I tried to recreate a meal I used to cook often about 25 years ago; steamed chicken thighs, stuffed with ham, swiss cheese, and green onions – a healthy version of Chicken Cordon blue. I wasn’t able to extricate the thigh bone from the center of the thighs, so I rolled the deboned thighs and used cooking twine to tie them around the other ingredients completely.

Instead of steaming in water, I used an entire bottle of $1.99 2007 FoxBrook Sauvignon Blanc California. I tried to drink a glass of this wine, but poured it out, choosing to cook with it instead. Where another Sauvignon Blanc might have a note of cat pee in the nose, this wine tasted of piss. Not a wine I will ever buy again.

I served the Cordon Blue-esque Chicken up with a creamy chicken rice, to which I added a ton of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

I paired dinner with a 2008 Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Chardonney California. Clear pale gold  in color, this 13% alc wine has a ton of notes and flavors for an under $9 wine at Lucky supermarket. Crisp apple and citrus nose gives way to tropical fruit, grapefruit, and apple, balanced by oak and sweet cream, in the mouth. A nice medium bodied Chardonnay with a long light finish characterized by apple and acidity. I liked it lots, and saved the rest of the bottle with a Wine Preserva flavor saver disc.

Overall, a pretty tasty and moderately showy meal.

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Speaking of showy meals, I’ll be auditioning for Gordon Ramsey’s Masterchef on FOX in 11 days. If you live in Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, open casting calls are coming up; for more information, here’s a link: http://www.3ballproductions.com/masterchef.html

Jennifer Pitchke, a reader of my blog left this comment about the audition process:

Just wanted to let you know I went to the New York auditions and it was nothing like I expected so I wanted to give you heads up. I thought it would be like a one on one. Nope–you will be asked to stand with up to 8 others at one time to plate and they go down the line and you have maybe two minutes with them so back those two minutes good because I sure didn’t. My food rocked but felt I could have handled the Q&A better. Good Luck.

If you have read about the real audition process for American Idol auditioners, not the select few put through to see Simon Cowell and the gang, then Jennifer’s description is familiar. I don’t have cancer, a dead wife, or a very ill or disabled family member to exploit through the audition process, FOX loves the sob backstory in casting their reality shows, but I can cook and have personality; hopefully that will be enough. I will happily keep my healthy family and miss out on being cast if it really comes to that.

I had planned to serve involtini, polenta, and red sauce with a solid red wine. I’m adding a pesto sauce to the mix, so I can “paint” my white presentation plate with the red (homemade Italian red sauce), white (polenta), and green (pesto) of the Italian flag, and lay my sliced pinwheels of involtini across the flag in a line.

The presentation is better, the flavors still work great, and the food allows me to tell my story of growing up watching my Italian American father Charlie Cesano cooking, and how it has inspired my brother Thomas , myself, and my 12 year old son Charlie to be the primary cooks in our kitchens.

CBS has CSI; NBC has Law and Order. Both have spun off myriad incarnations.

FOX has Gordon Ramsey. Hells, Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Cookalong, and coming later this year Masterchef.

Masterchef is another BBC import, and turns amateur but passionate cooks into cheftestants, competing against each other, until only one is left.

I am going to be attending a casting call in San Francisco later this month, bringing the elements to plate a prepared dish with five minutes preparation – a different thermos for each part of the dish, presentation plate, spoon, tongs, cutting board, knife, steel, towels, napkin.

I’m bringing my involtini on polenta with homemade Italian red sauce, and a bottle of red wine. I think wine is part of a meal, and ingredient of the dish. So I’ll also be bringing wine, corkscrew, and wineglass as well as all of the food pack. I think I may look for a cooler with wheels and handle.

I’m hoping my brother auditions in either New Orleans or Los Angeles, we could be the Masterchef version of Top Chef’s Voltaggio brothers.

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I applied for a fellowship award to attend this year’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley, February 16-19, 2010.

On the Symposium  website’s page for Fellowship Opportunities, it says, “awardees will be notified by telephone and or e-mail by January 8, 2010, and their names will be posted on the Fellowship page at the Symposium website…those who are not awardees will be notified by e-mail.”

