Understanding Japanese saké

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Japan loves that so many people in the U.S. have become fans of their cuisine. Representatives from Japan and several U.S. Japanese experts agreed to participate in a panel discussion about Japanese cuisine and saké, held at the Japan Information Center this week. Steve Dolinsky of ABC 7 hosted the discussion as part of kickoff week for Chicago Gourmet.

Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo
Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo

In addition to the panel, several companies presented various iterations of their trademark sakés for tasting. Unlike traditional wines, saké – known as rice wine – is brewed like beer. Aromas, just as with grape-based wines, range from floral to fruity and everywhere in between. Flavors depend on the precise combination of rice, water, koji and yeast, and vary according to profile, some even made of only rice and water. Varieties also change according to how much of the rice hull is polished away before fermenting.

Panelists agreed that the sophistication of saké has grown in tandem with the curiosity of U.S. consumers. The drink has come a very long way since 30 years ago when, if you ordered saké with your dinner, in most Asian restaurants you’d get a stoneware cruet of something – room temp or heated – that was barely drinkable.  Now saké breweries produce dozens of subtly different saké wines.

Kombu - dried kelp used in making dashi broth
Kombu – dried kelp used in making dashi broth

Panelists talked about Japanese cuisine, too, tossing around terms like dashi – a broth made of steeped bonito fish flakes and kombu – a staple of Japanese cooking. They passed around pieces of kombu (dried kelp) so that attendees could feel and smell it. Everyone agreed Asian cooking is healthy, and raising consumption is simply a matter of continuing to educate consumers about saké and Japanese cooking.

Saké comes in multiple categories (list below), and premium sakés should always be served chilled to preserve their aromas:

  • Diaginjo and Ginjo – pair well with light foods and hors d’oeuvres.
  • Honjozo and Junmai – pair with a wide variety of foods, from sashimi to beef.
  • Bold types of saké – pair with heavier, gamier foods like cheese and beef. Bold types may include some Kimoto, Yamahai, Nama (unpasteurized) Genshu and Koshu (aged saké).
  • NIgori (cloudy) saké and sparkling saké
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake

Saké is made in hundreds of different breweries. Then like traditional wines, an importer/distributor team must agree to represent the products in the U.S. Importers include some prestigious wine importing firms like Kobrand Wine & Spirits, Terlato Wines International, and many more. Two importers present were Vine Connections – their rep Jonathan Edwards says those Bushido cans of saké (photo at top) will be in Binny’s by next week – and Tenzing Wine and Spirits, the only table  present that offered samples of an unpasteurized version. Saké Boys from Kyushu was pouring samples of their premium saké (photo). Tip: their website includes brief, helpful explanations about the brewing process.

For your next meal of Asian food, talk to an expert in saké so you can experiment with pairing. How about saké and steak, Chicago?

Sake sample bottles
Sake sample bottles
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Kobrand brings stunning Italian wines on U.S. tour

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https://www.crateandbarrel.com/swoon-carafe/s291781?&a=0&source=igodigital&cid=THANKS&dtm_em=171474dde920335dd4fad21b92834157&e=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&et_cid=628484&et_dos=9212017&et_rid=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&j=628484&jb=85479&l=33_HTML&mid=7200679&u=194336557
The best carafe for decanting – this “Swoon” carafe at Crate & Barrel

Kobrand Wine & Spirits, is a family-owned importing and marketing firm that’s been known since 1944 for its distinguished portfolio of hand-selected brands from virtually every major wine and spirits region of the world. Kobrand focuses on one thing – quality – in its collection of gems from New World and Old. In a recent showcase that began with our city and is traveling around the U.S., they brought an array of stunning, mostly luxury, wines to Chicago, each lovingly presented by either the owner or the winemaker. The collection was impressive enough to rival any grouping from anywhere in the world. Read more from President and CEO Robert T. DeRoose about Kobrand’s passion for finding great wines.

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Emilia Nardi - brings her fine Brunellos on Tour d'Italia
Emilia Nardi – brings her fine Brunellos on Tour d’Italia

Their recent Tour d’Italia took place at the 5-star Peninsula Hotel and featured wines from the major Italian wine-producing regions across the depth and breadth of Italy: Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Piedmont in the North, the more central regions of Tuscany and Umbria and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Guests were able to interact with the people most closely connected to these exceptional terroir-driven wines.

