Wine Sommelier

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A Virtual Dinner: Viva Cuba!

I have always wanted to go to Cuba: the music, the food, the art, not to mention the very mysterious tradition of Santeria that involves spirits and gods that were brought to the island by the Africans on their way to being slaves on the grand plantations of the American south.

I always thought it would have been very interesting to go when Fidel Castro was still alive. But unfortunately, I couldn’t.

Although, I met Fidel once: it was at CBS News in the early 2000’s. It was September and he was in town to give a speech at the UN General Assembly. So, he popped in, as one does, to say hello to Dan Rather who had interviewed him on many an occasion.

The whole building was on tenterhooks.

Dan went down to the lobby to meet him and took him for a little tour around the building at 524 West 57th Street that used to be a dairy a very long time ago.

I stood in a corner at the Evening News Desk and waited for him to appear: a man who had been such a major player in the history of the 20th century.

And then he came through the doors. Fidel Castro, who I had imagined would come in his camouflage guerilla fatigues, his combat boots and cap, chewing a cigar, walked onto the anchor desk, dressed in a grey, bespoke double-breasted suit, white shirt and a dark red tie. His beard was perfectly combed and his grey hair slicked back. I later found out the suit, shirt and tie were all Valentino.

I smiled politely when I was introduced, and it was a moment I won’t soon forget. Think what you may of Fidel and his history in Cuba, the man was charming and charismatic, one felt his presence even when he had left.

My other favourite Cuban is a musician: not Tito Puente or Celia Cruz or even Gloria Estefan. It’s Bebo Valdés, a superb pianist who was a major influence on the Cuban music scene all the way until 2013 when he died at the age of 94. A founder of Latin jazz and one who pioneered the incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into dance music, Bebo was a genius.

Living in New York, I’ve always kept an eye out for real Cuban food. Victor’s on 52nd Street came close, but it wasn’t like some of the dishes I sampled during a brief stint in Miami in 2010.

I recently talked to a colleague of mine in the wine world, a Cuban, and we began talking about Cuban food and what wines would be interesting to pair with it.

At the end of the chat, he had handed over his mother’s receipe for pork chops, rice and beans and the girls and I made it for our virtual dinner party on Friday.

Mint, lime, cumin and garlic were the predominant flavours: a perfect mix of all the cultures that have come through the island in the past 500 years: Spanish, French, English, Asian, African…

Wine-wise, I decided on an all-natural cabernet franc from the Loire, K had a rose from the Provence and L a sauvignon blanc from South Africa.

Here’s the recipe:

Serves 2:

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 thinly sliced pork chops

4 limes

2 teaspoons ginger powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons cumin powder

Salt & pepper to taste

1 cup flour

14 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup rice (Basmati is a good option)

2 cups cupped red onion

2 red or green Serrano chillies

2 cans Goya red or black beans

0.5 cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Method:

  • Pork chops:

Marinate chops in marinade of lime juice, salt and spices and set aside.

  • Beans:
    Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the pot. When hot, 1 cup of the red onion. Stir. When soft, add about 8 cloves of garlic. Stir. When soft, add chopped chilies. Stir. Add beans. Cover and cook on a slow fire
  • Rice:

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Brown 6 cloves of garlic. Add 1 cup of rice, stirring frequently, coating the rice with the oil and garlic. When the grains start to look toasty, add salt to taste. Cover, lower the fire and let cook. When the rice is al dente, drain the excess water in a colander. (You’ll be getting rid of the excess carbs this way). Return to the pot. Cover and let the rice finish cooking in its own steam
Whilst the rice is cooking, put the cup of flour in a shallow bowl. Season with salt and half a teaspoon of cumin.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. Whilst oil is heating, take chops out of marinade and coat in flour. When oil is hot, add chops. Cook 3 – 4 minutes per side. Drizzle with honey and keep aside.

In the same pan, add remaining chopped red onion and 2 cloves garlic. When soft, add 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar and some fresh mint. If too dry, add water. Let cook a few minutes. Top off the chops with the mixture.

Serve with rice and beans.

 

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Life’s Simple Pleasures

Until a few short weeks ago, I was involved in the opening of a new restaurant in New York City.

I was the wine director responsible for a 45-page wine list that boasted 750 references and over 3500 bottles in the cellar, plus a team of sommeliers.

It was the toughest reservation in town, people clamouring to get in, begging for a reservation to dine and be seen at such a hot spot.

Work on the restaurant began months before, but once it actually opened, my life was no longer my own: I was working seven days a week, often putting in fifteen-hour days. I was so busy that I barely saw my own dog: on one of my rare days off, I actually had to call his walker to find out what he ate because I had run out of his food. Needless to say, friends fell by the wayside, collateral damage for an over-achiever that I seem to have been all my life. Clawing one’s way up a ladder, no matter which industry you’re in, does not leave much room for balance that includes friendship, compassion or empathy.

But now, here I am: unemployed and with no idea of what role I’ll play when life goes back to normal. What will the restaurant world look like when the world at large reopens? Will I have a role in that world? And more importantly, do I even want to stay in it?

