Friday, December 31, 2010

Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Premium

With this wine, I return to where all of my wine reviews started.  The very first wine "review" on my blog was of Cleto Chiarli's Villa Cialdini. Although I have tasted many wines, and have tried to refine my wine reviewing skills, I still have a lot of work to do. Having the opportunity to try some great wines is perhaps the best incentive to continue to review wines.

Cleto Chiarli is one of the more well known Lambrusco vineyards in Emilia Romagna.  It was founded in 1860 near Modena and, for more than 150 years, Cleto Chiarli has been producing some amazing Lambrusco wines.  One such wine is the Vecchia Modena Premium, a wine that, in 1900, got an "Honorable Mention" at the Exposition Universelle de Paris.  And, for 110 years, that "Honorable Mention" has been printed on the label of the wine.

The grapes for this wine are selected from the vines of Azienda Agricola Chiarli of Sozzigalli.  The treatment of these grapes by Cleto Charli produces a wine that shares many of the typical features of Lambruscos, while still retaining a couple of unique qualities that make it stand out from those wines.  Like other Lambrusco wines, the Vecchia Modena Premium is a highly carbonated, light red wine.  The wine has a low alcohol content, at around 11%.  However, the Vecchia Modena Premium pours a very pink color, which is much lighter in color than other Lambruscos that I've had.  This wine is very light and very refreshing, which is nice in a Lambrusco, but that lightness dulls the flavor of the fruit in the wine. 

The Vecchia Modena Premium does not appear to be widely distributed. I found this wine at the Italian Store in Arlington, Virginia and it is most likely found at other Italian stores that sell wines.  The wine sells for $14.99 a bottle. 


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Abita Christmas Ale

With the Christmas holiday, attentions turn to holiday ales.  I've already reviewed a couple of holiday ales, such as the Delirium Noel and Great Lakes Brewing Company's Christmas Ale.  These two Christmas Ales roughly represent the two poles of Christmas Ales.  On the one hand, the Delirium is a very good Belgian ale, but it does not have many of the Christmas aromas or tastes that one would expect from a holiday ale.  On the other hand, the Great Lakes Christmas Ale has a more pronounced ginger and cinnamon flavors.

And, in between these two poles, there is the Abita Christmas Ale.  Abita makes some great beers, like the Save Our Shores and Restoration Ale.  It's Christmas Ale is also a very good beer, which changes from year to year.   For 2010, Abita brews its Christmas Ale in the style of an American Brown Ale.  The brewery also gives a good hop kick to the Christmas Ale though the use of Willamette, Cascade and Columbus hops. 

The beer pours a reddish brown color and the aroma does reveal some of the hops used in the brewing process. The beer does have some of the flavors that you would expect from a Christmas ale; however, those flavors are a little subdued when compared to other ales of this style. The one taste that does come through is cinnamon, which seems to be the dominant "holiday" flavor in this beer.  This beer is a good example of the Christmas Ale style.

Like all Christmas ales, Abita's Christmas Ale is available only for a limited time in November and December.  During that time, it is available at beer and wine stores.  So, if you are interested, you may have to wait until the next holiday season.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Handmade Fettuccine with the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce and Chef Bolek's Lamb Meatballs

For many years, my grandparents would make a pasta dinner entirely by hand.  They made the pasta from eggs, semolina and flour.  They made the sauce with fresh tomatoes, including tomatoes grown by my grandfather in his garden.  And, they would make the meatballs and sausage by hand.

My grandparent's "workshop," so to speak, was in their basement, where they had a big pasta table, a second stove and a second refrigerator, not to mention a walk in pantry.  When making pasta for a big dinner, such as our multiple-course dinner on Christmas Eve, the preparations and work began many hours in advance.

I do remember, as kids, my sister and I helped our grandparents make the pasta. Obviously not wanting us around a hot stove making sauce, or working with raw meat, our grandparents assigned us to help them with the hand-crank pasta machine.  We dutifully cranked out fettuccine pasta, setting the stage for what was always a great meal. 


As my grandparents grew older, they stopped making most of the meal by hand.  When they stopped making pasta they began to rely upon fresh or boxed pasta from the grocery store.  As for myself, I did not make pasta again by hand for more than twenty years.  It was not until after a culinary Renaissance (that is, my trip through Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany), that I started making pasta on my own.  I took a class at L'Academie de Cuisine, which provided me with some basic instruction on the old volcano technique; and, ever since then, I've basically taught myself to make pasta by hand.  

I am still a novice, usually making pasta with one egg and two or three cups of flour at a time. I also stick to basic pastas, such as fettuccine, linguine or ravioli.  These restrictions slow down the process, but I avoid a lot of headaches, such as the mess from eggs leaking out onto the counter. The following recipe is the simple recipe that I use to make basic fettuccine.

Makes about a quarter pound of pasta.

1 egg
2-3 cups of flour

1.  Make a mound with the flour and a well in the middle of the mound.  Reinforce each side of the mound with the back side of a spoon.  Crack the egg into the middle of the mound.

2.  With a fork, carefully begin to beat the egg.  As you are beating the egg, add a little flour at a time into the egg.  Continue beating and adding flour until the dough begins to form.  This may take a little while.  Always be mindful of the sides of the well and make sure that there are no cracks where the egg can escape.

3.  Once the dough has formed enough to pick up (it may still be a little runny), scoop up the dough into one of your hands and cover it with flour.  Continue to work the dough into a ball in your hands by adding flour until there is no more "liquid."

4.  Return the dough to a floured surface and begin to kneed the dough with the palm of your hand and your fingers.  Continue to kneed the dough for about ten minutes or until the dough no longer seems "wet."  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap to sit for about ten minutes.

5. Follow the directions on your hand-crank machine, running the dough on the widest setting and working toward the narrow setting. Sprinkle flour onto the dough if you feel any "wet" spots.

6.  Let the dough sit for a couple of minutes.  Then use the attachment for whatever type of pasta you would like to make.

