Monday, 24 December 2012

The Hills Are Alive With The Taste of Blaufrankisch...

Last night, The Sound of Music made its annual return to the festive line-up, so I decided to have a bit of an Austrian night. Even though we are days away from days of leftover turkey, my Austrian-themed dinner naturally had to be a modified yet classic Austrian turkey schnitzel. (The irony is that while in Austria, I never had schnitzel. Instead, I discovered the beauty of smoked trout with pickled beets, but I digress). Schnitzel is one of the easiest things to prepare: take out holiday stress by pounding cutlets to paper thin, coat in flour, egg, and seasoned breadcrumbs (I like to use tarragon), fry in butter, done. Accompanied by potatoes and broccoli (not sure if that is particularly Austrian either - it was just on sale), I also made a creamy garlic/mushroom sauce that soaked up the bready meat perfectly.

Of course, no dinner is complete without wine, so I opted for a Blaufrankisch. It is one of Austria's key quality red grapes, full-bodied with medium tannins and rather similar to a Merlot.  It also has a bit of an earthy flavour, which is why I picked it to go with the schnitzel and mushrooms. In case you're interested, Zweigelt (red) and Gruner Veltliner (white) are also important Austrian grapes.

Little seen on the international market, Austria is actually a producer of amazing wines, most of which are from vineyards in the eastern end of the country (ie. frolicking children singing their do-re-mi's are in the alpine centre and west of the country). In fact, Vienna is the only major European capital to also be its own wine region. There, the hills are alive with the sounds of Heurigen; Austrian taverns that feature locally produced wines and delicatessen fare. Also, you may start off your Heurigen experience with pretzels and cheese, an experience I'm recreating as I type this with pretzel sticks and a pungeant St. Nectaire from France.

But back to dinner, the schnitzel was plated and ready to go at 7pm when the fully-restored, 4-hour long (LOTS of commercials) Sound of Music was aired. I look forward to this annual event not so much because of its connection to Christmas (that's for Charlie Brown's jazzy soundtrack and the poetic rhythm of the Grinch), but mostly because The Sound of Music is responsible for one of my top 5 "most-shocking-moments-ever." Growing up, I was never allowed to watch the whole movie. The von Trapp children singing goodnight was a cue to my mum that I too had to bid adieu and go to bed. I was able to deduce that the Captain and Maria would marry, so I assumed the movie ended with a wedding and they all lived happily ever after.

That was my impression until one day, bed-ridden with the flu in New Zealand (it's an Easter-thing there), I happened upon the movie and decided to watch the whole thing beginning to end. At age 29, I finally found out what really happened to the von Trapps. The specific shock-of-my-life was seeing 17-going-on18 Rolf literally blow the whistle on Liesl and the other hiding von Trapps. Beyond being an unexpected plot twist, I was devasted that I had spent a lifetime completely oblivious to the real ending of what is arguably one of the most successful musical movies.

So, that is my fitting way of building up to Christmas. A once-a-year movie with themed dinner, and re-living the shocking truth that your parents have been lying to you.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

what to do with your free thyme...

In the world of quasi-employment (a nice way of saying "working for oneself without much work," or perhaps "living the retired life in your mid-30s"), there tends to be a lot of free time to pursue interests; in my case, mostly gardening and cooking. Musing on this thought as I tended to my still productive garden, I realised that in more ways than one I really do have alot more "thyme" on my hands. By thyme, of course, I mean both the non-spatial continuum period available at one's disposal and the white- or lilac-flowered aromatic Eurasian shrub Thymus vulgaris (here insert my oft-quoted Dr. Evil-ism "two words, different's a homonym...).  Both are gifts that keep on giving, but it is of the T. vulgaris homonym that is proving more difficult to deal with than the continuum.

Of the many herbs I have planted over the years, the one that has survived the most winters and continues to thrive is thyme. In other words, it looks as though thyme withstands the test of time. With so much thyme around, this herb tends to make its way into a lot of my cooking.  It is great friend to scrambled eggs and omelettes, bushels are placed in any slow-cooked stew, and a few leaves are always chopped and mixed with its garden neighbours rosemary, sage, and lavender as seasoning for marinated meats, especially lamb. As I type this blog, a rack of lamb sits in a rub of these herbs in an olive oil and lemon dressing to be paired later with roast veggies tossed in the marinade and a glass or two of  the Moon Cursor Syrah (my absolute favourite BC Syrah - it actually has a thyme-y flavour).  

Cerro Calvario, Bolivia
Granted, thyme is very good in its ability to ease digestion of rich foods, but there comes a time when I have too much thyme is on my hands. One thing I've always wanted to try with my surplus thyme is inspired by my time in Copacabana. No, not the scantily clad Brazilian beach nor the supposed hottest spot north of Havana, but rather the remote Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca. Rather resembling the Pao de Azucar ("Sugarloaf") mountain next to Rio's Copacabana, the Cerro Calvario ("Calvary Hill") is a rocky promontory where atop sits a monument dedicated to the Stations of the Cross. Along with Copacabana's main cathedral devoted to the patron saint of Bolivia, la Virgen de Copacabana, the Cerro Calvario is a destination for devout Bolivian Catholics.

Stations of the Cross at Sunset, Cerro Calvario, Bolivia
Visiting the stations, one cannot help but notice the overwhelmingly herbaceous aromas wafting in the holy high-altitude air. As I admired the sweeping views of Lake Titicaca, I noticed around me elderly Bolivian women sweeping the grounds of the Stations with brooms bristles made of thyme. I suppose that lacking in frankincense and myrrh, thyme is the best substitute to treat the holy site with the respect it deserves.

Although I've never acted upon making my own brooms, the visual and olfactory image of the thyme-scented shrine still remains with me eight years later.  If there is enough to go around, maybe now is the time to make the most of my thyme.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

the running of the goats in cairo...

This weekend marks one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim year,  Eid al-Adha. Not to be confused with Eid al-Fitr (the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadhan), Eid al-Adha coincides with the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. As turkey is to Thanksgiving, lamb and goat are to Eid al-Adha, and it is said that the 2 million Hajji (pilgrims) consume the equivalent of the entire lamb exports of New Zealand (remember: sheep outnumber the 4 million Kiwis by 12:1, so that's a lot of lamb). The reason for this is Eid al-Adha roughly translates as "Festival of the Sacrifice" sheep and goats are slaughtered to commemorate Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Ishmael, in accordance to God's will, only to have a God present an eleventh hour change in the line up, replacing Ishmael with a sheep. (Imagine our world today if that didn't happen).

As Muslims around the world celebrate and think of their loved ones, I instead think of my first exposure to Islamic culture during my semester in Cairo. Since I was new to the Muslim world, I became acquainted with the various Muslim holidays by virtue of classes being cancelled.  Judging by our school calendars that a long weekend for was approaching, it wasn't until Eid itself that I realised that another key indicator of what was in store was there all along: goats in downtown Cairo.

If you've never been to Cairo, then you'll need to know this one thing: Cairo is the living definition of organised chaos. When 5 rows of traffic fit into 3 lanes, tireless bicycles pass by with upside-down pita bread pyramids balanced on heads of the riders, dogs sleep atop alarm-throbbing cars, the two traffic lights in a city of 17 million are mere "suggestions," and you can politely refuse to give money when approached by guards with guns strapped to their backs...well, let's just say goats on the street really isn't that surprising. In fact, a friend and his family had a pet goat they named Lucky. Lucky lived on the top floor of the house with a comfy bed of straw to sleep and chew on. Since camels also lived downstairs, a goat in the house wasn't a big deal.

That is until the final days before Eid. Walking home one evening the (relatively) quiet, tree-lined suburb of Zamalek, the eerie sound of goats bleating would echo into the night. Unseen birds chirping in trees or dogs barking somewhere in the neighbourhood is one thing; the bleating of goats from dark apartment buildings is another, as though pleading "he-e-e-e-e-lp me-e-e-e-e-e."

