Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Michael Ruhlman: Wine Adds Flavor to Your Dishes

So much fuss is made over pairing wine and food that the home cook may not think of wine as an asset in flavoring their dishes.

Michael Ruhlman, one of American’s most prolific and authoritative food authors, said wine can be used as a great marinade to enhance foods. Ruhlman, known for his 18 books and appearances on the Food Network and with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, made a recent brief visit to Indiana.

The Cleveland native said one of the most important rules is an old one. “Always use a wine that you would feel comfortable drinking,” he said. “But not a Chateau Margaux (very expensive French wine). You don’t want to throw that in a pot of stew; use a drinkable, affordable wine.”

“I like to add it in the beginning when the alcohol tends to burn off faster.  You can add it at the end but it definitely flavors it different. I always add it first at the first de-glazing or adding of the liquid ingredients.”

Ruhlman known for his books on food.
Ruhlman has written books with some of the country’s top chefs. He also has learned from them while writing. His big career break came when he had the opportunity to help Thomas Keller, chef at The French Laundry in Napa, write The French Laundry Cookbook. The iconic wine country restaurant has long been considered one of the country’s best.

“I learned this from Thomas Keller,” Ruhlman said. “People often like to put wines in marinades but the alcohol in marinades will actually de-nature the exterior of the protein and prevent any flavors from entering the meat. You’re not really helping the meat; in fact, you’re helping the outside become slightly mushy by marinating in wine.

What I learned from Keller is that if you’re going to use wine, and it’s a great thing to marinate with, cook off the alcohol first then add the aromatics. Add the onions, carrots, and thyme or whatever you want. Throw in the pepper and some salt so that it steeps and cooks then flame it and make sure you can’t get any flame. Once the alcohol is cooked off then you have this really tasty fluid to marinate your meat.”

Ruhlman said he’d even eat boneless, skinless chicken breast if it was properly marinated. “And let’s face it, chicken breast is the skim milk of the protein world that America relies on. If home cooks would learn to marinate it properly they’d have something really tasty.”

As a celebrity chef often recognized for his appearances as a judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef, Ruhlman also gets asked about wine and food pairing.

“I tell people to use their common sense and pay attention,” he said.  “Does it go well with the food? Does the red wine go with the fish or does it overpower the fish? How does a white wine contribute to the flavor? Does it have the right acidity for the dish?

“We educate ourselves by paying attention to what we eat and drink. There are no hard and fast rules. I try to tell people not to be intimated by wine. There’s so much to learn and there are experts out there to varying degrees. Don’t ever feel cowed by the experts and rely on your own taste.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Pinch of Salt Can Make One Great Dish

No wine tasting or even a subscription to Wine Spectator can teach wine enthusiasts more than a few hours visit to the vineyard. The ultimate experience is to tour a vineyard and then spend time with the winemaker.

Through four years of writing about wine it's an opportunity I've been afforded on a number of occasions.

Kokomo Vineyard's Erik Miller was a gracious host earlier this year and put a few things in perspective with his own winemaking thoughts.

After touring a barrel-making plant in Windsor, Calif, Erik talked about his vineyards and the winemaking process. The conversation started where the morning began and that was with oak barrel aging.

"My philsophy on oak is that we use oak like you'd use salt at a meal," the Kokomo, IN native said. "You want some salt on your meal so it has that seasoning. It would be bland with out it to some degree but you don't want to taste the salt."

But wine is more than just the oak its aged in. Great wine comes from the vineyard. "It's the terrior - the earth, soild, sun exposure, the bench (land)," Miller said. "That has to be first and foremost in the wine and then that oak is more than a storage vessel. The oak adds some tannin, some flavor and some mouth feel.

"We have to know how to use that and not overpower the delicacy or sense of place. Here I am making 12 different varieties of Zin alone and we use five different vineyards. If I put the same oak on all five vineyards I'd have the same Zin. That common thread would give me a house flavor. I never want a house flavor because those vineyards are very different."

For vineyard manager Randy Peters the success of Miller's Kokomo Winery gives him input on what he does with the land and vines.

"Now that we have many more small wineries I can see the end product," Peters said. "My father and grandfather sold to bigger wineries. There were not a lot of small wineries in their time. All the grapes went into a blend with all the other growers. All the Zin went in a 10,000 gallon tank somewhere.

"Now with smaller wineries like Kokomo, it shows us the things we do in the vineyard throughout the year translates into the wine as a finished product. It makes us feel better spending money and doing work to make a better quality product. We can see it in the finished product by having vineyard designate wines."

Peters isn't a grower who sells the grapes and disappears to next year. He is a partner with Miller and regularly tastes the wines of all the wineries who buy his fruit. "That's an important part of the process, especially if they're going to put a vineyard designate on it. Then it has to meet my quality standards as well," Peters said.

Peters and Miller agree that when a wine is a vineyard designate bottling its more than Kokomo Winery."It's Paulene's Vineyard on that bottle, or Peter's Vineyard," Miller said. "If there was something lacking that Randy doesn't think met his standards that's going to hurt his brand of the vineyard. When you give up the fruit all control is not lost here because we're in partnership with the vineyards because that name is going on the bottle as well."

The Dry Creek Valley Kokomo Winery is modest but the wines go far beyond the limited releases seen in the midwest. Miller and Peters team for several wines which often don't make it beyond the winery or California.

Howard's Picks:
The Kokomo Cab is really pretty easy to find in wine shops and better liquor stores and a great wine for the price point. But for a real treat try some of the winery's higher end wines. The Kokomo 2009 Timber Creek Zinfandel (vineyard designate) is tremendous wine. The wine had beautiful black pepper and nice acidity and a well balanced feel on the palate for wine of more than 15 percent alcohol. Wine Spectator gave this wine 90 points.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes every other week about wine for 20 midwestern newspapers in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.