Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grant's Family Reserve: Blended Scotch

Blended scotch whisky has, rather unfairly, been saddled with a bad reputation. Sure there are some bottom shelf blends that will turn your stomach, but there are also blends that offer excellent quality at an affordable price. In fact, it is far easier to find an affordable blend that tastes great, than it is to find a single malt of similar quality at a similarly low price point.

What is it?

A blend contains a mix of single malts and a component of grain whisky, which unlike a single malt is made from grains other than barley. Grain whisky is lighter in body and should ideally allow the complexity of the malt to shine through.

The difficulty for the master blenders, who figure out the exact proportion of different malts and grains to use in a blend, is maintaining a consistent product and sourcing enough malt to widely distribute the final product. The beauty of single malts is their variability, but blenders want a consistent end product. When you buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker you expect it to taste a certain way. Blenders must work with what is available and continually tweak the recipe to offer a final product that is familiar to consumers from batch to batch.

William Grant & Sons

The art of blending becomes a great deal easier when you have a massive supply of quality malt available. William Grant and Sons is still a family owned company. They are the makers of Glennfiddich, Belvenie and the lesser known Kininvie single malts as well as Grivan grain whisky.

Grant revolutionized the sale of single malts when Scotland's largest blender went bankrupt and he was forced to sell Glennfiddich as a single malt. Glennfiddich remains the largest selling single malt in the world. With all of this wonderful malt, it is no wonder Grant's is able to produce excellent blends. It doesn't hurt that David Stewart, the companies master blender, has been at his post for 42 years. This is the longest tenure for any master blender in the industry.

The Whisky

Grants Family Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky smells slightly of banana, ripe fruit, toffee and contains a hint of smoke.

The taste is a mix of toffee, biscuits, cream and chocolate.

There is some smoke on the finish along with a rich fading fruit.

For around $15.00, this is tough to beat in its category. It has a little of everything and offers enough complexity to hold your interest. I would recommend this to someone who has never tried scotch and doesn't want to spend a lot of money giving it a shot.

I give this a 9/9 value to quality rating.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mexican Chocolate Pudding

I found this recipe in a recent Gourmet Magazine. If you already have basic baking ingredients in your kitchen you will not need to spend much to make this recipe. It is an easy desert to make ahead if you are having people over, but make the whipped cream fresh just before serving. You can even use some of the fresh whipped cream to make Irish Coffee. Don't get freaked out by the almond milk. It adds a nice nutty flavor that goes well with the cinnamon and the chocolate.

You can find the full recipe here on the Gourmet website . Ignore the comment on the site about the recipe not working. They probably forgot to add the corn starch.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Green Onion Risotto with Brie

Don't be frightened of risotto. It is a lot easier to make than you think. If you tried the polenta you can make this too.

A Brief History

Rice came to Italy from Spain and flourished throughout the Po Valley. Italians who had already developed and had a fondness for polenta, tried a similar cooking method with newly cultivated rice. The result of this method was risotto, a rice dish unlike those found anywhere else in the world. Risotto, when made properly, is a creamy and versatile dish.

Here is one of my favorite ways to cook risotto.

Green Onion Risotto with Brie


  • 1 bunch - Vidalia Salad Onions (These look like scallions on steroids and they are not always available.  If you cannot find them buy two bunches of regular scallions)
  • 1 bunch - Scallions (or 2, see above)
  • 2 cloves - Garlic finely chopped
  • 1 cup - Arborio Rice
  • 1 32oz container - Chicken or Vegetable Broth (Make sure it is at room temp.)
  • 3 oz - Brie at room temp (If you are allergic to cows milk or just want to try something different use goat brie.)
  • 1 cup - White Wine (Dry is fine, but if you already have a bottle of something a little sweeter open and need to use it just use a little less.)
  • 1 Tbsp - Butter
  • 2 Tbsp - Olive Oil
  • 1/4 tsp - Lemon Zest
  • 1/4 cup - Lemon Juice
  • Salt and Pepper

First, chop the white part at the bottom of the vidalias or scallions up to where the start to turn green. Set aside the top part of the scallion for later. You can save the top of the salad vadalia too, but it can be tough. I recommend using it in a homemade veggie stock.

Saute the white part of the onion in the oil and butter in a medium sauce pan on medium heat. Once it becomes translucent add the cup of rice and the garlic. Stir the rice until it begins to brown in the butter and oil. It is important that the rice becomes toasted, because it helps to bring out the starches that will make the end result creamy.

