American Wines for Summertime
Countrymen … and women … with Independence Day upon us and barbecue season in our midst, it’s time we take action! We must seek out the best and most interesting wine parings to share with friends and family who we hope will serve us green vegetables, smoky ribs, crispy chicken and grilled striped bass.
Barbecue season presents interesting challenges for wine lovers, as pairings are difficult to find for savory, smoky and spicy flavors. In the end, we don’t want to succumb to drinking Bud Light. And this summer we face another challenge, as wine stores haven’t been allowed to offer tastings, making it a lot harder to get a feel for what we want. For assistance, I turned to an expert — Andrea Lewis of Andover Classic Wines — who helped me discover this year’s best All-American red, white and blue wine selections.
Red wine at a barbecue must be able to pair with burgers, hot dogs and, in the case of this author, my famous barbecue chicken glazed with sweet and spicy sauce. To make these pairings work, you need to stay away from wines that have high tannins, like malbec and cabernet sauvignon. These wines just don’t taste good with ketchup and mustard. The tannins conflict with the sweet flavors, so you’ll be reaching for a beer after your first sip.
Instead, find a wine that allows the fruit to shine through and has a smooth mouthfeel. Seek out zinfandel, syrah or grenache grapes to fill this slot. A nice example is “Folie à Deux,” which draws its name from a French expression meaning “a madness shared by two.” An American zinfandel produced in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, California, it presents a rich, full-bodied expression of the zinfandel grape — the notes of black cherry, mocha and strawberry jam will have you reaching for more. It’s modestly priced, so bring two bottles to share with your friends.
If you are prepared to spend a little extra cash, treat yourself to a bottle of Unshackled’s California red blend. The winemakers at The Prisoner Wine Co. in Oakville, California, have pulled out all the stops with this crazy offering. They have sourced zinfandel, malbec, petite sirah, syrah and grenache grapes from Monterey, San Benito, Paso Robles, Lodi, Sonoma’s Dry Creek, Mendocino’s Redwood Valley and Lake County California. On the back label, you will see the words “Freedom Is a State of Mind” at the top. Their “Freedom to Blend” has been taken to the extreme, producing a wine of unshackled creativity that you should surely experience.
It’s hard to believe, but some people serve a lot of vegetables at a barbecue, and you may be presented with a fresh arugula salad or grilled artichokes. Not just any wine will work with these bitter greens, but you can count on viognier (“vee-own-yay”) to fill this slot. Andrea suggested the Illahe (“Ill-uh-hee”) viognier from Willamette Valley, Oregon. Aged in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, the smooth acidity of this wine will shine through the strongest tasting vegetables. It offers notes of apricot, nectarine and kiwi, and will be appealing to those who typically drink chardonnay.
As I’m sticking with American-made products, I’ll skip over my favorite white wine, a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough region of New Zealand, and turn instead to the Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford, California. This American sauvignon blanc has the full and flowery bouquet that I expect from this varietal. Being aged in stainless steel tanks, it also presents with the crisp flavors of peaches, lemons and white grapefruit without that buttery vanilla oak taste that torments me in California chardonnay. This is your choice to pair with striped bass, salmon or shrimp.
To complete our patriotic wine selection, plan a trip to New Hampshire to pick up a bottle of Hermit Woods Petite Blue, which is made in Meredith. This award-winning blueberry wine will remind your wine-loving friends that good wine can be made from fruit other than grapes. A full pound of wild Maine blueberries goes into each bottle of this unique wine. Crisp and well balanced, it is totally dry, unlike most fruit wines. It is aged in stainless steel and is my favorite to enjoy with smoked ribs.
I hope your Independence Day is filled with red, white and blue wine, but please don’t drink any of these selections from a red plastic cup. Salute!
It was like something out of a Judd Apatow comedy. After a night of really serious drinking and now wearing that goofy alcohol glow, one of the revelers turns to his pie-eyed companion and says, “You know what would be great right now? A really good grilled cheese.”
