Monday, August 22, 2011

It's too darn hot

It's too darn hot,
It's too darn hot.
I'd like to coo with my baby tonight,
And pitch some woo with my baby tonight.
I'd like to coo with my baby tonight,
And pitch some woo with my baby tonight,
But brother, you bite my baby tonight,
'Cause it's too darn hot.
                                                                              ~ Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (1948) ~

August in Central Texas.  You may as well book a one-way ticket to Hades on a flight with no beverage service.  Not only are we in the midst of severe drought, it is hotter than all get-out.  In fact, we have had nearly seventy days of 100 degree-plus heat as of this week.  And tomorrow?  More of the same, only we'll get to break a record for the most 100 degree-plus days in Texas since 1925.  Our water bill has tripled as we struggle to keep our back yard green.  Our electricity bill?  We won't even go there...

In the intense heat, appetites decline, tempers flare, and willingness to be cooperative and a good sport are replaced by irritability, anxiety and high need for distraction.  Although I'm not claiming to have the universal panacea for this heat-induced malaise, I will put forth my suggestion that eating cold, summery foods and sipping light, summery wines does take one's mind off the beastly reality of this particular Texas summer.  A friend recently commented that all he wanted to eat lately was cold food and drink his way through a case of white wine.  And to that I raise my wine glass and say, "Huzzah!"

Here's what I've been enjoying recently:

Zucchini Carpaccio with Roasted Tomatoes and Lemon

    This light, lemony salad is beautiful on the plate and refreshingly bracing on the palate.

1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup EVOO, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 medium zucchini, ends trimmed
1 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
2 Tbs. lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1.  Roast the tomatoes:  Place tomatoes on a small baking sheet and drizzle with some of the EVOO.  Salt and pepper generously.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until caramelized.  Set aside to cool.
2.  Slice zucchini into thin ribbons, using a mandoline.  Alternatively, cut into very thin rounds with a sharp knife and drop into a large bowl.
3.  Add roasted tomatoes and remaining EVOO.
4.  Add lemon zest and lemon juice, stirring gently to blend flavors.
5.  Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Serves 4.
Roasted Artichoke Salad

       Once you taste this recipe from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, you'll never purchase marinated artichoke hearts again.  I did not use the 4 Tbs. vinegar she suggests you add during the final stage since I thought that the vinaigrette had plenty of acid.  I also substituted piquillo peppers for plain roasted ones, since that's what I had on hand.  This salad tastes great on days two and three, and it makes plenty!

Fusilli with Shrimp, Orange, Olives and Arugula

       You can substitute farfelle or spirals for the fusilli in this fabulous mix of summery flavors from Giada de Laurentiis.  I also subbed spinach for the arugula since I couldn't find the latter in my local market.

Lemon Panna Cotta with Sugared Blueberries and Sugared Lemon Peel

      I love lemon panna cotta for its creaminess and tang.  This is velvety and rich, thanks to the addition of vanilla paste.  Sugaring the blueberries and lemon peel is easy.  And serve this dessert in elegant champagne coupes or some other stemware.

3 cups half and half, divided
1 envelope (or 2 tsp.) unflavored gelatin 
1/2 cup sugar, less 1 Tbs.
peel from 1 lemon
3/4 tsp. vanilla paste (or you can use 1/2 vanilla bean, split, or my last choice, 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract)
lemon curls (see below for procedure) from another lemon
1 cup blueberries
extra sugar for dusting

1.  Pour 1/2 cup half and half into a medium bowl, sprinkle gelatin over and let sit until gelatin blooms, about 15 minutes. 
2.  Meanwhile, combine remaining half and half, sugar, lemon peel and vanilla paste into a medium-sized saucepan.
3.  Heat gently over medium heat until mixture begins to steam, stirring to dissolve sugar.
4.  Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes.
5.  Stir gelatin mixture to incorporate gelatin well, then pour hot half and half mixture through a strainer into gelatin mixture, whisking gently to blend.
6.  Divide mixture among four to six stemmed glasses, depending on the size of the glass.
7.  Cover and chill for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
8.  Meanwhile, use a zesting tool to make about 1 Tbs. lemon curls.  Spread on waxed paper, sprinkle with sugar and let dry.
9.  To sugar blueberries:  Make sure blueberries and washed and dried, but chilled.  They need a little condensation for the sugar to stick, but too much water will dissolve the sugar.  Spread the blueberries on a small plate and sprinkle with sugar.  Roll the blueberries around in the sugar until coated.  Set aside to dry.
10.  To serve, place a few blueberries on top of each serving of panna cotta and garnish with 2 or 3 lemon curls.  Serves 4 to 6.

