Half-and-halfers: Your ticket to knowing new wines

When you're navigating the vast array of new wines available, it helps to anchor your experience to something familiar, then reach out to what's unexpected.

“But what is this like?”

Ever notice how often you ask yourself that when shopping for new wines?

Especially when it comes to taste, we fumble about for something related, something familiar on which to anchor our perceptions as we explore – either tentatively or at full speed ahead – uncharted territory.

Take Sonoma cab. I tried one recently from Chalk Hill, called Imagine — it was new for me — at Grafton Street in Cambridge. It was like cabs I know from Napa (an anchor to something familiar), except it wasn’t. It was also like reds I know from Sonoma (another anchor) except it wasn’t that, either. It was its own thing but it was close enough to things I know to make trying it an experience that was, at once, both comfortable and adventurous.

Take a southern Italian red called Nerello Mascalese. I tried one – a 2007 from a producer called Passopisciaro – at a Boston University event a few weeks back. I’d never heard of the grape nor the winery so, whether consciously or not, I immediately started groping for clues in this wine that would help me to put it into the perspective of other wines I know better. Its color, for instance, was a lovely, translucent ruby that reminded me (there’s that anchor again) of some pinot noirs. I was grasping, and this was just a toehold, but it was enough to move me forward.

Those toeholds serve however precariously in situations like these to balance the old and the new. Balancing old and new when it comes to learning may be familiar territory to philosophers or educational theorists, but when it comes to wine, it is the fairly new realm of something I’ve come to call the half-and-halfers: that is, wines that are half of something familiar (like one of the “universal” grape varieties such as chardonnay and merlot) and half of something indigenous (that is to say, something most of us have never even heard of before).

Anchoring yourself to the familiar makes it easier to branch out and try something new. And in the world of wine these days, something new is always just around the corner.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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Dessert of the Week: Real-Kind Lemon Meringue Pie, at Hi-Rise Bread Company

Lemon meringue pie -- the seasonal variety -- at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge.

Lemon meringue pies, the real kind, are seasonal. That season started in February and — as lovers of real lemon meringue pie know — our favorite season is coming quickly to an end.

That’s what the people say at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge.

We’ll stop making them within the month, they say.

But why, you say.

We make all of our tarts and pies according to the season, they say.

Well, okay, that’s a pretty good reason. It just sounds odd because we don’t normally think of lemons as seasonal the way we think of fiddlehead ferns or huckleberries as seasonal.

I suspect the seasonality of the real-kind lemon meringue pies at Hi-Rise — the kind Julia Child herself (who lived not so far from Hi-Rise) praised for their essence of lemony-ness — also has to do with the melting factor of meringue. That is, in hot weather, meringue melts. So the making of the pies, and the lovely eating of them too, needs to be done when the temperature is cool.

Fair enough. For now. And only because The Time is still here.

It’s the finding-a-substitute part in about a month, when lemon meringue pie season is over, that things get sticky.

So let’s look ahead a bit. What are your favorite early-summer desserts? Drop us a line and let us know!

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Healthy Habits Kitchen: A different kind of take-out

Peek inside the refrigerator at Healthy Habits Kitchen in Wellesley.

It isn’t just the cooking that makes healthy eating untenable. It’s also the shopping, organizing, and clean up that needs to happen in addition to the cooking.

Those are exactly the things that Susan Schochet and her staff at Healthy Habits Kitchen do (exceptionally well, I might add). Healthy Habits Kitchen in Wellesley offers meal assembly and preparation services for individuals and families, which removes the stumbling blocks from regular healthy eating.

“Meal assembly” works like this. You schedule a time to come to the Kitchen. You choose which meals you want to prepare. When you arrive — as I did last week, along with my two children — your station is set, your ingredients are portioned, and you’re ready to fly into the preparation of healthy, quick meals.

The process goes super-fast. The ingredients are at your fingertips and the recipe is right in front of you, printed out and standing in a plastic clipboard. And you aren’t expected to clean up. And –bonus — the average price per person for a meal at Healthy Habits Kitchen is less than $4.

Susan Schochet holds an assembled meal kit that her customers take home and store until they're ready to cook the meal.

There were unexpected bonuses from my trip to Healthy Habits Kitchen, both during the assembly and during preparation at home. First, the kids loved being at the Kitchen. It’s a neat, organized space, their roles were clear, and Schochet clearly has a lot of experience dealing with young people.

