IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHICKEN (BONUS FREE RECIPE ENCLOSED!)



It's another in a long series of hot summer days in Manhattan as the cream of the east coast winegeek cognoscenti assemble at Manuel & Josie's Love Shack for an evening of subdued festivization. After the airconditioning-free debacle in Brooklyn and in order to meet Jay Miller's stringent demands, Manuel has purchased and installed a freestanding unit of impressive girth and BTUage in one corner of his apartment. When Jay lets us in I immediately scuttle over and plant myself at the end of the table closest to it; cool bliss envelopes me.

Ahhhhh...

No sign of our hosts. "They're in the kitchen, working on the chicken," Jay explains. "The chicken is a project." I poke my head in and by gum, he's right--Manuel and Josie are chopping and boning and slicing and dicing for all they're worth. I wave cheerily and then retreat to my cool spot before someone else can steal it, giggling girlishly to myself at the thought of the word 'boning.'

Okay, let's get things rolling with a Domaine Pierre de la Grange (Luneau-Papin) Muscadet Sèvre etc. 2004. Airy plaster-and-limeskin nose, quiet and charming smelling. Tastes lean and taut, lemoncitric and racy through the middle. It's a little evanescent, leaves an impression of shy purity with a slice of lime. Doesn't seem to have the presence of Luneau-Papin's other bottlings, but a nice little Muscadet.

Lisa, blinking, asks "Can someone turn that airconditioner the other way? It's drying out my contact lenses...." Her will be done: the unit is shifted. I grumble a bit because I'd chosen my spot entirely for its proximity to the frostiest flow or air, but things are cool enough now and it's of little import.

The chameleonic Greg dal Piaz has, as is his wont, brought along some Italian oddities (no silly, not his relatives, wines). For those of us who had no idea they produced white wine in Italy, here's an Angiolino Maule Pico 1999, which, he claims, is a 100% pure varietal Gorgonzola or Gargamel or something else that sounds made up. I'm pretty sure he's pulling our leg, but let's give it a try.... Hmmmm...it's a medium gold color, oddly dark... smells a bit baked-appley, a little oxidative, hints of oregano and tangerine, perhaps the first time I've enountered that combination. Tastes flat and lifeless, short and dull, not very interesting.

Joe 'Dark Lord of Rioja' Perry finally arrives on the scene, having decided to drive down to pick a wine storage unit out of someone's trash (did I hear that right?) and motor the six hours back to Boston after a night of binge drinking. Or actually "tasting." Yes, "tasting." That's our story and we're sticking to it.

Greg is undaunted. "Let's give the weird shit another shot," he says, and produces yet another bottle of Angiolino Maule Pico 1999. Rrrrrrrr, smells a little more lively, rocks drizzled with tangerine and lemon, pleasantly citric. Noticeably vivider, similar heft and crispness but more life to the midpalate fruit. Still fairly short, much better than the last.

"If anybody wants some of this, I can get it for you for free," says Greg proudly. "No one wants it. This has, like, the highest return rate in the history of the retail wine business."

"Free? Really? How much would that cost?" asks Joe Perry.

Greg stares at him. "What part of 'free' is unclear? Is it the 'free' part?" Joe seems unsure; there are no other takers for the free Gilgamesh wine.

Belle Pente Winery Willamette Valley Cuvée Contraire 2002. A ros of gamay and pinot, this is still too damn sulfurous. I give up: I had one delightful glass, every bottle thereafter has been strikingly flawed. This is our last, so I suppose the point is mute.

Shouts of joy and the crackle of frying foodstuffs from the kitchen, and soon the air is filled with the rich smell of sizzling chorizo, onions and chickensmoke. Mmmmm... chickensmoke. Ideally, this would seem to mean that our hosts will soon complete their piece de resistance and make an appearance tonight.

The roséation continues with a Château Soucherie Rosé de Loire NV. Richly aromatic, dried cherry laced with sizzling chorizo, onions and chickensmoke. A pleasant talc minerality emerges in the middle and, after the chorizo and onion fade, is the last thing lingering in the finish. Quite decent, pleasantly smoky.

A rare third pinkie, a Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé 2004. Another vividly aromatic wine, rainwater and gentle redfruit, gentle hints of sizzling chorizo, onions and chickensmoke. An earthy turmeric note flashes through the midpalate, the finish turns rainwatery, then chickensmoky. Very nice, lots of smoky-chicken character.

Suddenly the airconditioner stammers and stutters, whirring and flapping angrily. I leap up alarmed, thinking that perhaps one of the resident kitties has been sucked into the intake vent; the noise clatters on until Josie scampers over and yanks the plug. Repeated attempts to restart the contraption only produce more broken-fan-belt flapping. Manuel looks stricken, "It's brand new... we just got it..." Jay begins to hyperventilate, "Another summer jeebus... no air-conditioning... I swore, never again... trapped... trapped....."

