Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday, Chardonnay, and Chicken Thighs.

Like the weather, with a certain unpredictability, my taste for wine shifts like seasonal winds. Lately I've really been enjoying Chardonnay, a wine with which I am particularly picky. After trying so many that tasted like fermented pineapples I gave them up, dismissing them as I had shunned Boone's Farm* so many years ago. Then I began dating my husband-to-be, whose preferred wine is Chardonnay, and I began slowly and apprehensively experimenting again. 
During this time I was working as the Coffee Buyer in the Specialty Department at a Whole Foods Market. Included in this department is coffee, tea, high quality chocolate, cheese, beer and wine. Jackpot, I know! The first Chardonnay I successfully enjoyed was from Bonterra, an organic winery, which gave me hope. Occasionally I would try others, simply to keep my wine mind open, but my focus usually fell elsewhere; at the time I preferred heavy reds like Sangiovese and Super Tuscans. 
Years (and years) later, while living in Texas, I discovered an oasis in the middle of my blazing, desolate hell – Spec's Fine Spirits and Specialty Store. The first wine specialist I spoke with there taught me the most important wine fact in relation to my taste preference for Chardonnay: warmer climates produce a more tropical flavor (ex: pineapple) and cooler climates produce less tropical. The other major factor is whether it is aged in oak or not. With more experimentation I learned my preference lies in the cool-climate/ light oak category, which helps tremendously when selecting a Chardonnay.

Since moving to Japan I am still discovering where to find an acceptable wine selection. Spec's spoiled me rotten. Label requirements here are different and are usually in kanji so buying wine holds an unknown risk. As in Texas, sweet wine is common and I wouldn't know what to do if I opened an undrinkable bottle after spending 1000Y/$10 or more. The safest place to buy wine locally unfortunately has the least desirable selection. Everything is labeled for the US market, so on the plus side, I know exactly what I am getting; on the negative side, I know exactly what I am getting. The best Chardonnay, to my liking, this shop carries is Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. Your reaction will surely vary with your wine consumption. 
Why all this talk of Chardonnay, you ask? I wanted some with dinner tonight and hence researched Chardonnay friendly recipes. I found three and made the one whose ingredients I found easily, Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram. I made a few adjustments, of course. 

Update: photo of leftover meal, still incredible.

Being a thrifty-minded person, I was not going to use 2 cups of a $14.95 bottle of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. In fact, I wouldn't even use 2 cups of $8.95 Mirassou Chardonnay. So the 2 cups of dry white wine consisted of 6 oz. Mirassou and 10 oz. of Martini extra dry Vermouth. My husband likes classic martinis but a bottle of Vermouth will not stay fresh for as long as it takes him to finish it. Since it is a drinkable, dry, white wine it is completely acceptable to use in cooking, even more so than any cheap “cooking wine” found in the condiment aisle. 
When making a meal designed to pair with wine I usually pour a glass while cooking and periodically taste it during the stages of preparation. Tonight was no different except the that the wines surprised me. I poured a small glass of each Chardonnay and tested them through the recipe steps. On their own, the Mirassou was thin and bit tropically sweet, the Kendall-Jackson a bit more full with an oaky, fruit roundness. But as I tasted them during the onion sauce preparation, the Mirassou lost it's sweetness while balancing the creamy sauce and the Kendall-Jackson seemed to lose it's oaky edge in the same fight. I've frequently read that you should always cook with a wine you would drink and it seems that using the less expensive wine during cooking (even mixed with an even less expensive Vermouth) increased the desirable taste of the wine when being paired with the completed meal. I even performed a blind taste test with my husband (who is familiar with Kendall-Jackson's Chardonnay and was not present during my wine purchase), asking him which of the unlabeled glasses of wine tasted better with the meal and his conclusion was the same as mine – the less expensive wine tasted better. It goes to show, you never know; Keep an open mind.

Nonetheless, tonight's dinner of Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram was delicious. I impressed myself enough to judge it worthy of a blog post. Preparation was very easy, the longest span of time was the oven baking. Best of all, this recipe lends itself to endless variations of protein source, herb enhancements and filler (vegetable or starch).

This is my version of MarciaKiesel's recipe from Food & Wine Magazine:

Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram

1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
4 chicken thighs
2 cups dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup half & half
1 tablespoons marjoram (dried)
2 tablespoons of flour

Preheat the oven to 425°. Spread the shallots and bay leaf in an appropriately sized baking dish or roasting pan. Arrange the chicken in the pan, skin side up, and pour the wine over the legs. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and bake in the upper third of the oven for about 50 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and the chicken is cooked through. 

Reduce the oven temperature to warm.  Temporarily transfer the chicken legs to a heatproof platter.  Discard the bay leaf. Pour the pan juices (with onions) into a small saucepan.  Put the chicken back into the roasting pan, cover loosely with foil, and return to oven to keep warm.

Bring the onion sauce to a boil over high heat until reduced to a thicker consistency (about 2 cups), about 10 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and stir in the marjoram. Add the half & half and very gently boil until reduced a bit more, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to med-low and add flour, tablespoon at a time, stirring until sauce is thick.

Serve over a bed of fresh spinach leaves or angel hair pasta.

With no photo of the finished product nicely plated, all I have is this photo of the leftovers, not beautiful but it will be just as delicious tomorrow.

These are the wines used in order of price:  Vermouth, Mirassou Chardonnay, Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.

* Disclaimer: Boone's Farm played a significant role during my college years.

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