Monday, September 26, 2011

Torrontes, The other White Grape

I first discovered Argentinean wines quite a few years back when I made my first trip to Mendoza, a wine region in Argentina where some of the greatest reds wines in the world are produced, specifically made from the Argentinean varietal Malbec. Every meal I had with various winemakers, they always served a white wine with the first course and most often it was an Argentinean Chardonnay. I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay outside of Burgundy because it is usually just another anomalous chardonnay, refreshing but not satisfying or expressive and complex. My memory of the whites wines there were not as memorable as the reds so I never gave much thought to Argentina as a great white wine producing country.
I went back to Buenos Aires a few years ago and had dinner with some friends. We went to have a classic Argentinean dinner, an Asado where meat plays center stage. A variety of meats are cooked over an open fire and then served in progression along with various side dishes. The meats in Argentina are extraordinary, usually what we call in this country grass fed.
We left the wine ordering to one of the guests who was a native of Buenos Aires.  I am always curious to discover something I haven’t had before and be surprised.
I expected to us to start off with the dreaded Chardonnay but to my surprise he started us off with a bottle of Torrontes, a white wine I’ve never heard of.

Upon my first sip I was in love.  The Torrontes was a bottle of Colome’, the aromatics of the wine were so refreshing, Jasmine, white peach and citrus notes were all beautifully expressed. The wine reminded me slightly of a Viognier, less complex but the structure of fruit and acidity were in perfect play. 
You begin the Asado generally with some Empanadas, often baked in a wood-burning oven. The torrontes was refreshing and vibrant with the Empanadas, and then we had the grilled sausage, which was an interesting compliment to torrontes. The fattiness of the meat and the crisp aromatic wine went well. And to my surprise I wasn’t missing a red wine at all with the sausage.
Torrontes is made from a hybrid of Moscato De Alexandria and the Criolla grape. It is originally thought to be brought from Galicia Spain to Argentina by Missionaries. Phyloxeria destroyed the vines in Europe so they disappeared and so to this day, Argentina is the only country that has the vines and produces the wine. 

Over the last 15 years there have been big changes with Torrontes. Torrontes doesn’t have the prestigious pedigree of let’s say Chardonnay, and the grapes were much more rustic years ago and no one took the wine very seriously. Over the years that has dramatically changed when winemakers started realizing the potential of the wine.

No one is more passionate and producing one of the finest Torrontes than Jose Luis Mounier who arguably makes one of the finest examples of Torrontes in Argentina. Mounier has been producing Torrontes for 25 years in the Calchaqui Valley of  Salta  a region in Argentina, which he considers one of the best terriors for the grape. The Salta region is located at the foothill of the Andes at an elevation of 5,500 feet above sea level.
He believes because of the altitude, extreme temperatures, low rainfall, sandy soil and the quality of the water it is the ideal location to bring out the elegant South of him is Cafayate which produces good and interesting wines according to Mounier but nothing compares to the expressions you get from the terrior in Salta.
When I first tasted Mounier’s wine, I was blown away. You first have to understand that Torrontes is a simple wine, unlike a Viognier or big like a Roussane it’s subtle and when well made extremely aromatic. Think of biting into a Muscat grape is the best way I can explain it.
Mounier’s wine is incredible, and was one of most expressive Torrontes that I’ve tasted so far. What impressed me was the texture of the wine on my palate; it was dense, full and had great volume. It was complex and very surprising. The fruit was also so expressive and refined at the same time. The wine blew me away. Clearly this is a guy who is obsessed with detail, that’s why it’s no accident that his wine is so good.
His obsession starts in the vineyard. Because of the extreme sun, the way the vines are planted are so important. In the wine world it’s called the canopy, the style of covering the fruit with the leaves for proper shading of the fruit so the fruit won’t burn but so that it gets the right exposure of the sun. Another, detail is the volume of fruit he produces from each vine. For example, think like this. If one vine can produce 15 clusters of grapes, but at the right moment when the clusters are still green you cut off 7 of them, the energy of the vine goes into the remaining 7 clusters that remain. That’s the principle so for many dropping that fruit is like leaving money on the vineyard floor but for the winemaker who wants to make great wine, a necessity.

