Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Aperitifs

The apéritif hour: Sardines on toast

Sardine can2While I was in Seattle some months ago shopping at the Spanish Table, the Spanish import store, I picked up some sardines from Galicia. The northwest corner of Spain is renowned for its seafood and these sardines may be the best I’ve ever had from a tin. Plump and meaty, they’re sweet-fleshed and delicious. The brand is Matiz Gallego and they’re hand-packed in olive oil.

Since then, I spotted the characteristic blue-and-white package at Sur La Table, $2.95 for a 4.2-ounce tin, and have been serving them with a glass of wine as an aperitif. They’re great because you can always have them on hand.

Inspired by Octavio Becerra’s sardines on toast at the late great Palate Food + Wine, Sardines TWO (1 of 1) here’s how I do it. Take a thin slice of baguette, toast it, spread with sweet butter, lay the sardine on top and finish it off with  a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of chives or a little red onion. Sometimes I use pumpernickel as the bread.

Serve with a glass of Albariño from Galicia, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, or a dry rosé.


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-- S. Irene Virbila


Photos: Sardines in tin; sardines on toast. Credit: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times

When is a shrub not a bush? Hint: when you can drink it

I had never heard of shrub until my friend Patsy brought me a bottle of raspberry shrub she’d made from an old family recipe. It seems to be a New England thing, dating from colonial times, made from an extravagant amount of raspberries cooked with sugar and when cool, dosed with vinegar. A gorgeous raspberry red, it made a wonderful drink with a little gin and sparkling water. I even poured a little of the vinegary sweet-tart syrup over ice cream. Patsy tells me she likes it on blintzes and in her yogurt.

Baco 1 (1 of 1)I just came across the sweetened vinegar-based drink again -- at Bäco Mercat -- where chef/owner Josef Centeno makes his own shrubs aka "drinking vinegars." They’re used for his alternative to Coca-Cola, namely “sweet and sour soda.” And also cocktails made with a variety of spirits. Centeno creates his shrubs with whatever’s in season — Meyer lemon, red grape, black mint, etc. He’s even made a chile-lime vinegar for their version of the margarita.

 As customers get into the idea of drinking vinegar, he’ll sometimes give them a small bottle of, say, tangerine drinking vinegar, enough to make two sodas. Those sweet little bottles are not for sale yet, but maybe soon.  

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A gift for the gin lover: Caorunn

PhotoThis is a small-batch gin with a haunting and intriguing flavor from Scotland's Balmenach distillery, which has been distilling malt whiskey since 1824. One of their distillers is a gin aficionado and developed this unique gin which combines traditional botanicals with five Celtic ones, including rowan berry, heather and bog myrtle. Bog myrtle!        

Caorunn (pronounced ka-roon) is delicious on the rocks and makes a mean martini, too. Guaranteed — nobody already has this in their liquor cabinet. And if on the off chance he or she does, no doubt a second bottle will be  happily accepted. 

As you can see from the photo, I’m working my way through a bottle pronto.

Caorunn gin, $26, at Woodland Hills Wine Shop and other locations.


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-- S. Irene Virbila


Photo: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times


A 120-year-old recipe for vermouth makes a comeback

Cocchi edit (1 of 1) I just had the best Negroni of my life. It follows the classic recipe: one part Campari, one part gin and one part vermouth. The gin is Hendrick’s. But what makes the big difference is the vermouth! It’s Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino from Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

I know Cocchi, of course, as a purveyor of vermouth. But for their 120th anniversary this year, the Piedmontese firm resumed production of founder Giulio Cocchi’s original recipe from 1891. I read about it in the summer Corti Brothers newsletter.

Even better, you can view Darrell Corti’s first tasting of the Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino in March on a trip to Italy at the Bava Winery [link in Italian] on Corti TV. He gives a bit of history, too, recalling visits to his grandparents' friend as a child, when the custom was to offer a glass of vermouth — not a glass of wine. That I didn’t know.

But in fact, I have snuck a glass of the Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino when I just wanted a small taste of something delicious without having to open a bottle of wine. The flavor of assorted barks, herbs and spices is infused seamlessly in the base Moscato wine. It isn’t syrupy like some vermouths, and strikes an exquisite balance between sweet and bitter. 