Last night, looking at the site’s page for registration, I found the statement, “Fellowship recipients will be notified by January 15, 2010.”

I thought I would know whether the writing samples I provided scored well enough with five judges to earn a Fellowship award by tomorrow, and I was already antsy, anxious, at waiting. Now I think I may have to wait another week before finding out my fate.

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I did win two tickets to a terrific food and wine tasting Friday evening, February 19, 2010 (and yes, I can attend the Symposium and tasting on February 19, 2010), Dark & Delicious 2010 in Alameda, CA. Dark & Delicious pairs Petite Sirah from great producers with foods prepared by some of the top chefs in the Bay Area.

I am hugely excited to taste great wines and foods, I love Petite Sirah, so this is right up my alley. I am also going to get to meet some other wine bloggers, including Eric Hwang. Eric handles social media marketing for Windsor Vineyards, I used to handle tradeshow marketing for Windsor Vineyards.

I think there might be a few tickets left, here’s the link to info: http://psiloveyou.org/dd10/

Thank you Jo Diaz for running a ticket contest.

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The mailman has been busy. I received the winter issue of Washington Tasting Room, an attractive, colorful new wine magazine, featuring beautiful photography and solid written content. Recipes, feature articles on selected wineries, a tasting room calendar of special events, and wine columns make this a worthy stand out magazine. I love that the writing puts me right in some of Washington’s tasting rooms, tasting wines; my wine knowledge is limited to California wines, mostly north coast wines, so any magazine that can educate me while entertaining is a must read.

I loved reading about Yakima’s downtown restaurants waiving corkage fees for folks who bring a wine bought that day from a neighboring downtown Yakima tasting room. The news piece quotes a restaurant owner “We’ll wash two glasses any day to sell more dinners…the program is working. The wineries love it and they’re sending customers our way.”

Thanks to John Vitale for sending me this complimentary copy.

From the Wine Appreciation Guild, I received Dr. Richard Baxter’s “Age Gets Better With Wine.” You’ll read my review when I read it – I’m in the middle of a novel so embarrassingly trashy I won’t share the title. I’ve skimmed Age Gets Better With Wine, and I look forward to getting into it soon; with 20 pages of references listed, it appears to be a solid work, and yet my skim suggested a user friendliness. More later.

Also from the Wine Appreciation Guild, I received a new wine preservation system. I am half way through my evaluation of the product and will post a review over the weekend.

Thanks to the Wine Appreciation Guild.

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Completely not related to wine or food, the mailman also delivered a package from a good friend Mike Jasper. The outside of the package was torn, trampled, dirty, cut, a letter of apology from the post office was included. The contents appear perfect however. Jasper sent me a boxed set of 4 discs covering the complete season one of A&E’s Rollergirls. I think Jasper actually knows some of the girls, and when visiting him a while back, we watched an episode and I was stunned by the “there is room on television for anything” aspect of the show’s existence. I am delighted to receive this fine gift, although it will likely wait some time before I view it.

Jasper also sent the October 2009 issue of Playboy so I could read the feature on the 1970s Oakland Raiders.

While I might read this issue of Playboy for the articles, I’m pretty sure my 12 year old son wouldn’t even glance at the Raider article, so I have to put this away.

Thanks Jasper.

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I was just going to put a pair of tri tips on the grill, when I got a call from my local grocery…my order of pork belly is available for me to pick up. Hurray, this is going to be a great week of eating in the Cesano house.

I’m thinking of trying Top Chef cheftestant Kevin Gillespie’s pork belly recipe.

As always, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have a friend named Rob who isn’t really a wine guy. Rob isn’t alone, many people aren’t into wine.

The wine industry has allowed a perception that wine is more special than beer to permeate society. Working guys drink beer. Fancy pant elites drink wine.

I don’t know of any other industry that would purposely allow barriers to purchase to exist like this.

With wine, we’re not talking about unattainably expensive status symbol luxury items like Rolex watches, but there are many people who would more willingly buy a Rolex watch than a bottle of wine. With the Rolex, you know what you bought, an expensive, investment grade, time piece.

People just don’t know about wine, and not knowing are afraid to order it.

