May 31, 2012

Artisanal Cheese-making in the U.S. : California

While cheese making in America has been around for some time, most American traditions were brought here by the immigrants and settlers from Europe who came here to stake their claim in "the New World." As Americans have developed a deeper appreciation for great cheese, a change in American cheese-making has also occurred. Across the country, small scale dairy farmers and cheese-makers are making wonderful artisanal cheeses that rival those of Europe. Take heart my friends, in recent years, there has been a boon in small, local cheese-makers, all making their mark in the cheese world with 'American' versions of traditional and classic, old world cheeses. Some have even been award winners at National and International competitions. Fear not either, as I will not be covering anything to do with those slices of 'cheese product,' whatever that may be, wrapped in plastic, that have become the image of 'American Cheese.' In the continuing series, Artisanal Cheese-making in the U.S, I have already covered Wisconsin and Vermont. today we travel to the U. S. west coast to explore the cheeses of California.

California Cheese Making History

Cheese-making came to California in the 1750s, when Spanish Missionary, Father Junipero Serra introduced dairy cows and cheese-making to the few settlers and natives. California’s population exploded as the gold rush drew new settlers from across the nation. In the fallout of this population boom, many ended up in the dairy and cheese-making industry. In 1860, California boasted 100,000 head of dairy cattle. Only three years later, the first commercial dairy opened. This history of cheese-making has continued to the present day. In 1993, California’s milk production reached an astonishing 25 billion pounds, making California the United State’s leading milk producer. As we have heard from the numerous TV campaigns, California indeed has "Happy Cows."

Thanks to its diverse terrain and climates, cows, goats, and sheep all flourish in California and this allows cheese-makers to produce a wide range of different cheese styles. The state produces almost a quarter of all the cheese produced in the U.S., using up 47% of the state's milk production. There is no shortage of award-winning cheeses and with more than 50 cheese-makers producing 250 different varieties and styles of cheese, those accolades show no sign of slowing down anytime soon. California has a rich cheese-making heritage reaching back more than 200 years. We have included here, some of the milestones in California’s development as the leading milk producing and second largest cheese producing state in America.

California Cheese Facts
In the 1750s, Father Junipero Serra began to establish the 21 missions that still dot the California coastline. He introduced many varieties of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, and laid the foundation for the agriculture industry in California. He also introduced dairy cows and cheese-making.

California exported its first cheese when Ivan Kuskov, a commander at the Russian trading post in Fort Ross, California, shipped his Sonoma-made cheese to Russia’s Alaska settlements. Then in the wake of the Gold Rush, pioneers rushed into California, many with dairy cows tied behind covered wagons that would provide milk for infants and children. California’s milk cow population swelled to 100,000 by 1860. That growing milk supply stimulated cheese production, which totaled 1.3 million pounds that year.

Instrumental in the formation of an actual cheese industry, the Steele family began operating what is arguably the country’s first commercial dairy. Clara Steele, a pioneer woman whose family settled near San Francisco, was hungry for the Cheddar she enjoyed in her native New England. She obtained milk from wild cattle and began to make cheese, using recipes from her grandmother’s old cookbook. Within a year, her husband and relatives started selling “Steele Brothers” Cheddar in San Francisco and other nearby markets. They started a 6,000-acre dairy farm on Point Reyes. Their 1861 production of 45 tons of cheese made them the highest producers of cheese in the state that year. A bizarre twist here is the story of the family pooling milk from all of their dairies and producing the biggest wheel of cheese ever seen in California – a 21,800-pound Cheddar, 20 feet in circumference and 18 inches thick. Pieces were sold at the Mechanics Fair in San Francisco for a dollar per pound, all to raise money for charity.

The Shafter and Howard families owned the entire Point Reyes peninsula, and began leasing individual plots to European immigrants to run dairies. Their empire grew to 31 dairy ranches, and is known for producing the highest quality dairy products, even to this day. They were the first to trademark and stamp their butter in an attempt to combat counterfeit imitations being sold. This may have been the first attempt in California to brand a product.

At this point in time, the cheese that has become the 'poster cheese' for California, "Monteray Jack" was born. David Jacks, a businessman in Monterey County, was the first to market Monterey Jack, which his Swiss and Portuguese dairymen developed from old mission recipes. It has become one of the most popular cheeses in the country. In an effort to raise production standards for California cheese-makers, the California legislature passed a cheese grading law requiring that all cheese manufactured in the state be graded and labeled according to new butterfat content standards set by the State Dairy Bureau. As a result, California cheese reached higher quality levels over the next decade. The Bureau also began issuing brand names to manufacturers.

