AG Pick Under $10: The Spanish Quarter 2007 Chardonnay-Albarino

Looking for a blend of old and new at a great price?  Try the Spanish Quarter 2007 Chardonnay-Albariño.  This Spanish white wine is an aromatic and lively combination of the native Spanish white grape varietal and the relative newcomer to Spain.

Spanish QuarterAlbariño is mainly grown in northwest Spain and can also be found in Portugal (there called Alvarinho).  It produces light bodied white wines that are generally high in acidity and have notes of peach and apricot.  Albariño wines pair well with antipasto, paella, cheese and seafood.

In the Spanish Quarter, the Albariño contributes intense floral aromas and bright acidity while the Chardonnay gives the wine a rich mouthfeel and tropical fruit flavors.

The wine is straw-green in color with a fragrant floral nose of exotic fruits.  The palate has highlights of ripe peach, tropical fruit, spice and a long, clean citrus finish.

This wine pairs well with seafood, chicken, rice dishes and vegetables.

A bottle of the 2007 Spanish Quarter Chardonnay-Albariño costs $9.99.

AG Pick Under $15: 2006 Tierra Secreta Malbec

Looking for a bold and spicy wine to warm you up on a cool fall evening?  Try a glass of the 2006 Tierra Secreta Malbec.

Tierra SecretaThis red wine comes from the southern end of Argentina’s Mendoza region, an area well-known for producing Malbec.  The secret is the vineyards.  The tierra secreta, or secret earth, refers to the carefully selected vineyards within the Uco Valley at the foot of the Andes where the grapes are harvested.

Deep purple in color, Tierra Secreta Malbec is concentrated and complex.  Aromas of ripe red fruit and violet lead to full-bodied flavors of cherries, blackberries and black plum, rounded out with tobacco and spice.  Velvety in texture, this wine is smooth and easy to drink.  The finish is long and lively, with a hint of cedar and vanilla from aging in French and American oak.

Tierra Secreta Malbec is an ideal pairing for grilled meats and is a delicious match for steak or braised short ribs.

A bottle of the 2006 Tierra Secreta Malbec costs $13.

Pumpkin Bread

This time of year I can’t get enough pumpkin.  And this pumpkin bread is something I crave all fall.

pumpkin breadThis recipe was created by my great grandmother on my father’s side who was an extremely talented baker.  It was passed down to my grandmother and then on to my mom, who made it a little healthier (but no less delicious), by cutting down the amount of sugar and whole eggs.  I’ve been enjoying this newer version since I was young and have started making it on my own.

This pumpkin bread makes a great breakfast, snack or dessert — try it and you’ll want it for every meal!

Here’s what you’ll need:

3 1/3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
just under ½ cup canola oil
2 cups sugar
3 whole eggs + 2 egg whites
2 cups canned pumpkin
2/3 cup water
1 cup chopped walnuts

Sift flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices.

Using an electric mixer, cream oil and sugar.  Add eggs and mix well.  Add pumpkin and water and briefly blend to incorporate.  Gradually add dry ingredients to mixture.  Fold in nuts.

Bake in greased and floured loaf pans at 350 degrees for 70 minutes.  Test with a toothpick or cake tester to determine doneness.

This recipe makes two loaves.

Thanksgiving Wine Pairings

A great Thanksgiving feast deserves a great wine!  Though selecting a bottle for your holiday dinner may seem a little daunting at first, the many flavors mean you can serve a variety of wines.

I’ve come up with a list of traditional pairings like Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, less common ones like semi-sweet white wines and even included a couple of tasty blends, all for less than $30 a bottle.

Here are wines that will pair well with your Thanksgiving meal:

Ca'Montini Pinot GrigioCa’Montini 2008 Pinot Grigio ($20)
This northern Italian white is my new favorite Pinot Grigio with its rich and creamy taste.  Relatively full-bodied for a Pinot Grigio, the wine has flavors of apple, peach, lemon and white grapefruit, with a hint of almond and hazelnut.  It’s an elegant pairing with turkey and lighter side dishes.

Washington Hills 2007 Gewurztraminer ($9)
This rich and well-balanced Gewurztraminer goes well with turkey and all the fixins.  Slightly sweet but still crisp, this white has flavors of pear, mandarin orange, pineapple and spice.

