A Taste of Italy

So for my latest adventure in wine tasting, I hosted “A Taste of Italy” wine dinner party at my apartment. I had 12 bottles of wine, my 3-day-3-meat sauce, and 15 guests.

For the wine portion, my co-conspirator in blind wine tastings, Dona, bagged up the wines and randomly numbered the three whites and then the seven reds. We had two Prosecco wines open for aperitif.

About 10 of us decided to take part of either a blind or semi-blind wine tasting challenge. Four of us “called the wines,” which means we described the visual cues, the nose, the taste, the mouth feel, and the finish of each wine and then tried to identify what varietals the wine was made of and where in Italy the wine was from.

Proseccos and Italian Whites

First up, we tasted the whites—two Pinot Grigios and a Soave. They smelled and tasted so nasty and dull that I didn’t even try to identify which was which. We suspected that the wine glasses were causing some of the off-odors of play-dough and clay, so we cleaned the wine glasses again before moving on to reds and had better results—at least as far as the nose and flavors are concerned! It was another story altogether on our ability to identify the wines. Lesson learned: Make sure I smell the wine glasses after I wash them to ensure they’re clean! I’ve taken this to heart and even started polishing my wine glasses so they sparkle AND smell clean.

We had red wines labeled #4 to #10, and I knew what the wines were but not the order so, in theory, I had an advantage. The guests who tasted “semi-blind” had the list of wines in alphabetical order. Those who tasted blind only knew the wines were from Italy.

Blind Tasting Results

So here’s how I identified the wines (* indicates that I loved it):

*#4 It’s so delicious, balanced, and smooth and not too acidic or tannic for my tastes. So it must be the Super Tuscan that I had selected rather than another type of Sangiovese-based wine. Call: Super Tuscan 2007
*#5 Yum! Lots of dried fruit, seems big and full. This is how I remember Ripasso tasting. So: Ripasso 2007
#6 Seems big and bold like I’d expect Amarone to be. Call: Amarone
#7 Tastes like a Sangiovese-based wine, dried fruits, violets in the nose. I already picked the Super Tuscan and it seems too beautiful for a Chianti, so I pick Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
*#8 It’s so soft and sweet. It must be the “little sweet one,” that is, Dolcetto. Call: Dolcetto.
#9 I’m running out of choices. I don’t recognize the flavors on this one, so maybe Barbera? Okay, Barbera 2008.
#10 It tastes Sangiovese-based again but all my options are gone except for one so let’s pick the Chianti Colli Senesi.

Italian Reds in Blind-Tasting Order

And here’s what they actually were…

*#4 Barbera D’Asti. Uh, oh. This isn’t good. I didn’t even get close to the right type of grape or region. But I guess I like Barbera more than I thought!
*#5 Chianti Colli Senesi. Oh my! I had no idea a Chianti could taste so good!
#6 Dolcetto. Are you serious? How could I mix up Dolcetto (the little sweet one) and the big, bold Amarone?! Yikes, I’m bad at this.
#7 Vino Nobile di Moltepulciano. Woo hoo! I got one right! I think it must be luck since I knew what the wines were.
*#8 Amarone. Okay, what is up with the Amarone and Dolcetto mix up? This Amarone was a gift and I think it was a Trader Joe’s wine that cost less than $20 and Amarones are routinely upwards of $40 for just a regular one. Maybe this is why is doesn’t taste intense like I expected.
#9 Ripasso. Huh. Well, I have had only one Ripasso before, so I guess I just need exposure to more Ripassos so I can get a better idea of this wine’s profile.
#10 Super Tuscan. Yea! I got that is was Sangiovese-based! Does this count for one right? But wait, I thought this was my favorite before the tasting… And I haven’t been a very big Chianti lover due to the medium plus acidity and high tannin levels (see Chianti call in #5 above) except with food… My world is shifting…

For the exact details on the wines, download the list I printed for the party: Italian Wine List.

On to the Food!

Okay, so I flopped this blind wine tasting. But so did everyone else! Misery loves company. But we didn’t wallow for long because we had lots of delicious wines to drink now that we had tasted and spit for the past, oh, two hours.

And we had 3-day, 3-meat sauce over penne waiting along with Caesar salad, garlic bread, and tiramisu.