Dry Jack was created when a San Francisco cheese wholesaler, D.F. DeBernardi, left an order of fresh Monterey Jack in storage for too long. Later, when World War I interrupted shipments of Parmesan and Romano from Italy, he discovered that aging had caused the Jack to harden and acquire a sweet, nutty flavor. Italian-American families quickly adopted this delicious alternative to the Italian hard cheeses they were not able to get. By the 1930s, an estimated 60 California cheese-makers were producing Dry Jack.

In an attempt to recreate Teleme, a Feta-like cheese found in Greece and nearby countries, Greek immigrants near San Francisco created an entirely new cheese from fresh cow’s milk – California Teleme. This unique semi-soft cheese has a distinctive rice flour rind.

To ensure consumers receive the highest quality cheese, California became the first state to establish cheese standards of identity where USDA standards did not exist. The California dairy industry created the Real California Cheese seal to certify that the consumer is purchasing a natural cheese, made in California, exclusively from California milk. The state’s milk production then reached 25 billion pounds, making California the leading milk producer in the country. Nearly 4 out of every 10 gallons of milk produced goes to California cheese-makers. Under the direction of the California Milk Advisory Board, (CMAB) the state dairy industry then undertook the largest promotional program to that date to promote Real California Cheese to consumers. Highlighting the campaign were a series of humorous television spots claiming California’s cheese is the real reason people have come to the state to live and visit.

The CMAB launched a new television advertising campaign based around the theme, “Great Cheese Comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows Come from California.” The CMAB became a national marketer when the “Happy Cows” campaign appeared on network TV for the first time, encouraging requests for Real California Cheese as far away as the East Coast. California cow’s milk cheese producers took home 31 awards from the prestigious national American Cheese Society competition, including “Best in Show.” California cheese-makers also won six awards at the World Cheese Awards in London.

I was surprised to discover that California is the leading dairy state in the U. S. The state produced 2.11 billion pounds of cheese in 2008 and is the second-largest cheese-producing state in the America accounting for nearly a quarter of all the cheese produced in the U.S. They also are the country’s largest milk producer and in 2008 produced 41.2 billion pounds and 43% of all California cow’s milk goes to make California cheese. While most Americans assume that Vermont and Wisconsin are the 'cheese states' of the U.S., Californians would certainly challenge that theory. Again I will remind you all that space and time preclude me from including all the wonderful cheeses available from each state, so I will cover the most well known and the most popular. I hope this gives you the inspiration to explore California cheeses for yourself.

The Cheeses

Andante Nocturne
Soyoung Scanlan's bloomy-rind cow's milk cheese comes to market at less than 3 weeks old and needs to be consumed within a couple of weeks. It is buttery, spreadable, runny, with aromas of mushroom and creme fraiche.

Barely Buzzed
This is a full bodied cheese with a nutty flavor and smooth texture. The cheese is hand rubbed with a Turkish grind of Colorado Legacy Coffee Company's (The Cheesemakers brother) "Beehive Blend." The blend consists of a mix of South American, Central American, and Indonesian beans roasted to different styles. French Superior Lavendar buds are ground with the coffee and the mixture is diluted with oil to suspend the dry ingredients in the rub. The rub imparts notes of butterscotch and caramel which are prevalent near the rind, but find their way to the center of the cheese. The cheese is aged on Utah Blue Spruce aging racks in their humidity controlled caves, and moved to a different temperature during the aging process to develop texture and flavor. The name "Barely Buzzed" comes from Andrea at Deluxe Foods in California. She was the winner of the name this cheese contest.

Bravo Farms Silver Mountain
This large 9-month-old wheel from a Central Valley producer resembles a cross between an English Cheddar and a French Cantal. It offers plentiful brown-butter aromas, Cheddar-like acidity and mouth-filling, long-lasting flavors.

Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
Made with cream-enriched organic cow's milk from Marin County's Straus Family Creamery, Red Hawk belongs to the category of smelly cheeses known as washed rinds. Several times during the cheese's six weeks at the dairy, workers bathe the surface with brine to attract flavor-producing bacteria. A ripe Red Hawk has the luscious texture characteristic of triple-cream cheeses and aromas of mushroom, earth and spice.

Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog
Tall and majestic redwood trees and scenic rocky northern California coastline lured Mary Keehn to Humboldt County where she established Cypress Grove Chevre in 1984. From the very beginning, Cypress Grove has been recognized for its superior quality; winning more than 30 Gold Medals and Best of Show in national competitions. With a central layer and outer covering of ash, this goat's milk tome ripens with a soft, white interior. When cut, it is reminiscent of the early morning fog. Humboldt Fog is made by mother and daughter team, Mary Keehn and Malorie McCurdy, in Humboldt County, California, among the towering redwood trees. These amazing women have an enviable passion for their work that has been rewarded by national awards, reputation, and a steadily growing business. American farmstead cheeses often command a hefty price due to their limited production, but one bite will convince you that the luxury is worth the cost.

Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper
Born to be mild, this sheep's milk cheese is buttery in color and flavor with a long, complex finish. The texture is smooth and soft-firm, making Lamb Chopper an enchanting table or cooking cheese. The wheel is finished in natural wax. This cheese is made in Europe exclusively for Cypress Grove Chevre.

Cypress Grove Midnight Moon
Midnight Moon is a new cheese created by Cypress Grove Chevre of Arcata, California. It's a goat's milk cheese that is aged for at least one year. Midnight Moon has a warm, nutty flavor with hints of caramel. This cheese won the NASFT award for "Outstanding New Product" in 2002. Encased in black wax, it makes quite a presentation and is an excellent choice if you are entertaining.

Cypress Grove Purple Haze Chevre
Lavender buds mixed with wild harvested fennel pollen give Purple Haze its addicting flavor. Its sweet flavor is wonderful as a dessert with honey and almonds or in a main dish with lamb.

Fiscalini 18 Month Bandage Wrapped Cheddar
Award winning cheese-maker Jorge Mariano Gonzalez handcrafts and inspects every 60 pound wheel of Fiscalini Farms' bandage-wrapped raw-milk cheddar. It is quite rare for an English-style farmhouse cheddar like this to be produced in the U.S. All natural ingredients are used in the cheese-making process. Made from Fiscalini's own milk and aged for 18 months on the property, this cheese was voted "Best Farmhouse Cheese" at the 2002 American Cheese Society Awards in Washington D.C. It was also awarded a Gold Medal at the 2007 World Cheese Awards in London. This makes Fiscalini the first Non-British Cheddar to win the title of "Best Cheddar." It is a wonderful example of the success of the artisan cheese movement in the U.S. today. Rich, buttery and sharp, Fiscalini Farmstead Cheddar is a world-class cheese.

Goat Cheddar by Cypress Grove
Sharp and smooth, this cheddar is aged a minimum of one year, giving it a complex, nutty flavor. Off-white in color, as opposed to the yellow of the cow's milk variety, Cypress Grove Goat Milk Cheddar is not overly "goaty," although the chevre is discernible.

Point Reyes Original Blue
The secret to Point Reyes Original Blue lies in its unique combination of three ingredients. First, grade A unpasteurized milk is taken from a closed herd of Holstein cows that graze on the green pastured hills overlooking Tomales Bay, California. Next, the coastal fog and salty Pacific breezes common to Point Reyes, California conspire in lending the cheese a unique character. Finally, time influences the recipe too. Original Blue? is made within hours of milking, and then ages for a minimum of six months. The result? A creamier style, full-flavored blue cheese with definite hints of lemongrass and sea salt. For those of us who have fallen in love with Maytag Blue, sample Point Reyes Original Blue? for a familiar yet distinctly different experience!

Rouge et Noir Triple Creme Brie
For the first time ever, an American cheese company beat the French in an International Competition for Brie Cheese! Marin French Cheese Factory took top honors at the 2005 World Cheese Awards in a blind International tasting competition with Brie cheese factories from around the world. This was a dramatic follow up to being awarded the winner of Best Soft Ripened Cheese in North America in 2003 by the American Cheese Society. Delicious flavor and luscious texture is why the Rouge et Noir Triple Crème Brie beat the French. Marin French Triple Crème is luxurious and slightly sweet with an irresistibly creamy texture.

San Joaquin Gold
This is a new artisan cheese made by Fiscalini Farms of Modesto, California. It is semi-hard with a natural rind and a sweet, salty, buttery taste. The uniqueness of San Joaquin Gold impressed us in both its flavor and texture. Made from unpasteurized milk form Fiscalini's own herd of 1400 Holstein cows, it is a wonderful cheese for snacking, but can also be used as a topping for soups or salads. In addition, it grates well and melts easliy. Use it on hot or cold sandwiches or as a Caesar salad garnish.

Schlosskranz by Rouge et Noir
Schlosskranz (German for Castle Wreath) is made by the Marin Cheese Company, located just north of San Francisco. Since 1865, Marin Cheese has been a leader in the domestic cheese industry. Traditionally made in a large wheel that is shaped like a wreath, this cheese is bold, aromatic and pungent. Schlosskranz, the successor to Liederkranz, is a smear-ripened, washed-rind cheese. Enjoy this true American original served with hearty breads and ales.

