Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In Vinotemp Veritas

Chickens, its time to talk about wine.

I’m not talking about that casual after-work grab whatever bottle is in the fridge left from the weekend and glug it into the nearest vessel for some decompression.  I’m not talking about that bottle you picked for the clever cutesy name on the label that you take to “book club” because you presume it will go well with salsa and Tostitos and girl talk.

Today we are talking about wine.  Serious wine.  Wine you choose as much for what it will be in 5 or 10 or 25 years as for what it is today.  Wine you choose because it is the best possible pairing for the meal you are preparing.  Wine that is a passion, a pleasure, a way to connect as much as a way to relax.  Wine with a capital W, where the winemaker knows that the wine is made in the vineyard and not the winery, and the name of the importer is as important as the name of the grape.

I may have mentioned before, that my Charming Suitor is a wine guy.  A serious wine guy.  A collector for over 30 years.  You know how when you marry someone, you also marry their family and friends?  In my case, that family includes some names like Donnhoff and Zind-Humbrecht and Comte LaFon, and the friends include pinot noir, nebbiolo, mourvedre, and riesling. 

Here is what I learned when I met CS.  It isn’t the grape, it is the producer.   And the terroir, like territory, the expression of the land on which the grapes are grown developed in the barrel.  You should be able to taste the geography in the glass.

I thought I didn’t like Chardonnay, finding it like licking an oak tree covered in butter.  Turns out I don’t like oaky California Chardonnay, what I like is Chardonnay from Burgundy which is much more like licking lime juice off a river rock, or unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand which is like eating fresh melon with a squirt of lemon and a drizzle of honey. 

I thought I hated Riesling, waving it off as cloyingly sweet, and always suspect in the weird blue bottles.

I was wrong.

So. Very. Wrong.

CS took me to the best wine store in Chicago, Howard’s Wine Cellar on Belmont, and put a 20-year-old Riesling from the Mosel in my face.  I swooned.  Turns out?  Riesling is the single greatest white grape, and in the hands of a decent producer, one the best possible things to drink with great food.  You think you need red wine with lamb?  You’ve never tasted it with Riesling.  Thai food?  Riesling.  Trust me, good Riesling isn’t sweet, it isn’t cloying and it is freaking delicious.

What I also learned is that CS, while a serious collector and passionate wine guy, isn’t a wine snob.  He is a "collector" not  "curator".  He buys wines that he believes will be delicious with food we prepare and shared with friends and family.  He isn't in it for the prestige of a massive cellar, he just wants to drink well with people he loves.  He doesn’t give a whit for the “famous” star wines, for the “90 point” wines, for things that are expensive for the sake of being expensive.  He says “Any idiot can spend $100 and get a decent bottle of wine.  Show me the guy that can spend $10 and get something delicious, that is the guy I respect.  I don’t care about a point system.  If you think you can taste the difference between an 89 point wine and a 90 point wine, you’re dead wrong, but you can pay the 50% upcharge for that little point.”

Since he has been at this for so long, he has amassed something of a large collection.  You know, enough wine so that we can drink very well.  For the rest of our natural lives.  Even if we open a restaurant in our living room.  And he has, for all of this time, been storing it in a special wine storage facility.  About 4 miles from our house.  Which is, as you might imagine, somewhat inconvenient.

For our first anniversary I bought him a 160 bottle wine fridge so that he could keep a decent stash in the house and not have to drive to the storage facility every time we needed wine.  We did a ton of research, and after reading every possible article and review, found that Vinotemp was the company to go with.  Founded by a winemaker who was looking for better and smarter ways to store wine at home, the Vinotemp units have the dual temp system that you need for storing red, white and champagne in the same unit, humidity control, and they run quiet and with energy efficiency.   Plus they have a lock on them, in case you are worried about bottles walking away, or finding themselves in the hands of the underaged.  We set it up in the basement and it became the “house cellar”, allowing CS to rotate the wines from storage that were at their peak onsite where we could remember to drink them!  Win/win!

When we began designing our house, the first thing CS said was that whatever else we did, it wouldn’t be a real dream house unless he had a wine cellar.  And when he dreams of a wine cellar, it isn’t some fancy room with grape vines painted on venetian plaster walls, with special bottles lit on display racks.  Nope.  He dreams of a wine cellar that looks a little dirty, a little dusty, a little musty.  A cellar where he can organize his wines for easy access.  He doesn’t need a tasting room, he doesn’t want to taste wine in a damp cold room, he wants to taste wine in our living room or dining room.  The wine cellar just needs to store it properly.