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Kobrand’s Italian winemakers or principals that are presenting their portfolios on this tour include the following:
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Colleen McKettrick: Tenuta San Guido
Niccolò Finizzola: Tenuta di Biserno
Giovanna Moretti: Tenuta Sette Ponti, Feudo Maccari
Emilia Nardi: Tenute Silvio Nardi
Giovanni Folonari: Tenuta di Nozzole, Tenute del Cabreo, Tenuta Campo al Mare, Tenuta La Fuga, Tenuta TorCalvano
Giacomo Boscaini: Masi Agricola
Michele Chiarlo: Michele Chiarlo
Alberto Medici: Medici ErmeteRoberto Pighin: Fernando Pighin & Figli
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Impossible to list all the superior-quality wines represented at this gathering. Any wine from one of these wineries is practically guarnateed to be a winner. Prices for all wines presented varied dramatically – from under $20 for a 2016 Pighin Sauvignon Friuli to well over $100 for the 2009 Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone Veneto. Below are a few that stood out and are worth considering for your cellar – or for the upcoming holidays, or just because you deserve them.
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Feudo Maccari. Multiple wines from Noto, Sicily, all presented by the tall and handsome winemaker Giovanna Moretti, dressed impeccably in an elegant sport coat and tie. He particularly welcomed attendees to taste and compare two different vintage years of the same wine – same grapes, same vinification, etc. – as a dramatic demonstration of how beautifully his wines age in the bottle. Feudo Maccari owner Antonio Moretti took over the Tenuta Sette Ponti vineyards from his father and than later purchased Poggio al Lupo in Maremma and then Feudo Maccari in Sicily.
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2013 Feudo Maccari SAIA, made of Nero d’Avola grapes from old bush vines – which produce almost 50% less than regular vines – this robust and luxurious Sicilian red comes from the founder of Tenuta Sette Ponti in Tuscany. Beautiful with roast meats and game. Good value at SRP ~$30.
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2014 Feudo Maccari MAHARIS, made with 100% Syrah grapes at SRP ~$47. Both wines get 90+ points from multiple reviewers, this win has balsamic notes mixed with cocoa and coffee.
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Giovanna also showed a delightfully rich white called Feudo Maccari GRILLO 2016 that would perfectly compliment a dish of pasta with salty fish or grilled fish. at SRP ~$16.
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Tenute Silvio Nardi. Owner Emilia Nardi, attired in deep emerald green that perfectly complemented her light blonde hair, spoke with love and reverence about the winemaking process she began learning from age 12 by working with her father. She spoke of the sun rising on the grapes in the vineyard he bought in 1962.  After her initiation into the business, she pursued an MBA and returned to become one of the few female leaders in Brunello. Her winery, Tenute Silvio Nardi, is among the oldest and most respected producers of legendary Brunello di Montalcino – the first bottle of which dates back to 1954. Two of her estates, Casale del Bosco and Manachiara Vineyards, are among the most coveted plots in Montalcino. Below are notes on three of her wines – all made with Sangiovese Grosso grapes – you should consider for special occasions or to treat yourself and a friend or two:
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2012 Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. A traditional Brunello of depth and complexity, with impressive structure and remarkable potential for aging. Intense, complex aromas of red fruits and spics with toasty oak notes. Silky texture, great finesse and profound flavors with velvety tannins. Impressive now and perfect for aging. SRP ~$48.
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2012 Tenute Silvio Nradi Manachiara Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Clean, intense and complex aromas of rich, round ripe fruit with spice and floral notes. Deep flavors along with fresh acidity, solid structure and supple tannins. Long subtle finish. Enjoy it now, or cellar it for a few years. Either way, you’ll be delighted. SRP ~$75.
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2011 Tenute Silvio Nardi Poggio Doria Riserva Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Pronounced aromas of ripe red fruits with spice and leather notes. Full mouthfeel and firm structure, with strong, suave and velvety tannins. Long lovely finish. SRP ~$86
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https://www.crateandbarrel.com/swoon-carafe/s291781?&a=0&source=igodigital&cid=THANKS&dtm_em=171474dde920335dd4fad21b92834157&e=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&et_cid=628484&et_dos=9212017&et_rid=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&j=628484&jb=85479&l=33_HTML&mid=7200679&u=194336557
Gorgeous “Swoon” carafe available at Crate & Barrel

It was also a joy to watch Emilia as she decanted and aerated her fine wines without any fancy gadgets. She upended the bottle of one of her fine vintages and held it at an angle against the inside of the neck of a beautiful decanter. The wine splashed vigorously against the glass as it flowed from bottle to container, even splashing slightly outside the vessel. Upon completing the decant, she poured a bit in her glass, sniffed with her educated nose and nodded to indicate the device-free aeration had achieved the desired result. Try this at home if you like – but you may want to use a lesser wine until you perfect the process!

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**BTW, Poggio means “top of a hill” in Italian.
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Bourbon on Division – way more than a late night haven

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Bourbon on Division bar
Bourbon on Division bar

Known for its late-night drinks and menu that make it a popular haven for late-hour denizens of Division Avenue, the recently opened Bourbon on Division restaurant and bar offers a small collection of creative interpretations of Southern-influenced dishes for dinner from 5pm onward, a selection of hand-craft cocktails (many bourbon-based) and a respectable rotating list of bourbons available as either 1.5 or 2-ounce pours ranging in price from $7 to $27. The food menu varies, too, depending on what’s available.