SeaHive is hand rubbed with Beehive wildflower honey and local Redmond RealSalt. The honey is harvested from a local farm where the bees visit wildflowers and fruit orchards. The salt is from an ancient sea bed near Redmond, Utah and contains unique flecks of color that are the result of more than 50 natural trace minerals. This cheese is shaping up to be one of their best experiments yet and is a true expression of the local flavors.

Serena by Three Sisters Farmstead
The product of generations of California dairy family tradition, Serena turns all natural ingredients into a delicious flavorful treat. Made from rBST-free jersey cow's milk, this one has a unique savory taste from its raw milk and has won several national and international awards. Serena has an intense, nutty flavor with smooth tight texture, achieved by 12-18 months of aging. Use as a table cheese, grated into pasta, shredded on salads or pizza, or stirred into soups.

Vella Special Select Dry Monterey Jack
Vella Cheese is an old timer in the world of making great American cheeses. Tom Vella began making cheese in 1931 in the Sonoma Valley of California. The company is now run by his son, Ig Vella, and is famous for its Jack cheeses. This Special Select Jack has all the same characteristics as Vella's regular Dry Jack, with its hard, pale yellow interior and sweet, nutty flavor. It is aged for a full year (as opposed to seven months) to develop an even harder texture and more intense flavor, making it similar to a Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese goes well with fruit and wine and is excellent shaved over pasta.

Yellow Buck Camembert by Rouge et Noir
The Yellow Buck label was brought back by Rouge et Noir to commemorate 100 years of making Camembert. Since 1904, all of their Camembert's have been made with traditional, authentic Old World cultures. Made from cow's milk this one is thicker than the rest and offers a creamy richness that is combined with the traditional nutty and earthy flavors of European-style Camembert. It is fuller in flavor than Brie, soft and creamy to buttery in texture, with a nutty tanginess unlike any other soft ripened cheese. It was awarded 1st Place in the 2006 American Cheese Society's category of Camembert.

I hope you have enjoyed this latest in the Artisanal Cheeses Of The U.S. Series. Next up, we will be exploring the rest of the country and I bet you're going to be surprised by some of the places great cheeses are being produced.

Bon Appetit,

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Rosé Wines~A Great Choice For Summer...

Growing up, my exposure to Rosé wine was the nondescript jug my mom and dad kept in the closet, right next to jug of Burgundy and the jug of Chablis. As far as I knew, this was wine; bold red, dry white and fruffy pink. Now having matured into an adult (there are some who will question that assessment when describing me) who loves wine and now sometimes writes about it here, I have become much more well versed in wine, its varieties, its regions and its industry. It seems I had forgotten about Rosé completely, specifically when the too sweet Zins and Grenaches became all the rage. I had relegated pink wine to lesser status in my now snobbishly educated wine palate. "Tut tut, Rosé you say? Ha ha ha, real wine is not pink, I'll have you know." Not very enlightened.

In the wine world, things are changing and true Rosés are again becoming popular, especially with a younger generation now exploring wine in all its forms and glory. In these recession economies, smaller wine producers were looking for a way to maximize immediate cash flow to offset the anticipated but lengthy wait for return on investment from wines aging in the barrel and bottle. Rosés seemed like the right answer to their problem. Since Rosé is best when enjoyed young and takes relatively no time at all to go from grape to bottle, it was a stop gap measure to ensure a winery's bottom line stayed in the black. While hoping for a good response from the market, what took the industry by pleasant surprise was a consumer that embraced the light, crisp and refreshing medium wine, especially in summer and in the hotter climates.

Now let me qualify, I am mostly speaking of the American market. In Europe, the scene is very different. When summertime descends upon Europe, Rosé wine is very much the wine of choice and unlike the changing American concept of pink wines (sweet and cloying), true Rosé has never fallen out of favor and has always been enjoyed. Rosé wine originally came from Bordeaux which has been traditionally known for its superb wine making skills, and it is crisp and dry.

California Central Valley
Before the 60s, wine in America was mostly red and white. It was sweet and designed for mass sale to large consumer markets. Rosé was pretty much a neglected afterthought. Bone dry wines were not popular in America in the 50s and the 60s and the largest American producers were concentrating on inexpensive blends based mostly on high-yielding varieties. Then the mega-wineries discovered Grenache. By accident, it was planted in the wrong place (the hot California Central Valley) and the skins bleached to a medium pink color. Thus was the birth of commercial 'California Rosé.'

