Every couple of weeks, my wife and I make one of our favorite meals. It’s called clean out the fridge. We like to think of it as our own little Iron Chef challenge. Over the years we have had some epic wins and a few (but not too many) glorious fails. But that’s the cost of trying something new and different. This last round turned out to be such a win that we decided to recreate it for some friends for supper club.
It all started with some mushrooms and leeks that were slowly dying in the fridge and were excess from some soup we made earlier in the week. While rummaging through the pantry for some dried pasta, we found a package of ready-to-boil gnocchi. Not ideal, but still pretty good.
Our dinner began to come together. We started by sautéing the mushrooms and leeks, sweating some garlic, then de-glazing the pan with that handy bottle of white wine we keep around. Next, we added a little chicken stock to make a light broth for the gnocchi and let that simmer for a few minutes. Now we could have stopped here, but we still had some great condiments left in the fridge: sour cream, horseradish, Dijon. We mixed together a light horseradish sauce and seasoned with some fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt. Only thing left to do was cook the gnocchi in some boiling water, add them to the mushroom broth and finish with a dollop of the cream sauce.
When we recreated this dish for friends, we served the gnocchi with a few slices of whole roasted pork tenderloin and some braised red cabbage. Paired with a medium to full-bodied dry white wine, it was quite the impromptu dining experience.
What’s your biggest “clean out the fridge” success? Share it with me here in the comments.
Winter weight. No, I’m not talking about the inevitable expansion of your waistline from being stuck inside during this brutal Chicago weather. I’m talking about the natural trend of drinking fuller bodied, weightier wines during the colder months. The weight, or body of wine, refers to how thick the wine feels in your mouth.
The short and easy guide to pairing is: the lighter the wine, the lighter the food and the heavier the wine, the heavier the food, and vice versa. I like to pair my food to my wine. If I’m in the mood for a Cabernet Sauvignon, guess what Honey? We are having steak for dinner.
Un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are two of the most common lighter bodied wines. Think of warm summers with all the tropical notes of a California or Australian Sauvignon Blanc paired with grilled chicken and fruit salsa: very light, crisp and refreshing. Not exactly something you crave when it is -1 outside. As you move up in body and weight, you come across oaked Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnays and big German Rieslings. These wines feel thicker and lusher on the palette. Typically, fuller white wines are paired with rich cream sauces, seafood or pork.
For red wine, Beaujolais and Pinot Noir are the most widely known light body wines. Pinot Noir is light enough in body and flavor that it can be paired with richer seafood, but also compliments mushrooms, cheeses and duck. Scrolling down the wine list, we come across Barbera and Merlot. These are middle ground wines. Barbera, with its high acidity, pairs with tomato-based Italian fare, such as Italian beef stew. Merlot, with its lower tannins and dark fruit notes, pairs with leaner meats and dark chocolates. At the end of the list, and my winter favorites, are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. These are big, rich wines that will stand up to the boldest of flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon, with its high tannins, needs fatty meats to balance it out. Braised short ribs or ribeye steaks are the my favorites. Syrah, which originated in the south of France where deer and wild boar have been hunted for hundreds of year, pairs well with wild game.
A full-bodied Syrah doesn’t sound refreshing when it is 95 degrees outside with blistering humidity. On the other hand, rosé and grilled Tuna Nicoise would be perfect. Right now, a glass of Hedges Syrah with braised lamb shanks sound absolutely delightful. The richness of the tomato broth and the lamb will balance perfectly with the wine.
Here is one of my favorite recipes for braised lamb shanks and if you manage not to eat them all the first day, they are even better the next day.
1 (750 milliliter) bottle red wine, preferably from the Rhone Valley
1 (28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with juice
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups beef stock
5 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Sprinkle shanks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy large pot (I use my Le Creuset French Oven which happen to be 20% off in January) over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook shanks until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Don’t rush this part! Transfer shanks to the upside down lid, which saves you dirtying up a plate.
Add onions, carrots and garlic to pot and sauté until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in wine, tomatoes, chicken stock and beef stock. Season with rosemary and thyme. Return shanks to pot, pressing down to submerge. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover, and simmer until meat is tender, about 2 hours.
Remove cover from pot. Simmer about 20 minutes longer. Transfer shanks to platter, place in a warm oven. Boil juices in pot until thickened, about 15 minutes. Spoon over shanks. Serve with oven roasted potatoes or polenta.
What food do you like to pair with weightier winter wines?
When opportunity knocks, you answer. A recent series of events like an extra plane ticket, a few days of vacation and a hotel special was the perfect opportunity to take a quick weekend getaway to Charleston, South Carolina. A little southern hospitality and whole lot of great restaurants turned the weekend into a mini culinary adventure.
With a few recommendations from Mike of The Chopping Block’s events team, a recent Charleston transplant, my wife and I were off and running. Starting at the Market Pavilion across from the Customs House, they have one of the best roof top decks in the city. The view of the “Double Diamonds” bridge at sunset is spectacular, although a little deceiving. An old building law dating back to who knows when states that no building can be taller than the church steeple. As a result, you can see over every building in the city, even though you are only six stories off the ground.
As far a dining goes, you really can’t go wrong. Every restaurant and bar had great service and well-designed southern themed menus. Our favorite way to dine, while traveling, is to try one or two dishes at as many places as we can; kind of a culinary bar hop. Some of the highlights were Hominy Grill, a great little brunch place on the north side of downtown. For happy hour, Pearlz Oyster Bar by the historic section was the place to be. They had $1 oysters, a great beer selection and proof that solid recipes, done right, are all you need for a great meal. For fine dining, the Peninsula Grill on the other side of Market Street came highly recommended. We sampled our way through the appetizers and by-the-glass wine list for an impromptu early evening pit stop.