7.  As you cut the pasta using the attachment, make sure that the pasta noodles are separated from one another by either hanging the noodles on a pasta rack or arranging the noodles in a way that will prevent them from sticking together as they dry.  You should also sprinkle flour over the noodles, which will help to keep the noodles separate.

Although the pasta may be "basic" in technique, the end product is a pasta that is light and actually somewhat airy, especially if you are able to run the pasta through the thinnest setting on the pasta machine before cutting it into fettuccine.  You should let the pasta dry before using it in a meal.  Also, because an egg is used in making the pasta, you should refrigerate or freeze the pasta if you are not planning to use it the same day.


The process of making pasta is only the beginning; it is like preparing the canvas in order to paint a work of art.   And, for chefs and cooks alike, the "paint" is the sauce.  In my family, the tradition is to make a smooth sauce, one laced with herbs and spices and whose velvety texture coats the noodles in a thin layer of goodness.  My grandparents always made a smooth sauce, and my Mom follows in that tradition.  Although I have experimented with a more chunky sauce (that is, a sauce with bits of tomato, onions, garlic and other vegetables, like carrots), I have to say that there is nothing like what I now call the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce.

The mention of the herbs and spices brings me to the difficult part.  This sauce recipe has been passed down from generations in my family and, the one thing that each generation has in common is that no one measured the herbs and spices that went into the sauce.  There was no attempt to reduce the basil, oregano, garlic powder, or crushed red pepper to cups, tablespoons or teaspoons.  Rather, whether it was my grandmother, my Mom or myself, we rely upon our senses, both of smell and taste, to determine what is the right amount.  You begin by adding a good amount of each spice (but not too much) and continue to add herbs and spices as the sauce cooks, to reach the taste that you want.  

Serves Many

2 cans of tomato puree
3 cans of tomato paste
Dried basil, to taste
Dried oregano, to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1. Pour the two cans of tomato puree into a big pot.  Fill each can with water to get the remaining tomato puree out of the can and pour it into the pot.  Add the tomato paste, one can at a time.  Whisk the puree into the sauce before adding the next can of tomato paste.

2.  Add the herbs and spices.  The only general rule is that I add 2 parts of basil for 1 part of oregano.

3.  Let the sauce cook for a couple of hours to reduce.


And, last but not least, there are the meatballs.  Traditionally, meatballs are with a mixture of ground beef, pork and veal.  For that reason, supermarkets sell ground meat for "meatballs" that often includes all three types of meat.  There are also endless variations on the other ingredients used to make meatballs, such as using different types of breadcrumbs, cheeses and binding agents, such as milk and eggs.  Generally, I try to keep the meatballs simple ... using meat, Italian breadcrumbs, and an egg.

As for the meat, I prefer using ground lamb for two reasons.  The first reason is that meatballs are a  mainstay in Abruzzese cuisine (with Abruzzo being the region from where my relatives emigrated) and are featured in many dishes such as Maccheroni alla Chitarra and Minestra Maritata.  The second reason  is that lamb is much more predominant in Abruzzo than beef and veal.  When my relatives lived in Abruzzo, shepherds tended to sheep and lamb more than cows.  The relative scarcity of beef meant that it was reserved for special occasions.  I'm sure that the situation is different today, with modern distribution networks and refrigerated storage making beef much more available than in the past. 

So, whenever I make meatballs, I pay homage to the past in Abruzzo by using lamb, in a simple recipe that requires only bread crumbs, eggs, herbs and spices.  As with the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce, the amount of herbs and spices added to the ground lamb is not measured, but done using a "gut sense" as to what is just enough to make a good meatball.  (And, for me, that is to make sure that the meatballs have a good, spicy kick to them.)   

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves many

2 pounds of ground lamb
1 cup of breadcrumbs
1 egg
Dried basil, to taste
Dried oregano, to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1.  Mix the ground lamb, breadcrumbs, egg, herbs and spices in a bowl.  Make sure to mix everything well so that the herbs and spices are spread throughout the meat and that every meat ball will have an adequate amount of flavor.

2.  Make medium-sized meatballs by taking an amount of the mixture that is smaller than a tennis ball but much bigger than a golf ball.  You are looking to make meatballs that are about two inches to two and one half inches in diameter.  Put another way, you should get about twelve meatballs per pound and, for this recipe, you should get about twenty-four meatballs. 

3.  Heat a pan on medium heat.  Add several meatballs to the pan at a time.  Brown the meatballs until the pinkness of the meat is no longer evident on the outside of the meatballs.  You should not cook the meatballs entirely on the pan.  Instead, once they are browned, remove them and place them on a paper towel to collect the excess oil and grease.

The reason why you should never cook the meatballs entirely on the pan is that you should always add the meatballs to your sauce.  By adding the meatballs to the sauce, you will give that sauce a lot of extra flavor. The herbs and spices in the meatballs, as well as the lamb meat itself, will reinforce the herbs and spices in the sauce.  (And, for that reason, if you are planning to have meatballs with your pasta and sauce, you may want to add a little less of the herbs and spices when you make the sauce). 

Making a meal by hand -- the pasta, sauce and meatballs -- is a lot of work.  But it is rewarding work, because the end product is an amazing meal.  This is a meal that has been shared and enjoyed by family and friends on Christmas Eve for decades.

And, for this year (2010), I was fortunate enough to make it for family and friends on Christmas Eve.  I also lucky enough to have the able assistance of my beautiful wife, Clare, her parents and my parents.  Their assistance in making the pasta, the sauce and the meatballs contributed to the great success of the dinner on Christmas Eve.  I am very grateful for all of their help in making this meal, as well as their company as we dined together for the holiday.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Great Lakes Christmas Ale

Great Lakes Brewing Company makes many great beers, like the Lake Erie Monster and the Nosferatu.  But the most sought after Great Lakes beer comes only one time a year.  It is the Christmas Ale, which has won five awards at the World Beer Championship.