The next day, en route to Lucky's family for dinner, our taxi came across an unexpected "running of the goats." Judging by the reaction of the traffic that never stops for anything, Cairo's running of the goats is a rather impromptu affair. It's also only a small event as it seems it only needs three or four Egyptian men to dodge traffic in chase of the goat. I can't verify this, but I presume the guy who grabs the goat by the horns and drags it against its well back to the apartment wins some kind of prize. Again, don't quote me on that, but that's what it looked like from the backseat of a cab.

Arriving at the Khisha household sometime later, exotic aromas of cumin, coriander, and cardamom wafted into the evening air. Our mouths water as we sat down for what was no doubt going to be an outstanding traditional meal.  Piles of couscous and pita surround a bubbling pot of stew, and we are set to dig in before Michelle asks the inevitable "So, how's Lucky?"

Silent eyes drift down to the bubbling pot, a gulp of discomfort lodges in our throats. As thoughts of Lucky not being so lucky anymore, I also gather that we missed out on the Khisha family's running of the goats. No point dwelling on the past, and with such a beautiful before us, I dug in for what was, and still is to this day, the luckiest meal I've ever had.

Eid Mubarak to all!

Monday, 22 October 2012

onna kokoro to aki no sukiyaki mo...

The other day I stepped out to meet friends for brunch at a restaurant located about an hour's walk away.  Gone is the record-setting gorgeous Indian Summer of Thanksgiving weekend, so I needed to dress appropriately for both brunch and the weather. Being late October in Vancouver, this means more thought had to go into what I wore than just first pants, then shoes. In fact, alot of what I wore needed to be complimented by a contrasting item of clothing or accessory:  the singlet undershirt needed a warm sweater; the warm sweater needed a light jacket; sunglasses and an umbrella.

Stepping out as such, I suddenly remembered an old Japanese adage: "onna kokoro to aki no sora." The first proverb I ever learned as an exchange student inYokosuka, "onna kokoro to aki no sora" roughly translates as "a woman's heart is like an autumn sky."  In other words, the reason I was dressed prepared for anything is because an autumn sky change in an instant. It starts out as one thing, but before you know it something completely different has happened. To my east it was a blue sunny sky, to the west dark forboding clouds; with no prevailing wind, there was no telling which way the weather would go.

Such, according to the Japanese, is the way of a woman's heart. Single for a long time and without sisters as a cross-reference, I cannot stand as a relationship expert that can verify to which planet each sex is from (though my best guess is Earth).  Still, I've had female flatmates and colleagues, and my experience tells me that there is a cloud of truth in this saying.  However, like the autumn sky, chances are there are reasons for the sudden changes even if you don't fully see them. It doesn't take a meteorologist to know that if it looks like sun or rain, then chances are it's going to do one or the other. A good day can be found if you're prepared for either with both sunglasses and an umbrella.

With these saying stuck in my head all day (it ended up mostly cloudy), I developed a craving for my favourite Japanese meal, sukiyaki.  The cooling autumn temperatures are kept at bay with the warm, bubbling broth of stock, soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, and ginger. The formula for the broth is easy: start with 2 cups stock and halve your way down the list (1 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup sake, 1/4 cup mirin...). Into the pot go a hodgepodge of ingredients, traditionally paper-thinly sliced beef, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage (hakusai in Japanese), and shirataki noodles (made from yam flour), but any ingredients will do. Cook in a shared hot-pot until liking, then remove, dip in beaten raw egg (the heat of the food cooks the egg coating), and eat with rice.

To me, it's a perfect autumn dish and a nice addendum to the proverb (to sukiyaki mo means "and sukiyaki too"). Like a woman's heart and an autumn sky, sukiyaki is complex but full of many great surprises too: raw egg can be delicious, clouds can turn to sunshine, and a woman's heart can love forever. All you need to do is prepare yourself appropriately.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

sweet gold for sweet teeth...

With company coming earlier this week, I decided to make a nice bread pudding for dessert. It's that time of year where autumn winds sweep in from the Pacific with foreboding signs of impending winter; a time that calls for belly-warming comfort food.  Slow cooked in an oven that doubles as a heater for my tiny flat, bread pudding is just such a comfort food. Soak stale bread in kahlua and cold coffee in a baking dish, fill the dish with a 50/50 blend of milk and cream, 3 beaten eggs, a tablespoon or two of sugar, a teaspoon or each of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom and my standard pudding is ready to go. For fun, this time I also added a bit of homemade chestnut puree for a dessert that is like me; a little sweet if but slightly nutty.

Lovely though the pudding was, it was the accompanying wine that lifted the humble bread pudding to new heights. Slowly sipping my way through my wine collection, I decided to open a bottle of Austrian Ausbruch from my trip 2 years ago.  Ausbruch is a style of sweet wine particular to the town of Rust (roosht), with a honeyed-apricot character tempered by refreshing acidity. Matched with the bread pudding, it reminded me that a high-quality sweet wine is the perfect choice to pair with a dessert or stand as a dessert all unto itself.

After the Ausbruch, I decided to explore other sweet wines during the week to match with leftover pudding.  First, a Sauternes, which is of a similar sweetness but hails for Bordeaux.  Later in the week, a revist to my all-time favourite, Tokaji Aszu, from northeastern Hungary. Both Sauternes and Tokaj are considered to be international standards in sweet wines, although the Germans/Austrians may beg to differ with their Beerenausleses and Trockenbeerenausleses (Ausbruch is only found in Austria). The effect of the Sauternes and the Tokaji on my dessert was the same as the Ausbruch; a perfect balance of sweetness, acidity, body, and flavour (though my preference, as always, falls with the Tokaji).

The unique feature of these wines is that there sweetness is not doctored to meet the masses; masses who were introduced to wines with the White Zinfandels, Mateus/Lancers, Baby Ducks, and Black Towers of the world. In the case of the latter, I actually had to write a paper for my Diploma exam on Black Tower; I said it was suited for the consumer new to wines or one who still drinks like it's 1973. Instead, sweet wines from Tokaji to Trockenbeerenauslese (while the former is my favourite wine, the latter is my favourite wine word) achieve their intense flavours and sugars by botryitis cinerea; a.k.a. "noble rot."

Noble Rot occurs when cool September mists give way to warm afternoons. Microscopic moulds appear on the grapes and suck out the water content, leaving behind shrivelled, furry grapes with concentrated sugars.  Botrytis cinerea can happen anywhere in the world, but proximity to shallow, warm bodies of water help assure an annual harvest; the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers in Tokaj, the Garonne and tributaries in Bordeaux, the Neusiedlersee in Austria. However, it is imporant that the grapes are healthy. Should damaged grapes be attacked these spores, the end result is Grey Rot. The photo to the left is of a Riesling bunch effected by Grey Rot in the Rheingau, Germany. (The same vineyard as my backdrop for this blog, incidentally). A hailstorm damaged these grapes as botrytis set in, resulting in damaged grapes that started to ferment in the vineyard itself.
But it is to Noble Rot we owe the great sweet wines of the world, and they are the perfect companion to the comfort desserts of the coming months. I highly recommend trying any of the above wines as they are absolutely worth their price in sweet gold; your sweet tooth will thank me for it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Garden Archaeology...

Growing up in Toronto, one of my favourite places to visit was the Royal Ontario Museum. Specifically, it was to the impressive dinosaur exhibit I would extol upon any adult (and more often than not, my Dad) to bring me to see. I would race up the marbled stairs and proceed to guide said adult through the wonderful world of dinosaurs. I would pause at each artifact, informing my minder of the name of the dinosaur before us, whether it was a herbivore or carnivore, and to which era it belonged. After what seemed an eternity of joy among the fossils (and for the fossil accompanying me, just an eternity no doubt), I was promptly done with the Museum and ready to go. If memory serves me right, I was then brought to other wings by the adult in an effort to not only teach me about other artifacts but most likely to make it worth the price of admission to see more than just dinosaurs.

In this respect, these visits to the R.O.M. inspired me as a young boy to become an archaeologist.  I remember digging a hole at our cottage near Algonquin Park in order to uncover millenia-hidden remains that would catapult me into archaeological stardom.  Two feet down a pit 5 feet wide, I had nothing to show for my 30-minutes work. More than a treasure trove of fossils, the pit ended up as the grave for my budding archaeological career.

