Thursday, December 29, 2016

Platinum Awards from Winepress Northwest

Browsing these awards gives you a good stufy of Pac Northwest wines.

Here is the list.

And notice the "best of the best" is a $9 Riesling from Chat. St. Michelle. Amazing, and I don't doubt it a bit. Also notice the continued excellence of the whites and roses at Barnard Griffin...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Traegar Lil Tex pellet cooker vs Big Green Egg

I have both of these cooking devices. The Egg has been with me for about 8 years now, and the Traeger is in its first year.

1. The Big Green Egg:
a. Smoker: Very good. Can maintain low temps (200F-ish) for long periods. Moisture retention is very good, so the meat's drying out is not usually a problem. It's easy to throw a water-soaked (or some say dry) piece of fruit or nut wood onto the burning coals, to create smoke for your meat.
b. Grill: Very good. When the Egg's air inlet holes are cleaned (they tend to fill with ash), the Egg can achieve 500F or higher, and the cooking grill is right over the charcoal, so you can sear to your heart's content.
c. Oven: Good. The Egg can be run hot for baking pizzas, bread, veggie casseroles, etc.
d. Miscellaneous Notes: Super energy-efficient due to its heavy insulation. A 20 lb bag of real charcoal (you can't, and shouldn't, use briquettes), will last for a whole lot of cooks. You do have to adjust the upper and lower air inlet/exhaust slides, but there is a good analog temp gauge on mine, and it works great. Because there is burning coal beneath, you need to pay attention to meat placement--sometimes you want to be over the coals, and sometimes you want your meat to the side, where the heat is indirect. The unit is very heavy, so it's not very portable. Also, if you managed to tip it over, I suppose you could break it. Ours is in a rolling "nest" which makes it easy to move it from storage location to cooking location. And because it's ceramic, it's mostly weatherproof. Due to its thick insulating ceramic walls, it operates well in cold weather. And it will run fine if the power is out.

2. The Traeger Lil Tex:
a. Smoker: Good. Can maintain low temps (200F-ish) for long periods, same as the Egg. It seems to dry out the meat, however--many Traeger users include a pan of apple juice or some other moisturizer, to somewhat counteract this. Also, the pellets themselves can be fruit wood or nut tree wood, so you don't have to add those to get flavoring smoke.
b. Grill: Poor. "Grill" means a metal grate over burning coals (or gas). The Traeger has a heat shield between the firebox and the cooking grate, so from the outset it is set up as a smoker, not a grill. Consequently, while you can get the Traeger to run hot (450F-ish), and while a grill grate that hot will put mild grill marks on the meat, you are really baking your meat, not grilling it, so you can't achieve the carmelization on the meat's surface that you get over a fire, and some of us like that open fire flavor. However, some Traegerites make various modifications (which I am just now starting to research), to allow a portion of the grill to be exposed over the firebox, and this might enable the Traeger to serve as both a good smoker (on one side of the grill) and a good grill (on the other side). Why Traeger hasn't already given us that capability is way beyond my understanding.
c. Oven: Good. The Traeger can be run hot for smoke-baking anything.
d. Miscellaneous Notes: Not very energy-efficient due to its thin metal wall construction. But a 20-lb bag of pellets will last for a lot of cooks. The digital temp settings and blower fan do make cooking easier, though you can't run the Traeger if the power is out. The metal construction means it's not as weatherproof, but a cover is available. It can't operate as hot in cold weather. It's advantageous to not have to add fruit or nut tree wood--the pellets already have you covered there. Some Traegerites say that the original Traegers were heavy-metal construction, but with outsourcing to China, the metal is now thin and won't last as long. The Traeger is a good choice if you don't personally like to grill--some cooks prefer to cook steaks and pork chops in a hot skillet, though others (e.g., me) like the flavorings that direct cooking over coals provides.

Cost of each grill is about the same. And both of them are far superior to gas grills and to grills that use charcoal briquettes.

Here is a good article which explains direct grilling and indirect cooking (note the author makes an error by using the phrase "indirect grilling"--there is no such thing).

So far, my opinion is: The Egg wins by a (large) nose as a smoker, and while the Egg is a great grill, the Traeger should not even be called a "grill," for it is unable to grill.  If you need one device that does everything well, get the Egg (if you're willing to keep the ash out of the vent holes), or learn how to modify your Traeger.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sake it to me!

