Archive for September, 2006

Tasty Sips – Wine

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

Everyone has, at one point or another, inevitably chosen a wine to pair with a meal that, although independently both are known to be superb, just simply don’t go together. like sauerkraut and chocolate. Okay, maybe not that bad. Alright, since I haven’t actually tried sauerkraut and chocolate, perhaps I shouldn’t use that analogy. But it doesn’t really sound pleasant, and that’s exactly my point.

I’ll admit that I have had more than my share of choosing the wrong wine with the wrong dish. But perhaps even more telling is that I’ll actually admit to doing this on purpose! Why? Well, I’m not a wine expert. No, really, I’m not! Everything I know about wine I have learned purely by experimentation and tasting. And tasting and experimenting…ah you get the idea.

But really, I can’t think of a much better way to learn about food and wine, or even life, than to experiment! Sure, we can all listen to the top sommelier and food critics and play it safe, but where’s the fun in that?! Besides, you might just be surprised to find out what works…(…and what doesn’t).

Take my penchant for Italian wines. The very first wine I ever had was one that my dear wife had introduced me to back when we were dating. Lambrusco. Light, fruity, easy on the palate. It’s quite possibly the single most perfect wine to introducing non-wine drinkers. Over the years, though, through my tasting and pairing, I discovered that I had an affinity for Italian wines. From Dolcetta d’Alba to Barolo, Pinot Grigio to Spumante, some of the finest wines I have ever tasted have come from this region of the world!

Why, then, is it so damned difficult to pair Italian wines with Italian food?! Now, rarely do I have trouble when I go out to dine, because I’m usully not in the mood to experiment with my hard earned dollars! No, this tends to happen when I’m at home making dinner, and pasta of some form is up on the menu. Say spaghetti or mostaccoli, and some garden-variety red sauce from a jar. Seems simple enough, yes? Tempting it can be to go to the cellar and pull out a nice Chianti, Sangiovese, or Dolcetta d’Alba. And pretty much as luck would have it, nothing seems to match just perfectly.

Take my latest foray, a 2002 Innocento by Podere Tramonti Castellina of Chianti, Italy. For a young Italian wine, meaning under 5 years of age, this wine is the embodiment of what I love about Italian wines: deep ruby red hue, the aroma of wood and spice, and a taste bursting with tart cherries! Made from the Sangiovese grape, this wine is a great value ($15-$20) that can be served now and will age well for many years to come.

So a great wine, but what of the food? On the menu, eggplant lasagna, a long-time favorite in this house. A simple dish, more akin to eggplant parmesean than true lasagna. Peel eggplant and slice into ½ inch thick pieces. Dip in an egg mixture and coat with seasoned breadcrumbs. Fry in mixture of half extra-virgin olive oil and butter. Once golden brown on both sides, remove and set aside. Cook lasagna noodles to near-done (firm) consistency, rinse in cold water to stop cooking process. Get a good pasta sauce, preferrably a meat sauce which should pare better with Italian wines than the non-meat sauces which I usually stock.

Start by putting some of the sauce in the bottom of a baking pan and then layer lasagna noodles, eggplant, mozarella cheese. Top with sauce and repeat. With a final layer of noodles, spread a final layer of sauce and top with slices of tomato, followed with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grinds of fresh black pepper. Cover and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve.

This is a great dish that will garner some praise, especially from those that think they don’t like eggplant. But do be careful to choose a wine that will compliment the sauce. As eggplant gets sweeter when cooked (like onions), a non-meat red sauce will make for light vegetable dish and a lighter red, like a Rosato (Italian for blush), will fare better than the heavier red table wines. On the other hand, a good classic meat sauce should work perfectly with wines such as the Tramonti Innocento.

For me, the challenge is finding a good table red that will work with both the sweeter vegetarian pasta dishes as well as the heavier meat dishes. So once in a while I’ll pull out a random bottle and experiment, knowing full and well that if the wine doesn’t go with dinner, I will at least enjoy sipping on it afterwards!

