Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!


Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb

I must admit that I am a bit embarrassed to post about grits so soon after I waxed poetic about polenta, as the two foods are so similar. On top of that, the ingredients in this dish will look a little bit repetitive if you have been following what we’ve been cooking the past few weeks. I promise we’re not totally boring people who eat the same thing over and over again. This time, at least, there is a good reason for our redundancy; our cooking this past week was influenced heavily by the need to clear out our fridge in preparation for a trip to Barcelona (!!!). I find the week before a trip kind of frustrating in terms of cooking, as while it’s all very well and good to try and use what you have, what you have always seems to consist of random odds and ends that don’t really go together, leaving one, at the end of the day, with a whole lot of hot dogs for dinner. And pierogi. Etc.

I was therefore pretty pleased with myself when I pulled this dish together the other night, combining some staples we had in our freezer (bacon, shrimp) with some produce that needed to be eaten (rhubarb, lime, corn). I am always kind of excited when I use our stone ground grits, too, as we only recently discovered them. For a long time, I had been obsessed with the idea of grits because I, like every other person on the planet, am totally enamoured of Southern U.S. cooking. But they are seemingly impossible to find north of the border, so for a while they were this elusive mystery to me. Luckily, I have wonderful culinary accomplices. At first, a dear friend literally mailed us some from the U.S., with strict instructions from her very southern mom on how to cook them. And so I was hooked. I have since taken to bringing some back I have travel down south myself. And even my mom is in on it–whenever she goes to the condo in Florida she comes back with a package of stone ground grits for me. She has no idea what they are, exactly, but she knows I always need some!

Anyway. I wasn’t sure this dish was going to work out at first, and indeed, Graeme looked at me skeptically when I plunked a savoury dish involving rhubarb down in front of him. I was a bit worried that I was going out on too much of a limb for myself (I am generally not very courageous when working without a recipe), in a feverish attempt to not let my precious rhubarb go to waste, but we both should have had more faith: it was AWESOME. Pairing flavours like bacon with sweet things is hardly a new idea, and rhubarb particularly lent itself beautifully to such a combination. I made a simple compote that I kept nice and tart so that it added just a little bit of sweetness, and a lot of lovely tartness to brighten up what could otherwise feel like a bit of a heavy, muddled plate of food. This dinner was a victory over the oftentimes humdrum nature of week-before-vacation eating.

If you’ve got any leftover rhubarb and you are tired of baking, I really recommend throwing together the compote; the recipe  below made far more than was necessary to accessorize this dish, and we therefore ate it with everything we could think of for several days. It was most notably delicious for breakfast one morning, when I prepared an open-faced sandwich of toast, arugula, bacon, a poached egg, and a little bit of  compote. It worked ridiculously well and was one of the most interesting/exciting breakfasts I have prepared in a long time! (And I love cooking breakfast.)

Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb
Serves 2 (hungry, hungry hippos) – 4 (birds).

1 cup stone ground grits
5 1/3 cups water
1 ear’s worth of corn
5 stalks of rhubarb, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sugar*
1 lime, zested
2 slices of bacon chopped into strips
1 onion, chopped
A glob of butter
1/2 cup of cheddar, grated
A dozen frozen shrimp, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring 5 cups of the water, salted, to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn the heat down low and stir in the grits carefully, making sure to avoid clumps. Cook this way, stirring often, until the mixture is creamy, thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan a bit, about 35-45 minutes.

In the meantime, put the compote on. In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, 1/3 cup of water, and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let it simmer until the rhubarb is nice and soft and the mixture has thickened a bit.

When the grits look like they’re almost done, get started on the topping. Over medium-high heat, saute the bacon pieces and onion until they both start to brown. Add in the corn, and stir for a couple of minutes until it cooks a bit. At the very, very end, throw in the shrimp, and cook for just a couple of minutes longer, to let them heat through and get a little crispy. Season the mixture.

At the same time, once the grits seem just about done, stir in the cheddar and a generous glob of butter, and season (be generous with the salt!). Remove from the heat.

Serve grits with shrimp mixture on top and a little bit of rhubarb compote. Enjoy!

*As I previously stated, this ratio of sugar to rhubarb made for a pretty tart compote, which I loved, but if you prefer things a little bit on the sweeter side, then definitely up the sugar!

