Monday, July 28, 2008

Great Summer Wines under $10

Let's face it: I'm married to a Frenchman. Wine is a part of our everyday life. I'd say six out of seven nights, we serve wine with dinner. It's basically an added course to our menu that we choose to not forego. So, the challenge for us has been finding wines we can really enjoy, yet they won't break the bank.

Now, in the cooler weather, I'd say 4 out of every 5 bottles we open are reds. It's just a personal preference, plus reds often go with the heartier fare I tend to cook when the seasons turn. However, a nice kick-you-in-the-ass cabernet sauvignon is NOT what I want as I sit on the porch under a fan, eating a burger. So, I have some wines that I drink during the summer but forego most of the rest of the year. I want something refreshing when it's hot--not complex and heavy. Seasonal eating? Hell, folks should be seasonal drinking, too!

Now that I'm working in a wine store and get to sample so very many wines, I've come up with a list of favorites that do the job without breaking the bank. All of these wines are under $10, but that's based on Total Wine prices (and really, their prices are pretty darn good--they might be wines that cost more elsewhere). And all of these don't really need to be vintage specific, so I won't bother.

1) Domaine St Antoine, dry rose, from the Languedoc-Rousillon, at $9.99. Your better French bargains come out of the Languedoc-Rousillon these days. Their quality is improving, but their prices remain low, even with the Euro-dollar fiasco. This particular bottle is great with grilled foods, and it's great just to sip. Made from Syrah and Grenache, it has that lovely fruity strawberry I love, plus a dash of blackberry.

2) Domaine Guy Mousset, dry rose, Cotes du Rhone, at $9.99. This particular bottle appeals to me because it's basically a Tavel at a reasonable price. I love Tavels, but the ones I can find are at LEAST $15 or more. And my husband insists: no rose should cost more than $10. So, if I can't get a specific appellation of the Rhone I want, why not go for the whole shebang? It's got a lot of strawberry with a touch of cherry, too.

3) Gazela Vinho Verde, Portugal, $5.99. I never take vinho verde seriously because...they aren't meant to be some amazing, complex thing that sends wine snobs into orgasmic fits. They're often like a wine spritzer to me because of the fizz and the low alcohol. But boy, is this sucker nice to have in hand while you lounge on the beach.

4) Domaine Pignard, Beaujolais, $9.99. I honestly prefer the Beaujolais Cru (Moulin-a-Vent, Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie, etc) if I have the choice, but those usually fall in the $14 to $18 range. So, what if I want a red wine that's light, under $10, and should ALWAYS be served chilled? Well, I'd go for this bottle. IT IS DISGUSTING WARM because it's not meant to be drank that way. Please discard some archaic notion that reds should always be warm. No red should be warm. Even Cabs at room temp mean room temp in a castle or dungeon from eons ago, IE, about 65 degrees F. But beaujolais should be almost as cold as a white, and that makes it very refreshing in hot weather.

5) Hugues Beauvignac Picpoul de Pinet, $9.99. Also from the Languedoc, it's crisp and clean with a bit o' apple and citrus. I liked it even better when it cost $7.99, but lo, with gas prices and the euro being so strong, it's gone up $2 in the last year or so.

6) Rondel Rura Raza Brut, Cava, Spain, $7.99. I prefer champagne, the real stuff. Next in line? Cremant de Bourgogne (same grapes as Champagne, same method, half the price). After that? A good Cava hits the spot. This one is the least expensive, good Cava I've ever had. They also make two semi secos if you prefer some sweetness.

7) Sant Orsola Asti, $8.99. Speaking of some sweetness, this bubbly is sweet without being cloying. It's great with fruit or fruit desserts.

8) Bougrier "V" Vouvray, Loire, $9.99. I thought hey, since I already mentioned ONE sweet wine, why not make it two? This Vouvray definitely is the traditional slightly sweet Chenin Blanc that many love, yet at a reasonable price.

9) D’Autrefois Pinot Noir, vin de pays d'oc, $9.99. You know, Pinot Noir done cheap is something that usually gives me hives. The damn grape is frustrating to do right. Thin skin, climate sensitive, hard to get to ferment right--you name it. So a cheap Pinot Noir usually tastes like a cheap Pinot Noir. However, this one is surprisingly full of cherry and vanilla for something so inexpensive. They also make a reserve for $3 more that's worth the extra bucks. Pinot Noir is definitely a red light enough to enjoy during the summer, but this is about the only one I can recommend under $10!

10) Armani Pinot Grigio Venezie, Italy, $8.99. A bit o' mineral, a bit o' apple, and quite crisp and refreshing. I prefer my Pinot Grigio as Pinot Gris, but then it costs well over $10. I like this one because it stands up to food and holds its own. The light-bodied Pinot Grigios just can't do that, which is why I hunt up good tasting medium-bodied ones.