Wines to drink:  Choose light, crisp whites like Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (CA), crisp and full of white peach and citrus.  It's my favorite go-to sauv blanc.  Or you could try an Albarino, such as the Martin Codax 2009 (Spain) or even a Gruner Veltliner, such as the very affordable Austrian Pepper 2009 (Austria).  Dry, Alsatian whites would work with this menu as well.  Look for Trimbach and Pierre Sparr lables.  And don't forget to ask your wine guy at Spec's for help.

May your tastebuds be entertained without breaking a sweat!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The kitchen, the cook, the food, and their lover

I have written previously of my ideal kitchen. I will never stop dreaming.  I will never stop entering sweepstakes that promise remodeling.  I will never stop encouraging my husband to play the lottery, although I still believe that the lottery is merely a tax on people who are really bad at math.  I long to have acres of counterspace, gleaming and spacious appliances, and a dish pantry.  But I don't just want a closet for my dishes, I want an entire room devoted to dishes, table linens and serviceware.  With an island and additional storage space underneath the island.  This kind of Kitchen Nirvana will ever and always be my unrequited love.  The one that got away, so to speak.  My home was built during the '70's, which means that my kitchen is still very '70's in a lot of ways.  There are kinds of limitations that only the '70's can present and subsequently, there are cosmetic changes that can and will happen.  But generally, I'm not sure that a lot of structural changes (read: expensive changes) will happen unless my husband wins that lottery.  You go, honey!!

There is a certain sweetness, a quiet and loving resignation that happens when you realize that you are married to and committed to living with your less-than-ideal kitchen.  It is a sort of sadness of what might have been.  Like realizing that your beloved has a wart...right there.  The knowledge that you have the original diamond in the rough.  Sometimes you recite the shoulda, coulda, wouldas.  Then, after all those maudlin wishes on all those distant, smugly twinkling stars, what follows is an endearing stab of protectiveness for your beloved and all the flaws that accompany it, and then, a burst of pride and confidence: you can do practically ANYTHING in your kitchen and that you can furthermore make great food despite (or perhaps, because of) your perceived limitations.

I just read an article entitled "Making It Work," written by Madhur Jaffrey in the August/September 2011 issue of Saveur magazine.  It filled me with such fondness, such unconditional love, such bittersweet emotion.  It was as if Ms. Jaffrey were talking about me and my kitchen: a small, completely outdated, badly-in-need-of-renovating space that confines and challenges the cook.  It even appeared that Ms. Jaffrey suffers the Disease of More, as I do.  She collects things and stores them all over the house.  She stuffs "more than the usual supply of spices, seasonings and dry goods" into her cupboards, shielding herself, as I do, when she opens her cabinet doors, from the avalanche of jars and packages that might occur once things have shifted after the last foraging attempt.  OMG!!  They say everyone has a twin, and here she is!!  Even better, she's Indian!!  I knew I'd had another life in India!!  I knew it!!

But I must say, I do love my kitchen.  No, it's not glamorous.  It's not bright, shiny, modern, or sleek.  I gave up that dream several years ago after an experience with a large, Big Box store that tried to convince me that all appliances were standard-size and would of course fit into the spaces left by my old, needing-to-be-replaced appliances.  I am here to tell you that they are not.

