Like many people, I enjoy my foods and wines seasonally. During the summer, I like my foods and wines light and zippy; I tend to prefer dry whites and rosés to reds. But, once "sweater weather" comes around again, so do the dry reds. By Christmas, I've usually gone all the way to port.
Harvest is in full swing, the late afternoon sunlight is slanted and gorgeous, and it's time for wonderful red wines. For our happy hour yesterday, Carl and I broke out a bottle of the 2017 Cadenza Vineyards Merlot. What a lovely wine!
Its backstory: In 2015, we planted three acres of Merlot on the very best part of our Brogue ("Cadenza") estate vineyard. This was the hillside which East Coast viticulture expert Lucie Morton called our "heritage vineyard" site, worthy of planting vines which would resonate for decades to come. On a frigid, snowy day in March of 2014, Carl had gotten bud-wood from friends Ed and Sarah at Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland. The 181 clone vines were virus-free, and Carl also wanted them for the dark fruit character of the Merlot grapes. The canes were sent to Herrick Vines out in California, where they were grafted and planted. Then, in 2015, cuttings of the Merlot were shipped back to us for planting.
In the harvest of 2017, our estate Merlot were ready for their first picking (in what was called third "third leaf" autumn). 2017 was a good growing year and the crop came in at 1.5 tons per acre, about half of what we can expect from more mature vines. Carl was pleased with the long-anticipated Merlot, which he had thought would be put into a rosé but which instead was already ready to be in the mix of 2017 vintage dry reds.
The 2017 Merlot was fermented in tanks, rather than bins, to bring out its fruit character. Then it found its way into eight barrels, where it remained for twenty months, after which it was bottled, John Crouch-style, unfiltered and unfined. Some became our first estate Merlot, and the rest, which had been picked a little later, went into our 2017 Cadenza VIneyards Bridge and 2017 Cadenza Vineyards Cadenza. The varietal Merlot also includes 16% Cabernet Franc and a smidge of Cabernet Sauvignon.
As Carl says, this 2017 Merlot tastes of potential. It has a nice balance of concentration, tannins, acidity, and alcohol, and even high and low flavor notes. There's some definite power, although it is still too young to have a lot of complexity. In the making since that spring of 2014, the wine tastes fittingly like fruition, and is a harbinger of the many estate-grown Cadenza Merlots to come.
Cadenza Vineyards wines are available only at Allegro Winery in The Brogue or online at www.cadenzavineyards.com.
The very best days are Pizza Shop days.
I love pizza. Seriously. I also love making it. In our kitchen, Pizza Shop days mean time and effort, all of which is worth it, no matter what. Because...pizza.
Yesterday was a Pizza Shop day because of a very special bottle of wine. Carl's recent visit with our long-time friend Mike Fiore at neighboring Fiore Winery & Distillery in Maryland netted him a bunch of great stories and a seriously wonderful bottle of wine: Fiore's 2014 Sangiovese.
(More on that wine in just a bit...)
When it comes to making homemade pizza, my routine stays pretty much the same each time, though the toppings don't. Here are my tips and tricks for great pizza:
1. The dough: I use a variation of a recipe from my wonderful friend Margaret: For two pizzas I mix together 1 1/2 cups of water, 3 T. of extra virgin olive oil, 1 T. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 1 cup whole wheat flour, 3 cups of white bread flour, and 1 T. yeast. Then I knead them into a soft dough and let it rise for an hour while I get other ingredients together. These pizzas will bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes.
2. The stones: Pizza has to be baked on stoneware. This is non-negotiable.
3. The sauce: My go-to for marinara sauce comes from a 2018 Epicurious recipe for Sunday Stash Marinara Sauce. The recipe makes about 12 cups of sauce--enough to be portioned into 4 batches, most of which I freeze. It's a fun recipe to make--I love crushing the peeled tomatoes in my hands, and an immersion blender is always a good time.
4. The cheeses: I tend to use a variety of cheeses, including mozzarella (shredded and fresh), Fontina, and Gruyère. I definitely don't skimp on the cheese--for a decent cheese pizza, I've been known to use nearly four cups of cheese. Freshly-grated Parmesan is a must.
5. The toppings: I tend to mix things up quite a bit. One of my favorites is making a white pizza with olive oil, cottage cheese, and veggies (such as seared mushrooms with fennel seeds) in the mix. Every single pizza I make has a generous portion of minced garlic (1 to 2 cloves per pizza) somewhere in the balance of toppings.
