Category Archives: The Chef

Super Tuscan Groove

On the surface, the concept of a wine that is made outside the governing controlling bodies is an idea we as Americans applaud. After all, we tend to celebrate individual efforts, and revel in Horatio Algers rags to riches stories. Pioneers in every art form and industry take the norm and follow the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” to create something unique, even if appreciated only posthumously. Not so for so called Super Tuscans, incredibly rich, opulent wines crafted by the hands of a maverick with the means and a dream. Add to that great terroir and old vines, necessary components, and the result is the possibility of a great wine.

The problem is that these conditions help to create a sort of wine cult following, driving the price through the roof. Yes, you get what you pay for, but how much are you willing to pay? You have to ask yourself why you want to seek out these particular wines. If you’re buying these wines to enjoy, be sure to check out other wines with the same flavor profile for the price to compare value. You might find similar wines for less. If you’re collecting for later consumption, buyer beware. Do your research, because as super as some of these wines are, some do not age well past five or six years. That’s good news if you want instant gratification, bad news if you sunk over one hundred dollars on a wine, and then stored it for ten years, only to have it take a turn downhill.

Recently I tasted a 2000 Super Tuscan by Castello Di Querceto called Cignale. The wine boasts a signed artistic drawing of a wild boar to commemorate when these creatures wiped out the first vintage. The wine is 90% cabernet sauvignon, rounded out by 10% merlot and is fashioned in an international style, yet another factor to consider, should you be an old world fan.

It was luxurious, smooth, and a pleasure to drink. The tannins were well integrated. It was not an intellectual or complex wine, just a wine to enjoy. But here’s the thing, after an hour in the decanter, the wine started to fade. It lost its luster, its pinnache, its joie de vivre. Which is to say that this wine wouldn’t improve if it spent one more minute in the cellar. I suspect this isn’t the only Super Tuscan that won’t hold up under old age. Perhaps if the style is old world, the wine is constructed for the long term. If the style is new world, drink it within its first ten years of life. This is not a hard and fast rule, but certainly a guideline to consider.

When treading through the treacherous world which is the wine market, know what you like, and don’t be swayed by critics. That is to say seek out as much info from as many sources possible, and buy according to your drinking needs and budget. So depending on your scenario, a Super Tuscan could be just right for you, or fall back on some other wines, old, reliable friends.

A Chip and a Chair

I have a confession to make. I like to play poker. My father taught me when I was a little boy, and I was hooked then as I am now. But for several years I left the game, choosing other sporting arenas to satisfy my thirst for competition. That is until the World Series of Poker became televised and brought poker back from the dead.

So now I host a weekly poker night (usually Friday), and am just as fascinated and passionate about it as a good bottle of single grower champagne.

I read books, watch poker on the tele, and even have an on-line account. I have also played at underground poker clubs which are hard to find, especially since they are being raided every other week.

Anyone who says they play poker for fun and not money is lying, but I do not feel like I will be turning pro anytime soon. We play for low stakes ($20.00) and only play No Limit Texas Hold’em, with an emphasis on tournament style. Every player buys in for $20.00 and receives 2,500 in chip value. First place keeps the pot, second place gets their money back.

Winning is nice, but love of the game comes first. Oh, sure we keep score – I’m comfortably ahead in earnings – but it is outsmarting your opponents that brings the real rush. You can go “all-in” at any moment, putting your tournament life on the line. Poker is a mixture of psychology and nerve, competitiveness and acting, patience, and above all luck. It is better to be lucky than good, and no matter how much you play and try to master the game, you can never master the luck part.

Before you judge that poker is an expensive habit, let’s compare costs. For thirty bucks (ten on food or beer or wine) you can play several hours of cards with your friends in the comfort of your own home. You can bring whatever you want to drink, and snack on whatever everybody else brings to eat. Try to spend the same for a night on the town with your buddies, and check out the difference in cost.

Poker night is a perfect venue for sharing food and wine and discussing topics other than poker. Poker allows the flexibility to eat, drink, and talk between hands, and can be a very satisfying, social gathering.