The "Christmas Ale" style has a lot of leeway for brewers.  According to the Beer Judge Certification Program ("BJCP," which issues style guidelines for individuals who are training to become beer judges), "many interpretations" are possible when it comes to the flavors of a Christmas Ale, as well as the aromatics of these beers.  With regard to flavors, the spices used should complement, but not overwhelm, the beer.  Brewers have a wide array of choices when it comes to spices, whether it is dried fruit peels (such as raisin, plum, fig, orange or lemon) or holiday spices (like allspice cinnamon, clove, ginger,or nutmeg). 

In addition to using all natural ingredients (barley, hop, yeast and water), Great Lakes brews its Christmas Ale with honey and spices it with fresh ginger and cinnamon.  The beer pours a nice amber color.  The aromatics are subtle.  The spices provide some aromas that are evocative of the holiday season.  The cinnamon and ginger are much more pronounced in the taste of the beer.  Overall, it is a great beer and definitely worth having in the refrigerator for the holiday season.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale is usually available in November and December every year. However, the brewery makes only a limited amount of the beer and it tends to sell quickly.  The beer can also be expensive, costing more than $12.00 per six pack.

For more information about Great Lakes' Christmas ale, check out the profile provided by the brewery.  For more information about the Christmas Ale style, check out the Beer Judge Certification Program.

Monday, December 27, 2010

French Onion Soup

Although the centerpiece of the Bolek Christmas dinner is the standing rib roast, the dinner always begins with french onion  soup.  There are a wide variety of onions that could be used for the soup ... such as yellow, red, or sweet.  Generally, I am a big fan of a particular sweet onion, the Vidalia, which I strive to use whenever I make french onion soup.

So, as the story goes, a farmer named Moses Coleman "discovered" the Vidalia onion in 1931.  Coleman was surprised to find that his onions were sweet (which, probably, was due to the fact that the soil in that particular area of Georgia has a low sulphur content).  Over the years, farmers in Georgia continued to plant the sweet onion, which began to develop quite the reputation.  In 1986, the Georgia State legislature passed a law -- aptly named the Vidalia Onion Trademark Act -- that trademarked the "Vidalia" onion.  Later, the federal government enacted a federal marketing order, which added certain restrictions and requirements on the growing of Vidalia onions.  As a result, a  true "Vidalia" onion is a sweet onion grown within a designated area in the State of Georgia.  These onions are very sweet, due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil. 

The problem is that Vidalia onions are only shipped between April and the early fall.  So, when Christmas time rolls around and I want to make french onion soup, I have to use "regular" sweet onions, which, in all honesty, do the job just as well as Vidalia onions. 

When making the soup, I usually use Anthony Bourdain's "Onion Soup Les Halles" recipe as a guide.  Bourdain's recipe is very interesting, because it uses both port and balsamic vinegar.  These two ingredients together provide a sweetness to the onion soup.  However, Clare is a vegetarian and the recipe's use of bacon and dark chicken stock makes the soup very unfriendly to vegetarians.  So, I've modified the recipe by taking out the bacon and substituting vegetable stock for dark chicken stock.  The soup may not end up as dark and subtle as that made by Anthony Bourdain when he worked at Les Halles, but it does create a tasty french onion soup that everyone, carnivore and vegetarian, can enjoy.

One final note, the cheese you use should be Gruyere cheese, as that is the traditional cheese used in french onion soup.  You can usually find Gruyere at Whole Food Markets or similar stores.  

Adapted from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
Serves 12

18 tablespoons of unsalted butter
15 medium sized Vidalia or sweet onions, sliced thinly
8 tablespoons of port
8 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
3 quarts vegetable stock
1 big bouquet garni (4 sprigs flat parsley, 8 sprigs fresh thyme and 4 bay leaves)
24 baguette croutons
18 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated

1.  In a large pot, heat the butter over medium heat until it is melted and begins to brown.  Add the onions and cook over medium heat until they are soft and browned (at least twenty minutes).  The onions should be an even, dark color.  But, realistically, when you are working with a large amount of onions, it is very difficult to get the onions to a dark color.  So, when the onions have become really soft, it is okay to go on to the next step. 

2.  Increase the heat to medium high and stir in the port and balsamic vinegar.  Deglaze the bottom of the pot, scrapping the brown bits and incorporating them into the liquid.  Add the vegetable stock and bouquet garni.  A bouquet garni is basically 1 sprig of parsley, two sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.  However, I usually use several sprigs of parsley, even more sprigs of thyme and three to four bay leaves. to give a little boost to the flavor of the soup.

3.  Bring the soup to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about forty-five minutes.

4.  Remove the bouquet garni.  Ladle the soup into individual oven-safe bowls or crocks.  Float two croutons in each bowl and place a heaping (but even) amount of cheese on top.

5.  Place the bowls or crocks into an oven preheated to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Leave the bowls in the oven until the cheese melts.

Making french onion soup is not easy and I still have to work at making this soup before I can say that I've mastered it.  While my french onion soup would probably not make the menu at Les Halles, it is well liked by my family and friends.  And, in the end, that is what really counts....


For more information about Vidalia onions, check out the Vidalia Onion Committee or Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

La Mozza Aragone (2006)

Back in 2001, three individuals -- Lidia Bastianich, Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali -- founded La Mozza, a vineyard located in the Maremma region of Tuscany, Italy.  The vineyard, which has about 100 acres is near Scansano, southwest of Montalcino and just ten miles from the shores of the Tyhrrenian Sea.  This triumvirate of food and wine leaders choose the Maremma region because it sits outside of the DOC and DOCG regions in Italy.  (For more about DOC and DOCG, check out my review of the Frescobaldi Nipozzano Reserva.)  In Mario Batali's view, this location provides the vineyard to be more flexible and creative with the wines, particularly when it comes to incorporating grapes other than Sangiovese grapes.  La Mozza expresses that creativity by incorporating other Mediterranean grapes, such as Alicante, Petit Verdot and Syrah grapes.

