The Prima Donna of Wine

Pinot Noir, our lovely little Prima Donna.  So stubborn, non-commital and finicky yet so elegant, intriguing and enchanting.  It’s practically impossible not to become transfixed by this conundrum of a grape.  Miss Pinot is a very thin skinned grape with compact bunches that make her susceptible to fungus and gray rot in rainy seasons.  Because she buds and ripens early she is also vulnerable to frost, coulure (abortion of berries) and, if the temperatures spike, she looses her vibrant fruitiness.  

Like her friend, The Jock Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir stubbornly refuses to be rushed to ripeness.  She requires a cooler climate and a shorter growing season, regardless of the potential climatic dangers.  

But where our Prima Donna gets her reputation is in her penchant to mutate as if on a whim.  Like a fashionista, Pinot Noir will change herself to fit her environment.  If she decides she isn’t getting enough light, she might produce white berries instead of red ones.  Or perhaps she will change her skin thickness, color, sugar levels, disease resistance or typical yields.  She will do what she must to continue to live.  So, while she can be vulnerable, she is inherently a survivor.  Her ability to mutate has lead to a huge variety of clones, some of which are so successful they are now considered varietals in their own right such as Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.  Indeed, the study of Pinot Noir clones/ mutations could take one years to fully understand.

Although picky in so many ways, Pinot Noir isn’t overly picky when it comes to soil type.  Traditionally, she shows best in limestone soils, but this isn’t a blanket rule.  She grows well in a variety of soil types, but requires depth and drainage to be truly happy.  

For all the above reasons, the place where Pinot Noir is happiest and at her best is in the Burgundy region of France.  Especially in the villages of Cote d’Or, Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin one will find some of the world’s finest expressions of Pinot Noir.  The combination of climate, soil, topography and the local’s cultural respect for this grape are a perfect fit for our Prima Donna.  Additionally, Pinot Noir does very well in the Champagne region where she teams up with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier to create the world’s most sought after sparkling wines.  She even occasionally teams up with Gamay in Burgundy and Switzerland.

But Pinot Noir cannot remain exclusive to one region.  Her beauty needs to be shared and she also does very well in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and California’s Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.  All these regions mimic the conditions of her beloved homeland in Burgundy.

Elsewhere in France, the Alsatians honor her quality by allowing her to be the only black grape permitted to be grown in the region.  She also grows in the Jura region east of Burgundy and Sancerre in the upper Loire Valley.
New Zealand and Australia have recently found success in producing quality versions of Pinot Noir.  New Zealand in particular makes fine examples in the Otago, Marlborough, Martinborough, Canterbury and Nelson regions.
Around the world she can be found in Germany (but there she has an alias: Spatburgunder), Spain, N. Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Ontario, British Columbia, Chile and South Africa.

Winemakers have no more luck in easily charming this Prima Donna than do the grape growers.  She is typically better when minimally interfered with and therefore most winemakers choose to be as hands-off as possible with her.  In cooler climates, they may chapatalize (add sugar) in order to achieve desired alcohol levels.  Additionally, they may choose to nod to tradition and allow the grapes to macerate for several days before fermentation to increase color and tannin extraction.

Once the fermentation process has begun, typically in open topped containers, the juice is gently punched down (pigage) during fermentation.  Matured in oak casks, new or used, depending on the winemakers’ desired outcome, Pinot Noir is generally viewed as better without filtering or fining.

For all her trouble Pinot Noirs’ beauty in the glass is a sight to behold.  Typically pale to medium ruby, she may sometimes appear as deep ruby, but she is never opaque and is always very feminine.  While in youth she can be only lightly aromatic, with age Pinot Noir is usually moderately to highly aromatic.  Aromas of red fruit are a good indicator that the wine in your glass is Pinot Noir.  Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, cranberry, occasionally candied red fruits or plum notes along with hints of violet or mushrooms are typical aromas.  With some age, she will begin to show notes of leather, must, game, incense or barnyard.  For all her finicky stubborn fickleness, our Prima Donna is quite subtle and modest in the mouth.  Moderate tannin, acid and body/ alcohol are typical traits of Pinot Noir.


Apple Ginger Tart Reinvented…ish

So I hit a couple snags when it came to producing my new and improved apple ginger tart last week.  My partner was out sick and we had 3 large parties booked so I was not able to play around with the cannelles, etc the way I had hoped.  Que triste!  However, it did get my production techniques down to a science.  Here’s a picture below of the final version of the tarts- these are the extras I made for family meal.  I made Bourbon whipped cream instead of vanilla ice cream and had to use these ugly plates because of the large volume of guests, but aside from that everything is the same.  I guess I’ll have to make time to play around with everything else another time!

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Rustic French Apple Ginger Tart

I’ve been working on this dessert for one of my classes at school. It’s a student-run restaurant and I’m currently on the breads/ desserts station. I L.O.V.E. making bread! There’s something very satisfying about making something out of basically nothing. But anyways, back to the dessert.

So it’s getting colder here in Chicago so I thought that making something comforting and familiar would be nice for our guests. So my dessert is a Rustic French Apple Ginger Tart. I had to add the ginger to make it a LITTLE different. And I love the combination of flavors there- I think they work really well together.

Originally, I served it with some vanilla ice cream that we made, then changed the garnish to Bourbon whipped cream and now we’re back to vanilla ice cream again. Which reminds me, I need to make more creme anglaise aka Nectar of the Ice Cream Gods.

In the apple mixture is fresh ginger, lemon zest and juice, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. I wanted to keep it very simple and let the flavors of the apples shine. The puff pastry was egg washed and sprinkled with sugar before baking and the vanilla ice cream is just the classic version. We topped it off with caramel sauce,  freshly grated nutmeg and dried white chocolate powder (gotta love that molecular gastronomy)!

