Wine on Wednesdays – Rigatoni Red

When I worked at my Uncle Tony’s liquor store in high school, I was often approached by customers asking me to recommend a wine to go with a particular dish.

Rigatoni Red

Rigatoni Red

Aside from the fact that they were asking a 16-year-old for wine advice, I did my best to accomodate them. Yet since my wine knowledge was rather limited at the time, some of the pairings were questionable.

Pork chops with apricot sauce? You might try this Mogen David made from Concord grapes. Cashew chicken? How about Richard’s Wild Irish Rose? Traditional Thanksgiving dinner? I suggest Riuniti on ice. It’s nice!

Well, a couple of wine importers from New York are offering a solution to the problem of which wine to serve with a particular entree. Cousins Darren and Ben Restivo, owners of Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, have launched the Food & Wine Collection, which pairs particular foods wines the company develops with selected vintners.

The wine I tried is called “Rigatoni Red” and it is made with a blend of varietals grown in Puglia, Italy, which is traditionally thought to be the place pasta was invented.

The wine was affordable, priced at $9.99/bottle. I paid $8.49 with the 15% discount I get at my wine store for buying 6 bottles or more at once.

I actually tried it twice, once without pasta and once with rigatoni and red sauce.The first time I enjoyed its smooth flavor on its own. It sort of had a Merlot-like mellowness going for it, with a little bit of a cherry tang. Definitely not a fruit bomb.

I wondered how it would stand up to a rich tomato-and-garlic pasta sauce. The answer is surprisingly well. The flavors of the wine and the pasta complemented each other so  that both ended up tasting even better than they would by themselves, which is the way successful food and wine pairings are supposed to work.

The company also offers Bar-B-Que Red, made with grapes from France’s Rhone Valley; Fresh Catch White, a blend of Sicilian varietals; and Ribeye Red, which is composed of a blend of grapes from Argentina’s Fanatina Valley.

I haven’t seen those wines yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them. Especially if they pair as well with those dishes as Rigatoni Red did with the pasta.



Beef and Broccoli

I’ve always enjoyed beef and broccoli from the Chinese take-out restaurant, but surprisingly I’ve never tried it at home.

One of the most enjoyable things about writing a blog is encountering other people from around the world who have shared interests. Before I started blogging a little more than a year ago, I was only vaguely aware of the concept of bloggers and the blogosphere.

Beef and Broccoli

Today, I’m an enthusiastic participant in a rich community of people whose writing I admire, whose online friendship I cherish, and whose willingness to open up their lives to strangers never fails to astound me.

I found this beef and broccoli recipe on one of the most interesting and entertaining blogs that I follow. It’s called Sybaritica, and it’s written by C. John Thompson, a Canadian public defender/food writer whose territory is literally the top of the world, composing of tiny villages above the Arctic Circle.

Although I subscribe to dozens of blogs, John’s is one that I will always drop everything and read whenever a new entry arrives in my inbox. He has a keen, curious mind and his subject matter is always interesting — whether he is writing about the challenges of representing defendants in remote Acrtic villages or reviewing exotic Asian cooking products.

I have frequently commented on John’s blog that he should consider writing a book or even a movie. His life is truly fascinating — sort  of like “Northern Exposure” meets “Law and Order”.

This Beef and Broccoli recipe looked especially delicious, as it is one of my favorite carry-out dishes. It was actually quite simple to make and extraordinarily flavorful. Both Sandi and I enjoyed it very much, leaving me to wonder why I haven’t made this before.

Probably because we don’t usually cook with beef, preferring instead lower-fat alterntives such as chicken or ground turkey breast. This recipe may change that.

Beef and Broccoli

3/4 lb Beef Steak (I used flank steak, tenderized with a mallet)

2 cups Fresh Broccoli Florets

1/2 Medium White Onion, cut into wedges then separated

2 TBS plus 1 tsp Cornstrach

1 TBS plus 1/2 tsp Baking Soda

1/2  cup Chicken Stock

1/4 cup White Wine

3 TBS Oyster Sauce

1 TBS Granulated Sugar

2 TBS Grated Ginger

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 cup White Rice

Handful of Frozen Peas

1. Blanch the broccoli by bringing a large pot of water to a boil. Drop florets into boiling water, cooking about one minute, then strain into colander, return to pot and cover with cold water to stop the cooking process. This can be done earlier and stored in the refrigerator.

