Friday, November 20, 2009

Update on the Martini Sitch (-uation)

So far, all of the bartenders I have spoken with (which is three) say that there is no name in Italian for a regular ol' martini (gin/vodka and dry vermouth with olives, lemon, etc.). This makes it, in my experience, nearly impossible to order a martini in Italy. If you order a martini in a bar, you could get white, red, or dry Martini&Rossi Vermouth in a glass. If you order a martini secco (dry martini) it is made with 50% dry vermouth and 50% gin or vodka. It will likely also arrive with a straw, an ice cube, and a big slice of lemon. Sounds like Italy needs more Martini Hospitals (see below).

Kristin and I have learned the word for droplet and now have a favorite bartender who knows how to make excellent gin martini. Dropping the local olives, which are cured for as few as 3 days, into the cold gin is one activity that can completely distract me from the local wines. mmmmmm---!

In other news, we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 12 Italian friends tomorrow. I know we're early this year, but no one has this Thursday off around here---waddayagonna do? Making stuffing from scratch is proving to be rewarding, and Kristin's throwing in some of her cornbread. Finding a turkey wasn't all that difficult luckily, and, as we speak, I believe that it's still running around.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Make REAL Orecchiette Pasta

If you told me a year ago that I would be taken into the kitchen of two beautiful Italian ladies and taught how to make orecchiette pasta as their mothers and grandmothers taught them to make it, I would call you crazy. But last Saturday night, Kristin and I were given an official Orecchiette Lesson (Orecchiette is the traditional, ear-shaped pasta of Puglia) paired with a novello Primitivo made by Consorzio Produttori Vini in Manduria. Kristin and I had made orecchiette ourselves, but we followed an online recipe that had us doing more tricks and spending more time than necessary.

Debora and Margarita had it all planned. They made most of the pasta in advance--allowing it to dry for three to four hours--but saved a short roll of dough for us to practice on. To make the pasta dough, you use semolina flour, water, and a pinch of salt. I usually use a flour-to-water ratio of 4:1 (here's more on that). When your dough is ready, roll it out into long roll with a 1/2 inch diameter; similar to making gnocchi. Here's where the lesson began.

Debora and Margarita said to cut a piece of dough about a centimeter long from the roll. Using a butter knife, put one edge of the blade lengthwise on the far edge of the piece of dough. Put the index finger of your other hand on the opposite side of the dough, then pull the knife toward you, almost like you are spreading butter. The dough will roll over itself. After a little practice, Kristin and I got the knife to make an elongated indent in the dough. Next, pick up the dough and place it on top of your thumb, then use both index fingers to pull the edges down around your thumb to create a hat-shape. And that's it.

The beauty of this method is that you do not need to press the dough three times as some recipes suggest, and you all also achieve the corrugated texture of traditional orecchiette without using a grooved board specifically designed for making orecchiette (I mean, whose gonna buy one of those?). The texture comes from the spreading/tearing of the orecchiette with the knife.

The meal was fantastic (above: Kristin was sad when her "little ear" looked more like a nose). Our friends Marco and Marco (aka Tom and Jerry) started us off with Pugliese polpette (meat balls) and the Primitivo. The Primitivo was Amabile, which means that it's sweet, but it paired very well with the tomato sauce and cacioricotta that went over the orecchiette. The second course was involtini, made with veal, Parmesan cheese, and parsley, which had been cooked in the same sauce. This ensured that the flavors of the primo and the secondo were inseparable. Stewed peppers with balsamic vinegar were served on the side. Again, the Primitivo paired wonderfully.

Like all great dinner parties, we ended with a game of golf. That it was Wii Golf made it all the better because midnight was long gone and it's no fun trying to find your ball in the dark. Please comment with any questions you may have. Salute!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

The first true night of the experiment has passed and not without surprises. The challenge again, is to pair different wines with different mushrooms—the difficulty being the umami (a type of flavor released when mushrooms are cooked), which counteract wine aromas and heighten wine textures such as astringency and bitterness.

For the first experiment, I paired a lovely, light and juicy novello wine (nothing special, just some jug wine make from local Negramaro and Malvasia Nera grapes, see above) with homemade, mushroom-stuffed mezzalune (half-moon pasta) with a mushroom, white wine, and garlic sauce. My girlfriend and I thought that using wine in the sauce might help balance the mushrooms for pairing however, after tasting, I am certain that cream or cheese would be more successful.

Because we drank wine before we tasted the mushrooms, I cannot judge the immediate effects of the wine's flavor on the food. But I clearly noticed after a few bites of the pasta that the young, juice-like character of the wine was disappearing: The brightness of the nose was almost gone, and the finish, which had been very succulent, was shortened. My opinion was that the mushrooms clearly effected the wine negatively, but the wine still tasted good. Also, the wine did not negatively effect the mushroom pasta.

However, by the end of the meal, the wine had lost almost all of its youngness and its fun character. It was flat and fruitless. Quite simply, the dish had murdered the wine. The tannic character of the wine, which had been practically non-existent before, was enhanced so that it finished with a bitterness.

