Check how it looks, flip the pieces, and cook for another 15 minutes. Repeat. Total cooking time should be 45-60 minutes.

The sugars will slowly caramelize and create a nice crust. The meat will be amazingly juicy and tender, and most of the fat will have rendered. The nice thing about this technique is that if you cook the chicken for an extra 5 minutes, it won’t burn. If you want the chicken to be even crispier, just turn up the heat for a few minutes and open the lid. But be careful, that is the kind of cooking that ends by ordering a pizza.

I haven’t written a more formal recipe because it is difficult to make a mistake with this technique. I have varied pretty much everything and it has still turned out well. Just don’t cook over direct heat, and don’t cook at too high a temperature and you will be happy with the results.

75 Wine Company Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

This is a fine example of a very well made, pleasant California cab that is thoroughly forgettable. There is nothing wrong with this wine, in fact it is very well made, with nice balance between the fruit and tannins. But it tastes like every other well made cab. There just isn’t anything interesting in the bottle. I paid about $15, so I am certainly not upset about the purchase. And if I needed a bottle of wine as a gift for someone who might not be thrilled by interesting  and different wines, or was just starting down the wine road, this might be it. The label is pretty cool too, so that is a bonus. Don’t get me wrong; this is a good wine. I didn’t pour it down the sink or into the spaghetti sauce. I might not be a chef, but I’m not an idiot.

The grapes are from Lake county, which is why I bought the wine in the first place. I thought that the winemaker might be able to reveal something interesting or different. Many California cabernets are made from grapes grown in Napa county, and many of them taste like they were made by the same winemaker.

This wine represents all that I find boring about wine. I think of these wines as “corporate.” They taste like they have been made by committee, without any personality or individuality. Are they made well? Absolutely! Will you remember them? Nope.

A disappointment

I dabble in the fine art of aging beef. I have neither the knowledge nor the equipment to do it correctly, but I have, on occasion, come close to those wonderful, minerally, intensely flavored steaks that the best steakhouses will sometimes dish up. And I had high hopes for the thick, bone-in strip steaks that I had aging in the refrigerator. They were about 2.5-inches thick, which is, at least for my palate, the optimum grilled steak thickness. I like my steak rare, and I haven’t been able to get a nice char on thinner steaks without overcooking them. These steaks looked like they had aged well, losing some moisture without becoming too dry.  I served one plain and one with lemon and olive oil. They were cooked correctly, but they just weren’t “beefy” enough, and they were missing that special flavor that I have only tasted in aged beef.

It is possible that the raw material simply wasn’t good enough. But these steaks looked pretty good! Nicely marbled and a rich medium red color. I have had excellent results with meat from Costco and the local supermarkets, and I have been hoping that the aging is the most important part of the process. One of the intractable problems is that the best aging occurs in large cuts, before they are sliced for cooking. I don’t have a band saw for cutting an entire porterhouse into manageable portions, so I have to make do with the pre-cut stuff. And three weeks of aging of a single portion will yield a completely dessicated, inedible waste of time. Am I stuck?

Wine By Joe Pinot Noir

I have never heard of this winemaker, but his 2005 pinot noir is a very nice example of an Oregon pinot. There was a bit too much of that typical bright cherry flavor, but it was a nicely balanced and pleasant wine. It has some structure that is offset by good fruit. At $18 retail it seems to be a good deal. If you can find it at discount, even better!