Saturday, June 15, 2013

Craft Brews and BBQ

There's no denying the surge in interest and the proliferation of Craft Breweries around the country in the last couple of years.  America used to be a beer nation, but as wineries and importers expanded their taste and variety, they expanded their marketplace and finally, the US became a major world consumer of fine wines.  But, while the vintners cultivated their fields (and their profits), the beer industry started to evolve in the same way, crafting new tastes, textures and clientele to the point where you could almost say, beer is the new wine.

The evening's pairings, hand selected by Jeremy Eseroma, of Harry's Hofbrau fame.

 Having devoted several posts to wine and barbecue, some time back, I decided to rethink the process, based on some new friendships and some different sounding and tasting brews and had  the first of what I hope will be several, barbecue and craft beer pairings.

The genesis for the idea came from the fine work being done locally, by Jeremy Eseroma, chief brew buyer for Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose, Ca., which used to be the cold punchline to the joke, "Where does a good beer go to die?" Some would be shocked to find out that Jeremy is only 23 years old, because his demeanor, attitude and knowledge, far surpass his years.

Jeremy Eseroma
 He's been into craft brews for about four years (yeah, I  can add, too) and he convinced the owners at Harry's to give him a shot about a year and a half ago, because he seemed to know his way around a tap. As Jeremy tells it, his first big buy was about $8,000 worth of beer, and the owner went ballistic.  They had never bought more than $2,000 worth, before.  Jeremy allayed his fears, praying and after hosting a Killer San Francisco Craft Beer Week, they netted somewhere over $25,000 in profits and haven't looked back since.  When Jeremy came on, Harry's had eight taps and Kevin Olcese, the previous General Manager, was just laying the pipe-work to bring the restaurant into the Craft Beer Scene.  Now they have 29, and Jeremy hosts a beer event every Thursday, at the San Jose location on Saratoga Ave., tripling and even quadrupling sales over previous efforts, using social marketing, primarily personal Facebook Invitations and word of mouth.  (Click on Jeremy's name or photo to be taken to his page.  Friend up and maybe you'll get invited, too!)

As it happened, Jeremy reached out to me on Facebook, having enjoyed a few barbecue events at my house as a guest of my son, and invited my wife and I to a tasting.  Seeing him in action, matching customers to flavors, coaxing clientele to stay and try another taste experience, brought the idea to mind and the date was set for the Craft Brew and BBQ pairing night.

It was a "By Invitation Only" event and I sealed the participants at eight, bringing together some international wine palates, as well as a sous chef from Maggiano's Italian Restaurant, who is closely tied to the TapHunter group in San Diego, "relatively" speaking, and a bartender from some local establishments, both well versed in craft brews, themselves.

A week before the tasting, I provided Jeremy with the menu:  a variety of cheeses and garlic butter sauteed escargots to start, followed by rib-eye steaks, roasted potatoes, garlic bread and a medley of grilled snap peas, carrots, miniature bell peppers, mushrooms and, of course, bacon.  I picked up a 17 lb Prime Rib roast the day before the event and cut it into 20 oz. steaks, trimming some of the fatty cap off, then used a dry rub consisting mainly of garlic, sage, thyme, onion, various coarse Mediterranean salts and coffee. I sealed them in a pan and refrigerated for about eighteen hours, then marinated for about six hours prior to grilling, at room temperature. The stage was set.

We kicked off in the backyard around six p.m. with beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures.  Jeremy brought tasting glasses (no, not beer goggles), so we wouldn't get tanked as the evening progressed, and began his pairing of The Lost Abbey, Red Poppy Ale with the Triple Cream  French Brie.
This is what's known as a Creek Sour, referring to the brewing of cherries, aged in oak barrels.  The goal was to create a light acidic wash to counter the rich and creamy texture of the cheese.  The dark pallor and creamy effervescence gave way to a sweet nose with a balanced cherry tartness, like the afterglow of a a fresh cherry pie.  This is brewed and bottled by Port Brewing Company out of San Marcos, Ca. and has 5% alcohol by volume.