Being the foodie that I am, I often take these opportunities to experiment with food and taste out of the ordinary beers and wines. You have to think outside the normal box of pretzels, peanuts, pizza and everyday lagers. Live a little.

As an informal panel, my poker/martial arts buddies, Scott, Neil, & Blake, aside from possessing fearsome fighting powers, also have very discerning palates. Scott usually brings party favors from the 1970’s like Pez or Sweet Tarts, as well as an oddball humor and propensity for TV trivia. Just ask him to recite any TV show theme song and be amazed. Neil can always be counted on for his extensive beer knowledge and zanyness, a quality needed on some slower nights, and Blake brings his chiseled smooth singing voice and voracious appetite for quaffing.

Over the course of two months, my friends and I have been sampling barley wines, which are beers originally brewed by the British, but currently is also being crafted here in America. Barley wines require a prolonged fermentation, thus yielding a higher alcohol content, ranging from nine to fifteen percent.

We sampled over thirty barley wines and enjoyed the quirky names of the bottles and the general nutty, creamy bitterness of the beers. Some of our favorites include the Old Marley, Hog Heaven, and Old Boardhead. For a unique, mind-blowing taste, tops on our list was the 2004 Thomas Hardy’s Ale and the bizarre 1999 Harvest Ale.

On other occasions we tried some Trappist beers, world- renowned for their complex and distinctive styles, made ever more enticing because the Belgian monks are responsible. The flavors ranged from sweet to dry, and the colors were opulently rich, from dark nut brown to golden amber in hue. These ales dazzled us with creaminess, and wild, spicy aromas of fruit. Aside from the well-known Chimays and Duvels, we really swooned over the Westmalle Trappist Tripel, the Allagash Tripel, and the Bavay Biere de Gard. The consensus favorite was the Chimay Peres Trappist Grand Reserve.

Wine is always a welcome guest to poker night, and we have sampled several interesting bottles from all over. Recently we tasted a cabernet franc from the North Fork of Long Island, the 2005 Pindar Pythagoras. The wine displayed good fruit and expressed balance while demonstrating the strength of Long Island’s terroir for this particular grape.

Just last week we tasted a 2001 Boscarelli Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which after an hour of aeration, paired admirably with a quick, one-hour perciatelli and Bolognese sauce.

My friend Peter played on his birthday, and we toasted to a very solid Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, which was medium-bodied and slightly nutty. Served with a spicy roast pork tenderloin (Kala’s recipe) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, it was pure delight.

On another night we tasted a couple of Albarinos, white wines from the Rias Baixas of Spain. We tried the 2004 Nora, a 2004 O Rosal, and the 2004 Gran Bazan.These rich, young, citrusy whites went down very smoothly and accompanied the jamon Serrano and salty bar snacks.

We try to steer clear from spirits – it clouds judgment – but bottles which made an indelible impression to me recently were the Balvenie 10 year and the Havana Club anejo reserva. Single malt scotch transforms the man, and if you can get it, the Havana Club is one of the most refined rum drinking experiences in the world.

Instead of the standard deli sandwiches, one night we all chipped in to buy tasty salumi, an herbed Rosette de Lyon, Spanish Palacios ham, Portuguese prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Garnished with piquillo peppers, enveloped by flat onion nan and a little Dijon, and off to the Delonghi panini press. Follow that up with a nutella panini for dessert. Sweet bliss!

I’ll often put out some blue cheese and serve it with honey, crushed black pepper and nuts. There is never any left over. And if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make some homemade bread pudding with crème anglaise, a welcome sweet break from the tension of a late night.

I will always pursue new adventures in food and wine, and I guess for me, poker is also here to stay. If you can mix your passions in a similar way, don’t hesitate. Wait… What’s that? I think I just got dealt pocket rockets (two aces). I’m all in!
For recipes, refer to the recipes section of my website

L’Idiot Affineur

Cheese is all the rage in New York, thanks to Steve Jenkins of Fairway markets, Terrance Brennan of Picholine/Artisanal, and other pioneers. Mr. Jenkins’ cheese primer just about educated the hungry masses, and Terrance Brennan stylized the cheese cave in a restaurant. Some proponents of cheese would have you believe that cheese is part of the culinary DNA, that no matter what type of eater you are, there’s a cheese out there just for you.