Sweet Italian Sausage

There was an annoying moment a couple of weeks ago in Top Chef Canada during the supermarket challenge when the smarmy prick Rob made a disparaging comment about Connie making sausages for the challenge.  He said something to the effect of why would people make sausages at home when they can just buy hot dogs.  Now, Rob is full of stupid kneejerk comments and it isn’t worth dwelling on them, and it seems like the problem with her puff pastry-wrapped chicken sausages was that they simply weren’t good enough to convince home cooks to attempt such a dish, but there was the general sense in the episode that homemade sausages maybe weren’t the most appropriate dish for people to cook at home.

Michael Pollan has written at length about the way in which food television has become about the spectacle of cooking rather than about cooking itself, and that it has lost the instructional and educational quality that early TV cookery shows, like Julia Child’s, had.  And isn’t this in part what was going on in that episode of Top Chef Canada?  That sausage, which isn’t an especially difficult food to prepare if you have the time and right equipment, was condescendingly seen to be beyond the grasp of the average supermarket dweller.  Or what about the way in which charcuterie plates have become trendy at upscale restaurants?  I have nothing against this, and there are few things more pleasing and satisfying than well-prepared and expertly seasoned cured or otherwise processed meats, but it does show the way in which charcuterie has travelled far away from its humble origins.

I started making sausage from scratch about a year and a half ago after my parents and Anna conspired to get me a meat grinder and a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie as a gift for Christmas. If you’re thinking of making sausages at home, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.  They cover the vast array of ways you can prepare charcuterie–curing, smoking, dry-curing, confit, sausage-making, and so on–all in a way that is practical for the home cook.  I have really only scratched the surface of the book and made sausage and pâté from it, but there’s easily enough material in here for years of exploration and experimentation. The book is beautifully illustrated and the step-by-step instructions are clear, easy to follow, and will have you making excellent sausage on your first attempt.

Making truly great sausage is the reason why this is worth doing at home.  There are some fine sausages available to buy in this city, but I prefer mine.  They’re much more flavourful, and as a nice bonus, they’re inexpensive to make.  Twelve or so feet of sausage usually costs around twenty dollars to make, and the quality of them is unmatched.  I know that the meat in them is great and isn’t just the sweepings from a butcher’s floor, I can adjust the flavourings and seasonings to exactly my taste, and best of all, they’re super fresh.  They take a bit of effort–it usually takes me about an hour and a half to make a batch of them–but because you’re making them in quantity, that effort will feed you for several meals.

My most recent batch was the sweet Italian sausages from Charcuterie.  I’d made the spicy version a couple of times and they’re great for putting into sauces or baking with pasta, or just frying up and eating, but I thought that I would try the sweet ones for a change.  I might even like them more than the spicy ones: unlike a supermarket-style “mild” Italian sausage which is mainly just bland, these sausages have a beautiful depth of flavour. They grill well and I used some of the leftover loose meat in a lasagne which turned out super well.

Sweet Italian Sausage
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
Makes 5 pounds of sausage

4 pounds/1800g boneless pork shoulder butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 pound/450g pork back fat, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 oz/40g kosher salt
2 tbsp/32g granulated sugar
2 tsp/12g minced garlic
2 tbsp/16g fennel seeds, toasted (I like to coarsely crush these in a mortar and pestle to better distribute the fennel throughout the sausage)
2 tsp/6g coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp/16g sweet Spanish paprika
0.75 cup/185 ml ice water
0.25 cup/60 ml red wine vinegar, chilled

12 feet/4 meters hog casings, soaked in tepid water for at least 30 minutes and rinsed

Note: these are the basic instructions given in the book, though it deals with the steps in a much greater depth in the book.  Making sausage isn’t especially difficult, but it does require an understanding of the process if you are to make great sausage.

1. Combine all the ingredients except the water and the vinegar and toss to distribute the seasonings. Chill until ready to grind.
2. Grind the mixture through the small die into a bowl set in ice.
3. Add the water and vinegar to the meat mixture and mix with the paddle attachment (or sturdy spoon) until the liquids are incorporated and the mixture has developed a uniform, sticky appearance, about 1 minute on medium speed.
4. Sauté a small portion of the sausage, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
5. Stuff the sausage into the hog casings, and twist into 6-inch/15-centimeter links. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.
6. Gently sauté or roast the sausage to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F./65 degrees C.

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese

This past weekend, we braved the Grand Prix crowds (i.e. my least favourite crowds of the Montreal summer), to attend the enormous 40th birthday party of our dear friend Alan. It was well worth it. Alan is one of the kind of person who seems to know absolutely everybody in Montreal, which means that a huge, spirited crowd gathered to celebrate with him, including seemingly every person I’ve ever met. Graeme was kind enough to provide the beer for the event, while I asked Alan if he needed anything in terms of food. He told me he was worried there wouldn’t be enough savoury stuff for folks to snack on, and so off I went in search of something to make that would satisfy a large group of party goers.