By allowing wine to be perceived as complex, a beverage for learned experts, the industry has fostered a fear in consumers. “I’m not James Bond, I don’t know a good vintage, or even a wine type; I’ll just have a beer, or a shot of tequila, or a Mojito, or a coke, or iced tea…anything but wine. I don’t want to look stupid in front of my friends or the waiter or the shop keeper.”

At the same time that Bacardi was marketing their rum through aggressive Mojito promotion, and selling more rum than ever, the wine industry was allowing fear to continue to be a wall most people won’t climb to try their product.

I could scream.

I read the blogs of many wine writers, pick up the wine magazines, keep up on marketing trends. 100 point wine ratings, 5 star ratings, indecipherable wine speak, Frasier Crane-esque reverence paid to a handful of producers of wines not available to the general public or too expensive to justify buying. Open a door or window and let’s get some air in here; most of what you’ll read about wine is from writers who have bought into the failed marketing of the industry – of absolutely no interest to anyone outside of the community of wine cognoscenti. Yawn.

Wine is so much better with most meals than beer, or iced tea, or coke, or just about any other beverage, but the industry is not getting that message across; it also hurts that restaurant wines cost triple what they would in a store and wine service is generally poor.

The next time you are in a nice restaurant, you will see many if not most people drinking beer or iced tea instead of wine. I can assure you that given a wine recommendation that would suit their meal better, and offered a glass of that wine at a reasonable price, most everyone would be drinking and enjoying both their wine and their meal more. I blame the wine industry for poor marketing.

Rather than be one of thousands of other wine writers bleating about the same unattainable cult wines, effectively bragging to my fellow wine writers about the wines I am drinking, I want to write about wine for the guy that would rather have wine with his meal but doesn’t want to feel like an ass.

Although wine knowledge is never ending, wine is simple. Let me say that again; Wine Is Simple.

Take the wine I drank my Christmas meal with, a 2008 Menage a Trois from Folie a Deux winery in Napa County’s St. Helena; while the wine goes for $12 a bottle, I just found the same wine on sale at Lucky’s supermarket for $8.99, so price needn’t be an obstacle to having good wine with food.

I appreciate that there are a wealth of wines in supermarkets that run from $8 – $20 per bottle, and some are good and some aren’t. I’ll try to taste a number of them and give you my recommendations.

Menage a Trois is a playful way of saying that the wine is a blend of three grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of reds, big, structured, dense, with black berry and currant notes, Merlot, Cab’s softer sister red, rounder, fleshier, with cherry notes, and Zinfandel, a brash, in your face red, with raspberry notes.

You have heard, “red wine with meat.” With three red wines in one bottle, this wine is a great wine for pairing with a host of meat dishes from hamburgers and hotdogs to pork shoulder and flank steak. Pasta in an Italian red sauce, Caesar salad; heck, I could drink this wine with just about anything and be happy.

Wine shouldn’t be about inviolable rules, but I will share a few “wouldn’t be a bad idea”s with you along the way.

The “wouldn’t be a bad idea” for today is not overfilling your wine glass just because you have the room to do so. My wine glasses are large, either 16 or 20 ounces, and I pour no more than 4 ounces in my glass. I get to swirl the wine, let it breathe, let the bowl of the wine glass collect wonderful scents, bury my nose in the glass, and inhale all the aroma and bouquet the wine has to give. A sniff and a sip, can change a bite of already good food into something almost transcendent. Doesn’t always, but, oh is it nice when it does!

I can get about six glasses of wine from a bottle at 4 ounces per glass. That means my $8.99 sale bottle of 2008 Menage a Trois is costing me about a buck and a half per glass.

The wine industry should be telling you that you can get a great wine to pair with food at home for about a buck and a half a glass.

That’s a lot more valuable information to most consumers than knowing about another garage winery whose entire release is sold out but just got a 10 page write up in a major wine publication after scoring a perfect 100 points in a possibly not blind tasting.