I could go on. I have at least ten more I could list here, but this'll do for now. Hope you enjoy!

Friday, April 4, 2008


When I was little, I always preferred raw carrots to cooked ones. I loved the crispness, the snap, the full flavor of that little orange vegetable.

In contrast, I didn't go so nuts over the green beans my mom cooked in the typical southern fashion. See, my dad was from Kentucky. It's not technically part of the South...but it is. My dad wanted his meat and three at the table every night. And if we were to do green beans, they were cooked for a loooong time with ham hocks, cooked until they were mushy, green, ham flavored things instead of the vegetables they were long before they were slammed into the pot.

It's not that I never liked mushy veggies. For some reason, as a young one--and even to this day--I like canned asparagus. You can't get more soft than that. But generally, I like my veggies to snap and burst with flavor in my mouth. Anything I cook that way, I like to be lightly cooked and flavored so I can experience all that it has to offer. For instance, when I get zucchini, my favorite way to prepare it is to slice it up, saute it in oil, add a little salt and pepper, and then grate some REAL parm-reg. on top. Yum! Simple, barely cooked food excites my tastebuds.

Even as a child, I spread this love onto meat. Whenever I had a steak as a child, I wanted it to be medium rare. My mom and dad liked it cooked medium, but I liked it with that bit o' red left. Then, as a teen, I discovered rare meat...oh yum! I understand fully why professional cooks sneer at folks who want their beef at well done or medium well. What's left but leather at that point? The flavor has been heated out of it!

In my early 20s, I discovered sushi. Ooohhh...good stuff! Sure, I eat the sushi that has completely cooked items in it, but my preferred pieces are really fatty tuna or young yellowtail all nice and raw. One time, at a restaurant that Grant took us to in Atlanta, I had this unusual piece of sushi that had a raw quail egg in it with some sort of fish roe. The yolk burst onto the eggs, covering it with a creamy richness, and the explosion of flavor was almost too much. Wow.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that although I understand why we should be concerned about food poisoning issues...I still want a lot of my food raw. I will always snack on raw cookie dough (although using Davidson's pasteurized eggs DOES make me able to let the kids snack on it too without conscious) and use uncooked egg yolks in some of my homemade icings. I like the full taste of it, the dancing bursts of individual sensations on my tongue. Cooked can be nice, but give me raw anyday!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Love Affair with Wine

My mother had a Mexican mum and a Hungarian dad. She had no hangups about alcohol as far as "don't ever drink it!" or "nothing until you are 21!" In her home, everybody was served wine on special occasions--just the portion size changed as the child grew into an adult. Although my dad was not raised that way, he quickly adapted to my mother's concept of how to introduce alcohol in the house, and therefore even when I was quite little, I was allowed a small thimbleful of whatever they had to try.

Meanwhile, my dad was being turned on to wine by a good friend of his. This started in the 70s, and his friend was really into French wine. Of course, by this time the famous Judgement of Paris had already happened and now folks were taking California wines quite seriously, but that didn't stop my dad's friend from still focusing on France as his preferred country of origin for his wine. At first, dad didn't get the wine thing; my mom did, of course, but not my Kentucky dad whose experience with drinking included beer and whatever the neighbor made. One day he was given something I would never go out and buy to drink: Lancers rose (a Portuguese medium sweet wine with some fizz, actually). He liked it, and he proceeded from there to dive into the French wines his friend loved. And that's what he served us.

How many kids can say they were raised on Hermitage? That was the first appellation to entice my dad badly enough to buy cases. At that point in our family history, my dad was a practicing orthodontist, so purchasing cases of an expensive wine was not unacceptable. I guess that's why my favorite region to this day, though, is the Rhone. I love Cote Rotie, Chat. du Pape, Gigondas...all the Rhones I've tried, really. Because my dad loved red over white, no matter what the trends, that's what I was trained to love too. I love sparkling wines, whites, and dry roses...but my first choice is always a good, balanced red of some sort (except pinotage--I hate all pinotage I've ever tried).

While all my friends were getting ripped left and right in college, I didn't do so very often. Alcohol was never a forbidden fruit for me, so it just didn't tempt. And then after college, well, I married a man with some issues with alcohol, so I pretty much rarely drank after that point. I had to be sober to drive the car for us or to make responsible decisions with the kids or whatnot. For years, it was only a special occasion when I whipped out a bottle of wine.

And then I moved out. No longer needing to be the responsible adult at all times helped. When my ex took the kids, I could kick back and have a few glasses of whatever I enjoyed, and there was no consequences.