As we settled into the social mealtime, we poured more wine and enjoyed the deep flavors of the meat sauce. Jennifer, who has trained as chef, said it was one of the best meat sauces out there and she wanted the recipe. I responded, “It’s made with love.”

I’ve been making some version of this meat sauce since 2003, inspired by my friend Carol of Italian descent who has her own family recipe, the 1997 “Joy of Cooking” Italian American Meat Sauce recipe, and the wild boar meat sauce at Sienna Restaurant on Daniel Island in SC. As I have grown in my love for food, wine, and cooking, my meat sauce has grown with me, and it truly is an act of love and generosity to make it for those around me.

But really, I’ll give you my 3-day, 3-meat sauce recipe. It’s up to you if you’re up to the challenge of dedicating so much time and love to one dish.

The Zin Diva’s Three-Day, Three-Meat Italian Sauce

Special equipment: 8- to 12-quart bouillabaisse pot or French (Dutch) oven, large frying pan, food processor
Total Time: 2-3 days Prep Time: 2 hours  Initial Simmer Time: 6 hours  Flavor Integration: Overnight in Refrigerator  Reheat: 1 to 2 hours  Total Active Time: 10 hours
Servings: 12-20 depending on portion size

Ingredients

Meat
5 lb. beef rump roast, trimmed of excess fat and patted dry
10 oz. pancetta, diced
3 lb. sweet or spicy Italian sausage (reduced fat works too!)

Everything else

4 jumbo white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 28-oz cans whole plum tomatoes crushed between your fingers as you add them to the pot OR 4 28-oz cans petite diced tomatoes
2 cups dry red wine (such as Chianti, Tempranillo, Syrah)
1 6-oz can tomato paste
3 sprigs fresh basil (plus extra to balance flavors)
2 Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds from consumed hunks of Parmesan (I store the rinds in the freezer until I make sauce)
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Italian Parsley
Fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Instructions

  1. Heat the 8-quart pot on the stove top over medium to medium-high heat until you can feel a good heat rising. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil. When oil is hot, add the rump roast and brown on each side until nicely browned but not black or burnt. Continue to step 3.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the frying pan over medium heat until you feel a good heat rising. Add the Italian sausage and brown on all sides until sausage is firm and cooked throughout. Remove sausage from pan and allow to cool on a cutting board. Repeat until all sausage is cooked. After the sausage is cooled, slice it into ¼ inch thick slices. Set aside in the refrigerator until needed in step 4.
  3. Once the roast is browned, add the onions, pancetta, and garlic to the 8-quart pot with the meat still in the pot. Stir regularly, making sure to rotate/shift the beef occasionally so that the onions can absorb its juices. When onions are softened and almost translucent, about 20 minutes, add 1 cup water and continue to stir until a bit of a sauce forms and the water is mostly evaporated, about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes and their juices, red wine, tomato paste, and basil, stirring to integrate well. Add the parmesan rinds. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Stir as often as needed.
    For a straight-sided pan, I found I needed to stir every 10-20 minutes to reintegrate the top layer that bubbled up. For the natural-convection promoting bouillabaisse pot, I only stir every 30 minutes to an hour. Every 2 hours, turn the beef over so it cooks evenly.
    Cook the beef for four to six hours until it is knife tender, i.e., a knife blade inserted in the roast is inserted and is removed with almost no resistance.  Remove the beef from the pot and let cool. Add kosher salt and black pepper to the sauce to taste. Add the sausage slices in the pot. If making this over two or three days, put all items in the fridge and return the next day to complete.
  5. Cut the beef into ¾ inch cubes and pulse in batches in the food processor until shredded but not mushy. Return the shredded beef to the pot, stirring after each addition to integrate. Allow the pot to simmer to integrate flavors.
  6. Add 1 cup chopped parsley and chopped basil leaves from one sprig to the pot and stir. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings to taste. To further meld flavors, refrigerate overnight and reheat the next day, adding water as needed if the sauce is too thick. Remove parmesan slices before serving.
  7. Serve hot sauce over pasta such as whole-grain penne. Top with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.
© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

Loire Valley Wine Dinner

I recently passed my Level 1 Sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers! Now it’s time to start studying for Level 2. Since I will need to taste and study specific wines/regions AND I love to entertain, I’m combining the two along with some wine education. Voila! Time to plan a dinner party!