If history is more up your alley, Charleston is full of it. I highly recommend one of the walking tours of downtown. They have day and evening tours ranging from landmarks to the darker side of colonial America. Fort Sumter, the site of the first battle of the Civil War, is a 40 minute scenic boat ride from Charleston and another must see. They still have some of the original cannons at the fort, along with a plethora of period artifacts.
Even though we could have spent another few days there, Chicago was calling us home. A trip to Charleston is a worthwhile stop for any history or culinary buff looking for some warmer weather.
Have you been to Charleston? What places would you recommend for dining?
Whether sweet or dry, big or small or white, pink or red (yes, sparkling reds do exist), bubbles are a great addition to any holiday meal.
Bubbles go well with all types of food which makes pairing very easy. The traditional French Champagnes and other Method Champenois wines are beautiful full-flavored, full-bodied wines that will pair with large holiday meals. Prosecco and other Charmat Method wines are great with lighter fare, like a fish sandwich or buttered popcorn. Rose, which got a bad rap in the 80’s and 90’s from overly sweet sugar bombs that were coming out of California, is usually a dry or Brut wine in France and the rest of Europe, that pairs with almost everything. Sparkling reds like Italian Brachetto are a great dessert wine with chocolate and fruit. Every wine producing region in the world has their signature sparkling wine: Champagne in France, Cava in Spain, Espumante in Portugal, etc. and they are all worth a try.
While tasting sparkling wines from around the world, here is a simple guide to pairings. If you’re serving salmon, or any other type of seafood, pair with dry bubbles. Brut Champagne, Cava and Cremant are all viable options. Any kind of spicy food, whether it’s Indian, Thai or Korean will also go with bubbles, but perhaps try something with a little sweetness. For red meats like duck and other wild game, a Brut Rose is the trick. The structure and body of a quality Brut or Extra Brut Rose will balance out the big flavors of the meat, without overpowering it. Just remember to stay away from the Sec and Demi-Sec wines for entrée pairings as those are sweet wines.
Bubbles are also good on their own, and you certainly don’t need an excuse to open a bottle. The French territory of Martinique has the highest consumption of Champagne per capita in the world for a reason: warm weather, beaches and Champagne just go together.
Here are a few of The Chopping Block’s bubbly offerings this holiday season:
Adami Prosecco bin 7024 $15.95
NV, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Nimble and light, with bubbles lifting the ripe peach and melon notes.
Raventos Cava bin 8018 $22.50
2010, Penedès, Spain
Fruity aromas of lemon and green apple with notes of fresh baked bread.
Camille Braun Cremant bin 12122 $22.00
NV, Alsace, France
Crisp, delicate and clean with notes of apple, vanilla and minerals.
Gruet Brut Rose bin 14256 $16.95
NV, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Strawberry, cherry with savory bread notes
Stop in our stores to pick up a bottle of bubbly for your holiday party.
If there is one thing that Eastern European food, and most other European food for that matter, is known for is a liberal use of pork and dairy products. These are two of my favorite things, so whenever I have a catering event, I use this as an excuse to stock up on both. It never hurts to have a few extra pounds of butter lying around for that last minute Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise, and weeknight BLTs are my favorite “I don’t feel like cooking tonight” meal.
After my last catering event, I had a couple of pounds of bacon left but no butter. However, I did have a gallon of heavy cream that was nearing the expiration date. Problem almost solved: I’ll just turn the cream into butter.
Anyone who has ever over-whipped cream and watched the solids start to separate knows how to make butter. Basically, all you do is separate the liquid from the solids in heavy cream. This time around, I tried a new trick that worked fairly well. I put the heavy cream in a blender and let it run until the solids began to separate. At this point I took the over-whipped cream and put it in a food processor and let it run for five minutes. (Note: if you pour liquid into a food processor, it will start to run out the bottom once it reaches the height of the inner tube that holds the blade, I learned this a few years ago the hard way.) The food processor does a great job of working the cream and getting all the liquid out.
Once you have a visibly separated butter, remove the butter and place into a bowl of ice water for a few minutes. This will solidify the butter and make it easier to work with for the next step. The remaining liquid in the food processor is traditional buttermilk and can be used for cooking or baking.
After the butter has cooled, gently knead it together until you get tennis ball sized pieces. The kneading process helps remove excess moisture, so make sure to spend a few minutes on each piece. If it starts to get too warm to work with, put it back in the ice water for a few minutes and move on to another piece. When you think you have gotten most of the moisture out, form into balls and place in a clean bowl to drain.
Now that you have fresh homemade butter, roll into tubes and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or place into an airtight container. If you are feeling really motivated, you can take some of your fresh butter and season it up with some lemon zest, salt, pepper and fresh herbs for a delicious compound butter you can use on grilled steak, fish or chicken. Compound butter freezes really well so make enough for a few meals, wrap in plastic and save for later.
Have you ever made homemade butter? It tastes so much better than store-bought butter, don’t you think?
David Indriksons is a Lead Class Assistant at The Chopping Block with a background that goes from small scale bistros to large scale catering and everything in between. In addition to a great love of food, he is a self-admitted travel junkie that enjoys hanging out with locals around the world and trying new cuisine. Outside of TCB, he enjoys skating, snowboarding, and playing with his dog, Caesar.