Once the rice has started to brown add the wine and stir well. Let the wine cook off and add one cup of stock. Again, stir frequently until the stock has almost completely cooked down. Then add another cup repeating this process until the risotto is creamy and tender. You may not use all of the stock, so after you have added two or three cups of stock be sure to taste the risotto to see how it is coming along before adding more.

With the risotto cooked add the lemon zest and juice. Let it cook down until liquid is cooked out of the risotto.  Add the brie (remove the rind and slice into small pieces first) and stir until well incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste and serve topped with a small handful of thinly chopped scallions.

The Leftovers

If you have any left over the next day make risotto cakes. Mix the cooked risotto with fresh chopped scallion and one egg yolk.  Make a ball, about the size of a meatball, and roll it in some bread crumbs (panko crumbs are the best). Now fry them in olive oil until golden brown.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Desk Coffee: The Shredder

I first sampled Desk Coffee at the new Whole Foods Market here in Richmond, Virginia. Tom Thorogood, a former barista from Can Can Brasserie, was giving samples of several varieties of their coffee. Tom is arguably the best barista in Richmond, so with high expectations, I gave the coffee a try.

Beyond Tom's recommendation, Desk also has a great marketing hook. All of their coffee bares the name of a piece of office equipment (The Shredder, The Eraser...) or uses other office related terminology.

The Company

Desk is an acronym for David, Emily, Stephen and Kelly. The four principals, coffee lovers, spouses and longtime friends boast 15 years of coffee industry experience with Blanchards and Advance Coffee Tech Services, both based in Richmond.

Further flavoring their unique professional experience Stephen and Emily are classically trained orchestral musicians while David is an investor and Kelly is an interior designer.

The Beans

I contacted Desk Coffee Company to find out more about the process they use to select their beans. Stephen was happy to explain the four main criteria used to create Desk Coffee's range of products.

  • Quality - You must have great beans to make a great cup of coffee.
  • Sustainability - They focus on coffee that is grown sustainably and follows fair trade practices.
  • Availability - In order to provide customers with a consistent product, the beans must be available throughout the year and into the future.
  • Price - They strike a balance between quality and affordability by sourcing coffee at prices that allow them to offer their product to consumers at realistic prices.

Stephen also explained that Desk Coffee's roastery is certified organic, which means the roasting process is organic from start to finish. Not all of their coffee is labeled organic because sourcing organic beans can be extremely difficult and expensive. The processes used in farming coffee beans is by-in-large organic, however, the process of organic certification is often too expensive for many farmers who live from crop to crop. Therefore, Stephen believes it is more important to source beans that are sustainable and fair trade.

The Coffee

I like my coffee dark so for this review I sampled The Shredder, which is labeled as a "dark, bold blend". Based on the description I was expecting the coffee to rip my head off, but it turned out to be an extremely smooth, drinkable and almost delicate coffee. The flavor is rich with hints of nuts and chocolate. However, there was not a single hint of bitterness or acidity.

This is a great everyday cup of coffee for me. I will certainly be trying some more of the offerings from Desk Coffee. All of their products are available online at

At $10.99 per pound Desk Coffee is a great value in high end coffee. I give The Shredder a 9/9 value to quality rating.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Polenta: Peasant Food Never Tasted So Good

Okay, the title of this post is a little misleading. Peasant food is often the best food. Throughout history, the worlds poor have been forced to do more with less. The result of their toil is frequently delicious.

What is it?

Polenta is staple of the Northern Italian diet that dates back to Ancient Roman times. Grains like fero, buckwheat, millet and spelt were all interchangeable in the making of polenta. The grains were cooked in boiling water until a mushy paste was formed, at which point it could be baked or eaten as a porridge.

Once corn from the new world was cultivated in Italy, polenta became the corn based dish it remains to this day. Unfortunately, corn based polenta is far less nutritional than what was made with buckwheat or other grains; however, corn grows easily in Northern Italy and its cultivation benefited wealthy land owners in the north.

What was once a food for the poor can now be found on the menu's of fine dinning restaurants. Fortunately, polenta can still be made cheaply and easily at home. It goes great with with a wide variety of dishes. Here is one that is healthy, tasty and affordable.