Today's work in my garden, however, brought back memories of dreams long-forgotten. With the harvest nearly complete (some zucchini and cabbage remain), I thought it time to till the soil and mix in a summer's worth of kitchen waste before the winter winds return.  What started out as a simple gardening exercise ended up yielding archaeological artifacts from tenants of a bygone era. Included are two beer mugs, a saucer, several beer cans, and a marble. That's much more of a haul than the ill-fated dinosaur quarry ever produced, and is an insight into the ancient customs of a previous civilisation.  From these artifacts, I infer that over the ceremonial plate, a marble was tossed into its middle by warriors in a challenge of inebriation fuelled by amber elixirs.

At least that's what my inner-archaeologist thinks; it certainly brings a sense of adventure to a day's worth of gardening. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

smoke'em if you got'em!...

As per an earlier entry, the smooth sounds of Bob Marley echo in my flat as I reap the blackberry harvest and embark on my seasonal jammin' sessions. For the record, that is as much Bob Marley-ism I embrace in my life, so this entry has nothing to do with some of the "other" influences often attributed to the rasta-reggae legend.

Rather, I am referring (that's re-fer-ring, not reef-er-ing) to my recent discovery at the art of smoking food. With my varied exposure to cooking methods around the world, for some reason smoking meat has never occurred to me as a reasonable way to prepare a meal. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I was never a happy camper growing up (and to this day still much prefer the great indoors), so I was never exposed to the impact campfire can have on food and clothing.  Maybe it is because, as an rule-obeying child fearful of harmful consequences, I never played with matches and therefore never took an interest in cooking skills related to smoke. Or, maybe it is simply because I never developed a smoking habit myself; i never got the point of it, and my palate has both lost out and benefited from that in the end.

Whatever the reason, I am now a fan of the smoke.  Earlier today, I bought a bone-in turkey breast for dinner but was not yet sure how I wanted to cook it.  Autumn rains upon us mean grilling on the BBQ isn't as fun, but the temperature doesn't quite merit slow-roasting in the oven. A perfect compromise: through a few hickory chips in the un-unsed smoker try (which is not to be confused with the ashtray for smokers located near the BBQ), work up a smoke, and let sit for about an hour. To this, I added fresh-picked rosemary, thyme, sage, and lavender set atop the turkey, adding an herbaceous complexity to the otherwise unseasoned meat.

The final catalyst to the to smoke or not to smoke debate was, naturally, the wine I happened to have on hand.  Leftover from a class I instructed last night was a bottle of Pinotage; a uniquely South African red that is the love-child of a brief and torrid Cape Town affair between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  Back in France, a long-distance relationship is just one of the many factors that keep the light and delicate Pinot Noir of Burgundy away from the full-bodied and rustic Cinsault; the two are just not meant to be together in French wine. However, thanks to the clever Cupid hands of scientists, South Africans have adopted their love child Pinotage as their own signature grape as it is intended to balance the polar opposites of its parent's characteristics. A typical Pinotage should be medium bodied with medium tannins, show a combination of red and dark berry flavours with a hint of wild game, barnyard, and toasted coffee beans, and is a wine that benefits from oak aging.

And with oak comes flavours of smoke, thus inspiring my dinner tonight. One of the basic food and wine pairing elements is to balance flavour intensity of the food with that of the wine. Intensity of flavour often comes from the method of cooking. Something poached will be delicate in flavour, so match with a delicate wine. Something slow-simmered will be deep and complex in flavour, so balance with a fuller-bodied, complex wine. With smoked food, the match is simple: oaked wine. The fact that smoke and oak rhyme is the best way to remember this pairing!

Although I broke two cardinal laws by not only eating meat on Friday but also having red wine with white meat, the dinner was excellent. Sure enough, the smokey notes of both wine and turkey matched each other perfectly, served with a side of spiced rice n' beans with cabbage. As a result, I have a new cooking skill added to my repatoire, so if you ever here me say that I need a smoke, you'll know that I am hankering for a nice dinner!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

As Easy as Riding a Bike...

The other day I decided to do something I haven't done in 4 years: go for a bike ride. The pour mountain bike, inherited from my father, has been sitting in my room collecting dust and, like most of us, showing signs of aging with it's rusty joints and sagging tires. However, a little air, a little cooking oil, and a little bath and the mountain bike was ready to take to the hilly streets.

Despite the immediate incline out of my driveway, the basic mechanics of cycling it don't go away but leg muscles seem to have a shorter-term memory. Nonetheless, I also remembered that I like cycling because it is a great physical activity that one can do sitting down. I had stopped riding for so many years because for many years, bicycles were my means of transportation. I had thus lost the love of the activity and instead looked at it as a reliable way of getting around but with a backpack weighted down in groceries, school supplies, or bottles of wine.

Come to think of it, it hasn't been 4 years since I've been on a bicycle. Due to the aforementioned reliance on bicycles, I occasionally rent bikes while traveling. It is a great, leisurely way to explore a new area. Reflecting on this, here are my Top 5 adventure destinations on bicycle:

5) Amsterdam - With all the confidence I have from surviving the chaotic streets of Cairo, rush hour in Amsterdam scares the hell out of me. Bicycles are the lords of the roads in Amsterdam, and it is truly intimidating to go with the massive flow of cyclists let alone even try to cross the street. It is quite another task to cycle home from after a night of several wines and Abby-strength ales because no matter how many times your friend warns you to watch out for the trolly tracks, your bicycle is sure to find them and your ass the quaintly cobbled streets. A lesson in both humility and the law of the jungle for any avid cyclist.

4) Barossa Valley, Australia - The heart of Australian Wine Country, there are paths and lanes dedicated to bicycle traffic for not only workers but also visitors wishing to visit the wineries on bike. Truly, a civilised way to cycle as one makes their way from cellar door to cellar door, all the while imbibing in a Chardonnay or Shiraz. In 2004, I did just that and was somehow able to hit 10 wineries in a single day. This past February, I didn't visit that many over 3 days so I must have certainly been on a mission to visit so many. Sip, swallow, and cycle is a great way to combine these pasttimes.

3) San Pedro de Atacama, Chile - Clearly, when one is visiting a small town in the middle of the world's driest desert the best thing to do is rent a bicycle for a day. Unlike those pesky air-conditioned buses that take you where they want you to go, cycling through the desert with 5 L of water strapped to your back is the best way to go. Furthermore, when cycling the Quebrada del Diablo ("The Devil's Ravine"), it is best to take a map with you and not rely on the directions of stray dogs. Better yet, don't trust the directions of friends who have every faith that "the dog knows where he's going."

2) Wellington, New Zealand -  High in the hills above New Zealand's windy city is the Te Kopahou Reserve, home to more than 20km of undulating mountain bike trails. If you are to believe Kiwi companions, these trails are "not that difficult." However, if you are to know your Kiwi companions, you would know their habit for gross understatements; "not that difficult" means steep and narrow, so be prepared to spend most of the ride with mud on your face, shirt, shoes, and shorts. Likewise, "just 100m" is a reference to verticle climb, and can actually take up 10km of up-and-down to get there.

1) Tokaj, Hungary - Stretching along the Bodrog river, you cycle past dozens of vineyards and cellars, both large and small, passing through little towns with very long (and hard to pronounce) names. The only challenge is the language. Knowing a little Hungarian (a few words, not a petite person - although that would be helpful too) can be an asset when, say, the chain completely snaps off a long way out from a long-named town and you walk back along a highway you shouldn't have been on to begin with to the nearest cellar door to mime your issue and ask for them to call the rental company. Complimentary cellar tour and Tokaj tastings, however, make it worth all the trouble.

In spite of all these two-wheeled mishaps in their exotic locations, I am happy to say that my return to riding went without instead thereby proving the old adage that riding a bicycle is - well - as easy as riding a bicycle.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

happy thanksgardening...