I’ll be visiting Fetzer and Bonterra in Mendocino County, doing some wine tasting close to home this week, hopefully I will be able to make some more recommendations. I also want to taste some of Topel Winery’s wines, they are also from nearby, but their tasting room is in Healdsburg, so tasting for me will have to wait a bit. I also should be seeing some wine accessory samples arrive this week that a distributer said they would send; I’ll try those out and let you know what I think. I’m also going to try cooking polenta a different way, and I’m going to make another batch of involtini this week. Lots of things to write about, I hope you’ll keep checking in.

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If you do have the time, and are near Healdsburg, CA stop into the Topel Winery tasting room and taste some wines before year’s end. They have a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Grace at $130/case ($1.80/glass) , 2004 Hidden Vineyard Cabernet at $190/case ($2.64/glass), and 2005 Cuvee Donnis Syrah at $150/case ($2.08/glass). These prices are discounted 43 – 51% per case, promo codes are “Grace”, “Hidden”, and “Donnis”, and the sale only runs through the end of December.

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Edited to add: A friend, and reader of my blog, Shannon let me know that the 2008 Menage a Trois was $6.99 at Costco. Seriously, at $1.16 a glass, this wine costs less per ounce than the bottled water I bought at the Fairplex in Pomona, CA at the beginning of this month. Buy it, pair it with meat. Thank me later.

Involtini. A flavorful pinwheel of meat and stuffing. I hadn’t had any in over twenty years. It took me a long time to realize that I was going to get to eat it again for Christmas dinner, even as I rolled my hands up to help cook it.

Seventeen people were coming for Christmas dinner and my mother-in-law Joan’s house. When I left Ukiah on Tuesday to take my son to visit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, I thought Joan was cooking a turducken and I was thrilled. I almost cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving, but went traditional banging out the perfect turkey; so my joy at trying this remakable ballotine was nearly palpable.

Turducken is a Lousiana specialty where a turkey is boned and stuffed with a boned duck, which was previously stuffed with a boned chicken, all further stuffed with cornbread and sausage stuffing; and a ballotine is a protein, meat, fish or fowl, that has been boned, stuffed, rolled, tied, and cooked.

When I arrived Tuesday, Joan told me that turducken was off the menu, she did not remove the poultry from the shipping container, thinking that there was enough dry ice to keep it well for several days. Sadly, most food is shipped with only enough dry ice to get it safely to your door and such was the case here, the turducken was unfrozen and not cold on the outside, and as it was poultry that meant that there was surely spoilage.

Joan told me that we would be having a “brah-zhule” on polenta. I didn’t know what a “brah-zhule” was, but didn’t confess to my ignorance.

On Wednesday, Joan and I started prepping Christmas dinner. I love cooking with Joan, she is a great cook, and our backgrounds do not overlap, so I always learn a ton cooking with her. Joan asked me to pound out some already thin carne asada meat, either flank or skirt steak, so that each steak was larger in surface area. I pounded each piece of carne asada until it was about twice the original surface area.

Meanwhile, Joan combined garlic, flat-leaf parsley, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, pine nuts, and bacon. Joan spooned the mixture onto the meat, rolled it up, and I tied each ballotine with cooking string.

With a flash of comprehension, I realized that “brah-zhule” was similar to what I knew as involtini. A check on the internet, and I find that braciole and involtini are the exact same food item and oddly has two names.

Traditionally, instead of spooning a lump of the stuffing mixture onto the meat, and wrapping it by rolling and tying, the stuffing is usually spread thinly along the surface of the meat, then rolled and tied. The only difference is that the involtini/braciole, when sliced, will present a pinwheel of meat and stuffing when prepared in the traditional manner.

Joan made meatballs and browned them, then put them in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Next, she browned and added to the pan both sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages, some boneless pork shoulder, and the involtini.

We covered the meats in an Italian red sauce of tomato, wine, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices, and set it in the oven to cook most of the way, just needing a little oven time on Christmas to reheat and finish.

On Christmas day, Joan set about cooking polenta in a crock pot, using a recipe by Michele Anna Jordan found in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091215/LIFESTYLE/912149959/1309

Polenta is a cornmeal mush with butter and cheese, and is to Italian cooking what rice is to many other cultures. Put it on a plate, and top it with what you have available. Peasant food become fancy.