La Mozza's Aragone is a blend of those Mediterranean grapes.  The exact breakdown of the grapes is 40% Sangiovese, 25% Alicante, 25% Syrah and 10% Carignan.  Indigenous yeasts are used during the fermentation process, which is followed by aging in tonneaux. 

The wine pours a nice cherry red.  There is a lot of fruit on the bouquet of the wine, such as cherries and raspberries and, maybe, a little plum.  Those fruit also are very prominent in the taste of the wine as you drink it. 

The name "Aragone" is a tribute to the Aragons of Spain, who, along with the Medici family of Florence, ruled over the Maremma region.  The label represents an aerial view of Fort Stella, a military fort built by the Aragons in the 15th century in Port Ercole.

This is one of the best Italian wines that I have had.  It is very drinkable, which means that before you know it you have gone through the glass and you are looking for the bottle to get a re-fill.  The wine sells for $40.00 per bottle.  This wine was available at VinoMatique in Berea, Ohio, but, unfortunately, it had to close its doors.  Once again, I will miss that wine store, but I am grateful for being able to purchase the wine from VinoMatique when I had the chance.

Moreover, only 1,200 cases of Aragone are produced per year. So, if you have been as fortunate as me to find this wine, buy it immediately.  You will not be disappointed!


For more information, check out Mario Batali's website or Bastianich Winery.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Bolek Family Standing Rib Roast

The centerpiece of the Bolek's Christmas dinner is the standing rib roast, which is a truly amazing cut of beef.  A full rib roast is seven ribs, from the sixth rib to the twelfth rib of the cow.  Each rib will have enough meat to serve about two people and the full standing rib roast is about fifteen pounds. And it is called a "standing rib roast" because the beef "stands" on the ribs while it is roasted.

Traditionally, when we order a rib roast, we should ask for the butcher to separate the bones from the meat and then tie everything back together.  The separation of the bones from the meat will make the carving of the roast much easier when it is done.

For years, my mother made the rib roast and every year she would make an excellent roast.  The origins of this recipe come from a butcher at a local grocery store, who used to work for a local steakhouse.  The butcher told my mom that, at that steakhouse they would use dried french onion soup mix, like Lipton's, during the cooking process.  More specifically, after searing the meat at a high temperature, you take the out and use the dried onion soup mix as a rub, thoroughly rubbing the mix all over the meat.  You return the roast to the stove at a reduced heat to cook.  The result is that the soup mix will create a very tasty crust.

When I started making this roast, I decided to add some additional flavors to the onion soup mix.  I usually add fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh or ground garlic, and other herbs and spices. 

A Bolek Family Recipe
Serves 10-15

10 pounds of standing rib roasts, with bones
3-4 packs of dried onion soup mix
1/2 package of fresh rosemary, chopped finely
1/2 package of fresh thyme, chopped finely
1/4 cup of fresh garlic, minced or 3-4 tablespoons ground garlic.
Ground pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

1.   Sear the rib roast.  Heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  At this point, you want to sear the meat to lock in the juices for the long, dry heat of the cooking process.  Place the rib roast in a roasting pan, with a little water on the bottom of the pan, and put in the oven for about forty minutes. When you pull out the roast, you want to see the roast stating to brown.

2.  Prepare the rub for the rib roast.  While the rib roast is searing in the oven, it is time to prepare the rub.  Combine the packs of dried onion soup mix, rosemary, thyme and garlic, along with ground pepper and salt.  Make sure that everything is mixed thoroughly. 

3.  Add the rub to the rib roast.  Remove the roast from the oven and place on top of the oven.  Take small handfuls of the rub and begin to rub the all of the meat.  Be careful when doing this because both the rib and the roasting pan will be very hot.  Use all of the rub and try to get the rub on all sides.  

4.  Continue to cook the roast. Lower the temperature of the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Return the rib roast to the oven, covered, to cook for about three hours.  I usually try to cook it for about two and one-half hours initially, and then check the temperature.    About once per hour, you should baste the roast with the juices; however, do not keep the roast open for long, as that will prolong the cooking.

5.  Let the roast rest.  When the roast has reached about 125 to 130 degrees, which between rare and medium rare, I pull the roast out and let it rest for about fifteen minutes.  The roast will continue to cook and increase about ten degrees.  (I like the rib roast to have a good pink center to it.)

Generally speaking, 120-125 degrees is rare, 130-135 degrees is medium rare, 140-145 degrees is medium, 150-155 is medium well and 160 plus is overdone (at least in my opinion). I have to say that when you cook with a gas range, as opposed to an electric one, the cooking times may be a little less and you may want to check the roast more often during the cooking process to make sure that it does not overcook.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Minestra Maritata (Italian Wedding Soup)

One of the Christmas Eve traditions in my family is to have Wedding Soup. I love this soup.  A sumptuous chicken broth, punctuated by pieces of tender chicken and browned meatballs, surrounded by escarole.  The recipe has been perfected by my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mother.  Now it is my turn, as the recipe, which has been passed down from my grandmother to my mother, now finds itself in my hands.

I've always wondered about the origin of the name "Wedding Soup."  Was this soup served at weddings in Italy?  Well, from what I've been able to determine, the etymology of the name "Wedding Soup" does not come from the marital bliss of many Italian couples.  Instead, the name originates from what cooks use to say about the ingredients of soup ... vegetables and meat ... se maritato bene or or they have married well.  (On a side note, it is kind of like Clare and me ... vegetarian and carnivore, we have married well.)  In the case of the soup, which is a Neapolitan green and meat soup, cooks would say that the flavors of the greens and the meat married well together as they cooked together in a pot over a wood fire.  

The version typically cooked in kitchens throughout Campana used different cuts of meat, usually from a pig.  In other regions, cooks used meats that were common for them.  For example, in Abruzzo, cooks used meatballs.  And, given the relatives on my mom's side of the family came to this country from two small towns in Abruzzo, Rivisondoli and Roccaraso, meatballs figure prominently in the recipe handed down through the generations in our family. 