The Loire is home to many medium-body white wines primarily from the Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc grapes, which will be a perfect fit for summer. The Loire also produces light- to medium-body reds including Cabernet Franc and Gamay. I’ve researched food and wine pairings, bought the wine, ordered Loire Valley cheeses, found high-quality maps, and gorgeous photos. I’ll be preparing the food and explaining the wine region and the wine and food pairings.

Before guests arrive, I’ll be tasting each wine using the tasting grid from the Court of Master Sommeliers. This will involve a 4 to 6 minute analysis of the visual components, nose, and taste/mouthfeel. Typically, wines are tasted “blind,” meaning you don’t know what the wines are in advance. Since I know what the wines are, I won’t be tasting blind. However, my goal is to be able to identify these wines with the specific regions (AOPs) of the Loire Valley when given to me blind at a future date.

Here’s the map of the Loire Valley. As you can see from the tentative menu below, we’ll be traveling through the Loire Valley with wines from Muscadet, Saumur, Touraine (including Rose, Gamay, Chinon, and Vouvray), and the Central Vineyards (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume)

The wine regions of the Loire Valley

Tentative menu:

Appetizers: Loire Valley Cheeses, Shrimp Cocktail
Pairing: Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc (Pouilly-Fume & Sancerre), Rose (Touraine), Gamay

Salad: Sliced mushrooms and goat cheese over a bed of mixed spring greens tossed with a lemon juice-olive oil vinaigrette
Pairing: Chenin Blanc (Vouvray & Saumur)

Main Course: Roasted red & green bell peppers, sauteed asparagus, and prosciutto tossed with whole wheat penne and Pecorino Romano
Pairing: Cabernet Franc (Chinon) and Sauvignon Blanc (Pouilly-Fume & Sancerre)

Dessert: Summer berries with zabaglione (alternate is plantation-specific chocolate)
Pairing: Coffee (w/ liqueur as desired such as Frangelico, Kahlua, Godiva)


Old World Food and Wine Pairing: Bison Bolognese Sauce

Cava, Spain; Trebbiano, Italy; Macon-Villages, White Burgundy, France; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese blend, Italy; Chianti Classico Riserva, Italy; Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva, Italy

I’ve been hosting several parties that I call a “Wine and Food Pairing Experience.” Each person brings a food item and a bottle of wine to pair that fits in with the theme. After I order the bottles in a logical tasting order, we try each wine and food pairing and the person who brought the item explains the food and wine pairing.

For my recent Old World themed “Wine and Food Pairing Experience,” I made a bison bolognese sauce served over whole grain pasta topped with Parmigiano Reggiano and paired it with a Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 2007. Typically for an Italian meat sauce, I’d choose Chianti Classico Riserva, California Old Vine Zinfandel, or Italian Primitivo. In this case, I needed to stay Old World and I wanted something traditional like Chianti, but a friend was already bringing the Classico so I opted for another one of the seven Chianti DOCGs. Delicious! Several people asked me to post the recipe for the bison bolognese sauce.

So here’s the background on the sauce. I’ve made a few recipes in my Cuisinart electric pressure cooker and have started to get the idea of how to modify the techniques to make the food taste as delicious as if I had slow-cooked it on the stovetop. First, instead of using the low heat of the pressure cooker to saute or brown ingredients, splurge on getting an extra pot dirty and start the recipe on the stovetop. Second, for recipes like stews or meaty sauces that might take several hours on the stovetop to cook, use the “natural steam release” of the pressure cooker instead of the “quick steam release.” This technique seems to integrate the flavors much more thoroughly. My pressure cooker reverts to a “keep warm” setting after the steam is released. Since we’re talking stews or meaty sauces, keeping the pressure cooker on warm is like simmering the sauce longer on the stovetop, which is great for continuing to integrate flavors. Third, make the sauce the night before you plan to serve it and refrigerate it to allow flavors to further integrate. Reheat the sauce the next day in the pressure cooker on the “keep warm” or “low” setting. Finally, taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings (e.g., salt, pepper) as needed. Serve!