Mounier isn’t the only winemaker producing fine examples of Torrontes. The wines made by Susana Ballbo at Crios and Colome are also among some of the top Torrontes also being produced and among my favorites. Balbo’s wines are very accessible here in the states and she also brings 25 years of winemaking experience to the table.
In LA where sushi plays such a starring role, I’ve been tasting torrontes alongside and I have to say it’s a fantastic marriage.  Grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns are also right up there as one of those magical combinations.
All of us are looking for good value in wine these days especially me. I want to drink wine that has integrity but I can afford to drink daily and as far as whites goes, this is one I am ordering by the case.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Tournebroche, I Never Leave Home Without It

Fire is primal and almost everyone in love with cooking over a wood fire has had a primal moment. Mine was this: lamb revolving slowly on a spit over burning wood in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse. That was back in 1988. The look, the smell, the anticipation of the taste, but above all the simplicity of the scene took me to a place I never wanted to leave—a place where something is always turning slowly on a spit.

Years later in 2001 at Chez Panisse’s 30th anniversary, Alice Waters set up a tripod and suspended a giant copper cauldron from it to cook fish bisque over a wood fire. That was about the best soup I have ever had. Was it the smoke, the scene, the person stationed there whose sole job was to stir the pot that made it so wonderful? It was all of these plus the visual anticipation of a meal prepared so memorably.

Over the years, I’ve collected equipment for cooking over an open fire. One of my most cherished tools is my Tournebrouche by Le Capucin from France. The French have made these nifty clockwork spits for well over a hundred years. The mechanism could not be simpler: you wind the clockwork handle which turns the spit; when it winds down a charming little bell rings and you wind it up again. The Tournebroche was probably only meant for the fireplace which is how I usually use it, but I took it to upstate New York this summer and decided to try it outside. I built a fire and made spit roasted pork shoulder for pork burritos.

The 10-pound pork shoulder came from Fleisher’s, the great butcher in Kingston, New York. They were careful to leave an inch of fat on it so that it basted as it turned. I wrapped the meat in herbs from the garden and did nothing else besides rubbing it with salt, pepper and olive oil. I cranked up the Tournebrouche and the whole magical ritual began.

I cooked the pork shoulder for three hours until the crust turned beautiful dark amber. The smell was intoxicating. But don’t get me wrong; you do have to work during the cooking. You have to tend to the fire constantly moving embers and adding wood to keep an even heat under the meat. And you have to regulate the fire so it heats but does not burn.

When I took the meat off the spit my sense of accomplishment was off the charts. We had made black beans, rice, several salsas and homemade tortillas for the burritos but the pork barely made it to the table; everyone in the kitchen was picking at it. The flavor was unlike anything I remember before and the texture was as tender as if it had been slow cooked for eight hours. This lunch was one of the greatest successes of the summer and everyone who was lucky enough be there will carry the taste forever.

All I can say to friends who weren’t there is that my Tournebrouche travels well and I will gladly travel with it and do this meal or another like it again and again and again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Takeout with Nancy Silverton