Of all the Holidays we see in a year, Thanksgiving offers something special in its simplicity.  There are no pressures of gift giving, no need to celebrate with potentially dangerous explosives, no need to go against every the basic principle of "don't take candy from strangers" (evidently there is an "unless you're dressed in costume" clause in that lesson), and most important, no forced carols in every store and endless ads persuading us to give in to the true spirit of commercialism.

Without all these bells and whistles surrounding the day, Thanksgiving is simply about getting together with family and friends to enjoy a good meal. With no parable of Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock (a holiday I coin as "Yanks-giving), Canadian Thanksgiving instead celebrates the harvest; an Oktoberfest of sorts but with turkey, squash, and wine instead of bratwurst, beer, and liederhosen. In my case, although the blackberry harvest was some weeks ago, the majority of my plants are just perfect for picking now. Tomatoes, zucchinis, squash, beetroot, carrots, turnips, cabbage, beans...a bountiful harvest from a tiny plot this year indeed; a "Thanksgardening", if you will.

No matter what advertisers and carols tell you, Thanksgiving is therefore the happiest time of year because the focus is on food. It is a day where all that is required is to simply get together and enjoy a fabulous meal, be it turkey, ham, or even tofurkey. Most important, the only mandatory message at Thanksgiving is to take a moment and count the blessings you have at the table. For me, it is certainly a loving family, a warm place to live, and bountiful food that nature provides.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

guilty culinary pleasures...

On a recent business trip to Penticton, I decided to mix business with a little bit of pleasure: guilty pleasure, that is.  It is nice to treat oneself every now and then, so normally when then becomes now I like to go all out and have an excellent 3-course meal and amazing wine to match.  However, this time around I thought I would delve deeper into my primal animal hungers; hungers so deep that they rarely reveal themselves among peers yet reach such a heightened sense of satisfaction that I am reminded that guilt is part of the parcel at the onset of being baptised Catholic. I am of course talking about fast food takeout.

I am proud of many things in my life, and one of them is that even under the influences of alcohol I have not stepped foot in a McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's in almost a decade. It is therefore of great significance when I decide to have the rare fast-food dinner, and such decisions must be taken with discretion for fear of being caught. Thus being away in a small country town in a room all to myself I could indulge in the one fast-food joint that tempts my taste buds everytime I pass it: KFC.

In all its finger-licking glory, KFC is one of those comfort foods that take me back to my childhood. Always the feature at family get-togethers or nights when Dad was left to "cook", there is something about the delicate balance of 3-pieces of crispy-fried chicken, a side of fries, and flourescent green coleslaw that is so wrong yet so right. Delving deeper into my devlish indulgence, not only did I purchase my KFC through drive-thru, but I also took it back to the hotel room and ate it in bed!

Naturally, I could not go all the way and indulge in a soft drink with dinner; I do, after all, have some standards. Passing on the Pepsi, I instead paired my poultry pleasure with a Pinot Noir Rose from Sancerre. Generally known for its Sauvignon Blanc, 20% of Sancerre production is of Pinot Noir, little of which makes it to the BC market. Light in body, the crisp acidity actually worked well with fried chicken-skin, and the flavour profiles (oddly) matched quite well too. I never knew a character profile for Pinot Noir could be "flavours of strawberry, raspberry, and eleven secret herbs and spices."

As with any over indulgence, however, I found myself waking the next morning with a greasy-meat induced hangover. The lack of nutrients in the meal (the wine was likely the healthiest of the bunch) wrecked unexpected havoc on my body, and made me wonder how people could live with this type of food as part of their regular diet. All day, I craved fresh fruits and veggies, but come dinner time do you think I was off to Wholefoods?

Nope. Instead, back to more fast-food at the new and well-reviewed Burger 55 ( To be featured on Food Network's "You Gotta Eat Here!" in January, Burger 55 is an awesome, design-it-yourself burger shack in Penticton that is worth checking out. As are the fries. And curry sauce for the fries. And ample toppings. All of which is certainly healthier than KFC....but enjoyed just as much in bed with a great wine (Hess's Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon in this case).

Forgive me, Colonel, for I have sinned in thanks to your greasy goodness....and enjoyed every morsel of it!

Monday, 24 September 2012

oh sherry...

as per my previous entry, i've started this blog on my "lunch break" and will likely finish it during my "siesta." nothing too fancy for lunch today; toast with garden-fresh tomato, beets, and beet greens tossed in a balsamic-olive oil dressing, and an empanada de pino with chimichurri (everything, including the toast, is of course homemade). to go with lunch, naturally, is a glass of my favourite afternoon sipper: sherry.
higher in alcohol with a hands-on, time-tried aging system should place sherry among the best wines. unfortunately, such is not the case these days. the only connection most people may have to sherry is the sweetened, creamy style that was kept on the shelf and only served when grandmother came to the house at christmas (or worse, just used for cooking).  fortunately, i consider myself lucky to have "discovered" the joys of sherry and it is now a part of my regular drinking routine.
oddly, my first modern-day encounter with sherry was in buenos aires (hence the empanada-pairing). waking at noon from a big night out, we went to a local restaurant for "breakfast" just when government workers were released for their 4-hour lunch. before we even had the chance to order a much needed cappuccino, two glasses of fino sherry appeared at the table; a part of the meal as assumed as bread and water. not exactly a sunday morning caeser, but the sherry-hair of the dog worked well, but it took a few more years before it became a routine.
flash-forward to 2009 and a visit to jerez de la frontera: the heart of sherry. here, in the spring sunshine nibbling on tapas with a fino or in the evenings nibbling on tapas with an oloroso, sherry suddenly made sense. as in buenos aires, sherry is as much a great companion to a meal as any table wine. the sweet, granny-style sherries are only a small fragment of the more common and delicate dry sherries. without getting into further detail about the winemaking process, here is a simple way to remember your styles of sherry:
fino (FEE-no) = pale lemon in colour with a green olive/almond-like flavour
amontillado (ah-mon-tee-YA-doh) = pale amber in colour with a hazelnut-like flavour
oloroso (oh-loh-ROH-soh) = deeper amber in colour with a toasted walnut-like flavour
such has been the impact of sherry in my life that a near-daily snack for me is what i call my "sherry-mix"; a nutty mix of almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts with some yogurt covered raisins (they represent sweet sherries). which reminds me: now that lunch is finished, it is siesta time, but a handful of almonds with the remaining drops of fino sherry will certainly ease the transition.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

home office...

my trip to qatar postponed, i am in the unique situation of being quasi-employed. i don't have a real job per se, but the contracting company for qatar has supplied me with some projects. there are no deadlines on these projects, which means i am paid when they are completed. most important, the majority of these projects can be completed from right here: my "home office."
a few years ago, i mentioned to a friend that it must be nice to be able to work from home. in turn, she said it takes an incredible amount of discipline and that i would likely not do well because i would miss working with others. now that i am in the situation, i admit she was half-right; it does take an incredible amount of discipline, but i don't miss working with others. if anything, i've had time to reflect that despite years of middle management and leading teams, in the end the only thing i miss is being able to tell people what to do. in this capacity, i'm much more suited to being a teacher ("you may open your exams when i say so") or a consultant ("impliment these wines to improve your list because i say so").
to go back to the point on discipline, working from a home office is indeed very challenging.  with so many distractions around me in my home, i like to think i have adapted quite well to a strict routine that enables me to make the most of my day. the following is an example of a typical day at the wtf-winetravelfood home offices:
9.00: wake up (no alarm; my internal clock seems to like to wake up then)
9.00 - 9.55: breakfast (this generally invovles 2 cups of coffee with scrambled eggs and toast or muslix and yogurt with fresh blackberries. pancakes occasionally appear if i've been good)
9.55 - 10.00: clean up and turn tv off.
10.00: commute to work
10.00.03: arrive at "the office" (a significantly improved commute than 90 minutes on public transportation. nb: i'm still in pj's)
10.00 - 12.00: office work. laptop is on, nothing else allowed.
12.00 - 1.00: errands. (mostly grocery shopping, and doubles as exercise since i walk)
1.00 - 2.00: lunch break (sandwiches lately, accompanied by a glass of sherry)
2.00 - 3.00: siesta (i've always wanted to work that into my rythm, and now i can!)
3.00 - 4.00: gardening (harvesting, weeding, digging, pruning, mowing...whatever is needed)
4.00 - 5.00: housecleaning (a project i've been working on for a few weeks and i swear i have never seen my place look so white. i never knew i had such an obsession for cleanliness...)
5.00 - 7.00: prep, cook, and eat dinner. decanting a wine may be involved. (Conn Creek 2008 Napa Cab with Kofta-burgers topped with Provalone and Chimichurri was the most recent meal)
7.00 - 10.00: evening office hours. i loved the long afternoon breaks in spain and argentina (which perhaps inspired the chimichurri yesterday). (nb: office closes at 8 on wednesdays...a new season of survivor is on)
10.00 - 11.00: down time, which usually involves a crossword puzzle and some tv.
11.00: lights out.