From there, we moved on to Heady Topper, an American Double India Pale Ale, to match up with the Italian Truffle Cheese, primarily a Jack and Mozzarella, infused with mushrooms.  IPA's are the backbone of the craft brew industry, and for many, it takes time and quantity to accept and eventually savor the bitter aftertaste.  This Double IPA boasts an 8% alcohol by volume, and there was considerable discussion about the instruction to Drink From The Can, prominently displayed.  From the can, to most it tasted bitter, fine for IPA aficionados. But, from the glass, it became light and fruity with tones of apricot and pineapple, and the cheese brought out more of the hops, which muddled the clarity and settled to the glass bottom.  Brewed and "canned" by the pint, by The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt.

Having recently returned from Barcelona, we acquired a taste for Manchego cheese, which is dryer and somewhat more mild compared to some of its Italian counterparts.  This time, to counter the mildness, Jeremy broke out a Belgian Ale brewed with spices, Fantome Saison.  The nose is peculiar for an ale, reminiscent of lavender, of all things, putting you in mind of bouquets of potpourri.  The taste, however, had an earthy smokiness, evoking a spicy-sweet mix of hibiscus, nutmeg, and even acorn (really, really young oak!)  Fantome is brewed and bottled (750 mil.) by Brasserie Fantome in Soy, Belgium, and imported by Shelton Brothers, Belchertown, Ma.

Jeremy had never eaten sauteed escargots before, so he was punting when he brought out the Oude Gueuze, a special Belgian Ale, aged for three years.  Escargots are rich and succulent, soaked in garlic butter, so he did well, balancing the textures with the Lambic Ale, which was light and fruity with hints of green apple and grapefruit, somewhat resembling a tart apple cider, but with a 6% alcohol by volume kick and the slightly bitter lemon rind finish.  Brewed and bottled (750 mil.) by Hanssens Artisanaal, in Dworp, Belgium, imported by B. United International, out of Redding, Ct.

The aroma of the grilling steaks meant it was time to move on to bigger and better fare, and much like I had advised Jeremy that the seasoning should never overshadow the meat, he chose to start us off with a light palate-cleansing Berlin-Style Tart Wheat Ale, the Berliner Hottenroth Weisse.  At only 3.1% by volume, the tartness of the ale reacted nicely with the rich, melt-in-you-mouth steaks and the neutralizing acid complimented, rather than washed away, any residual fatty flavor, from the marbling of the meat.  Hottenroth is a tribute beer, brewed and bottled (750 mil) by The Brewery, in Orange County, Ca.

Admittedly, conversation was flowing as fast as the ale at the table, so tasting notes went by the wayside, but I do recall that the ales got richer as the plates were cleared and we paused to gather our senses before dessert went on the table. The Firestone Walker's Reserve, a robust, dark Porter with tones of chocolate, toffee and caramel, was an excellent transition from the lighter wheat ale, and made us want to spark up Cubans and head outside.  But, alas, Cubans are illegal, right?  So, we mellowed and meandered as the mixed berries, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry, appeared in bowls before us, with whipped cream begging for our attention. It did not go wanting...

So, what more fitting compliment than to pull out an Imperial Stout, Santa's Little Helper, again from the Port Brewing Company in San Marcos, Ca.  Aged in oak barrels, the aromas of bourbon and vanilla filled the nose, while the sweet, rich finish, left nothing to be desired.  It seemed as close to a wine as beer could get, so when it was done, we moved on to a Chilean red...spicy, yet...

The evening was pronounced a success and the decision made to continue on the path as often as made fiscal sense, which right now means we plan on doing this monthly, at least through the summer.  So, look forward to more reviews with different flavored brews, with different flavored 'Qs.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Smoking Meats - The Easy Way

One pass-time my wife and I enjoy that the economy has been chipping away at, much to my chagrin, is the  Art and Wine Festivals that seemed to be so prevalent in my area, not so long ago.  Seems the cost of permits and booths is up, attendance is down and discretionary income has fallen to the same rate as your job security and 401k balance!

Nonetheless, we did find one locally, this past weekend, where we didn't have to wear a silly bracelet and could by drinks with cash instead of tickets.  That means at least two fewer lines to stand in when it's 90 degrees outside!  This one was held in a small town, nearby, where they could reasonably block off the street for two blocks, adjacent to some greenery, where the bandstand was set up, playing "classic rock", which I guess made us feel like classics, instead of "old".  It does kind of make me wonder what my grown kids will be listening to at fairs, thirty years from now.  Probably the same "classic rock"!