As I was sitting at the Mozzarella bar at Osteria Mozza the other night, I was telling Nancy Silverton how much I loved the chicken at Pollo a la Brasa and how I had just written a blog about them. I knew she was a fan, and she immediately one-upped me and told me she has this routine—first she picks up a chicken at Pollo alla Brasa and then goes to Carousel, the amazing Armenian restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, to get side dishes to go with the chicken.
She invited me along with some friends to come over for dinner and try it out. I was beyond curious as to how these sides would fare with wood-roasted chicken, but I was sure Nancy knew what she was doing.
I arrived to a table Nancy had set up in her beautiful garden. With the outdoor fireplace blazing, I glanced over the amazing array of side dishes she'd laid out, each more mouthwatering than the next.
Nancy asked her friend Jason to stop at Sunnin Lebanese Café, to pick up some dishes there so we could compare. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I loaded my plate with everything—hummus, tabbouleh, mutabbal, muhammara (made with walnuts and red peppers), labneh harrah (a yogurt cheese with pickled peppers, tomatoes and olive oil) and, of course, the chicken and some pita. It was all sublime.
I thought the sides from Carousel were pretty amazing, and the dishes from Sunnin were good as well, especially the fattoush salad, made with tomato, onion, cucumbers, toasted bread and sumak. Nancy had this down, and as she was putting out the final offerings, she said, “No dishes, no mess.” A perfect dinner party.

Then she upped the ante with some of Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non wines, including the estate grenache and syrah. The grenache was mind blowing. I'd aways wanted to taste it, and sure enough, it was the best grenache I’ve had outside of France. The syrah was right up there, too.
Nancy was right: It’s a perfect dinner to throw together—a meal you couldn't improve on if you had made it yourself. I can’t wait to try it at home. Pollo alla Brasa, 764 S. Western Ave., 213-382-4090; Carousel, 5112 Hollywood Blvd., 323-660-8060; Sunnin, 1776 Westwood Blvd., 310-475-3358.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Soba Heaven

Sonoko Sakai, soba
Since I love anyone obsessed with food, it's no surprise that I would love Sonoko Sakai. I recently had dinner at her home. Aside from being an accomplished movie producer, she's also a master of the soba noodle, which is a buckwheat noodle from Japan. When made properly, these noodles can be transcendental.
My own experience with soba noodles was at Honmura An, a soba-noodle restaurant in New York, which prepared fresh soba daily. It was one of my favorite restaurants in N.Y., and I was devastated when they closed.
As I sat down with Sonoko, I shared my own obsession with making the perfect loaf of pain levain, a bread made with sourdough. Immediately, Sonoko and I had a meeting of the minds. She explained her passion for soba, how she approaches it as a kind of daily meditation and that if she misses a morning of making the noodles she’ll feel unbalanced. I knew I was in the right place—if you’re going to learn about how to make soba, then you want your teacher to have that kind of passion.
The thing is, real artisanal soba noodles are made with only buckwheat flour and water, and because buckwheat has no gluten, the measurements must be right or they will turn out chewy or will fall apart in the water. Most commercial soba you buy is mixed with wheat flour.
To watch a soba master make soba noodles from scratch is profound. In fact, Sonoko told me that the best soba masters grow their own buckwheat to their specifications. She even travels to Japan regularly to study with her teacher Akila Inouye and, in fact, brought him to L.A. to teach a few classes.
Sonoko Sakai, soba As I watched Sonoko, she sifted the imported buckwheat flour from Japan. After adding water, she began kneading the dough in a gigantic metal bowl. She then turned the dough into a ball with a little top, which she referred to as a nipple (her teacher calls it a Hershey's Kiss). Then, as she rolled the dough with four-foot pins, she used numbered discs to measure its height.
Sonoko Sakai, soba Sonoko kept apologizing for not being perfect yet, but her work looked flawless to me. Somehow, magically, the dough went from round to rectangular, then folded up into a tight little package. She then brought out a gigantic knife and started slicing the soba with consummate precision. She tells me that a true master actually slices without ever looking at the knife while slicing. Then she makes piles of perfectly sliced soba noodles ready to be boiled.
Sonoko Sakai, soba Finally, it is time to eat. She boils the soba noodles and then runs them under cold water—we’re eating them cold, which is my favorite way. We have fresh nori to crumble over the noodles and a broth with freshly grated daikon to dip the noodles in. With my first bite, I am transported into pure bliss—the taste and texture are just perfection.
I know I will always treasure this experience and am most definitely signing up for the next class when her teacher returns to L.A.
Sonoko Sakai, soba