It's pink color gave way to a new term. It could not be called white and likewise it was not truly red. This is where the term ‘blush wine’ evolved and to this day, this name is incorrectly associated with Rosé wine. California wineries began producing something they called White Zinfandel. Although it became an enormously popular drink for a few years, it did much to damage the reputation of true Rosés in the minds of America's wine drinkers. White Zin's, as they're called, are very sweet, in comparison to traditional Rosés and are much less versatile.

These early 'Rosé' wines were single dimensional and much too sweet. In spite of that, they were a huge success in America. Americans like sweet. Look at soda, candy, our version of donuts, cupcakes and pastry. The more tooth-achingly sweet anything is, the better Americans seem to like it. Winemakers, needing to make a profit to stay in business, fed the market they were given. That is, until until trendy Americans discovered dry table wines. Suddenly, the interest shifted to wines with classy French names and mass marketed sweet wines declined in esteem, if not in popularity. As with any fad in America, where consumers suddenly become overnight connoisseurs, if you were drinking White Zin and Grenache and you weren't drinking a wine whose name you could barely pronounce, you were no longer considered hip. In those days there were no serious Rosé wines in the American market. True connoisseurs knew about the classic Rosés of Tavel and Lirac, but these wines were rarely found in your local liquor store.

Today, American wine consumers seem to be rediscovering the charm of old world styled Rosés and domestic winemakers are putting their own spin on them. Rosé wines are the fastest growing segment of the American wine market and with good reason. California, Oregon and Washington State are producing some incredible Rosés. While some consumers still like their Grenache and Zin, as palates and wine-drinkers become more mature and educated, the American market is starting to catch up with Europe in its appreciation of this delicate wine. A real Rosé is a dry, crisp, refreshing mouthful of flavor that has a hint of fruitiness. It is a sophisticated and elegant drink that is great at wine pairings and most dinners. Often referred to as a summer wine, the best of these are available from the USA, Italy, Australia, Canada, Spain, France and Portugal.

The Grapes
Made in almost every wine region globally, Rosé wines are produced from a wide variety of grapes, from Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache, to more unusual grape varieties like Brachetto. Several appellations are noted for their superb rosé wines, including France's Provence and Spain's Navarra regions, where it accounts for more than half of the wines produced. Other places associated with rosé production are Tavel and the Loire Valley. California, Oregon and Washington State are now starting to make their mark, producing some of the best the market has ever seen.

Rosé wines, as noted, are typically dry. They should be served chilled and are a refreshing summer beverage. All grape juice is white, no matter what color grapes are used. Winemakers make red wines by leaving the grape skins in with the juice to absorb coloring from them. In the case of Rosé wines, the winemaker allows the skins to soak with the juice only long enough for the wine to take on a pinkish tint; then, the skins are removed and the result is a rosé wine.  In the past, it was fairly common to make Rosé wines by simply taking a white wine and adding a bit of red wine to it. Some winemakers thought this could produce interesting wines that possessed some of the hearty character of a red wine while retaining the crispness of many whites. This practice has fallen out of vogue, even in Champagne where it was once quite respected.

Skin contact
Red-skinned grapes are crushed to what is called must, and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for a short period, typically two or three days. The grapes are then pressed, and the skins are discarded rather than left in contact throughout fermentation (as with red wine making). The skins contain much of the strongly flavored tannin and other compounds, which leaves the taste more similar to a white wine. The longer that the skins are left in contact with the juice, the more intense the color of the final wine.

Rosé wine can be produced as a by-product of red wine fermentation using a technique known as Saignée, or bleeding the vats. When a winemaker desires to impart more tannin and color to a red wine, some of the pink juice from the must can be removed at an early stage. The red wine remaining in the vats is intensified as a result of the bleeding, because the volume of juice in the must is reduced, and the must involved in the maceration is concentrated. The pink juice that is removed can be fermented separately to produce Rosé.

Historically Rosé was quite a delicate, dry wine. In fact the original Claret was a pale ('clairet') wine from Bordeaux that would probably now be described as a Rosé. After the Second World War, there was a fashion for medium-sweet rosés for mass-market consumption, the classic examples being Mateus Rosé and the American "blush" wines of the 1970's that we mentioned above. The pendulum now seems to be swinging back towards a drier, 'bigger' style. These wines are made from Rhone grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Carignan in hotter regions such as Provence, the Languedoc and Australia. In France, Rosé has now exceeded white wines in sales. In the United States, a record 2005 California crop resulted in an increased production and proliferation of varietals used for Rosés, as winemakers chose to make Rosé rather than leave their reds unsold.