Then something odd happened almost three years ago: I fell back in love with wine, totally and head over heals. I am not sure if being in love with a Frenchman did it or what--I absolutely know ten times as much wine as he does and like it more, so maybe it's just me! But there I was, savoring and sipping wine like I hadn't done since I was a teen and sitting around the table, a nice Hermitage popped open for Christmas or a birthday. Suddenly, it mattered more to me than it ever did. I began reading frantically, watching programs, talking to wine geeks, and becoming more and more enraptured with all things vine related. I love to match a wine with a meal, making the dish more than it was without the wine (braised beef short ribs and pinot noir? Awesome!). I love to hunt out bargains to savor, whether white/red/rose/sparkling (Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet Cotes de Languedoc Blanc--best white wine bargain under $10 in my opinion). Even better, I like to take friends of mine who claim to not like wine at all and help them find something to their taste (just ask my friend Amy! she's now a regular wine drinker thanks to my intrusiveness...haha!). It's all fun.

Having a glass or two of wine with dinner most nights is, indeed, responsible for some of the weight gain I've done over the last three years. But you know what? It's been worth it! I think my devout appreciation for wine is now firmly entrenched in my mind. And one day--you just watch!--I'll have a small wine cellar of my own. But first, I'll have to win the lottery....

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Comfort Food, Peasant Food

What is your comfort food? What is the item that you crave when you are sick, lonely, depressed, or otherwise in need of solace? We know that the critic from Ratatouille relished the upscale version of ratatouille he received even though he was largely used to eating mango salsa lobster tempura with black truffle oil triple cream bleu and mint in a balsamic reduction over eel and squid ice cream. That is, he had all of the restaurants in the area eager to please him by trying to feed him whatever the most intricate and creative dish was that they could make. Yet, what really impressed him was an item largely considered a peasant dish.

I think that's what we all want when we seek comfort: simple dishes that may be regional or family favorites, meals that were served with regularity, for celebration, or for illness. What southerner doesn't appreciate and crave chicken and dumplings from time to time, or fried chicken? They are not complex nor hard to assemble recipes, but after being raised with them on the table here and there, they become more than their ingredients. Those of us who were raised in areas with a Cubano influence might crave chicken and yellow rice. Maybe the Brits think of bangers and mash.

For me, specific dishes my mom made with regularity definitely give a sense of peace that more intriguing and intricate foods would not. For instance, my mom's dad was Hungarian--as in, straight from Hungary. My mom picked up from her household how to make Hungarian goulash, and so she made it for us several times during the cooler months. It was a rich stew, replete with meat, potatoes, onion, butter, salt, really, other than some water too, you're done with the ingredients. There is nothing subtle nor filled with nuances in that pot when you are done. However, with a bit of a swirl of sour cream straight into the mixture as you serve it, the damned thing becomes magical...soothing...delicious in a way that some upscale dish can't achieve.

Sometimes this level of comfort food is even too complex for the really miserable days when you just don't want to crawl out from underneath the comforter in your warm bed. For me, the ultimate rock a bye baby when I feel under the weather is a nice bowl of creamy mashed potatoes (with real, homemade gravy if you have it...with cheddar cheese if you don't!). It doesn't get more simple than that.

Nothing out there says it can only be a great meal if it has many ingredients--some of them expensive--and takes hours to cook. Sometimes, the most basic of dishes can be exactly what is needed. And that's why you'll always find potatoes at my house, Atkins or no Atkins.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Garfield Says that Diet is "Die" with a T

I'm not going to diet. I live for food. I truly admire those who have the willpower to sit down and decide to lose weight, and then they follow through with that plan. I'm not one of them. That would be like, oh, I dunno, me deciding to sit down and CUT OUT MY TONGUE! The best parts of life--beyond my charming family and friends--would be excellent food that makes my taste buds dance. Oh, and a great glass of wine that matches with that food in such a fashion so that both the food and the wine taste better.

The diet that makes the least amount of sense to me is anything that involves drinking all your meals. What the heck? It reminds me of Alex's mum who once said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could just swallow a pill instead of have to fix a meal and then eat it?" ARE YOU ON CRACK, WOMAN??? I also don't support any type of regime that involves ruling out an entire food group. The divine put them all there for me to eat, damnit, and so I shall. Fat is tasty. Potatoes? Awesome. Bread? Yes, please, I'd love another. Chocolate? Of course!

Besides, I found out long ago that the second I label a specific edible item as forbidden, I crave it twice as much.

