Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Jacked Up...

Bbq_001_5 "48 hours in barbecue heaven," were the last words I said to my wife as I rolled out of Birmingham headed for Lynchburg, TN on a perfect fall day.  I was on my way to judge the 18th Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.  I'd judged last year's contest, so I knew what I was getting into.  But the thrill was just the same.

This time around I took my good buddy Bob Dunn, who knows a thing or two about eating good 'cue.  The tiny downtown square was already a mob scene by Friday afternoon, so traffic was being managed by the police.  When Bob cut down the window to ask for the quickest way to the judges parking area, it was obvious to the cop that Bob was a first-timer (I reckon his silver dollar-size eyes gave it away).  With directions out of the way, the Lynchburg local chortled, "You ain't seen nothin' 'til you been to The Jack, son."  Truer words have never been spoken.

This entry's a little late, I know, but I feel like I've only now fully recovered from my trip to Lynchburg, TN this past October to judge the 18th Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue (commonly referred to as "The Jack").  What an experience.  What an honor. 
(Left - Judges table during "Chicken" competition)

Here's a quick primer on The Jack (text courtesy of the Lynchburg/Moore County Chamber of Commerce):
No_useThe Jack Daniel’s Invitational is one of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the world. Teams from across the United States and around the world compete in the categories of Pork Ribs, Pork Shoulder, Beef Brisket and Chicken. They may also choose to enter the "Jack Daniel’s Sauce" (these sauces must contain a little of our hometown product), and Desserts categories. International teams enjoy being especially creative by entering their "Home Cookin’ from the Homeland," while our U.S. championship teams do the same with their "Cook’s Choice." This year, the international field included teams Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom.
(Right - A "Mountie" whips up the crowd outside the Canadian team's pavilion.)

To qualify for The Jack, U.S. teams must have already won a competition in which 50 or more teams participated, or they must have won a competition of at least 25 teams that has been designated a "state championship". However, not only must these teams be culinary experts, they must also be lucky. With more than 100 teams qualifying each year ... and because of our limited space in Lynchburg ... we must also limit the number of the teams. So, in early September the names of the qualifying teams go into state lotteries to select the final competitors.

Vendors will be on hand to sell roasted corn, homemade fried fruit pies, funnel cakes, ice cream, and many other mouth-watering delicacies and cloggers will perform on the Lynchburg Town Square. Spectators to the event are encouraged to compete in the Country Dog Contest (canines only!), Bung Pitching, and Butt Bowling while folks from Blue Grass Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, will be on hand to demonstrate how they "raise" the barrels that are used to age Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey!

Here's a photo tour of the weekend's event....
Norway_2The Norwegian team captain cooks "family meal" (on a rig made in Houston, TX) late Friday afternoon in preparation for the long night ahead.

Poland_2_5Team Poland gets things rollin' for the Home Cookin' From The Homeland competition.

My buddy, Bob Dunn, sits in on percussion with Aussie John, who turned out to be quite an accomplished didgeridoo player (he toured with Midnight Oil in the 90s, which is pretty cool).  Aussie John was in Lynchburg to support his fellow countrymen from "down under" participating in The Jack.

Fire_gun This Canadian pit master uses his secret weapon to jump-start the coals.  He assured me no license was required to operate this fire-breathing monster.

Contestant3 This contestant carefully walks toward the "turn in table" holding her prized barbecue with two hands.  Each team receives a numbered Styrofoam container for each category of the competition.

Contestant_deliver1 This contestant makes it to the "turn in table" with barbecue intact.

Containers_4_judges2 With all of the entries for the Pork Shoulder competition turned in and accounted for, it's on to the judges.

Pulled_pork1 Approximately 40 judges are invited, then broken into eight tables of five judges.  Each meat sample is placed within the six sections of the "judging plate" (the plates are replaced after each round).  Judges look for a number of things, including flavor, texture, and doneness.  Each judge keeps a separate card to record their scores.  In this image, we're judging Pork Shoulder.

Table_captain1 Each table is assigned a "captain," who, among other things, keeps order and presents each entry.  The judges serve themselves while the captain holds the container.  Notice this captain's rib bone necklace -- pretty sweet, huh?

Ribs1 The Pork Rib category was my favorite.  You really have to pace yourself (or you'll explode!), but it was hard not to pick these bad boys clean.  I think I went through an entire roll of paper towels during this round.