I served a Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 2007 with a Bison Bolognese served over whole wheat pasta and topped with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

For this particular recipe, I started with the “Quick Bolognese Sauce” in The Pressure Cooker Cookbook by Tori Ritchie. I’ve made this recipe per the directions before and I wanted to update it to be healthier and reflect my personal tastes (more onion and garlic, please!). First, I replaced the 1 lb. ground beef and 1/2 lb. ground pork or veal with 2 lb. ground bison. Bison is a leaner meat than the beef, pork, or veal and, I suspected, a more gamey or earthy flavor, which would be perfect for pairing with the more earthy Old World wines. Next, I cut down the olive oil by 2/3, increased the pancetta by 1/3 for flavor, and increased the quantities of onion and garlic. Instead of using crushed tomatoes, which have a reputation for being the leftover and less desirable parts, I used whole plum tomatoes and crushed them in the food processor. I eliminated the optional heavy cream.

Bison Bolognese Sauce

Special Equipment: Pressure cooker, saute pan; Active Time: 30-45 min stovetop. Passive time: 45 min pressure cooker to cook including steam release, overnight melding of flavors in fridge, 1 hour reheat in pressure cooker
Serves 6

Ingredients

2 lb. ground bison
1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 oz. pancetta
1 jumbo yellow onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk (or 2 if using celery hearts), diced
1/4 cup parsley, flat or curly, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes, crushed in food processor
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

1. On the stovetop, heat a large (3-4 qt) saute pan over medium heat. When you can feel a good heat rising, add 1/2 Tbsp. of olive oil and distribute evenly. Then saute the bison until brown, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula. Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon. Drain off any remaining fat.

2. Add 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil to the hot pan and distribute. Add the pancetta and allow some fat to release from it. Then add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, onion is translucent, and pancetta is lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes depending on your cookware and stovetop.

3. Stir in the parsley, garlic, a pinch of salt, and black pepper to taste. Cook for about 30 second to 1 minute until the garlic starts to release its aromatics but without it burning. Add the wine and cook until wine is reduced by half, about 2-5 minutes.

4. Return the bison and any accumulated juices to the pan, and stir to combine. Then stir in the tomatoes and 1/2 cup water.

5. Transfer to the pressure cooker pot. Following the manufacturer’s directions, lock the lid in place. Cook on high pressure for 20 minutes. Use the natural steam release and allow the sauce to sit on the “keep warm” setting for up to an hour before refrigerating. You can transfer to the refrigerator sooner depending on your schedule. Refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days.

6. Reheat the sauce in the pressure cooker over the “low” or “keep warm” setting. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings as desired. Serve over whole wheat penne. Pass the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Enjoy!

 

© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

A Tour of Europe in Six Wines

I hosted “A Tour of Europe” wine tasting last night for 29 people. I was on a natural endorphin high til 3 a.m.! We had Cava from Spain, German Riesling, White Bordeaux from France, Red Bordeaux from France, Primitivo from the boot of Italy, and a Ruby Port from Portugal! I presented all the wines, answered questions, and showed wine maps to those interested! What a great night!

A Tour of Europe in Six Wines

Here’s the wine menu for the evening:

A Tour of Europe in Six Wines


Sparkling wine, Spain

Cava, Brut Rosé, Segura Viudas, Spain, NV
A beautiful, pink bubbly with balanced fruit and acidity. Pairs well with most food. $9, 11.5% ABV

Light body, off-dry white, Germany

Zeppelinwine Riesling, Max Ferd. Richter, Mosel, Germany, 2009
A fruity and spicy wine with apple, pear, citrus, and floral notes. The crisp acidity and residual sugar helps it pair with most lighter foods including slightly spicy ones. $14, 9.5% ABV

Medium body dry white, France

Bordeaux, Chateau La Roche Saint Jean, Appellation Bordeaux Controlée, France, 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc. Dry and crisp with grapefruit notes and a long finish. Pair with goat cheese, salad, fish, and a hot summer day. $10, 13% ABV

Medium body dry red, France

Bordeaux, Chateau des Léotins, Appellation Bordeaux Controlée, France, 2009
Blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot. Easy drinking entry level Bordeaux. Pair with cheddar cheese, steak or enjoy on its own. $9, 13.5% ABV