Since we've been doing art fairs for some number of years, we always like to look for some of our favorite artists, photographers, toe ring, wood carving, pottery, food, oil and spice purveyors because it's kind of like bumping into old friends on the street.  You can linger and chat and catch up, or beat a hasty retreat, without anyone taking offense!  I, personally, like to discover new trends or unique artistry and am quite comfortable talking about the different aspects of light, shading, grain, heft, smell, taste, etc., without ever worrying about the guilt of slinking away.  The way I figure it, the artists, et al., are bored and want to share, hopefully to make a sale, and usually, if they're occupied talking to me, others don't feel as shy wandering in, looking around and listening in on the conversation.

While the wife was off smelling candles and tasting dipping sauces, I happened upon a vendor I hadn't seen before: The Smokestack Co. - Culinary Seasoning Smoke.  Being the barbecue guy that I am, I was curious about their smoke-in-a-can concept.  Truth is, everybody who grills and barbecues, whether it's gas or wood, electric or charcoal, loves to get some smokey richness in their meat, but it truly is a pain in the butt to achieve.  You can soak chips and put them on your coals, but they burst into flames after the water has steamed off, or you can foil pouch and play around with where to put the pouch in your gas grill, but if you haven't figured out how to grill indirect on gas yet, you're not going to figure out smoke! You can use lump mesquite charcoal or cedar planks, but those are pretty heavy flavors and too much will ruin even a good rack of ribs.

The concept behind this seemed simple enough and appealed to the how-come-reverse-engineering side of me.  I always love it when a product fits in with my own concept of what was generally wrong to begin with and how it can logically be fixed.  Doesn't mean I'm going to fix it...but I can appreciate that someone else did!  Most people don't like to fuss.  Most people don't know how to get wood to smoke, not burn.  Most people don't want to store different types of wood and ruin meals playing with flavors.  Most people couldn't care less about the mechanics of grilling, they just want the food to taste great!  That's who Brant at Smokestack caters to: most people!

Brant took all the problems out and condensed the result into small cylinders with a can on top.  The cylinders contain wood chips: either hickory, alder, mesquite or applewood.  The chips are then mixed with a couple of complementary herbs and spices, like rosemary and dill, thyme and fennel, oregano and celery seed, or sage and ginger, and each has some vintage oak in it as an enhancer.  The top of each cylinder has a can, about two inches deep, with a removable lid and a small hole in the top.  Put the wood chips of choice in the can, set it on or near the heat source, and leave it alone.  No water, no fussing.

Well, it all seems logical, I told him. Eliminate the oxygen in the can and the chips will smolder, like tobacco in a water pipe, and the smoke will puff out the hole for about twenty to forty minutes, depending on the heat, permeating the meat.  So, I told him I was a blogger and had the biggest barbecue group on LinkedIn (Gourmet BBQ), and if it worked like he said, I'd give him some free publicity.

Well...apparently it worked, 'cuz here I am writing about it (and, no, he didn't give it to me for free!)  We came home from the fair and were planning on grilled lamb chops for five.  Lamb can be a little finicky and if you don't get it right (which usually means you overcooked it) it can taste a little gamy. That's why Zinfandel goes so well with it.  So, my lovely offered to run off to the store and I told her what we needed: three chops per person, Greek salad makings, tzsaziki, white rice and some bread for our new chipotle oil dipping sauce, also from the fair.

She returned with some beautiful lamb, prepackaged, so I suspect it was from New Zealand.  Four packages of four perfectly trimmed, one inch thick chops.  I like to prepare them simply, with olive oil and some Mediterranean sea salt.  We also have a rosemary bush, so I cut off some of the fresher sprigs and laid those across the top.  You can burn them for the smoke, but it's tedious and short-lived, so I just prefer to set the sprigs on top of the meat while it's grilling.  I prepared my fire, then set my can of applewood smoke on top of the grill, above the coals.  I figure one can should do it, and after about five minutes, smoke was burping out of the top hole.  I closed my barbecue's vent holes to hold as much of the smoke in the grill as I could.

