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The Right Way To Blind Taste Wine

© Kobrand Corporation

First of all, let’s identify the wrong way to blind-taste wine. The wrong way involves taking a sip of some mystery wine, swirling it around in your mouth in a disdainful way, and then saying something like, “Well, Bonneau, of course. The Celestins…and definitely ’89. I mean it’s almost impossible to miss.” This is called the “pretentious jackass” approach to blind tasting. As Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm says in my recent interview with him: “If you want to show off your great wine-tasting abilities and act like you’re cool because of it, hey, I’ve got a Dungeons & Dragons set for you, too.”

However, there are also right ways to blind-taste. And thanks to a recent party I was at, thrown by financial writer Felix Salmon, I have a new method to throw into the mix.

Salmon’s approach is simple: Throw a blind-tasting party. The host picks a theme—red wine from Mediterranean islands, in his case—and asks everyone to find an appropriate wine and bring two bottles of it to the party. One bottle goes into a box; the other gets concealed in a numbered bag. Then everyone tastes the numbered mystery wines while hanging out, chatting, and muching on tasty snacks. There’s no time pressure, and certainly no pressure to determine the origin or expert-level details of wines; the only real requirement is to decide how much you like each one. (Of course, part of the fun is talking how much you don’t like some of the wines, too.)

After tasting every bottle, each guest ranks the wines from least to most favorite. The host adds up each wine’s score, and once that’s done, the wines are revealed in order. The best part: At the end of the evening, the guest whose bottle was the highest-rated overall takes home the entire box of second bottles.

At Salmon’s party the winner was the 2009 Barrua ($40), a Carignane-based wine from Sardinia, luscious and very polished, with just enough age to give it some aromatic development, too. A lovely wine, its only real downside ws that I was not the one who brought it. (Check out Salmon’s take on the evening’s results if you’re interested in how all the wines we tasted did.)

I love this approach. No one really needs to know anything about wine to have fun with it, the results are inevitably surprising, it’s all very casual and social and fun, and on top of that some lucky person wins a whole bunch of wine at the end. It just wasn’t me. At least this time…

How to Pair Wine with Chicken Stews

Tomatillo Chicken Stew with Sauvignon Blanc
© Kristin Donnelly

Almost any time you’re pairing wine with chicken, you want to start by thinking about the sauce. Here, a few types of wines to try with different types of chicken stew.

Rich Chardonnays with creamy chicken stews 
Cream or crème fraîche with fuller-bodied, oaked Chardonnays are an undeniably good match. The wines have just enough acidity to cut through the richness but their own full body to pair with the cream. Look for Chardonnays from Napa Valley or Meursault from Burgundy in France. (Even though they don’t always contain cream, classic chicken potpies are also great with these wines.)

Sauvignon Blanc with tomatillo chicken stews 
In Mexico, chicken is often stewed with tangy tomatillos as well as cilantro and jalapeños. Those green flavors are terrific with Sauvignon Blanc, which can be grapefruit-tart and wildly herbaceous. Look for inexpensive citrusy styles from Chile or minerally Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France.

Off-dry Rieslings with spicy coconut milk-based stews 
Coconut milk-based stews are creamy, for sure, but the heat they usually have would clash with a dry Chardonnay. Off-dry Rieslings taste less sweet when paired with heat, which is why they’re a no-brainer match with spicy food.

Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc with mushroomy, red winey stews 
Your classic coq au vin could be paired with a number of red wines; the dish is fairly flexible. You can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir from Burgundy or Central California or Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley. Both types of wines have a great balance of fruit and acidity that’s terrific with these winey chicken stews.

Syrah with olive-laden chicken stews 
Some Syrah (aka Shiraz in Australia) tends to lean more toward savory than fruity flavors. You’ll find this meaty style of Syrah in France’s northern Rhône as well as in cooler parts of California and Australia. It’s delicious with anything that has black olives, like a Provençal-style chicken stew.

5 Wines That Sommeliers Dream of Drinking All the Time

 Aged Verdicchio

“Verdicchio is one of my favorite white grapes ever,” says Steve Wildy of Vetri Family Restaurants. And he contends that the Italian wine is even better with some age. “It becomes so interesting and green olivey and briney and super-delicious and versatile. I have one with 10 years of age on it at home in my fridge.”

