Monday, December 31, 2018

Champagne Serenade: A New Year’s Toast

~Doc Lawrence

A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced; the imagination is stirred; the wits become more nimble.” Winston Churchill

The Champagne ritual has an exalted place in celebrations including the christening of a new aircraft carriers. Few events transcend the joys from crystal flutes overflowing with bubbly on New Year’s Eve. Each tiny rising bubble suggests optimism, a welcoming of yet unknown events during the next 12 months.  Abiding faith that we will enjoy the gift of life.

The word Champagne conjures up unfounded fears of burdensome expense. Because it is a sparkling wine-albeit a regal one-the more affordable choices are too often overlooked. Well-intentioned hosts opt for what is called grocery store wine, and open up bottles misleadingly labelled that promise no romance but are guaranteed to give everyone a stemwinding hangover.

The pleasures of Champagne and wonderful substitutes can be enjoyed for a very fair price. For those who don’t worry about costs (I’m not one of them), there are many smart choices that will add to the moment.

For a casual New Year’s Eve party, consider Lambrusco. The rustic Lini 910 Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna, Italy is widely available, affordable at $15, has bubbles galore and will be a big hit when burgers, wings or barbecue is served. 

This time of year, good people want to get tickled with bubbles. Spain’s wonderful Cava has that wonderful Champagne taste. Montsarra, a quality label will cost around $16 a bottle. Primarily made from three grapes, Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada, a little Chardonnay provides kinship to the famous bottles from France.

Consider a sparkling wine from Burgundy. Cremant de Bourgogne is produced methode Champenoise, and is as celebratory beyond what we expect. For less than $25, you can enjoy a few bottles NV Parigot Rosé made from 100% Pinot Noir that will make the occasion one to remember.

As the midnight hour approaches, after a full evening of cocktails and good food, something softer and friendlier like Prosecco should receive a big welcome. For $12, Riondo Prosecco, a popular Italian sparkler features abundant fruit, soft carbonation and a surprising lively, crisp finish. 
California’s Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir, is bone dry and classically crisp. With every glass it becomes more enjoyable, a near-perfect companion to salty small bites and elegant canapés. A steal at $22.

For those who struck it rich in 2018, who light their cigars with hundred dollar bills, splurge with a bottle of Krug NV Champagne for a mere $150. This will comfortably accompany a rich dinner with a prime rib roast entree.

Instead of mass-produced supermarket sparkling wine, try an affordable estate-bottled delight like the Ariston Carte Blanche Brut Champagne for around $20. Likewise, there are so many elegant, smaller production grower-producer Champagnes. One, Franck Bonville Brut Millesime Blanc de Blancs Champagne is bright like a clear winter morning and recalls little green apples and toasted cinnamon bread.

Sparkling wines from New Mexico like Gruet, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate and Georgia’s Wolf Mountain are genuine bargains, priced fairly and delicious. They’re out there. Try Whole Foods, the Dekalb Farmer’s Market (near Atlanta) or a top wine store.

Toss those plastic glasses into the rubbish bin. Fill crystal flutes with the good stuff. Toast to a better world, peace on earth, a healthy planet, the awesome power of love and the gift of good health and life. 

                                                     HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Oyster Stew For Christmas-Legendary Recipes and Wine Pairings

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”
                                  Jonathan Swift

~Doc Lawrence

The colder weather of the holiday season harkens for tasty oysters. Early immigrants soon learned that what many had enjoyed in Europe were a staple in  much of the New World where Native Americans had been harvesting them for at least 3,000 years. Now, we enjoy them in stews, chowders, dressings, roasted and on the half shell. Boston’s Union Oyster House, opened in 1826, showcases gourmet bivalves. 
The popularity of oysters is omnipresent and here in the South, oyster stew is a ritual observed on Christmas Eve. Oyster dressing appears on the Christmas dinner table almost on cue. Enjoy these oyster recipes from the kitchens of experts. 

Oyster Stew For Christmas Eve
From The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.
 Makes 6 servings.

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 medium sweet onion, finely diced (approximately 1 cup)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
5 cups of milk, heated
2 cups heavy cream
1 quart jar fresh “select” oysters, drained with their liquor reserved
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Melt half of the butter in a large nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is bubbling, add the onion and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly until the onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to blend together. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and heavy cream and then the reserved oyster liquor, keeping it at low heat so that it doesn’t scorch. Keep it at a very light simmer.
Heat the remaining butter in a large skillet until hot and bubbling. Add the drained oysters in a single layer. Add sea salt and pepper and sauté until the oysters begin to curl around the edges.
Transfer the contents of the skillet into the saucepan. Add the cayenne, cover and remove from the heat to mellow for 10 minutes. Heat again to just below a simmer, and add more salt as necessary. Serve hot accompanied by oyster crackers or Benne biscuits.
A rich, glamorous winter side dish. Good at Christmas or anytime. Just don’t overcook the oysters! You want them at their creamy, velvety best.