I think that's about it. Last night's pizzas were accompanied by a simple salad of mixed greens and watermelon radishes from our CSA. I am currently obsessed by radishes, and these are the absolute prettiest. My go-to vinaigrette includes juice from 1 lemon, 2 T. white wine vinegar, 2 T. extra virgin olive oil, and pinches of garlic powder, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
And...that beautiful wine, Fiore's 2014 Sangiovese. It was like tasting Italy.
Carl really treasures his friendship with Mike and Rose Fiore, which extends back to when we first came to Allegro in 2001. Mike is an excellent storyteller. He also really appreciated John Crouch--Allegro's co-owner and winemaker before us--and understands this region's promise for winegrowing and winemaking.
One thing which I find really interesting is how different Allegro's wines and Fiore's wines are stylistically. Since Allegro, and Carl's winemaking, use Bordeaux as a point of reference, tasting regional wine with such Italian characteristics is an exciting difference.
Honestly, Carl was floored by the wine. He described it eloquently, noting its "electricity." The wine, from six vintages ago, is vibrant, full of fruit, and "zinging" with acidity. Earthy undertones ground the wine, which is truly a great accompaniment to foods (including all that pizza!). It's a great blend of tradition and life.
Here's how Carl describes Mike's bold style: "As a winemaker, Mike always swings for the fences. Every single time. And this time, he hit it out of the park."
This wine is on Fiore's current wine list, and next time (soon--very soon), we will be picking up a case. I'll keep those pizza stones warm...
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.
Well, it happened again. Last week it was tomatoes; this week--peppers. The accumulation of these colorful and tasty vegetables reached a critical mass, and I was forced to be faced with dispatching of them in as many creative ways possible.
An extra difficulty: One person in our household does not like bell peppers. Challenge...accepted.
I had accumulated a number of different kinds of peppers, including banana, Cubanelle, bell, and mixed sweet. I also tend to keep jalapeno and Fresno peppers on my grocery rotation, so (all in all) we've had quite an explosion of pepper recipes on our dinner table. Not one complaint so far...
Here are some of our favorite recipes using fresh peppers:
-Thai Shrimp Curry: This was one of the first recipes that I curated myself, from a combination of 3 other recipes I had tried from various places. I first served it at a Christmas-time gathering with our extended family last December, and it has been a hit ever since.
Pairing: Gunpowder Falls Dunkel
-Veggie Frittata: This easy one-skillet dish has a nice blend of late summer vegetables, topped with Asiago cheese.
-Pot of Gold Soup: This beautiful bowl is the culmination of a bringing-together of veggie broth, saffron, carrots, and yellow and/or orange peppers. It is just beautiful.
Pairing: Allegro Skin Chardonnay
-Ratatouille Nests: This is an amazing way to bring together the bounty of an August garden: eggplant, squashes, peppers, and tomatoes. Serving the ratatouille over a nest of egg pasta is truly inspired.
Pairing: Allegro Dry Rosé
-Kicky Fingers: Raw jalapeno peppers give these fingerling potatoes a peppery kick.
-Pickled (Sweet) Peppers: Honestly, who doesn't want to pack a pint of pickled peppers? This recipe produces sweet pickled peppers which are an amazing accompaniment to sandwiches and salads.
-Homemade Salsa: With 6 (!) kinds of peppers in the fridge, I turned to a friendly online recipe for Freezer Salsa and cooked up a big batch. I like being able to control the heat in the salsa, and added some extra cilantro.
-Many Pepper Relish: You can make this versatile condiment more or less spicy, depending on your blend of peppers. Wonderful with crackers and cream cheese!
Carl lived in Germany for five years as he was growing up. German was basically his first language, and he has a lot of nostalgia for Germany's tastes and traditions. I learned German in college (so that I could understand what his dad was saying during pre-dinner prayers) and had the wonderful fortune to spend a 10-week college term living in Vienna, studying music, literature, and art history.
It seems like many lifetimes ago, but Carl and I have been able to visit Germany together three times, most recently in December of 2017, when we took our boys to experience real Christkindlmärkte in Aachen and Köln.
Carl and I spent a wonderful and memorable three weeks together in France and Germany in the summer of 1999. He took a vacation from Mount Nittany Winery in State College and we made a trip specifically to learn more about French and German wine regions. In Germany, we split our time between the Mosel and Rhein river regions, where the grapes grow on the steep hillsides around the rivers. We traveled by boat up and down the rivers among the castles and small towns, tasting the wines of the region, which were memorably tart and fresh. It seemed like every town we visited was having either a wine or beer festival. It was a good time.
