Recently our CSA surprised me by including in our fruit share a package of regionally-grown organic muscadine grapes. This is a native grape variety most often associated with the South. When I told Carl about them, he right away exclaimed, "Scuppernong!" That left me with questions.
It turns out that scuppernong grapes are the type of muscadine grape that Carl is most familiar with. When people mention either name to southerners, it seems that just about everyone has a memory of being at a home which has grapevines growing somewhere in the yard. Muscadine grapevines. People are quickly drawn to the memory of popping the flesh of these thick-skinned grapes into their mouths, savoring the tart-sweet taste, and spitting out the seeds.
Carl's mom is from North Carolina and his dad from Tennessee, so he immediately recognized the variety, though it is seldom grown this far north.
Back when I worked in our tasting room, it did seem that every time I poured our sweet Harmony wine or Suite wine it would evoke in people the exact same experience. Over and over, people would tell me that the wine immediately transported them to memories of their grandparents' or parents' houses, where the native Concord or Niagara grapevines in the backyard put forth those familiar bursting flavors.
Muscadine is a different species--Vitis rotundifolia--than Concord or Niagara grapes, which are members of the Vitis labrusca species. All are native to North America, but are associated with different regions.
As unfamiliar as I was personally with muscadine grapes, I did immediately know what I wanted to do with the ones which found themselves in my kitchen. I am a huge fan of the PBS series called A Chef's Life, which follows the experiences of North Carolina's wonderful chef Vivian Howard. I had recently watched an episode from season 1 in which Howard focused on muscadines. In the episode she spoke with a local winemaker about making muscadine wine and she developed muscadine grape menu items for her restaurant, Chef & The Farmer. I remembered her topping a pizza with a muscadine grape spread, caramelized onions, and blue cheese. I had wondered what this tasted like, and now I set about to find out for myself.
Rather than making a whole pizza, I decided to put together a batch of flatbread, which all members of my family really like and which only takes about an hour and a half (including rising and cooking time) to make. While the flatbread was rising, I roasted the grapes together with shallots, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
For supper last night, we topped the flatbreads with a variety of toppings, including the grape/blue cheese combination. It was complex and surprising, a blend of sweet, tangy, and creamy flavors which was really memorable. My recipe is here.
Since I seem to have spices on the brain, it feels like a good time to compose an ode (or at least a post) about autumn's favorite: cinnamon.
There is really nothing that smells and tastes more evocative of the season than cinnamon. It comforts and enlivens all at once.
Allegro produces two sweet wines which are finished with an infusion of cinnamon: Fusion, which is a sweet spiced red, and Apple Cinnamon. Way back in the day (in the early 2000s, and even before our time here), Allegro made an Apple Wine. Looking for gift ideas around the holidays, I started ordering spices (cinnamon, clove, orange peel) in bulk and making little spice sachets to bundle with a bottle of that Apple Wine.
While that gift bundle was certainly a success, Carl decided to release me from my sachet-tying days and add the spices to the wines themselves. Thus were Fusion and Apple Cinnamon born, released in late September of 2004.
Both Fusion and Apple Cinnamon can be warmed gently and served as mulled wines, a favorite comfort beverage as the weather turns colder. Serving wine this way always brings to mind Germany's famous Glühwein, which we have enjoyed together at Christkindlmärkte in Aachen, Köln, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
For me, cinnamon has associations which date back to long before I was a part of a winery making spiced wines. I actually named my first cat Cinnamon, an homage to her coloration. (She was a beautiful cat but a rather spicy one, likely due to my tendency to squeeze her a bit too tightly. Here is photo proof...)
One of my favorite breakfasts growing up was my mom's cinnamon swirl bread, the recipe taken from her trusty Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book. She would make it for Christmas mornings and other times as well, and would toast our slices by putting them under the broiler for a few minutes. I remember choreographing the eating of a warm buttered slice, following the swirl from the outside in, so that my last bite would have the optimal amount of cinnamon and sweetness.
Recently my son and I went on a noble quest to figure out the very best French Toast recipe. We thought for a while about what kind of bread might make the best recipe, and it wasn't long before we hit upon the idea of using cinnamon swirl bread as the base.
I baked two loaves of my new personal favorite Cinnamon Bread recipe (from The Pioneer Woman) and, for brunch a couple of weeks ago, Dylan turned it into French Toast by dipping the bread into a whisked mixture of 2 eggs, 1 cup of milk, 1 T. sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of salt. (There wasn't a need to add cinnamon to the wet ingredients, since the bread is already loaded.) I can honestly say that it's the best French Toast I can remember having.
Now I'm craving cinnamon bread...
I have also really grown to appreciate cinnamon in savory dishes, particularly Indian ones. When I am cooking Indian recipes, I add cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods to the rice, and the scent of the rice cooking is like a pre-dinner aphrodisiac. Cinnamon is a prominent member of garam masala, as well, which seems to find its way into nearly every Indian dish.
