Swirl Wine Bar & Market

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lidia's Fagotini Di Prosciutto Di Parma (Prosciutto Purses)

All of that writing about the Bastianich Vespa Bianco made my mouth water, so I had to cook something to pair with it! And of course a recipe from Lidia's Italy was most appropriate! I forgot to buy the chives when I went shopping so I substituted with fresh thyme stems, a little tricky to tie, but they worked!

Cook the “purses” just long enough to brown them. Overcooking will make them salty and, as Prosciutto di Parma is a carefully cured product, it doesn’t need to be cooked to be rendered edible. When buying the prosciutto, ask for slices from the widest part of the ham that will measure about 8 inches by 4 inches.

Yields 20 purses

20 sturdy fresh chives, each at least 5 inches long
10 thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma, each approximately 8- x 4- inches
20 teaspoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Ripe fresh figs, cut into quarters or thin wedges of ripe cantaloupe or honeydew melon

Bring a large skillet of water to a boil and add the chives. Stir, separating the chives gently, just until they turn bright green, about 5 seconds. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a bowl of cold water and let stand a few seconds to stop the cooking. Remove the chives and drain them on paper towels.

Cut the prosciutto slices in half crosswise to make pieces that measure approximately 4- x 4- inches. Place 1 teaspoon grated cheese in the center of each square and gather the edges of the prosciutto over the cheese to form a “purse” with a rounded bottom and ruffled top. Pinch the prosciutto firmly where it is gathered and tie it around this “neck” with a length of chive. Continue with remaining prosciutto slices, cheese and chives.

In a large, preferably non-stick skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over low heat. Add half of the purses and cook, shaking the skillet very gently occasionally, the undersides are golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and cook the remaining purses in the same manner. Serve hot with fresh figs or ripe melon pieces.

The Return of an Old Friend

The life of a wine on the shelves at Swirl can be short lived. Sometimes is has nothing to do with popularity, just the mere fact that due to our ambitious schedule of 2+ tastings per week combined with my inability to pass on new and interesting wines, our inventory is ever changing and evolving. The positive side to this is that you, our treasured customers, are constantly getting exposed to cool and different wines, lots of obscure varieties, exciting new regions and up and coming wine makers. The downside is that a wonderful wine may get pushed out of the rotation just because I need space for the 10 new wines we'll be bringing in for this weeks lineup of tastings!

Such is the case of one of my favorite wines produced by a family who have been part of an Italian wine and food "revolution" in this country. Ignited by the matriarchal maven of Italian cooking, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, and fueled by her son Joe's ever-expanding array of projects, the Bastianichs have played a major role in bringing the culture of Italy to our tables. I've written often about Lidia, have had the privilege of meeting Joe through our friends at Neat Wines and have been enamoured with the family and their projects for quite some time.

So the "old friend" that has returned is the 2004 Bastianich Vespa Bianco, the flagship wine of the Bastianich winery in Friuli. My personal pick for our Thanksgiving meal, and an open spot on the racks gave me the perfect excuse to bring back this store favorite. The Vespa is one of what Joe calls "Super-Whites," the blends that command the most respect in Friuli. The Super-Whites from Friuli are quite different from the whites of other Italian regions, beginning with the fact that they're blended. The grape varieties generally include Friulano(Friuli's most famous grape), Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.

This 5-time Gambero Rosso Three Glass winner was created to showcase the power and evolution that a great Friulian white can have. Consisting of equal parts Sauvignon and Chardonnay with a measure of Picolit, Vespa Bianco becomes a sum of its parts, a wine of uncommon complexity.

In the most recent issue of Gambero Rosso magazine, Bastianich Vespa Bianco was named one of the top “50 Bianchi d’Italia”. The wines chosen were not vintage-specific. This was an overall ranking of the best white wines in Italy over the past 23 years.

Bastianich Vespa Bianco ranked number 32 overall, among some of the greatest and most famous whites in all of Italy. Their placement in the Top 50 is especially noteworthy considering that many of the other wines mentioned in the article have a much longer winemaking history than Bastianich.

Winemaker's Notes: A tightly wound balance of minerality and citrus, evolving over time into a more viscous expression of wildflowers, clover honey and mature pear. The palate sensations are more like those of a red wine. Its powerful tannic structure and acidic backbone lend it not only immediate impact but a long life. Vespa Bianco can be further aged up to 7-10 years after the vintage.

Gambero Rosso 2007

Superbly complex, and veined with cream and banana, it is lifted by fresh fruit to the heights of elegance. The supremely balanced, gutsy palate is textbook stuff, making this a particularly sophisticated Three Glass champion.
Tre Bicchieri - Gambero Rosso

The best part? You can get this kind of quality and longevity for $28.99!

For more information on Bastianich wines, Joe and Lidia, check out these great links including Joe's blog, "The Buzz", the source of those great wasp photos!

The Buzz
Joe Bastianich
Lidia's Italy
New York Restaurant Insider, a great article on Lidia and her incredible life journey
Swirl and Savor: Lidia, my past posts on Lidia and some of her recipes

Wine of the Moment, 2007 Cholila Ranch Malbec

I've been really getting into the wines from Patagonia lately. They offer something different from the usual, delicious values that come out of Mendoza, Argentina's wine capitol. Some 400 mile south of Mendoza in a scrubby, arid, windy, crazy place, Patagonia is home to some of the southernmost vineyards of the world! But don't pack your bags and expect some tourist haven, this is a desolate region, great for grapes, but not a whole lot of anything else.