The late-night menu features lots of stomach-filling items – cheese curds, “sloppy” fries with white cheddar Mornay sauce and pork belly, smoked wings (delicious), fried shrimp and fries, chicken barbecue in white sauce with pickles on a brioche bun $11. The burger comes loaded with Dijon, mayo, cheddar, red onion and house pickles. $8. Beef it up with an extra patty for another $4. The bar’s open until 4am and the kitchen until 2am.
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And there are plenty of compelling reasons to come in earlier, namely for delicious dishes you can’t get on the late-night menu. Let’s start with dessert for the heck of it. Pecan pie is just what you think and served with bourbon whip cream. Fruit cobbler very tasty – baked in a tiny skillet with brown sugar streusel and an ovoid of caramel ice cream on top $6 – very tasty. The mint julep Creme Brûlée comes in a huge serving with the sugar crust you expect, except with a different kind of filling – like a mint julep pudding underneath for $7. The chef said he’s still experimenting with this one. The spicy chocolate meringue pie sounded fabulous – cinnamon meringue on a spicy chocolate custard nestled in the house-made crust and served with Berry Coulis. $8. We didn’t get to try this but want to, soon.
From the main menu we first tried the smoked chicken wings ($9). A generous serving of fried-but-not-breaded wings came with a sweet pepper jelly that made a wonderful sauce and with crispy black-eyed peas and garlic chips for a nice crunchy contrast. The carrot salad ($7) features a big heap of shaved smoked carrots mixed with arugula, pistachios and honey lemon vinaigrette, all generously sprinkled with pickled mustard seeds – the whole combo a serious high-nutrition/flavor winner.
The grilled salmon trout (pinker than regular brook trout) was cooked to tender, juicy perfection – the thing was served practically smoking hot and yes, literally, the juices were running from the fish onto the plate – and the roasted spaghetti squash that came with it was succulent and sweet, just browned enough from the roasting. We took a chance on this dish, because neither one of us had had a positive experience with spaghetti squash in the past, but this version was a definite 5-star, as was the entire dish. Absolutely worth the $18 price.
My companion had the chicken and dumplings ($16) which consisted of juicy beer-braised chicken, herbed dumplings frosted with a white cheddar Mornay sauce, pea puree and shaved vegetables. She was particularly pleased that the dish contained dark meat, her favorite. $16.
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Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail
Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail

Cocktails are made with care and flare. A few to consider: Methuen’s Bargain ($14, gin based from Ireland), the Black Rob (Scotch based – we loved the hand-made spherical ice cube!), the Sippin’ on Gin and Cider ($12), and the Midnight Campfire (bourbon combined with DiSaronno and other goodies $13). Unique combinations of flavors worth trying. Big list of bourbons, not surprising given the restaurant name, and a nicely curated list of higher quality wines. Prices for wine by the glass range from $8 to $16, so you can choose from a good variety. The restaurant also offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5pm.

Our server, Gigi, is well on her way to becoming a full-fledged wine sommelier as well as a whisk(e)y sommelier. She gave us lots of good information and guidance on the menu and the drinks. We were there at 5pm on a Thursday, just as the place opened and were lucky to have her full attention. Eclectic music selections – from bluegrass to country rap and country hard rock – made a lively background. Don’t expect Beethoven here, but do expect good food and interesting drinks.
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3 Sicilian wines under $20 for holiday meals

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It’s never too early to start thinking about wines you might like to serve with your holiday meals. The selection is endless, certainly, but recommendations can help you hone down the list of possibles. Based on some recent complimentary review tastings, here are three we can recommend for various occasions, including various upcoming holidays. Two Sicilian whites and one red:
Donnafugata Lighea - unique Zibibbo grape wine
Donnafugata Lighea – unique Zibibbo grape wine

Lighea 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. This is a truly unique taste in white wines. It’s made of Zibibbo grapes (also known as Muscat of Alexandria), and the vines are grown in hollows on low bush vines (notorious for lower yields than traditional). This vintage was grown in a relatively dry season with weather that wasn’t overly hot, so the winemakers were able to focus on the quality of the grapes without worrying about quantity. Lighea has a brilliant straw color with greenish tints, a nose of classic notes of orange blossom, saturn peaches and Mediterranean scrub. The aromas reflect exactly what you’ll taste on the palate along with a fresh mineral vein – and that’s why this unusual combination produces such a unique flavor. Delicious as an aperitif and good with first courses like seafood or a light soup. SRP ~$15-20.

