Monthly Archives: February 2009

Which Wine to Drink With Spicy Food

I love spicy cuisines. Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese… I could go on. But I also love wine, which presents a connundrum. What to serve with spicy food? The problem, as many wine lovers know, is that spicy food brings out the alcohol in the wine, which can in turn make the food hotter and unpleasant. Spicy food can also accentuate oak, so you mask the subtle smokiness or tangy lime flavors of a dish with wood if you partake in even a slightly oaky wine. So what’s a wine lover to do?

The go-to wine is Reisling. I recently attended a fabulous Thai dinner at a little spot in Las Vegas called Lotus Siam where they had all sorts of reislings. Sweet, aged, clear and crisp. It was a wonderful way to sample all of the different flavors a reisling can bring to a meal.

But you need not be stuck with reisling. Bubbly wines also work well, as noted by Eric Asimov in his latest article in The New York Times. “Sparkling wine often complements spicy food for the same reason that beer often works: the bubbles scrub and refresh the palate,” he writes, which I think perfectly describes it. But I would add an additional caveat: look for wines with smaller bubbles, i.e. wines made using the methode Champenoise, where the secondary fermentation (which produces the carbon dioxide) occurs inside of the bottle. Smaller bubbles caress the palate, larger bubbles can irritate your already spiced-up taste buds even more.

I would also go with an unoaked Chardonnay, a Sancerre, maybe a light Gewurztramminer. I don’t tend to like sweet wines with food, as I feel they can overpower other flavors, so I skew toward leaner, drier wines.

When in doubt, experiment. Stay away from alcoholic wines and oak, and have some fun. That is, after all, what wine tasting is all about.

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Posted by on February 26, 2009 in Wine


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Hot, Hot, Hot – Chile de Arbol Sauce

When I was in Ixtapa this Christmas, I spent time in the kitchen with Sol (Soledad) who is an incredible cook. The woman knows dozens of salsas and hundreds of Mexican dishes all in her head. My task while I was there: to learn how to make her fabulous hot sauces. I sneaked some dried chiles (which can all be found here) in my backpack and set about to recreate her spicy delights.

For this first sauce, I used a chile known as Chile de Arbol. This pepper is long and skinny (although not as skinny as some of the Thai peppers) and is a deep, dark red when dried. One of the things Sol stressed one should do is toast the chiles before making the sauces. A word of caution here: the spicy components of the chile are volatile, so when making these sauces, keep pets and kids out of the kitchen, use rubber gloves, and open a window for ventilation. Do not touch your face or eyes while preparing this sauce. Yes, it’s hot.

Chile de arbol peppers are very spicy, rating 8 out of 10 in the hotness scale, i.e. burns your tongue. Mixed in this tomato-based salsa, though, the spiciness is toned down and the smokiness is accentuated.

Chile de Arbol Hot Sauce


1/3 cup red wine vinegar

3/4 cup chile de arbol peppers, dried

1 small onion, sliced

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 cups water

6 ounce can tomato paste


1. Toast the chiles and onion on a saucepan until you begin to smell the smokey, peppery smell. Try not to inhale it directly, as it can irritate your sinuses.

2. Using gloves, chop off the woody ends of the chiles and, if desired (to reduce spiciness), pour out the seeds.

3. Place the onion, chiles, vinegar, oil, water and tomato paste in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Taste. You can add more vinegar, water and tomato paste to thin the sauce if you want (and also to tone down the spiciness).

4. Pour into jars and freeze whatever you will not use in the next week.

This sauce is great in soups and can be added to Mexican dishes such as huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, enfrijoladas. It is very spicy, so a little goes a long way!

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Posted by on February 20, 2009 in spices


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Super Fast & Fresh Frozen Treats: Grape Granitas

At the age of 15, I discovered the food processor. You could hear me at all hours of the day, whirring and blending, chopping and slicing with this delightful little machine. There’s just no end to what you can do with it. I love it for making hummus, pestos, slicing veggies. But the real secret is that this fabulous little thing makes perfect granitas. If you remember to put a bunch of grapes in the freezer the night before, you’ll be whipping up these two frozen desserts in no time.