The region boasts plenty of sunshine and dry climate along with a wide range between day and nighttime temperatures. But the strong winds that blow through the area are a huge challenge in terms of tangling vines and they also destroy many of the buds during flowering. The winds can also cause wine grapes to grow a thicker skin resulting in harsher tannins if the winemaker isn't careful. Poplar trees planted on the perimeter of the vineyards are used as a windbreak and help prevent vine shoots from twisting. The upside to the winds is that they keep the vines dry and keep away pests and disease so the use of chemicals is almost non-existent.

How does the taste differ from Mendoza Malbecs? I get a little more plum notes than the usual black fruits and a hint of graphite as well, but the same soft tannins and light acidity; very pleasant and something a little different for Malbec fanatics.

Matt Lirette of Lirette Selections brought me the Cholila Ranch Malbec, made by a 100% Argentine winemaking team, led by legendary Argentine winemaker, Roberto de la Mota. A fun tidbit on importer Fran Kysela's website,
In February 20, 1901, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, boarded the British ship Herminius and steamed off to build a new life for themselves in the "United States of the Southern Hemisphere". They settled in a sheep ranch at Cholila Ranch, in the deepest Argentine Patagonia, under the alias of James Ryan and Harry A. place, where they were considered respectable citizens. - Extract of "Digging Up Butch & Sundance", by Anne Meadows

From Importer Fran Kysela: 2007 Cholila Ranch Malbec is made from 100% Malbec. The estate-grown grapes are manually harvested, carefully sorted, and destemmed. The wine undergoes traditional maceration for 21 days with selected yeasts. Cholila Ranch Malbec is aged both in American and French oak for 9 months, followed by a minimum of 6 months bottle aging prior to release. Deep purple color. Aromas of ripe plum and mulberry with violet hints. Ripe black fruits and fig on the palate with touches of smoke and vanilla. A truly powerful yet balanced wine with a persistent finish.

Desperately Seeking Chocolate

but not just any chocolate....

This was a difficult morning for me. I am an early riser, 5 to 6am, and one of the highlights of my morning is a cup of cappuccino made with our freshly roasted espresso blend and a piece of chocolate. But today wasn't just any chocolate, it was the last piece of Cioccolato di Modica that I brought home from Sicily last month. I almost cried as the last crunchy, spicy bite hit my mouth and immediately got on line to see if I could mail order some. I don't think I can live without this chocolate!

So what makes this so different? Everything. It is like nothing I've ever tasted before, and believe me I've tasted a lot of chocolate...The town of Modica, located in the Ragusa province of southeast Sicily, is custodian of a 400 year tradition of Sicilian chocolate-making. Being part of the Spanish kingdom for so many years meant that Sicily was often one of the first recipients of the new foodstuffs being brought back from South America. Cacao was one of these and today Modica still specialises in making granulous chocolate, often flavored with chili pepper, cinnamon or vanilla, that is based on Aztec methods and recipes.

As in the Aztec tradition, Modica’s chocolate is defined by the cold, often hand-processing of cacao, which eases the cocoa butter out of the beans, just enough to make a firm paste. The cool temperature keeps the texture of the chocolate paste rough, enhanced by the added sugar crystals that remain intact. With no added cocoa butter, vegetable fats or emulsifiers, Modica’s chocolate retains all of the cacao’s intense flavor and aroma, a one-two punch to the senses.

So if you are lucky enough to find Cioccolato di Modica, what do you get? The first thing you notice is the packaging: hand-wrapped in a layer of parchment paper and then in a layer of kraft. Tied with a waxed ribbon, very old school. And the bar itself: solid as a marble slab, and yet fragile as an ancient painting, freckled with a layer of reddish blooms. The chocolate itself is bitter, with gritty crunches of sugar for punctuation; this had none of the creaminess we expect from chocolate in this country—it is brittle, it is delicate, it is ethereal. No added milk or extra cocoa butters and, of course, no preservatives or additives.

It is the essence of purity, a chocolate that remains boldly true to its original format, as defiantly traditional as the Sicilians themselves.

It will be in the shop soon, I'll let you know...

The Fig Report

It has not been a good week for my fig cutting. I think that using the heat in the house is creating an inconsistent environment. The second leaf that had begun to sprout has turned brown and has died so I am adding back the plastic container for a little while.

Step 6
When new shoots and leaves extend from the cuttings, remove the bottle cap. If the cuttings continue to grow after several days, remove the bottle. If they wilt, replace the bottle and try again in a few days. If they thrive, it is time to transplant the cuttings. Cross your fingers! I did this yesterday and there already seems to be another shoot or leaf trying to pop through.

Click here for the story on the journey of the little Sicilian fig cutting: For the Love of Figs

Sunday, November 22, 2009

No Cop-Outs, Following My Heart on Turkey Day!

I just finished my post on our Thanksgiving Hit List of food and wine pairings for your holiday meals, so it got me thinking about what we will be drinking. And I started to feel like I took the easy way out, as do most wine/food writers, suggesting all of the classic pairings when I knew that I personally would probably not be drinking any of those wines. While it would be lovely to bring the traditional Champagne, nicely followed by an Alsatian Riesling or Oregon Pinot Gris and finished off with a beautiful red Burgundy, my heart, of course, is always in Italy. Why play it safe just because everyone else does? After all, isn't that what this business is all about for me, finding those obscure varietals, interesting producers and unlikely choices that the average wine drinker would probably not even know about or where to get? So, here I am writing another post, take it or leave it, on what I really want to drink on Thanksgiving day!