The party was at a dance studio with limited kitchen facilities, so I wanted to make something that didn’t require reheating. I had also just come back into town from attending a conference, so I didn’t feel like I had time to create a million teeny hors d’oeuvres. What could be eaten cold, would be plentiful, and didn’t need to be put together portion by portion? I soon realized that the obvious thing to make was pizza.

Graeme and I have a few favourite pizza dough recipes. For your everyday pizza, covered in sloppy toppings, we keep coming back to the beer pizza crust recipe from Hellbent for Cooking. We have yet to find a better one. But sometimes I like a good rectangular bakery-style pizza, which seemed like it would lend itself well to being eaten in small portions at a party, and for that I always return to the foccacia bread recipe in my beloved Rebar cookbook. It makes an awesome foccacia, and if you slop some toppings on it, translates into a very tasty and fluffy bakery-style pizza.

I made two large foccacia pizzas for Alan’s party: one with roasted garlic, eggplant, wilted spinach and feta, and another with arugula pesto, tomato and goat cheese. I am going to post a recipe for the latter, but if you want to make the former then just make the same dough, and then cover it in olive oil, and the toppings I just listed. C’est tout! The arugular pesto is actually from the very same Rebar cookbook, grabbed from a separate recipe and plunked on top of the pizza. It is full of flavour and the most beautiful green colour when fresh. I recommend making double the amount and then saving some to throw on pasta for a really simple, tasty meal.

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese
Adapted from various parts of Rebar: Modern Food Cookbook.
Serves 6 for a main course, many more as an hors d’ouevre.

For the dough:

1 3/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp/1 packet of yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cups unbleached flour

For the pesto:
1 cup arugula leaves, packed
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup grated Romano or other hard cheese
3 cloves roasted garlic*
1 clove fresh garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp chile flakes
1/4 tsp cracked pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

For the toppings:
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
100g soft goat cheese

To prepare the dough:
In a mixing bowl, combine the warm water, yeas and sugar, and let the mixture sit until it foams, for 5-10 minutes. Stir in the salt and olive oil, and then start adding flour, one cup at a time, mixing well. If you’re using a stand mixer, once the dough starts coming together, kneed with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and elastic. If doing it by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and kneed by hand until it gets there. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp cloth, or plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size. [I have started refrigerating dough overnight as I have come around to arguments in favour of a slow rise, but if you want to make it all on the same day, that has worked totally fine for me too, and should take about 1 – 1.5 hours depending on the temperature of your house.]

After the first rise, punch down the dough, cover it again, and let it rise until it more or less doubles again. Preheat your oven to 350F. Place the dough on a well-oiled 12 x 16″ baking sheet. Gently (gently!) stretch the dough to roughly fit the dimensions of the pan. Cover the dough with your toppings, and make sure that as you do so, the dough as a good 15 minutes or so to puff up a bit before putting it into the oven.

To prepare the pesto:
Pulse all the ingredients, except the oil, to form a coarse paste [I just used a magic bullet for this]. Add the oil and pulse to blend.

Brush the dough generously with the pesto, and then cover with slices of tomato and dollops of goat cheese (and really, anything else you think would be tasty!). Season with a bit of salt and cracked pepper. Place the pizza in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the crust is browned just the slightest bit–be careful not to overbake!

*To roast garlic, chop the tops of the cloves and place them in tin foil with a teeny bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Wrap with the foil and roast in a 400F oven for 45 minutes or so, until the cloves are nice and soft. Cool, and then remove the peels and enjoy!

Polenta and Me

I feel like I have been trying to master polenta for years; like most traditional Italian foods/ways of cooking, polenta is at once incredibly simple (just cornmeal and water, at its base!), but at the same time it takes patience and experience to make a really great one. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to cook up a polenta in about 10 minutes, and I could never figure out what the big deal about it was since it was kind of bland in taste and texture. Yeah. Sorry polenta, it wasn’t you, it was me. I have since seen the error of my ways.

