leave your inhibitions at the door
Last week, my good friend Botha and his gal pal crashed out at my place on the way to a new life in Southampton, NY. I first met Botha (not his real name) when I joined the wine department staff at the late great Bello Vino. Bello Vino was a smallish grocery store that had a great deli, produce, and meat/seafood department. It was owned by this guy who kinda looked like Yanni – pornstar moustache and all – who used Bello Vino to keep his daughter (the manager) gainfully employed. Its main clientele came from the Pfizer plant on the north side of A2, so when they left town the store was toast. But in its heyday the store was best known for its wine and beer department, headed by the ever-gregarious Thick-Fingered Phil. Under his thick iron fist, we had Ann Arbor’s largest selection of wine and the best selection of Belgian beers in all of Michigan.
Botha is a tall, handsome guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of food and wine. I met him here, but he’s lived the past year or so in Petoskey, way up north. A graduate of culinary school, he’s had sous chef positions at local high-end places and a huge passion for beer and wine, particularly Chateauneuf du Pape. He also has very thick fingers, but his are substantially longer than Phil’s. Ahh, fun times at Bello Vino. What’s with the name “Botha”, you ask? One of my many prank calls to the wine department was this gem:
Hedonist (in either Indian or effeminate accent): Hello, wine department?
Friend: Yes, this is the wine department
H: Do you have wine?
F: Yes, we have wine.
H: I’m looking for a wine from California named Botha.
F: That doesn’t sound familiar.
H: (Shocked) You’ve never heard of Botha?
F: No, I’m sor-
H: It’s Botha Dezenutts in your mouth!!!
Classic. We’ve referred to each other as Botha ever since.
Anyway, Botha and gal pal were just beginning their journey and decided to stay in A2 before going to NY. Botha had a 1998 Domaine de Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape – his favorite producer from his favorite region – he wanted to bust open. Boom Boom was in the Chi and the Pieholes would be asleep by this time. So the plan was for them to come over and I’d fix something to pair with the wine.
Marron Acidifie – Collaboration between The Brouery (Orange County, CA) and Cigar City Brewing (Tampon Bay, FL)
We started off festivities with this beer that Botha brought. It’s officially a dark sour ale aged in oak. My beer-tasting skills aren’t very developed, so I couldn’t tell you much about malts, hops, etc., but I did get lots of cranberry and cedar aromas. Nice and sour, it turned out to be a nice accompaniment to my arugula salad with lemon-parmigiano dressing.
2005 Williamsburg Winery Merlot Reserve
I picked this up during a recent business trip to Viriginia. Botha scoffed at the idea of a good red from there, but now he’s a believer. It had a nice youthful light purple color with no hints of age yet. It’s still a little tight, so had to coax it to get what was on the nose – cherries, cranberries, and cinnamon. Dry, mildly acidic, it had the elegance you would expect from a Merlot. Not as jammy as California versions, but more so than ones from Bordeaux. Tannins were nicely structured. It’s drinking nicely now and will probably be good for another five years. 91 pts
1998 Domaine de Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape
This was a spectacular wine. Dark purple with some hints of amber around the rim, expected for its age. It was very perfumed with strong notes of cherry, pine, cedar, and black pepper. There was also a good amount of Brett to the nose (per Botha, Band-aid aroma). A lot of people consider Brett to be a defect, but I think it’s fine in moderation. Dry and acidic, it had enough tannins to suggest it could go another 10 years. Flavors of cranberries and other dark fruit, perfect balance to the alcohol. 95 pts, easily.
In addition to the arugula salad, I made braised veal cheeks over creamy polenta. In a two-week period in March I had veal cheeks on vacation in Mexico and at Monk’s Pub in Philadelphia. So it when I saw it at a Sparrow Market, I nabbed some. Cheek meat is the prized part of most meat and fish – it’s tender, succulent, and full of flavor (like me). Now, if you think cheek meat or my flavorfulness sounds gross, scroll up to the top of this page and read the subtitle to this blog – “Leave your inhibitions at the door”. It’s worth finding and trying. Braising is my favorite method of cooking and is incredibly easy. It was my first time cooking veal cheeks, so I couldn’t decide what to braise them in, so I tried two different ways. In one pan, I used Chateau de Recougne, a nice crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux. In the other I used a bottle of Jolly Pumpkin’s Biere De Mars Grand Reserve – a sour strong pale ale hailing from Dexter, MI.
Both preparations turned out fantastic. I liked the beer version a little better as the sauce was a little richer and had some sharp notes to it. I braised both versions for an additional hour to make it extra tender, which also made reducing the sauce unnecessary. (Recipe below is standard braising preparation) Saying that these were fork-tender is an understatement. We just said, “Boo!” and these things broke apart. Enjoy!
Braised Veal Cheeks
This was adapted from my recipe for short ribs braised in Pinot Noir. It’s a pretty standard technique.
4-6 Veal Cheeks – in A2, get them at Sparrow Market.
2 Tablespoons oil
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
½ onion, chopped
Sprig or two of thyme
Braising liquid – 2 cups dry wine (white or red) OR 1-2 bottles of dark ale
Cup or two of veal or chicken broth
1 – Preheat oven to 325
2 – Heat oil over medium high heat in a dutch oven or other oven-safe pot with tight-fitting lid. Don’t use non-stick. In batches, brown all sides of the cheeks – about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove from pan. They should look like this:
3 – Add the carrot, celery, and onion and sautee until softened – about five minutes. FYI – this classic combo of aromatic vegetables is known as a Mirepoix (aka The Holy Trinity, or Soffritto/Soffrito) It’s the basis of a lot of different foods.
4 – Add the thyme, bay leaf, stir, and add ½ cup of the braising liquid to deglaze the pan. Use a wooden spoon to loosen the bits that stick to the pan. Return the cheeks to the pan.
5 – Add the rest of the braising liquid and enough broth to just cover the cheeks.
6 – When it starts to boil, put cover on and place in oven for 1½ hours until tender. You don’t need to do anything with the pan. In fact, I ran errands during this time.
7 – Remove cheeks, and strain the veggies through a mesh sieve, pressing down to extract more flavor. Reduce the liquid over medium-low heat until you get a nice thick sauce.