We've been invited by friends to go to the beach for turkey day with our only responsibility being that of bringing the wine. We'll be working late on Wednesday so that, unfortunately, leaves no time for cooking and makes bringing the wine an easy task. It will be the usual fare, no Italian influence here, just good old American food.

Sparkling was the easiest choice. Thanks to our friend Jared at International Wine and Spirits, we just received a case of the Murgo Sparkling wines from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Made with Nerello Mascalese grown volcanic soils these are the most unique bubblies I've tasted in a while. The Brut greets you with crisp apples and yeast on the nose with bright citrus tones on the palate and a wonderfully long finish. The rose, also of Nerello Mascalese, has delicious cherry, red fruits and a delightful mineral, almost smoky finish. It will be a hard choice, so I'll most likely take one of each...

Whites become a little more difficult to chose because there are SO many amazing Italian white food wines. The first that comes to mind is the Bastianich Vespa Bianco, a blend of 45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon and 10% late-harvested Picolit. Stone fruit intertwined with smoke and a touch of earthiness; somehow fat and crisp at the same time. But then there is also the Fontanabianca Arneis with its concentration of plump, ripe fruit and distinct white spice, lively acidity and notes of yellow peach in the finish. And I can't forget the wine I just tasted the other night with Matt Lirette, a 2010 Tre Bicchieri winner, the Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino. It greets you with pretty scents of flowers and soft apricots with that tell tale touch of smoky minerality exhibited by wines born out of volcanic soils. So, this will be a hard choice, but one or two of these will be coming with us!

I knew which red I would drinking on Thanksgiving day the first time I tasted it at the Planeta winery in Sicily. The Planeta Cerasuolo is a delightful wine is named for its remarkable color as cerasuolo means "cherry red" in Italian. Made from two local grapes, the Frappato imparts ripe berry flavors and freshness, while the Nero d'Avola gives it a supple tannic structure, richness and intensity. It offers an immediate bright cherry fruit component that dominates the aromatics, but then gives way to the blacker, earthier fruits of the Nero on the palate. Soft, supple, fresh and lively it is a wonderful change for Pinot Noir lovers looking for something on the wild side! A GREAT pick for Thanksgiving, it will really shine with turkey and cranberries!

So there you have it, my true picks for holiday wines for those of you adventurous enough to care! Have a great holiday no matter what you drink!

Our Annual Thanksgiving Hit List

I think you've figured out by now that we are fanatics about pairing food and wines and I just love making selections for holiday meals. So what should you drink with all of those sides and mounds of turkey? There are so many answers to that question that sometimes the best choice would be to open a bubbly, white, red and rose, put them on the table and let people chose for themselves! But don’t forget to have Aunt Mary’s bottle of White Zinfandel on hand, because it’s all about personal preference!

Here are a few pairing tips and recommendations from our selection. We’ve picked options at low, moderate and higher price points so there is something for every wallet. The wines will have a special “holiday pick” tag on the shelves and if you purchase any four of these wines for your celebration, we’ll give you a 10% discount. And we’ll be featuring 5 of these wines in our Swirlin’ Dervish Thanksgiving Tapas on November 24th so come in and try them with some holiday fare to see what will best suit your menu!

For the wide array of flavors on the Thanksgiving table, sparkling wines are a no-brainer. Bright acidity, fruit and yeasty undertones make bubbly extremely food-friendly. Especially good are Brut rosé and Blanc de Noir, which can take you from the lox or chevre hors d'oeuvre to the vinaigrette salad right through the turkey and potatoes and onto the pie. The Pinot Noir grapes in these wines provide body, some tannin for texture, red-fruit character, complexity and acid balance. The bubbles from natural carbonation from the yeast, in concert with the wine's acidity, help cleanse the palate for the next course.
Our Pick: Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir, $16.99; J Sparkling Rosé, $23.99 or Taittinger Brut Rosé, $69.99

White wines with lively fruit and acidity and little to no oak are also versatile. With its aromas and flavors of citrus, apple and pear and zippy acidity plus herbal notes, Sauvignon Blanc pairs with everything from butternut-squash soup to green salad to turkey with a dressing made of briny oysters and herbs. Even notoriously tough-to-pair Brussels sprouts will sing with Sauvignon Blanc. Alsatian and German whites like Rieslings, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris with their tropical fruit, citrus, green-apple, pear and mineral notes combined with thirst quenching acidity, work with almost any Thanksgiving dish except the cranberry sauce.
Our Pick: JanKris Sauvignon Blanc, $12.99; Saarstein Riesling $14.99; Meyer Fonne Riesling, $25.99 or Sineann Pinot Gris, $18.99

"Serious" dry rosés made from Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah or Mourvedre grapes or blended proprietary rosés have acidity to balance the citrus, red and stone fruits and usually sport structure and a long finish but light tannins.
Our Pick: Barnard Griffin Sangiovese Rosé, $11.99; Lioco Pinot Noir Rose, $15.99

Beaujolais, Gamay is a favorite "go-to" pick for Thanksgiving. It brings soft, easy drinking affordability to the table that's perfect for the cornucopia of flavors and large group setting that Thanksgiving entails. It has bright fruit flavors to perk up the milder dishes and enough structure to hold its own with the more robust courses made with sausage and herbs.
Our Pick: Pierre Chermette Beaujolais, $15.99, Domaine du Nugues Beaujolais Village, $15.99