Growing up, the best cheese I could get my hands on was young gouda and american slices. Parmesan cheese came out of a green tin. Sometimes in the fridge there would be a wheel of cheese cut into triangles with silver wrapping on it, featuring a happy cow as if to remind me where cheese comes from.

Gradually, I learned about other cheeses through burger choices: swiss, cheddar, muenster, and weird bleu. Never the blue for me. Then parties with bad, off the block brie. Ho hum, but a necessary transition.

Then a brave new world opened up when I tasted the undisputed king of all cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano. This Italian cheese, full of umami (a sort of sixth, savory sense packed with glutamate), opened my mind and my palate to the undiscovered country, a land filled with cheese courses to come for a lifetime. If nothing else, always stock this versatile food.

There’s a turning point in a culinary lifespan, when you have something proper and no longer turn back, like the day you taste great sushi or aged beef. There’s just no way you can compromise for anything less, at least not while attentive and sober.

As in an informal culinary education, you seek friends who are interested in good food, cooking, wine, etc. Cheese is no exception. Jay is the resident cheese guy in our group, the Grand Crew, and I have benefited from his lifelong appreciation of cheese, the process, and its rightful place in any top-notch meal.

If there is someone in your life who fills this role, cherish that person, listen, take notes, and above all, always bring him/her proper cheese.

Jay has inspired me not only to look at cheese in a different, more meaningful way, but also to try to age my own cheese in my refrigerator at home. I’m known as the idiot affineur of the group due to my ability (or luck) to age cheese in a humidity-free drawer at the bottom of my refrigerator, thereby aging fresh cheeses and transforming them into something very advanced. Don’t ask me how I do it. Like I said, idiot affineur.

Passing along some advice, what helped me get over my distaste for blue cheese was a “gateway” blue. The gateway cheese is that which helps you over the hump, and sets you off looking for radical forms of cheese. For me it was the Cabrales, a Spanish blue that marries well with red wines, is in between mild and strong both in flavor and in nose. If you don’t like Cabrales, blue cheese is just not for you. Because following this are English stiltons, dirt French bleus and so on. On second thought, you might try Maytag blue. I’ve used it to make great blue cheese dressing for hot wings.

For bries, step up and try a wheel of Pierre Robert or Explorateur. Just don’t blame me for not being able to keep it in the fridge.

Over the years, my favorites have changed, but some are perennials. On a desert island, if I had to pick, I would have an aged Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Torta del Casar, and aged Manchego, a good, runny Epoisse, and a Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton. Anytime you can get your hands on these beauties, snap them up. They’re worth it.

The question remains: Where should I buy my cheese?

As with any food or wine item, of primary importance is the relationship you foster with the vendor. Some vendors are owners, quite skilled, and the great ones get to know you palate and challenge you to new ideas. Just as you should have a fish monger, a butcher, your favorite produce at the farmer’s market, the wine guy, and maybe even a chef on hand for advice, cheese should be no exception.

Next is the quality of the cheese and how the cheese is stored at the location. Price should not come into play. As with any good product, we must pay. Remember this supports the industry.

I have purchased cheese at Balducci’s, the Garden of Eden, Fairway (both locations), Zabar’s, Whole Foods, Artisanal, Citarella, Gourmet Garage, Murray’s (both locations) and a host of other supermarkets not worthy of any mention. Fairway uptown has a good cheese selection and has served me well in the past. Fairway on the upper west side has poor storing conditions for its cheese section, and as a result, my friends and I have returned many a cheese. The shop uptown is better because the cheese breathes in the open, airy space in which it is kept. Zabar’s is good for young, fresh cheese, but nothing exciting. Gourmet Garage has improper storing conditions for its cheeses. You have to inspect the packaging carefully. I often purchase at the Garden of Eden because of its location, and the just is merely fair. Citarella lacks depth, but stores its cheeses properly, and Whole Foods has been surprising me on occasion. Artisanal is a cheese altar, but the prices are more expensive than any other competitor in the city. I do treasure the trendy cheese bags they send me home with my purchase.