Full body dry red, Italy

Terragnolo Primitivo, Apollonio, IGT Salento Rosso, Italy, 2004
Related to Zinfandel, this Primitivo has rich, ripe fruit and will pair beautifully with hot Italian sausage, red sauce, cheeses, and other hearty foods. $18, 14.5% ABV

Sweet dessert wine, Portugal

Ruby Port, Honor, DO Douro and Porto, Portugal, NV
Fortified dessert wine with residual sugar, lots of ripe fruit, and a long finish. Best paired with dark chocolate and rich chocolate desserts.  $22, 19.5% ABV

 

 

Wine-Braised Brussels Sprouts

Reverse-Braised Brussels Sprouts

I moved apartments during the month of May, so I didn’t get a single blog post out during May. However, I did make this “reverse-braise” and flounder piccata for lunch while two of my friends hung art in the new place. Perfect timing—it took me about 20 minutes start to finish to make the two dishes and it took my friends 20 minutes to hang the art. We all got the best of both worlds—eating a delicious lunch while looking at photos of cheese and olives on the dining room walls!

So when my friends said they were hungry, I was a bit nervous. We had finished up all the fresh food the day before when we had salad. I turned to the freezer, a last resort for this fresh food junkie. I found a bag of flounder and a bag of Brussels sprouts. My mind, The Flavor Bible, and my pantry went to work to create a frozen dinner feast.

I had never cooked frozen Brussels sprouts before because I always make fresh ones, and I really, REALLY didn’t want to microwave them. So I decided to poach them in a dry white wine to defrost them, heat them up, and infuse them with wine. But poaching is not the most flavorful technique, so after poaching, I browned the outsides of the sprouts in garlic-infused olive oil, essentially creating a “reverse-braise” technique. To make the flavors pop, I added a bit of lemon juice, sea salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese.

Meanwhile, the flounder met a similar fate in a sauté pan with olive oil. After both sides were cooked, I added lemon juice, white wine, capers, and pepper to make a bit of a sauce. No salt here because capers are super-salty. Done!

My friends loved the Brussels sprouts and flounder piccata and were quite pleased they had let me cook while they made the house beautiful.

 

Wine-Braised Brussels Sprouts

Special Equipment: Large sauté pan with lid; Time: 20 minutes, start to finish

Serves 4 as a side-dish

Ingredients

1 family size bag frozen Brussels sprouts
½ cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay
2 tsp. olive oil
3 garlic gloves, minced
Juice of 1 lemon, to taste (opt.)
Red Hawaiian sea salt, to taste
Black Pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, to taste

1. Heat large sauté pan on stovetop over a medium-low heat. When hot add the frozen Brussels Sprouts, breaking apart with a wooden spoon as needed.

2. Add ½ cup wine to the pan. Stir. After wine is heated, cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low, stirring occasionally.

3. Cook the Brussels sprouts in the wine until fork-tender, about 8-10 minutes.

4. Remove the lid from the pan. Stir, incorporating the wine into the sprouts.  When the wine is evaporated, push the sprouts to one side of the pan.

5. Heat the olive oil in the open area in the pan and add the minced garlic. Sauté garlic until lightly golden brown. Spread the garlic-infused olive oil throughout the pan.

6. Reintegrate the Brussels sprouts, allowing them to brown slightly after each stir.

7. When Sprouts are nicely browned, turn off the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir. Sprinkle with lemon juice until the dish has the desired brightness. Then sprinkle with Parmesan to taste. Serve.

 

© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves

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Talk about a fun girls night! My girlfriends and I just learned hands-on how to make entree-style Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves from our friend, Rafah. Rafah did all the research, contacting her aunt in Lebanon to find out how to make the stuffed grape leaves start to finish. Then Rafah guided us through the process of prepping the ground beef and basmati rice filling, rinsing the grape leaves, stuffing and filling the leaves, placing the stuffed leaves in the stockpot, and simmering the dish in a mixture of tomato paste and water for an hour.

When I tasted the first stuffed grape leaf, I was amazed at the flavor and texture! Who knew such simple ingredients could create such a delicious and intriguing main course! The grape leaves added a tangy yet complex flavor almost reminding me of coffee. We dipped the stuffed leaves into Greek yogurt and enjoyed.