Syrah and Zinfandel have the spice, dark fruit and berries to bring out the best in cranberry sauces as long as the wine has soft tannins and ripe, forward fruit and the sauce is balanced -- moderately tart and not too sweet.
Our Pick: Windmill Zinfandel, $12.99; Five Vintners Zinfandel, $23.99 or Baileyanna Syrah, $19.99

The best single wine to choose for Thanksgiving is Pinot Noir. This versatile varietal has tangy red fruit of strawberry and cherry, with nice acidity to balance and low levels of tannin. With elegance and a touch of earthiness to lend complexity, Pinot Noir will subtly support most things on the Thanksgiving table without overpowering them. Cranberry sauce and dessert are exceptions again, with the sauce too tart and the dessert too sweet.
Our Pick: Domaine Sarret Pinot Noir, $12.99; Wild Rock Pinot Noir, $17.50, Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir, $23.99 or Moises Yamhill Carlton Pinot Noir, $39.99

So there you have it! But remember the most important thing is to drink wines that make you happy with people that make you smile, because that is what it's all about!

Chef Richard Papier's Sweet Potato and Chorizo Soup

Local culinary talent Chef Richard Papier will be heating up the shop on Tuesday with his take on Thanksgiving classics for our monthly tapas night. He'll deliver 5 freshly prepared tapas items that I'll be pairing with my favorite wines for your Thanksgiving meal. One of the courses will feature his deliciously spicy Sweet Potato and Chorizo Soup that I'll be pairing with the Sineann Pinot Gris from Oregon and I've convinced chef to give us the recipe!

Serves 4-6

* 3 to 4 medium sweet potato (about 2 1/4 pounds)
* 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
* 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
* 3 cups chicken
* 1-2 cups water, as needed
* salt and pepper to taste
* 8 oz Mexican chorizo

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees
-Oil, salt and pepper sweet potatoes and place on a sheet pan . Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes or until very tender, on 400 degrees. Set aside to cool. When the sweet potato is completely cool, scoop the flesh from the skin.
-While the sweet potato is baking, cook the onion and the chorizo in a saucepan, over moderately low heat, for 5 to 10 minutes or until the onion is softened, and the chorizo is fully cooked.
- Add the broth and simmer the mixture for 10 minutes, covered. Add the sweet potato pulp to the sauce pan and blend.
-Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor, in batches, and puree until smooth. Add enough water to achieve the desired consistency, and salt and pepper to taste.
-Return the soup to the sauce pan and cook over moderate heat until it is hot.

For the Love of Figs, Continued!

The story continues! Click here if you missed my initial post on the crazy journey of this twig cut from a tree in Sicily now growing in my office: For The Love of Figs. I'll post weekly updates on our progress!

Step 5
Water the cuttings only when the soil dries out completely. Lift the container and if it feels light, place it in a shallow pan filled with water. Allow the soil in the container to soak up water from the pan. Remove the container when the soil is moist again. I finally did this a few days ago.

Step 6
When new shoots and leaves extend from the cuttings, remove the bottle cap. If the cuttings continue to grow after several days, remove the bottle. If they wilt, replace the bottle and try again in a few days. If they thrive, it is time to transplant the cuttings. As you can see, the cutting has thrived, so I'll be transplanting it this week!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Venerable Vini Biondi

It was our first rainy morning since we started the trip. We headed out early to meet Ciro Biondi, the current owner of Vini Biondi, with instructions to meet him at the piazza in front of the church of S. Alfio in the town of Trescastagni. Well of course it took us twice as long to get there, as it does traveling anywhere in Sicily, but after a few phone calls, the accommodating Ciro arrived at the piazza and asked us to follow him up the mountain to his vineyards.

The Biondi family has owned vineyards on the Etna since 1635, but didn't start producing their own wine until the late 1800's. Over the past hundred plus years they have seen countless medals and awards, partnerships, periods of prolific production countered with declines in quality, all leading to the present day tutelage of Ciro Biondi. In 1999, an architect by trade, Ciro decided to restore his family vineyards. He hired renowned Salvo Foti, considered one of the most gifted interpreters of native varietals in Sicily, as his winemaker and the match has resulted in multiple Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards for his red wines.

We followed Ciro up the winding roads first to Monte Ilice, a dormant volcanic crater whose slopes rise to a steep 900m at a 50% gradient! A blanket of fog lay over the top of the mountain, obscuring much of the 2 hectares of east facing vineyards that stretch up right to the edge of the crater. They are planted with bush trained Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio using 2meter poles to help hold the soils in place on the steep gradient. Of course everything has to be done by hand, so Ciro has a 300 meter cable lift to bring materials up and down the mountain. At harvest, it takes 4 people 10 days to hand select the grapes from the Monte Ilice vineyard. It is an incredible vineyard site and a definite source of pride for Ciro.

The soils here are amazing. Although in the photo it just looks like fertile black earth, it is actually more like a gravel of ground volcanic rock and sand. It is these soils and the dramatic climate on the slopes of the volcano that make the Etna so unique and one of the most exciting spots in the world of wine today.

We piled back in to the cars to follow Ciro to his next vineyard site, Carpene, where he nostalgically recalls the days that wine was still made here in the old palmento. The typical winemaking structure of the 19th century, the palmento at Vini Biondi is built into the hillside with openings on the upper part of the back wall where the grapes would be brought in to stone basins for foot treading. By gravity, foot-trodden musts would pour into fermentation basins on the lower floor. While no longer used for production, it has been beautifully restored and makes for a wonderfully romantic setting!