Lamb is dense and fatty, so you're better off grilling it indirect, if you don't want an inferno on your hands.  I'm a charcoal guy, so I like my fire at about 300 degrees for this and flip the chops a couple of times, rearranging them so that they've all had equal time and distance (not far) from the coals.  I carefully replaced the rosemary sprigs on top of the meat, after each flip. About twenty-five minutes in, I figured we were ready: firm on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.  A perfect medium rare.  I threw the rosemary sprigs directly over the heat and they gave me one last burst of fire and smoke and then we hit the table.

It's outdoor dining season in my yard, so with the sun setting, the fountain burbling and the fire-pit flames lapping at the cooling night air, a hungry gathering of my wife and I, my daughter, her boyfriend and a good friend of mine, whom I feed pretty regularly, sat down to our Mediterranean feast.  The lamb was perfect, with just a hint of the applewood, sage and ginger, mixed in with the rosemary. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed.  Lamb can be overwhelming, so it may not even have been a fair test, but the Smokestack passed with flying colors.  The salad of tomatoes, kalamata olives, red peppers and feta cheese was cool and crisp with tzsaziki on top; lightly seasoned white rice cleansed the palate from the spice of the chipotle oil dipping sauce. The whole meal, like the day itself, was delightful, accompanied by a Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, 'cuz I'm not much of a Zin guy.  My daughter's boyfriend, who happens to be a sous chef at Maggiano's, was pleased enough with his first plate to announce without hesitation that, he was goin' for full-on seconds!

So, if you want the flavor of smoked meats off your grill, but don't want to deal with all of the fuss, check out The Smokestack Co. and find a retailer or download an order form and fax it in. Brant will set you up with a gift pack of all four seasoned woods for $25, and each cylinder will do up to eight barbecues, bringing you in at about sixty cents a pop.  Great concept, great product, great price.  Like I always say, come gift givin' time, you can't go wrong with barbecue stuff or wine.  Go ahead...prove me wrong!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Melting Pot

You gotta love this country!  And I, sure as heck, love the part of the country that I'm in...which is Northern California.

Apart from the temperate climate, in general (though we had the rainiest June since the 1860s and the temperature decided to jump to 95 instead of the usual 82), we're surrounded by the Sierra foothills and the mountainous coastal ranges, and the bay lowlands, which keep us cool in the evenings and, for some reason I don't really understand, virtually bug free.  No droning gnats, flies or mosquitoes to distract from the comfort of the cool summer and fall evenings.  And the low humidity means we don't need air conditioning, either and can enjoy the quiet of cross ventilation with open windows.

Maybe because of the climate, there's a relatively large and active Greek population, and that means, every summer we get to enjoy Greek Festivals.  Those that know my background, know that I hearken back to my education in Classical Archaeology and the many trips I took to Greece, including a six week stay in Athens, exploring the Acropolis, traveling out to Delphi, Mycenae and Corinth and a week on the island of Paros, when I was an impressionable seventeen, attending a study abroad program, before going off to college.

I love the culture, the architecture, the history, the language, the people...and the food!  That, of course, is why I love Greek festivals.  I get to show off the few phrases in Greek that I can rattle off, causing friends to mutter to my wife, "Why does your husband know Greek?"  But I get to lead us around, trying the dolmades, spanakopitas, pastitsio, souvlaki, gyros and Greek salads, stuffed with kalamata olives and feta cheese.

When I was younger, in Greece, there was Ouzo, Mythos beer, Retsina and Domestica, if you wanted wine in a bottle.  Now, the choices are so numerous in bottled exports, both beer and wine, I won't even begin to go into them here.  But suffice it to say, if the Greeks spend more time cultivating and exporting their newest beverage products, they won't have to worry too much about their austerity measures!

The sites and smells of the festivals are unparalleled.  Our local festival is held at an Orthodox church and tents are set up everywhere selling T-shirts, cook books and trinkets, before you turn the corner to the bazaar of spit-roasting lamb, pita bread, sausage, and the essential baked goods of baklava, dripping with honey, or our personal favorite, loukoumades; honey dipped puff pastries.  (My wife and I like these so much, that on our last Mediterranean cruise a few years ago, we walked what seemed an eternity, on Crete, searching for, what we thought, was a pastry as common as donuts are to us, here.  Not so.  Apparently, it's a specialty of only a few places, either because it's too much of a mess to make, too common for the locals to eat, or a lost art.  Take your pick.)

