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It is great to have chef friends. They keep me honest (they taste wines too!) and up-to-date on culinary trends, share awesome tips on purchasing the ‘right’ knives, filleting fish, preparing sauces and can give excellent recommendations for serious foodie spots worthy of dining. Their training might be different, growing up in restaurants versus getting their feet wet at culinary school, and then entering professional kitchens between here and Chicago. With all their varying opinions on where the Los Angeles’s food scene stacks up, one thing that everyone can agree on is that Californians have exceptional produce. I was treated to a dinner recently by one of my chef friends that highlighted the quality ingredients of local farmers markets, playing to his strong suits by making an Italian-themed meal; my ticket for admittance would be a bottle of wine.

I accepted the invitation happily because I had not seen my friend for at least three months. He told me that he would be serving pasta but everything else was based on a whim, depending on what he picked up from the farmers markets. I was hoping to find something Tuscan or at least a red wine from Central Italy (Lazzio, Marche, Abruzzo or Umbria) in my possession, but alas, my stock was primarily filled with bottles from the Northwest—Dolcetto and Barbera*. Rather than over-thinking the dinner pairing, I opted for a bottle of Barbera d’Alba, thinking that the acidity in the grape would best handle the wide variety of fare that would be served. A bottle of 2005 Angelo Negro e Figli Barbera d’Alba was in my clutches as I shimmied through the congested boulevards to my buddy’s new digs in Culver City.

Once there, we discussed the latest happenings in our busy lives since we last talked. I readied the bottle as we caught up over each other’s current successes while he continued preparing the dinner. As the news petered out, the focus shifted to the ingredients garnered from his latest visits to different markets. I was prodded to eat all the fruits and vegetables, apart from their destined courses. He extolled the produce before I ingested any of it, and in my mind, I was certain that these market fresh items would disappoint. It was a weird experience to be forced to pay attention to a single leaf of arugula or carrot as if it were aged Brunet from Piedmont, Italy. But, when I listened closely they were singing brightly, full of flavor and much more complex than I had anticipated.

The food was plated an hour later and we sat down and shared cheers, sipping the wine before diving in. The Barbera showed cherry and blackberry cloaked in wet soils which proved to be a better match for the first few dishes of the evening but not really ideal for the main course of rigatoni all’Amatriciana.

I sat back and indulged in the flavors and freshness of the dinner, my friend had perfected some dishes that he was looking to incorporate into his repertoire. True to my Italian experiences, he kept the dishes simple, concentrating on preserving the integrity of the locally sourced ingredients with reverence. I knew that I had been missing out; I left his house resolved to take advantage of the many farmers markets in the area, weaning myself off my convenience-oriented food buying habits. I initially was skeptical of the “sourcing movement” afoot in the food world but after that illuminating meal I can see that it is anything but faddish.

* Next month (March), for the purposes of palate education, I will be taking a closer look at Central Italian red and Rhône Valley white wines almost exclusively.

On Saturday night I headed out to North Hills in the Valley to see off some great friends, Erik and Marie Aalto (husband and wife) who are relocating to North Carolina because Marie had very recently accepted a lucrative job offer as a food scientist out on the east coast. Before they flew out, a barbecue was held to honor and enjoy them before they left. I brought a bottle of Port to help make the night a little sweeter.

Hot dogs and hamburgers were being grilled, poolside as the weather was permitting and people were reciting stories, feeling chipper and euphoric. The food was simple and definitely not the star, even though they had Dodger dogs, instead the main attraction was the couple. After a lot of eating and reminiscing, people seemed in a hurry to open the bottle of Port I brought and continue the night’s enthusiasm with a little bit of dessert, keeping the mood sweet. A generous father (Erik’s dad) stood in the way of this, he would not have just one bottle being passed around, and instead he favored a larger smattering to compliment the night. He began to showcase a lot of his ports that lay in the cellar to help supplement the wine. Diversifying.

Suddenly it was “the Great Port Showcase” four bottles were dusted off and uncorked, manifesting enough glasses seemed to be a new challenge. Luckily, there were plenty of glasses sitting dormant in a high-up-and-out-of-the-way cupboard. The spigots were opened and a taste of each morphed into a liberal helping as the sweet liquid found the bottom of the tiny glasses of everyone in attendance.

Small chat ensued as people casually sipped their fortified wines and the topic of music came up, with a heavy concentration on tone poems. I was about to hear, embark rather, on the power of McIntosh speakers and an introduction to Respighi as Erik’s father took me aside to listen to “the best recorded performance of the Pines of Rome,” Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony played at ear shattering intensity.

Maybe it was the mind-numbing power of the speakers at three-quarters volume or the intense theatrical qualities inherent in the music but the wine seemed to demonstrate its own magical prowess. I was buzzed.

My critical faculties were stunned. This is not to say that I was intoxicated but as far as this blog is concerned I could not really give you a proper evaluation of the Ports that I tasted. I know that I dutifully sampled all four of them, remaining sharp and trading quips with others in attendance, preferring this one to that one for “x” reason but no specifics stand out. When it came time to choose one for the duration of the evening it was Graham’s Six Grapes that I elected. I enjoyed my tasting so much that I finished my glass and was poured another promptly. By way of the third hearty pour my palate was obliterated but my ears remained perked. Respighi’s music was enthralling.

Erik and Marie’s barbecue wound down and then people started leaving, hugging and extending a promised visit to North Carolina (probably to be left unfulfilled). The night, though mostly wonderful was bittersweet; I parted with friends that I have known for a little over half a decade but in the process I was introduced to Respighi and unfortunately to the loss of discernment that comes with downing too much Port in too little time.

Summertime ushers in an enormous assortment of local fruits and vegetables throughout the northern hemisphere. Although Los Angeles weather has been a little cooler of late (for early July) local grocers and farmers are bringing in hoards of interesting melons, tomatoes, strawberries, etc. Figs—a favorite of mine–have come on line and make for the perfect dessert or even starter*. Restaurants and local enthusiasts flock to nearby purveyors and begin amassing all the heirloom fruits n’ veggies that will begin to complete their newly revamped menus or just make dinner a little less banal. While menus get their makeovers wine lists begin a metamorphosis.

Rosé makes its appearance as summertime begins, pinkish-hued (“blush”) and most often from France, these wines quickly take root like a runner in a garden. A rosé can be bone dry yet is always refreshing and crisp. Rosé is most commonly colored by a short lived maceration—a technique that has the red grape skins (from various varietals) lending their color to the juice—to extract the desired pantone. After the color is achieved the wine sits shortly to ferment and then quickly bottled and sent out to be enjoyed in the urban cafes to the countryside’s of every country that consumes wine. Rarely are they shelved in cellars.

Rosé is not complex but enjoyable—somewhere between a white and red; the hybrid should be enjoyed on a warm day/night. Seafood can be enhanced, fruits and vegetables can be paired with it and best of all it is a bargain wine, roughly $14 can fetch you a perfect summer sipper.

*As for those figs:

  • Wash and halve a fig(s)
  • Wrap a very thin slice of prosciutto (from Parma or even a domestic choice) around the halved fig
  • Finish with a light and artistic drizzle of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil
  • You can also substitute fig with a ripe piece of Honeydew melon.
  • Serve and enjoy
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