Heron Hill Ingle Vineyards RieslingHeron Hill 2006 Ingle Vineyards Riesling ($15) & Pinot Noir ($15)
Located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Heron Hill makes some delicious wines.  The 2006 Ingle Vineyards Riesling has an elegant bouquet of tropical fruit and jasmine that will add to the flavors from the meat and side dishes, while the wine’s natural acidity will pleasantly contrast with the sweetness of corn, sweet potatoes or gravy.  The Pinot Noir will bring toasty and spicy flavors to the table, while notes of cherry and plum will perfectly complement cranberry sauce.

Codorniu Pinot Noir Rose BrutCodorníu Pinot Noir Rosé Brut NV ($15)
Put a little sparkle into the traditional Pinot pairing with this Brut Cava from Spain.  Deep salmon in color with small and enthusiastic bubbles, this wine will certainly add a celebratory feel to your meal.  With flavors of strawberry and toast that come together in a crisp citrus finish, this sparkling wine goes well with turkey and all the sides.

Chehalem 2006 3 Vineyard Pinot Noir ($28)
This Pinot comes from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and has a great mix of red fruits and spice.  Flavors of spicy cherries and strawberries mix with cherry cola, cocoa, dried herbs and white pepper, with a hint of cedar on the finish.  Silky in texture, this wine is very easy to drink.

Beaujolais NouveauGeorges Duboeuf 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau ($9)
Released each year on the third Thursday in November, this light to medium bodied red from Burgundy is an ideal pairing for Thanksgiving.  Called the best vintage in 50 years, the 2009 has flavors of raspberry, blueberry and cherry with a hint of spice on the finish.  The tannins are intense for Gamay but still soft, balanced out by good acidity.

Gundlach Bundschu 2005 Mountain Cuvée ($24)
This Sonoma Valley red wine is one of my go to wines because it’s delicious and easy to drink.  It’s a medium-bodied blend of Merlot (71%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (21%), with Syrah and Cabernet Spanish QuarterFranc making up the rest.  Soft and round flavors of raspberries and cocoa lead to a spicy and meaty finish with lingering berry and cola notes.  This wine pairs well with turkey but is still elegant enough to go with lighter side dishes.

The Spanish Quarter 2007 Cabernet-Tempranillo ($10)
This red blend is a zesty and satisfying mix of Spain’s native varietal and a grape relatively new to the country.  Aromas of cherry and blackberry introduce full and silky flavors of ripe berries, dark chocolate, exotic spice and a touch of sweet oak on the finish.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2006 Heritage Zinfandel ($17)
Rued ZinfandelFor its bold and sophisticated flavors, this Zinfandel is a great buy.  Inky purple-red in color, this wine has concentrated flavors of blackberry and plum that mingle with dark chocolate, allspice and vanilla.  Firm and supple tannins create a balanced mouthfeel that culminates in a lingering and elegant finish.

Rued 2006 Zinfandel ($25)
This Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel comes from a small, family-owned winery in Sonoma County.  The wine has flavors of fresh baked blackberry pie, with hints of cocoa, licorice and spice.  It’s velvety in texture with well balanced tannins and acidity.  I’m also a big fan of their Russian River Valley Pinot Noir which costs $35 a bottle.

For more wines click on the name of the varietal or the price point you’re looking for in the tag cloud to the right.

Peace, Love and Beaujolais Nouveau

At a celebration filled with flowers, tie-dye and a whole lot of groovyness and love, the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau was uncorked Thursday in Miami Beach.

Au Pied de Cochon was the setting for this year’s 60’s themed uncorking ceremony.  The wine was brought to the restaurant in a VW van, escorted by a brigade of tie-dye clad chefs on motorcycles.

Beaujolais Nouveau comes from the Burgundy region of France.  It is made with 100% Gamay, a thin skinned grape that makes a red wine with lower tannin levels.

This year’s vintage is being heralded as the best vintage in the last 50 years, thanks to perfect weather and growing conditions.  It was a welcome change from the 2008 growing season, during which bad weather forced a later harvest and resulted in the lowest yield in more than 30 years.

Decked out in a long wig and purple sunglasses, winemaker Stéphane Queralt opened the first bottle. 

Watch the uncorking ceremony below

My first taste of the 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau came from that big bottle, and I can definitely say it is the best vintage I’ve tasted.  Other wine afficionados at the uncorking ceremony, many with several more years of wine experience than me, agreed that this is truly a special vintage.