The Recipe


  • Polenta - I recommend Bob's Red Mill brand, which is also labeled as Corn Grits. (Polenta and corn grits are really the same thing.)
  • 1 tbsp per Butter
  • 1/3 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese Per Serving
  • 3 or 4 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1/3 Cup White Wine - You should use whatever you have open around the house, red, white and even sweet vermouth all work well.
  • 1 Large Onion - Chopped
  • 2 or 3 Cloves of Garlic - Finely Chopped
  • 1 Package Baby Bella Mushrooms - Slice each mushroom into 4 to 5 pieces depending on size.
  • 1 15oz Can of Diced Tomatoes - Try and get them without too much salt so you can season to your own taste.
  • 1 Can Cannelloni Beans - Drained and rinsed.
  • 1 Package of Baby Spinach
  • You will also need salt, pepper (red and black) and oregano.
First, heat the oil in a large saute pan on medium heat. Once the pan is hot add the onion and let it cook until softened and translucent.

Next, add the mushrooms and garlic (and more oil if pan becomes to dry). Add the wine and let it evaporate in the pan. Let the mushrooms cook until they begin to brown and all of the liquid is cooked off.

Now, add the tomatoes and the beans to the pan. You can season the mixture with salt, pepper and oregano. Leave it alone, stirring only to insure it does not burn. Let the liquid cook down for about 15 to 20 minutes until it is nice and thick, like a stew. Once it is done add the baby spinach, turn off the heat and stir until the spinach has wilted into the mixture.

While the liquid is cooking off you should start the polenta. Follow the instructions on the package. Be sure to stir it frequently and keep it covered when you are not stirring. If it starts to dry out before it is done cooking add some more water and stir until it is smooth. You may also need to add more water it you use a gas stove. Once the potenta is finished add the butter and cheese, turn off the heat and stir.

Serve It Up

Just top a serving of the polenta with a large spoonful of the sauce. Serve and enjoy with a glass of red wine or a hearty white. Extra polenta can be poured, while still hot, into small loaf pans. Let it cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating. The next day you can slice the polenta loaf and broil the pieces in the oven with some more cheese and top with remaining sauce or a fried egg.

Cheap and tasty, what more could you want?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fraoch Heather Ale

A good friend first told me about Fraoch Heather Ale about a year ago. My inner history nerd/beer lover couldn't resist giving it a try.  

First, the history nerd gets a word.

Scottish Brewing

The Scot's have over 5,000 years of brewing history under their belts, so in the interest of brevity I will try and keep this short.  

Early beer in Scotland, like the rest of the Celtic and Germanic world, utilized local ingredients. Herbs, fruits and grains that grew in the wild were the primary brewing agents. Heather is plentiful in Scotland and the use of heather in brewing can be traced back as far as 2,000 B.C.  

There is a great deal of legend that goes along with Scottish brewing. These stories include battle hardened warrior brewers being thrown from cliffs. You can read more about that here. I have no idea where the marketing hype begins and the legends end, so I will let you decide for yourself.

When Scotland officially became a part of Great Brittan with the 1706-1707 Acts of Union, rules were put in place that limited brewing to hops, malt and water. This benefited the British Lords who just so happened to grow and sell hops. It also had some positive effects on brewing.  It lead to a more consistent product free of "fillers". The acts also provided favorable tax breaks to Scottish brewers, which greatly aided the Scottish brewing industry.  

The negative effect of these new regulations were that they put a halt to the use of heather and other botanicals in Scottish brewing. Let's face it consistency can be kind of boring. There were, however, some Scottish brewers in the Highlands and Western Islands who continued to brew using the traditional methods. They were the home brewers of their day. Fortunately for us, they kept the recipes and traditions of ancient Scottish brewing alive.

Thanks to the modern revolution in home and craft brewing you can now purchase Heather Ale and other Historic Ales of Scotland at your local beer and wine specialty shops.  

The Beer 

Froach Heather Ale is 5% abv.  

The color is golden but cloudy, similar in appearance to a Saison (Farmhouse Ale). It has no head to speak of, even with a fairly vigorous pour.

It smells bright and sweet like orange blossom honey with a slight piny hint.

It has a light body and a crisp effervescence in the mouth. Again there are hints of a Saison style, but more perfumed and even a little soapy (My wife strongly disagrees with the adjective soapy, so I should note that I don't find this to be a particularly negative attribute.) The sweetness and floral flavors are there too.

The finish is very dry and short.


This beer is good, not great. I think I enjoyed the history of the beer more that the beer itself. It wasn't bad and is certainly worth a taste if you are interested in beer. As for budget, at $2.99 a bottle it isn't cheap, but then again you probably don't need more than one.  I'll give it a 6/6 value to quality rating.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Buffalo Trace Bourbon

Bourbon, in general, is one of the best bargains in liquor. The quality and variety of bourbon available for under $25.00 is staggering when compared to Single Malt Scotch.   