MINESTRA MARITATA (Italian Wedding Soup)
Serves many

1 whole chicken
3 bunches of celery
1 bunch of carrots
2 large onions
1 pound of escarole lettuce
1 pound of ground beef
1 can of low sodium chicken broth
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1. Wash the chicken thoroughly.  Put the chicken in a kettle and add water until chicken is covered.  If you can't cover the chicken completely, that is okay.  Just place the chicken breast down and bring the water to as high of a level as possible.  Bring the pot to a boil and skim off the top.  Add salt, pepper, the tops of the celery stalks (including leaves), some of the carrots and onion.  Bring to a boil again and continue to simmer, covered, until the chicken is done, which may take two to four hours depending on the size of the chicken.

2.  While the chicken is cooking, wash the escarole lettuce and break it into little pieces.  Begin filling the pot with the lettuce.  When you have put about a third of the lettuce in the pot, add a layer of carrots and celery.  Repeat this twice until the pot is filled about half way.    Add water to cover, about 1/2 to 3/4 full.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and continue to simmer.

3.  Take the ground meat, and add some salt and pepper.  Mix the meat.  Then make small meatballs, making sure each meatball is compacted.  With one and one-half pounds of meat, you should be able to make about one-hundred, forty-four meatballs.  Brown the meatballs in a frying pan just enough to take the pink out of the meat.  Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the frying pan and put them into the pot with the escarole.  Keep the pot simmering, as the water cooks down.

4.  When the chicken is done, pull it out and de-bone it.  Break the chicken into small pieces.  Chop the cooked celery and mash the carrots.  Strain the chicken broth into the kettle.  Add the chicken, celery and carrots.  Also, add the chicken broth.  Stir to mix the ingredients and bring to a boil.

5.  Allow the soup to simmer for about an hour or two.  Stir the soup occasionally.  Refrigerate the soup overnight to allow the fat to congeal at the top.  The next day, carefully skim off the fat from the top of the soup.

6.  Bring to a boil and allow the soup to simmer until you are ready to eat. If you want to add pastine, add about five minutes before serving.

To serve, ladle some of the soup into a bowl.  Make sure that you get a lot of the individual ingredients -- chicken, meatballs, carrots, celery and escarole -- into each bowl.  Then top each bowl with a healthy amount of grated Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano.


For more about Minesta Maritata or Italian Wedding Soup, check out Supereva or

Monday, December 20, 2010

Collina dei Lecci Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva (2004)

Collina dei Lecci is a farmhouse near San Gimignano, in Tuscany, Italy.  The city is just off the beaten path between Florence and Siena.  The farmhouse is an "agri-tourist" spot where vacationers can relax and experience all that is great about Tuscany.

There is also wine that shares the Collina de Lecci name.  I had the opportunity to try a bottle of the Collina de Lecci Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva 2004.  The bottle caught my attention because the name -- Sangiovese di Romagna.  Sangiovese grapes make some great wines -- like Chianto Classico or Brunello di Montalcino.  And all of those wines are from Tuscany, not Emilia Romagna.

However, growers have vineyards of Sangiovese grapes in the provinces of Bologna, Forli-Cesena, Ravenna and Rimini.  According to the rules of the AC (Appellation Controllee), they can grow Sangiovese grapes in fields with, at most, fifteen percent of other grapes. 

Presumably, all of the grapes used in this wine are grown in Emilia-Romagna, but the wine is made in Montalcino, Tuscany.  The wine poured a ruby red, and, at more than six years old, the wine has definitely aged well.  The wine has a tangy flavor, with cherries and raspberries coming through as you drink the wine.

I think this wine would match well with the pastas and sauces that epitomize the cooking of Emilia Romagna.  It also goes well with pizza, which is what Clare and I had when we ate this pizza. 

But, I don't remember where I got this wine.  More than likely, it was one of the different wines that I bought from VinoMatique, a great little wine store that unfortunately closed its doors recently.  I will truly miss that store.  But, at least the memories will live on with wines like this one.


For more about Sangiovese di Romagna, check out Wine & Food.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pollo alla Marsala (Chicken Marsala)

The namesake of Pollo alla Marsala, or Chicken Marsala, is Marsala wine.  I've used the wine in my cooking, adding it to dishes as the recipe would require, but I never took the time to understand and appreciate the wine.  So, when I decided to make Chicken Marsala as the main course of a Christmas party for some friends, I decided that I would take the time to learn about and understand the key ingredient to this ubiquitous dish.

One could say that Marsala is Italy's version of Port, Sherry or Madeira, but, other than the fact that Marsala is a fortified wine like Port, that would be a gross oversimplification. Marsala originated in the town, aptly named Marsala, which is located in western Sicily. Local producers make Marsala from Grillo grapes, as well as Catarrato and Inzolia grapes.  These are white grapes and produce an amber or golden Marsala.  Producers add  local red grapes -- such as Nero d'Avola, Calabrese and Pignatello grapes -- to make Marsala wine that is red in color.  

Producers classify Marsala wine by age, alcohol content, color and flavor.  The most common classification is Fine, which is aged for one year.  Marsala Fine is ordinarily used for cooking.  By contrast, Marsala Superiore Riserva is the type of Marsala wine that would be served as an aperitif or used in deserts.  And, then there are the vintage blends, like Vergine Soleras and Vergine Stravecchio.  But that would best be left for another post.

Returning to the recipe, Chicken Marsala seems to be everywhere.  Most Italian restaurants have this dish on their menu and I have had it at a lot of restaurants.  Few of the Chicken Marsala dishes that I've had have been memorable; more often than not, they were pedestrian.  My goal was to try to make a memorable Chicken Marsala dish without having to use an expensive bottle of Marsala. I made this dish for a party of more than twelve people and decided to serve it family-style, so the picture shows a lot more food than the recipe will produce. 