The 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau is bursting with flavor.  The wine is deep purple-red in color, closer to a Malbec or Syrah rather than the typically strawberry-red Gamay.  Unlike previous vintages which have been candy sweet, this vintage has more substance with juicy raspberry, blueberry and cherry notes and a hint of spice on the finish.  The tannins are intense for Gamay but still soft, balanced out by good acidity.

Released each year on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the Beaujolais Nouveau is an ideal pairing for turkey; this year’s vintage can stand up to more hearty meats like lamb or beef.  Best of all, it’s an affordable accompaniment at $9 a bottle.

I spoke with winemaker Stéphane Queralt who was thrilled to be able to share what he calls a “dream vintage.”

The Amateur Gastronomer: Why is the 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau being called the best vintage in the last 50 years?

Stéphane Queralt: It’s very exceptional when you work in wine to have 100% of the grapes be totally perfect.  And when you have this perfect maturity you know just before you make the wine that it will be an outstanding vintage.

Georges Duboeuf who is 76 years old says this is the best vintage he’s ever seen.  In Beaujolais, people who are 90 years old told me that they only tasted wine like this in 1947.  If this kind of vintage happens every 60 years, you can imagine that we will not see it again in our life.  So I’m very proud to see this beautiful wine today and have people discover this beautiful vintage.

AG: Last year you told me about 2008 being a particularly difficult year for Beaujolais.  Was this year a relief in comparison?

SQ: Yes of course!  It’s a holiday making wine with this kind of vintage.  When you make wine, 80% comes from the vineyard, 10% comes from the winemaker and 10% is something you cannot control.  So when you have good grapes it’s very difficult to make a bad wine.

AG: How does the 60’s theme tie in with the Beaujolais Nouveau?

SQ: Peace, love, sharing, happiness — for me this is the definition of wine.  I don’t like the people who make wine seem complicated.  Wine must be something very simple.

This kind of wine is fantastic because it’s the wine for parties, the wine for friendship, the wine to share with family.  It’s a fantastic way to make people happier and to share good times in their lives.

AG: It’s an extraordinary achievement to have a wine that’s being called the best vintage in 50 years.  But what does that mean for next year’s Beaujolais Nouveau?

SQ: That’s always the problem with outstanding vintages.  I say you can die now after drinking the wine because you don’t know what will happen.  It’s like a lottery, you cannot predict nature.  Maybe we can have a better wine next year, you never know!

By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is always released on the third Thursday of November all over the world.  It is meant to be drunk young, within 12 months of bottling, and should be served slightly cool (about 55º F), to enhance the fruit flavors.

Click here for the 2008 Beaujolais Nouveau uncorking ceremony

A Taste of the Exotic in South Florida

Right after the great weather this time of year, the best thing about living in South Florida is its abundance of tropical fruit.  I’m not just talking about oranges and grapefruit — there is a variety of fruit grown and sold right here that you may have never tasted.  But once you do you’ll wonder why you haven’t tried them sooner!

Here are four fruits you can enjoy right now:

Mamey Sapote
This fruit comes from a tree that is native to southern Mexico, though today you’ll find mamey sapote throughout Central America, the Caribbean and South Florida.

mamey sapoteFrom its shape to its seed this fruit resembles a large avocado, except for its brown skin that has the feel of fine sandpaper.  You cut into a mamey like you would an avocado, but instead of green flesh you’ll be dazzled by the mamey’s sunset red-orange color.

The taste is out of this world.  It’s a mix of pumpkin pie and sweet potato with a mamey sapotefruity sweetness similar to papaya.  The mamey has such a rich and creamy texture that you won’t believe it came from nature.

I like to eat mamey raw, scooping out the flesh with a spoon.  It can also be used in milkshakes or smoothies.

A mamey is ready to eat when it feels mushy and the skin begins to pucker.  Unripe mamey will need about three days to ripen.

Monstera
Monstera is a fitting name for this tropical fruit that seems to come alive as it ripens.  It grows on a vine that is native to the Central American rainforest.

monsteraThe monstera fruit resembles an ear of corn that is covered in hexagonal scales.  As the fruit ripens it takes on the look of a snake shedding its skin — the scales begin to fall off, revealing a sweet-smelling light yellow flesh inside.