The ones who diet that I can at least understand are those who will not sacrifice flavor, but instead they cut down the portion sizes and exercise more. I would rather have a palmful of something amazing than a tableful of cardboard. Or to put it in even better terms, one Godiva truffle is better than 2 lbs of Hershey's kisses. Still another analogy: one glass of a good Hermitage rates over a case of Two Buck Chuck any day of the week. See where I'm going with that?

So, since I won't diet, what I have decided to do instead is make informed choices. I will analyze my options, and take the one that's the best for me out of a list of items I enjoy. Example: tonight, the place wherein I will be eating out has an online menu complete with calories listed. I made a list of the items I thought sounded delicious, THEN I checked on the calories and other nutrient info. The choice is much simpler to make at that point. Do I want the great wall of chocolate at 2,240 calories (HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!!!!)? Or do I want the flourless chocolate dome served with fresh berries and raspberry sauce for 570 cals? Ok, now I know. Decision made. Besides, this place is the only place I know of locally to snag a glass of Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc, and so I have to save some of my tummy space for that, too (not with that chocolate dessert, though--with dinner, of course). I have some sort of fixation with Krug since I realized that it's one of those Sauvignon Blancs that has the bouquet of pipi du chat (cat piss). No, really, that's good. No. I swear. I promise. Yum!

This is as close as I'll get to a diet. I will never go all out rice cakes on anybody. See, sure, eating right and dieting may add on ten years to my life, but that's ten more rice cake eating years. I'll take the wine and the flourless chocolate dome, thanks!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Joe's post on restaurants reminded me of something I do occasionally that I hate in regard to restaurants...

...I get stuck on one meal.

What I mean is, I will go to a restaurant, and I will try all sorts of interesting meals. But then, for some restaurants (fortunately not all), I will end up with a meal so great I have to have it every single time I go. I'm stuck. I can't get past one certain item on the menu. I'll swear up and down--next time, NEXT TIME, when I go there I will get something new! And then next time comes, and what I do is read the entire menu...and order the very item I had the last five times. It's like my stomach has begun to associate that particular place with this one meal, and it's not food unless I get it. Can you imagine the total amount of other amazing food I'm missing out on just because I can't get past ordering only this one dish?

I find that the easiest places to not get fixated on one food are all tapas restaurants. Since I'm trying several little dishes each time, I can always comfort myself with ordering one of the previous items I adored while trying several other new ones. I'm also easier with ordering something new if I can afford to go there repeatedly instead of just on special occasions.

I can't be the only person who foolishly gets stuck on one meal for one restaurant, right?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What Cheeses Do You Need Most?

I am a dairy woman. Sadly, for many years I could not be a dairy woman.

When I started out life, my mother breastfed me. When she switched me to milk, I threw it up--violently. By the third time I turned into exorcist baby by projectile vomiting off my mom's shoulder, I was taken off all cow's milk products for a few years, but then I apparently grew out of it.

Thank God.

After that ordeal, I had a strong pull towards cheese and ice cream particularly. I try to make up for my cow's milk in other forms, so even though I still never drink milk--ARRGH MILK!--I love to eat it in the form of cheese. What cheeses are essential to me?

Well, we must always have cheddar cheese (sharp or very sharp). Monterey Jack and Cream Cheese are also good. Those are standards. For parmesan, I have nobody but the Evil Joe** to thank for giving me my first taste of parmesan-reggiano (your first taste is free....and then you pay!). I can't imagine having anything other than the real McCoy now, and I always have a chunk of it in my refrigerator. A lot of time I have mozzarrella in the refrigerator too (most of the time it's fresh since I can really taste a difference). But what about the exotic cheeses?

I don't consider feta exotic, but I guess some of you do. That's always present. I like it in salads and with shrimp and a few other items, so I can't live without it. Then there's manchego. See, manchego is the one cheese I consider wine-friendly with just about every wine you can consider. You don't have to worry about any of that "goat cheese goes with Sauvignon Blanc!" stuff. You just know: I want wine, I want cheese; I want this wine, so I pick out manchego. Other cheeses I love...some form of bleu, amadeus, sottocerne, chevre (plain or with something like pesto, basil, or pepper), brie or camembert (with fig spread! Woohoo!), and cantal/cantalette. That'd be the bare minimum at this point that you could find in my refrigerator if you came to my house. Sure, there might be no cantalette, and instead you'd find roquefort. We DO allow for substitutions here at Chez Kira. But on the whole, this is cheese paradise! If you want a meal with cheese in it, we've got you covered. If you want a fromage plate, we've also got the means to please you. Cheese = Bliss!

So, what cheeses do YOU have in your refrigerator???

**Evil Joe is a dear friend of mine for several decades, and he is the font of all crack-addict like needs for cheese and other good foods. I blame him. It's easier.