Pairing a Rosé
Rosé wines offer interesting opportunities in matching with food because they offer an incredible versatility. They shine in cases where a white wine is not enough and a red wine is simply too much. In addition, thanks to the low content in tannins combined with their appreciable crispness, they can be served to the same temperatures as white wines. It is often said Rosé has the same aromas of red with the advantage of being served as would a white white wine, therefore they are characterized by excellently agreeable and pleasing aromas. The versatility of Rosé wine in the matching with food is wide and they are a perfect foil to appetizers, pasta, rice, fish, meat, as well as cheese.

One of the main characteristics of Rosé is their freshness in aromas, usually the same which are typically found in young red wines, however, just like any other type of wine, before proceeding with matching, it is best to know the specific characteristics of every wine. Compared to white wines, rosés are usually less acid and have a higher roundness, factors which also depend on the technique used in their production. When compared to red wines, they have a lesser structure and a lower astringency. In general terms, Rosé wines do not have a high alcohol by volume percentage, a factor that, of course, also depends on the specific conditions of the wine and its balance. Thanks to the smoothness of Rosé, it is great with pasta, fish, in particular fish soups, and roasted fish that is richly seasoned and spiced. Rosé is also suited for mushrooms and soft cheeses.

Rosé can even stand up to some meats, particularly white meats such as chicken or pork. In summer, I find them great as an aperitif, though you may want to let them warm a bit above the temperature that you would serve a chardonnay. This slight elevation in temperature brings out the delicate sweetness of the wine all the more. Rose's are even good with cold cuts, whether lean or fatty, as well as with preparations based on vegetables.

My Selection:

Rosa Regale from Banfi
Brachetto 100%.


Cold red-grapes skin contact for 4 to 5 days allows the wine to develop its characteristic color, aroma and complexity. The wine is then filtered and stored at 0°C. Re-fermentation follows in stainless steel tanks in the Strevi cellars, where this special wine achieves its final sweetness and sparkling character.

COLOR: light ruby red. Lively pink mousse with a persistent perlage.
BOUQUET: intense, aromatic, varietal with hints of Bulgarian rose.
TASTE: soft and elegant with berry flavors and a touch of almond and nutmeg.

A soft red sparkling wine, made from Brachetto. This extremely aromatic, complex and historical grape variety grows only in the area of Acqui Terme, in Southern Piedmont.The cold maceration of the grapes, followed by a soft pressing, allows the extraction of the typical intense aromas from the skins and gives to the wine its characteristic light ruby red color. Very pleasant and extremely elegant.


This wine matches perfectly with fresh strawberries, fruit cakes, fruit salads, pastries and chocolates. An ideal aperitif as well.

Rosé is a great summer wine, cool, refreshing and delicious, But don't take my word for it. Do a tasting, find the one you like and add it to your cellar or cooler. You'll be glad you did.

Bon Appetit,


May 30, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, Installment #12: Interpreting Savory & Baking Recipes

Recipes. Does this word excite you, making your taste buds salivate with anticipation at the promise of a delectable feast created from a list of fresh, quality ingredients? Or does it terrify you? Do you have trouble interpreting complicated recipes? If the former, you are probably one of the few who does not view tackling a new or difficult recipe as a daunting task. It also means you need to look at the fact of why the word recipe excites you. I'm in this category and it may simply mean I need to get out more and taken a second look at my social life. There are the latter however, who would like to take on more challenging recipes but sometimes get overwhelmed, especially if they require the use of more advanced techniques. They stick to easier recipes and miss out on enjoying some great dishes or favorites at home, sure that those more difficult methods and techniques will end in disaster. If this sometimes describes you, know two things; A. You are not alone and B. Practice makes perfect and you can learn.