Okay, here’s the thing; I grew up eating a lot of involtini in Italian red sauce over polenta. I grew up in an Italian family, and the men hunted. Weekends would find twenty or more Italian men up at a 13,500 acre ranch, hunting by day and cooking by night. This is a dish I ate in endless variety growing up, the meat and stuffing changing, almost always cooked by men. Imagine the scene in the Godfather where Clemenza is teaching Michael the art of making spaghetti sauce for twenty, or the scene from Goodfellas where, in prison,  Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade paper thin for tomato sauce. That’s how it felt growing up. Men cooked, not all the time, but almost always better than the women.

Other treats cooked up for Christmas dinner included my take on a Rachael Ray recipe potato dish: I cut up 1 1/2 pound each of baby fingerling heirloom potatoes, baby ruby gold potatoes, baby dutch yellow potatoes, and baby South American purple potatoes. I cut each baby potato in half length wise, then cut them from one end to the other into 1/4″ slices. I put the six pounds of sliced potatoes into a roasting pan.

To 6 cups of heavy cream, I added a stick of butter, 4 cloved of crushed fresh garlic, and 4 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme. I cooked over a medium flame, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes, deeply infusing the cream with flavor. I strained the cream, adding about two ounces of microplaned (super finely grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and poured the super flavored cream over the potatoes.

Next, I microplaned five more ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a large bowl, then spead the cheese on top of the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes. Better than Rachael’s recipe, more flavorful, it came out just fine; think of an Italian rustic potato au gratin dish.

There was sweet potato wrapped marshmallow, on a pineapple ring, topped with a cherry, a spiral cut ham, a perfectly baked salmon with lemon, butter and herb, stuffed zucchini, baked oyster, green bean casserole, salad, french bread, and more. It was all great, but for me, it was all about the involtini.


For my first pass through the chow line, I ladled polenta onto my plate, on top of the polenta I put meats, the involtini, some meatballs, some pork shoulder, and some sausage, and on top of the meat I ladled Italian red sauce.

I also poured myself a glass of the 2008 Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With raspberry notes from the Zin, cherry from the Merlot, and blackberry from the Cab, this wine was loaded with rich juicy red fruit notes, and was a great wine for dinner as each food could find a different element of the wine to pair with. Inexpensive, only about $12 a bottle, I was impressed throughout the meal with this wine’s versatility and deliciousness. Honestly, better with food than without.

I spent quite a while with my first plate at dinner, scooping a little polenta, a bit of meat, and some sauce into a perfect bite, sipping a little wine, the emergent whole so much better than the sum of its parts. Each bite a joyful experience, and a trigger to memories of times spent with my father, my brother, and a bunch of old Italian men many years ago.

My second plate was a tasting of the other dishes. While good, some great – I have to get the stuffed zucchini recipe – none, for me, matched the magic of involtini, sauce, and polenta.

I had a glass of bubbly, Korbel’s first sparkler, their Sec. Korbel Sec is made with French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, and is a little sweeter than most bubblies, but not cloyingly so. It was nice to have bubbly on hand. One of Joan’s daughters (my son’s aunt) got married last week, and a grandaughter (my son’s cousin) will have a baby next month on or near my birthday. There were many reasons to be enjoying bobbly, but any day that ends in “y” is a good day to drink bubbly – no reason needed.

For Christmas, I received an electric pepper mill, an oregano dipping oil, a “green” water bottle, and a stack of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines, from the folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. I am really looking forward to reading the food magazines, they look chock full of ideas for me to try out.

I was pleased to see my son’s face as he opened his presents. He listened to the rock songs featuring saxophone that I loaded onto his new iPod, is ecstatic about getting an XBox 360, and is old enough to be happy about getting new clothes.

It was great seeing family, it is nice that I am friends with my son’s mom, my ex-wife, and that her family still consider me their son-in-law, brother-in-law, or uncle. It was great getting to cook, and getting to help cook. It was fun learning that involtini is also known as braciole.

One of the best Christmas gifts I received were the memories of times spent with my father, triggered by food. My father passed away in 2008, but he was alive in my memory as I cooked and ate Christmas dinner.

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