So when we again set out to do our research, it came as no surprise that when it comes to building a wine cellar from scratch?  You guessed it.  Vinotemp to the rescue.  We sent them the dimensions of the space, the number of bottles and types of wines we were looking to store, a general layout of the basement.  And they helped us figure out which cooling system to order, and advised us on every aspect of prepping the space properly.  Since we were starting from scratch with a gutted space that needed no retrofitting, we were able to go with a very efficient ducted system.  It essentially works like your central air-conditioning system, with ductwork feeding the space and a thermostat regulating the temperature but also the humidity.  It is precisely calibrated so that you can keep the conditions in your cellar absolutely perfect at all times. 

Once we decided on the unit, Vinotemp began to build it.  They put all of the cooling systems together custom, and then test them at the factory to be sure that what arrives is what you need and in tiptop working order. 

Ours arrives Wednesday.  We have finished framing out the cellar space, and are in the process of installing vapor barrier and a tremendous amount of insulation, per their detailed specs.  We are using special wood and drywall that is designed to be moisture and mold resistant.  Once the space is built-out and painted, we will work with our Vinotemp designer to do the racking system.  CS is still debating what sort of racking he wants, and they have many to choose from, so stay tuned and we will keep you posted on the design of the space as it comes together!

I love this stone racking, similar to the stuff they use in Burgundy cellars, and totally gorgeous!

Even better, we are designing a space in the future butler’s pantry to move the Vinotemp wine fridge upstairs, where it will be a godsend for both our everyday drinking and for parties.

Stay tuned for more cellar updates, along with some pictures of the progress!

In the meantime, here are CS’s top five tips for wine buying and drinking:

1.  We have a tendency in this country to drink white wines too cold and red wines too warm.  Room temp is 70 degrees or more.  Reds are best stored and drunk at 56 degrees.  Whites at 54.  General rule?  Use the half-hour philosophy.  Take whites and sparkling wines out of your fridge half an hour before you want to drink them, put red wines into your fridge half an hour before you want to drink them.  And if you are ordering in a restaurant, ask to feel the bottle, especially for reds.  If it isn't cool to the touch, ask for the bottle to be put on ice for five minutes.

2.  Make friends with a competent wine seller.  You don’t have to learn all there is to know about wine, you just have to know someone who does!  Find a place that you like, and talk to the wine seller about what you enjoy about wine and what you don’t, what you want to eat with the wines you choose, and what price points you are comfortable with.  Let them guide you to two or three bottles.  Drink them.  Did they nail it?  Now you have your person.  Did they fail?  Find someone else.

3.  Only buy what you can store properly until you want to drink it.  I know you might like the look of a full wine rack, but if the only place to put it is in your kitchen next to the stove, leave it empty.  Wine stored at room temp is already less than ideal, anywhere in the kitchen is just going to cook it.  If you don’t have space or budget for a small wine fridge, at least store your wine in a dark cool place, basements are preferable, but out of the way closets are okay too, and don’t invest in a lot of bottles, just keep it to what you are likely to drink within the next few weeks.

4.  Wines for food are not necessarily the same as wines for casual drinking on their own.  Sometimes a wine that might not be terribly delicious for just sitting around having a bit of a relaxing time after work, but will be absolutely spectacular with food.  For casual drinking, stick with things that are juicy and fruit forward like a young syrah, something refreshing like a rosé, or crisp and bright like a gruner veltliner.  With appetizers, champagne or sparkling wine is always welcome, and there is a very affordable bubbly out of New Mexico called Gruet that you can keep on hand.  For dinners, you can bring more complexity to the table, like a burgundy or Riesling, and if you can, maybe something with a little more bottle age on it.

5.  If you have the ability, invest in a Vinotemp wine fridge.  They have a range of sizes and styles, and a price for almost any budget.  They even sell refurbished units at a fraction of the retail price, some of them as inexpensive as $120!  Most importantly, once you have one, you’ll be able to store and serve wine whenever you like, and know that it will always be the perfect temperature and best possible condition.

Yours in Good Taste, 
The Polymath

Monday, November 17, 2014

Did Someone Say Fried Chicken?

Just a quick one today, to share a new recipe I am awfully proud of...


My sister and brother-in-love had a very cool party this past weekend.  An indoor tailgate!  They used the excuse of a Saturday night college football game to invite over all their best pals for a tailgate themed potluck party.  Plenty of snacks, plenty of beer and cocktail fixin's, and everyone got to bring their best dish.

I was on deck for fried chicken drumsticks.  I love great fried chicken.  I actually don't mind mediocre fried chicken, to be honest, but I try not to eat fried chicken too often, so if I can avoid fair to middlin' and stick with great, that is always a good thing.

