Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flank Steak, Salty Chemistry, and some South African Wine

I love flank steak. Love it.

It’s perhaps my favorite cut of meat. Think about it. You walk into a grocery store with a $20. You grab a beautiful two-pound wad of cow from which you can serve generous portions of tender, juicy, yummy steak to your nearest and dearest and…you still have money left over to buy the makings for sides. Glorious.

I recently discovered a fantastic technique for tenderizing flank steak which I just used to grill up one of the best I can remember. I’ll share it with you:

·         Get yourself a flank steak. Go on. I’ll wait.
·         Now, coat each side of the steak in kosher salt. Probably 1-2 T. per side. Trust me on this. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some garlic powder, herbs, what have you – but the salt is the key.
·         Let it sit like this at room temperature for at least an hour. (“Dear God, man! Are you trying to kill us all?” I hear you. I was skeptical, too. Hang in, compadre…)
·         Get the grill hot. Hot. HOT. (Or heat up a broiler, if that’s your thing.)
·         Rinse the salt and such off that lovely piece of beef. Pat it dry, then oil it lovingly.
·         Toss it on the HOT grill (or under the broiler, sigh). Leave it alone. Five minutes is all I ask. Then flip. Five more. Remove from the grill, tent it with foil, and just let it sit there – difficult as that will be to do – for ten minutes, maybe 15 if you can stand it.
·         Slice into juicy nirvana.

Oh, yes.
There is a biochemistry to this. Many grill folks will warn you against salting a cut of meat before you throw it on the grill, as it pulls out water. True…at first. Water emerges from the steak. The salt on the surface dissolves in the water, creating a saline solution. If you remember high school chemistry, all solutions naturally find a balance – an “isotonic solution.”

Given enough time, the salty solution is then drawn back into the steak as it mingles with the non-salty water in the meat. If you’ve mixed herbs or spices with your salt, those flavors go right along. Additionally, the salt causes the fibers in the meat to relax, tenderizing it beautifully.

“But what about bacteria?” you might ask? Saline solutions prevent bacterial growth, so you’ve got no worries there. Trust me, give it a try and you’ll never look at a steak the same way again.

A holiday we can all get behind.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the wine fairy (with help from Jennifer at Colangelo) recently gifted me a pair of South African wines from the well-known Mulderbosch Winery. In summertime (or anytime really) South Africans do their traditional version of grilling called braai. South Africa even has a “National Braai Day,” of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a patron, celebrated next month on September 24 – which is also Heritage Day in the Rainbow Nation.

Since I had these wines, I thought I’d do a little braii-ing of my own with this flank steak preparation and the red – the Mulderbosch 2012 “Faithful Hound” Red Blend.

The Hound, bottle adorned with a lovable looking redbone coonhound, is a traditional Bordeaux blend – about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with the rest made up of Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. I expected a big, highly tannic red – but was pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained, balanced flavor. Many South African reds can be on the rough side, but this was balanced enough to drink on its own. Good berry and fruit flavors and a really interesting vanilla bouquet. Grippy tannins at the end, but nothing too bitter. I liked it. With the steak (which was monstrously good, by the way), it was as lovely an accompaniment as I could ask for on a weekday evening. It retails for around $19, and I’d say that’s priced just about right.

The other bottle I received was the Mulderbosch 2011 Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout – a consistent performer for several years on the Vine’s tasting table. I tried the 2011 about a year ago just after its release. I was curious to see what had changed. Here’s what I said back then:

“Steen op Hout” translates from Afrikaans as “Stone on Wood,” which is a decent descriptor for this particular white. Word to the wise, this is a wine that needs a little time for its natural funk to blow off before. My recommendation would be to crack it and allow at least 10 minutes before you dive in. Once you do, you’ll run into a firm floral nose with a strong lemony tone. The flavor, as promised, has a really nice mineral character alongside a solid backbone of grapefruit. The finish is very flinty with a little bit of a bitter, lemon rind-y aftertaste and just a hint of oak.

In the year that’s passed, this wine has developed some unexpected depth. There are more tropical fruit flavors like mango and pear bouncing around in this wine. Where I would have really recommended it with shellfish before, now, I’d probably lean more towards light meats with fruit salsas and sauces. To go back to my little salting technique, it works just as well on chicken or pork as well, so you can safely experiment along those lines.

The Steen op Hout – retailing for $14 -- is apparently in its 2013 release, since they sent me the tasting notes for that vintage instead of the 2011. That said, this particular wine, as constructed, safely lasted for those a couple of years. I would guess you might see some of the 2011 vintage on your local wine store’s clearance rack to make room for the new bottles. So, if you see some of the 2011 on closeout, snap it up.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with some scrumptious wraps made from leftover flank steak. Yum.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Who ya got? -- Pinot Noir Smackdown! Bota Box vs. Black Box.