so, there are my hours. embracing the body's naturaly rythm (which seems to enjoy sleep and little actual work) has been wonderful, and i can't wait to impliment this in doha.
it's noon now. time to start those errands!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

jammin' with bob marley...

i like to think that like most of my tastes in life, my choices in music are rather ecclectic. in fact, i sometimes wonder if the reason i rarely ever have music is because tv was my babysitter or because i have the karaoke skills of a dying horse. nonetheless, when i do make the strenuous effort to find a cd (yes, i still use those), it must be the perfect choice to match the mood. the other day, a bob marley collection was just such the choice.
unlike some of my peers "back in the day," my appreciation for bob marley did not stem from some of the benefits associated with the rastafarian lifestyle. i do, however, give an "i-rey mahn" to mr. marley for introducing the world to the smooth island reggae rythms; a unique achievement for an artist in a third world country.  furthermore, like early hip-hop and rap artists, this was accompanied by poetic songwriting that inspired listners to sing their songs of freedom, stand up for their rights, or simply sooth a woman to no cry.
for me, however, my choice of bob marley the other day was not because i wanted to remember how i used to sit in the government yard in trenchtown. rather, both the title of a song and my acitivity for day share the same theme: "jamming."
yes, it was time for the annual blackberry harvest (about a month late this year), which means i spend several days picking pounds of blackberries and turning them into a year's supply of jam.  not only is reggae great background music to sorting through the bushes in late-summer sunshine, but "jamming" is a heck of alot of fun to sing along to as sterilised jam jars sit waiting for blackberries and sugar to reduce into a thick syrup. stirring the pot while belting out "i'm jammin. Jammin. JAMmin. JAMMIN! i hope you like jammin' too.." is both relaxing and motivating; i think it improves the flavour of the jam.
beyond this chorus, i only recently noticed how prophetic bob marley was in regards to seasonal jams. in particular:
"We're jamming - To think that jamming was a thing of the past..."
this speaks to how jamming (and for that matter, canning too) is on a recent upswing as people rediscover a dying culinary skill that is so easy to do, and is so much better when using fresh fruit for your own consumption. and to follow that line:
"We're jamming - and I hope this jam is gonna last"

in this case, I feel the very same way each year I make my 3 dozen jars of jam. A single guy on his own can only have so much toast for breakfast (although it makes a nice topping for yogurt or base sauce for pancakes), but I still feel I have to ration jam for both consumption and for gift-giving; I have to assess each day and each person as "jam-worthy." A few lines later:
"...neither can be bought nor sold."
while the reference is to how humans can be neither bought nor sold, it's also a good summary of making jam from your garden. blackberries grow like weeds here, so no need to buy some. jam made in a home kitchen without any food safety inspection cannot be sold, so why not share it with everyone?
oh, bob marley, how sad to have lost your genius so soon. who knows what you could've done for dehydrating, pickling, or breadmaking? to honour you, i guess it is only appropriate i download "jamming" to my blackberry.

Friday, 7 September 2012

the next top chopped iron chef star white rock...

one thing that needs to be addressed before i leave is clearing out my fridge and pantry.  if tv is to be believed (and why should we ever doubt tv?), canadians throw away half of the food they purchase. since i don't want to become just another statistic, i am doing what i can to use every last scrap of fresh, frozen, and dried ingredient so as not to let anything go to waste. the problem is, i have so many ingredients that i have lost track of what i actually have until i dig through the cupboards. as a result, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner has become a challenge. to put the positive into preparing a a meal, i liken each to any given food network challenge.

the one show that seems to be the most relevant is "chopped." for the uninitiated, the premise of "chopped" is contestants are given a closed basket that contains 4 mystery, and generally clashing, ingredients. chefs need to create a dish that must incorporate these 4 random ingredients, progressing from appetiser to main and finally dessert.

this premise in mind, opening the fridge, freezer, or cupboard door is akin to when chefs open their mystery baskets; i am forced to create from the forgotten resources i have presented myself with. this may require a quick jaunt to the market to get a protein (i don't exactly have the luxury of a fully-equipped kitchen brought to me by today's sponsor), but it is a fun challenge nonetheless. instead of the 3 courses presented on "chopped," my challenges revolve around each of the day's meals. below is one such episode of my life as the food network's next top chopped iron chef star:

Mystery Ingredients: Canned Pumpkin, Dried Strawberries, Triple Sec, and Greek Yogurt.
Winning Dish: Breakfast Sopaipillas in a Honey-Triple Sec glaze topped with Yogurt and Dried Strawberries.
     Sopaipillas (so-pie-PEE-yas) are a Chilean pumpkin-based fritter that can be served as either a savoury or a sweet.  in this case, i combined the canned pumpkin with flour, shortening to form a dough that i then pan-fried. once removed, i heated some honey in the frying pan, added some triple sec and the dried strawberries to create a sauce i then poured over the sopaipilla, topping off with a dollop of yogurt. yum!

Mystery Ingredients: Quinoa, Eggs, Beet Greens, and Tahini.
Winning Dish: Vegan Quinoa Nicoise Salad in a Goma-ae Dressing
     Quinoa is an Andean grain that makes an excellent choice for a side dish, as an alternative to oatmeal, or in this case, as a base for a salad. Being both high in starch and in protein, quinoa takes the place of both the tuna and potato in thiss Nicoise Salad. Add hard boiled egg, chopped beetroot greens, some pinenuts, garden fresh green beands, and top off with a tahini-based goma-ae dressing. (A previous entry will give you the recipe for that!)

Mystery Ingredients: Turkey Bacon, Pickled Beets, Horseradish, Boxed Red Wine (shock! horror!)
Winning Dish: Beet and Horseradish stuffed Rouladen in a paprika-spiced red wine reduction
     Rouladen is a traditional German beef dish whereby strips of bacon are placed over strips of beef, stuffed with mustard, pickles, and onions. Substituting pickles (they were mouldy) with pickled beets and enhancing the mustard with horseradish, this sushi of the beef world is then marinated in a broth of red wine, chicken stock, and hot Hungarian paprika. Elbow macaroni served as a nice accompaniment to sop up the spicy reduction, and more garden-fresh green beans as every good dinner needs a bit of green.

in other words, just another day in my own food network world!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Brunches, Gardens, and Chenin Blanc...

This past Sunday, a friend and I were invited to enjoy a summer's brunch at the home of mutual friends. The invitation was just part of a plot to get ust help with weeding their garden plot, but the upside was we were to each supply a bottle of wine to enjoy during brunch and break-time. By complete coincidence, each of us supplied a bottle of Chenin Blanc! What more, the day's selection of Chenin Blanc were each from different regions and represented completely different styles!