Adapted from Tyler Florence's recipe
Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds of skinless chicken breasts
1/4 pound of Proscuitto di Parma, thinly sliced
1/4 pound of porcini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 cup of Marsala wine
1/2 cup of chicken stock
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
All purpose flour, for dredging
1 tablespoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper to taste

1.  Put the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them.  Using the flat part of a meat mallet (or a rolling pin) and flatten the chicken until it is about 1/4 inch thick.  (As an alternative, most stores sell thin-cut chicken breasts, and you can use those without having to go through the process of flattening them.)

2. Put some flour in a small bowl and season it with the dried thyme, crushed red pepper, salt and ground pepper, then mix it thoroughly.

3.  Heat the oil over medium high in a large skillet.  Dredge the chicken cutlets on both sides in the flour and then add them to the skillet.  Add enough so that they fit comfortably in the skillet.  Do not overcrowd the chicken.  You can do multiple batches if necessary.  Fry each piece of chicken for five minutes on each side until golden, turning once.

4.  Remove all of the chicken to a large platter, in a single layer to keep warm.

5.  Lower the heat to medium and add the prosciutto to the drippings in then pan.  Saute for about a minute to render out some of the fat.  Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute until the mushrooms are browned and have lost their moisture. Season with salt and pepper, and a little more dried thyme if you desire.

6.  Pour the Marsala into the pan and boil down for a couple of minutes to cook out the alcohol.  Add the chicken stock and continue to simmer to reduce the sauce slightly.  Add the butter, and stir until it is incorporated into the sauce.

7.  Add the chicken to heat it through.  Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Serve the chicken immediately, topped with a little chopped parsley. 


For more about Marsala wine, check out Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some Thoughts About Pasta for the Christmas Eve Dinner

Pasta at La Greppia in Emilia-Romagna
There is something about handmade pasta that is important to me.  When I started to cook as a hobby, I initially focused on trying to learn about the different regions of Italy.  I got to see how to make pasta by hand and I told myself that I would never buy pasta from a box or a store that I could make myself.

For the Christmas Eve dinner, the traditional pasta is fettuccine.  It is a relatively wide noodle that is commonly used in Italian restaurants throughout the United States.  In my family, however, my grandparents used to make the fettuccine by hand, using a traditional hand crank pasta machine in the basement.  I can still remember my sister and myself working with my grandparents making the pasta for the Christmas Eve meal. 

To fulfill my personal commitment to make my own pasta, I have three pasta makers ... an electric pasta maker, a hand crank pasta maker and a chitarra.  Initially, I used the electric pasta maker to make all of my pasta.  It was a great way to start learning how to make pasta.  You put all of the ingredients into the bin, which mixes everything for you and then the pasta comes out through a die.  My pasta-making skills evolved, where I would make the pasta by hand, using the old volcano technique and then using a hand crank pasta machine to make the pasta.

A Chitarra
And then there is the chitarra.  This is a piece of pasta making equipment that is special to Abruzzo.  It is used to make Maccheroni alla Chitarra, one of the traditional dishes of the Abruzzese.  To make this pasta, you would use the old volcano technique and a hand crank pasta maker to make the sheets of pasta.  You would then cut the pasta into sheet to fit the chitarra and, with a small rolling pin, roll the pasta gently so that it is cut by the strings.  The end result is a bit rustic (especially when done by a novice like myself).

Last Christmas, I tried to make the pasta for the Christmas Eve meal using the chitarra; but trying to make a lot of pasta in a short period of time is very difficult with that pasta maker.  I ended up switching to using the hand crank machine and still made some really great pasta, with the valuable assistance of Clare's father, Frank.

This year, in keeping with the theme of trying to make a special Christmas Eve dinner, I might try using the Chitarra again.  Then again, I might just stick with the hand crank machine and make fettuccine (I would not make any other pasta for this special occasion) and  use the time that I save to focus on other aspects of the meal.  Like the meatballs.  But that is for another blog post....


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Terrapin Cellars Pinot Noir (2007)

After spending part of our honeymoon in the Willamette Valley, I became a big fan of Pinot Noir wines from the Valley's vineyards.  I follow a lot of the vineyards, and read a lot about their wines.  A few days ago, Clare brought a bottle of Oregonian Pinot Noir from a vineyard that I had not heard of before.  The winemaker is called Terrapin Cellars.

There are two types of winemakers.  First, there are the vineyards, like Sokol Blosser and Chehalem.  These are vintners who own acres of vines, cultivate the grapes and produce the wine.  Second, there are winemakers who don't own acres of grapes.  Instead, they buy grapes from vineyards and make their own wines, sometimes with the assistance of the vineyards.  

Terrapin Cellars is one of the latter.  It is not a vineyard, but a person who relies upon vineyards to further his craft.  That person is Rob Clarke, a vineyard manager who oversees the fields of small vineyards, usually two to ten acres in size.  Clarke gets the grapes for his wines from these vineyards to make his wines.

The grapes of five small vineyards in the Willamette Valley are used to make the Terrapin Cellars Pinot Noir.  The blend of grapes from different vineyards is then aged for ten months in barrels with 15% new oak.  Only 620 cases of this wine were produced.

The Terrapin Cellars Pinot Noir is a good wine.  It pours a lighter ruby red than other Pinot Noirs that I've had.  The wine has has a fruit forward scent, which also makes its presence known in the taste of the wine, with the presence of raspberries and cherries.  The wine is lighter, drier and not as earthy as some Pinot Noirs that I've tasted in the past. 

You can find Terrapin Cellars at Gilly's Craft beer and Fine Wine in Rockville, Maryland and other wine stores. 


For more on Terrapin Cellars, check out this review by

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some Thoughts About Antipasti for Christmas Eve

It is a tradition in my family that the Christmas Eve dinner begin with a course of antipasti.  My grandparents would prepare a platter of baccala, or salted cod.  They also prepared another platter of meats and cheese, along with anchovies, olives and vegetables (like celery or fennel).  This first course would involve a substantial amount of food, all of which was slowly enjoyed with the knowledge of several more courses -- and a lot more food -- were still to come.