Brisket1_2We ended the "meat" portion of the competition with brisket, which was, perhaps, the most difficult category to judge.  The criteria by which brisket is judged is a little different from the way I normally prepare it at home.  I like mine to be falling apart, but that doesn't fly at The Jack.  I still think brisket is under appreciated in most of the South.  Too bad, because it makes awesome barbecue.

On_lookers Spectators look on as the judges record and double-check their score between categories.

Dessert70_2The competition ended with Desserts.  They were, in most cases, so over the top in presentation that flavor often took a back seat.  That said, most were visually stunning and very creative.  It was a terrific way to end an amazing day.

Me_and_bocephusThough Lynchburg is home to Tennessee's finest whiskey, the town is dry.  That's right, no nothin'.  Normally, after a day of stuffing myself full of incredible barbecue, I'd kick back with an ice cold beer...but not here.  Instead, I took the opportunity to end the day by having my picture made with Bocephus.  Does it get any better than this?  Honestly?  I know it was the residual pit smoke speaking thought me, but for a minute there, I really did believe I was in barbecue heaven.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Pick: The Wine Trials

Winetrials187x300 I'm always on the lookout for smart, unbiased wine recommendations, and the folks at Fearless Critic Media have assembled a super little guide called THE WINE TRIALS.

The authors, Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, have done a terrific job of examining some of the most popular, value-based (under $15) wines in an easy-to-read format that's sure to be a hit with the novice and enthusiast alike.

I've had a blast flipping though the pages.  What really has me excited is that I recommend many of the wines found in the book -- so whether I'm right or wrong, at least there are others out there who share my same sense of taste and value.

Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Scott's Pick Of The Week: Riviera Rosé

Newrivieradetail_3I'm not exactly sure why it's taken me so long to write about Château Potelle's (outstanding, well-crafted, easy-drinking, food-friendly...I can go on and on) Riviera Rosé.  I reckon it's because this rosé is such an integral part of my on-hand wine arsenal, I just assume everyone else knows about it.  (All my friends sure do.)

Once springtime hits, then all the way through Thanksgiving, I serve Riviera every chance I get.  I find it especially refreshing when hanging out around the grill.  And since we're talking about often maligned rosé, it makes for a great conversation starter-cum-diversionary tactic for my buddies.  The newbies are never sure what to think about this "pink" wine.  But that all changes with the first sip, which gets them asking all sorts of questions about Riviera and wanting to know more about Château Potelle.  The "diversionary" part comes in because all the engagement over the wine keeps them from fooling with the grill (i.e. flipping their steaks every 30 seconds, which is such a nasty man-at-grill habit).

Anyway, while attending the ZAP Fitness running camp in Blowing Rock, NC, this past weekend, the subject of wine came up one night over supper -- surprise, surprise.  (Side note: ZAP Fitness is home to some of the country's top distance runners, who are subsidized by ZAP Fitness, live on-site, and spend their days training to be their very best.  Pretty cool opportunity, I'd say.  But here's the fun part.  A few times a year, ZAP opens its doors to us mortals by hosting a series of adult running camps.  For all you runners out there--at all fitness levels--it's amazing.  The ability to rub shoulders with elite runners, get expert training advice, and clear your head is unparalleled.) 
Back to supper.

ZAP's Elite Athlete Coach/Coordinator, Pete Rae, asked if I'd ever heard of this great winery up on Mt. Veeder in Napa called Château Potelle.  I practically dropped my fork.  Of all the wineries in all the world, right?  Pete starts in about how he and his wife, Zika, are real fans of Château Potelle's Cabernet Sauvignon VGS (the VGS stands for Very Good, ahem, Stuff), which is an awesome wine, to be sure.  After sharing my sob story about how I'd tried to visit the winery's tasting room last year only to arrive five minutes too late, I shot back asking him if he'd ever had the Riviera.  Pete shook his head no, and I insisted he give it a try.  All the good conversation reminded me just how much I enjoy Château Potelle's wines AND how I needed to seize the moment and post something on the blog.
So here goes:  Run, don't walk, to your nearest wine store and pick up a bottle of Riviera.  You won't be disappointed.  The wine is packed with loads of red berry aromas, while still delivering nice, palate-cleansing acidity, and suprising body and richness for a rosé.  And at about $15 a bottle, it's a super value.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Scott's Pick Of The Week: The Climber

Clif_bar_winery_logo_4If you regularly follow my blog, you know that two of my passions are running and wine--and depending on the time of year and my training schedule, one is ever-so-slightly more important than the other.