2. Pound beef flat with a meat mallet or the bottom of a cast iron pan to tenderize it,  then cut it into 1″ to 2″ pieces. Place in a bowl and toss with 2 TBS cornstarch, 1 TBS baking soda, and a pinch of salt. Let sit for about 20 minutes so the baking soda can further tenderize the meat.

3. Make a sauce by combining the stock, wine, oyster sauce, sugar and 1 tsp cornstarch in a bowl. Whisk it so that the cornstarch doesn’t clump.

4. Cook the rice. I used my rice cooker, adding the rest of the can of chicken stock, a handful of frozen peas for color/texture, and a little S&P.

5. Heat a cast iron pan over a high heat (or a wok if you have one). When very hot, add 1 TBS of the EVOO. When smoking, add the meat and stir-fry until brown and crispy, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

6. Remove meat to a bowl and let the pan get hot again. Then add remaining TBS of EVOO, get it smoking hot, and add garlic and ginger. When the ginger becomes fragrant (less than a minute) add the broccoli florets and toss together. Let broccoli heat through for a moment or two, then return meat to the pan, along with the sauce. Cook until the sauce reduces and becomes thick, about two minutes. Serve immediately over rice.

This is a wonderful dish to warm up a cook Autumn evening. If you like it spicy, add a 1/2 tsp of dried red pepper flake during the final two minutes of cooking.

I’m grateful for having met so many interesting and giving people like John who are willing to share their knowledge and even their lives with the rest of us. And I’m looking forward to watching that movie!



Wine on Wednesdays – Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir

I bought this wine because the sign at the wine market said it was made by a vineyard owned by cyclist Lance Armstrong. I’ve been a fan of the Tour de France for many years now and with this year’s race in full swing, that was enough for me to give it a chance.

Turns out the sign was fibbing. The wine is made by Hahn Estates Winery of Monterey County, Californina, and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong apparently has nothing to do with Cycles Gladiator wines.

Still, this pinot noir is a champion in my book.

First of all, it passes the affordability test: As you may recall, I cap my budget wines at $7.99/bottle or less. This one came in at $6.79 with the 15% volume discount for buying 6 or more mixed wines.

Secondly, it has an interesting back story. Cycles Gladiator is named after a 19th Century French bicycle manufacturer and includes that company’s original promotional poster on its label, which features a nude woman riding a bicycle.

That was enough to cause the Alabama state legislature to ban the wine’s sale in 2009. When news stories about the ban broke, sales of Cycles Gladiator wines went through the roof all over the country, causing many other wineries to request that Alabama ban their wines as well, I’m sure.

Finally, it passes the most important test of all, the flavor test.

Frequently, inexpensive wines don’t taste like the varietal they are made from, and many are just plain bad, which is why I’m cautious about spending money on an affordable wine I’ve never tried before.

I’m glad I took a chance with this one, however, because this pinot noir is not only balanced and delicious, but it has all the qualities of a traditional pinot: Cherry flavor, smooth, no tanginess, and just the slightest hints of sweetness and smoke.

One reviewer compared the taste of Cycles Gladiator pinot noir to the taste of Pepsi Cola. While that’s a little far out there, I can understand what made them say that.

So even though my local wine market used a little false advertising, I’m glad they did because otherwise I probably never would have picked up this lovely, affordable and delicious wine.

On a related note: There are only two days per year when there are no major American sporting events going on, and today is one of them. On the day before and the day after the Major League Baseball All-Star game, there are no other major sports scheduled.

That doesn’t include the Tour de France, however, which is one of the greatest televisoin to watch, in my opinion.

This year, NBC Sports Network is featuring live daily coverage and multiple daily replays of the 21-day race, which features some of the best athletes in the world competing in a grueling cycling competition over the village streets and mountains roads of France. The stunningly beautiful images are awe-inspiring, especially in high definition.