And that’s pretty much how the downtown Manchester, N.H., haunt Cheddar and Rye came to be. Since opening in October 2018, it may lay claim to be the most unusual food and drink spot in the Merrimack Valley.
There are a few appetizers and a batch of specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. There are also about 320 whiskeys.
[Please note that at the time of publication, the restaurant featured in this article is offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates.]
Oh, there are mixed drinks, a nice wine list, a dozen draft beers, and a full bar, too. There’s even a soup of the day and a couple of salads available. But when a place bills itself as a grilled cheese and whiskey bar, well, you’d really be missing the point if you ordered anything else.
Cheddar and Rye has atmosphere to spare. It boasts a kind of funky Bohemian vibe — replete with low lighting, framed yellowed newspapers on the walls, and mismatched vintage furniture. You would almost expect to see Jack Kerouac hunched over in a corner, furiously pounding away on a typewriter and chain-smoking Lucky Strikes.
Don’t worry, there’s no smoking at Cheddar and Rye. But there are plenty of reasons to visit. For example, whether you are a serious whiskey drinker or a rank amateur, you can order a flight of four (1 ounce each) at various prices.
Staffers will be happy to explain the best way to enjoy your drinks and why an eyedropper is included in the order. Don’t mix your whiskeys, sample them one at a time, they’ll say.
The eyedropper allows you to add a few precious drops of H20, which affects the taste of each beverage. Ice will do the same thing.
Fancy a mixed drink? Try “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” ($10), which tastes, that’s right, exactly like a PB&J sandwich. Except it’s made with rye that’s been stored in barrels coated with house-made peanut butter, along with fig syrup and bitters. Or maybe sample the “Baehart” ($11) with gin, elderflower, grapefruit and prosecco.
The folks at Cheddar and Rye obviously believe drinking should be fun, and it’s easy to agree once you’re there. But don’t be afraid to sample some food, too, so you can have even more fun drinking. Plus, the food would make a nice reward for your designated driver.
The cheese platter features four cheeses of the day, along with fig jam, hot (as in spicy) honey and pickled onion. Our generous platter featured Muenster, cheddar (of course) dill havarti, and smoked Gouda. It was the most expensive food item on the menu … at $12.
The trio of pulled pork sliders on perfect mini brioches ($10) were tender, juicy and packed with flavor … an ideal starter before you get down to the main business of imbibing.
As for the grilled cheeses, they are available on a variety of breads and possibly even qualify as “gourmet” sandwiches, though I suspect the proprietors would shudder at the word.
But how else to describe the “Black Panther” ($7.50), made with Angus pastrami, blue cheese, caramelized onion and barbecue sauce? The “Ghostrider” ($8) features maple Sriracha, buffalo chicken with pepper jack cheese and ranch dressing. It delivers some serious heat factor. Or maybe you would favor the “Hawkeye” ($7.50) with more pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. They were all terrific … especially after doing the drinking stuff. And several other grilled cheeses are on the menu, including a veggie offering or two.
A couple of desserts are also available each day, and like everything else we sampled, they were a notch above the norm. Both the carrot cake ($6) and the Oreo-icing cake ($6) ended the evening on an agreeably sweet note.
Cheddar and Rye has different hours for the dining and bar sections, so check their website for details. It may not be for everybody, but the place should score high marks with people who favor originality but still think eating, and drinking, should be fun.
Cheddar and Rye
In the final part of our weeklong series on barbecue, today we present a short piece on how barbecue can be used as a technique for diverse diets and food preferences.
For Authentic Taste, It’s Got to Be Low and Slow
I’m good friends with a Southern-born man who doesn’t think barbecue north of the Mason-Dixon line is worth eating. When I finally dragged him to a place advertised as authentic, he was disappointed. He explained that when he went for barbecue, he wanted to eat “the whole hog.” Northern-style portions struck him as odd — if you’re going to feast, then, well, feast. He was and is too polite to comment on the taste, but he couldn’t hide a slight sneer.