Grower Champagne
“Grower Champagne, without a doubt—I would never, ever, ever get sick of it. Never. I don’t see how it’s possible,” says Dana Frank of Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon. “There are so many. Like, Ledru—I really love their wine—and Lanson. I really love Gatinois—very old school, but I really love the wine. I know it is not fashionable, but I think the wines are lovely from Ambonnay. Jacques Lassaigne’s Champagnes were the first Champagnes where the lightbulb went on and I was like, ‘Okay, I like bubbles, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE Champagne.’”

Vilmart & Cie Champagne
“It is just unique and challenging and different as myself,” says Molly Wismeier of Restaurant R’Evolution in New Orleans. “The oak treatment and the intensity of the wine makes that Champagne really special.”

Krug Rosé Champagne
“When I worked in Aspen, there was this lady that would come to the restaurant at least once a week. She was older, I think a widow, but she would come in and she would drink a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Rosé by herself during lunch while reading a paper,” says Vilma Mazaite of Austin’s LaV. “I always said, I just have to work really hard in my life. I want to drink a bottle of Krug Rosé for lunch every day.”

Montrachet White Burgundy
“The thing about Montrachet is that it is the best wine on the planet,” says Richard Hanauer of RPM Steak in Chicago. “I’m struggling to think if even one Montrachet gets opened every day on the planet. It can’t be averaging more than 10, 20, 30 a day.”

15 Ways to Use Almond Milk

Almond-Milk Rice Pudding
Almond-Milk Rice Pudding
Photo © Christina Holmes

In every F&W issue of 2013, this column will introduce a new pantry item to expand your repertoire.

The health benefits of almonds are myriad and well documented. They’re high in protein, vitamin E, fiber, and minerals such as magnesium, selenium, manganese, zinc, potassium, iron, phosphorus and calcium (commercial almond milks are often fortified with extra calcium). There’s evidence that almond milk helps to lower LDL cholesterol and protect against heart disease. It is relatively low in calories and has zero saturated fats, making it a good choice for maintaining a healthy weight.

I like it because it tastes great and adds richness to lots of dishes. In F&W’s January “Handbook” section, I created a bunch of recipes that use almond milk—some sweet and some savory. Though the substitutions may not be universal, they are pretty wide and varied. On the sweet side, I created a dairy-free Banana-Almond Milk “Soft Serve” ice cream, using almond milk, frozen bananas (already pretty creamy), honey and crystallized ginger, all pureed in a food processor. Then, I topped it with a yummy, Warm Chocolate-Almond Sauce, made very much like a classic ganache, which is just chocolate and cream. But I subbed out the cream with almond milk and a drop of almond extract. Almond milk was also great in place of cow milk in my Almond-Milk Rice Pudding, in which I cooked sushi-rice risotto-style using almond milk and a bit of sugar. Since almonds and cherries are a classic pairing, I topped the pudding with sweet-tart cherry preserves. Divine!

On the savory side, I made a luscious Spicy Cauliflower Puree that’s as good as any mashed potato I’ve ever had, but practically calorie-free (well, not really). I simmered cauliflower in almond milk until soft, then drained and pureed it for a thick, silky mash. This also makes a lovely soup if it’s blended with all of the almond milk. In yet another recipe, Almond-Milk Creamed Spinach, I made a béchamel with almond milk, into which I folded wilted spinach and grated Parmesan (I never said dairy-free, though I suppose you could use soy cheese?), then topped it with panko and marcona almonds and baked it until it was bubbling and golden. Now that’s divine!

9 Ways to Use Chia Seeds

9 Ways to Use Chia Seeds
Chia Seed Pudding
Photo © Antonis Achilleos

Once famous for sprouting fuzzy green coats on clay figures, chia seeds are now revered for their nutritional powers. They have more omega-3s than salmon, more calcium than milk, and tons of protein and fiber.

Because they’re so high in fiber, it’s best not to eat more than one tablespoon of the seeds per day. Plus, chia seeds can be so effective at lowering blood pressure that it’s wise to talk to a doctor before trying out chia if you take blood pressure medication or have naturally low blood pressure.