Now, I've made antipasti platters for holidays, like Easter and Christmas Eve in the past.  (That's me with platters prepared for Christmas Eve back in December 2007.)  My antipasti platters never included baccala, because, although I used to eat it, I just don't care much for salted cod anymore.  Instead, I've focused on the meats and cheeses. 

I would try to get certain cheeses and/or meats that were special to me and that I wanted to share with my family. I would try to get certain cheeses and/or meats that were special to me and that I wanted to share with my family. For example, I would get Prosciutto di Parma, which would bring back memories of my trip to Emilia-Romagna, where I got to see how this delicious meat was made.  Rows and rows of the rear haunches of pork rubbed down with a salt and pepper mixture, air dried and cured according to specifications that date back hundreds of years. I would also get Soppresata, dried cured sausage, from Abruzzo, from where the relatives on my mom's side of the family emigrated in the early twentieth century.

Boschetto al Tartufo at Il Forteto
And then there is the cheese.  Again, I would select cheeses that draw from my memories of being in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany.  I would serve Parmigiano Reggiano, which is sometimes referred to as the "King" of Italian cheeses (a title that is undoubtedly in dispute, because Italians love the wide array of cheeses that they produce).  I would also serve other cheeses, such as Boschetto al Tartufo, a pecorino cheese with black truffles.   

Burrata Appetizer with Tri-Color Crostini at Cesco Trattoria
So, the question is what to do for this Christmas Eve?  It's been more than four years since I've been to Emilia Romagna and Tuscany.  Over those four years, as I have gotten back into cooking, there are a lot of new memories that could serve as inspiration for creating the antipasti course.  For example, after proposing to my beautiful wife Clare at Cesco Trattoria, we were served a three course dinner that included, as an appetizer, a serving of burrata, which is an amazing version of mozzarella cheese made from the milk of water buffaloes in Apulia, Italy.  There is also Melon Wrapped with Proscuitto, which was one of the appetizers served during our wedding reception.  

But, a good course of antipasti should be based on more than just the memories of the cook; it should also be based upon what each individual meat, cheese, fish or vegetable contributes to the overall course.  When selecting meats and/or cheeses, you should choose a selection that provides different flavors and, hence, different experiences for the guests. 

Just a few thoughts as I start to plan the antipasti course for the Christmas Eve dinner. 


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Breuwerij Huyghe Delirium Noel

It is that time of year, when craft brewers bring beer geeks much cheer ... in the form of Christmas and Holiday ales.  I often look forward to this time of year, because there are a lot of great beers in this style.  In the days and weeks to come, I plan to review some of those beers, such as the Great Lakes Christmas Ale and the Abita Christmas Ale.

But today, it is the Delirium Noel.  If you were to ask someone, what beer comes from Belgium, probably ninety-five percent of the people would respond, "Stella Artois."  Of the remaining five percent, I think a sizeable number of them would answer Delirium Tremens.  The beer of the pink elephant.

Well the brewer of the pink elephant beer also brews a Christmas ale.  Breuwerij Huyghe boasts of being the oldest brewing activity in Ghent, Belgium, dating itself back to 1654.  Well, Leon Huyghe started brewing in 1906 and, for more than one hundred years, the brewery has produced some commonly known Belgian beers, the Delirium Tremens and the Delirum Nocturnum.

As for the Delirium Noel, it is a lot like the Nocturnum.  The beer pours a deep amber, with little foam.  When drinking the beer, you definitely taste the alcohol.  The ABV is about 10%.  Although I wish I could say that I can taste some flavor when drinking the beer, I really can't.  The beer does actually taste a lot like the Nocturnum.  I don't taste anything that you would normally associate with a Christmas Ale, like clove, cinnamon, or cardamom.  The Delirium Noel tastes a lot like the other Deliriums. 

Still, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Breuwerij Hugyhe produces some good beers.  But, if you are looking for a "Christmas Ale," as that is understood in the American craft beer market, then I would suggest other beers for you.  If you just like Belgian beers and would drink it anyways (kind of like me), then you can find it at most beer stores and supermarkets (where beer is sold).  It sells for about $10.99 a bottle.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas is Coming!

The Christmas holiday is perhaps my most favorite holiday.  Not because of the presents, although they are greatly appreciated.  But the food.  Some of my oldest memories involve my family getting together on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, with the culmination of each day being a large meal prepared either by my Grandparents or my Mom.  On Christmas Eve, my Grandparents would make their traditional Italian meal.  There was an antipasti course, followed by wedding soup, salad, and spaghetti with meatballs and sausage.   And, on Christmas day, my Mom would make a turkey or a prime rib, with mashed potatoes and a vegetable.  I still look back fondly to those days, and to all of that great food.

For the holidays this year, I'll be doing the cooking on both Christmas Eve and Christmas day (of course, with the assistance of family members).  This is a very special holiday and I want to make two incredible meals for everyone to enjoy.  I plan on drawing from the traditions of, not just my family, but also my wife's family.  The end result will hopefully be my best cooking to date.  And, if it is not, then I can at least take solace with the knowledge that I gave it my best shot. 

The planning is in its initial stages and will continue in full earnest through the holidays.  I hope to document these plans on this blog as they develop so that my family and friends can follow along.  Perhaps, they will also gain some insight as to how my mind works when it comes to cooking. 

So, over the next two weeks, I'll be putting up every recipe that I make, along with some thoughts and ideas as I plan for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Feedback is always welcomed.  I  would especially like to hear about your holiday traditions, especially when it comes to food and meals. Maybe this can become a forum to exchange ideas for the holidays. 

And, therefore, with great anticipation and a little trepidation, this constitutes the first post of many about my cooking for Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Portobello Peppercorn Crusted Ribeye

Whenever I buy beef, I try hard to buy grass-fed beef.  Grass-fed beef has less total fat and saturated fat than grain-fed beef.  Not only is it lower in fat, it is lower in calories. Grass-fed beef also has more Omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, and Vitamin E, all of which are part of a healthy diet.  So, for those like me who love to eat meat, grass-fed beef is the best way to enjoy beef. 