Right now, I'm in the middle of training for the Chicago Marathon this October (check out my Team World Vision page), so I've had to temporarily cut back on my enological field study in lieu of more electrolyte-rich beverages, but I still like to relax with a glass or two of wine on the weekend.

That said, I never imagined -- from a product standpoint, that is -- the two passions would ever intersect.  So you can imagine my surprise when I found out the same folks who make my favorite energy bars and gels (Clif Bar), also produce terrific wines at Clif Bar Family Winery.  Who knew?

Now I have to be honest and say I was a tad skeptical at first -- thinking it all sounded a little too good and a bit gimmicky.  I was wrong.  (I prefer to eat my crow warm.)

It all started a few weeks back when I got three bottles of their wine (Climber Red, Climber White, and Kit's Killer Cab), which sat unopened on the kitchen counter waiting for the weekend.  Before I could break 'em open, my wife and I were invited to a party.  Instead of grabbing the Clif wines, I reached for a couple of reds from Washington and a New Zealand white.

Here's where it gets weird.  When the hostess showed me to the wine bar, there sat a bottle of Climber Red (along with several empty Climber Red and White bottles).  At that point, I felt like the ghost of Allen Funt and his Candid Camera film crew were going to appear at any moment.

My wife, Deanna, is a true red wine lover, so I immediately poured her a glass of the red without telling her anything about it.  I didn't want to stare and raise a flag, but I was dying to see her reaction after the first sip -- I did my best to nonchalantly look across the room, but I caught her every move out of the corner of my eye.  Guess what?  The first thing she did was turn to me and say, "Honey, what wine is this?  I love it."  There was nothing I could do, I had to jump in.  She was right, the red was tasty.  In fact, as we began to mingle, I quickly realized that everyone at the party was talking about the Clif wines.

So here's a little more info:
- The Climber Red: Zinfandel dominates this blend, but there's also a good punch of Syrah.  May turn out to be my new favorite barbecue wine -- especially with pulled pork (a mix of inside and outside meat, thank you) and sweet and spicy baby back ribs.  Retails for around $17.
- The Climber White: I can sip this all day long -- especially on a hot afternoon.  It's perfect for hanging out by the grill; pairs really well with grilled oysters and shrimp.  I also love it with spicy Tex-Mex (grilled chicken topped with a little diced avocado, jicama, jalapeno mixed with grilled corn with a squirt of fresh lime juice..oh my!).  This blend is around 80% Sauvignon Blanc, so it has this refreshing acidity with an underlying richness from a touch of Pinot Blanc and Muscat.  Retails for around $14.
- Kit's Killer Cab: This guy is just right for a grilled rib-eye with a little compound butter and garlic mashed potatoes -- it's that kind of wine.  Good balance. Dark berry aromas with a touch of smokiness.  Great finish.  It'll be even better when the weather cools down.  Worth the splurge at around $35.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Adios, amiga!

Buttermilkbiscuitssl1673191l_2 My buttermilk biscuits will never be the same.  Nor will my buddy, Jay's, awesome Mexican cornbread.  I can kiss that skillet of goodness good-bye.  Why?  White Lily, the grand dame of Southern baking, has, like Elvis, left the building.  Parent company, J.M. Smucker, transfered the original production facility from Knoxville, TN to plants in the Midwest. (White Lily's previous owners, C.H. Guenther & Sons retained ownership of the Knoxville location.)  The reality of the situation has set in and everyone -- from home cooks to gourmet chefs to the food editors of just about every newspaper around -- is lamenting the "passing."

18flour_1190 To their credit, the new White Lilly owners posted a warm and fuzzy "note on our commitment to consumers" on their website assuring shell-shocked, ahem, long-time customers that everything is a-okay and that nothing--from ingredients to production--has changed. (Remember that scene at the end of "Animal House" where Kevin Bacon is screaming the same thing?  It was anything but okay.)
The note is all well and good, but if my Mema (God bless her) were still alive, she'd a hopped into her powder blue Dodge Dart with the white vinyl top and made a bee-line for Strawberry Lane and the front doors of Smucker's Ohio headquarters.  Company executives would have been on the receiving end of an emotional plea suggesting that no rash or hasty decisions be made until the baking needs of every White Lily-using man, woman, and child living south of the Mason-Dixon had been considered.