American Lance Armstrong, 7-Time Winner of the Tour de France

Although not the maker of this wine, American Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France more than any person in the race’s history, but now he may be stripped of his titles because of doping allegations. While Armstrong hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, every day more witnesses — including some of the biggest names in cycling — are coming forward to confirm the allegations.

This is especially sad because Armstrong’s successful battle against cancer and his Livestrong Foundation have inspired millions of cancer victims and their loved ones through the years. While it’s still too early to pass judgement, I hope the charges are untrue, at least for their sake.

Crock Pot Cooking – Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

First, an apology: It’s been far too long since I’ve written a new blog. No excuses, but my only explanation is that my freelance writing career has demanded all of my time and I’ve been swimming in work since approximately mid-April. Hurray!

One project I was working on was a book on crock pot cooking. The project eventually collapsed due to, ahem, creative differences with the client but I suddenly find myself with more than 100 crock pot recipes, some of which I’ve already photographyed.

Hence, a new feature at Budget Cooking Blog: Crock Pot Cooking.

I’ve written many times about the convenience of using a crock pot, such as this blog, this blog and, oh yes, this blog. The best thing about the crock pot is that you just set it and forget it, and at the end of the day you not only have a delicious meal that will feed your family for days, but your entire home is filled with a lush, mouth-watering aroma.

This particular recipe is one of my favorites: Italian Sauasage in Tomato Sauce. The combination of slow-cooking the sauce and the addition of roasted garlic-flavored tomato paste really brings out the acidity in this sauce, but it is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the sugar and is given complexity by the oregano and fennel.

While enjoying this classic appetier, it’s easy to imagine yourself dining al fresco along Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, watching as the parade of people pass by.

While this would be wonderful as an entree served over pasta, I like to serve it as an appetizer over hard polenta. The primary difference between hard polenta and soft polenta is that the former is made with water and the latter with dairy, such as milk, cream or whatever you happen to have on hand.

Hard polenta — which is not actually hard but is poured out onto a sheet pan and allowed to set up — can be cut into any shape you like, which gives you a lot of versatility for plating. It also can be pan fried or even grilled if you would like some additional color and flavor.

Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage, either bulk or casings removed

1 small Red Onion, small dice

1 Carrot, peeled, small dice

1 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Italian Seasonings

6 oz can Tomato Paste with Roasted Garlic

1 tsp Dried Oregano, or 1/2 tsp fresh

1 tsp Fennel Seeds

1 tsp Granulated Sugar

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

6 oz Hard Polenta (recipe follows), cut into any shape you like

1. Put cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add sausage, onion, carrot and bell pepper. Cook until sausage is browned, about 7 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage as it cooks.

2. Transfer sausage mixture into crock pot. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, fennel seeds, sugar and black pepper. Cook and cover until mixture simmers and thickens, about 4 to 6 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.

To plate, arrange polenta on an appetizer plate then use a kitchen spoon to ladle a generous portion of the sausage mixture over half the polenta, leaving the other half exposed. Garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley.

Hard Polenta

4 cups Water

1 cup Polenta (coarsely ground corn meal)

1 TBS Whole Unsalted Butter

3 TBS Grated Parmesan Cheese

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring water to a boil then slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly so that it doesnt clump. Reduce heat and cook until polenta thickens to the point where it pulls away from the walls of the pot, about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

2. When thick, turn off heat and fold in butter and parmesan. Season with pepper. You don’t need to add any salt because the parmesan already is quite salty.

Let the polenta cool for a few minutes, then pour it out onto a greased baking sheet smoothing it with a spatula to create an even level. Let it cool completetly at least an hour. You can then use a knife to cut the polenta into triangles, stars, circles or whatever shape you want. These polenta peices can be grilled or sauteed, or stored in your refrigerator or freezer for another time.

For creamy polenta, substitute dairy such as milk, half and half or heavy cream for the water and kick up the butter to 1-1/2 TBS or more, depending on how rich you like it.

My apologies once again for my absence. I have missed writing this blog and am looking forward to sharing more easy, delicious and inexpensive recipes in the coming weeks and months.