Donnafugata SurSur - light and lovely Grillo white
Donnafugata SurSur – light and lovely Grillo white

SurSur 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Made from the ubiquitous Sicilian grape, Grillo, this white wine has a fresh and fruity character and a bouquet of peaches, elderflowers and rosemary – so there’s a hint of savory that makes it lovely with seafood, vegetables and baked sturdy fish. Open it when you’re ready to serve and pour into medium-size tulip glasses to get the most out of the fruity aromas and the brilliant straw yellow color. Even the label, with its painting of a young girl running through the grass, makes you feel like you’re there with her, “listening to a thousand Sur Sur” (it means crickets). Nice value for an apertif at SRP ~$13.

Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d'Avola and many other grapes
Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d’Avola and many other grapes

Sedàra 2015 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Another of Sicily’s classic grapes, Nero d’Avola, is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes here and crafted into a quality red wine suitable for everyday enjoyment or favorite family occasions. The dark berries and slight spice notes come out in a pleasantly dusky quality that makes this wine good for pairing with rich foods like barbequed meats, pizza, or even seared tuna or roast turkey. A complex, structured red that benefits from letting it breathe a while before you drink. SRP ~$15.

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The egg – magic with pasta

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Dad always ate his spinach with hard-boiled eggs and vinegar
Dad always ate his spinach with hard-boiled eggs and vinegar

I love eggs but have always felt a little hesitant about eating them for anything beyond breakfast – well, not counting deviled eggs, for which I have collected dozens of recipes, almost any of which I would eat morning, noon or night. And that whole frittata thing, a good one of those says lovin’ any time of day. Thank you, Epicurious, for “The Only Frittata You’ll Ever Need!”

Okay. I would and do eat eggs any time. But I never thought of serving them with pasta – that ultimate comfort food that we all worry about consuming too much of. That is, I didn’t think of it until I ran into a couple of recipes that had my mouth watering. Olive oil, garlic, Parmesan on pasta with softly fried eggs? Just think about that super rich, creamy and delicious yolk making a sauce on that. Oh, yeah. And not a vegetable in sight – a rare occurrence in this kitchen. So thank you, New York Times for “Spaghetti with Fried Eggs.”
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Since I rarely suggest anything that doesn’t involve at least one vegetable, how about spaghetti with softly scrambled eggs and sauteed onions and peppers? Num! Makes the guilt about eating pasta seem quaint, doesn’t it? Thank you, PastaFits.org, for Pasta with Eggs, Peppers and Onions.
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And if you’d like to take it one step further into the I-really-shouldn’t-be-eating this realm, try adding bacon and bacon fat to the mix with Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Leave it to Tyler Florence, the madcap southern chef from Food Network, to up the fat – and the flavor – quotient in a recipe. Thank you, Food Network for Tyler Florence’s “Spaghetti alla Carbonara.”
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Got eggs? Get out the pasta and go for it.
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3 unique wines to enhance your meals

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Sometimes you just have to taste to believe how unique and delicious a new wine can be. We received a few recently for review and were delighted to experience the distinctive features of each – a red and a white from Italy and a red from France.
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Marina Cvetic Merlot
Marina Cvetic Merlot

A beautiful red from Masciarelli called Marina Cvetic Merlot IGT Terre Aquilane, is made with Merlot grapes grown in the Chalky soils of Ancarano, Abruzzo, Italy. Aged 12 months in barriques, and 24 months in the bottle, the bouquet is full, intense and complex. Flavors are fruity, flowery, and spicy – particularly, ripe red berries, blackberries, dry flowers, violets, and vanilla. Serve this luscious creamy red with lamb, barbecued meats, game, and rich cheeses. SRP ~$24.

Chateau Greysac Cru Medoc Bourgeois
Chateau Greysac Cru Medoc Bourgeois

Château Greysac, Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2011 comes from the Medoc hamlet of Begadan, located north of St. Estephe. Originally built in the 1700s, the property first belonged to the late Baron Francois de Ginsburg. Today, the chateau’s characteristic style is one of great aromatic finesse combined with precise sumptuous fruit flavors that develop in elegance and complexity over time. A rich blend of 65% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Petit Verdot, this wine is aged 12 months in oak with stirring on the lees for three months. A deep ruby garnet color with red berry flavors and subtle notes of spice and bell peppers. Serve with any meat, poultry, wild mushrooms or strong cheeses. SRP ~$24.

Pomino Bianco
Pomino Bianco

Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco 2016 DOC. Made with Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco grapes blended with small amounts of other complementary varieties from Tuscany, this white wine has a unique flavor and a delightful freshness. Matured four months in stainless steel and one month in the bottle, it has a straw-yellow clear color and a flowery nose – frangipani and jasmine aromas mixed with fruity notes of apricot and quince. In the glass, notice exotic scents of tropical fruit and fresh cardamom. The flavor is lively, with a balanced structure and persistent finish with a slight aftertaste of ripe raspberries. An easy-drinking white that’s delicious as an aperitif or with vegetarian antipasti or large fish such as salmon. A very good value at SRP~$13.

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