Nowadays, hours merge, days and nights flow into each other, thoughts ramble along with no compass…because there is none.

The only thing I know is that we have to navigate forward, because there is no other way.

I sat at the foot of a tree today in Central Park with Baxter, my faithful wheaten terrier, rolling around on the green grass a few feet away, I laughed…really laughed, perhaps the first time in months. Seeing him so happy, made me happy. I turned my face up to the sun and breathed deeply, taking in the Vitamin D and…enjoying the pleasure of being outdoors with my dog: no timetable, no schedule, no appointments…nothing, just the whole afternoon ahead of me. It was bliss.

Such a simple pleasure. I had forgotten what they were like.

As we continued our walk around the bridle path, with me masked and gloved and judiciously walking from one side to the other keeping myself within a 6 foot bubble, I began to think about simple pleasures. What are they?

Simple pleasures are experiences that are exactly as described: simple. They are everyday experiences that don’t take forever to plan or schedule, but mainly, they balance our life, allow the prism to shift from our mad, daily schedules to certain things that fill our souls and make us whole again.

Simple pleasures are highly personal: what is a simple pleasure for me may not be one for you.

Many years ago, I worked as a personal assistant to a very rich Park Avenue matron. She claimed that going shopping every day, buying the same dress in three sizes, two pairs of the same shoes and spending on average $30,000 a day on such things was a ‘simple pleasure.’

Mine, on the other hand, include: waking up to a beautiful day and knowing I don’t have a schedule to follow; staring at the ocean listening to its ebb and flow; lying on the grass staring up at the sky; a glass of wine at sunset; catching up with a friend on a lazy summer afternoon over a lunch of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and avocado; cooking Sunday lunch for friends…my list is not one that costs a lot of money, all it requires is time…which in my case has been in very short supply, until now.

I’ve been reading a lot of accounts of people who lived through the Spanish flu pandemic just over a hundred years ago. It reads like history repeating itself, except in one, very important way. Technology.

In our enforced solitude, technology has allowed us to still be with one another. We have the luxury of virtual cocktails, virtual dinner parties, virtual gyms…not to mention Netflix and Amazon Prime. And we can get food and groceries delivered.

So whilst we all think we are alone, and a lot of us are, I can Facetime with friends, text them, call them and I know they’re there.

One of the things I hope drifts into the post-corona world is that we remember our friends and those we love and make time every day for the simple pleasures of life, no matter what they are for you.

Onward.

 

 

 

450 675 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Harissa Chicken

One of the things I love to do is entertain at home.

Cooking for friends, picking the wine, setting the table, choosing the flowers, candles music…it’s all part of what I love to do. And if I’m going to cook for someone, they’d better eat! In fact, in my book of hospitality, the empty plate of a guest is a crime of etiquette.

Before I got back into the world of restaurants and had no time for my friends, I would have dinner parties at least once month, informal gatherings of friends or large Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers that involved creating more complex menus, cooking over two days and the best part, choosing the right wines and opening a bottle as soon as I put on my apron! You can’t cook without a glass of wine!

Now, in this time of social distancing, I have, ironically, reconnected with these friends and we get together every couple of days at 6pm, via FaceTime for a drink. A few days ago, one of them reminded me about the dinners I would have for monthly column I used to write. It was a column about wine-pairing, written for people who wanted to enjoy wine without breaking the bank.

My editor would send me a receipe and it was my job to make it and pair the dish with a red, white, rose or sparkling wine, with the caveat that the bottle was under $25.

So every month, I’d invite half a dozen friends and we would all gather in my kitchen for a glass of champagne, the opening aperitif, that was my welcome drink of choice. I would cook, and we would all catch up, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying one another’s company.

When the dish in question was ready, we would sit at the dining table and I would present the wines and everyone would taste and sip and I would take notes until I had enough. After that, the diner party would take on a positively raucous edge and indubitably, much more wine was opened than the requisite ones that were to be part of the article.

So I got to thinking…why couldn’t we do the same? Virtually? The suggestion was met with definitive enthusiasm and  we agreed to Friday night to cook via FaceTime.

The opening recipe was Harissa Chicken. A simple roasted chicken with the added kick of one of my favourite North African spice paste.

Just as I was in the kitchen washing vegetables, K and L both texted me at the same time. “What are we drinking?”

Ah! The most important part of cooking is what you have in your glass, that liquid that makes the world look slightly better in the midst of all this instability. Since K and L only drink white wine, I suggested a pinot blanc or a pinot gris, something with a little more fruit that would stand up to the spice in the harissa.

And for myself, I pulled out a bottle of Cour-Cheverney, a little-known appellation in the Loire where the local varietal is the rare Romorantin, an old Burgundian varietal now only grown in Cheverney. On the nose it’s all pear and apple and white flowers and on the palate, it’s delicate, elegant and a touch honeyed, which would be perfect with the chicken.

My harissa chicken receipe is incredibly easy to make: everything goes in one dish. Essentially, the chicken is rubbed with the harissa and salt and laid on a bed of a sort of mirepoix of peppers and onions, themselves seasoned with olive oil and salt. And into the oven it goes for about an hour and a bit.

