Asparagus and Wine: Not As Simple As You'd Think by Bill St. John

Eating asparagus is about as close as we get to dine as do the ruminants, most hoofed animals and that great natural lawn mower, the sheep. Asparagus is a grass, after all; just take a good look at it. Unlike the cow, however, we get to enjoy wine with our asparagus - but there’s the rub. Asparagus is difficult for wine in two ways. It’s natively bitter, first of all, and all foods bitter are hard on wine (most greens, for example, or green olives). Moreover, asparagus is very high in the chemicals phosphorous and the sulphurous compound methyl mercaptan, neither a friend to wine (or the, er, urinary tract). Both chemicals can interact with wine to cause a tinny, metallic taste on the palate.

We whammy wine even more by often serving asparagus topped with poached egg, or with the egg and butter sauce hollandaise. Eggs or fat do not “spoil” wine; they just coat the palate so determinedly that they prevent wine from being tasted.

Other “Just Say No” foods include artichokes (high in the chemical cynarin which makes wines taste sweeter than they actually are); Brussels sprouts and spinach (like asparagus, they can make wine taste metallic); milk, yogurt and ice cream (like eggs, their compounds coat the palate); very oily or highly smoked fish (they overpower many wines); and highly acidic foods such as vinaigrettes or pickles, or citrus, tomatoes or mustard (they ruin low-acid wines – and there are plenty of those).

So what wines to enjoy with asparagus, or these other “Just Say No” foods? Take a cue from the Germans, who each spring devour their beloved white asparagus, spargal, with their crisp, refreshing, high-acid Rieslings and Sylvaners. 

The wines to favor with asparagus, by and large, are those: high in acidity, either white or red (but white wins over red, as a rule); low in alcohol; and very fresh and young. Such include those Germans; northern Italian whites such as Arneis or Soave; Spanish Albariño; dry and medium-dry Vouvray or Muscadet from the Loire; Bourgogne Aligoté from Burgundy; some Pinot Noirs from cooler climates (Oregon, Burgundy); South African Steen (that country’s word for Chenin Blanc); top-notch Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto; good Italian Barbera; good Gamay (from America or Beaujolais); Piemontese Grignolino; and many Rioja reds. 

Stay away from blockbuster or overly manipulated, oaky, high-alcohol wines (many Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Merlots). They truly will taste awful with asparagus.

~Bill St. John

Kiss These Grits

Firstly, follow the Anson Mills recipe for cooking Pencil Cob Grits (it's on the bottom of the package); it soaks the meal overnight so you avoid any worry about it clumping when pot meets heat. Ka-lumping is grits greatest gripe.

Most folk will butter their grits; some will cheese 'em. Either way — or a combo — is delicious and merit no controversy or complaint. But you also could treat grits the way the Italians and other Mediterraneans do their polenta (just the Latin for "grits," people) and top the grits with: greens such as chard, broccoli rabe, spinach, or collard, sautéed with olive oil, garlic slivers and red pepper flakes; a warm ratatouille or caponata; a mushroom ragoût; a couple of soft-cooked, runny-yolky eggs; sausage and peppers; a coarse meat ragù; or some sort of long-cooked pulled pork preparation.

You might also consider taking the cooked grits, or their leftovers, pouring them into a buttered sheet pan, pressing down and evening the top so it is flat, and then cooling it until it firms up and can be cut into triangles or squares, then further cooked. Fry or sauté the shapes in clarified butter until browned and crisped on both sides and serve, topped with a dollop of Gorgonzola dolce, Greek yogurt or — what the hey — USA-all-the-way Vermont maple syrup.

Bill St. John's take on Porchetta

In Italian, a “porchetta” means “a small roast of pork” and, in days gone by, was exactly that, a roast suckling pig, seasoned any number of ways. (The ancient Roman recipe included the kid’s “liver and spleen” so, at base, it seasoned itself.) Nowadays, neither the insides nor the outsides of kitchens commonly see suckling pig. In both Italy and everywhere else, porchetta has come to be a rolled-up, highly seasoned, then roasted mass of pork - a big square of belly, a butterflied shoulder, sometimes either surrounding a core of loin. The Sardinians roast a sort of turducken porchetta, the accarrexiau, a whole sheep stuffed with a suckling pig. (The Baba-Oink?)

To prepare porchetta, cooks make a paste of olive oil (or lard) mashed with garlic, showers of both ground black pepper and kosher or sea salt, and much aromatic herbing. While one camp touts rosemary, another extols thyme, still another both. Some add chili flakes. Most agree that porchetta ought to whisper of anise and, so, add fennel seed or, for the profligate, pollen. 

Because it contains no bones and is the same configuration of meat, fat, skin and flavorings along its entire length, the finished porchetta makes for an equitable distribution of awesomeness. It is a no-Fight-Club roast, perfect to take center stage on a holiday dinner table or, heck, to turn any Sunday into a fiesta. As an everyday food, porchetta finds itself tucked into the slice on a crusty ciabatta roll or other bread, often nestled up against slices of pickled red onion or leaves of pungent greens such as arugula or basil.

It never is without, however, some of its crackling skin, crisp enough to cut your lip. Those cracklings have punctuated its delicious story for centuries.

~ Bill St. John

Some reflections on Ligurian olive oil

We tend to think of olive oil as something to measure out in cups - to fry or sauté with, for example, or as a significant component in a dressing. But in the kitchens and on the tables of many cooks in other countries, good-quality olive oil is more a condiment than anything else, spooned rather than glugged out of the bottle. That's because it is prized less as a medium than for its unique flavors. That's the case with our San Damiano Extra Virgin Olive Oil, from a single estate along the coast of Liguria in northwestern Italy.

Ligurian oil largely comes from an olive cultivar called the Taggiasca (in France, it's called the Cailletier and, when cured into an eating olive, we know it as the Niçoise). Wines are reflections of their grapes and olive oils are likewise: their taste and aroma the sensory mirrors of the variety of olive from which they are made, where and how those olives grow, and the way that the oil is made. Taggiasca makes for an oil that is so much like melted butter that you'd be forgiven for thinking it so: sweet, soft, with flavors of almond and cashew. In those ways, it is distinct from the more "green," peppery oils of Tuscany, themselves reflections of different olive cultivars grown there. 

And so, San Damiano EVOO is delicious as a dribbled-on topping for foods where you might also enjoy melted butter: on poached fish, for example (as in this week's recipe for Walleye), or in a Piedmontese bagna cauda, or for dipping fingers and steamed artichoke leaves, or - well, wherever melted butter might otherwise be.