I especially love a big pile of fried chicken drumsticks on a buffet for a crowd.  They are a perfect one-hand food, so you can eat them while standing or milling about.  They are a small enough piece that you don't overly fill up on them, but still have enough meat on them that they are more than just a delivery service for fried skin and breading.  (I'm looking at you, wings.  Delicious though you are)
I also have a very specific idea of what make for great fried chicken.

1.  The meat has to be both juicy and well-flavored, the seasoning has to have penetrated.  Juicy and bland isn't going to cut it, and dried out is simply unacceptable.

2.  The outside has to be extra shatteringly crunchy, with enough seasoning in the coating to provide oomph.

3.  The breading cannot just all fall off when you bite into the chicken the first time.  Defeats the whole purpose.

Now, my Charming Suitor is from Kentucky, so he knows him some quality fried chicken.  The bar isn't just high, its off the charts.  No pressure for the Yankee wife at all.

Here is my official, don't need to change a thing, perfection on a stick, fried chicken.  The recipe is designed for 24 drumsticks or a combo of drumsticks and thighs.  That is because dark meat is just better.  Stays moister, perfect size, better flavor.  It isn't that you can't use this recipe for white meat, but you will need to adjust the cooking times, wings will cook much faster, breasts a little longer.  I know you think 24 pieces of chicken sounds like a lot, but this is fried chicken for a party.  If you are having a sit down dinner party, you can serve 8-12 amply with this, but for a potluck or holiday buffet, you can cover up to 24 people.  And frankly, there are worse things than leftover fried chicken.  And if you love it, I hope you will check out my other recipes in the new digital cookbook, Big Delicious Life!  Only $3.79 for over 150 recipes, 40 never before published, and the first chapter of my next novel!  BUY HERE.

I'm just saying.

Fried Chicken Drumsticks
Serves up to 24 as part of a buffet, or 8-12 as a main course

24 chicken drumsticks (or a mix of drumsticks and thighs)

Spice Rub
2 t dried thyme
2 t dried marjoram
4 t onion powder
4 t garlic powder
3 t espelette pepper (can substitute Aleppo or Cayenne)
6 T salt
2 T freshly ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg

Buttermilk Brine

2 quarts buttermilk
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons hotsauce (Tabasco, Sriracha, whatever you have on hand)

In a large bowl, mix all of the dry spices. Add chicken and toss until well coated.  Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours.  Mix the hotsauce and honey together until combined, and then blend into the buttermilk.  Pour the buttermilk brine over the chicken to cover completely. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours, up to 24 hours.

To prep the chicken for frying:

Pour chicken legs into colander and allow buttermilk to drain.  With paper towels, pat each of the legs completely dry, and arrange in a single layer on more paper towels on a large sheet pan.  Place in the fridge uncovered for 1-3 hours.  This step will dry the skin out and tighten it a bit, trust me, worth the extra step and time.  

4 ½  cups all-purpose flour
4 ½  tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons fine sea salt
3 teaspoons espelette pepper (can substitute Aleppo or Cayenne)
3 tablespoons baking powder

1 quart buttermilk

4 quarts peanut oil

Combine the flour, black pepper, paprika, sea salt, cayenne, and baking powder in a large rectangular pan (I often use deep disposable foil pans) or a wide bowl. Whisk to combine well, and make sure the flour is well seasoned.

Pour the buttermilk into a separate pan or bowl. Set a rack over a baking sheet. Dredge the dried chicken pieces in the flour, shake off the excess, and set them on the rack. Do all of the pieces to this stage.  Then dip each of the pieces in the buttermilk, hold briefly to drain excess, then toss them in the seasoned flour until well coated and return them to the rack.  They should look a little shaggy.

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan for deep-frying to 350°F. Add as many chicken pieces as you can without crowding the pan, you may have to do this in 3-4 batches depending on the size of your pot. Cook the chicken, turning the pieces occasionally, until they are cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes depending on their size. After 9 minutes remove one piece and check for doneness with an instant read meat thermometer, they should be 165-175.  Remove to a sheet pan covered with paper towels that you have first crumpled up and then pulled back flat.  While they are resting, let the temp of the oil come back up to 350 and then add the next round of chicken pieces.  When the pieces on the paper towel have drained, place them on a clean rack over a baking tray and allow them to rest for 10 minutes before serving.   If not serving right away, hold in a 200-degree oven on the rack for up to 30 minutes.

These are delicious hot, warm, or at room temp.  And if you have leftovers, cold right from the fridge for breakfast.  If you have to transport them, slide the tray with the rack into a paper grocery bag, and cut a large opening on the top to let out steam, and then cut the bottom 6 inches off another paper grocery bag and slide it over the second end.  You do not want them to be covered, steam will make them soggy.