Next we headed to Ciro's current production facility where we tasted from the fermentation tanks, freshly picked Nerello Mascalese, and the Outis, a consistent Tre Bicchieri winner from Gambero Rosso. The Outis is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio that come from his east facing Monte Ronzini vineyards at 620m. He also popped a bottle of his newly released and current award winner, the 2006 M.I.(Monte Ilice), that was just announced as a Tre Bicchieri recipient for the 2010 edition!

Beautiful wines, amazing vineyards and a gracious host, we totally enjoyed our visit with Ciro and Trescastagni. As Ciro headed off to a filming in the vineyards with British chef and restaurateur Gary Rhodes, we went back done the mountain into town for a delicious lunch!

Click here for the full slideshow of our visit: Vini Biondi

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wine of the Moment, 2008 Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria

Sicily's only DOCG region, Cerasuola di Vittoria, is not known very well outside the island. Having received DOC status in 1973 and DOCG as recently as 2005, this area of south eastern Sicily produces one of the most distinct Sicilian red wines. Cerasuolo wines are bright and lively, thoroughly refreshing, and while not the most complex wines in the world their lightness and vivacity insistently invite you back for another glass. They're versatile with food and actually stand alone beautifully as well.

This delightful wine is named for its remarkable color as cerasuolo means "cherry red" in Italian. Made from two local grapes, the Frappato imparts ripe berry flavors and freshness, while the Nero d'Avola gives it a supple tannic structure, richness and intensity.

The Planeta Cerasuolo is 60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Frappato and aged for four months in 100% stainless steel. It offers an immediate bright cherry fruit component that dominates the aromatics, but then gives way to the blacker, earthier fruits of the Nero on the palate. Soft, supple, fresh and lively it is a wonderful change for Pinot Noir lovers looking for something on the wild side! A GREAT pick for Thanksgiving, it will really shine with turkey and cranberries!

Kerry's Sicilian Caponata

One of the culinary joys of our recent trip was eating and comparing each cook's version of Sicilian Caponata, a condiment of chunky fried eggplant and other vegetables and seasonings, jam-packed with flavor—sweet, sour, salty all at once. A staple of the Sicilian diet, caponata is served in a variety of ways and every family has its own recipe. We learned how to make it during our cooking class with Silvia at Mandranova (see me stirring on the right) and have been craving it ever since! It can be used as a condiment for fish and meats, served with pasta, spooned onto bruschetta or just eaten on its own.

We were in charge of the Antipasti course at a Sicilian dinner Saturday night at our friend Carol's house. Kerry developed her own recipe for caponata, combining her ideas with classic ingredients and techniques from Silvia at Mandranova and Lidia Bastianich. It got rave reviews from the crowd!

3 eggplants
2 yellow onions (1 pound approx), cut in 1-1/2 inch chunks
5 or 6 ribs celery, trimmed cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1-1/2 cup cerignola or other large green brine-cured olives, pitted and cut in ½-inch pieces
5-6 fresh plum tomatoes
1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup capers if desired
1 cup cooking grade olive oil
extra-virgin olive oil
12-15 large fresh basil leaves
few springs of flat-leafed parsley
coarse sea salt or kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
dried peperoncino flakes
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar

Note: if olives are super salty, you may want to add less salt to the vegetable mix.

Trim the eggplant ends and partially skin them using a peeler to alternately remove skin in a striped fashion. Cut them into chunks about 2-inches long and 1-inch thick. Toss the chunks with 2 teaspoons of salt and drain in a colander for 30 minutes to an hour. Rinse and pat them dry with paper towels.

Meanwhile pour the red wine vinegar and 3/4 cup water into the small pan, stir in the sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer until reduced by half and syrupy, then remove from the heat.

Slice the onions into 1-1/2” pieces. Trim the celery stalks (and peel them if they’re tough and stringy) then chop in 1/2-inch chunks. Cut the plum tomatoes in half and scrape out the seeds and ribs. Slice lengthwise into 3/4-inch or so thick wedges. Roughly chop the pitted olives into ½-inch pieces.

To fry the eggplant, pour the cup of cooking grade olive oil into the skillet and set over medium-high heat, 360 deg. Spread all the eggplant chunks in the hot oil and fry for 10 to 15 minutes, tossing and stirring frequently, until the eggplant is soft and cooked through and golden brown on all sides. You will probably have to do this in a few batches as you don't want to crowd the eggplant. Lift the chunks out of the oil with a slotted spoon and spread them on paper towels to drain.

Pour ¼ cup of the extra virgin olive oil in another large skillet and set it over medium heat. Stir in the onion and celery chunks, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, tossing often, until they’ve wilted and lightly colored, 8-10 minutes or so. Toss in the olives and the capers, heat quickly until sizzling. Dilute the tomato paste with ¼ cup or so of water then mix in. Scatter in the tomatoes wedges and fold them in with the other vegetables. Season with another ¼ teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, a few generous pinches of peperoncino. Cook until the tomatoes are hot and softened but still holding their shape, about 5 minutes.

Next pour the vinegar syrup all over and stir it in. Cook the vegetables together for about 8-10 more minutes, then turn off the heat. Tear the basil leaves into shreds, roughly chop the parsley and stir them into the vegetables. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper if needed.

Take the eggplant pieces and layer over the bottom of a large serving dish. Add the rest of the vegetables on top of the eggplant, but do not mix together. Allow the dish to cool and rest for 1 hour, then gently mix together. Drizzle the top with a bit of your finest olive oil and serve.