Leo takes a break from meal assembly to lick a spoon of honey.

A second bonus is the peace of mind when you know you won’t be home to cook for your family. Anyone at home is empowered to put a healthy meal on the table. All of the ingredients are there, plus clear instructions for cooking the meal, all stickered to the Ziploc bag holding the kit.

The third bonus was a certain sense of confidence. You start to think, “It really isn’t so hard to cook good, healthy food.” You can imagine getting the hang of it. And maybe, little by little, you start taking steps to replicate the process for yourself. That would be the healthy habit-forming part of a Healthy Habits Kitchen experience. And it’s a consequence Schochet, with her passion for sharing healthy cooking, wouldn’t mind one bit.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Wine dinner this Friday at BOKX 109; special discount for WGBH members

Unfiltered wines are all the rage — we’re living in a pared-back, honest era, people — but few wineries get unfiltered wines right.

Newton Vineyard, which wine critic Robert Parker calls one of the world’s greatest wine estates, is one of those few.

This Friday night offers a chance to taste Newton Vineyard’s work for yourself, when BOKX 109 American Prime restaurant hosts a wine dinner that includes three of their unfiltered wines — a chardonnay, a merlot, and a cabernet sauvignon. Better yet, WGBH members can get $10 off the price of the dinner (keep reading to find out how).

Here’s the plan:

Walk into the Newton Vineyard wine dinner and they’ll hand you a glass of the 2008 Red Label Chardonnay.

Retail price: $20/bottle.

While you’re getting settled, catch a server (or two, or three, it won’t be hard) and indulge in the passed apps of poached oyster shooters, lobster and ricotta cavatelli, and wing confit.

Once you’re seated, they’ll place your first unfiltered wine of the night in front of you — the 2007 chardonnay — to pair with the seared petrale sole with spring peas and morel cream.

Retail price for the wine: $45/bottle.

Then comes the second course with another unfiltered wine — the 2005 merlot — along with barbecued pork belly with Boston baked beans and sweet corn nage.

Retail price for the wine: $45/bottle.

Next up is Newton Vineyard’s iconic Bordeaux blend, called The Puzzle (2005) at $78/bottle retail. It’s matched up with Long Island duck served two ways — smoked breast and confit thigh — with melted leeks and lentil fondue in a red wine and shallot jus.

For dessert you’ll drift back to the unfiltered wines with the 2006 cab and a dark chocolate tart with drunken berries and toasted meringue.

Retail price for the wine: $40/bottle.

Is a $95-five course wine dinner worth the price? Well, here’s what you’d pay course by course (and this doesn’t even include the food):

$20

$45

$45

$78

$40

You do the math — then email your reservation to me at WGBH: cathy_huyghe@wgbh.org, and your WGBH membership gets you a $10 discount. See you there!

Details: Newton Vineyard Wine Dinner, hosted by Dr. Su Hua Newton. BOKX 109 American Prime restaurant, inside the Hotel Indigo, 399 Grove Street, Newton. Friday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m. Cost is $95 plus tax and gratuity; WGBH members get $10 off when you email Cathy Huyghe with your reservation.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Music, dancing, and loukaniko: Greek Independence Day in Boston Common

In honor of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire (and Greek pride in general), the Greek Independence Day festival took over Boston Common on Sunday. The festival gave a hint of the wonderful culture — and food — one might experience on a visit, as with WGBH’s upcoming LearningTour.

Dancers in costume, with ethnic music in the background, help set the stage at yesterday’s Greek Independence Day celebration in the Boston Common.

Guests and participants take breaks to enjoy the weather, the crowd, and the food.

Food kiosks, even those selling products not exactly Greek by origin, fly the flag nonetheless.

Fried dough toasts in oil before being powdered with sugar.

No Greek festival is complete without gyros.

A gyro kiosk worker prepares slices of meat for cooking.

Shish kebabs and loukaniko were for sale as well. One guest described loukaniko as “like kielbasa but spicier, with orange rind in it.”

Shish kebabs for a crowd.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Tips for getting adventure and value from your wine

Samples of brewed tea illustrated the quality of tannins to members of the Boston Wine Meetup group at The Wine Bottega.

Kerri Platt, owner of The Wine Bottega wine shop in the North End, has her internal lie detector tuned to high.

All. The. Time.

Which means that when a wine rep comes into the shop hoping to sell Platt on some wines, most will quickly fail her sniff test. That’s because Platt stocks her shelves with wines from vineyards she has either visited herself or that she and her staff have gone to great lengths to find that meet her qualifications:

Small producers. Organically farmed. Biodynamically produced.

