Friday, January 14, 2011

ingredient: RED WINE

Modern motorists can thank the ancient Romans for creating the highway. But as I neither own nor can drive a car, I’m more grateful that they planted vineyards. In fact the Romans were both so aggressively practical and so aggressively hedonistic that they planted a vineyard at every garrison town in order to reduce the cost of shipping the wine that they loved. (Proving that there is no such thing as a sober toga party.) As a result, many of the best modern wine growing regions—such as Bordeaux and the Rhineland— got their start growing the grapes which intoxicated Roman soldiers.

I love wine. Love it. And while I’ll happily accept a nice glass of crisp white wine (Sancerre perhaps?), in recent years I’ve become partial to the deep, complex, earthy flavors of many red wine varietals. The truth is that all grapes look the same without their clothes on; what makes red wine red is that the winemakers let the juice come into contact with the skins. The exact shade of the wine will depend on the original color of the grape and how long the juice and skins hung out together in the tank. Grape skins also give red wine their tannins, which you'll recognize as that slight puckering mouth feel you get after a sip of many red wines, and cheap red wines in particular. I’ve found that tannins are an acquired taste, and generally young drinkers will down Rieslings like soda and more experienced drinkers will opt for a nice, aged Barolo. But to the credit of pretentious teens everywhere, this is at least a biologically natural progression. Grape skins, and thus red wine, have phenolic compounds which prevent heart disease and fight free radicals, all things which us old fogies need.

That's right. Studies have (finally) proved the health benefits of moderate drinking. Hooray! The problem is the “moderate” part. There are so many great red wines to choose from. Pinot Noirs and Grenaches from France. Malbecs from Argentina. Tempranillos from Spain. Nebbiolos from Italy. Cabernet Sauvignons from California. And that’s not getting into whatever I’ll drink simply because it costs three dollars at Trader Joes.

One way to justify increasing your red wine consumption is to get amazing friends who love wine as much as you do.

exhibit A

Another is to use it in cooking. I hate to break this to you, but you should really never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink on its own. (Unfortunately for New Yorkers, this means you have to make an extra trip to the liquor store and forgo any “wine product” that you can buy in a regular supermarket.) But since I love cooking and drinking even more than I like cooking on its own, having a little extra to sip on really works out for the best. So get a pot of ragù or some beef bourguignon going on the stove and crack open a bottle. It's good for your heart.

Red Wine Risotto
Adapted from Giada’s Family Dinners

I first made this dish for a small dinner party which I threw for some friends. I was, as usual, nervous as hell about what to cook. I, as usual, wanted something impressive and amazing and thematically linked to whatever else I was serving. So far the menu was the two bottles of red wine which were sitting in my home-built Ikea wine rack.

The next question was what to make with the wine. I had seen the ever lovely Giada cooking a red wine risotto on her cooking show. I know it’s T.V., but everyone always looks like they’re enjoying her, um, parties. Plus risotto is one of those dishes that people love. I think it’s because it’s a dish that people rarely make at home (because you have to want to stand at a pot stirring almost constantly for 30 minutes) and it’s a dish that easily looks elegant. Risotto screams restaurant.

I actually have a mixed history with this dish. I don’t know if I should admit this publicly, but I wrote my college essay about risotto. Yes, you heard me correctly. Risotto. More specifically I described my triumph over this time consuming and (in my opinion) rarely worth it dish. Yes, yes, I know. Rice. I was essentially writing about rice. But it was so much more!

At least I stood out.

Anyway, this risotto fits the bill perfectly if you’re looking for an easily multipliable dish that looks beautiful and tastes refined. The red wine tints the rice a pretty, almost purplely color which looks lovely flecked with the green parsley. I don’t go crazy for risottos and I think they’re often gummy or bland, but this one has a smooth, rich flavor. You can really taste the butter and the Parmesan cheese and even the wine. When in Rome…


3 1/2 cups canned or boxed low-salt chicken broth (zapped in the microwave for 2 minutes)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup arborio rice, or medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus additional for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Put a large saucepan or pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Put in the onions and sautee them until they are translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the garlic and sautee for 30 seconds, not letting it brown too much. Stir in the rice and let it cook for 2 minutes (this toasts the rice and adds nice flavor to the risotto).

Pour in the wine, stirring until it for one minute, when it will be mostly absorbed.

Pour in 3/4 cup of the broth. Stir the rice frequently until most of the broth is absorbed. This will take five minutes or so. When it’s looking dry, add another half cup or so of broth. Continue to stir frequently, adding the broth when it’s looking dry.

You want the risotto to get to a point where it is gooey and kind of sticky looking. This will take around 30 minutes. When you’ve used all the broth (or almost all the broth and it looks like it’s the right consistency) then stir in the parmesan cheese and the parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with an extra sprinkle of parsley and cheese.

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