Enjoying northern Italian reds

Dawn Nickerson Ramsey displays the wares of Bacchus Sommelier Services (www.bacchussommelier.com)

I grew up in southern Ontario, in an ordinary middle-class family and so, when there was wine on the table, it was always a very special occasion. My late husband, however, was European and was used to drinking wine with meals. He introduced me to the pleasures of pairing good food and wine — and I never looked back. Still, I have a lot of catching up to do and vast lacunae in my knowledge of what is appropriate or available. Which brings me to our newest series at Go Cooking called “Sips, Tips and Tidbits.”

The sessions have been designed to introduce people to some new wines and to approach tasting them in a more “organized” way. (Also to have an entertaining experience, but, of course, that’s a given …) We held our first tasting a few weeks ago and it was an evening of general bonhomie and great hilarity. I went as a guest and I did take notes — which, I’m sorry to say, became increasingly illegible as the evening wore on and the level of noise rose in the Go Cooking kitchen. Still, I did learn a lot, as Peter Kline, our sommelier, worked his way through a series of wines from northern Italy.

Peter has his own company called Bacchus Sommelier Services (www.bacchussommelier.com, 905/635-4531) and he is so knowledgeable about all sorts of wine and beer that it’s scary — so I was really pleased when he announced right at the beginning that we shouldn’t pay any attention to what someone else says the wine tastes like. Just try to figure out what we think of it ourselves.

He chose five red wines from the Veneto area (around Venice and Verona): two types of Valpolicella, an Amarone and a Barolo, and an Asti Spumante from Turin, just for fun. After giving us some explanations of the various types of grapes and the history of the vintner, we tasted the wines with three factors in mind: how the wine looked, how it smelled and how it tasted. This simplified matters (we didn’t have to think about things such as vintages, etc.) and certainly provoked lots of spirited discourse.

The wines are all available at the LCBO, and two of the wines, the Amarone and the Barolo, were right out of my normal price range ($40 and $50). I had been really excited about trying the Barolo — which was very fine, indeed. But actually, for me, the star of the evening was the Amarone. Very rich, full-bodied and silky (my neighbour at the table called it “slick”) and, it seemed to me, perfect for pairing with wintry foods like duck or braised lamb. (The internet suggested wild boar, but I think I will leave cooking that to the professionals.)

I should mention that this was a tasting — we didn’t drink five full glasses of wine. And food was served with each wine so that we didn’t become completely addled. The “tidbits” were contrived by Mitch Lamb from the Lake House and Stone House Restaurants (www.lakehouserestaurant.com, www.stonehouserestaurant.ca)  and the chef really outdid himself: think osso bucco arrabiata in puff pastry, prosciutto wrapped figs with gorgonzola — well, you get the picture. Way too complicated for me to try, so this week, I’m presenting you with a recipe for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca which pairs very well with the Tommasi Valpolicella Ripasso 2010 (LCBO 910430) that we tried.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

 recipe adapted from Giuliano Hazan’s The Classic Pasta Cookbook

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Ingredients:

500 g (1lb) dried, store-bought spaghetti or spaghettini

100 ml (7 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 large clove finely chopped garlic

2 X 400 g(14 oz) canned whole tomatoes

salt

2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh oregano

2 tablespoons capers

8-10 kalamata olives, flesh sliced from around stone

Preparation:

1) Put all but 1 tbsp of the oil and the chopped anchovies in a large sauté pan over a low heat and cook until the anchovies have dissolved in the oil.

2)  Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds — don’t brown it.

3)  Raise the heat to medium high and add tomatoes with juice and a tiny pinch of salt.  Break up the tomatoes into small pieces and when the sauce comes to the boil turn the heat down and simmer until the tomatoes have reduced and separated from the oil — 20 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the pan.  Remove from the heat.

(You can prepare the sauce ahead of time up to this point and refrigerate it.)

4) Bring 4 litres of water to the boil, add 1 tbsp of salt, drop in the pasta all at once.  Cook the pasta at a rolling boil.

5) When the pasta is half done, re-heat the sauce and add the oregano, capers and olives.

6)  When the spaghetti is cooked (al dente, of course), drain and toss with sauce, adding the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.  Serve at once.

My Notes: 

This is from one of my very favorite cookbooks.  It’s very simple to make and absolutely delicious.  I would serve it with a green salad and some crusty Italian bread.  Serves six as a first course (the Italian way) and four as a main course.

By the way – “puttana” means whore — and this is the way she would have served her pasta to seduce her clients.!

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