My kitchen has shaped me, defined me, changed the way I look at and prepare food.  Its limitations and challenges are only as limiting and challenging as I allow them to be.  Can I cook for 50?  Yes, but in stages, and preferably as flights of hors d'oeuvres.  Can I wash dishes after a dinner party for 20?  Yes, but I will be up until 3 in the morning, and that's OK.  Can I store enough food for an eight-course sit-down dinner?  Yes, but I will need to bring in large coolers with plenty of ice.  And I will need to hide those coolers in the adjoining laundry room.  And I will need to stack those coolers to the ceiling, requiring the use of a forklift to move them around.

Sometimes, even though I live part-time in Kitchen Beautiful Dreamland, I am convinced that I would not be as good a cook if I had a modern, sleek, up-to-date kitchen with all the bells and whistles.  I fear I would become lazy and complacent.  I know a woman who has a beautiful kitchen--a glamorous, darkly rich showplace of copper, black variegated granite and Brazilian walnut.  But sadly, this woman doesn't cook so much as she assembles.  A box of this, a can of that, reheated take-out foods.  There isn't a lot of creativity that emerges from this beautiful kitchen.  It is as if the creative energy has been stripped away to make room for all that stop-your-heart beauty.  Sort of like the difference between Kiri te Kanawa and Maria Callas.  One sings with amazing technically precise and exacting beauty.  The other sings with a deep soulfulness and with such heart-wrenching intensity that the roughness and imprecision of her voice carves its own thing of beauty, like Michelangelo transformed a raw, flawed piece of marble into his famous Statue of David.

Sometimes, I think that it is my kitchen's flaws and its terroir that defines my food.  Its shortcomings and limitations have forced me to problem-solve in ways I might never have confronted in my cooking career.  The lack of counter space, storage space, and the cursed electric stove have cramped and molded my cooking style.  The embarrassingly old porcelain sink, which always needs a good come-uppance with a can of Comet, is small and shallow.  The pantry?  A mere linen closet!  What if I did not have these challenges?  Would I be a better cook?  Would I be more productive and efficient?  Maybe.  But I think not.  As Ms. Jaffrey has observed, "I've realized that a dream kitchen isn't absolutely necessary:  It's your aspirations for the food that make a kitchen come to life...After all, it is the food that comes out of the kitchen that matters most."

And so, like an old, familiar lover, my kitchen remains embedded in my heart, my soul, my technical expertise (or lack thereof).  Like an old familiar lover, my kitchen is familiar to me, beloved, war-torn, battled-scarred, molded to my will.  And like an old, familiar lover, my kitchen can also have its way with me, can convince me that I am the most beautiful and gifted of all its previous lovers, or it can bring me to my knees in humble submission, wishing for swift and sweet mercy.

There's something to be said for that kind of relationship. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

She put de lime in de coconut

Lime.  Chile.  Coconut milk.  Tender, braised chicken thighs.  That's what turned my head as I looked for a recipe in my beloved Hot and Spicy Southeast Asian Dishes (DeWitt et al. 1995. Prima Publishing).  After a week of not really wanting to cook because it's just been, well, infernally hot, I found this Indonesian curry that is so easy to prepare and wonderful to eat.

Over steamed jasmine rice and garnished with fresh cilantro, the chicken was succulent and perfumed with lime oil, shallot, garlic, lemongrass and just enough zip from the chiles.  The coconut milk tempered the pungency of the lime, lemongrass and chiles and made the chicken silky and tender.  With watermelon for dessert, the evening meal was easy, light and very pleasing.

I opened a bottle of Driftwood Estate Viognier 2010 (Paso Robles, CA).  This wine is interesting in that the grapes are grown on the west coast but the wine is made in Texas.  For those of you who are purists, you would argue that this particular wine is not a Texas wine.  No matter.  It is spicy, floral, unoaked and full of golden fruit with a crisp, clean finish that makes you want more.  It is a good balance for Southeast Asian cuisine that doesn't carry too much heat.

Chile Lime Chicken in Coconut Sauce

3 lbs. chicken thighs or 1 3 lb. chicken, cut into pieces, loose skin and fat removed
2 cups coconut milk  (I used 1 13.5 oz. can and made up the difference with water)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
4 shallots, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
1/2 lime, sliced into rounds
2 dried santaka chiles, seeded and crushed (or substitute another hot dry red chile, such as tien tsin or Thai)

1.  Place all the ingredients in a large pot.
2.  Cook, covered, over medium heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender and the sauce thickens.
3.  Serve hot over steamed jasmine rice and garnish with fresh cilantro if you wish.  Serves 6.