In the newsletter, Corti also gives a recipe for the Negroni “sbagliato” or "incorrect" Negroni. “In a shaker add equal parts Campari and Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino. Shake together with ice. Strain into a glass and top with a dry Italian spumante or Prosecco. Serve.” I like that one as a lighter alternative, but not nearly as much as the original Negroni recipe.

I like it so much, in fact, that I’m already ready to reorder another bottle. 

Corti Brothers, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, CA; (916) 736-3800; (800) 509-FOOD; www.cortibros.biz. Cocchi Storico Vermouth Di Torino, $18.99.


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Photo: Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino. Credit: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times

Restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila has her summer projects lined up

Stove 1 (1 of 1) Cleaning up my office, I found an old notebook from a few years ago in which I listed summer cooking projects — jams, granita, Santa Maria barbecue (I'd just purchased a Santa Maria-style grill from Santa Maria BBQ Grill Outfitters on the Central Coast).

Time to revive the idea of summer cooking projects.

This is what I'm thinking for this year (so far). I want to cook more Middle Eastern food. It's great for entertaining because mezze (all those lovely small dishes) can be served pretty much at room temperature. I remember going on a cooking jag in my 20s with a used copy of Claudia Roden's "Middle Eastern Food." I now have the updated tome called "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food." And I'm tempted by her recipes for tepsi boregi (creamy filo cheese pie), Tunisian brik, bulgur salads, flatbreads and saffron rice pudding.

But I have quite a few more cookbooks to explore. One of them is Rodin's “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon” (Knopf, 2006, 352 pages, $37.50). Also, “Artichoke to Za’atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food” by Australian chef Greg Malouf. He’s also published several large-format books with gorgeous photography exploring Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. I’ve also cooked some from Boston chef Ana Sortun's “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean" and want to do more.

I've laid in my spices -- za'atar, sumac, and more from Penzey's Spices in Santa Monica -- and planted Greek oregano, marjoram, and a bay laurel tree for bay leaves.

I'm remembering long-ago dinners in Istanbul where we'd nibble on mezze, smoke, taste a few more dishes between sips of raki, an anise-flavored spirit similar to pastis or ouzo. No more smoking for me, but my idea this summer is to get up and put on a record between rounds of mezze. Eat, listen, eat, look at the stars.

And what are your summer cooking projects?


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 -- S. Irene Virbila

Illustration: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times

Virginia peanuts for the holidays

IMG_1642 Last year, just before Christmas, on the prowl for wines for my Wine of the Week column, I was poking around Silverlake Wine. "Here, taste this peanut," urged co-owner George Cossette, offering a can of Gourmet Peanuts from Plantation Peanuts of Wakefield. "I used to have a college roommate from Virginia and every year at the holidays we'd order a big can of these peanuts," he said.

The peanut is perfectly shaped, larger than usual, and so full of flavor, it almost seems to be another nut entirely. Who knew peanuts could taste like this? I immediately bought an 8-ounce can, which was all Cossette had in stock at the time. And when that was finished, I decided I needed to have more -- a lot more, so I ordered a couple of 22-ounce cans from the company's website. They didn't last as long as you'd think.

This year, I ordered a couple of the 40-ounce cans (which, admittedly, makes it a little more difficult for my husband to hide them from me.)   I've been good, though, doling them out for cocktails, a light snack and occasionally throwing a handful in a Chinese dish.

I love that now I always have something to go with a Negroni: these uber peanuts from Virginia, roasted in small batches by hand and lightly salted.

Plantation Peanuts; (800) 233-8788; Plantationpeanuts.com. Gourmet salted peanuts, $5.25 8-ounce can, $8.95 22-ounce can, and $12.95 40-ounce can.

-- S. Irene Virbila

Photo: S. Irene Virbila

Recession? What recession? Make ours a double

LouisxiiiblackpearlHow about a $3,000 shot of cognac for your recession wallet?

In a darkly comedic twist on the current State of the Cocktail Hour, the PR folks at Rémy Martin seem to have confused the word “recession” with “reduction.” Or maybe the French cognac producer simply hired a bad English translator.