It isn’t just the portions that turn off our neighbors who grew up in the areas of the country where the tradition developed. In New England, we have a baffling tendency to confuse grilling with barbecue. While both are generally done outdoors, they are contrasting cooking styles — grilling uses high heat and is done quickly; barbecue involves low heat and cooking times that sometimes require chefs to fire up the smoker before the sun rises.
What is worse, many have fallen victim to the idea that barbecue is defined by a sweet ketchup-based sauce that wasn’t even widely used until the 1980s. Calling a piece of chicken “barbecue” because it’s slathered in said sauce is like calling this article a poem because it contains words.
To get yourself in the right mind for barbecue, you need to forget about the pace of life we have come to accept in this region. The same mind that is accustomed to weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic on I-495 is ill-suited for crafting the perfect plate of baby back ribs.
FROM PALEO TO VEGAN — BARBECUE AS HEALTH FOOD
As an increasing number of people follow restricted diets, it is harder to cook communal food. Fortunately, barbecue is appropriate for a range of food types.
While we normally think of barbecue as a carnivore-centered delight, the method adapts well to vegetables. Chipotles are hot peppers slowly smoked using a technique developed in Chihuahua, Mexico. You can approximate the results with a home smoker or grill. Tofu, tempeh, potatoes, corn, mushrooms and onions are all excellent choices for low-heat roasting. Salts and herbs are given added depth. Smoked brie is easy to make. Tea leaves may be lightly smoked for a more complex flavor.
Paleo dieters embrace barbecue, but are often hesitant to use sugar in rubs. Sugar is necessary to form the bark. The amount of sugar you ingest from the bark is very small, and the sugar in recipes can be replaced easily with honey or, for the true New Englander, locally-produced maple syrup.
Commercially available sauces are a hidden source of large amounts of sugar. For people concerned with carbohydrates, there are many options: Memphis dry rubs and vinegar- or mustard-based sauces require little or no sugar and add welcome flavors. Rosemary- or thyme-infused vinegar is easy to make and often tastier than less healthy supermarket options. Additionally, the Merrimack Valley is home to a number of excellent Asian groceries that sell a wide range of vinegars, fish sauces and spices that complement slow-cooked meat and vegetables.
Then there are barbecued meat dishes that don’t require any sugar, such as pulled pork.
Remember this: If the food requires sauce to make it interesting, that’s a problem with the chef and it’s time to go back to barbecue university. At one of the longest-running barbecue restaurants in the country, Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, the motto is “no sauce, no forks,” and that’s a good mantra for any aspiring pit master.
The Whys and Wherefores
The discussion of what makes barbecue barbecue isn’t a mere quibble. It’s a matter of science. Collagen in meat doesn’t break down until it reaches a temperature of about 160 degrees. At that point, it slowly begins its alchemical transformation into gelatin. The gelatin makes the meat more palatable and absorbs more water than collagen, making it juicier. Low and slow cooking methods take advantage of this transformation through a precarious balancing act: letting the collagen transform at a rate that doesn’t dehydrate the muscle fibers.
There is another chemical process involved — the Maillard reaction. We see this in the browning of baked bread and roasted coffee beans. While the Maillard reaction seems to be most active at 325 to 350 degrees — experts disagree on the specifics — it occurs at lower temperatures at a much slower rate. This is why the bark (the crunchy crust on ribs, brisket and other barbecued meat) tastes better the longer it’s cooked. You are taking what would happen in minutes, such as searing a steak on high heat, and extending that process over hours. Water inhibits the reaction, which is why you see less browning if you boil or steam your food.
Then there’s the prized smoke ring — the pink layer of meat under the bark. Once considered the hallmark of authentic barbecue, crafty cooks can cheat this process. While the days when a smoke ring was a mark of authenticity are over, it is important. The ring is formed when nitrogen dioxide from combustion forms nitric acid. Along with the breakdown of collagen and the browning of the Maillard reaction, it is a key chemical component to real barbecue.
All this chemistry works to transform cheaper and tougher cuts of meat into food that is crowd-pleasing and feast-worthy.
Check back tomorrow for the final part of our Barbecue series.