All popular catch phrases these days — lots of shops claim to support such practices — but Platt is serious about it and she can tell, easily, when sales reps are just paying it lip service.

That’s why you’ll find wines on The Wine Bottega’s shelves that you literally will not find anywhere else in Boston or all of Massachusetts: they take the time, and make the effort, to source wines that meet the small-producer, organically-farmed standards through and through.

That makes The Wine Bottega the perfect destination when you’re hunting for, say, a bottle of wine for someone who already knows a lot about it. You are bound to find something unique.

You are also very likely to find unique bargains. At a blind tasting Platt conducted for members of the Boston Wine Meetup group on Wednesday night, she poured five wines and four of them cost less than $15 even though they tasted, at least to me, like they were worth well over $25.

As Platt spoke to the group about the wines we were tasting, she also relayed tips that she and her staff have picked up recently. It was, in essence, a small treasure trove of helpfulness for those of us looking for adventure and value in our wine choices.

And who wouldn’t want that? Here are a few of the gems she shared:

  1. Keep an eye out for pinot noir from Provence. Not a typical grape from not a typical place but, if the wine Platt chose to pour on Wednesday night was any indication, we’re in for some things good.
  2. Look for Barbera on a wine list, as it tends to be a lovely, exceptional wine at a great value.
  3. It’s okay to ask for your red wine to be chilled for a bit before it’s served, especially if the bottle has been stored behind a restaurant’s bar and especially if the bottle in question is meant to serve as a nice early-summer red.
  4. The reason you add milk to your tea is the same reason a fatty steak goes so well with a tannic red wine: the fat (from the milk and the steak) balances out the tannins (in the tea and the wine). That’s why it works.
  5. Platt and her staff like to play with expectations, like light-colored tannic reds and reds that show pretty fruit and earthiness but then switch it up with a hefty dose of tannins. Anyone in the shop can point you directly to some examples on their shelves.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Sister Noella and her cheese: “The Cheese Nun” in Cambridge

Post-film cheese tasting hosted by Ihsan Gurdal of Formaggio Kitchen and Food24FPS.

Cheese is one of the world’s most beloved foods whether you’re a celebrated French chef or a scruffy American kid on a picnic bench.

But even if you love cheese, you probably don’t detect which type of flowers a cow, sheep or goat consumes or the time of day the milk is produced when you eat it. To do so takes years of experience and focused attention.

Last week Food24fps (a film society dedicated to popularizing classic and arcane movies about food) hosted a screening of Pat Thompson’s 2001 documentary The Cheese Nun: Sister Noella’s Voyage of Discovery. The film was followed by a panel with guest speakers: Rachel Dutton, microbiologist from Harvard Medical School; Heather Paxson, food anthropologist from MIT; and Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge — one of Julia Child’s regular shopping destinations.

Thompson’s film begins in Bethlehem, CT, at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where we meet Sister Noella Marcellino. The Abbey is located on 400 acres and includes a non-commercial working farm. It is there that Sister Noella develops her skills as a cheese maker, and earns a Fulbright scholarship for a PhD in microbiology (the microbial ecology of cheese ripening) as she travels the French countryside.

We see Sister Noella go from collecting samples of microorganisms from ceilings of ancient cheese caves in the Auvergne to wearing a white lab coat over her habit while examining the tiny microbes in order to intimately understand how they work to flavor the cheese and preserve the milk solids.

Even though productivity and demand for artisanal cheeses have never been higher, the actual number of cheese farmers is greatly reduced. Traditional cheese making is done by hand with wooden paddles and barrels, but stainless steel is slowly replacing them. Temperature regulation has been traditionally done by setting the cheese caves in cellars or mountains, not through air conditioning.

Something more fundamental also is at stake: local food traditions and interest in where our food comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect our environment, health, and economy.

The film ends with Sister Noella assuming the role of guardian of traditional cheese making, a champion for biodiversity, and an inspiration for the growing number of artisanal cheesemakers here in the US. At the Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut, she and her sister alchemists create the raw-milk Bethlehem Cheese with, of course, a little help from their healthy, happy cows.

Most importantly, though, they do not make the cheese as a product to sell. Rather, they create it as sustenance for their own community — as a delicious, complex heritage and legacy.

Germaine Frechette is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog and part of the WGBH Membership team. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.