Tonight we had a great Asian-themed dinner:
1. homemade fresh crab cakes (Ruth Reichl's recipe--delish!), topped with Asian aoili;
2. vegetable potstickers and Secret Aardvark Drunken Garlic Black Bean Sauce (yay!);
3. sauteeed broccolini with soy and Hoison sauces;
4. homemade Asian slaw (with rice vinegar/Mirin/Peanut oil dressing).

We tried two sakes both by SakeOne in Forest Grove OR:

1. Moonstone Asian Pear Sake: Nice balanced pear flavor; 12% alcohol; the rice flavor is noticeable. I liked it OK but probably wouldn't buy it again. $7 or so wholesale for a 375ml bottle. Grade: B-/C+

2. Moonstone Lemongrass Coconute Sake: 16.5% alcohol (typical sake alcohol range is 15-020%, but I say that 12% is far better--it doesn't get you drunk as fast and it allows the flavors to shine through) Oh, no! The coconut flavor is so strong that it comes off like the smell of a person slathered with cocoa butter at the beach on a hot day. It is so strong that it seems fake. How about some subtlety please? It might make a great Asian-influenced Pina Colada, but by itself it's a bit of a mess. Grade: D-

I am open-minded to sake, but usually don't like it. So you can understand my grades are biased in that way...

Friday, December 16, 2016

What does "velvet" mean, in the bouquet of a wine, anyway?

I have long described my favorite Bordeaux blend bouquet as containing "velvet," meaning velvet as a fabric, not as a vague reference to a wine's "smoothness." To me, "velvet" in that aromatic sense has a meaning that I cannot put into words. There is no reason to think that velvet fabric has a particular smell, unless perhaps it's the dye in the fabric, or the dust in it, and maybe that is it. But I doubt the wonderful thing I smell in good Bordeaux blends is due to a dye.

But read this, copied from K Vintner's description of its 2014 Royal City Syrah (a $140 wine):
"Wrapped in a regal robe. Aromas of black olive, morels, velvet theatre drapes waft up from the glass. Giving way to a deep long palate, black plum skin, cured meat, leather and forest floor. Compelling and complete. From a wine there is nothing more to ask. Another great vintage in the story that is Royal City."  - Charles Smith

First, notice there is no fruit mentioned in the bouquet. Just olives (OK, maybe olives are a fruit), mushrooms, and velvet. Then, notice the reference to "velvet," as if that is a smell we all recognize. So there is something here, but what?

Homework, everyone! Find a theater with a velvet curtain, and go inhale deeply of it, and report back...and look for that smell in good wines!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fine Coffee: Burr Grinder versus Blade Grinder test:

​I. On Using a Burr Grinder for Coffee, and Why: ​
Thanks to Bob H who first told me why burr grinders are better than blade grinders, for making quality coffee. I researched this extensively, and carefully chose a burr grinder, and have just completed a taste/smell test ​comparing blade grinder to burr grinder ​(thanks to Jane for suggesting I do that before investing in a second burr grinder for our farmhouse).

Here's what you need to know, for any coffeemaking method which requires you to grind coffee beans (that includes, at least espresso and French Press (press pot) and drip-through-filter methods).

1. First, keep your coffee beans whole (​unground​)​, in a sealed container. I bought a glass jar with a glass lid that has a rubber seal and clamp lock, cheap at Target. If you leave your beans lying in an opened sack, they will lose their volatile oils and you will lose flavor and aromatics. I believe there is no need to freeze them, though--just seal them somehow and keep them in the dark​.