In The At Home Cook Series, we have covered all the steps necessary to get you ready to tackle a complex recipe:
  • Mise en Place, a French phrase that literally means "putting in place" referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients...
  • Knife Skills This seems to be the most intimidating and sometimes, can be the most overlooked aspect facing a good at home chef. Proper knives and proper instruction is safer and the more you practice and get familiar with your knives, the safer you'll be...
  • Searing and Sauteing In this installment, we move to the stove to learn the the skills for great pan cooking on the stove-top, learning how to perfectly caramelize and get that great restaurant crust at home...
  • Mother Sauces For the aspiring saucier, this installment brings us the basics and how to make a roux, and covers what is a requirement for any culinary student attending culinary school. create your own delicious and healthy sauces for your family at home... 
  • Grilling Perfect Steaks takes us through proper techniques for this summer's grill-master, with tips and tricks to make that perfect steak every time...
  • Umami What some call the Fifth Flavor, Umami rich foods are very satisfying and can actually be a healthier way to cook as well. They tend to make salt taste saltier, which means we can lower the amount of sodium in a dish when using Umami rich ingredients.... 
  • Soups and Stocks Ever wonder what was it that made mom's or grandma's soup so good, all the time? The secret was in the stock...
  • Menu Planning With a little help with proper menu planning, cooking for your family, a special holiday meal, or even a dinner party of eight, will be a much more pleasurable experience...
  • Dry Aged vs. Wet Aged Steaks What are the differences between dry aged and wet aged? Why has dry aged beef earned the title of the ultimate in tenderness and flavor...
  • How To Properly Season Your Food One of the most important yet overlooked skills the at home chef needs to master is seasoning!
  • Braising If you follow these easy steps to success, you are bound to create a very flavorful and palate appealing masterpiece!
How can you insure a successful outcome of a special meal your family and friends will all enjoy, instead of a trash can filled with wasted ingredients and an unexpected dinner out on the town? Only learning the proper techniques and the methods to gain them, can you truly guarantee success. In this next of my series, it's time to put all that we learned to the test by tackling a complex recipe. To that end, I'm going to give you some pointers on how to more successfully navigate and decipher a recipe.

Step one is to gather your "mise en place." This should include your tools (i.e. measuring spoons, pans, etc.) as well as your ingredients and perhaps, most importantly, your understanding of the steps required in order to complete the recipe. By making "mise en place"step one for every recipe you may choose to tackle, you will answer and overcome most of your recipe difficulties before you begin.

Start one recipe at a time and find the terms and Items you need to make that particular dish. What is your best partner in this investigative endeavor? Well, you could go out and invest in a kitchen companion book, probably a worthwhile investment for you serious cooks. For you once a month warriors or novice cooks, Twitter and the myriad of food sites out there, like this one, give great recipes and techniques to help with honing your culinary skills. Sites like mine usually have articles or video links to the more clinical sites that cater to the more advanced chef. Sites like these often define unfamiliar terms and offer you solutions for equipment you may not have, while also offering tools like converters, which allow you to convert measurements from, or to, metric.

Now, that we have our mise en place in place, how closely do we need to follow the recipe? This is an issue that can be argued from both sides. With savory recipes, the interchange and exchange of ingredients is much more forgiving than it is with baking. I have always stated that I view most recipes as a guide more than a stamped in stone method, especially for the more adventurous chef. With savory recipes, proteins can often be substituted for one another, within reason of course. For instance, you wouldn't replace talapia with lamb, but you could introduce a skinless chicken breast and still achieve the same basic dish and flavor profile. Not so with baking.

When it comes to baking, it is of paramount importance to follow the recipe to the letter. I recently attended a demo done by renown pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. He explained why his book Dessert Fourplay has its recipes in grams, rather than ounces, tablespoons or say, a cup. His reasoning was spot on. He stated, "With measurements, I can ask all of you to produce a cup of flour. If 5 of us did this, I would bet that each of us would actually come up with a different amount. Grams allows you to make the recipe come out exactly as intended, whether the first time making it, or the 100th." Now most of us are not going to produce a 100th version of a recipe, especially a dessert, unless we are a professional chef working in a commercial kitchen. But baking is as much a science, as a creative endeavor. You have ingredients that must work in concert with each other, in order to have a desired end result. For instance; any recipe where you forget the required leavening: baking powder or soda, yeast, eggs will not turn out. With other cooking, you often have a bit of wiggle room for errors or missteps and some amazing dishes have been created by someone inadvertently messing up on a recipe.

Do keep in mind that when this happens, it is usually pure luck. If you stray too far from the original recipe, when baking, your end result may be an inedible mess. Does this mean you can never delete a single ingredient? Not at all! If you dislike onions, or can't eat nuts, it is perfectly okay to omit or replace them, as they are optional items that won't effect the integrity of the recipe or method. Optional items are often listed as just that, "optional." But for the intermediate chef, it is not always clear which ingredients would cause a disastrous result if they are excluded, so delete or substitute with caution.

Finally don't be afraid to seek out advice and pointers from seasoned cooks and chefs. Most people are very flattered when people seek out their advice, ask for a cooking tips or even a recipe. I have found some of the best food I have ever eaten has been in the homes of family and friends. Granted, with the advantage of moving in the circles of many very talented culinarians who cook professionally, I am fortunate to know many phenomenal cooks who consider cooking a great meal merely an enjoyable hobby.