But balance sheets and Wall St. trump loyal customers every time.  Way it goes, I reckon.  "Get over it, Jones," my non-Foodie buddies tell me.  They're sick of hearing my gripe; but they just don't understand the singular uniqueness of White Lily flour.  I'm still in the grieving stage (Cue up Debussy's "Claire de Lune" real loud).

In honor of White Lily, here's one of my favorite recipes for Buttermilk Biscuits (and don't miss all the yumilicious variations)

I'm sure y'all have a favorite or two, so please share them with me and the other's who read this blog.  Thanks in advance!

Monday, July 28, 2008

California Wine Country: A Trip to Remember

Statue_tight_11 Summer's probably my favorite time to visit Napa and Sonoma -- the nights are cool, everything's lush and green, the roads and wineries are not nearly as crowded as they are in the fall, and, compared to the South, there's almost no perceptible humidity (which I'll take all day long).

Join me as I look back on a recent trip (which was out of this world!) where I visited Flora Spring Winery, Bennett Lane Winery, Frank Family Vineyards, and J Vineyards
In addition to sampling outstanding wines, along the way, I also cooled my heels in a sweet hotel and was able to kick back in one of my favorite restaurants in the country.

Rolling into Napa proper, I was greeted by the Grape Crusher, a giant bronze statue positioned at the crossroads of Highway 29 and Highway 221.  This ol' boy is to Napa what "The Crossroads" sign in Clarkesdale, Mississippi is to the Blues Highway -- an unmistakable icon letting you know you've arrived.

Sign_above_bridge1_3First stop: Lunch at Flora Springs Winery (1978 W. Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena, Napa; 707-963-5711)
Scott's Picks: Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Soliloquy, Holy Smoke Cabernet Sauvignon
I highly recommend lunch at the winery.  The food and wine pairing is sensational, plus the view of the vineyards and surrounding valley from the outdoor table will knock your socks off.  The lunch series runs through October.  Reservations are required.

Public tastings are not available at the winery; however, next month (August 8th), Flora Springs opens their new public tasting room just south of downtown St. Helena (about a mile from the winery) at 677 South St. Helena Highway.  This new facility offers wine tastings as well as educational wine and food pairing seminars.  Private tours and tasting at the winery are available, but call at least 48 hours ahead, if interested.  For more information or to make reservations for the lunch series, contact Margaret Meraz at 707-967-6723 or

One more thing about Flora Springs, make sure you say hello to Sean Garvey, who, in addition to being the Communications Director and grandson the matriarch Flora (and an all-around cool dude), is one heck of a musician.  In fact, Sean's latest alt-country inspired disc, California Parable, was recorded in Nashville.
Next stop: A "wine blending experience" at Bennett Lane Winery (3340 Highway 128, Calistoga, Napa; 707-942-6684)
Scott's Picks: Maximus, White Maximus, Los Carneros Reserve Chardonnay

The staff-lead Custom Wine Blending Experience is a splurge (at $175 a person for a party of 6 to 8), but it's definitely worth least once...and with a few good friends.  (Call to check on pricing for parties of 1 to 4, or more than 8.)  The Experience also includes a wine and cheese pairing, and a limo ride to and from your hotel (within the Calistoga or St. Helena areas) -- I reckon when you add it all up it's actually a pretty solid value.  If you're interested, be sure to call ahead to schedule a time.

The winery is open to the public daily from 10am to 5:30pm.  Guests are also welcome to use the winery's picnic area.  Don't miss the dark chocolate and Maximus pairings every Saturday -- call to check on times.  For more information, call 707-942-6684.

Bennett Lane owner Randy Lynch is a man on a mission to introduce wine to beer-loving NASCAR fans.  Like his long-time pal, Richard Childress (who produces outstanding wines at his winery in North Carolina), Randy is heavily involved in racing as well as his growing winery.  In fact, Randy and his wife, Lisa, are the first California winery to own a NASCAR team.  The couple's also partnering with Infineon Raceway in Sonoma to serve Maximus -- their rich, full-bodied red -- by the glass in the track's new entertainment zone.
Last stop: Supper at Bouchon (6534 Washington Street, Yountville, Napa; 707-944-8037)


My first trip to Bouchon (another Thomas Keller -- of French Laundry fame -- creation) was back in 2000 during the Napa Valley Wine Auction.  No exaggeration, I was there every night -- either for a formal meal or late-night snack.  You just can't beat the restaurant's super-convivial atmosphere.