Chenin Blanc is a white grape that finds its traditional home in the Loire Valley of France. Signature traits of Chenin Blanc are relatively neutral aromatics that develop into honeycomb and baked apples with age, sharp acidity, relatively low alcohol, and a slightly oily texture. Like Riesling, the sweetness of a Chenin Blanc can vary from year to year and from region to region, and as such can offer quality wines suited as a bubbly aperitif, a compliment to a main course, or as a sweet finish to a meal. Our three-course Chenin Blanc tasting went as follows:

Sparkling Chenin Blanc
In its classic home of the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc is sometimes blended with Sauvignon Blanc for a fresh, traditional method sparkling wine called Cremant de la Loire. (A "Cremant de" anything indicates a Champagne-style sparkling wine from other regions of France such as the Loire, Burgundy, or Alsace). Inspired by the Loire, New World producers can also use Chenin Blanc to bring acidity to their bubbles and blend with more traditional grapes like Chardonnay. In our case, the sparkling Chenin from Road 13 was the perfect choice to not only toast my upcoming adventure, but also paired perfectly with the brunch buffet of eggs benedict, turkey bacon, rosemary-roasted potatoes, fresh-baked zucchini bread with homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam, and garden-fresh strawberries, raspberries, and  blackberries.
Chenin Blanc - France
The Loire is France's longest river, and is neatly divided into different wine regions according to the grapes grown. In the heart of the Loire we find the appellations of Vouvray and Saumur, home to France's finest Chenin Blanc. As with many other classic French regions, weather patterns deeply impact the vintage of Chenin Blanc resulting in some years with bone dry wines, others with off-dry. High quality sweet wines are also common from the small appellations further east of Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume. For thirsty gardeners, this was a much better way to call us back for a break than a pitcher of lemonade.
Chenin Blanc - New World
Regarded as one of the finest French white grapes, Chenin Blanc does not have the international reputation of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Riesling. The exception to this rule is South Africa where Chenin Blanc, localy called Steen, is by far the most widely planted white grape. Here, Chenin Blanc forms the base for bulk wines and for brandy distillation, but older vines produce among South Africa's finest aged whites. Elsewhere, cooler climates in California or our own BC produce some excellent Chenin Blanc as well. After 2 rounds of Chenin, the more fruit-forward and lightly oaked South African Chenin Blanc was a welcome way to finish a day's weeding on a late summer's afternoon.

I therefore hereby declare Chenin Blanc the official wine of the 2012 Garden Season!


Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Pacific Northwest Meets the Middle East

Earlier this week, I held my last in-store tasting event. For the past 2.5 years, I've held themed events at my store that combine wines from my travels to different regions paired with locally-inspired cuisine. Some of it is as authentic as I can get (eg. empanadas with Argentine Malbec, green-lipped mussels with NZ Sauvignon Blanc, tarte flambee with Alsatian Riesling), while others are sometimes a bit of a stretch (ostrich loin in a smoked blueberry reduction with Australian Shiraz). Deciding on the theme of "Road Trip Through BC," the selected wines were intended to showcase varietals that show great potential for further growth in our wine industry. Food pairing, however, I was a bit stuck; why go through the effort of creating a BC tapas extravaganza when anyone can have their choice of BC cuisine within blocks of the store?

Instead, I decided on a menu that showcased my wine "roots" here in BC as paired with the culinary delights of where I am going in a few short weeks; a sort of Pacific Northwest meets the Middle East.  Using fresh ingredients from my garden (zucchini, cabbage, parsely) is about as BC as I got, but everyone seemed to enjoy the eccelctic mix of tapas one would not normally expect to pair with wine. Which is the point of these events: to challenge yourself to try something different.

Below is a list copied from our website of the wines I poured as well as the different tapas intended to go with each wine:
Cedar Creek Ehrenfelser 2011
Originally from Germany, Ehrenfelser and other Germanic grapes such as Riesling made their way because our latitude and general temperature is similar to Germany. With some of the oldest Ehrenfelser vines, the Cedar Creek Ehrenfelser is a lovely balanced off-dry wine that is perfect for a summer patio. 
Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2011
In Europe, Pinot Blanc is generally used for bulk or sparkling wine production and is not regarded as a high-quality grape. Here in BC, wineries such as Blue Mountain treat Pinot Blanc with great care, resulting in a wine that is medium-full bodied, crisp, and with a hint of creaminess from lees aging.
Tapa Pairing: Krumb Mahshy (Egyptian Cabbage Rolls) - stuffed with rice and a herbaceous blend of parsely, cilantro, and dill, Egyptian Cabbage Rolls are simmered in a broth of lemon and olive oil. The creamy texture from the lees-aged Pinot Blanc balances the texture of the rolls.
Stag's Hollow Viognier 2010
The latitude of the Okanagan may be the same as Germany, but the extreme summer heat is more reflective of the Rhone Valley. Hence, white Rhone grapes such as Viognier do very well in our climate. The Stag's Hollow offers consistent Viogniers that have a velvety palate with notes of white peaches and avocado; a perfect representation of BC Viognier.
Tapa Pairing: Ricotta-stuffed Zucchini Rolls - BC Viognier always makes me think of an California roll, so I modified this to include garden-fresh zucchini filled with homemade ricotta cheese and pinenuts.
Averill Creek Pinot Grigio 2010
As we know, Pinot Grigio is all the rage these days, and the Averill Creek shows how a Pinot Grigio can be more than just a simple sipper. Fuller in body with a lovely notes of stone fruit, citrus, and minerality, it is also great to see a wine of such quality from the Cowichan Valley.
Tapa Pairing: Ta'amiyya (aka. Falafel) - Proper ta'amiyya should be so full of parsely, cilantro, and dill that the chickpea batter is bright green; a perfect flavour profile to match a zesty and herbaceous Pinot Grigio.
Nichol Vineyards Pinot Gris 2010
A new trend in Pinot Gris has emerged in the Naramata. If left on the vines long enough, the skin of the Pinot Gris will develop a pinkish-hue. Rarely seen anywhere else, Naramata wineries such as Nichol and Kettle Valley have excelled at creating a white wine that is salmon-pink in colour with balanced notes of pears and strawberries.
Mistaken Identity Pinot Noir Rose 2011
Salt Spring Island is part of the Gulf Islands Wine Region and has a reputation of organic, locally grown produce. In the case of Mistaken Identity, certified organic and biodynamic Pinot Noir is sourced from Island vineyards to create this lovely Rose.
Arrowleaf Pinot Noir 2010 & Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir 2008
At around 200km in length, the climate of the Okanagan is very diverse, ranging from cool in the north to a hot desert in the south. This flight of Pinot Noir exemplified how climate can impact wine. Based near Vernon, the Arrowleaf Pinot Noir is light in body and colour with notes of strawberries and sour cherries. From the south near Oliver, the Pinot Noir from Tinhorn Creek is darker in colour, fuller in body, and richer in flavours of dark cherry and smokey spice. Two different styles, two great Pinots in their own right.
Poplar Grove Cabernet Franc 2008
Always the supporting role in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc only shows itself on its own in the Loire Valley - and increasingly so in BC. Our short growing season makes it difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen properly, but Cabernet Franc shows great potential at becoming our signature red. Poplar Grove's Cab-Franc shows how great this potential can be.
Tapa Pairing: Buffalo Kifta (Meatballs) - The same trilogy of herbs as above (parsely, cilantro, dill) are blended with the ground buffalo meat and bound together by bulgher (cracked wheat), which makes for a more delicate and moist burger patty. Cabernet Franc tends to have a herbaceous flavour to it, and was thus the right choice for this tapa.
Burrowing Owl Syrah 2009
As mentioned above with Viognier, the desert climate of the south Okanagan is great for producing wines typical of the Northern Rhone Valley. There, Syrah is the king of red wines, and shows continued growth in quality in the Okanagan. Everyone loves "The Owl," and the full-bodied, spicy, balanced Syrah is another great example of the potential of BC Syrah.

I suppose the next step is when in Doha, I will have to recreate this theme by matching BC-inspired tapas with local beverages. I'm not sure, however, how well a White Spot Pirate Pack will pair with karkade tea...

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Putting Pride in Cooking...

Recently, Vancouver celebrated its cultural and sexual diversity by hosting the annual Pride Parade. Considered one of the largest in North America with over 1-million crammed into the downtown core, which is pretty big considering there are only about 2-million in Greater Vancouver. Although I take pride in my acceptance of all people great and small, I just don't like them all crammed into one place. Thus, I take an annual pass on the Pride Parade and instead have a small BBQ in White Rock to watch the little fireworks display to mark our own Festival of the Sea.