In the summer, when we are in hardcore BBQ-ing mode (and we BBQ probably at least 3 times a week in hot weather; so much nicer than being stuck in the kitchen!), grilled polenta makes a frequent appearance on our dinner plates. The soft, fresh-off-the-stove hot stuff is perfect stick-to-your-ribs eating in winter, while solid, lightly grilled wedges make the perfect starchy accompaniment in summer. It is not difficult (and also inexpensive!) to whip up a giant batch that will satisfy a group, and it is awesome with whatever extra BBQ-related sauce you have sitting around. I love the varying textures that you can find in a grilled polenta: a little bit charred, a little bit melty, and at its best nice and creamy.

Last weekend, we had a couple of Graeme’s colleagues and their families over for dinner, and we served some grilled polenta alongside freshly-made Italian sausage, an arugula and grilled squid salad, some grilled asparagus, and this unbelievable tasty and pretty rhubarb cheesecake from Nami-Nami. This is literally the best cheesecake I have ever made; I urge you to go make it immediately. In fact, I will be making it again this weekend.

One of our guests is not a big meat eater, so Graeme and I were conscious that the polenta should be the kind of thing that could stand on its own such that it could be someone’s main course, rather than being relegated to a side dish. As such, I packed it with cheese and roasted garlic to give it more flavour and richness, and Graeme whipped up (off the top of his head, because he’s awesome like that!) an accompanying grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. Probably the least “fancy” part of the entire meal, this pairing was lovely and fresh and textured and we devoured the leftovers the next day. Simple, when done with thought and care, can be so damn good. There are a million ways to enjoy polenta on and off the BBQ, and we are happy to share what we did this time as but one drop in the tasty bucket.

Grilled Polenta with Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato Salsa
Serves 8-10 people.

For the Polenta:

2 cups cornmeal (I like it as coarsely ground as possible)
10 cups water
lots of salt, pepper and some dried red chili flakes
1 head of garlic
1 cup ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (or other similar hard cheese)

For the Salsa:
3 ears of corn, shucked
4 or 5 tomatoes
A generous amount of fresh oregano, basil, or whatever other herbs you have on hand
Olive oil

To make the Polenta:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Take your head of garlic, and chop off the top of it so that the tops of all of the cloves are exposed. Place it on a piece of tin foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper. Wrap up the garlic in the tin foil, and roast it in the hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, til the cloves are good and soft. Take it out of the oven, unwrap and let it cool so that you won’t burn your fingers when it’s time to squeeze the garlic out!

Bring the water to a boil with some salt, then drizzle in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously to avoid clumps. Reduce the heat to low (seriously, as low as you can possibly go and still have the thing be cooking). Stir it. For a long time. At least 45 minutes. Don’t go more than a minute or two during this process without stirring. If it’s gotten super thick but still isn’t very creamy, add a bit more water. Stir it until it’s nice and thick and CREAMY. When it’s about done, add in your ricotta, Parmesan, and remove the garlic cloves from their skins and mix it all in. If you want, smash some of the garlic against the side of the saucepan to make it distribute more evenly, but don’t do that too much–it is an awesome surprise to discover whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic in your polenta! Then season to taste. I just used salt, pepper and some dried chili flakes, but you could add whatever you’d like. Be generous with the salt. Pour the polenta out into a lasagna-sized baking dish and refrigerate for at least one hour, until it is nice and solid.

Once you’re ready to grill, cut the polenta up into generous pieces; I like to cut it into squares and then cut those in two into triangles. This batch got me about a dozen such triangles. Either brush the polenta or your grill with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Grill until it’s nice and hot throughout, the skin is a bit charred and crispy, and it smells awesome. Serve with sauce.

To make the Salsa:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Lightly brush the tomatoes with olive oil, put them on a baking tray, and put them in the oven until they are soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Once they’re cool enough to touch, peel the skins off the tomatoes, roughly chop them, and put them in a bowl.  In the meantime, fire up the grill and roast your corn.  Once it’s cooked, slice the kernels off the cob and add those to the tomatoes. Chop up generous amounts of fresh herbs and toss those with the tomatos and corn.  Check and adjust the seasoning, and serve spooned over grilled warm polenta wedges.

Fresh summer beer

Homebrewing is a test of patience. The few hours spent brewing are only the start of the process: after the beer is done fermentation, about a week in most cases, you have to rack it into a secondary fermenter to get the beer off the dead yeast cells to avoid off flavours and also to add dry hops if the beer calls for them, which you then have to allow to sit for another couple of weeks. From there it’s into the bottles, but first you have to add some priming sugar to the beer to allow it to naturally carbonate in the bottles over the course of a couple of weeks. All in all, you’re looking at a good five to six weeks between brewing beer and drinking it, which, when you’re excited about your beer, can be a long time to wait. All of this is to say that I am now drinking the IPA I posted about here and the mild I posted about here.