In fact, one of my most gluttonous food stories ever involves an early-evening meal at The French Laundry with a (worthy partner in crime), followed shortly by a trip down the street to Bouchon (for, you guessed it, a late-night snack).

J_sign_2First stop: Lunch at J Vineyards (11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, Sonoma; 707-431-3646)


Scott's Picks: Brut Rosé, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir

Nestled in Sonoma's Russian River Valley (one of the coolest growing regions in the state), J Vineyards is a recommended stop for those who love sparkling wine (and the varietals, such as Chardonnay and Pinto Noir, that traditionally make up sparklers).  What's more, Healdsburg is a cool little town to explore before or after your visit.  Every time I'm in Sonoma, I seem to always gravitate to Healdsburg's downtown square to pick up gifts for family and friends.

There are several tasting options in the Visitor Center depending on your time and budget.  The J Signature Bar, open 7 days a week from 11am to 5pm, allows folks to sample the winery's award-winning Russian River Valley wines -- it's a good deal at $10/person.  If you're looking for a nibble, try J Terrace.  Open May through October, J Terrace offers a wine and cheese pairing for $30/person, or a oyster and sparkling wine pairing for $25/person.  J Terrace is open (weather permitting) Friday through Monday from 11am to 4pm.  No reservations are taken.

For a more grand experience consider the Bubble Room or J Essence Tasting.  The Bubble Room is a "tasting salon" where Executive Chef Mark Caldwell pairs his seasonal, 4-course menus with a variety of small production and vintage wines only available at The Bubble Room.  The pairings, which are $55/person, come in 3 styles: Pinot Noir, White (Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier), and Indulgence (all sparkling wine).  The Bubble Room is open Thursday through Monday from 11am to 4pm.  Reservations are strongly recommended.  If you want to go straight over the top, check out the J Essence Tasting where a group of 8 is pampered (at $200/person) with a 7-course wine and food pairing, along with a vineyard tour and wine education seminar.  Reservations are definitely required -- call the winery for more information.

Chardonnays1Next stop: Tasting at Frank Family Vineyards (1091 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga, Napa; 800-574-9463)


Scott's Picks: Napa Valley Chardonnay, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Rutherford Sangiovese, Zinfandel Port
I've been recommending Frank Family Vineyards (especially their Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) for several years, so it was a real treat to finally visit the winery (which is on site of the historic Larkmead Winery) and meet a few of the folks who make it all happen.

The down-scale tasting room is a far cry from the fancier affairs found in Napa (so know that going in), but a beautiful new tasting room (under construction during my visit) is almost complete.  That said, don't let that keep you from visiting.  Tasting Room Manager Dennis Zablosky has never met a stranger and sets the tone for pleasant experience -- even if you're a novice.  Here's the best part -- the tastings are free (a rarity in Napa).  If you're lucky, you might even catch owner Richard Frank holding court around one of his pristine vintage cars.

Last stop: A good night's rest at Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, Napa; 800-348-5406)


When you stay at Auberge du Soleil you're definitely doing Napa in style.  I only wish my wife could have been with me to enjoy the romantic surroundings.  The pool and accompanying outdoor living room creates quite a relaxing setting.  Not to be missed for at least one sunset/dusk glass of Champagne.

If you stay elsewhere in town, consider supper on the restaurant's terrace or at least a glass of wine in the bar.  I'm telling you, the views are spectacular (especially when you're with that someone special).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Milbrandt Vineyards: A Tasty Surprise

Label_l_syrah_front_webIt's no secret that I love wines from Washington -- I recommend them often in the pages of Southern Living.  Generally speaking, I think it's tough to match the state's consistent quality and value.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to try Milbrandt Vineyard's 05 Legacy Syrah and 05 Legacy Merlot -- both are terrific wines.

I've sampled a some outstanding wines from Washington over the years, but Milbrandt was new to me.  What a wonderful surprise.  First, the Merlot.  From the get-go I was taken by the wine's balance.  Food pairings -- everything from a hearty grilled steak to smoked baby back ribs -- rocketed through my brain. Hints of ripe fruits such as blackberries and cherries coupled with a pleasant smokiness are capped off by a lengthy finish, so you can truly savor every sip.