The clear winner is Murray’s, and it is most definitely worth the trip. Every time I get lazy and want to buy cheese elsewhere, I either regret it or get lucky. Murray’s passion is cheese and it shows. Just go there on a weekday, when a sales rep. can spend over an hour with you figuring out your tastes and needs. The staff works there because they live cheese. You feel like you are buying from the cheese shrine in the sky. They have the widest selection, and often are privy to raw or hard to find choices. Murray’s offers a multitude of specialty gourmet products, from pasta to chocolate, to Niman Ranch salumi, to olives, to Amy’s bread, to artisanal honeys, etc. My main man Cielo has been hooking me up for some time now. Find your regular too.

Cheese courses should be comprised of four selections if possible, a goat, cow, sheep and blue. If you can find them raw (score!), the better. All cheeses should be served at room temperature so as to bring out all the natural flavors and slight nuances. Try to match cheese and wine with the region of cuisine. This is almost foolproof, although you’ll find that goat cheese is a problem to match with most wines (try a Sancerre or Savennieres). Dessert wines, however, do work well. Think ports and madeiras, as well as ice wines from the Finger Lakes. Jay has preached to me that cheese should always be served before dessert so as not to “blow up” your palate. I have been resistant to this for years because I feel that no one will have room for the cheese. I continue to be wrong about this. Serve one cheese in the beginning if you must, but try not to. That’s what olives and salume are for.

When you are done for the night, wrapping is important to prolong the life of the cheese. Use wax paper and secure with tape, or wrap in plastic wrap. Try not to handle the cheese with your hands. Rather, place the wrapping over the cheese and scoop it up. Then fasten the underside. Plastic wrap doesn’t work as well because the cheese doesn’t get to breath, but it will do for at least one week.

Like a good bottle of bubbly, you should always have cheese in the house for surprise guest visits, emergencies, and your own appetite. After all, serving cheese and wine is a civilized thing to do.

Cheese is great served alone with sliced fruit, but here are some quick and easy goto recipes:

Blue Cheese, Honey & Nuts

½ lb. Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton

Lavender Honey

Walnuts

1 box Finn Crisps

On crisps, spread some stilton, drizzle honey on top, and sprinkle with nuts.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup sour cream

1 cup mayonnaise

¾ cup crumbled Maytag Blue cheese

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley

salt & pepper to taste.

In a mixing bowl, fold in sour cream, mayo, and blue cheese. Add rest of ingredients and salt & pepper.

(Can store for one week in refrigerator)

Ricotta & Honey

1 lb Fresh Ricotta

Honey

Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Place three tbsp ricotta in a small bowl. Grind pepper. Drizzle honey to taste. Repeat for number of guests. (Serves 4)

Iron Chef Roast Chicken

April 2, 2006

There are several vital facets to creating a successful neighborhood. Parks, a great pub, a green grocer, a pizza shop, and the list goes on. For me, high on the list is a place where I can buy a proper roast chicken, a true expression of a neighborhood’s culinary diversity and coming of age.

I am not partial to any cultural recipe. I’ll take Peruvian, Dominican, Cuban-Chinese, Jewish, New American or any other ethnic version as long as the chicken is done right. I rate roast chicken based on aroma, texture, and flavor.

The Upper West Side is a good place to start, partly because I grew up there and also because of the RCB, or roast chicken per square block ratio. It appears that every three or four blocks someone is trying their hand on this boon, as people gotta have their roast chicken fix.

The Chirping Chicken spots crisp their chicken skins quite nicely, but the texture is on the dry side, and the flavor is not very forthright. There are a number of these types of restaurants around the city. Their motif is all but too similar and bland.

Keeping on the mainstream path is the Dallas BBQ chain. The roast chicken seems to cater to the early bird dining crew. Stick to the fried chicken if you must.