The IPA is fantastic.  There are some things I would like to tweak on it: it could benefit from having a slightly heavier body, and it finishes really dry, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it could be a little bit sweeter.  That said, it’s a wonderfully refreshing and drinkable beer with a solid but not overwhelming bitterness and a beautifully fresh citrusy aroma.  I had an embarassingly low yield with this–only eighteen bottles from a three gallon batch–which upsets me a little because I wish I had more of it.  I’ll have to make up another batch soon, probably with a couple of changes.

The mild is decent, but I’m less happy with it than I am with the IPA.  The problem with making a mild, as I sort of began to address here, is that while I have some experience drinking mild, it was from too long ago for me to have a very clear idea of what the finished beer should taste like (never mind that I was only in the very beginning stages of my beer education then and didn’t have close to the understanding that I have now), and vague impressions aren’t necessarily the best thing to go on.  I was too heavy-handed with the dark malt and so the beer has a lot of the roasted flavours that you would tend to associate with a style like stout, though it lacks the body of a stout.  It isn’t a bad beer by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped and imagined it to be.

I’m not sure what my next brews will be.  I still have some hops left over from the IPA and so I’ll likely brew another, slightly different version of it.  I would also like to get well out of my comfort zone and brew something Belgian-inspired, like a saison, most likely with some sort of fruit. I’ll be sure to post about whatever it is I decide to brew next.

Guest Post: A Wine Cheat Sheet for Morons Like Me


As you may or may not have noticed, we are a beer-drinking household. The amount of beer we go through in a given week is a bit alarming. We are also lovers of scotch, and I will admit to having a soft spot for the ever polite gin and tonic, but where Graeme and I really drop the ball is in regards to wine. I like wine more than Graeme does, but both of us are total wine morons and don’t really understand it. I have attended many little intros to tasting wine, and none of them ever managed to penetrate my thick, wine-resistant skull. I am not sure why this is, as I do enjoy a delicious glass of wine, although I am incapable of telling you what I like about it.

I would love to know more about wine generally, but specifically I would love to just feel more confident doing basic things like picking something out at the SAQ, rather than employing my usual tactic of going for the prettiest label within my price range. (Yes, I really do that.) This is where my good friend Petite Chablis comes in. She is not only a lovely person, but she possesses the rare talent of being able to talk about wine in terms that even I, the dumbest wine person there is, can understand.  And she has a wonderful approach to wine drinking that is unpretentious, focused on enjoyment and sociability, and does not tend to do that think wine people do where they compare stuff to urine. So I asked her if she would write a guest post for Braising Hell that was a sort of “cheat sheet” for buying wine when you are stupid and overwhelmed, and she kindly obliged. I love what she’s written and I think it will be super instructive for me in my future ventures to the liquor store. If there are any other wine morons out there like me, I am sure you will be as thrilled as I am to read her advice below.


Help!  I’m on my way to a dinner party and I’m supposed to bring a bottle of wine and I know nothing about wine.  What should I bring?

Facing wine-store panic as you stare down row upon row of unfamiliar labels?  You’re not alone.

Unfortunately, there’s a somewhat unwelcoming culture surrounding wine, one that seems to be more about obsessing over the wines themselves than making wine an enjoyable experience – part of a meal, part of a social occasion, or simply a source of relaxation and pleasure.  When you’re listening to a friend or acquaintance go on about how this red contains “whispers of lingonberry” or “lacks a sense of terroir,” it can be easy to think, “wow, I really don’t know much about wine.”  Hence the uncertainty that can set in when you’re asked to provide wine for a dinner party or when you’re confronted with one of those encyclopedia-length wine lists at a Really Nice Restaurant.

But the truth is that very few people know much about wine, and those who pretend they do often don’t.*  And you don’t need to pay $50 or read tons of books about wine or travel the world sipping and spitting** in order to pick out an enjoyable bottle.

Well, that’s great, PC.  But I’m still in the liquor store and I still have no idea what to buy.  Can we get to the real advice, please?  Like which wines I should look for? And  now much I’ll need to spend to get a good bottle?

Right, useful advice.  Here we go.

I’m a big fan of looking for wines by region and varietal, rather than by label, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar liquor store.  The problem with getting too attached to specific labels is that when you can’t find them on the shelves, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and give up and leave the store with yet another bottle of overpriced Cabernet.+  Do jot down the names of a few recommended wines, but if you can’t find them in your store, try something in the same price range from the same region.