Cinnamon-Ginger Grape Granita

This recipe is super-fast and really refreshing. I love the spiciness of the ginger and cinnamon and the sweet, childlike flavor of the grapes. Experiment with different grapes (there’s a variety called “Autumn Spice” that would work particularly well).


4 cups seedless red grapes, destemmed, frozen overnight

1 tsp cinnamon

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 tsp ground ginger


1. Defrost the grapes slightly by running cold water over them for one minute or so. Drain.

2. Put the grapes, sugar and spices in the food processor and process until smooth.


Cinnamon-Basil Grape Granita

This recipe is particularly pretty, with green and red flecks. Serve immediately so that the granita doesn’t melt! This serves 8 people for dessert or 4 people as a snack.


4 cups seedless red grapes, destemmed, frozen overnight

1 tsp cinnamon

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil


1. Defrost the grapes slightly by running cold water over them for one minute or so. Drain.

2. Put the grapes, sugar, cinnamon and basil in the food processor and process until smooth.

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Posted by on February 20, 2009 in Ice Creams and Frozen Desserts


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Cocoa Spiced Rustic Rub

For Christmas, I put together this rub and gave it away to friends and family. My sister and mom rubbed it all over a fresh, organic chicken a few days before roasting and the result was amazing. Buy your spices in the Mexican/Latino/Hispanic section of the grocery store where they are sold in larger quantities in plastic bags. They are much more economical that way.

Cocoa Spiced Rustic Rub

1/2 cup paprika

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

5 Tbsp. black pepper

6 Tbsp. onion powder

3 Tbsp. salt

2 1/2 Tbsp. dried oregano

2 1/2 Tbsp. dried thyme

3 Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch-process)

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl until blended. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 3 3/4 cups.

*From Enlightened Chocolate, by Camilla V. Saulsbury

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Posted by on February 10, 2009 in Meat, spices


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English Marmalade Chocolate Cake

When I was in Santa Barbara a few weeks ago, I made this lovely chocolate cake filled with orange marmalade as a special treat. It’s not quite as dense as a Sacher torte, but rather has a nice, fluffy crumb and a deep chocolate flavor. Super easy to make.

Adapted from Enlightened Chocolate by Camilla V. Saulsbury

English Marmalade Chocolate Cake

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

pinch salt

1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

8 oz of canned pumpkin, butternut squash or prune puree

3 Tbsp water

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

1 Tbsp grated orange rind

2 eggs

1 oz finely chopped unsweetened baking chocolate

1/2 cup jarred orange marmalade


1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly coat a 9-inch cake pan with cooking spray.

2. In a large bowl, combine flours, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. In a medium bowl whisk together buttermilk, canned pumpkin, water, vanilla, orange zest, and eggs until well-blended. Using an electric mixer set on low, mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.

4. Place the unsweetened chocolate in a small cup and microwave 45 seconds. Stir until melted and smooth and add to the batter. Beat the batter until blended and smooth.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

6. When cool, invert the cake onto a cake platter or plate and slice in half horizontally. Spread orange marmalade on bottom layer. Replace top. Feel free to frost with your favorite chocolate frosting!

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Posted by on February 10, 2009 in Chocolate, Cupcakes and Cakes


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We all scream for (gourmet homemade) ice cream

My sister gave me a wonderful book for Christmas with recipes for sorbets, ice creams, granitas and frozen desserts appropriately called “Ice Cream & Frozen Desserts” by Peggy Fallon. My favorite recipe thus far (and my boyfriend concurs) is this recipe for cinnamon basil ice cream. The basil flavor is very subtle, but fragrant and delicate on the tongue. I lightened up the recipe a little bit, using half-and-half instead of whole cream, but the result is still rich and sumptuous.

