Saturday, June 26, 2021

Karas Classic White (2017)

I have always been fascinated by the lesser known wine producing regions of the world. Places such as Kakheti, Georgia or the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.  My fascination with such reasons lies with the fact that, inevitably, those little known regions are often producing wines with even lesser known grape varietals. 

Take, for example, the small country of Armenia.  The country consists of 11,484 square miles located entirely in the Caucasus Mountains. Yet, it is the valleys, especially those in the Ararat and Armavir regions, where people have been producing wines for centuries.  There are over 400 grape varietals that can be found in Armenia, but only 31 of those varietals become wines. 

One of these grapes is the Kangun.  The white varietal is a hybrid between the Rkatsiteli grape (which is one of the oldest grape varietals in history) and the Sukolimansky grape (which itself is a cross between Chardonnay and another grape varietal). The majority of Kangun grapes never make it to a wine bottle. Instead, they are destined for Armenian brandy.  Those grapes that become wine produce light, hay or straw colored wines, that are full of white fruits, honey and other elements.

My introduction to the Kangun grape came in an unexpected way. I went to my local Syrian/Middle Eastern market looking for a very specific wine - the Karas Classic Red. The store did not have any more of the red wine. Instead, it had bottles of the Karas Classic White. Needless to say, given how much I like the red wine, I decided to give the white wine a try. 

The Classic White is a blend of three grapes - Kangun (50%), Chardonnay (40%), and Viognier (10%). The wine pours in very light hay color, giving a yellowish hue to what you can see through the glass. The citrus notes come through in the aroma, with some grapefruit and a hint of lemon or pineapple as well. As expected, some of these aromatic elements also carry through to the taste of the wine. The crispness of the wine hinted at the Chardonnay grapes, presenting in some respects as an unoaked wine.  (I tried to find how this wine was aged, whether in oak barrels  or in stainless steel, but was not successful.)  The wine label boasts of a "solid mineral structure," but I was not able to pick up much minerality or any earthiness in the wine.

This wine was good enough to get me to sit down to type out a review.  (I had previously decided to reduce the number of wine and beer reviews that I do for this blog in an effort to focus more on cooking.)  That says something about the wine. It is definitely worth a try and provides an interesting first step into the experience of Armenian wine. 

ENJOY!

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Spain

As I continue with my Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge, I have found that there often is a challenge within a challenge. Take, for example, a country like India. It is a country with thirty-six (36) states and union territories, such as Bihar in the north and Kerala in the south.  There are seemingly as many different cuisines within India as there are states and territories. The question becomes, how to choose a main course when there are so many cuisines to choose from. Admittedly, this challenge within a challenge did not present any troubles in the past. I would simply choose a dish, such as Rogan Josh in the case of India, and make it. 

With my most recent challenge, which involves the country of Spain, I decided to take a different approach.  Spain has seventeen (17) different regions, from the Azores to the Balearic Islands with many regions in between, like Galicia, Castille, Catalonia and Andalucia. Each of those regions has its own cuisine, based upon local ingredients, local cooking techniques and time-honored dishes. So exactly how do I choose a main dish?

After much thought, I decided to do something truly random.  I chose a random address in Spain.  That address would put me in a region from which I would make the main course. I turned to the Internet, which has plenty of various random address generators.  I selected one and out popped an address.  That address was located in Seville, a city in the region of Andalusia.

The random address put me in a small alley just a block or so away from the Maestranza. The best description is a picture: 


That's right, a bull fighting arena. The Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla is a 350 year old bullfighting ring that seats 12,000 people. Although construction began in 1749, the Maestranza was not fully completed until 1881. It is still in use today, with bullfighting matches taking place from March through September. However, it is the matches that take place during the Feria Abril de Sevilla or the Seville Fair that attract the most attention.

Yet, this post is not about bullfighting, it is about cooking and food. And, perhaps Andalusia is perhaps the perfect place for this culinary challenge.  The history of the region's cuisine can be traced back to at least 1100 B.C., when the Phoenicians established Cadiz. The Phoenicians brought grape vines and olive trees.  The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, and, then, the Moors. 