Chia seeds can be sprinkled whole on virtually anything. When soaked, chia absorbs up to 30 times its weight in water, forming a gel that can help thicken a jam and turn milk into pudding. Here are nine fun ways to use the versatile seeds.

1. Pancakes. Add a tablespoon of chia seeds to your favorite pancake batter to give it a nutritional boost. For crunch, sprinkle chia seeds on top of the pancakes.

2. Jam. For a superfast jam that thickens without too much sweetener, simmer fruit with just a little bit of sugar until it’s soupy, then add a tablespoon or two of whole chia seeds. Simmer for a few minutes longer until the jam is thick. Refrigerate for up to a week.

3. Granola. Simply add whole chia seeds to your favorite granola recipe.

4. Smoothies. Pump up the protein and fiber of any smoothie by adding chia gel (for one serving, soak a teaspoon of whole chia seeds in one tablespoon water).

5. Agua fresca. Turn a refreshing agua fresca into an energy drink. Add one teaspoon of chia seeds per eight-ounce serving and chill for a few hours until the drink is lightly gelled.

6. Salad dressing. Whisk chia seeds into a vinaigrette; the longer it stands, the thicker the dressing gets.

7. Bread crumb crust. Mix the seeds with bread crumbs to use as a crust for pan-fried chicken cutlets.

8. Pudding. Make a three-ingredient pudding by soaking chia seeds in sweetened almond milk, which thickens to form a tapioca-like treat.

9. Egg substitute in cake recipes. Blend one tablespoon ground chia seeds with three tablespoons of water and use the gel to replace the equivalent of one large egg in cakes that call for fewer than two eggs, such as Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake or Old-Fashioned Banana Bread.

10 Ways to Use Kale

Squash-and-Kale Toasts
Squash-and-Kale Toasts
Photo © John Kernick

Whatever your opinion of the kale-gone-wild movement to infuse everything with kale (like chocolate cake), there is a reason to eat more of it. Kale is one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet, delivering calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K, along with tons of phytonutrients and minerals, with very few calories. Plus, even everyday home cooks will find it versatile: Kale lends itself to braising, grilling, frying, baking, juicing or salt tenderizing, and it’s good served raw. Here are 10 go-to ways to use this incredible superfood.

1. Salads. Make the world’s healthiest salad with raw, salt-kneaded kale,avocado and olives.

Or use it to replace romaine in a Caesar—the sturdy greens defy wilting under the thick dressing, making it great for a buffet table or potluck.

Toss raw leaves with fried kale as well as brussels sprouts and lots of herbs for a sensational multi-textured salad.

For a hearty side dish or vegetarian meal, blanch it and toss with grains, as in this wheat berry salad with butternut squash.

2. Grilled sides. Grill stemmed kale leaves in a perforated pan to make it smoky. For a great side dish, toss it with bacon and a lemony dressing, like star chef Adam Perry Lang does.

3. Chips. Bake kale leaves nearly naked (just tossed with olive oil, garlic and salt) for serving with a lemon-yogurt dip. Or toss the leaves with an umami-packed dressing before toasting so they become sturdier and more crispy.

4. Pizza toppings. Top whole-wheat pizza crust or focaccia with kale before firing. Or just wilt it with olive oil and garlic to serve over butternut toasts with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

5. Tamales. Cook kale with mushrooms to make an unorthodox tamale filling. The same filling is fantastic in tacos.

6. Breakfast casserole. Add kale to strata—a savory bread pudding made healthy with multigrain bread and lots of vegetables.

7. Roasted under chicken. For a homey one-pan meal, roast chicken legs on top of a bed of kale and potatoes, so the delicious meat juices season the vegetables.

8. Stuffing. Incorporate kale into a classic cornbread stuffing, such as chef and food writer David Tanis’s version with bacon.

9. Hash. Make the ultimate comfort food healthier by adding braised kale. Star chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo make a fantastic kale hash with nutty sunchokes.

10. Soups. Kale makes any soup insanely nourishing—even one made with a pancetta-and-Parmesan enriched broth.