Once the green skin has fallen off, the monstera is ready to enjoy.  You eat it like you would eat corn, biting off the monsteraflesh from the fruit’s core.  The flavor is a delicious mix of pineapple and banana, with a texture similar to very ripe pineapple.

Because the monstera sheds its skin, you may want to store it in a bag until ripe for easier cleanup.  Be sure to wait until the scales fall off to eat the monstera, otherwise the fruit will be extremely tart.

Tamarind
If you’re familiar with Indian or South American cuisine, you may already know about tamarind (called tamarindo in Spanish-speaking countries).

tamarindThough native to Africa, tamarind is produced and consumed the most in India.  It was brought to Mexico and South America in the 1500s by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.

You can find tamarind in paste or jelly form at the grocery store, but the more difficult to find fresh tamarind is a special treat.

The tamarind fruit is a large brown pod, with dark burgundy flesh surrounding seeds inside.  Sweet and slightly tart, snacking on tamarind is like snacking on candy.  Just crack the thin shell and take a bite of the flesh inside, being mindful to spit out the seeds.

Dragon Fruit
Fruit doesn’t get much more exotic-looking than the dragon fruit.  This fruit comes from cacti that are native to Central and South America.

dragon fruitThe flesh can range from white to dark pink in color, and resembles a kiwi in texture because of its small, edible black seeds.  You can eat the fruit by cutting it vertically in half and scooping out the flesh, or by cutting it into watermelon-like slices.

For its bold appearance, the taste of dragon fruit is surprisingly mild.  It’s slightly sweet with a subtle flavor similar to melon or grapefruit.  Eat it before you try the strong-flavored mamey sapote, monstera and tamarind fruits, otherwise you may be disappointed by its delicate taste.

Want to try these fruits?  You’ll often find them at farmers’ markets and Latin American grocery stores.  If you’re not having any luck, you’re sure to find these and other exotic fruits at Robert is Here, a well-known Homestead fruit stand that also sells salsas, preserves, mustard, honey and fresh fruit milkshakes.

Naoe: A Unique Dining Experience

Let’s make a deal.  I’ll tell you about one of the most unique and memorable dining experiences I’ve had in Miami but you’ll have to promise not to tell too many others.  After all, I want to still be able to get a reservation there!

The place: NAOE in Sunny Isles Beach.

My husband and I dined there two weeks ago and we’re still talking about what a great meal we had.  There is only room for 17 diners at a time so the experience is truly intimate and special.

NAOE (pronounced na-o-é), is a Japanese “omakase” restaurant, meaning the selection of the food is up to the chef.

You’re in capable hands.  Chef Kevin Cory is an experienced sushi chef and trained with Japanese chefs in Japan and the United States.  He uses only the freshest ingredients available and executes each dish to perfection.  Wendy, the friendly hostess and sole server, treats each diner like a new friend.

The meal starts with the chef’s choice bento box ($26).  When you finish you can continue with as many rounds of sushi as you would like.  Each piece of sushi costs between $2 and $8 and you get two pieces per round.

The only menu is the drinks menu, which features sake from Nakamura Brewery, Chef Cory’s family’s brewery in Ishikawa, Japan.

We ordered a bottle of the Nichiei “Glory of the Sun” Ginjyo ($68 for a 720ml bottle).  Silky smooth with green apple and floral notes, it was one of the best sakes I’ve drank in recent memory.

After watching Chef Cory assembling the bento boxes behind the bar, I couldn’t wait to see what they contained.

The bento box was divided into four sections and came with soup, which for us was a terrific pumpkin miso soup.

I can’t recall Wendy’s description of everything in the bento box but it all was delicious.  Like the decor of the restaurant, the presentation of the food was relatively simple.  No embellishment needed — the flavors speak for themselves.

On the top left there was a creamy and savory custard-like dish served in a mini pumpkin.  On the top right was delicately seasoned fish (perhaps mackerel?), and a juicy whelk, which I was thrilled to eat because I haven’t yet found a restaurant in the U.S. that serves these tasty mollusks.

There was more fish in the lower right section including monkfish liver, described by Wendy as “foie gras of the sea.”  It was delightfully thick and soft with a slightly salty and nutty flavor.  The sardine rice on the lower left side was perfect for cleansing the palate between bites.