I loved making and eating the stuffed leaves so much that I wanted to make them again while the memory of the process was fresh in my mind. I served them at a recent dinner with a different group of friends. I made a few changes while prepping though I kept the basic process Rafah had taught us. I learned that I far prefer the flavor and texture of 90% lean ground beef that we originally used to the 96% lean that I tried. I’m considering trying 94% lean next time to try to balance out the saturated fat intake with the flavor considerations.

Both times we chose basmati rice for its low glycemic index relative to other rices. For spices, Rafah added allspice, salt, and pepper. I added these and also tried a little cinnamon and nutmeg. If I had had my Lebanese mixed spice with me, I would have tried adding it plus the salt and pepper. When we were eating the leaves, Rafah mentioned that they should be more lemony. To try to compensate, I added about 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice to the meat and rice filling. I’m not convinced that this helped. Next time, I think a splash of lemon juice on the cooked packets would offer a sharper flavor contrast. Serving lemon wedges or slices at the table would be a nice touch.

I also tried a different technique for placing the stuffed leaved in the pot. Rafah’s technique had us make small pyramids out of the leaf packets and tie them with thread. Then these packets were placed in the stockpot lined with grape leaves. For my version, I kept the grape leaf lining to prevent the packets from burning. Then I packed the leaf cylinders tightly in layers in the pan. The cookbook I referenced said to put a plate upside down over the grape leaves, presumably to keep them pressed down during the simmering process without tying them in pyramids. I didn’t want to risk one of my white plates to an hour of simmering in a red sauce so I used a slightly smaller pot lid to press down on the packet layers.

Lastly, I paired the Stuffed Grape Leaves with a Pennsylvania Cabernet Franc, 2008, from Pinnacle Ridge on the Lehigh Valley Trail. Excellent match! I’ve generally found that VA and PA Cabernet Francs have the perfect body and vegetal flavor profile to pair beautifully with vegetable dishes.

Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves

Special equipment: Large bowl, colander or strainer, stockpot with lid, thread (optional) or plate/pot lid that fits inside of the stock pot

1.25 lb. 90% lean ground beef, raw
1.25 cups basmati rice, uncooked
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. allspice
Dash of Vietnamese cinnamon (optional)
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 16 oz. (drained) jar grape leaves
1 16 oz. can of tomato paste
1 lemon, sliced into wedges

1. Soak the basmati rice in water for 10-20 minutes after rinsing. Meanwhile, rinse each grape leaf and allow to drain in a colander or strainer.

2. Mix equal portions of the beef and rice together with your hands until well-incorporated. You may have leftover of one of these two ingredients. Add the olive oil, spices, salt, and pepper and mix in with your hands.

3. Set up a prep station for folding the grape leaves (in front of the TV or with friends makes this part much more fun!). My station includes the stockpot, the colander full of grape leaves, the bowl of meat and rice stuffing, and wax paper for a work surface and for placing folded packets.

4. To make a packet, take a grape leaf, cut or tear off the stem, and place vein side up (shiny side down). Take 1-2 tsp. of the meat and rice stuffing and place it in the center of the leaf, in line with the vein extending from the stem. Shape the rice into a log with a pointy top. Do not overfill the leaf; there should be ample leaf left along the center vein to almost completely cover the meat when folded. Fold the pointy tip of the leaf over the meat and fold the bottom of the leaf (the side with the stem) over the meat. Holding down these sections, take the side of the leaf and wrap it over the meat mixture, pressing it down on the other side. Roll the mostly-wrapped meat section toward the other side of the leaf until meat mixture is completely wrapped. Set packet aside on the wax paper, seam side down and repeat until all the meat mixture is gone.

5. While stuffing the grape leaves, take note of grape leaves that appear less attractive or more delicate than others. Use these to line the bottom of the stockpot to prevent the packets from burning.

6. Carefully arrange the packets on the grape-leaf lined stockpot, packing them tightly. For the next layer, alternate the direction of the packets. Continue to layer until the packets are gone.

7. Mix tomato paste with water until you have enough liquid to completely cover the grape leaves and the tomato paste is completely dissolved.

8. Place the smaller pot lid or plate on top of the packets to keep them in place during simmering.

9. Pour the tomato paste mixture over the packets, ensuring they are all covered and adding 1-2 inches extra liquid to allow for some evaporation.