A number of barbecue places sell their rotisserie chicken smoked. It is often too smoky to enjoy the flavor of the chicken.

A number of supermarkets also sell a reasonably priced roast chicken to go. These versions are passable, but nothing to shirk specialty shops for. Perhaps if they used the organic birds they sell, the chickens would be more delectable.

Dominican restaurants generally excel in their roast chicken preparations. The aroma of the chicken at the Malecon brings you through the door. The skin tastes sublime, but something is lost when the texture and flavor is tasted. If only it were as succulent as it smelled.

At Flor de Mayo, a Cuban-Chinese criolla spot, they make a Peruvian style roast chicken which has been a favorite of mine for years. A fiery red sauce is offered on the side, and I order the pollo a la brasa every time.

Nearby to Flor de Mayo stands the now defunct Tacita de Oro which easily had the best roast chicken and rice combo in town. The chicken scored high on all three criteria, but after over thirty years in business, lost their lease. It was a sad day for all chicken lovers.

On the East Side en El Barrio, there are dozens of Puerto Rican versions offered. I find them a tad overspiced and dry. Better to stay with the roast pork (pernil), their specialty.

Restaurants invariably offer roast chicken on their menus because they know someone will always order it. It is safe and somewhat foolproof. Bullpucky. Some of the best restaurants mess this up night in and night out, and they should stick to the fancy food they’re known for.

Often when I’m out tasting with the Grand Crew, one of us usually orders the chicken, and depending on the restaurant, it is the best dish served.

Recently I enjoyed the roast chicken at Bouley Upstairs in Tribeca and La Luz in Brooklyn, an absolute bargain at five dollars.

My quest for the best is ongoing, and would love to hear your recommendations. In the meanwhile, I have been fooling around with roast chicken recipes for years, and am known among my friends as iron chef roast birds. My friend Dr. L. from the Grand Crew travels to Israel, goes to the Arab Quarter and brings back an herb and spice mixture called Za’tar.  The following is our latest collaborative recipe. Try it and let me know how it rates to your favorite spot.

Remember, eat life.

Za’tar Roast Chicken

3 lb. organic chicken

juice of one lemon

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup Za’tar

salt & pepper

5 cloves garlic

1 tbsp. ginger

Set oven to 375 degrees.

Spatchcock (Cut out backbone) chicken and reserve for stock.

Rinse chicken under cold water.

Set aside on a baking tray layered with aluminum foil.

In a mortar and pestle, add garlic, ginger, pinch of salt. Mash into a paste.

In a mixing bowl add rest of ingredients and paste. Incorporate.

Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of chicken.

Spread mixture on front and back.

Place on tray, breast side up, and roast for 45 minutes.

Voila!

  • Za’tar is an aromatic Middle Eastern herb-and-spice mix (a type of thyme and sesame seeds)
  • Spatchcocking flattens the bird out allowing for even cooking

Inaugural Post

Welcome to Chef Mateo’s Blog. My motto is simple: Eat and Drink Life.

This is a new blog about food and wine, pleasure and taste, restaurants and recipes, vintages and pairings, cheeses, travel, and trends in the life of a food and wine enthusiast.

Although the blog will primarily be used as a method to discuss food and wine ideas, the opinions and discussion will reflect my thoughts and experiences, as well as my friends, loving called the Grand Crew.

My eating and drinking companions are invaluable in that they help me to formulate my own opinions even if it contradicts members of the group. What we do agree upon is lifestyle, the lifestyle of those who seek to enjoy and enhance their lives through food and wine. We plan, meet, talk, eat and drink. Above all, we laugh, especially after giving food and wine its due.

I hope this blog will invite discussion and vicarious enjoyment too. I can’t promise to answer every question or respond to each comment, but I savor the chance to read your comments and concerns.

As a chef/teacher I maintain a website where you can explore the pleasures of Caribbean cuisine, restaurant reviews, and wine tastings. I hope you enjoy your visit there weekly.

Remember, man gotta eat, woman too.