Syrah is one of my favorite grapes, so I was really looking forward to this one...and this powerhouse didn't disappoint.  This is a rich, full-bodied red to be sure, but the wine's structure and elegance are unmistakable.  Before I even had my first sip, robust aromas of tobacco, espresso beans, and dark berries had me thinking about braised short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes.  (I suddenly got very nostalgic for a fireplace and cool, fall weather).  As with the Merlot, the Syrah has the kind of lingering finish that signals high quality and keeps you smiling.

Both wines retail for about $25 and are worth every dollar.

Have a new discovery you'd like to share?  I'd love to hear about it, so shoot me an email.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Young Ones

Ahjtomato_2 The buzz surrounding the latest food scare -- salmonella-tainted tomatoes -- is substantial.  One network is busy reporting the situation is only going to drive up the cost of these precious summertime gems, while another says this will steer even more folks away from anything fresh.  (I reckon now’s a good time to be in the canned food business.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cooking with my buddy Timmy

Timmy_at_his_best I've been blessed with many extraordinary food opportunities and adventures in my life, but few compare to a meal I recently shared with shrimper (and all-round super dude) Timmy Cheramie.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Promise of Spring

Eggs300I've had just about enough of this fickle March weather -- it snowed in Birmingham two days ago and today it was sunny and 65.  What gives?  I really shouldn't complain, though, because today was one of those days where the weather's so beautiful you actually feel cool (like, Fonzie cool).  You know what I mean?

All I know is that when I was in college and a day like today rolled around, you could kiss class good-bye.  It's been cold and rainy for the last few weeks, so maybe I'm just high on vitamin D.

Anyway, it was just too nice to stay inside, so I met my wife and youngest daughter for lunch at our favorite outdoor eatery (in case you're wondering -- or in the event my boss is reading this -- there were no thoughts of blowing off work.  I promise.)

As we sat outside soaking up the sun and savoring every single minute of the humidity-free breeze, my wife and I talked about cleaning up the back yard, sweeping off the patio, and inviting a few friends over for a casual get-together this weekend.  Nothing fancy -- a few nibbles, some wine, fire up the outdoor speakers.  You get the picture.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hog Heaven

Sykes_bbq_3 I’ve often said that barbecue is a lot like the martial arts – there’s enormous camaraderie around the subject in general, but everyone feels like they’re practicing the perfect form.  Honestly, the next time you get into a heated discussion about ‘cue think back to the great kung fu movies of the 70s where the typical set-up was two shaolin masters squaring off, one usually insisting the other’s monkey style was no match for his crane style.  Insert “ribs” and “pulled pork” or “wet” and “dry” in place of the kung fu styles and have a good laugh rather than coming to blows.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The New Napa?

Last week, iVillage’s “Supermarket Guru,” Phil Lempert, said on national TV (the Today Show, to be exact, as well as his website), that North Carolina is the new Napa.  That’s one bold statement.  To be fair, I think what Mr. Lempert was trying to say is that some areas of the state, the Yadkin Valley in particular, have the necessary attributes (i.e. climate and soil) to produce notable wines (perhaps, someday, even those considered to be world-class) and he feels like wines from the Tar Hill State “will be hot this year.”  I think that’s a more down-to-Earth assessment. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Otis, my man!

Otis_bw250 So I was in Durham, NC the other day scouting locations for an upcoming story on Amy Tonrquist, the super-talented chef/owner of Watts Grocery (a hip new restaurant near Duke's east campus).  I left Birmingham on a 6am flight (which meant rollin’ outta the rack shortly after 4am) with little more than a granola bar and flavored water in my tummy.  By lunchtime I was ready to chow down.

My tour guides, Zavi and Babs, whisked me away to Parker and Otis, a gourmet grocery store, restaurant, wine store, and all round cool place to hang and be seen.  I don’t know who Parker is, but Otis is a regal looking pug who shows up in photos throughout the store.  Located in a jazzed up downtown warehouse, Parker and Otis has only been open a few months, but appears to already have quite a following.  I reckon if I lived in Durham, I’d spend a lot of time here too.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jefferson would be proud

Vineyard4250_2 Thomas Jefferson was onto something back in the day when he envisioned the hills of Virginia planted with vines whose fruit would yield top-notch wines.  Unfortunately, Jefferson moved on to the great Rotunda in the sky before his dream was realized; however, based on the current state of winemaking in Virginia, I reckon he’d be pretty darn proud.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Navarro Nirvana!