A Quick Lesson on Bourbon

To be considered bourbon, whiskey must meet the following requirements.  

  • It must contain at least 51% corn
  • It must be aged in new charred oak barrels
  • It must be aged at least two years, four years to be called "straight bourbon"
  • It can be no more than 160 proof (or 80% ABV)
  • It may not contain any additives, beyond water to control proof 
Contrary to popular belief it does not need to be made in Kentucky, though a great deal of it is. Another misconception is that Jack Daniel's is bourbon. It is not, it is Tennessee Whiskey. You can read more about that here.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

The Buffalo Trace Distillery, previously known as Ancient Age, is located in Frankfort, Kentucky and has been in existence since 1787. The distillery has a capacity of 14.3 million gallons of spirit per year.  

Buffalo Trace's willingness to experiment and take chances has put them at the forefront of American whiskey distilling and has won them a number of awards. They were the first American distiller to release a single barrel bourbon, the delicious and readily available Blantons. Their flagship bourbon is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  

The Whiskey

Buffalo Trace is a 90 Proof (45% abv) Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

This is simply great whiskey. The color is deep gold and amber.  

It has a complex nose, which includes leather up front with hints of vanilla, sweet corn, and oak char.

In the mouth Buffalo Trace is soft, but full of flavor. All of the components one expects in a great bourbon are there in perfect measure; sweet corn, vanilla, fall spices, dried fruit and damp leaves. This is a complex yet easy drinking whiskey.   

The finish is spicy and dry.


I can't say a bad thing about this whiskey and at under $25.00 it is a great introduction to the world of bourbon. It is also a great place to start investigating the wonderful range of Buffalo Trace Whiskey's currently on the market.

I give this a 8/9 value to quality rating.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Roast a Chicken with Curry

I have been packing my own lunches the past couple of weeks.  It is both cheaper and healthier than eating out, and the quality of my lunches has greatly improved.  Instead of buying lunch meat, I have been roasting a chicken on Sunday night.  This serves as both an excellent Sunday dinner and lunch for a better part of the work week.

Plain chicken can get boring pretty quick so it is important to try something besides just salt and pepper.  I recommend a Curry Roasted Chicken.

Curry Roasted Chicken


  • Whole Chicken -Buy a whole chicken, preferably of the non frozen free range variety, that will feed you for a few days.  Since my wife doesn't eat meat I only need a medium sized bird.  If you are feeding two or more people size the bird accordingly.  
  • Madras Curry Powder
  • 1.5 Cups Yogurt - I use plain goats milk yogurt, but any Greek or Mediterranean style yogurt would work just fine.
  • 1 Large Onion
  • 1 0r 2 Large Carrots - Of late, the carrots at the store have been huge so one fits the bill for me.
  • Fresh Ginger
  • 2 cups of white wine, or 1 beer (lager works great)


Mix together the yogurt with 4 table spoons of curry, a table spoon of fresh chopped ginger, and a 1/3 cup finely chopped onion (save the rest of the onion, un-chopped, for later).  If you like a bit more spice add some red pepper flakes to the mix.

Now, rub down the chicken with the yogurt spice mix.  Be sure to jam it under the skin above the breast meet.  You should be able to separate the skin from the breast by poking your fingers around.  This will help get the flavor into the meat.  Once you have coated the whole chicken let it sit for at least an hour.  You should put it in a roasting dish surrounded by the rest of the onion and the carrots (both coarsely chopped).

Pre-heat the oven to 400 and put in the roasting pan with the chicken, breast side down.  Once the outside is brown, flip the chicken over and brown the other side.  Pour a cup or two of wine around the outside of the bird over the onions and carrots.  You can rub some butter on the skin at this point too.  Now turn the oven down to 350 and let if finish.  At this point I can tell if a bird is done by look and feel, but the best test is to use some tongs and grab the thigh right next to the body of the bird and twist.  If the leg and thigh pop right off at the joint the bird is done.

Let the bird rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes before cutting into it.

Serve With

The best way to serve this is with some rice and a good chutney.  A nice spoonful of plain yogurt is also a good addition and helps temper the heat of a spicy chutney.  

I recommend drinking a nice French Chardonnay or a good lager (Sam Smiths Organic is excellent).


You can take leftover rice and chicken for lunch.  You can also make a great curried chicken salad by mixing some shredded chicken, mayo, currants, curry powder and chopped pecans.