The Moorish rule brought many things to Andalucia, such as irrigation systems, which provided the foundation for large farms and the production of cash crops.  The Moors also brought with them a variety of foods such as oranges, lemons, eggplants, almonds, dates, peaches, apricots, rice, and coffee.  They also brought sugar and spices, such as black pepper, cumin and saffron.

By 1492, the Moors had been pushed out of the Iberian peninsula. That was also the year that Christopher Columbus set sail to the west. The "age of discovery" or the "age of exploration" (both phrases I find to be completely misleading, as the areas that were "discovered" or "explored" had already been found by their original inhabitants) led to even more foods being introduced to the cuisine of Andalucia and other Spanish regions. These include peppers, yams, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and avocados. These ingredients worked their way into the cuisine of the region, creating the foundation for the wide array of dishes that may find their way to the Andalusian table.

SOUP/SALAD

There is an Andalusian saying, "Del gazpacho no hey empachno." It translates as, "you do not get an upset stomach from gazpacho." There is some truth to that saying.  I have made gazpacho many times, and, I have always enjoyed this dish. But, I wanted to learn a little more about its history. 

The central ingredient in modern day gazpacho is the tomato. Yet, tomatoes did not make their way into Spanish cuisine until at least the 16th century. So, does that mean that gazpacho only goes back to the 1500s? The answer to that question is in the negative. The soup - or is it a salad (that's another debate) - actually dates back to at least the time of the Romans. It originated as a soup made with bread, olive oil, vinegar, water, garlic, and salt. It is believed that the dish traveled with Romans as they made their way to the Iberian peninsula. The dish became a staple of the region in Andalucia, especially among the poor. It was not until the 1800s that tomatoes were incorporated into the dish, creating the base of the soup - or salad - that we know today.

The key to a great gazpacho is the tomatoes. They should be fresh, ripe and off the vine. In fact, all of the vegetables that go into the dish - including the cucumber, green pepper, and garlic - should be as fresh and ripe as possible.  By contrast, it is okay if the bread has gone a little stale. While some recipes call for the use of bread, others will suggest that the bread be left out overnight. Personally, I am not sure that it matters much for the soup (or salad), given it is blended and then strained. But, cutting the stale bread into small croutons (or toasting fresh bread), does a lot when it comes to serving the dish.  

Speaking of service, gazpacho should be served with accompaniments, like those croutons.  While croutons are a traditional accompaniment, so are tropezones or chopped vegetables. These include tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and cucumbers. There may be others, such as ham and egg.  Each one of the accompaniments should be served in separate bowls.  The guest is provided with the bowl of gazpacho and then he or she can decide which accompaniments - and how much - to add to the soup (or salad). 

Finally, as to that debate about soup or salad, I have always thought of gazpacho as a soup.  It is after all a liquid with additional ingredients added to it. However, most Spanish cookbooks refer to gazpacho as a salad or liquid salad. This fact, which I did not know before undertaking this challenge, may require me to reassess my thoughts about what exactly is gazpacho.

GAZPACHO ANALUZ

Recipe from Culinaria Spain, pg. 422-23

Serves 4

Ingredients (for the Gazpacho):

  • 2-3 slices of white bread
  • 1 pound of ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and diced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled seeded and diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • Salt
  • 2-3 tablespoons of wine vinegar or sherry vinegar 
Ingredients (for the Garnish):

  • Cubes of white bread
  • Small cubes of tomato
  • Bell pepper, diced up small
  • Diced onion
  • Cubes of ham
  • Hard-boiled egg, diced up small

Directions:

1. Prepare the soup. Roughly break up the white bread, and pour some water over, then leave to soak for at least 30 minutes.  Put the tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper and garlic in a blender, then add the bread and finally the oil.  Puree the entire mixture.  Add enough water as necessary to give the soup the required consistency. 

2. Continue preparing the soup. If necessary, pass the soup through a fine sieve.  Season with salt and vinegar.  Place the gazpacho in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 hour. 

3. Finish the dish. Serve it very cold with separate bowls of white bread cubes, small pieces of bell pepper, diced onion, cubes of ham and diced had cooked eggs, which each person mixes into their soup themselves.