Cinnamon Basil Ice Cream

2 1/2 cups whole milk

1 bunch basil, well-rinsed

1 cinnamon stick

4 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups half-and-half


1. Bring the milk to a simmer in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the basil and the cinnamon stick, cover, and remove from the heat. Let steep for 15 minutes, then strain through a sieve, pressing down on the basil to extract all of the liquid.

2. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the cinnamon basil-flavored milk. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (170-175 degrees F).

3. Immediately pour the custard back into the mixing bowl and let cool in the refrigerator, until the custard is very cold. Whisk in the half-and-half.

4. Pour the mixture into the canister of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a covered container and freeze until it is firm enough to scoop (at least three hours or overnight).

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Posted by on February 7, 2009 in Ice Creams and Frozen Desserts


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Still drinking, just swirling wine that is a little cheaper

People may have cut their Starbucks lattes, their pricey haircuts and highlights and their weekly massages, but they haven’t cut drinking. Wine, that is. (Although one suspects that the financial crisis is probably driving some to imbibe more of the hard stuff).

According to this article by the LA Times, people are just looking for better deals. Out go the $80 bottles of wine, in go the $15-$25 range. And thanks to newer producers like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and Argentina, there are plenty of fabulous deals to go around. Here in San Diego, our local wine shop (Dick’s Liquor) is having a 10-50% off sale on most of the wines. I found some excellent zinfandels, pinot noirs, cabernet sauvignons and syrahs on sale.

So don’t despair. Just be creative and you’re bound to find a wonderful bottle or two.

Check out the full article:,0,7436559.story

From the Los Angeles Times


It’s a buyer’s market in wine

Although people may not be buying as many expensive bottles as before, they’re still seeking out quality wine. And retailers are responding with specials.

By Patrick Comiskey

February 4, 2009

As we limp into 2009, watching our mad money dwindle from a mountain to a mound to a modest lump, you’d probably rather not think too much about restocking the dent you put in your wine collection over the holidays.

But there are many signs that this economic downturn could result in a mini-boom for wine lovers. Perhaps more than at any other time in the last five years, this is an opportunity for consumers to not only drink really good wines, but also to drink better for less. This is true in nearly every price category, and in nearly every region; for the truly savvy, this could be one of the more exciting periods in recent years for America’s rekindled love affair with the grape.

All of the area retailers I spoke with said that, despite bouts of dark humor along the lines of “things are so bad I can’t stop drinking now,” all is not gloom and doom on the floors of your average wine shop. “People are pretty happy when they’re here,” says wine buyer Kyle Meyer of the Wine Exchange in Orange. “I mean, this isn’t a doctor’s office.”

Indeed, there’s a prevailing sense that, even in tough economic times, Americans have not lost their thirst for good wine, and its enjoyment has become a regular part of their lives. We all may be watching our pennies, but so far, at any rate, we haven’t been willing to part with this everyday pleasure. The genie is out of the bottle, and the only place it’s going to go is into a glass.

But the mood has turned less exuberant than it was in the rip-roaring days before the crash. “People are definitely trading down,” says Mike Greene, general manager of Woodland Hills Wine Co. “They don’t seem to be cutting back on the amount of wine they’re buying, but they’re much more fixated on what they’re spending.”

And retailers have responded. There’s consensus that 2009 will be the Year of the Shrinkage. In the coming months, distributors will be looking for every opportunity to trim their inventory.

The result is a buyer’s market for retailers and consumers alike. Wine shops are scouring distributor catalogs for bargains and actively recalibrating their stock for the new economic reality. In many parts of the market, deals are there for the taking.

“Oh yeah, we’re vultures, no question about it,” says Meyer of the Wine Exchange, “but we know good wine, and we’re giving our customers more for what they spend.”

New comfort zone

Most retailers agree that, in terms of a retail “sweet spot” — the price that regular customers feel most comfortable spending — $25 has become the new $40. Whether it’s a village Burgundy or a fancy new Syrah from Walla Walla, Wash., people are comfortable spending $25 but get balky if the price rises much above that. As for the more expensive wines? “If you’re a $40 wine on the shelf,” Woodland Hills’ Greene says, “you’re probably a pretty lonely bottle about now.”