2. Second, don't grind your beans until you are ready (I mean, really ready) ​to make coffee (I use French press, so this means I boil the water first and only then grind the coffee). The goal is to minimize the time between grinding and drinking. The reason for this step is the same as in point 1: To keep your coffee fresh and to maximize the aromatics and taste. Grind size for espresso machines is finer, and grind size for French Press is coarser. Every palate is different, but I use 2 tablespoons of whole beans per 12 oz cup of coffee, and I steep for 2.5 minutes only (I'm a Supertaster, and bitter flavors absolutely kill me--I can't eat dark chocolate, Stevia and artificial sugars all taste bitter to me, and if you really want to make me angry, tie me a chair and pour tonic water into my mouth).​

3. About grinders
a. A blade grinder (which we used until recently) is cheap (about $15) ​and it does grind up the beans, but it makes every size particle from "dust to boulders." This prevents consistent flavor extraction: The dust over-extracts and you get bitter flavors, and the boulders don't divulge as much flavor, so you get a strange concoction of too-bitter and inadequately-extracted coffee.Also, the rapid action of the spinning blade can heat up the coffee grounds, robbing them of their aromatics and flavor too soon.​

b. A conical burr grinder has two counter-rotating cone-shaped grinding wheels (made of either ceramic or steel), which grind the beans into more-consistent size pieces. A good burr grinder operates quickly (only takes a few seconds to grind beans for a cup of coffee) and, paradoxically at the same time, slowly (the grinding action happens slowly--the gears turn rather slowly--and this prevent the beans from heating up, which can release aromatics and flavors prematurely). A good burr grinder also lets you select the grind size you want. (I think the grinder controls the grind size by changing the distance between the two burr grinder wheels.) Beware! Some so-called "burr grinders" are nothing of the sort when you take them apart--you need to thoroughly research the grinder you want, and read carefully what coffee experts say about each grinder. I chose the Capresso Infinity # 560.01 (about $75 on Amazon now); the new model is the 560.04 and it's about $100. Most sub-$100 burr grinders have very negative reviews, so if you go this way, don't skimp or you will be wasting money. I chose the model I did because it is classed with the other good $100+ grinders, but due to its being end-of-life (in terms of a product's natural life cycle), it's cheaper now.

My grinder has stainless steel grinding wheels, and an easy setting from coarse-to-fine (you merely rotate the upper coffee bean holding chamber, to select grind size), and a timer switch for grinding on-off (once you hear that all the beans have been ground, you advance the timer to "zero" and it shuts off). 

And you will need a brush to keep the burr grinder wheels clean. Here's the grinder on Amazon (the price has gone back up, it appears--it's $93 for Amazon Prime now):

4. The Test: So I made 6 oz of coffee, using the same beans, same quantity of beans, and same water and press time, with both our blade grinder and the above burr grinder (using two identical French Presses). I used, and like, Luckman Coffee's "Chiapas Altura" Mexican coffee (they're in Woodland). It's a lighter roast (so it's less bitter), and has a hint of chocolate and great coffee flavor.

It was no contest at all: The burr-ground coffee was much darker. It had much more aromatics. In the mouth, it was much richer than the blade-ground coffee; it had more body and made the blade-ground coffee taste thin by comparison. Wow-what a difference! I'm a believer. If you need a holiday gift idea for a friend who loves coffee but is using a blade grinder, the Capresso burr grinder might be a great idea.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish

So, it sounded interesting, on NPR. Susan Stamberg's mother makes a cranberry relish for Thanksgiving, and while many people retreat in horror at the sight of it (it looks like a cross between Pepto Bismol and something that a sick person might regurgitate), most were purported to, upon tasting it, proclaim it excellent. I like cranberries, and I like horseradish, so we gave it a go this year.

The final word:


Just don't.

Raw cranberries, onion, sour cream, sugar and horseradish, after being food-processed, frozen, and thawed, just don't compute.

Just. Don't. Do. It. ;)  And don't believe everything you read.

Pairing wine and cheese, the techie way

I have no words. Except maybe this one: Wow!

Read this!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2010 Reynvaan Family Vineyards The Rocks Syrah!!!

Wow! Spectator gave this 95 points, and the wine deserves it fully. $150 at Ox in Portland, with a friend from Chicago tonight (though retail is close to $55).

The wine opens with a quick punch of plums, boysenberry, and minerals, and after the first sip the finish is amazing--it just goes and goes. The bouquet's a delight. The wine's finish wasn't as compelling later, but through the entire bottle, over a space of two hours, it was a complete delight to drink.

This is one more data point re the wonderful soil (or, really, lack thereof) in The Rocks (south of Walla Walla), for my money one of the US' most-compelling and trending AVAs now. Bravo!

Here is K&L's blurb on the wine.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...