Perhaps I watch too much Food Network, (and will eventually be the Next Food Network Star), but this year I thought to issue my own cooking challenge as one might see on "Top Chef:" to create a menu that reflects the rainbow colours of the Gay/Lesbian/etc Community flag (or, if you're South American, the Inca flag. They are one in the same, so an Inca in Vancouver might be in for a surprise should he or she visit a marked establishment on Davie Street. Likewise, if you're gay in Cuzco). "Drawing knives" as they do on such shows to determine who has which theme, I drew each of the 6 colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple (I passed on indigo) to inspire my meal. Here are the resulting dishes:

Red: Grilled Lamb with Romesco
The red meat that is lamb is quite obvious, but a romesco sauce is a classic Catalunian dish made of roast tomatoes and red peppers, bound together with toasted hazelnuts, oregano, olive oil, and lots of Spanish paprika.

Orange: Citrus Di Gua Fan
Di Gua Fan is a traditional Taiwanese rice dish made of coconut milk and yams. Adding a bit of orange juice into the broth and some carrots to boot helped boost the orange colour.

Yellow: Seafood Pacri Nenas
Pacri Nenas is an Indonesian curry I learned to make at a day-long cooking class in Bali many years ago. Fresh (not tinned!) pineapple is the key, and lots of tumeric helps make this a vibrant sweet and spicy summer curry. Adding prawns and squid during the last 10 minutes adds some extra protein as well.

Green: Chicken with Chimichurri
Hard to find a meat that is naturally green, so a bit of Argentine chimichurri will help add colour to any grilled meat. Simple to make, just blend together lots of cilantro, some parsely, olive oil, onion, and garlic, with a dash of cayenne for spice. Done.

Blue: Blueberry Clafoutis
Blueberries are in season here in BC, and down the road there are plenty of fresh blueberry farms to shop from. A clafoutis is a cross between a custard and a cake, using mostly egg and milk and only a little flour.

Purple: Purple Goma-ae Coleslaw
My original plan for purple was to do a purple potato salad. The fun in this is that potatoes originate in Peru, so a purple potato salad would've been the perfect play on Pride and the Inca flags. However, no purple potatoes in market now, so I substituted it with a purple cabbage coleslaw in a goma-ae dressing. Goma-ae is my favourite Japanese dressing, made essentially of ground sesame and rice vinegar.

In the end, I was proud of my Pride menu. Putting pride and love into your food is also a key factor in elevating the same dish from good to excellent; you can really taste the difference when you put your heart into it. A meal made to impress any Food Network challenge judge for sure, and paired perfectly with what else but a glass of rose! Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc Rose 2011 to be exact.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Importance of a Thank You...

If there is one thing you can say about my resume it's that it is ecclectic. While wine has been the focus of my career the past few years, my record of employment can be interpreted as having little focus. Restaurant management, live-to-air cooking show, heliski sales rep, hotel front desk clerk, and English teacher are some of the jobs that appear over the past decade or so of full-time employment.  The education portion of the resume would also seem to have little to do with my current employment. Yes, I have a WSET diploma but that does not seem to follow from a bilingual BA in History with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, including a semester abroad in Cairo. While my linguistic abilities in French and Spanish are an asset in the world of wine, I can't say that Japanese and Arabic have much to do with wine production. Travel to 39 countries (that's more than 1 per year of my life) and calling 5 of them "home" at some point also indicates a wanderlust that prospective employers may regard as "antsy." If only there were some job out there that combined the best this olio of employment has to offer. If only.....

...Well, it turns out there is, and I am thrilled that you have read this far to learn about my new job. I have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to teach WSET Levels 1 - 3  on a 6-month contract through Fine Vintage Ltd. ( in.....wait for it.....Qatar! As it turns out, a semester abroad in Cairo, a Diploma in Wine Studies, 3 years of teaching English in Japan (and having your own cooking show), travel to many wine regions, and an indominably quirky personality can come together when the moment is right. The thread of my life's experience has finally come together to sew the perfect position for me, and I am fully prepared to take on this amazing challenge.

I should mention how this all came about. First, Fine Vintage is the Vancouver-bases institute where I completed my Levels 2 & 3 studies back in 2006. About a year ago, I contacted the company offering my skills as an Educator, quoting a Japanese proverb passed on to my by my Kendo sensei: "Any horse can run a thousand miles, but only a select few can teach a horse to do so." Meaning, I may not have graduated top of my class, but I have the necessary skills to inspire and share my knowledge. Since early this year, I have volunteered to sit in on many sessions in order to learn from the best in the business, and it seems this dedication has paid off.

Best in the business indeed, as I should also point out that Fine Vintage Ltd. is the current Riedel Trohpy-holder as best WSET Education the world!!! Owned by one of Canada's four Masters of Wine, it is a humble honour to have been selected into this role. In fact, the Owner was my instructor at these Levels and upon receiving my application, remembered my quirky personality and determination to pursue a career in Wine Education. What more, he remembered a Thank You e-mail I sent after completing Level 2, highlighting how much I enjoyed the classes.

Which goes to show you; a little thank you can go a long, long way... 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Tartar Build-up...

Today, I had the joy of visiting the dentist for the first time in several years.  I'm happy to report that overall, the check-up revealed that my teeth are in good condition for someone who is (and I use the dentists' words exactly) "young and healthy like yourself." Of course, no visit is perfect so one thing I must focus on is softer toothbrushes in order to have a better handle at my receding gumline. All in all, not that bad as better brushing can reverse receding gums; no amount of hair care can reverse the effects of a receding hairline. I'll take my ultra-soft toothbrush with pride, thank you.

Another thing that came up was the amount of tartar build-up that has accumulated since my last visit 3 - 4 years ago (most likely 5, but I didn't say that). One hour of polishing, scraping, and spitting and only my bottom teeth (with junior-high-aged retainer still in place) are now squeeky clean. Litterally squeeky clean as the hygenist demonstrated smoothed-out teeth (no squeeky sound) versus not-yet cleaned teeth (a mini nail-on-chalkboard sound) with her picks and drills. 

As I lay in the chair going over the rest of the day's plans (visit with friends, grocery shopping, gardening), an inspired meal from the heavens descended upon me. (In hindsight, it was likely more the shine of the dentist's lamp than heavenly beams that blinded me at the time of inspiration). If my teeth have that much tartar build-up, why not treat my teeth to a totally tartar dinner?

First, the tartar meat. As I am hesitant to prepare and serve myself completely raw red meat, I opted for fresh albacore tuna steak. The marinade was a combo of what to me would naturally go with tuna (Japanese ingredients: soy, salt, sesame oil) and my mojito of the moment (lime, sugar, rum), with a bit of ground ginger in honour of my slight growth of gingivitis (sp?). Marinade 1 hour, grill to sear outer edges and serve.

Next, the sauce for my tuna tartar could only be homemade tartare sauce, right? Tartare sauce is essentially mayonnaise flavoured with fresh dill, parsely, and chopped cornichons. Store-bought mayonnaise pales in comparison with homemade, and making your own mayonnaise is so easy: 1 egg yolk for 1/2 cup olive oil and 1 tbsp lemon juice (vinegar or lime juice also good), with some salt for flavour. Whisk gradually and voi-la! You'll never buy Hellman's again!

Serve tartare sauce over cubed tuna tartar with rice and kale (which was stir-fried in the leftover marinade), and you have a dish perfect to celebrate your tartar-free teeth with! The perfect wine-pair for this meal was a Cab-Franc rose from BC's own Tinhorn Creek, but any dry rose would do fine.

When enjoying this tartar-inspired meal, don't forget to say "aah!"

Friday, 27 July 2012

Atop the Wine Podium...