Below, I present some suggestions for my favorite region/varietal combos. Almost all of the wines I drink are under $15 (most, in fact, are under $10) and so the recommendations I’ll be making will focus on that price range.  I will also mention a few of my favorite wines in these categories, but remember, don’t get too stuck on the labels!

Crisp, light whites (delicious for sipping on hot days, perfect with grilled fish)

  • Grüner Veltliner from Austria – OK, this is pretty obscure.  But most stores will carry one or two bottles of this wine, and they’re delicious – think lemons and limes, a bit of pineapple and a delicious crisp finish.  I like Grooner, which is fairly widely-distributed; I also love the Laurenz und Sophie Singing Grüner Veltliner, but that may be harder to find.
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – This is probably my favorite category of white wines.  They’re vibrant and fun to drink.  A typical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will have lots of fruit (mango, pineapple, melon, pear) and often some green pepper on the finish to give it a bit of a kick.  Our two standbys are Oyster Bay and Nobilo, but I also really like Dashwood.

Heavier whites (great with spicy Thai food and pasta with cream sauces)

  • California or Australian Viognier.  Viogniers are unusual whites – they usually have a slightly floral smell (think jasmine or honeysuckle) and taste like peaches and apricots and citrus.  They are lower in acidity than either of my “crisp white” varietals.  Sonoma’s Cline Cellars makes a really nice Viognier, as does the Australian label Yalumba.
  • Washington State or German Gewürztraminer.  Another unusual white wine; the “gewürz” part of the name means “spice” in German.  So, as the name suggests, Gewürztraminer produces a slightly spicy white wine.  A typical Gewürztraminer will have some cinnamon or cloves or nutmeg flavor, along with pears and honey.  Some Gewürztraminers will also have a hint of sweetness, so I think they’re best when paired with spicy food.  Gewürztraminer is usually a German grape, but Washington State has been making some good ones lately.  I’ve enjoyed both the Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Hogue Cellars Gewürztraminer.

Light reds (pair these with pizza, grilled chicken, or really just about anything – they are marvelously versatile!)

  • Italian Sangiovese or Nero d’Avola.  Inexpensive Italian reds make great “table wines” – they are easy and pleasant to drink, with a nice balance of fruit and earth and acidity, and they’re fantastic with food.  Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola are two grapes from Italy that usually turn out affordable and yummy reds.  We are longtime fans of Di Majo Norante Sangiovese and Archeo Nero d’Avola.
  • Côtes du Rhône red wines.  These are wines from the Rhône region of Southern France made from a blend of different grapes.  The most famous Côtes du Rhône wines, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, will be incredibly expensive.  But down at the sub-$15 end of the spectrum you’ll find a lot of wonderful, food-friendly wines.  We’re still happily working our way through a case of Domaine des Rozets; the widely-distributed Guigal is also a good bet.

Heavier, bolder reds (pair with red meat or a robust cheese, or sip on their own)

  • Argentinian Malbec.  This red grape is originally from France but has found great success in Argentina and became very popular very quickly in the US market. These will be spicy, fruit-forward wines, with flavors like blackberries and cherries and pepper.  I’m a longtime fan of Conquista and Trapiche; recently we picked up a bottle from Zuccardi that we liked a lot.
  • Chilean Cabernet.  Cabernet is my favorite red wine, but lately I’ve had a tough time finding US Cabs under $15 that I’m excited about drinking.  Fortunately, Chile came to my rescue.  Chilean Cabernet will have some raspberry or blackberry quality to it, along with a bit of dark chocolate, black pepper, and tannins.  I’ve had good luck with Casillero del Diablo and Xplorador.

Happy wine shopping!


*  I am still cranky about the time a guy cornered me at a party to give me a lecture on Malbec.  He assumed I had never heard of it and proceeded to tell me several incorrect “facts” about the grape. Sigh.

**  I’m not a big fan of spitting.  I understand it when you’re going to be tasting a ton of wines and you don’t want to get super-drunk, but I don’t think you can really evaluate a wine unless you actually drink it.  Also, I haven’t figured out a way to spit into a bucket without worrying that I’ll either dribble on myself or splash someone else.

+  A story that describes many of my early wine-buying experiences.

Petite Chablis is an enthusiastic amateur wine geek who loves recommending her favorite bottles to friends, both in real life and on the Internet.  You can read her musings about inexpensive wine, fun cocktails, and other important topics (like Canadian reality television) at petitechablis.wordpress.com.