Note: If you have leftovers, remove the lime slices before storing to avoid increasing the bitterness from the lime oil.  I also like to remove the chicken from the bone to avoid that "leftover chicken" taste.

May your tastebuds dance!

Friday, August 12, 2011

When the weather outside is frightful, gravad lax is so delightful

I follow a number of food blogs.  One of them is Edible Aria, which I admire for its approach to eating healthfully and in an economically feasible manner.  The blog promotes eating sustainable fresh whole foods.  The blogger, Ren, obviously knows what he is doing in the kitchen and posts not only imaginative recipes, but provides links and information to other websites and events promoting responsible food production and consumption.  But I hate to limit Ren with that description.  Visit his blog and find out what he is all about.  I think you'll be impressed. 

I love the whole idea of eating well and eating responsibly.  I try to buy whole foods as much as possible; processed foods will rarely sneak into the house and I have to banish them sternly, telling them in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome.  I also try to buy organic, locally grown fruits, vegetables and proteins as much as I can afford to.  I am fortunate to know many people who farm and raise their own grass-fed beef, chickens, bees, make their own goat cheese, and the like.  I love knowing where my food comes from and I especially love knowing that my food was grown and handled with care, integrity and respect.

Ren inspired me recently when he posted a recipe for gravad lax, a Nordic preparation of fresh salmon cured with dill, sugar and salt.  Quite coincidentally (or maybe because I am prescient) I had purchased a fillet of wild sockeye salmon, one of my favorite seafoods.  I came home that evening, opened my email browser and saw Ren's July 29th post for Dill Pollen Gravad Lax.

I knew what I must do.

Ridiculously easy to prepare, Ren's recipe is challenging only from the perspective that if you lack patience to wait for the curing process to occur, then you'll be a bit antsy while you wait to taste the finished product.  I was.  It was 107 degrees outside and I wanted my gravad lax NOW.  This isn't a spur-of-the-moment kind of food.  You have to plan ahead.  Which is what makes waiting for it so worthwhile.  If you've mastered delayed gratification, that is.

I didn't have the dill pollen called for in my pantry (which is a shame because I have fennel pollen, grains of paradise, kolonji, berbere spice, zatar and so many other obscure seasonings) so I used dill weed.  You can get dill pollen here.  I also used fine flake kosher salt because I had just received a large bag from Penzeys Spices.  And, incidentally, Penzeys is soon to open a new store in Austin and then I may have to grieve the loss of my almost 20-year mail-order relationship with that lovely company.  On second thought, maybe I'll keep ordering that way.  I love the personal notes on the invoices!

But I digress. The salinity of kosher salt is sometimes up to 50% less than other kinds of salt.  So you can adjust the amount to taste if you haven't any sea salt around as Ren calls for in his post.  I used Ren's proportions and got a delicately briny, silky product that seemed to melt in my mouth.  In my future renditions of gravad lax, I intend to experiment with various salts, but sea salt would of course be the most authentic.

I didn't trouble myself with removing pinbones before I cured the salmon fillet.  I wondered if I would regret that but they were so soft and flexible that there was no unpleasantness at all in the salmon's texture.  This has always been true for me when I have grilled or roasted wild salmon.

The heat index in Central Texas makes cooking and eating a chore right now.  But slicing into that cured salmon, its cool, moist, coral flesh falling gracefully from my knife, I was soon enjoying one of the most lovely and delightful summer suppers that I can remember in some time.

Here's how I ate the salmon:  I softened some organic cream cheese and added a little local wildflower honey and some orange zest.  I toasted some soft pumpernickle toast points.  I thinly sliced some red onion.  I opened a jar of nonpareil capers.  I layered everything on top of the toast points.  Heaven, if there is one, must have a little pearly sidewalk cafe that serves food like this.