My favorite cuts of beef are the porterhouse, N.Y. strip and the ribeye.  So, when I saw grass-fed ribeyes at my local Whole Foods, I bought one.  The general rule -- or so I'm told -- to cooking cut s like porterhouses, strip steaks and ribeyes is to use just salt and pepper, but no rubs.  The reason to forgo a rub is that you want to be able to enjoy the flavor of the beef, not the spices.  But, every once in a while, I defy convention and experiment with a rub that I think would pair well with the meat.

For this experiment, I wanted to use dried mushrooms.  You can get dried mushrooms in mushroom form or in a powder.  A mushroom powder would work fine, but I wanted to try it with dried mushrooms in mushroom form.  The next question is which type of mushroom to use.  You can use porchini, but they are a little expensive.  Dried shiitakes may be a little cheaper.  But dried portobello mushrooms are definitely cheaper and, because it would be the primary ingredient in my rub, I would need more mushrooms.  I also added a healthy tablespoon of black peppercorns , along with dried thyme, garlic powder, sea salt and some olive oil.  My plan was to make a rub that was just "wet" enough to stick to the meat and impart just enough flavor to make it interesting without overwhelming the meat.

So, with a food processor, a little time and a big grass-fed ribeye, I proceeded with my experiment and the result was ... very, very tasty.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 1 (if it is me), Serves 2-3 (for everyone else)

1 ribeye (between 3/4 pound to 1 pound)
1 package of dried portobello mushrooms
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
1 tablespoon of dried thyme
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of sea salt (feel free to use less)
4 tablespoons of olive oil

1.  Grind the mushrooms.  Put the dried mushrooms in a food processor and grind the mushrooms on the food processor setting until you have as small of mushroom pieces as you can get.

2.  Add the spices.  Add the peppercorns, dried thyme, garlic powder and sea salt.  Continue to use the food processor setting to grind everything and mix everything together.  Run the food processor on pulse a few times more to ensure everything is mixed thoroughly.

3.  Add the olive oil.  Continue the food processor on the mix setting and pour the olive oil slowly.  If you are not getting a paste like rub, use the pulse setting a few times more times.  With each pulse, the mixture should absorb more olive oil.

4.  Apply the rub to the ribeye.  Take the rub and apply it liberally to all sides of the ribeye.

5.  Cook the ribeye.  Place the ribeye under the broiler.  After about eight to ten minutes, flip the ribeye.  Some of the extra mushroom rub may smoke while the ribeye is under the broiler, but that is okay.   Cook the ribeye for about eight to ten more minutes or until your desired level of doneness. 

I have to say that this experiment was a success.  The dried portobello mushrooms imparted a very earthy flavor to the steak. In addition to the mushrooms, you can also taste the pepper and the salt.  The thyme and garlic powder get a little lost in the mushroom rub, but that was okay for me.  If you truly want to taste the garlic, I would add about 1/2 to 1 additional tablespoon.   I was just happy to sit down to a nice big ribeye with a great, off-of-the-cuff rub that I was able to think up on my own. 


For more about the health benefits of grass-fed beef, check out

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hacienda Araucano Carmenere (2008)

A couple weeks back, Clare and I met some friends at Fogo de Chao, or, the "meat church."  There is something about a restaurant where you can have a seemingly endless number of waiters come to you with long skewers of meat to enjoy.  But, apart from the company of Clare and my friends, which is always the best part of any meal, I was taken back by the glass of wine I had.  Feeling like trying something different, I ordered a glass of Carmenere wine.  And, after one glass, I was wondering if I could have a new favorite grape.

Carmenere is, in fact, a grape of the Cabernet family that was originally grown in the Medoc region of France.  Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, the Carmenere is considered one of the original six grapes of Bordeaux, France.   Despite its long history in France, the Carmenere grape is not really grown there any more; instead, the grape is grown elsewhere, such as the eastern parts of the Veneto region, as well as the Friuli region in Italy.  But, the preeminent region for the Carmiere grape is not even in Europe; rather, it is in the valleys of Chile, where the French brought the grape in the 1800s.

Eager to try another Carmenere to see if I could repeat the vinous experience I had at Fogo de Chao, I picked up a Carmenere wine.  Not knowing which wine to pick, I chose a reasonably priced one and took it home to try.  The wine is the Hacienda Araucano Carmenere, which was produced by Francois Lurton, a winemaker whose reach extends from France to Chile -- with Spain, Portugal and Argentina in between. 

In doing a little research for this post, most of what I found compared a Camenere to a Merlot or a Cabernet Franc, which kind of makes sense in a way given the common heritage of these grapes originating in France.  However, for me at least, I think the Carmenere has much more spice and pepper than a Merlot or Cabernet Franc.  Perhaps that is because of the soil in Chile.  The grapes for the Hacienda Araucano come from the Valle de Colchagua, which boasts of deep sedimentary soil protected by two mountain ranges (one of which is the Andes Mountains).  Apparently, the Colchagua Valley is a well regarded wine growing region in Chile, garnering commendations including the Best Wine Region in the World from the Wine Enthusiast in 2005.

Whatever the reason, both the wine I had at Fogo de Chao and the Hacienda Araucano had strong notes of pepper and spice, reminiscent of something bolder and stronger than a Merlot.  The Carmenere wine is definitely gentler than a bolder wine, like a Zinfandel, because tannins in the Camenere wine are not as strong.  Thus, the drinking experience is rather unique ... a peppery wine that is smooth to drink. 

I can't say that Carmenere is my favorite grape.  Pinot Noir, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Syrah and Petit Syrah still rank higher.  But, the Carmenere is definitely a different and interesting grape.  I bought this bottle of Hacienda Araucano for $10.99 at Rodman's in Washington, D.C.  Other Carmenere wines may be available at wine stores.  

One last note, they say Carmenere wines should be enjoyed while young, so if you buy a bottle, drink it!


For more information, check out the Francois Lurton website for info on the wine, the Colchagua Valley website for more information about the Colchaqua Valley, and Wikipedia for the Carmenere grape.