That’s not to say that customers have abandoned expensive wine. “My customers still want their special bottles,” says Jim Knight from the Wine House in West L.A., who points out that his allocation of the pedigreed Santa Ynez Rhône blend from Jonata (as in the folks who bring you Screaming Eagle) was snatched up in days. “They still want their Friday-night dinner wine to be a step up from Wednesday’s.”

But even among highflying, Parker-point-chasing, mega-cult reds, there are deals. “If you don’t have a track record,” Greene says, “you may just have to suck it up and price it right.”

At least some of the deals are coming from distributors, whose warehouses are full of inventory accumulated in better days and who are striking deals to move it out. A store like Wine Exchange is large enough, and has sufficient clout among distributors, that Meyer can leverage even better margins above already discounted offers. “They’ll come to me with a 30% discount. I tell them, ‘You give me 50% and I’ll take it all.’ ” That’s the sort of bargain Meyer likes to pass on to his monthly wine clubs and other dedicated customers. Not every shop has this sort of leverage, but most stores have taken advantage of closeouts, end-of-vintage or end-of-year specials.

Some of the wines being offered by distributors are rarities, boutique and hard-to-find wines that in the past would have been allocated to just a tiny group of mostly restaurant accounts but now are going to a broader range of outlets. “We’ve really benefited from some allocation shifts,” says Chris Meeske of Mission Wines in South Pasadena, who can now get wines like the current vintage of Ridge’s great Cabernet blend, Monte Bello. “I’ve got all of these wines I couldn’t get before, and they’re flying out the door.” Some wineries are even cutting out the middleman; one retailer spoke of a winery owner who tried to sell him his wine direct at a price that undercut the winery’s distributor by 20%.

Good value

Going straight to the source can certainly pay off, even if you’re not allowed to say who that source might be. Late last year, Gary Fishman, domestic wine buyer for Wally’s Wine Merchant, purchased and bottled a 2006 Cabernet blend from a well-regarded, Parker-anointed Napa winery (which must remain nameless) as a store brand for the L.A. wine shop. Called Cyclone, it retails for about $70, less than half the price of similar wines from that winery.

Meanwhile, the new $25 sweet spot is crowded with value. After a string of good vintages in the Beaujolais, Loire and Rhône valleys, even the most modest bottlings from those regions are drinking beautifully. The 2007 vintage in the Piedmont will one day yield some exquisite Barolos and Barbarescos; but the inexpensive Nebbiolos from Alba and the Langhe — not to mention a bumper crop of charming Dolcettos and Barberas — are marvelous right now. In Spain, 2007 wasn’t quite the same quality vintage as in France and Italy, but the values from places like Montsant, Rueda and Bierzo are as strong as ever.

Every retailer I spoke with mentioned the exceptional Malbecs of Argentina, which continue to outperform for their price. Not only do they get better with each vintage, but they also stay inexpensive — almost all of them are under $20.

And most retailers predicted that Australia’s crowded tier of premium Shirazes and other reds — wines that came into the market at $40 or more — is almost certainly going to be discounted for tremendous bargains.

You might expect smaller retail shops, such as Mission Wines in South Pasadena and the Colorado Wine Co. in Eagle Rock, to be more vulnerable to economic woes, but so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. They may not have the buying power of some of the bigger stores, but with a smaller inventory they can be more nimble with their stock.

And all are doing more with less. “Instead of having three Amarone, I’ve got one, and a much cheaper ripasso-style Valpolicella that drinks like one,” says John Nugent, owner of the Colorado Wine Co. The shelves are far from empty; they’re just filled with less-expensive, more carefully selected wine.

The care that goes into selection is certainly not lost on its clientele, which has a bond with the store that Nugent says has not diminished.

“I get people almost every day asking me how the shop is doing,” Nugent says. “They want to know we’re OK; they don’t want to lose the relationship. They don’t want to have to go to Vons for their dinner wine. They’re way past that.”

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Posted by on February 4, 2009 in Wine


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