Then I opened a bottle of Pierre Sparr Alsace One, an Alsatian white wine that is a crisp, dry lively blend of five different varietals.  Alsace One is very affordable; ask your wine guys at Spec's to steer you in the proper direction, or look for it near the French whites.  This wine is a lovely match with the salmon and its accompaniments.  Find another review of this wine here.  Alternatively, you could try the Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris, which is just a few bottles down the row on the same shelf.  It's dry but full of depth from the flavors of fruit and honey and a lot rounder than other renditions of this wine.  This grape varietal has been referred to as a "chameleon."  Bottled by the Italians as Pinot Grigio, it is light and fruity; by the French--particularly in Alsace--it has a flinty minerality and golden honey-kissed richness.  Find a review of the Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris here.  Expect to pay a little more for this wine, but it's still under $20.

In this heat, may your tastebuds recline on a chaise lounge and be indulged.  Oh, Cabana Boy?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dinner at 5:30 in the morning

I am a list-maker.  I am a planner.  I am also an insomniac.  You might think I'm also a bit off-kilter and lack spontaneity with all of these things converging.  Let me allay your fears and concerns.  All of these factors seem to harmoniously and serendipitously come together when I finally get out of bed at 5:30 a.m.  Once upon a time, I would get out of bed after laying awake in the dark for more than an hour.  Now I just lay awake in the dark and think, plan, make lists in my head.  I've told you about this little habit of mine before.  Now, I'm not saying that I'm not tired.  I'm just saying that I have my day/social calendar/excessive dinnerware storage solutions planned by the time I'm out of bed and I'm ready to go.

So I can imagine what your face looks like right now when I tell you that by the time I got out of bed one morning this week, I had reviewed the day's schedule, listened to the entire Bach Mass in B Minor in my head, visualized and inventoried the kitchen freezer, made a mental grocery list and planned the evening's meal.  Oh, and I composed a letter to a hotel chain that I particularly dislike right now for its lack attention to its guests needs.

Planning dinner in the middle of the night makes some people, like my friend TX Mama, hungry and over-stimulated.  I just feel relieved.  I especially feel relieved when there's a long day ahead of me and I know that I will be exhausted and brain-dead from lack of sleep when I walk through the door, rendering me incapable of putting a coherent sentence together, much less think up something to have for dinner.

Following are the recipes for the meal that I sleeplessly planned in the dark, a riff on Ming Tsai's "Chicken Chow Mein My Way" from his 1999 cookbook Blue Ginger.  I used Ming's marinade with boneless chicken breasts that had been sliced thinly (although pork slices and/or shrimp would also be good choices) and omitted the lo mein noodles.  I added extra heat with two fresh red jalapeno peppers and sweetness with sugar snap peas.  I had regular, run-of-the-mill cabbage in the fridge, not the bok choy Ming calls for, but it added a wonderful crunchy texture along with julienned carrots and strips of white onion.  Running a bit in the direction of Thailand, I made coconut rice, which foiled the heat beautifully with its creaminess.  I cut up a fresh pineapple, which made a lovely, light dessert.  And to drink while cooking and dining: Driftwood Estate Winery Cuvee Blanc 2010 (Driftwood TX), which comes in a lovely cobalt blue bottle that I will give to my friend for her bottle tree.  The wine is dry, spicy, floral and unoaked, a nicely balanced blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Muscat Blanc grapes.  It was a harmonious choice for the main course.

Chicken and Vegetable Stir Fry

2 Tbs. cornstarch
1/2 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1/2 cup oyster sauce
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 bunch scallions, trimmed, using both white and green parts, sliced 1/8" thick
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs. sambal oelek
2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced across the grain 1/4" thick
3 Tbs. peanut oil, divided
1 white onion, cut into strips
2 carrots, peeled and julienned into 2" long strips
1/2 head cabbage, sliced 1/4" thick
2-4 fresh red jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4" strips (optional)
2 cups fresh or frozen sugar snap peas
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chicken stock or water