Chef Joshua Butler, Atlanta

Chef Joshua Butler
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup chopped onion
4 green onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 cups crumbled Cornbread (either homemade or store bought)
3 cups bread crumbs, small dice*
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
2 large eggs lightly beaten
1 pint shucked fresh (live) oysters, drained (reserve 1/2 cup oyster liquid)**
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly butter a large rectangular baking pan.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Saute onions and celery in the butter until tender; remove from heat an add a small pinch of cayenne and let cool.
Combine cornbread and breadcrumbs in a large bowl.  Gently fold in sauteed onions, salt, pepper, and parsley.
Add beaten eggs and toss more; moisten with the reserved oyster liquid until moist but not soggy.  Gently stir in the oysters.
Pat the mixture into the prepared baking pan (it should make a 1-inch layer in the pan).
Dot with remaining butter and bake about 45 minutes, until golden brown and set in the center.

Fresh oysters in the shell as well as shucked can be found daily at Your Dekalb Farmers Market in Decatur, Georgia just outside Atlanta. Bonus, they are sourced from Apalachicola, Florida, Virginia and Washington State.

Wines: Champagne seems to have been created with oysters in mind. A bottle of bubbly, whether the real deal, or a Cremant from France, Cava from Spain or a sparkling wine from California’s Gloria Ferrer or New Mexico’s Gruet will add to the festive celebration.

                             Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmas Wines-Dare 2 Pair Goes Old World

"Eat the bread with joy and 
drink the wine with a merry heart."                         
                            Ecclesiastes 9 

~Doc Lawrence

The day we’ve been waiting for. Family, gifts, laughter, all kinds of food everywhere, a beautifully adorned evergreen tree, and uncorked bottles of wine ready for pouring into lovely stemware.

What is absent? Jugs of wine, cheap wine that smells like garbage when opened, fizz that pretends to be Champagne and anything that remotely suggests Ebenezer Scrooge. 

We established that variety is the key to wine enjoyment when Christmas celebrants gather. Different generations, family and friends from vastly different backgrounds and often different countries, commonly come together on this day when love and deep friendships seamlessly blend with the occasion.

Like millions of Americans, we’re enjoying so many dishes, from amuse bouche (finger food) to entrees of prime rib of beef, duck, ham and countless sides. We enjoy oyster stew on Christmas Eve, and serve oyster dressing with the Christmas feast, something my family first observed in the 18th Century. 

Does all this complicate wine choices? Not one bit.

I’ve chosen some delights that represent perhaps the oldest wine cultures. True, not always easy to find, but a good wine merchant will cheerfully get them. The Three Wise Men so prominent in the observance of Christmas, were from the East and historians have assumed this could include places like Armenia and Iran. The Armenians were the very first people to adopt Christianity as a national religion,  and their wines have been produced for 6,000 years. Zorah - Karasi Areni Noir 2015 can be ordered through your wine retailer or online. Each glass contains centuries of history and this red is truly delicious.

Lebanon’s ancient winemaking heritage is well-represented with Musar Jeune Red is a blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Deeply-colored and vividly fruity, inky-dark, silky-textured and aromatic, with hints of cherry jam, it’s topped with subtle spice.

Macedonia gave the world Alexander the Great who in all likelihood enjoyed local wines, with many of the wine grape descendants present today in bottles of exciting wines. Tikves Winery Kratosija Tikves, Republic of Macedonia, will surprise guests with taste and kinship. A sumptuous curiosity, it is zinfandel, made famous in California but with origins in the Balkans. Like its American cousin, it’s deeply colored and will be a guest favorite.

Armenian Wines Appeared 6,000 Years Ago
Greece has a wine  heritage older than the origin of democracy.  Atma Xinomavro Macedonia, Greece 2017, made from the great Greek red grape xinomavro, radiates a wild personality flavored with tangy pomegranate, cherry and indigenous herbs. Ruby red Atma is defined by easygoing drinkability.

Hungary refuses to be ignored. Unfairly stereotyped as producer of sweet but elegant wine, there are far more diverse superior wines as evidenced by Ostorosbor Egri Pinot Noir Hungary 2016, earthy with red berry fruit that will pair with anything served at Christmas. Good value as well.

The holiday dinner would be laking without Italian wines. Villa Vincini Il Gran Rosso Veneto, Italy 2017 is a rich red blend of merlot and corvina with just enough sugar and spice for dinner or with cheese trays.

Spain deserves presence this time of year. One interesting wine is Carta Roja Pura Organic Monastrell Jumilla better known as Mourvèdre, that thrives in the warm climate of southeastern Spain’s Jumilla region, offering abundant tangy red and black fruit seasoned with peppery spice.

Pricey but almost obligatory at Christmas, Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of Rhône’s legends. A blend of fruit and sensuous aromas, this is a top-tiered wine you give to the person who made you so rich this year. Easy to locate.

Who would dare recommend Old World wines and ignore Bordeaux?
Château Jouanin Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, France 2014 is delicious and  affordable. With a predominance of Cabernet Franc, it’s just waiting to be enjoyed now.