The Verdict: Pairing a light novello-like wine with mushrooms results in a limp, pathetic wine. The wine never tastes bad, and it does not seem to make the food taste bad (at least, not in the way that a cheese doodle can make a Cabernet Sauvignon taste bad). I need to pair my next mushroom dish with a beefier wine, one whose fruit and body can match the negative effects of the umami.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Mushroom Show in Mesagne's Castle

Part of The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

The town of Mesange, in Puglia, celebrated its plethora of local mushroom varietals--both poisonous and edible--by covering long tables (set up in the basement of its beautiful castle) with the brilliant and sometimes creepy fungi. It was truly amazing to be able to see all of the different varieties and to know that they all grow naturally in the surrounding area (A friend went specifically to train herself to be better at identifying mushrooms when she goes out hunting). The mushrooms were labeled:

Edible but Without Value

The mushrooms spewing black goo didn't require the "Mortale" sign card beneath them: No way I was pairing them with a Chianti!

I was pleasantly surprised the next day, when walking down the street, to come across a stand of mushrooms being sold out of someone's front door that was almost as impressive as those at the castle. I quickly bought around 2 lbs for 4 euro and rushed home to show my girlfriend Kristin. "They're blue," she exclaimed!

When I returned home later that evening, Kristin surprised me with homemade sagne (a twirly pasta from Lecce) with a mixture of the mushrooms with a white-wine cream sauce.

We tested out a local novello wine made from Negroamaro and Malvasia. The wine is sfuso wine, and we bought 3 liters for 4 euro. It is very good everyday drinking wine. It tastes so fresh, so fruity, and so grapey that I think it will be a good wine to test against umami. But last night, we simply enjoyed it. Tonight, we will pair it with homemade mushroom mezzalune (literally, half-moons), which are similar to ravioli. In particular, I will be looking for any lessening of aromas and enhancement of unwanted flavor textures. Talk to you soon---

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

It's mushroom season in Puglia, and I feel like I'm in somekinda medieval fairy tale about witches because of all the colorful and daunting fungi I see. Serious: very Grimm-brothers. I walk down the street and come across large tables covered with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes that the locals have foraged and are selling at 7-8 euro a kilo (around 10 dollars for 2.3lbs). It is a taste of the ancient traditions in this part of the world. Since many of the local mushrooms are poisonous, those who pick them must be trained (I assume) by their parents to know which are edible. And lucky me, I get to go mushroom crazy.

After polishing off a few homemade arancini (deep-fried risotto balls that I made with wild mushrooms) for lunch, I thought about the difficulties of pairing mushrooms with wine. Since there are hundreds of mushrooms, there are hundreds of flavors to match, but there is another difficulty: When cooked, mushrooms release umami, which are known to reduce wine aromas and heighten wine textures, such as acidity, tannins, and bitterness. It strikes me as strange that one of my favorite foods, one which I pair with wine regularly, is one of the top ten most difficult foods to pair wine with. Further, I want to test the ability to prepare mushrooms with wine-based sauces.

So, during these next few weeks I will experiment with different mushrooms, recipes, and wines, including novello wines (similar to Beaujolais), Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo/Zinfandel, and possibly a Barolo. I might consider a Pinot Noir or two since so many people rave about their ability to compliment mushrooms, but I will mostly stick to Italian wines. If you want to share any of your own mushroom and wine pairing experiences, please feel free. Salute!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Photos of this Summer's Vineyards, Puglia, Italy

Now that the season for grape growing is over, I thought I'd offer some photos to take you back to those ripe months of August and September. Today is the first day of the Salone del Vino Novello, a five day celebration of Puglia's new wines. I cannot wait to try these refreshing wines and to talk with winemakers about the harvest.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fall Vineyard Slideshow from Puglia

Fall has overtaken Puglia, and though the leaves on the olive trees are not changing colors, the vineyards have erupted. The leaves turn orange and their veins are surrounded by a rich blood-red.

As this year's harvest drew to an end, I began to collect the opinions of local winemakers in regards to quantity and quality. Over the next couple weeks, as I sample more novello wines (literally new wines) and discuss the results of the harvest, I will put together a 2009 Puglia Harvest Report to offer an objective perspective on the 2009 growing season.

Since Puglia is one of the largest growing regions in the world (if Puglia were a country, it would be the 7th largest wine-producing country in the world) the report covers a significant land area and will account for it in three ways:

1) First-hand accounts from winemakers
2) Barrel tastings
3) Eye-witness experience (you don't think I was interviewing winemakers and bicycling through vineyards daily with my eyes closed)

So check back for updates.

Having grown up in New England, I would love to hear the fall foliage in your area. How's fall treating you?

Monday, November 2, 2009

My Sister Finished the NYC Marathon

If you're not at work then it's time to break out the Prosecco (or, if you're boss is chill, you might want to make the suggestion): Ashley "Little Sister" Bamman has completed the marathon in 4 hours, 37 minutes. Thank yous to everyone who helped donate to the cause. Salute!

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

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