Thrilled by the bento box, I couldn’t wait to try the sushi.  First up: salmon belly.

As Wendy placed the salmon sushi on our table I noticed what she didn’t give us — soy sauce and wasabi.  Chef Cory had already brushed soy sauce on the sushi and placed a touch of fresh wasabi on the rice.  Both were unlike what you normally get at sushi restaurants.  The soy sauce came from Chef Cory’s family’s shoyu brewery in Japan, also named Naoe.  The wasabi was real, not made from powder.  With each piece of sushi Chef Cory finely grated the root to create the familiar green stuff.

Wendy instructed us that the best way to enjoy the sushi was to pick it up with our hands, using a hot towel to clean our fingers between bites.  Though hesitant at first to give up my chopsticks, I found I enjoyed this approach as a way to get closer to the food.

But back to the salmon.  Taking a bite of it was like discovering how sushi is supposed to taste.  It was the most creamy and flavorful piece of salmon I’ve ever eaten, and pretty much ruined me for most other sushi restaurants.  Thank goodness I had a second piece to enjoy!  Though I could have easily gone for another round of salmon I was excited to see what Chef Cory would prepare for us next.

With each round of sushi we became even more enamored with NAOE.  The shira ebi (baby white shrimp) looked like it had been braided together over the rice.  It was soft and almost gelatinous in texture, with a delicate salty flavor.  The unagi (eel) was moist and tender, in a sweet sauce made by Chef Cory.

The sushi courses came to a close with one of my favorites, uni (sea urchin).  As with everything else at NAOE, the uni was exceptionally fresh and flavorful.  It was light and rich at the same time, and seemed to melt in my mouth.

The meal ended with three desserts.  First was sliced cantaloupe and Asian pear, which Chef Cory served with an unexpectedly tasty light sauce made from sweetened rice vinegar and pistachio oil.  Next came mochi, a jelly-like sweet treat made with glutinous rice, which Chef Cory prepared in front of us.  Our final dessert was a piece of bright orange-red mamey sapote which tasted like fruity and creamy pumpkin pie.  I was so intrigued by this fruit that I drove to Homestead the next day to buy a couple (more on mamey and other exotic fruits coming soon).

Time flies when you’re enjoying great food — my meal at NAOE lasted nearly three hours, though I didn’t realize this until it was time to leave.  On the way out I thanked Chef Cory and Wendy for an incredible and memorable meal, while already planning my next visit.

NAOE is located on eastbound Sunny Isles Boulevard across from the St. Tropez condominiums.  Seating times are Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30pm, 8:30pm and 11:30pm.  Reservations are required and can be made online at OpenTable.com.  As the menu is prepared specially each day, dietary restrictions or requests should be cleared seven days in advance.

For more information visit naoemiami.com.

AG Pick: Dry Creek Vineyard 2005 Soleil

I’m not sure how I was able to wait more than a year to open a bottle of the 2005 Soleil from Dry Creek Vineyard that’s been sitting in my wine fridge.  Perhaps I was a little bit worried I had built it up too much in my head.  Would I still find it as good as when I tried it last summer at Dry Creek’s tasting room?

2005 SoleilFortunately my fears were unnecessary.  The Soleil was even more delicious than I remembered.

The Soleil is a late harvest wine made with 62% Sauvignon Blanc and 38% Semillon from Sonoma County.  It underwent barrel fermentation and spent 15 months in French oak.  For a sweet wine it has a surprisingly high alcohol percentage, 13.5 percent.

Soleil, French for sun, is a perfect name for this wine.  It’s brilliant gold in color and smells like sunshine in a glass.  Intoxicating aromas of vanilla, rose petal, honey and apricot invite you to take a sip.  On the palate are flavors of sweet apricot, white peach, jasmine and vanilla, which are balanced out by crisp Asian pear.

The wine is rich in texture while still delicate, with a luxuriously silky mouthfeel.  Gentle acidity preserves the upbeat and sweet characteristics of the wine while preventing it from feeling heavy or syrupy.  It’s a dessert wine that will convert non dessert wine fans.

The 2005 Soleil is perfect as an after dinner drink and can be enjoyed with fresh fruit, dessert, or on its own.

A 375 ml bottle of the Dry Creek Vineyard 2005 Soleil costs $25.