1.  In a medium-sized bowl, combine the cornstarch and wine and blend well.
2.  Stir in oyster sauce, ginger, scallions, black pepper and sambal oelek.
3.  Add chicken and stir to coat well.
4.  Cover, refrigerate and marinate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
5.  Heat wok or deep skillet over high heat.
6.  Add 2 Tbs. peanut oil and swirl to coat sides of pan.
7.  When the oil is shimmering, add chicken with a slotted spoon, letting marinade remain in bowl--you may have to do this in two batches.
8.  Stir-fry chicken until lightly caramelized, scraping up any bits as you cook.
9.  Transfer cooked chicken to a plate to keep warm.
10.  Add remaining 1 Tbs. peanut oil to wok, heating again to the shimmering point.
11.  Add onions and carrots, stir-frying until vegetables just begin to caramelize.
12.  Add cabbage and optional jalepenos, stir-frying until cabbage just begins to caramelize.
13.  Add sugar snap peas and garlic, stir-frying until snap peas are bright green.
14.  Mix chicken broth or water into remaining marinade.
15.  Add mixture to wok, stirring to coat all the vegetables.
16.  Return chicken to wok, and reheat briefly.
17.  Serve over hot rice.  Serves 4.

Coconut Rice

1 1/2 cups jasmine or long-grain rice
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups water
1/2 tsp. salt

1.  Combine rice, coconut milk, water and salt in a rice cooker and cook according to manufacturer's directions.
2.  Alternatively, combine all ingredients in a medium-sized sauce pan and bring to boil.
3.  Cover and reduce heat to low.
4.  Cook on low heat for 18 to 22 minutes.  Serves 4. 

May your tastebuds dance!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Read the label

Like most neophytes, I used to choose wines based on the label.  Pretty label, pretty wine, I reasoned.  It didn't take me very long to figure out that pretty labels and clever names were mostly marketing gimmicks.  Recently, a fellow wine drinker and writer discovered much the same thing.  Gradually, resisting my inner knee-jerk response to the lure of the label, I learned to stop responding to what was eye-catching and I started responding instead to what was actually written on the label.  I paid more attention to region, varietals, vintage, winemakers.  Even more than that, I began paying attention to what was written on the back label.

If I really wanted to find out what was inside the bottle, I'd have to do a little more work than just respond to artwork and logos.  In order to be delivered from the seduction of visual cues (and my desire to be seduced), I would have to stop being Joe the Unconscious Wine Consumer and start becoming Jane the Informed and Literate Wine Buyer.  This effort has turned out to be an educational experience that rivals my dozen-plus years in graduate school.  In other words, my wine education seems to be continuing into perpetuity!

Having a never-ending education is both a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, the exhilaration of being a student, the fomenting of ideas, the headiness of original thought--these things are very attractive about my never-ending education.  On the other hand, the endless revisions, the constant scrutiny of peers and overlords, and the expense (Good God!!) of my never-ending education are truly daunting.  But I plow on, bolstered and encouraged by my two fabulous Wine Guys (who, incidentally, participate with me in many classroom seminars and in vivo experiments), and no by small measure, my willingness to continue this educational journey.  I have always learned something new about wine and have rarely been disappointed by the wines I now choose.

I usually can't go wrong following the recommendations of my Wine Guys.  Allowing for differences in palates and subjective descriptors, we nonetheless seem to agree happily and disagree humorously about the wines they recommend and that we drink together.  I feel very well taken care of, very well schooled and extremely fortunate.  I mean, who else has Wine Guys that basically cover the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area for Austin, Texas?

But I also like to "go rogue."  This is my term for my habit of cruising the aisles of a well-stocked wine shop and looking for the regions and varieties I most enjoy, but also for the anomalies and unsung heroes of the wine world that I have on my "to drink next list."  Usually, those wines will come from Spain, Argentina, Chile and sometimes Oregon and California.  Here's what happened as a result of going rogue most recently:

Gran Viu Seleccion 2002 (Carinena, Spain)  This well-rounded red, a grenache blend, has a very sedate, unassuming label.  Like the proverbial librarian who takes off her glasses and lets down her hair to reveal her inner sex kitten, however, this wine is full of intense and complex fruit, more than a hint of spice and an intense finish.  It is unassumingly soft and sexy.  In other words, it's surprisingly luscious.