*We served the amazing 2006 Murgo Sparkling Rose from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily with the antipasti platter. Made with Nerello Mascalese, this is the most unique sparkling wine we've tried in a long time! Currently available only at Swirl, $33.99.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

For the Love of Figs...

I've been wanting to plant a fig tree for a while now. We were at our friend Kaysey's house in Covington last year and picked fresh figs from a tree right off of her balcony one morning for breakfast. Drizzled with a little honey and spread with fresh goats cheese, they are to die for! So I start looking online, trying to figure out what kind of fig tree I wanted and where I would get it. Should I order one? Should I just find one locally? Could I grow one from a cutting?? For the last year I've been contemplating planting a fig tree but somehow it never seemed to happen.

Sometime before we went to Sicily I was again looking at growing from a cutting. I found out it was relatively easy, but how would I decide where I wanted to do a cutting from? The right answer didn't come, until we were in Sicily...

On a windy Sunday afternoon in Sambuca di Sicilia, we were walking the beautiful grounds of Planeta's Ulmo winery with Chiara Planeta. Having just finished an amazing tasting of way too many of their wines, we were heading into the dining area of the 16th century farmhouse for lunch, when I noticed a beautiful fig tree on their property. After more wine and a delicious lunch of local foods, I asked Chiara if I could possibly have a cutting from their fig tree. She said of course and cut off a small piece about 6-8" long. As delighted as I was to have it, I now just had to figure out what to do with it!!

So, I put the cutting in my purse and tried to recall what I had read about propagating fig trees from cuttings. When we got to our next lodging spot, Mandranova, I was so enthralled with the place that I had forgotten about my cutting. Four days later at our last agriturismo, I found it and decided to put it in a glass of water. Our next stop was Roma for a few days and then home so I wrapped the bottom in a paper towel soaked with water and then put it in a plastic bag. I was a little nervous about getting it through customs, but it made it into the states and into our kitchen.

Well we came back with way too many things to do, so I just stuck it in water again until I had time to do something with it. Another week went by, it was now more than 2 weeks since Chiara had cut it for me, when I found a post about propagating fig trees at gardenguides.com. By this time is was starting to get brown and I really didn't have much hope for it, but I figured what the hell, it couldn't hurt to try. Here are the instructions that I followed:

Step 1
Cut stems for rooting in late winter. Cut 1-year-old stems growing in the center of the tree. Make the stems between 6 and 8 inches long and approximately as thick as a finger. I kind of got this right, but we did not take it from the center of the tree and it wasn't late winter...

Step 2
Line the bottom of the plastic container with newspaper and place 2 to 3 inches of potting soil into the bottom. Place as many as four cuttings in one plastic container, standing them so that the cut ends are in the soil. Add more potting soil to fill the container--you should see just the tips of the cuttings.

Step 3
Water the soil and place the container in a location where there is bright sun, but not direct light. Keep the temperature at 70 degrees F or higher. My office at home seems to be working well. It has lots of windows and gets light from the east and south.

Step 4
Cut off the bottom of a plastic bottle--a soft-drink bottle works well--and place the bottle over the container. Keep the cap on the bottle. I used an orange juice container that Ron had left in the frig during his house/dog sitting stay.

Step 5
Water the cuttings only when the soil dries out completely. Lift the container and if it feels light, place it in a shallow pan filled with water. Allow the soil in the container to soak up water from the pan. Remove the container when the soil is moist again. I have not had to do this yet, probably in a few days.

Step 6
When new shoots and leaves extend from the cuttings, remove the bottle cap. If the cuttings continue to grow after several days, remove the bottle. If they wilt, replace the bottle and try again in a few days. If they thrive, it is time to transplant the cuttings. This where I am now, I just removed the cap, take a look at my photo!! I am amazed that this thing is actually growing after what I've put it through...

So, I'll keep you posted as to how the rest of this goes, but so far so good! Keep your figures crossed and hopefully one day I can be giving some of you cuttings from my Planeta fig tree from Sicilia!!

Thanks Chiara!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wine of the Moment, 2008 Aubuisieres Vouvray Cuvee Silex

Famous for its natural beauty, magnificent châteaux and picturesque towns, the Loire Valley is the third most popular tourist destination in France. However it is also renowned for the exceptional quality, variety and affordability of its wine. The length of the river, and the varied terrain, geology and climates through which it flows, make the Loire Valley one of the few regions in France to produce excellent wines of every variety. Red, white or rosé, still or sparkling, dry or sweet, the Loire Valley wines are among the best of their kinds.

The cool climate of the Loire almost insures that the wines, no matter how ripe, will always have a lean acidity that balances well with their fruit and alcohol. Although many Loire Valley wines age beautifully, most can be appreciated young. They show their best qualities with food, and they possess enough flavor and body to stand up to almost all styles of cooking.

An enormous amount of wine is created in this vast region, mostly white, but with a good deal of red too. Styles change as you follow the course of the river, according to the grape varieties planted and wine-making techniques practiced. But the one thing all of these wines share is that they are made to display freshness and relatively high acidity, and rarely is oak used to ferment or age the wines.