10. Bring to a boil on the stove top and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes for doneness and to see if more liquid is needed. Packets are done when the rice is cooked (soft) and meat is brown.

11. When done, remove pot from heat and serve the stuffed grape leaves warm with the cooked-down tomato paste mixture on top. Serve with lemon wedges and Greek yogurt.

I love braises!

Okay, so I’m about to share the Lamb & Dried Bean Stew recipe that I made for my Lebanese dinner party. It took me awhile to type it up and get it to you, because I wanted to get in all the attention to detail that I use to create the dish.

For me, a braise or a stew is a work of art and, dare I say it, an act of love. It creates amazing depth of flavor through careful browning, slow simmering, and intuition-led adjusting of seasonings/acidity/sweetness at the end of the cooking process. In all, braises/stews are my favorite types of meals to cook for company. They fill the home with mouth-watering aromas and the whole process is therapeutic for me. And, of course, my friends love the food!

With a braise, I love to serve a rich red wine such as Syrah, Zinfandel, or a big Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins in the wine and the slightly higher alcohol levels (at least for New World wines) balance well with the intensity, flavor, and depth of the braise. Also tomato-based dishes just scream red wine to me. For a more Old World style wine, I’d recommend Chianti Classico Riserva, a Priorat from Spain, or a Cote-du-Rhone.

I hope you will come to love cooking and eating braises and stews as much as I do! Now for the recipe, including plenty of techniques to take with you to other braises/stews.

Lamb and Dried Bean Stew


Special equipment: 8 quart soup pot, bouillabaisse pot, French oven, or heavy bottomed stock pot; Pressure cooker or pot for cooking dried beans or use canned beans; sauté pan/frying pan or Le Creuset 3.5 qt casserole pan; tongs

Prep time: 40 min to pressure cook beans (can be concurrent); 2 hours to prep stew; Cooking time: 2-2.5 hours

Ingredients

2 lbs dry white beans (Great Northern)
6 large onions, diced, divided
9 cloves garlic, minced
4 lbs leg of lamb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes by butcher
¼ cup olive oil, divided
2 28 oz cans tomatoes, petite-diced, diced, or whole tomatoes crushed between fingers
12 Tbsp. tomato paste
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
1 Tbsp. Lebanese mixed spices (recipe to follow), more to taste as desired

1. Following the directions for your pressure cooker, cook the 2 lbs dry white beans. In the Cuisinart Pressure Cooker, I cooked the beans for 25 minutes and used the natural pressure release. Alternatively, cook on the stove top (I haven’t done this, so I can’t give you the details). Another option is to use canned beans—I estimate about 5-6 cans of Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained.

2. Place both the soup pot (or alternate) and the sauté pan on two front burners. The soup pot should be on a medium heat while the sauté pan will be a medium high heat. The soup pot will be used for sautéing the onions and garlic while the sauté pan will be used for browning the lamb.

3. After you feel a good heat rising, add 1 tsp. olive oil to the soup pot, rotating the pot to cover the bottom in oil. Add about 1/3 of the onions to the pot, stirring to cover with the oil and transfer the heat. Stir occasionally. When the first batch of onions is soft and has just a bit of color developing, transfer to the holding dish. Repeat from the beginning of this step until all onions are cooked except for three handfuls to use to deglaze the lamb sauté pan.

4. After the onions are cooked, add 1 tsp. olive oil to the heated soup pot to cover the bottom. Then add all the garlic to the pot, stirring continuously. Cook for about 1 minute until you can smell the garlic and the garlic is golden brown. Do not let the garlic burn. Remove to the holding dish immediately.

5. Meanwhile, dry the lamb cubes with paper towels. When you feel a good heat rising from the sauté pan, add 1 tsp. olive oil and rotate the pan to cover the bottom in oil. Add the lamb cubes, one-by-one, leaving at least an inch between cubes in the pan. If the pan is overcrowded, the lamb will steam instead of brown. When the first side is browned, use tongs to turn the lamb cubes over. When nicely browned, turn the lamb cubes to get a light browning on the other four sides. These sides will not take as long to brown, so watch carefully. When the first batch is browned, transfer to a holding dish. To remove the browned bits and retain their flavors, add ½ tsp olive oil to cover and throw in a handful of diced onions and sauté until onions are done and have removed most of the browned bits from the bottom. Transfer onions to the holding dish. Repeat from the beginning of the step, ensuring the lamb cubes are still dry, until all lamb cubes are browned.