Regardless, after two or three hours of stuffing ourselves on tasty treats of all varieties and sampling as many wares as we could, while watching traditional dance to balalaika bands, we purchase a cook book and meander homeward, with the sweet taste of honey still on our tongues and the memory of the sky blue Mediterranean in our thoughts.  


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Sauvignon Blanc

One of the great things about living in Northern California is that, when summer comes, the days are long and hot, but the evenings cool down to the temperate seventies, allowing for all-evening-long, outdoor entertaining by the barbecue and fire pit.

Every Wednesday, here at Bubba's house, I do what I refer to fondly as the Wednesday Night Appreciation Dinner.  It's for an unknown quantity of guests, the usual four of us (my wife, daughter and a good friend) and an appreciating and appreciative group of my son's friends.  He's off in Montana in college, but his friends, male and female, like to come over for recollection's sake, some of my barbecue that they've enjoyed for years, and long conversations without the television on for company, and things that don't involve their iphone least for a while!

Grill Management at its finest!
Now that they're over twenty-one, for the most part, I usually invite them to bring some wine, and we elders pass on what wisdom we can about current events, wine, relationships and music.  With the temperatures soaring into the high nineties earlier in the week, I thought it was a good time to trot out some nicely chilled white wines and finally review the other bottle I received from John Boring at the California Wine Club, the Robledo, Seven Brothers, Lake County Sauvignon Blanc.

The warmth of the evening called for simple fare, so I served up barbecued chicken thighs (because I prefer the moistness of the dark meat), grilled indirect for an hour, seasoned with Chaka's MMM sauce and Grandville's Extra Spicy BBQ Jam, blended in a pot on the grill and basted liberally every ten minutes, or so; some Farmer John's Smoked Sausage, also grilled indirect so the skin doesn't blacken and blister; home style potato salad, garlic bread and mini bell peppers, lightly grilled in extra virgin olive oil with grilled, sliced mushrooms, using a barbecue tray, my daughter thoughtfully gave me after she saw me losing  shrooms through the grill top!  As you can see, with proper temperature control, there's nothing you can't put on the grill!  The stage was set and dinner for seven, and a wine review, for hungry stomachs and eager, young palates was in the offing!

Outstanding Medal Winner
It must be said, that when it comes to white wines, the taste in my mind runs to the German Kabinetts and Spatleses I grew up with in Europe, because I enjoyed the fruity crispness, and  I have great disdain for Chardonnay, mainly because I hate the hackneyed and cliched term buttery! (I once belonged to the Anything But Chardonnay Wine Club, until they, inexplicably, sent me a bottle of...Chardonnay! Go figure.

As my palate refined, Saunignon Blanc became the natural choice of warm weather wine.  Nicely chilled, but not shocked.  (As the Europeans will tell you, Americans tend to drink their reds too warm and their whites too cold, rascals that we are!)

I poured the Robledo into as many glasses as age and preference permitted, and held my glass up to the fading light of the sunset.  The color was crisp and clear, without the mildest hint of the bronze discoloration that sediment brings.  It showed great legs and a mildly sweet scented bouquet.  I was pleased with the friendly crispness of my first sip and delicately smooth finish.  No harsh after burn in the back of the throat, as with so many French whites.

I'm not one for flowery descriptions of oak and tannin, with hints of raspberry and pineapple as some are,  so, here's what the Robledo's themselves, say about it:

"This pale yellow wine is clear and bright, ready to wow you with zesty aromas of tropical fruits and green apple. Its fruit flavors are intense, highlighted by green tea and citrus notes. This mouthcoating wine ends with a crisp butripe finish. A terrific Sauvignon Blanc, even just by itself!"

Couldn't have said it better if I were a wine dude!  Anyway, the evening proceeded with comparisons to other  Sauvignon Blancs as they reached the table, some popular, some trendy and some from another boutique winery we like, and I have to say again, without even knowing that this is a $20 bottle that his club offers at a great value at $10.99 a bottle, John surprised me with another winner! 

Do yourselves a favor and contact John at the California Wine Club.  You're going to have to prove me wrong when I say that this family business of theirs is doing something special for boutique California wineries