With the start of the Olympics this weekend, you may reflect on what it takes for a wine to be granted a Gold, Silver, or Bronze medal in any given wine competition. Or what more, how does a wine achieve a score such as 92 points (of 100) or 18.5 (of 20)? How can a $20 wine score higher than a $70 wine? While the worlds of wine and sport may appear to be different, parallel bars do exist between judging sport and wine.
As we all know, wine is enjoyed by everyone on a subjective matter, so there is nothing in the absolute terms as the best wine as we would see a fastest runner, highest jumper, or strongest weightlifter. Instead, like judges of gymnastics or synchronised swimming, wine judges are trained to be able to discern the fundamental elements of the wine before them and rate accordingly. Formal wine tasting is divided into appearance, nose, palate, and conclusions. Points are assigned in each category. With regards to conclusions, for example, the acronym B.L.I.C.E. is a good way to determine a wine's overall rating: Balance (are all the parts in harmony?); Length(how long do the flavours last?); Intensity (how well can you detect the flavours?); Complexity (how many flavours are going on?); Expression (is the wine indicative of the grape(s) and region?). Score well on each of these elements and your wine may be in the running for a gold medal.

As above, however, how can a much less expensive wine score significantly higher than a much more expensive wine? An explanation for this can be found in such sports as boxing or wrestling. No one expects a featherweight to be able to take on a heavyweight, so a $15 bottle of wine is not expected to outclass a $50. As such, each price range can be related to a weightclass; gold medal winners show the best for their respective range. Likewise, as distances have separate competitions on the track, different categories exist for each varietal or blend. In this way, Rieslings will be judged on their own merit and not against a grape of completely different style, like Chardonnay.

The fun thing with my training and occupation is that I can play the role of Wine judge on a daily basis. On average, about 10 wines will pass my palate and I get to decide (along with my peers) which wines pass the test and get listed. My own Olympic tasting record is 100 wines (exactly) in one day. Like a marathon, it took lots of training and pacing in order to achieve not only the goal of getting through the wines but also to taste and judge effectively. Of that group, only a dozen or so reached the heights of gold with a few silvers and bronzes; most were eliminated in the qualifying heats.

I'm certainly not the Olympic athelete in the family (that's my cousin - as my Mum pointed out, I'm the smart one), but I could always represent as an Olympic wine judge. A tough job, but someone has to do it. Wh


Thursday, 19 July 2012

When Everything Old World is New Again...


In the world of wine, the term "Old World" refers to wines from Europe and "New World" refers to everywhere else (Canada, Australia, Chile, South Africa...). As with our societies, grapes made their way from their homelands in Europe to the vineyards of the New World. In turn, the grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling are the standards of fine wine in both Worlds, likewise are winemaking styles such as Port and Sherry.

Yet beyond the borders of France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal, some regions winemaking traditions that predate most of what we consider "Old." Modern countries such as Greece, Turkey, and the Republic of Georgia have centuries of traditional wine styles using a host of indigenous grapes that rarely leave their homelands. Little-known grapes like Agiorgitiko (Greece), Bogazkere (Turkey), and Saperavi (Georgia) are consumed locally but are also capable of producing red wines of a quality that can rival "classic" regions of Europe.

Within this "Ancient World" of wine producers are also countries who are new to the modern wine world but have a wine culture that dates back centuries. Holy Land countries like Israel and Lebanon are home to some of today's best labels and wine styles. Chateau Musar of Lebanon is famous for its unique Bordeaux-inspired red blends. Israel has also gained an international reputation for quality wines, with or without Kosher designation. In both these cases, "Old World" grapes have made their way to Ancient lands that produced wine long before Europe had its first vines.

While I have yet to visit the wineries in this part of the world (and I stress "yet" - a wine tour of Georgia would be fun!), these wines are are very food friendly and are the perfect match for ethnic dishes of the same area. Roasting an herb crusted lamb? I did last week and had an Agiorgitiko (the "g" is pronounced like a "y" - yes, it's all Greek to me too). Want to revisit the multi-cultural mezze I made a few weeks back? A Calkarasi/Bogazkere blend from Turkey is a perfect Pinot Noir substitute. Caviar on crackers? Well, maybe a bit too rich for my blood, but Rkatsitali-whites are surprisingly great sushi wines.

It's just a summary of a long overlooked wine region of the world, but remember that every wine journey begins with a single sip.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A Libation for the Nation

If you happened upon my store last Friday, you may have had the chance to sample a caipirinha. Made with lime, sugar, and a rum-like spirit called cachaca, the caipirinha is the national drink of Brazil and is cosumed everywhere by most everyone. This led me to think if Brazil has its caipirinha, Chile its pisco sour, and Cuba its mojito, as Canadians this Canada Day, what would be our national libation? If we were to go Rio, would we pour the Brazilians a Tim Horton's double double?
The first libation that comes to mind that has intenational recognition is, without a doubt, our icewines. Consistently cold winters, strict regulations, and quality grapes such as Riesling or Vidal make the icewines of BC and Ontario our "signature wine." Amazing as these wines are, how many of us as Canadians have icewine on a regular basis? Furthermore, dry table wines from Chardonnay to Shiraz have won international competitions, but we've yet to highlight a single varietal as our "national wine."

Despite the successes of our wine industry, beer remains the overall libation of choice across the country. However, with the growth of the craft brew culture, gone are the days when 2 - 3 domestic brands dominated our market. Instead, we now have a plethora of styles and flavours produced in small batches suited to the local markets. For example, we here in BC love our beer hoppy, so IPAs and ESBs are the dominant style. Further east, a pale ale suits the palate fine. Not to mention the great seasonal variety of summery hefeweizens and wintery spiced ales and everything in between makes it difficult to pick just one style of beer reflecive of the Canadian palate.

Speaking of regionality, the choice of favoured spirit also changes from province to province. The vast fields of the Prairies make rye whiskies the prerred drink in Alberta and Saskatchewan. On the other hand, trade routes dating back centuries have resulted in rum being the top spirit in Newfoundland.

In the end, as unifying as a caiprinha may be for Brazilians, I think the lack of one "libation for the nation" celebrates the diversity of our Canadian community. From pyroghies to poutine, this July 1st, raise a glass to Canada's National Libation: whatever it is you choose!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Are You a Viognier Virgin?...

It can be argued that the rise of the popularity of Pinot Grigio came about as a reaction to the popularity of Chardonnay. Big oaky and butter was replaced with light, crisp, and refreshing whites; a perfect pair for the patio or with a light meal. Over the past year, however, we've seen a trend towards "the new white:" Viognier. While Pinot Grigio still remains the favourite white in our market, the popularity of Viognier is starting to take off.

If you are a Viognier virgin, the first thing to point out is probably how to pronounce it: vee-oh-nyeh. The traditional home of vee-oh-nyeh is the Rhone Valley of France, where it is often on its own in the north or blended with other varietals in the south (namely Roussane and Marsanne - good names for twin girls, by the way). One unique aspect of Viognier from the northern Rhone is that it is one of the very few white grapes to be blended with a red grape, in this case Syrah. As a result, Australian winemakers have become quite adept at offering delicious Shiraz-Viognier blends.

On its own, however, Viognier offers the weight and texture of a Chardonnay but a fresh and attractive palate like a Pinot Grigio. Typically, Viognier has a lilac-honeysuckle florality to it balanced by herbaceous undertones. Be forewarned, though, that as a warm climate white the alcohol levels of a Viognier tend to be around 13 to 14%!  Outside of France, Viognier grows well in areas that share a similar hot, dry climate as the Rhone Valley: Chile, Australia, California, and even here in British Columbia.

Of course, no article on this blog would be complete without a food recommendation. What inspired me to write this entry was my dinner the other night. I accidentally thawed turkey cutlets instead of beef, and feeling a bit middle-eastern I grilled the turkey in a Morrocan-inspired marinade (tumeric is the key, but don't forget your 5 c's: cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cilantro). The florality of my Chilean Viognier stood up well against the spicey complexity of the marinade, and the full-body/high-alcohol stood up to the intensity of flavour that comes with grilled meats.

In the end, I've had my share of Viognier before (sometimes on its own, sometimes blended with friends), but in this case, it was nice to loose my Viognier virginity once again.