The wines took a bit of getting used to. Particularly in the Mosel region, they were so tart that drinking them was a puckering experience. We tried a few red wines but quickly decided to stick to whites. The red wine of Germany is Spätburgunder: a Pinot Noir which certainly was light compared to the outstanding reds we had just fallen in love with in Burgundy. The German Weißherbst is their light rosé.
The cool river climates of Germany are perfect for growing Riesling, but the challenge is often getting the grapes ripe enough to not be so tart. In a really good growing season in Germany, the Riesling will be left to hang as long as possible in the vineyards, and there is a whole classification system for quality, having to do with how far the ripening can go: from Kabinett through Spätlese and Auslese, all of the way to the dessert wines: Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
When we came to Allegro in 2001 there was Riesling in the vineyards in The Brogue, but we ultimately found that this isn't the right place for it to grow. We don't have the cool nights needed for Riesling flavor development, like they do in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Carl pulled out our Riesling after the 2016 harvest. These days, we source our Riesling from Johnson Estate Winery in the Lake Erie region of New York.
Last night was one of our favorite theme nights here: To celebrate the visit of our dear friends Margaret and Scott, we pulled out all the stops to enjoy a (socially-distanced outdoor) German feast together. Margaret is a friend of ours from college, and she was a German major who also was part of my wonderful term abroad in Vienna.
First, the beverages: We enjoyed some of Scott's homebrew, followed by four Allegro wines: the 2009 Riesling, 2008 Riesling, 2018 Gewürztraminer/Traminette, and (with dessert) the current semi-sweet Riesling. Aged Riesling is an acquired taste, since it tends to pick up flavors both of honey and petroleum (!) with time. Interestingly, I enjoyed the 2008 quite a bit more than the 2009. The wines--particularly the Gewürztraminer/Traminette--all really did pair well with the German-style foods.
Next: the foods! I pounded out some pork schnitzel and paired it with potato dumplings (Kartoffelklöße!) and these other sides:
-Skillet Spätzle: Similar to my recipe for Mac 'n Cheese 'n Onions, this is a comforting carb wonder. The fresh Spätzle are lightly sautéed with butter and caramelized onions before being stirred with grated cheeses. Fifteen minutes finishing in the oven make this one happy dish.
-German Red Cabbage (Rotkohl): While it takes a couple of hours to cook, this traditional German side dish brings so much to the table: color, acidity, and a bit of spice (cloves).
-Cool Cucumber Salad: We really love this creamy summer salad with cucumbers and dill. It's easy to make ahead of time and serve for contrast.
-Refriger-Pickles: So easy and tasty!
For dessert I made a full pan of blackberry custard Kuchen, similar to my Raspberry Custard Cakes, paired with the semi-sweet Riesling. Yum.
It's amazing how bringing these flavors all together with good friends sitting outside on a summer evening really did take us back to the days of visiting Weinkeller and Heurigen together in Germany and Austria. Wirklich toll!
Somehow we've made it to the latter part of the summer, even though the days have seemed to run together ever since March. The seasons march on, the grapes are ripening, and we have been inundated by the harvest of another favorite "fruit": fresh tomatoes.
While we don't garden ourselves (other than what Carl calls his one-perennial garden of grapes), we still have the pleasure of receiving a bounty of fresh vegetables from others. This meant that, this past week, our fruit bowl was overflowing with at least five different varieties of fresh tomatoes.
This meant that it was time to get creative in the kitchen, not letting one single little tomato go to waste. We have to store up on fresh flavors, remembering the long months down the road when grocery store tomatoes don't hold even a fraction of this flavor.
Here are some of my favorite go-to fresh tomato recipes:
Caprese Salad Skewers: A great way to start a festive summer feast, easy to make ahead and customize.
Wine suggestion: Pinot Grigio.
Fresh Tomato Ricotta Lasagna: Making your own ricotta cheese means adding an extra hour and a half of time to make this entrée, but it's so easy and the payoff is so great that it really makes this dish sing.
Wine suggestion: Cadenza Vineyards Chardonnay
Garden Tomato Soup: Roasting large sections of fresh tomatoes is very satisfying and gives this soup a really nice depth of flavor.
Wine suggestion: Sauvignon Blanc
Roasted Tomato Pasta: Easy to make and serve.
Wine suggestion: Cabernet Franc
Tangy Tomatoes: This fresh and simple tomato salad gets its zing from a healthy splash of fresh lemon juice and lemon zest, as well as fresh dill.
Wine suggestion: Gewürztraminer/Traminette