Normally a 750-milliliter bottle of its Louis XIII cognac retails for $1,800 and a 1.75-L. bottle of its Louis XIII Black Pearl Magnum is a cool $32,000. (For the record: An earlier version of this post said that a 1.75-milliliter bottle of Louis XIII Black Pearl Magnum cost $32,000. That is incorrect, and would also be insanely expensive. In fact, it is the 1.75-liter bottle that carries that price tag.)

But wait! Now you can taste them both for an amazing low price. According to a news release seemingly sent without a shred of irony, Rémy Martin is launching a “Perfect Pour” program that offers the cognac in smaller portions, “allowing more guests to enjoy this legendary elixir.”

Translation: Now you can saddle up to your participating swanky restaurant bar and order a 2-ounce pour of the Black Pearl Magnum for the one-time-only price of just $3,000! If that’s still a little out of your price range, don't worry. You can taste a half-ounce sip for the low, low price of $750. (Does a half-ounce even count as a sip?)

If you’re still waiting to see whether your rent check clears, you can always stick to the standard Louis XIII. He’s a mere $50 for the half-ounce dribble. Note that these are suggested retail sipping prices and actual retail prices vary. A half-ounce will set you back $70 at the London Hotel’s Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood and $75 at the Esquire Bar and Lounge in Pasadena. The $3,000 shot of Black Pearl? Like Ramsay, nowhere to be found in Los Angeles.

-- Jenn Garbee

Join us on Twitter @latimesfood

Photo credit: Rémy Martin

Riesling study hall: a class you wouldn't dream of skipping

Riesling_rules_cover_3I admit I’m smitten with Riesling in all its guises.

Though it’s easily one of the most food-friendly wines on Earth, I’m finding that few food lovers know much about this ancient white grape. For those (and you know who you are), there’s a free booklet called “Riesling Rules” from Pacific Rim winery in Washington state. You can peruse it online here. Or, if you prefer one to carry around with you, you can order a complimentary copy by e-mailing [email protected].

What’s to learn? Oh, things like how to spell Riesling (i before e), how to sound like a Riesling geek, and who are the world’s most ardent Riesling lovers. (Hint: Some of them are wine producers.)

On a more serious note: which glass shape best suits which Rieslings, temperatures for serving various Rieslings from dry to sweet and the history of the grape, which made its entrance in the 15th century in the Rheingau area of Germany. And most important, classic (and more adventurous pairings) of food with Riesling.

Definitely worth a look.

— S. Irene Virbila

Photo: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times

The joy of cooking -- what a concept! -- on PBS

PBS's top chefs 

Set the Ti-Vo!

“A Moveable Feast with America’s Favorite Chefs” premieres Saturday at 11 a.m. on KCET as part of a pledge drive. I know what you're thinking. Oh joy.

But consider giving it a shot.

Not only will you see some of public television's biggest names in food all sharing the same stage –- Ming Tsai of “Simply Ming,” Ruth Reichl of “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie,” Lidia Bastianich of “Lidia’s Italy,” Rick Bayless of “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” Jose Andres of “Made In Spain” and Christopher Kimball of “America’s Test Kitchen.”

But you’ll also find yourself falling in love all over again with the cooking show.

In a television universe that seems convinced that we need Drama! Competition! Humiliation! Eliminations! served up with our food TV, “A Moveable Feast with America’s Favorite Chefs” reminds us how delicious it is to simply train a camera on an expert in a kitchen setting -- and let passion run its course.

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A Champagne (or sparkling wine) for every occasion

Bubbly4Let's agree to set aside the grim recessionary landscape for the moment: The time has come for bubbles.

There is simply nothing like a glass of sparkling wine to set this season apart. Welcoming, smile-inducing, instantly festive, bubbles give every holiday occasion a lift.

Of course, not every occasion is the same: The wine for the office party, the New Year's party and the family toast aren't necessarily going to come from the same bottle. Nor should they.

So here's Patrick Comiskey's guide to breaking out the bubbly this holiday season, along with a where-to-buy guide.

Credit: Mariko Jesse / For The Times


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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.