Underneath are thinly sliced Granny Smith Apples that I caramelized using some sugar and a blow torch. Any excuse to play with a blow torch, right!?!?

Here’s a picture of the dessert as we served it last week:

So, there’s a lot of room for improvement here. This week we’re going to cannelle some of the ice cream in advance, placing them on a frozen half sheet tray and storing them in the freezer (duh) until service. I think this will be a huge improvement over the melon baller technique we used last week. It was worth a shot, but didn’t quite work out the way we’d hoped. That’s half the fun of experimenting, though, figuring out what works and what doesn’t!

Also, the apples need to be moved out more, so that you can see them. And I think I’m going to try to dry them out a little in the oven before sprinkling them with sugar and turning the blow torch on them (Yay! Blow torch! Such a fun kitchen toy). 😉 Last week there was too much moisture in the apples to make caramelizing the sugar an easy task.

We also considered using the anti-griddle for the ice cream, but I’m not sure we can get the shape we want out of it. Perhaps I can get the creme anglaise into a nice disc shape and prop it up on the tart? This will require more experimentation, for sure. Which is fine with me because in my world the only thing more fun than the blow torch is the anti-griddle!

So, check back for an update of how these changes worked or didn’t work and I’ll be sure to post a picture of the final product.

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Hot oil packing Jiardinere

October 24, 2011 1 comment

I just discovered a fun new canning technique using hot oil and an oven instead of boiling water!
First, we prepped our veggies (red and green Bells, jalapenos, olives, carrots, cauliflower and onions) and then let them sit in a brine (champagne vinegar, water and salt) for 48 hours. We drained them, but did NOT rinse them.

Then we sanitized our jars and kept them on the rack over the stoves to keep them hot. We filled them with our jiardinere and poured 200 F degree extra virgin olive oil into the jars, being careful not to squish the veggies together. The temperature of the oil is very important- maintain it at 200 F constantly.  Too hot and the oil will begin to break down, too cool and the veggies will be soggy, not crisp.

Then, using a wooden skewer we carefully moved the veggies around in the oil to remove any air bubbles. Wipe off the rim of the jar (being very sanitary) place the lid on top as you would with regular canning methods. Of course, this means you don’t tighten the lids all the way.

After that we put the filled jars into a hotel pan and popped them in the oven for around 7 minutes.  Then we took them out and made sure they sealed properly.  We let them sit on a cooling rack overnight and in the morning double checked to make sure they had sealed.  They had, so we tightened the lids all the way. And that’s it!  It’s SO easy and a fun alternative to the regular canning method.  Here’s a pic (below) of the finished jars.

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My Thai Fruit Carvings

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You Are What You Eat

Hi!  It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything- sorry about that, life was keeping me pretty busy there for a while.  And even now all I have to offer you is a paper I wrote for school.  The assignment was to write about a recent event relating to the culinary world.  The article I read and my paper below contain some really great information on a trend that has been growing and gaining more popularity every day.  Check it out!

Making Humane Food Choices

The aptly titled article of Today’s Diet and Nutrition magazine ‘You Are What You Eat’ describes how and why Americans should be making informed decisions when purchasing meat and dairy products.  In this article we learn that our purchases are like votes for or against products that come from humanely raised animals.  These products effect not only the animals themselves, but our health as well.  With the long reaching effects of our votes (purchases) it is important for people to educate themselves on exactly what they are buying and consuming.

Some people may wonder why all farmers don’t simply raise their animals humanely.  In this article Adele Douglass, founder of Humane Animal Farm Care (HAFC), answers that it is a matter of money.  Many farmers have a very small profit margin, but she believes that “if producers can circumvent the factory farm and still be profitable, they’ll do it.”  So once again it comes to what we as consumers choose to buy.  As in any other industry, the farmers will produce what ever sells the most product.

Another reason to purchase food items from humanely raised animals is because of the positive effect it has on humans’ health. According to Dena Jones of the U.S. office of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) studies have shown that organically raised meat and dairy products have a higher level of nutrients.
However, factory farms regularly inject their animals with growth hormones and antibiotics.  In fact, according to this article 70% of the antibiotics administered in the U.S. are given to farm animals.  Not only do these hormones and antibiotics pass on to humans when consumed, but the over-use of them has been fueling antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

As the article points out, these are only some of the many reasons why consumers should buy organic, humanely raised animal products.  So how are we to identify them?  According to Ms. Jones “if the product has no label and it’s in a mainstream supermarket, chances are good it came from a factory farm.”  The worst place to buy products from is Wal-Mart, the world’s largest food retail store.  Unless otherwise labeled, all of their meat and dairy products come from factory farms. Often the food labels will note that the item is “natural”, but savvy consumers know that this has nothing to do with animal welfare and only means that there are no preservatives, dyes or additives.

The best place to find organic and humanely raised items is Whole Foods.  Also, many local grocery stores now carry some of these products due to increasing demand.  The public should look for labels that say “USDA Organic”, “Certified Humane”, “Free Farmed”, “Pasture Raised”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, “Grass Fed”, “Free Range” or “Cage Free”.  Each time we buy one of these items we are voting for a better, higher quality of food for ourselves and our families.  John Fiscalini of the humane and organic Fiscalini Farms says it best: “As part of an affluent society, people are becoming more aware of how their food is produced.”  From this article it is clear that the trend of demanding high quality food is here to stay and will only continue to gain momentum as more and more people become aware of the many benefits of humanely raised farm animals.

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