Actually, Jay is far too polite to say any of that aloud, but I can see it in his eyes clear as day. He has very expressive eyes, you see.

Let's all just calm down, take a deep breath and try to get some perspective with an Emilio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 1978. Medium ruby color, touch of amber at the rim. Bright whiff of volatility, but there's leather and dirty crushed brick underneath, muted fruitcakey-cherry fruit. Medium-light-bodied wine, taut at the core, feathering out earthily from the center. Not the most complex wine in the world--there's a certain vagueness in the center, but pretty and really charming, a wine that keeps drawing me back in to whisper sweet nothings in my ear. I enjoy it more with every sip, it has so much to say!

Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny 1997: Gentle cement-dust-laced redfruit, spicy horehound streak down deep comes and goes. Interesting if not terribly complex aromatics. Tastes feathery-soft and gentle, an inconsequential pinot that goes down with a friendly little whimper, leaving very little mouthprint. Much like a decent generic Bourgogne from an early-drinking vintage, drinkable but quite forgettable.

On to more serious wine with a Clos de la Roilette Fleurie 2004. Medium-light garnet color. Light aromatics, strawberry-rhubarb laced with a quiet earthiness, not really a whole lot going on; or perhaps it's just going on very quietly. Tastes light and pleasant, there's a good acidic spine but a certain sense of dilution, the amiable looseness of the midpalate just keeps on going, never resolves itself and ends on a vague note. Not sure what's up with this usually reliable producer, but this isn't a terribly compelling wine tonight, it seems unfocused and finishes strangely wan. Dunno.

The chicken! It's here! The long-awaited Messiah Chicken whose appearance we'd all been awaiting!

Damn, and it's worth the wait--smoky and savory and vividly flavorful, subtle enough not to overpower the wines, but saucy enough to tingle my umami. Immediate demands for the recipe from all corners of the table. "We must share this with the world!" I implore the Maestro and Maestrette. Plans are laid down to do so, but in the meantime there's more wine to be had.

Jay's here, so we've got a Joseph Drouhin Griotte-Chambertin 1993. Smells shy at first, aromatically closed, only opening slowly with air and turning gently spicy--horehound, cherry and clove hints, maybe a hint of forest floor earthiness. Comes around very marginally after an hour or so, but still shy, wiry and underwhelming.

Henry Pellé Menetou-Salon Morogues les Cris 2000. Quiet but vivid aromatics, strawberry-cherry with a dark underlying earthiness. A sip, and it's very cherried, taut and expressive and minerally, strangely forward right up front, recedes into stoniness by the time the midpalate rolls around, turning a bit reticent. Light-bodied but nervy and really well honed, a pure, almost too intense young wine, preternaturally focused. What will it become? Striking.

Joseph Drouhin Vosne-Romanée les Suchots 1987. Smells gentle, soft cola and muted redfruit. Loose, light and pleasantly faded, decent enough to drink but well past its best days. Or perhaps it's in one of those "shutdown phases" I keep hearing about and will rise like Gargamel from the ashes? Don't bet the farm, me lads, don't bet the farm.

Oooh, a Mystery Wine! And from Joe Perry, the ultimate authority on all things hierarchical!

Joe Perry's Hierarchic Mystery Wine: Hmmm... smells spicy--clove, cola, creamy plum-cherry. Tastes ripe and rather short on acidity, and is that a bit of residual sugar? Not sure, but the wine is gentle, ripe and plump, but has some clear pinot noir character. Seems like fairly decent, simple New World pinot. Nothing freaky or Loringish (that unusual pinot-zinfandel stuff that Dressner kept flogging), probably not California... I dally with Oregon, but it seems less new-woody than I'd expect from the toasty-barrel-happy Willamette Valley crowd, so all I can come up with is "New Zealand pinot noir?" (Littorai Pinot Noir Anderson Valley "One Acre" 1996)

As mystery wines go, this one clearly occupies the top slot.

Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits St. Georges les Chaignots 1997. I have no explanation, but where a note for this wine ought to be my notebook reads only: "'Brad's a (smudge) sexy motherfucker'--J. Cohen." If anyone can shed light on this cryptic entry, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Actually, upon further review, if anyone can shed light on that last entry, I beg you to keep it to yourself.

Domaine Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie la Belle Hélène 1995. Smoky-toasty nose, dark blackberry laced with bacon fat, African violets and toasty wood. Robust blackfruit, licorice and smoke, quite generously new-oaked but lots of complexity and heft and depth, an old world wine with new world glitz. Or perhaps a new world wine with old world character, take your pick. Anyway, I'm savoring my glassful when I start to notice the pained expressions and gasps of dismay that follow the wine around the room. By the time the bottle comes back around to me the verdict has been reached: this is shiraz.

SHIRAZ?!