The Loire has a large number of different grape varieties, some of which dominate different parts of the region. They include:
• Muscadet which dominates the western Loire, making dry white wines
• Chenin Blanc which is the great grape of the middle Loire, with red wines made from Cabernet Franc
• Sauvignon Blanc which is the star of the upper Loire. Reds are made from the Pinot Noir

The Vouvray appellation covers dry, moderately dry and sweet whites made exclusively from Chenin Blanc (known locally as Pineau de la Loire). Bernard Fouquet of Domaine des Aubuisiers is making some of the most serious Vouvray of the last few vintages. He is now regarded in France and the international press as one of the top three Vouvray producers, and his wines represent sensational value. No one succeeds better than Bernard in capturing the mineral tones unique to Vouvray’s soil, with the marvelous balance of explosive fruit and titillating sensation of the Chenin Blanc grape.

Brought to us by on of our favorite importers, Peter Wygendt, the Aubuisiers Vouvray has been a favorite on our shelves for years. I was really taken with the amazing concentration and minerality of the 2005 vintage, and while I liked the 2006 and 2007, they were never quite what the '05 was. But the 2008 vintage delivers, maybe even more so than the 2005, and I am really excited to have this wine back in the store!

Robert Parker's Wine Advocate says 92 pts: "Bernard Fouquet’s 2008 Vouvray Cuvee Silex was not picked until October 8 (and then at over 13% natural alcohol) and it shows in a wine whose combination of ripeness, hint of botrytis, and brightness puts me in mind of 1996. Lychee, yellow cherry, Mirabelle, quince, and narcissus in the nose lead to a musky, subtly oily, chalk-inflected, honeyed, yet incisively zesty palate. This combines richness and palpably high extract with cut and invigoration in a way that only Chenin (and then only in the Central Loire) can. Its 6 grams of residual sugar perfectly set off the yellow fruits and hint of honey in this wine’s long finish. This formidably-concentrated yet elegant wine is worth following for at least half a dozen years."


Try this wine at our Friday Free For All tasting this week!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wine of the Moment, Ajello Grillo-Catarratto

One of our "go-to" white wines while staying at Mandranova was the light and refreshing Ajello Grillo Catarratto, a delicious blend of two of Sicily's native varietals! Ajello is a family-owned and operated winery located in the Mazara valley in Sicily’s southwest corner. Founded by Salvatore Ajello’s grandfather in 1860, the family has cultivated vines here for three generations. The winery’s philosophy, in the words of Salvatore Ajello, is simple: “We let nature do most of the work; we try to capture in a bottle the richness, vitality and structure of the magnificent grapes produced by our vineyards. Our role is to simply be the guardians of these qualities.”

Azienda Agricola Ajello's position on western coast of Sicily at an elevation of 200 meters, gives it some protection from the weather that can make winegrowing a more dicey proposition on the other coasts of the island. The estate contains some of those original vines on its south-eastern exposure along with some newer vines planted by the three generations of winegrowers and winemakers that have worked the land with the Ajello name. The hilly landscape in which the Ajellos grow their vines is bordered by two streams (named Bucari and Fudeo) which are responsible for irrigating the wide variety of plant life on the estate, in addition to the vines.

The Ajellos have always been winemakers in some capacity, though they have gone through periods where their emphasis has been mostly on growing grapes rather than making wine. Today, they sell about 90% of their grapes (a mix of local varieties like Grillo, Nero d'Avola, and Insolia, as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) to other wineries, but increasingly they are holding some of their best fruit back to make their own wines.

The Grillo-Catarrato is a 50/50 blend aged for 3 months in stainless steel. Grillo is the mainstay grape of marsala, Sicily’s almost extinct fortified wine. Catarratto brings grounding acidity to grillo’s exotic flavors. Bright yellow-gold color and aromatics of pineapple, evergreen and lavender are a welcome surprise. Quite full bodied, with great acidity and a nice dry finish. Excellent length. Try it with the Melanzana di Mandranova eggplant appetizer recipe this week!

Melanzana di Mandranova (Eggplant of Mandranova)

They had me at the appetizer course...our very first dinner in the beautiful dinning room at the Mandranova Resort began with a heavenly, silky eggplant dish that received instant raves from the entire group. We knew we were in trouble. We would be staying there for the next three nights and if the rest of the food was anything like the appetizer, we'd have a hard time fitting into the cars when we left! Three dinners, 12 total courses, and I'm not even counting breakfast, and each dish just got better and better and better. But since this appetizer was our first taste of Mandranova, it became the symbol of the freshness and quality, simplicity and elegance, of our dinning experiences at the estate.

An olive estate, I can't really call it a farm, owned by Guiseppe and Silvia Di Vincenzo, Mandranova is a beautiful oasis in the midst of an agricultural area of southern Sicily. We were there during the press and got to see the process first hand. I'll do a post on our whole experience there in the upcoming weeks, but here is a previous post I did on there olive oils with a video of how to taste olive oil featuring Silvia Di Vincenzo: Mandranova, Sicilian Olive Oil from the Gods.

This recipe makes four generous appetizer portions. If you wanted smaller portions you could divide into 6.