You drink box wine. I know you do. We’re all friends here. I won’t tell. You close all the blinds and make sure the neighbors aren’t watching before you open the kitchen cupboard to sneak a little splash of merlot from that little plastic spout, or you move aside the Tupperware of leftover potato salad from the office potluck to get a glug of pinot grigio when no one’s looking.

I drink it too, you see. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For the sake of full disclosure, I often have a box of red and a box of white floating around the house. I don’t keep it because it’s necessarily great wine. I keep it because I don’t always want to open up great wine.

Box wine serves a particular niche. Box wine is wine for drinking, not thinking. Sometimes, wine just needs to be good enough. When I flop on the couch after a long day at work or at the end of an evening, I don’t really want to dig in the cellar and pull out something special.

Box wine has come a long way since the huge cardboard containers of Vella and Franzia which often look like building material for the back walls of wine stores. I’ve written about box wines before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while box wines aren’t generally going to blow you away, better mass-production techniques and greatly improved storage systems have improved the quality to a point where you can knock the stuff back without feeling like you should be drinking out of a brown paper bag.

For a long time, especially with the reds, I’d only seen Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. A few years ago, Zinfandel came on the scene, followed by Malbec. Those two are now more common. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen Pinot Noir releases from arguably the two most well-known manufacturers of box wine -- and when titans of the bulk wine industry go head to head, The Naked Vine is there with a scorecard. Imagine Michael Buffer, if you will:

·         In this corner, hailing from the Valle Central and Casablanca regions of Chile, weighing in at 13.5% alcohol, comprised of grape blends unknown, retailing for $22 – Bota Box Pinot Noir.
·         And in this corner, from across the many hills and valleys of California, weighing in at 13.2% alcohol, comprised of 78% Pinot Noir, 21% Syrah, and 1% “Dry Red,” retailing for $24 – Black Box Pinot Noir.

Ladies and gentlemen…let’s get ready to rummmmmble! (DING!)
Round One – Head to Head

How are these wines side-by-side? Despite the color scheme of the two wines’ packaging, the Bota Box actually pours a little bit darker. Since they’re both wines made in the “style” of pinot noir, both have cherry and strawberry flavors, and both have gentler tannins than, say, Cabernets or a Malbecs you might find in a box. The Bota is the richer of the two, with more cherry and cola flavors, and a lot more tannin on the finish. It certainly tastes closer to what I’d expect from a pinot noir than the Black Box, which showed as a little more acidic, had a lighter body, and really didn’t go anywhere on the finish. Head to head as a first glass: Winner: Bota Box.

Round 2 – Flying Solo (Cup)

Did you know that the second ring on a standard red Solo cup is a five ounce pour of wine? See? All sorts of useful information here. (Also, the first ring is 1.5 oz – a shot of liquor. The top ring is 12 oz – a standard beer.) The next test for our battling boxes was to see how they hold up after a couple of consecutive glasses. At a party or other social occasion, a box of wine on the table doesn’t exactly say, “Just have one glass.” Also, odds are, there’s no fine stemware service.

On separate days, I had three small glasses over a stretch of time to see how the wines progressed. The Black Box’s more-nondescript nature actually played to its favor here. By the third glass, it settled into a “hey, I’m having some wine” groove. The Bota’s extra tannin was drying out my mouth by the third splash. For session purposes: Winner: Black Box.

Round 3 – The Finisher

The SPinC generally goes to bed earlier than I do. The pups generally join her, so I have some quiet time to myself before I call it a night. I’ll occasionally allow myself a nightcap as I kick back, so these wines made appearances in that relaxing space over the course of a couple of evenings. By that point in the evening, neither wine really contributed much other than something to sip on as the hour made things get foggy around the edges. Being that it’s August, I’d probably give this round to Black Box on points, but not by any huge margin. In the wintertime, I’d probably swing the other way.

Round 4 – The Big Shift

As I mentioned, we’ll swing over to box wines after we’ve already killed off a “good” bottle earlier in the evening. That transition can be, shall we say, “abrupt” – especially if the previous wine was particularly good. We got on a bit of a cooking roll this week and hit a series of really nice cellared wines. As one might expect, the wine with a little more structure buffered the inevitable “yep, this wine’s not nearly as good” transition a little more successfully. Winner: Bota Box.

Round 5 – The Unfair Comparison

The last of those wines from the cellar was a 2007 1er Nuits-Saint-Georges Burgundy. I cracked that to go with a couple of duck breasts with a sweet cherry sauce. The wine was musical and the meal was magical. We had a little bit of the Burgundy left at the end – and, for science, I gave each of these boxes a chance to take a run at the champ. I’ll save you the trouble of trying it at home. Don’t. Just don’t. In comparison, the Black Box tasted like a pop tart and the Bota had a finish of charcoal. There are no winners here. Draw.

Overall – Bota Box is the better overall wine, but the Black Box serves its purpose. Either way, you’re getting four bottles of wine you can consume without cringing for a sawbuck. Drink up.