German Pinot Noir? Today, Germany grows more Pinot Noir than New Zealand and Australia combined and German Pinot Noir also known as Spätburgunder) is getting better all the time.

Katharina Wechsler Riesling Trocken Rheinhessen, Germany 2016, is a scintillating dry riesling featuring ripe and juicy tropical fruit. Its acidity makes it perfect for an aperitif and it handles heat-infused appetizers with ease.

Sherry was served by Scarlett and legend has it that Captain Rhett Butler enjoyed it daily. It should have an exalted place during this holidays. Impressive Mil Pesetas Manzanilla Spain NV is a festive and a crowd pleaser.

Bubbly was saved for last. The world loves Champagne and favorites run from moderately expensive to highly affordable.  Sir Winston Churchill’s favorite, Pol Roger Brut Reserve Champagne, France NV is what you give to a member of a royal family who was kind and generous to your mother. A less expensive but high quality choice is Vilmart & Cie Grande Réserve Premier Cru Champagne, France NV.

Don’t overlook a Cremant like La Cave des Hautes Côtes Crémant de Bourgogne Burgundy, France NV. Created under the same protocol as champagne, here’s an excellent value complete with gazillions of little bubbles and regal flavor.

Then there’s Cru Beaujolais. Stay tuned.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Broadway Christmas Carol

“A little song,
  a little dance,
  a little eggnog down your pants.

~Doc Lawrence

The holiday season traditionally juxtaposes sacred ritual with the celebratory glory of gatherings, particularly the joys from the live stage. Art Station Theatre’s production of Kathy Feininger’s A Broadway Christmas Carol opened to a sellout audience and earned a standing ovation from a well-entertained audience. Combining the Dickens classic with more than 30 Broadway standards and a full warehouse of comedy, brilliant sets and parody can only work with a talented cast, flawless singing, precision dancing and tight directing. 

Once more, Art Station succeeds.
Jeff LeCraw delivers a cranky Ebenezer Scrooge, counting the loot from his shameless stinginess to the song “We’re in the Money,” followed by Joy Walters’ sultry delivery of “Big Spender.”

Ben Thorpe becomes all the other males in the story from Bob Cratchit to Tiny Tim, entertaining with “Tomorrow” from Annie, to “Put on a Happy Face” from Bye Bye Birdie and “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. 

Music director and accompanist Patrick Hutchinson is the show’s backbone. Nothing short of perfection is required to make this two-hour production work. A high bar of excellence skillfully met. 

A Christmas Carol as we know it is the story, but the added comedy and Karen Beyer’s precision choreography transforms it into a very modern crowd pleaser. 

Just glow we need during the cold days of the holiday season.

Through December 21.
Tickets and information: (770) 469.1105; 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Southern Baked by Amanda Wilbanks

Celebrating Good Food

~Doc Lawrence

Just in time for holiday giving. That’s the thought that danced in my mind as I turned the pages of the new and exciting cookbook by Amanda Dalton Wilbanks. The gloriously photographed images of pies, cakes, appetizers, entrees, luxurious table settings in Southern Baked: Celebrating Life With Pie (Gibbs Smith, 2018), is nothing short of a masterpiece, a true work of art with meaningful content that will excite the palate of those who want to learn more about the unique food traditions of the Deep South interpreted and advanced by a genuine Georgia girl.
Flavor of Georgia Winner

Ms. Wilbanks, a skilled and original kitchen master, not only graduated from the University of Georgia but came back to enter and win top prize in its prestigious Flavor of Georgia competition. A seasoned entrepreneur with the success of her Southern Baked Pie Company and with her pies on the menus of top Atlanta gourmet restaurants, she seemed destined to create this useful and elegant book. 

Prior to the publication of Southern Baked, I included Ms. Wilbanks pie enterprises in two stories I wrote for magazines. The more I learned about her, the hungrier I became. Bowing to temptation, I ordered an apple pie that arrived still warm. I had one slice and her all-butter pie dough triggered the endorphins. My son ate the rest. I gleefully remain under her spell.

Don’t be fooled by the word pie in the title. Ms. Wilbanks masterful assemblage of recipes covers the spectrum of the Southern kitchen. The seasons, special occasions, holidays and more are celebrated with a full range of staples like cole slaw, blackberry hand pies, roasted potato salad, Bourbon marinated flank steak, Tabasco fried chicken plus an exciting six recipe Tailgating section. And a few dozen more.

This is not your ordinary cookbook. It’s an aesthetic wonder, a well-designed hardcover production featuring the highest quality enameled paper with brilliant studio photography.  The almost 3-D images of entrees and desserts look good enough to eat.

Cookbooks abound. I’ve reviewed dozens this year alone and a few standout. Southern Baked is alone at the top. For anyone who loves to cook and entertain, especially those who are searching for the soul of the real South, here’s the perfect gift. 

Available at Amazon and bookstores everywhere.