4 medium eggplants, whole
1 clove of garlic finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano finely chopped
1/2 cup olive oil (the better the quality, the better it will taste!)
olive oil, chopped tomatoes and fresh basil for garnish

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roast the whole eggplants for 30 - 45 minutes. Time will depend on the type and size of eggplant. After 30 minutes, check periodically by inserting a skewer into the widest part of the eggplant. It should be very soft and come out clean.
-Remove the eggplants and allow them to cool. Peel, finely chop, place in a colander and sprinkle with a little salt to help draw out any remaining bitterness. Let drain for 30 minutes. Rinse, press out the water with a spatula and pat dry.
-Place eggplant, garlic, oregano and olive oil in a bowl and mix well. Add salt to taste.
-Divide the mixture between 4-6 ramekins, depending on desired portions. Place ramekins in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours (max 24hours) to allow the flavors to blend.
-When ready to serve, remove ramekins and run a knife around the outer edge of the eggplant to loosen it from the bowl. Turn the ramekin upside down onto a plate, shake it a little and tap the top with a knife until it comes cleanly unto the plate.
-Garnish with chopped tomatoes seasoned with salt and pepper and basil. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Try this with a crisp Sicilian white wine like my wine of the moment, the Ajello Grillo-Catarratto available at Swirl!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An Afternoon with Frank Cornelissen, The "Madman" of Munjebel!

After our lovely breakfast at the Scilio Agriturismo, we packed ourselves into our vehicles and headed off to our much anticipated visit with controversial producer Frank Cornelissen. Of Belgian descent, Frank is a newcomer to the Etna which presents both advantages and disadvantages for the passionate winemaker who arrived on the volcano in 2001. Having no roots or ties to the age old regional traditions in winemaking, Frank feels free to do things his own way. Blending white and red grapes for his Contadino, skin fermenting his white wines, using clay amphora for aging; these are just a few of the unconventional methods he uses that helped him earn the title the "Madman of Etna".

When I asked what drew him to the Etna, he said it was precisely the Etna that called him to Sicily. The unique climate, soil and the history that the volcano presents are unlike anywhere in the world and give him an exciting venue for his minimalistic approach to winemaking. Frank takes the term non-intervention to the extreme. He feels that anytime you add something to the process, be it herbicides, oak, sulfites, you take something away from the wine. Which is why Frank avoids all possible interventions including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, to keep the process in tune with nature as it was done thousands of years ago.

So what does all this mean in terms of Frank's viticultural and vinification practices? Frank has 12 hectares of land that he uses for grapes, fruit and olive trees. Out of those 12 hectares, 9.5 are classic free standing bush vines with some from cuttings of prephylloxera vines. He cultivates other plants and species in between the vines, such as buckwheat, fruit trees and even beehives to help maintain a balanced ecosystem. He keeps his yields low, 300g per plant and harvests totally by hand, usually in late October into early November.

Once the grapes reach the "catina", Frank again takes a minimalist approach. After crushing, the must is then placed into big plastic drums in his backyard (no temperature control here) which are then covered with a tent-like plastic material to keep the rain out. The wine is left to spontaneously ferment and macerate with the skins for a long time not to disturb the complex natural processes of fermentation. The skins, seeds and wine remain unseparated during the entire process in order to extract all possible aromas of soil and territory. Pressed with a wooden basket press the wine is then put into the clay amphorae with the help of gravity and later bottled unfiltered. Absolutely nothing else is added to this wine. Nothing. Not even SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide).

The "cellar" is currently a small room adjacent to the oudoor "catina", although Frank was in the process of moving to a larger facility while we were there. The 400 liter amphorae are buried to the neck in ground volcanic rock keeping in tune with the ancient traditions of aging. Again he is looking for the most pure expression of the territory and feels that oak of any kind will take something away from wine.

Frank currently produces 5 wines, Munjebel Bianco, Munjebel Rosso, Contadino, Magma and Susucaru all of which we tasted with Frank (except for the Susucaru, his rose, which we had with dinner the next evening, but we'll leave that for another post....)on this lovely fall day outside on his black lava rock courtyard. The wines are like nothing you've ever tasted before! I once heard someone describe them as "energetic" which I think is a great term as there is a natural vibrancy and living energy that is present in every one of Frank's wines.

We started with the Munejebel Bianco a blend of Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe which is vinified like like a red wine, in full and long skin-contact because as Frank says "the flavors of the grape are on the skin". A beautiful orangish gold color, cloudy (no fining or filtering here), intense minerality, an earthy/ashy/smoky quality with apricots and herbs. Light tannins and firm acidity, but not overdone.

Next up was the Contadino that started as house wine for the workers where he combines Nerello Mascalese (70%) and an assortment of his white grapes. It is a light, fresh style wine with red berries and currants, that unmistakable earthy/ashy quality, little tannin but nice acidity. Young and fruity and a joy to drink.

We then moved to the Munjebel Rosso which combines various vineyards and vintages of his best Nerello Mascalese grapes. Beautiful, sweet earthy red fruits with a little black tea and spice. Again a smoky minerality comes through on the palate; bold but with a fresh elegance as well. My favorite of the reds for its approachability, complexity and price.

The finale is the Magma, made from ungrafted pre-phylloxera, single vineyard Nerello Mascalese that is only bottled from vineyards and vintages that provide the perfect quality. This is Frank's top wine and it exhibits a complex nose of cherries, plums, earth, smoke and a little tar. Sort of nebbiolo like with a nice density on the palate. Full, a little tannic and tight; needs time but you can already taste the amazing quality and potential of this wine.

Through his practice of non-intervention Frank allows the wines to take a natural course and through taking that course a very distinct quality comes through each and every wine. I can only describe it as an essence of purity and an expression of the grape from a very particular time and place that you taste in every sip and each one of his creations. That particular place is the Etna and is like no other on earth. And Frank's wines are alive with the spirit of this amazing place.

Thank you Frank, it was an honor to meet you and spend such a wonderful afternoon with you and your wines! I can't wait till our next visit! To view the full slide show from our visit, click here: Munjebel, Frank Cornelissen


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