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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 11:49 pm

Make your holidays sparkle


“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” — Winston S. Churchill

One of the most popular holiday drinks is Champagne. And with good reason. No other beverage shouts, “Let’s celebrate!” quite like Champagne. But much of what’s called Champagne really isn’t. Just as Kleenex has become synonymous with any brand of tissue, many people refer to any kind of sparkling wine as Champagne. Strictly speaking, however, true Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in northern France; the rest is sparkling wine. Legend has it that Champagne was discovered by Dom Pérignon, a blind monk who was cellar master in his monastery for 47 years until he died in 1715. “I’m drinking stars,” he’s reputed to have said. Modern wine historians, however, credit Dom Pérignon not with creating the bubbles but with finding a way to keep them in the bottle: the Champagne cork, which keeps the precious and pressurized contents from exploding.

Champagne from the top French producers is awesome: toasty, yeasty and elegant. It’s also expensive and something I can only rarely experience. Fortunately, there are lots of excellent sparkling wines from around the world that are delicious and much more affordable. Of course, there are the really cheap sparklers. The difference is in how they’re made. Making good sparkling wine is a tedious and difficult process – easily the most complex and time-consuming in all winemaking. It involves rotating the bottles, a second fermentation, and dégorgement – a process in which the neck of the bottle, which has been stored upside down, accruing sediment in the neck, is dipped in a frozen brine to create an icy plug of sediment that’s allowed to pop free of the bottle, after which the bottle is quickly recorked. These sparklers are labeled “méthode champenoise,” “fermented in the bottle,” or “traditional method.” There are reasonably decent bottles for between $10 and $30 – but from there the prices go up into the stratosphere. Many very good sparklers are made in the United States, some with prices to match their quality, but there are others that are much more affordable; some are even from the big French producers that have established wineries in America, mostly in California. There’s even a good New Mexican sparkler, Gruet, that’s quite good and reasonably priced.

Those cheap sparklers – some almost as cheap as soda – are made through the Charmat bulk process and are so labeled. Fermentation is carried out in a series of tanks. They’re not bad for mixing, but, drunk by themselves, they’re thin and either sour or overly sweet and much more likely to result in a nasty headache the next day than those that are made traditionally.
Another important component of drinking sparkling wine is the glass. I’m not sure how the idea of saucer-shaped glasses got started. They did look cool in old movies, but no true wine lover would be caught dead drinking sparkling wine in anything but a narrow flute or tulip-shaped glass. The narrow glasses keep the bubbles (to which end the winemaker has expended much effort) in, unlike those wide glasses, which let the bubbles escape.

Probably the holiday most associated with drinking sparkling wine is New Year’s Eve. New Year’s celebrations have always seemed a bit awkward to me. The silly hats, noisemakers and excessive drinking just feel wrong, somehow. We had a party at my house every year when I was growing up. There was little alcohol but lots of food, always including my mom’s deviled hot dogs and Swedish meatballs. Everyone was boisterous and jolly, first watching the ball drop in Times Square on the television, then counting down the minutes until it was midnight here, kissing and tooting horns. All I ever wanted to do – after I’d had my fill of deviled dogs and meatballs – was to creep off to my bedroom by myself, reflect about events of the past year, and think about what the next year would be like.

When my husband and I were college students and in the early years of our marriage, we’d envision our perfect New Year’s. We’d be alone in an isolated rustic cabin, with snow blanketing the ground and a beautiful starlit sky. There’d be a huge fireplace with crackling logs. We’d lie on a thick fluffy rug in front of the fire, plan for our future, and then . . . well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, that one remained a vision; we never found that cabin in the woods.

Since moving into our old farmhouse, some of our best New Years have centered on a huge bonfire. During the week between Christmas and New Year, we heap boxes, wrapping paper, fallen branches and sometimes even broken furniture into a great pile that towers over our heads. At midnight we light the fire, warm ourselves by the blaze, and, yes, toast the New Year with sparkling wine.

Whether you celebrate the holidays with Champagne, sparkling wine or sparkling apple juice, have a wonderful time and stay safe.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe
Mom’s deviled hot dogs

Black walnuts are available from at least two vendors at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market, completely shelled as well as with pre-cracked shells. Hammons Black Walnuts are available at several local grocery stores. 

  • 2 T. chopped green or red pepper%u2028
  • 1 T. oil or bacon fat%u2028
  • 3/4 cup catsup, preferably Heinz%u2028
  • 2 T. dark-brown sugar%u2028
  • 2 T. prepared mustard%u2028
  • 1 T. Worcestershire sauce%u2028
  • 1 lb. mini-hot dogs or sausages (or cut regular hot dogs into chunks)

Sauté onion and pepper in oil until softened. Stir in the remaining sauce ingredients.

Score wieners with a spiral cut and add them to the pan. Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.

Serve with toothpicks for spearing.

RealCuisine Recipe
Swedish meatballs

  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 c. fine fresh breadcrumbs, either white or whole wheat. Don’t use either Wonder Bread types or really dense bread, and remove any thick crisp crusts.
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk or yoghurt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, or more or less to taste
  • 1 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped onion, NOT supersweet
  • 1/2 - 1 c. freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
  • 3/4 c. loosely packed chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1/2 lb. ground pork, or additional beef
  • 1 T. oil
  • 2 c. beef stock or broth, or water
  • 1/2 c. sour cream
  • 1/3 c. snipped fresh dill fronds, optional

In a large bowl combine all the ingredients except the ground meat, stock, sour cream and dill. Let stand for about 30 minutes.

Add the ground meat to the bowl and gently stir until all elements are thoroughly combined. Test for seasoning by cooking a tablespoon of the mixture, taste, then adjust as desired. Form into large or small meatballs as desired.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the meatballs, and sauté on all sides until cooked through. Remove to a plate, cover and keep warm.

Pour off any excess fat from the skillet and return to the stove over high heat. Add the stock or water and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom. Boil until reduced by half. Remove the skillet from the stove and whisk in the sour cream and half the dill. Return to the stove over low heat, being sure to not let the sauce boil – if it does, it will curdle. Add the meatballs and toss gently to coat with the sauce. Cook until the meatballs are warmed through, then transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the remaining dill.

Serve as an appetizer with toothpicks or as an entrée over noodles. The number of meatballs depends on their size.

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