Winebottles1220_2Have you ever had a hand-crafted, premium grape juice?  I reckon the vast majority of you think "hand-crafted, premium grape juice" is an oxymoron (or that I'm a moron for even raising the question).  Whatever the case, it exists...and not in the same way that Bigfoot or Chupacabras exist.

Now before you click to another site, give me a minute to explain.  The grape juice I'm talking about is light years from the shelf-stable, electric purple stuff you see in plastic jugs or the oh-so-effervescent "sparkling" grape juice found in Champagne-style bottles.
On a trip to California wine country this past fall, a meal at one of my favorite restaurants unexpectedly revealed an untapped world of grape-based pleasure.

A little more about the trip.  I was in Sonoma for a few days to meet with wine makers from Benziger (stay tuned for an upcoming post on what this family's doing in the area of biodynamic viticulture), Kunde Estate, J Winery, and Imagery Estate Winery.  (It's worth mentioning that all of these wineries are producing some outstanding wines.)

Anyway, on my way back to the airport in Oak-town, I decided to pamper myself before the long flight east to Birmingham with a quick bite at the Café at Chez Panisse.  (Note: If you don't know about Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters, read up -- as soon as possible -- on her and what she's done for American cuisine.)

I know this sounds odd, but I really wasn't in the mood for wine.  I stick to water before and during flights -- call me a geek or maybe it's just my inner runner, but I try to practicing good hydration.  I didn't have long, so I ordered a plate of olives and an amazing salad of baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with fresh garden lettuces (and I mean, like, still-warm-from-the-garden fresh).

As I sat there nibbling on bread and feeling the weight of being a table for one, I quickly realized I was the only person in the building without a glass of wine.  Feeling my anxiety, the server stopped by and again asked if I'd like to see the wine list.  I reckoned my hard and fast rule on hydration could be put on hold for the experience of dining at Chez Panisse, so I gave a nod and the list was in my hands lickety-split.

I dreamingly strolled down the list...and what a list it is.  And there at the bottom was "Grape Juice" -- specifically, grape juice from Navarro Vineyards, the well-respected winery in Philo, CA (in the Anderson Valley in coastal Mendocino), which produces, among other things, absolutely quaffable non-alcoholic wines.  I spied their Gewurztraminer, which sounded like just the right match with my salad.  I ordered a glass on faith -- I mean, how bad can anything be that Chez Panisse supports, right?  Well, I can safely say the Gewurztraminer was a true revelation.  Crisp, complex, floral, balanced...everything I look for in the varietal, but without the alcohol.

Navarro Vineyards was all I could think about on the flight home, so when I touched down, the first thing I did was check out their website, only to find out they make an incredible non-alcoholic pinot noir as well.  Go figure.  These folks do it right.  I ordered a few bottles of each ($11/bottle).  You can't imagine how liberating it was to order something from a California winery, not have to worry about Alabama's ridiculous shipping laws, and have the "wine" delivered to my front door.  A hollow victory, I know, but it felt good.

A week or so later I was having a bite at Chez Fonfon (the best way to spend the lunchtime hour in Birmingham) and ran into the restaurant's renown chef/owner Frank Stitt, who cut his teeth in the Chez Panisse kitchen.  I told him about my meal at the Café and how my eyes were opened to the world of Navarro.  He knew about Navarro's grape juices and gave me a reassuring smile.  I guess I'm not crazy after all.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I'm a Food Geek

I’m not one to follow recipes – I cook by feel, taste, and, most of the time, by what inspires me in restaurants and in the kitchens of my friends.

I freely admit to being a food geek, so I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that I own a pocket-size notebook, which I find perfect for jotting down all sorts of details and sketching out plate presentations.  Even if I forget my oh-so-handy notebook (which is about half the time), I find something to scribble on, whether it’s a cocktail napkin or valet ticket.  It’s the way I get things down.  It’s the only way I can remember.  I have friends who can recite every detail -- with mind-boggling clarity -- from a meal they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) 10 years earlier.  I can’t.  Call it a curse.