And so, as I sit here sipping on it, I can truly appreciate what a spectacular wine the Innocento is and understand why I love Italian wines so much. But although I may have a soft spot for wines from Italy, there are great wines from all corners of the globe that are worth writing about. And as I continue to taste and experiment, I’ll share my experiences and hopefully give you the inspiration to be a little adventurous and try something new yourself!

Why do people run food businesses if …

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Why do people try to run businesses if they don’t have the proper approach or mindset? Two examples of someone who should have not gone into the food business :

The Cheapskate Cafe Owner

Visit #1 : ‘Excuse me, we’re closing’

The husband & I were excited when we heard that a new coffee shop/cafe was opening near us. In our minds, you can never have too many cafes or coffee shops. This cafe had a chocolate theme, so it was another reason to visit them. Since we live in an area where very little stays open past 9 or 10pm, we usually only went to this cafe on the weekends when they stayed open until 11pm. Besides having to remind them to go light on the chocolate for our Cafe Mocha, we decided that their selection of cheesecake desserts definitely put this on our ‘keepers’ list.

Several weeks after they opened, we decided to meet some friends at the new cafe. It was a Saturday, so we knew that the cafe would be open until 11pm. It was 10:30pm when we got to the cafe, and there were about 5-6 other people there when we all arrived. The owner (an older women in her late forties) was working behind the counter that night, along with 3 of her employees (ie – part-time teenager help). Several of us ordered drinks and desserts (killer raspberry cheesecake slices!) and settled down at a table toward the front of the cafe.

About 10 minutes before closing, the part-time staff started their cleaning routine. At this point, there were only several other people in the cafe besides ourselves, so the staff started in an unoccupied area. The other parties left, making us the only customers. Knowing that the cafe would be closing soon, we were talking about what our plans were for the rest of the evening when the owner came up to our table :

Owner : “Excuse me, but could you finish up your drinks and food? My staff is trying to clean up to close; they are hourly and I have to pay them overtime the longer you sit here.”


We were stunned speechless. After an awkward minute, our group got up and left. The owner followed us to the door, locking it after we exited. After a couple of minutes, it sunk in what had just happened – the owner threw us out because she didn’t want her staff to work longer than the scheduled close time. And while we didn’t mind being reminded that the cafe was closing, the way that the owner communicated this made it obvious that she had never worked in the food service industry, or any business where customer service is integral.

So to those thinking of running a cafe or other business which requires interacting with customers – remember that service is a large part of the customer’s experience and can make or break people soliciting your business. This cafe is now on our ‘last resort’ list of places to go.

Visit # 2 : ‘We can’t do that’

Since very little is open late on the weekends, we’ve gone back to the mentioned cafe a couple of times. Fortunately, the owner wasn’t there the past few times when we went back, and we remembered to go way before closing so we wouldn’t run into the same issue as before. :P

Several months later, we found ourselves at the cafe with two of our friends one late Saturday afternoon, ordering coffee to go. Our usual order (a cafe mocha, light on the chocolate, no cherry and no chocolate coated spoon), was taken by the cashier. Our friends then ordered their drinks. Since one of them wanted a lighter version of a cafe mocha, they asked if they could get a cafe american with chocolate. Unfortunately, when they made their request, the owner had switched places with the regular cashier, who was explaining our order to the person manning the espresso machine .

Customer – “Can you make a cafe american with a little bit of chocolate?”
Owner – “Oh, we can’t do that – you have to order the drink you want from our menu selection.”
Customer – “Well, I don’t want a heavy espresso drink so I wanted to see if you could just add a little chocolate to the cafe american.”
Owner – “No, you have to order one of the drinks listed on the menu. If we start adding or taking away, this confuses the staff and we have to figure out the cost difference and charge you for it.”
Customer – “Oh…”

Our friend ended up ordering a hot chocolate instead.

European coffee drinkers will know that a ‘cafe’ american is simply an espresso drink which has had about 8-10oz of hot water added, to simulate the drip coffee that Americans are used to drinking as their coffee. So the owner could have just added a dollop of melted chocolate to appease our friend. But once again, the ‘cost conscience’ side of the owner expressed itself in denying the customer’s request.

So why did this person decide to open a food business, when they obviously don’t have any ‘customer service’ sensibility?!