6. To get the last of the lamb bits out of the pan, add the juices of one can of tomatoes, stirring to work the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Allow the tomato juice to reduce slightly, creating a richer tomato juice base flavored with lamb. When done, turn off the burner for the sauté pan.

7. At this point all lamb, onions, and garlic have been browned/cooked. Add the tomato paste to the Soup Pot. Sauté for 1 to 2 minutes to add complexity. Then return the lamb, onions, and garlic to the Soup Pot. Add the reduced tomato juice, the canned tomatoes, two pinches of salt, a tsp. of pepper, and the mixed spices. Stir to combine and cook for about five minutes.

8. Add the cooked Great Northern beans until the pot is nearly full or the beans are gone (I used a 7 ¼ quart pot and had about 2 cups of beans left).

9. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat, cover and simmer until the lamb is fork-tender, about 2 to 2.5 hours.

10. Adjust seasonings to taste, including salt, pepper, and mixed spices.

11. Serve and enjoy!

Lebanese Mixed Spices

Combine equal parts of the following:
Allspice
Black pepper
Cinnamon
Cloves
Nutmeg
Fenugreek (You can substitute fennel seed if necessary)
Ginger

1. If any of the spices are whole, grind through a spice grinder, coffee grinder, or coffee burr grinder on the finest setting or use a mortar and pestle to grind as finely as possible (not ideal).

2. Store in an airtight container. Used in many Lebanese dishes.

Lebanese-themed dinner party a hit!

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Okay, so I have a recipe for a Lamb and Bean Stew I really want to share with you all, but I don’t have the time to type it up yet. But I wanted to whet your appetites. 🙂

This past weekend I hosted a Lebanese-themed dinner party. Believe it or not, the entire meal was low glycemic (except the wine, of course)!

Mezze

For Mezze, I made hummus and tzatziki, served with a vegetable assortment and whole wheat pita that one of my guests brought. Another friend made tabbouleh salad that we served with lettuce leaves to eat almost like a taco during Mezze. I also had out a Greek olive assortment.

We then moved on to a beautiful, guest-created salad with a bed of mixed greens and spinach topped with oven-roasted veggies, including bell peppers and zucchini, and feta cheese. I topped my salad with some of the tzatziki rather than the lite balsamic vinaigrette. Delicious!

Main Course

Now for the main course: Lamb and Bean Stew. It was absolutely amazing–I really think it’s the best lamb I’ve ever tasted! The lamb melted in my mouth and had so much flavor. The beans and tomatoes had an intense yet satisfying flavor, resulting from the slow stove top cooking of the stew. A Lebanese “mixed-spice” blend added richness, complexity, and the “wow!” factor, all from spices I normally keep in my spice cupboard. Overall, the flavors, perfectly melded, surprised and excited the palate because they were not a standard American combination. Everyone loved it!

Wine pairings

During Mezze, we opened wine that people had brought, including a Zinfandel, a light white blend, a Chardonnay, and a Moscato D’Asti (I had to put some strawberries out to pair with that!). After I finished kitchen prep, I had time to find some excellent pairings.

Still during Mezze, I opened a 2008 Pinnacle Ridge Cabernet Franc from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. I’ve found that Cabernet Franc tends to pair perfectly with vegetables. This particular Cab Franc is my favorite Pennsylvania wine right now and the primary reason I visited Pinnacle Ridge on a recent trip to PA. We also opened a gorgeous 2000 Spanish wine, a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet, which a wine-loving friend brought. Complex yet smooth, this wine paired beautifully with Mezze and the main course.

To pair with the lamb stew, I opened a 2005 Holdridge Syrah from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. I purchased this wine in 2006 and have cellared it since. The rich flavors of the Syrah held up to the intense, meaty flavors of the stew.

Dessert

For dessert, a guest brought low-fat, plain Cabot Creamery yogurt, which we topped with honey and toasted walnuts. I used agave nectar instead of honey due to its low glycemic index. Delicious!

Photos are courtesy of Emil Chuck.