MAIN COURSE

For the main challenge, I was perusing Andalusian recipes when I came across a recipe for Pato a la Jerezana or Jerez-style duck.  This recipe is quintessentially Andalusian based on the "Jerez," or use of sherry in the dish.  The region is known for its production of sherry, which is a fortified wine made from Palomino grapes. The wine is aged using the solera method, which is also use for port or balsamic vinegar.  The method requires the use of as little as three or as many as nine barrels.  One barrel is filled with the sherry, and, over time, some of that sherry is moved to the next barrel, a process known as running the scales. Only the sherry in the last barrel is bottled and sold.  

This recipe presented an actual challenge for me.  I had to break down a whole duck into its constituent parts (wings, legs, breast and thighs).  I have broken down whole chickens, and, I assumed that the process would be the same.  The process was very similar, except in one respect.  As I was removing the legs, I was looking for the thighs. I separated the leg at the joint, but I could not see much of any thigh. (By the way, ducks are harder to disjoint than chickens.) I went back over what I did and proceeded to the next leg.  I removed it at the joint, but, once again, not much in the way of any thigh meat.  I thought I did something wrong, until I realized something.  Duck legs are shorter than chicken legs, and, as a result, ducks have smaller thighs. This is the reason for duck confit, which is basically the leg and the thigh.  

Once I butchered the duck, pretty much in every sense of the word, I proceeded to making the dish. The recipe is fairly straightforward for a braise: brown the meat, remove, add the vegetables, then some liquid and return the meat back for a period of time.  The time period for the braise - 45 minutes - seemed rather short; but, with the duck broken down into pieces, I assumed that would account for that timeframe. 

Once it was done, the dish was very good and rich. The combination of the rendered duck fat and the bacon made the resulting sauce very fatty (which was probably intended by the recipe's authors and Andalucian cooks).  As I look back on the dish, I probably could have used a separator to remove much of the fattiness, and then returned the liquid to a pot to cook and and become more concentrated. These ideas went beyond the recipe and are good notes for the next time when I try to make this dish.  However, for now, I think that I have completed the challenge!

PATO A LA JEREZANA (JEREZ STYLE DUCK)

Recipe from Culinaria Spain, pg. 422-23

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 duck, weighing about 4.5 pounds
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 5.5 ounces of streaky bacon cut into strips
  • 2 onions diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic diced
  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, skinned and cubed
  • 7 ounces of pitted green olives
  • 1 cup of stock
  • 1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, oregano, bay leaf)
  • Pepper
  • 1/2 cup sherry
  • 2 cloves
Directions:

1.    Prepare the duck. Wash the duck and pat dry.  Cut into equal sized portions.  Rub thoroughly all over with salt and pepper.  Heat the olive oil in a braising pan and brown the duck portions on all sides until nicely golden brown.  Remove the portions and set them aside.

2.  Continue preparing the dish. Fry the bacon, onions and garlic in the oil until translucent. Add the carrots and fry briefly.  Stir in the tomatoes and the olives, and then pour in the stock. Add the bouquet garni and cloves.  Bring to a boil and at that point, return the duck to the pan.  Braise, covered for approximately, 45 minutes.  About 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time, stir in the sherry and season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. 

*    *    *

In the end, I think I can say that I have successfully completed another personal culinary challenge.  The Jerez-style duck was very good. The dish combined culinary elements of Andalucia - from the olives to the sherry - to prepare a dish that utilizes a not so common protein (namely, duck).  While I think that I did a good job with respect to the main course, the true star of this challenge was the gazpacho. The soup - or salad - had the brightness of vegetables, the tartness of the sherry vinegar, and even the garlic. The accompaniments, which went beyond the typical tropezones, also helped contribute to the dish.  

More importantly, I have now completed 40 challenges, which means I am half way through my personal culinary challenge to cook dishes from around the world.  It took over 10 years to reach this point; and, I am hoping that it won't take another ten to finish the journey. I have several challenges in the works, which you can see on my Around the World in 80 Dishes page. Having reached this milestone, I am going to use that momentum to complete more challenges in a timely fashion.  Until next time,

ENJOY!
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