Some of my other favorite sweet recipes showcasing cinnamon include:
-Blueberry Muffins: I enjoyed sharing these jumbo muffins, topped with a cinnamon sugar blend, with Allegro's employees this week. Trying to help keep people's energy up through harvest...
-Homemade Applesauce: Now that fresh apples are rolling in from my CSA (this week we got Fuji and McIntosh), I have dusted off my recipe for homemade applesauce. It's really just a ratio of apples to water, sugar, and cinnamon, quite easy to make. Nothing makes the house smell better.
-Cinnamon Granola: I have tweaked this recipe through the years, and this is a lovely crunchy (but not too crunchy) version, flavored generously with cinnamon and vanilla.
-The. Best. Apple. Crisp.: This recipe contains cinnamon both in the caramel sauce which is tossed with the apples and in the oat crumble that goes on the top. Yum.
One year ago I went through something of a renaissance as a home cook. Among other things, I took a look at all of the spices in my hardly-used spice drawer and realized how many different spices hadn't been touched in years, perhaps even decades. Many of the spices were long expired and some still sported labeling on their caps which my mom had neatly done when Carl and I moved into our first house over 20 years ago. It was time for a change.
I threw out nearly all of the dusty and crumbling spices. They filled a garbage bag.
Then, as the fall progressed, I began cooking more and more and becoming more adventurous with new recipes and techniques. With each grocery run, I would add another spice or two back to the drawer and cabinets, as I worked my way into wonderful Mexican recipes, Thai recipes, Indian recipes, Italian recipes. My spice repertoire (and drawer) grew fuller and fuller, and increasingly I also began adding more fresh herbs to our suppers. The hobby fed itself as it fed us.
Last week, quite late at night, while we waited for our snickerdoodle cookies to bake, my son and I actually reorganized the spice drawer, which had become so full it rarely wanted to open without a fight. My "home blends" of cajun, taco, and curry spices needed to be rehomed, as did the whole Indian section.
When I have an afternoon free, one of my favorite things to do is to devote myself to creating a feast of Indian-style foods, enough to become a lunch buffet for the rest of the week. I bake naan and make paneer and raita, replenish my curry base, simmer dal for an hour and create three entrées with a variety of proteins, veggies, and spice levels. Very little makes me as happy as knowing how to create happiness through food, and the spices play a huge role in that.
So for me, getting rid of the old really did open up a space for a wonderful expansion of our food lives.
The reorganized spice drawer makes me gratified, like an accessible store full of potential energy and flavor. Cheers to lifelong learning about good taste and the spice(s) of life!
The pumpkin spice wars are back again in full force, the calendar page has turned to September, and harvest has begun. As much as I like to keep seasons in their place, it's hard not to jump the gun just a bit, anticipating the foods and wines of the next season, my personal favorite. There's a quickening in fall which brings me back to life.
This week I let myself indulge in just two autumn recipes, needing to taste more than pure anticipation. The first was a large pot full of Butternut Soup. This version has curry powder, cumin, and a kick of cayenne. It's creamy and golden and perfect as an easy autumn lunch. I haven't yet found its perfect wine partner, but I'm open for suggestions.
The second indulgence was sparked by the season's first apples, a Minnesota-born variety called Zestar! (Yes--the exclamation point is part of its trademarked name.) These cold-hardy apples are really pretty and very tasty, light and flavorful and crisp. Because they are known for having a bit of brown sugar quality, I knew exactly which recipe would fit them: an Apple Crisp recipe which begins by making a bit of homemade caramel sauce, which is tossed with the apples before being put into the baking dish. The caramel flavors make this a notably delicious fall breakfast or dessert.
I had two of Allegro's fruit wines in mind to pair with this dessert, but the first choice was so successful that I never even opened the second bottle. The winner accompaniment is Allegro's Funk: a sweet-tart cranberry and grape blend. Honestly, it's been a while since I have come up with a food and wine pairing which is this successful. Each sip complements each bite; each bite enhances the next sip. The cranberry and apple and caramel and cinnamon...all of it just works. Almost-autumn has never tasted so good.
"They" may say that necessity is the mother of invention, but perhaps it can also be leftovers.
From this evening's happy hour, I have a case in point. As a member of a generous regional CSA, I am always working diligently to stay on top of the bounty of veggies, fruits, and herbs which come our way every week. Two weeks ago, we had gotten a beautiful box of blackberries as part of our share, and I used most of them making a version of our beloved Berry Custard Cakes. We had just a few berries left over. These kinds of refrigerator orphans stick in my mind--the last thing I want to do is waste anything that we get from our weekly shares.
A few luscious blackberries. What to do, what to do...of course! Muddle them. I set about coming up with a blackberry cocktail.
I also happen to have had, sitting compellingly in my kitchen bar, the most beautiful bottle of Pennsylvania gin that I've ever seen: Chester County's Revivalist Summertide Botanical Gin. It's lovely and light, and it has some great bright citrus notes. Lemon plus blackberries: the idea became even tastier.
The resulting refreshing cocktail is a Blackberry Lemon Sipper, made with muddled berries, lemon, triple sec, plum bitters, and summer's gin.