Carlos Basso Dos Fincas 2009 (Mendoza, Argentina)  I first encountered the charming Carlos while at a wonderful restaurant called Parkside on 6th St. in downtown Austin.  Carlos charmed me, wooed me, almost made me cry.  I didn't see the label before I bought a bottle.  I just pounced on the word "malbec" on the menu and was immediately impressed.  This wine is actually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, which makes it very soft and seductive.  The front label is simple, graphic, organized.  If you read the back label, you will see a map and a brief description of the family that makes this wine.  Some of you may like to know where your grapes come from and like to see maps of the region.  Geography on its own is boring.  Geography with a well-made bottle of wine in hand, well, that's another thing.

Est. 75 Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (St. Helena, CA)  Read the back label.  It begins "'75 The Year That Was...Queen Elizabeth knights Charlie Chaplin... Mikhail Baryshnikov, defector from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet..."  And that's all I'm going to repeat until you move your body into a good wine shop and hunt up this delicious, crisp white wine.  A veritable synopsis of world history in one small paragraph appears on the back label of that wine and I think you should experience it up close and personal.  You and someone you like to drink wine with, that is.

Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant (Santa Cruz, CA)  Again, read the back label.  I think this has reached the status of a cult wine, and I am the first to admit that I worship at the temple of Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards, who produces lovely Rhone-style wines and writes with great charm and wit.  To wit (excuse the pun):  "We encourage terrestial visitation of our tasting rooms or communing with the Mothership telephonically..."  This invitation follows a tongue-in-cheek tale of flying saucers, or flying cigars being outlawed by the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 1954.  Again, head thee to thy nearest Spec's and ask for this wine before you experience an alien abduction and are flown light years away to a universe that has no wine.  This wine is crimson/magenta in hue with a firm minerality, lots of berries and fruit in the mouth and complex herbal notes with soft tannins and not a lot of oak.  It could stand to age a few more years in the bottle (or so say some of you).  If you do that with your bottle, call me and we'll compare notes.  On the other hand, if you have some pull with extraterrestials and can get me a ticket on the Mothership, please contact me as soon as possible.

Sokol Blosser Evolution No. 9 (Willamette Valley, OR)  I confess that I've been drinking this wine for years.  This is one of those wines that is the exception to the rule of getting snagged by a snappy label.  This wine very much has a snappy, eye-catching label that is fun to read.  It is very much like a boyfriend you can't break up with.  You know, that boyfriend that you have a "friends with benefits" relationship with.  It very much is made from nine different varietals.  It very much evolves and transforms from year to year.  It very much complements a lot of spicy and acidic foods.  Luck?  Intention?  You decide.  Off-dry, tropical, fruit-forward and extremely drinkable, I think you'll agree that this wine has an attractive and clever presentation on the outside and a distinctive, if not off-beat beauty on the inside as well.

OK, so I know that I haven't mentioned anything about back labels that tell you about residual sugar, tannins, fruit or regional differences.  This is "wine school" information and is helpful insofar as it can steer you away or toward a syrupy Gewurtzraminer or a bone-dry Chianti.  Sugar, tannins and terroir all indicate the subjective experiences that wine drinkers have.  They are reference points and "wine-speak," if you will, that help other wine lovers find common ground (or ways to seem superior).  I want you to respond with your intellect, with your intuition, with your guts, when you are choosing the wine you want to drink.  Go beyond the cover art and the pretty face.  Obey your palate, which is truly unique.  It's truly OK that you prefer sweeter wines, or dryer wines, or wines that make you feel as though you have fur on your teeth, or...or...But read the back label.  Digest the information slowly.  Ask questions.  Think.  Ponder.  Close your eyes and imagine what is possible.  Then respond to the care, intention and wit that went into creating the story of your wine.  Great wine is at least partly great because it is accompanied by great stories.  The rest is up to you and your tastebuds.