As everyone’s chicken cooked (on FaceTime), we had a drink together and chatted. When everything was ready, we all sat down at our respective tables. I had my chicken with pita bread, yoghurt with cucumber and an extra squidge of lemon; K had hers with naan and tzatziki sauce and L had hers with coucous.

It was delicious and it was a great evening, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. So much so that next Friday, we’re doing the same, this time, the receipe that is being clamoured for is a lamb ragù that I learned from a farmer’s wife in Sardinia about 30 years ago whilst on holiday there with a college friend.

The receipe for the Harissa Chicken is below:

Makes 4 servings:

Ingredients:

1 red pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 green pepper

1 red onion

One chicken (if you do a whole chicken, cut through the backbone, so you can lay it flat) or pieces of a chicken, breasts, thighs, drumsticks on the bone

Olive oil

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Harissa (can be store bought or see my receipe)

Fresh lemon wedges

Method:

Chop all the vegetables, season well with salt and pepper and toss in lots of good olive oil and a tablespoon of the Harissa.

Place in a baking dish.

Season chicken with salt and pepper and take a good dollop of the harissa, at least 2-3 tablespoons and rub the chicken all over before placing it on the vegetables. Drizzle honey over the chicken.

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Place the dish in the oven and let the meat sear…about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven.

Once a crust has formed, lower the oven to 350 degrees and cook the chicken for about 55 minutes.

Take out of the oven and let rest.

Serve with naan bread, pita bread or couscous.

Squeeze the juice of the fresh lemon on the chicken and dig in.

Harissa:

Ingredients:

(about 2 cups)

8 fresh red serrano chilies

8 dried red chilies (can be chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho guajillo)

2 red peppers

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

4 cloves

4 whole black pepper

6 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

Juice of half a lemon

Salt to taste

Olive oil

Fresh mint

Method:

Rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water, about 40 minutes.

Chop the heads off the fresh chilies and keep aside.

Chop the two red peppers and roast them in the oven at 450 degrees until the skin is charred and the peppers are soft. Peel off the charred skin and keep aside.

In a skillet, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and black pepper.

Grind the dried spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

Drain the dried chilies and keep the water.

Combine all chilies, roasted peppers, spices, garlic, lemon and salt in a blender or food processor.

Once coarse, slowly add the olive oil to create a paste. If still too dry, add some of the water from the rehydrated chilies.

Add a few sprigs of fresh mint.

Place in a jar and store in the fridge.

You will need to add a little olive oil each time you use the paste after refrigeration.

 

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To Be Or Not To Be … A Wine Sommelier

I read somewhere recently that one should be proud of one’s choices…and not necessarily one’s talents.

Hmmm…?

Because choices involve working hard, and the achievements that follow are worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears you put into it.

Let’s just say for a moment you are lucky enough to have a gift, if you work hard, that gift will pay off. Left to its own devices, the gift will wither.

Passion is a gift. To have passion for something is exhilarating, exciting, and so fulfilling.

I didn’t find my passion until I was in my late 30s. Actually, I have two: writing and wine.

Now…the writing is a solitary existence…but wine…that’s a different story…

At Somm Time, I am so often reminded how much I love working with people who are as passionate about wine as I am…but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more passion for or knowledge of wine that my colleague Ciprian Toma. His knowledge is encyclopedic: every time I suggest a little-known wine from a tiny winery tucked away behind the fields somewhere in deepest, darkest Andalucia, he’ll say, “Oh I know that wine…”

What?

Or some obscure Cabernet from Georgia that he had me taste, matured in clay kvevris…or…well the list goes on and on.

I feel so privileged to work with someone like Cip because I learn something every single time. His way of talking about wine opens my mind and my palate beyond my personal likes and he does that with all the guests who come through the door. “Spend a little time with the wine,” he’ll say to someone who may be on the fence about a brand new orange wine…or an all-natural trousseau from the Jura in Eastern France. “You will love it, I promise.”

And when Cip likes a wine…it is a rather grand performance, worthy of a Shakespearian play. He walks around, gesturing, gesticulating, shaking his head, pacing the room, looking up at the sky, throwing his arms in the air…and no words…at least not until the second sip.

Clearly, he is not the stiff, pompous sommelier who takes himself overly seriously, of which there are so many running around New York City. One I recently met reminded me of Lurch Addams. It is wine after all…not brain surgery. And wine is meant to be a celebration, so go ahead…enjoy it…the Cip way!

Originally from Transylvania in central Romania, he started life as a political journalist, followed by public relations, finally finding his way to New York City, where he started tasting wines, mostly Italian and discovered he had a “thing” for wine…certainly a nose, a palate and a passion that led to a sommellerie diploma.

I feel a certain camaraderie with Cip, and even though I don’t know him very well, I know enough to realize that he is a serious fellow with a keen sense of humor and we have alot in common respective to the roads we have traveled, switching around before we got to where we were meant to be.

Nonetheless, I have huge respect and admiration for someone who has realized what he loves and goes for it, full throttle.

Once you figure out what you love, it really lights up your life and it will make it easier to succeed.

And one last thing…Cip really loves the desert!