Why am I telling you this? Because this “notebook” method only gets me so far when I take the ideas back to my kitchen.  And until recently, I just plowed through my notes, whipped up the dishes, and patted myself on the back when I got it right.  So a few months ago I devised a plan to hang on to a few tasty crumbs when recreating dishes at home.  I use my computer and digital camera to help keep track of things.

While I’m plating, I take a quick, low-resolution digital image – nothing fancy.  This provides me with all the visual cues I need to later jot down everything that happened in the kitchen.  It’s amazing how much I can remember with the help of a simple picture.  With that locked in, I sit down at the computer the next day and make a few notes about the procedures and how things came together.  This allows me to nail the recipe over and over again, as well as add ideas about how I’d jazz things up or twist something a certain way the next time.  I realize this is not rocket science, but you might try this or develop your own system for storing and keeping your favorite recipes.  I think you’ll find it allows you to move beyond simple recipe cards. 

What's your secret to hanging on to your favorite recipes?

Have a tried and true recipe your friends and family love?
I’ll use a fun little dish from Standard Bistro – a solid restaurant a few ticks south of Birmingham – that I tried to duplicate at home to demonstrate how this works.

What follows are my actual notes based on the picture (left) taken in my kitchen just before serving my family:

Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, and Caramelized Onion (served under grilled pork chops)

• Small dice on sweet potatoes – toss in olive oil, herb mix (also used fresh thyme), s&p – bake in single layer at 350˚ for about 1.5 hrs. (check at 1 hr.) – sprinkle with kosher salt – set aside.
• Cook bacon (I used 4 slices); remove bacon and reserve drippings. (Use bacon in “bacon breadcrumbs”)
• Caramelize sliced onion in bacon drippings (add olive oil, if needed).
• When ready to serve, reheat onion – add minced garlic – add sweet potato cubes – add spinach.  Adjust seasoning.

Serve With:  Grilled or roasted pork chops and steak

Bacon Breadcrumbs (served over the roasted asparagus)
• Process bread in food processor to fine crumble; remove and set aside.
• Process bacon in food processor to pretty fine crumble; remove.
• Stir breadcrumbs (1 Tbsp. At a time) into bacon – you want there to be a good balance of breadcrumbs to bacon – season with salt and pepper.

Breadcrumbs would also be good with:  top mac & cheese casserole, potato gratin, grilled or roasted asparagus

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

It's a Fine Time for Sparkling Wine

Sparkling_wine_2 The cool thing is that you don’t have to spend a ton to get a great bottle of sparkling wine -- the market's loaded with high-quality, value-priced sparklers that’re perfect for any occasion! But there are a couple ground rules...

It’s important to remember that all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. True Champagne blends three grapes—Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir (red), and Pinot Meunier (red)—from the Champagne region of northern France (about a 1 1/2-hour drive northeast of Paris). However, sparkling wine is made all over the world—from the United States to Italy to Spain (and practically everywhere in between). As a general rule, Méthode Champenoise (“the Champagne method”) is the phrase you’re looking for on the sparkling wine’s label. This tells you, among other things, the wine has undergone a second fermentation in the bottle, producing millions of tiny bubbles.

Spain’s easy drinking Cava (KAH-vuh) is made in the Champagne method and may just be one of the best values around—it can often be found for less than $12. The most notable Italian sparkler, Prosecco (Pro-SECK-oh), is a fun-loving wine with loads of fruitiness, a touch of sweetness, and soft bubbles. It’s the base of the bellini, the famous white peach refresher invented in the ’30s at Harry’s Bar in Venice.

Sparkling wine should be well chilled—30 minutes in ice water or 3 hours in the refrigerator should do the trick—and served in slender, flute-shaped glasses.  Before you can pour it, though, you have to get the bottle open.  Despite what you see in the movies, the proper way to open sparkling wine does not involve firing the cork across the room with a loud pop.  Rather, in a controlled fashion, let the pressure of the bottle gently release the cork with an ever-so-slight hiss.

The market is loaded with terrific sparkling wines from all over the world—here are a few of my favorites (all are under $20, though prices may vary).

• Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Mionetto, Italy
• Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Rustico, Nino Franco, Italy
• Brut, Reserva, Jaume Serra, Spain
• Brut Classic, Domaine Chandon, California
• Brut Prestige, Mumm Napa, California
• Blanc de Blanc, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Washington

Worth the splurge:
• Brut, J Winery, California ($30)

What are your favorite "everyday" and "splurge" sparklers?  I'd love to hear what you think.