The geeks are moaning and fussing about the Belle Hélène's wooding; Camblor whimpers that the wine is actively unpleasant, physically painful to drink. I wonder aloud if he has endless problems with peas ruining his night's rest when he's sleeping on twelve mattresses; he firmly denies my cleverly couched accusation of princesshood. I actually get up out of my chair and shout "Screw you ninnies, I'm digging it, more for me you delicate shrinking-violet pansy-boys!"

I'm not really sure what that means, but it starts a rhubarb over the nature of Cte-Rtie and why it shouldn't taste like this. The phrase "Turley-sucker" is hurled at me more than once, a sign that things are getting personal, spiraling out of control. I quickly suss up the table and, finding no one (besides Lisa) who I suspect can kick my ass, stick to my guns. "If this is shiraz," I bray belligerently, "then SHIRAZ ME UP, BABY!"

The table explodes into a maelstrom of consternation, accusation, recrimination. I attempt to conjure the merrily rational ghost of Stuart Yaniger, who apparently has better things to do and neglects to make a spectral appearance. It's almost fifteen minutes before we all realize that we're pretty well buzzed and can't quite recall what we were fighting about. The tender mercy of a limited attention span once again keeps wino friendships from fraying irreparably. Hail Nepenthe, Spirit of Forgetfulness!

Wait, what was I saying? Oh well, whatever. I uh, hm. Yah.

So anyhoo, here's a Marengo Barolo Brunate 1989. It's a medium ruby color, ambering lightly at the rim. Striking, layered aromatics--balsamic hints, brown sugar, bay leaf, streaks of flinty-firecrackeriness, all over a quiet bricky-earthy redfruit base. A light pruniness emerges with air and mingles oddly with the brown-herby notes, defying easy categorization. Tastes closeder than it smells, taut and vivid but rather ungiving, flavoristically-speaking. A curious wine: I like it, then I don't much like it, then I like it again. I suspect it's simply way too young, but I have a hard time pinning this one down.

Last hooties, a Louis Jadot Bonnes Mares 2001. Another shy wine, hint of flintiness lurk under a quiet cherry-beet base. Tastes taut and coiled, with big burly tannins thundering across my tongue like Humvees. There's a hint of a velvety-soft fleshiness at the very edges, but this is a wine that needs a lot of time to sleep.

Well, that's it. As befits a gathering at Casa Camblodad, there are no sugar-laden sweeties at the end of the night. Now only one task remains: to cast our pearls under the bushel... or... wait, what? to hide our light before swine... swine's ear? I can't remember the exact aphorism, but here, in full, is Manuel's recipe for the wonderful chicken in question:

Basque Chicken and Chorizo Sauté

4 to 6 Servings (But multiplies easily, so just double the amounts if you have twice the people)


5 Oz. Dried Chorizo (I favor a brand calle El Quijote, which ocmes in little plastic packages of four small links. Good quality meat and nicely spicy)
2 12 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
8-10 Chicken Thigs, Skin and Bone on Salt, Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 Medium Red Bell Peppers, Cut into strps
2 Medium red onions, thinly sliced
Some Thyme Sprigs
6 Large Garlic Cloves, thinly sliced
1 Cup cherry tomatoes, halved
34 Cup Fino Sherry
2 Tsp.+ Sweet Smoked Paprika (I use a brand called La Chinata that comes in cute little red cans; very smoky and the most flavorful one available by far)
34 Tsp. Crushed Red Chili Pepper (I used exactly this last night, though to my taste the dish could use a bit more, not to make it hot, but to pump up the flavor)
2 Small Bulbs of fenel, sliced thinly and blanched
Some shredded basil leaves
Crusty French Bread, for serving

-Season chicken thighs well with salt and pepper.

-With a paper towel, spread a bit of olive oil over a large, deep skillet (make sure you have a lid for it, which you will use later). Heat this over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and saut until its golden brown and some of the fat has rendered.

-Remove the chorizo from the pan and place it on a large plate. Don't remove the rendered chorizo fat. Add the rest of the olive oil and heat over high heat until shimmering. Add chicken thighs to the pan. Allow to brown nicely (about 8 minutes per side). When the thighs are nice and golden, remove them from the pan and place them on the plae with the chorizo.

-Add the bell pepper strips, onion, garlic, thyme, crushed chili. Sauté over high heat until slightly softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add tomatoes, paprika and Sherry and stir well (about 1 more minute), scraping up all the tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Turn heat to Medium-Low. Return the chicken and chorizo to the pan and stir everything together, making sure the chicken is well coated with the sauce. Let the chicken finish cooking in the sauce, stirring occasionally, for about 25-30 minutes. At the end, add the fennel, tucking the slices of fennel under the chicken.

-Before serving, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the dish with the shredded basil.

I was very surprised by how nicely this dish came out. Very easy to find the ingredients and to make the dish, making it ideal jeebusing food.

M.




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