So, is it worth the aggravation and challenge of tackling an unfamiliar recipe? I say yes! You can produce a great meal in the comfort of your own home, please friends and family with a special treat, all at a fraction of what it costs to eat out. Now I'm not saying don't eat out, you all know I love to go out and dine. But, I also love to cook gourmet meals at home as well. It can be great fun to get the whole family involved and teach your children some valuable skills, along with the importance of following directions. In many cultures, eating good food is a ritual and a way of passing down the family traditions and flavors of your heritage. So dust off those cookbooks and jump in to your own culinary adventure.

Bon Appetite,

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May 29, 2012

The At Home Cook Series Installment #11: Braising

Braised Short Ribs
Tender, falling off the bone, full of meaty flavors with rich yet balanced aromas of red wine and hearty vegetables. Ahhh, the art of braising! Not an easy technique by any means, but when prepared properly, a braised item can be a very memorable dining experience. Cooking, by simple definition, is the application of heat to food. But all heat is not created equal. In the kitchen, there’s a big difference between moist heat and dry heat. Whenever you add a liquid to the pot or pan, for instance, when you simmer, boil, steam, or braise, you’re cooking with moist heat. If you don’t add a liquid when you sear, sauté, fry, roast, or grill, you’re cooking with dry heat. Braising is a very unique cooking method where you are actually cooking with dry and moist heat. I’ll explain…

In order to achieve a great flavor profile of your braised item, it is important to sear the protein in a hot pan (dry heat) in order to develop caramelization – browning flavor profiles-- and seal in the juices. Then by adding a liquid (moist heat) and cooking at a low temperature for a longer period of time, the braised dish will be very tender and moist. This is definitely the best of both worlds as you benefit from all the spectrums of the cooking world!

Coq au Vin
Once you have decided to experiment with braising, it is important to decide which cut of meat you wish to braise. Typically, braising is a very economical way to feed the family, as cheaper, underutilized and less tender cuts of meat are used. The slow and long cooking method allows the connective tissue and fat to break down much more, leaving those tougher cuts of meat melting in your mouth! Popular cuts of meat to braise include: shanks, brisket, flank, baby back ribs, short ribs, most cuts from the shoulder, arm and leg. These parts of the animal are exercised much more than others, which builds up and toughens the muscle, therefore it is necessary to break
Braising Meat
that muscle down during the cooking process. The very popular Filet Mignon, is a much more tender cut of meat coming from the tenderloin and it is not necessary to braise it in order to tenderize, but of course it can be done. Don’t just stop with beef though, it is very common to braise poultry, pork, lamb, fish, and many vegetables a well.

Now that we’ve chosen the cut of meat, its time to develop those delicious flavors! Many popular braised dishes include Pot Roast, Beef Stew, Swiss steak, Coq au Vin, Chicken Cacciatore, Goulash, Braised Tilapia, Beef Bourguignon and Moroccan Tagine dishes. (we'll be covering cooking in a Tagine in an upcoming installment) All of these popular dishes begin with important
ingredients; the item to be braised, vegetables, (in most cases, Mirepoix; carrots, onions, celery), normally an alcohol such as a red or white wine, a flavorful liquid or stock (water can be used), and aromatics. Once the item is seared and removed from the pot, flavor development begins with the caramelization of vegetables and with the addition of a tomato product. From here, you can deglaze with an alcohol and return the meat to the pot. Cover the item with the stock, about two thirds of the way up. Bring to a quick boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cover the pot with aluminum foil and place it in an oven for a few hours. Depending on the size and cut of the item, it can sometimes go for up to 8 hours.

Aromatics play a very important role in braising. Fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, and seasonings are all ways to enhance a braised item. They can be added all at once in the pot, or bunched up in a Sachet: a small cheesecloth bag, containing various herbs and spices, used to infuse flavor into stocks. These can typically include; bay leaf, thyme, parsley stems and black peppercorns.

How do we know when it's done? The terms "falling off the bone" or "fork tender" are great gauges of doneness. Remove the cover and test the product with a fork. If it is moist enough to fully pierce through with a fork, it is probably ready.

Pot Roast
Now it's time to serve! We can ladle the braise or stew over mashed potatoes, rice, or vegetables, or choose to remove the meat and create a sauce with the left over braising liquid. All of those pronounced flavors will only get better when reduced down in a pot further to fully develop and concentrate.

There's really nothing to be afraid of and this is really not as hard as it sounds. Just take your time and like we've learned in prior installments of The At Home Cook Series, just follow the steps. It's almost like a one pot meal, where presentation and knife skills are not nearly as important as the infusion of flavor from the cooking method. If you follow these easy steps to success, you are bound to create a very flavorful and palate appealing masterpiece!

Bon Appetit!