Channeling Rachel Ray and sipping a 35-year old bottle of white bordeaux

Let’s just file that title under “things I never thought I’d do.”

“Much less in the same night.”

As usual, this tale needs some history. Let’s start with Rachel Ray.

She seems like a lovely, warm person, albeit a little perky for my jaded self. On the grand, far-reaching scale of talent that is Food Network, she falls somewhere in the lower third. Which means she shouldn’t be sharing a network with the likes of Mario Batali, Michael Symon and Bobby Flay; but she also should be above doing holiday specials alongside Sandra Lee.  Tim despises her — primarily recoiling at her incessant chipperness, her love of certain acronyms, and the way she ooh’s and aah’s the exact same way every single time she tastes her dishes at the end of 30-Minute Meals.

Page two. This has to do with the Wine Benefactor.

He decided to do a dinner. The theme this time was Orin Swift, a California winery started by Dave Phinney (that didn’t mean much to me either, but for the fact that I’d once before had two of the wines, and that was all I needed to know to send my enthusiastic positive RSVP). But as usual, there was a hint of something special to be opened at the end of the night. Something like some other things we’ve had before, only older. Older, like, bottled when I was three. Older, like, older than my husband.

So, when we accepted the invitation of The Benefactor, he sent me instructions for what I was to bring with me, to pair with one of the wines (specifically, Orin Swift’s Abstract red): fried mozzarella with spicy tomato sauce.

Um, come again?

Because not only have I never made fried mozzarella, but I’ve never even thought about fried mozzarella since about 1989 when I was in high school and we would order fried cheese sticks from the Ruby Tuesday‘s at the mall. But, knowing that there was really good wine to be paired with my offering, I set to work to find a recipe that to which I could add my own twist. This wouldn’t just be fried mozzarella, it would be The Best Fried Mozzarella Anyone Has Ever Had, Even Better Than Ruby Tuesday’s. Peoples lives would change because of this breaded, fried cheese.

Which gets us back to Rachel Ray. When you do a google search for fried mozzarella, hers is the first recipe to come up. Surprise, surprise.

I quickly scanned it sometime a week or so ago, noted that it used both fresh and smoked mozzarella, liked the use of fried herbs, and thought it worthy of an attempt. I could do a couple test-runs with it, figure out how to make it my own, and serve it up well-plated to the 16 folks sharing dinner with us. A plan, right?

But you know the rest of the story, since it’s the same one I’ve told hundreds of times. I got behind, forgot a few things (herbs? hello? the part I liked?), tried to do too much in one day, partied too late the night before (NYE) so slept in until 10:30 (thanks, Mom!), and on, and on, ad infinitum. To cut to the punchline, I was making the fried mozzarella for the first time on stage at the kitchen-island-stove of The Benefactor and His Manager, with lots of unknown eyes watching me sweat.

What I learned as I breaded and dropped half a dozen or so pieces of mozzarella into the oil was that, if the oil isn’t hot enough, the cheese simply melts into a blob, right there in the oil. So much for presentation. I had original visions of each plate showcasing one square piece of smoked mozzarella, one half-moon piece of fresh mozzarella, accessorized by a drizzle of spicy tomato sauce. In the end, sous chef Tim walked around with a pyrex roasting dish full of fried cheese blobs, dishing out those closest resembling something geometrical to kind guests, while I spooned lumpy tomato sauce over top. I would’ve been ashamed, but for the facts that 1) I could’ve seen it coming, and 2) the room was full of polite, hungry Mid-westerners, with glasses of really good wine in one hand. Much is forgiven in those scenarios.

The beautiful irony was that Blobby Mozzarella with Chunky, Sort-of Spicy Tomato Sauce is actually a really good pairing with Orin Swift’s Abstract Proprietary Red. Perhaps someone should inform the winery?


Let’s flip to the last page of the book, shall we? Or, we can skim: there was a lovely goat cheese salad, one of the best fillets of salmon I’ve ever eaten, a pinkish slice of beef with sautéed mushrooms, and a delicate dark chocolate cake with blueberry coulis, all served with their lovely liquid counterparts (personal highlights being Orin Swift’s Veladora and Abstract).

…and then our host brought out the star of the evening: a clear bottle full of amber liquid, wearing three layers of labels, the topmost reading “Christie’s Auction House” and the foundation “Chateau d’Yquem Lur-Saluces, 1975.”

Now, several of us in attendance that night have had the great privilege of drinking more than one glass of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes at the offering of The Benefactor. I personally was remembering my first: a 1994, thick with honey and apricots. Then we had a 1987, which surprised us all in its sweetness and relative lack of mustiness — followed in the same night by a newer (1991?) that tasted ironically older, with more story to tell.

The color alone of this 1975 bottle made it hard to watch it being opened. What I was beholding was the color of insect-bearing pieces of jewelry, and once we drank it that color would be gone. We were all sharing the one bottle, so each of us received a precious 2 ounces in our glass, and for many long minutes we just smelled it (Nathan had yet to take his first sip by the time I finished my glass — he obviously won the test of willpower for the night, and was lucky that I didn’t grab the nearest chef’s knife and coerce that long-sniffed glass right out of his patient, tightly-gripped hands).

I don’t think I’m a good wine writer, or even taster, so I’ll spare you meager, ill-fitting descriptors. But what I do know is that I might very well never taste anything like it again. It was so rich with tones, notes, textures and suggestions that it just seemed most of us didn’t even try to fit the experience into words. We just drank, relishing every drop, and when my glass was empty I was so saddened by the moment’s passing that I had to run and grab another bite of cake. I couldn’t take the lingering flavor, constantly reminding me what I was going to be missing for all time to come.

But after the flavor of a once-in-a-lifetime wine was washed away with chocolate, we still sat, nibbling and chatting. I looked around at piles of dirty dishes, leftovers, tired friends, and that empty bottle. Wondering at how the juxtaposition of that remarkable wine in our environment, while at first might seem ill-fitting, was in fact just right.

And in that moment, thinking about how you can start a night with Rachel Ray’s fried cheese blobs and end it with what I can best describe as eternal glory in a glass, I was thankful for friends, new and old, who could make that transition seem like not a thing at all.


Orin Swift Dinner
January 1, 2011

Goose the Market Tour (assortment of cheeses and charcuterie)
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, 1998

Goat Cheese Salad with Red Peppers and Balsamic Vinaigrette
Orin Swift Cellars “Veladora” Sauvignon Blanc, 2008

Fried Mozzarella with Spicy Tomato Sauce
Orin Swift Cellars “Abstract” Proprietary Red Blend, 2009

Cedar Plank Salmon
Orin Swift Cellars “The Prisoner” Zinfandel Blend, 2009

Spicy Barbecue Ribeye Steaks with “Bull City” Beef Rub
Orin Swift Cellars “Papillon” Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

Dark Chocolate Cake with Blueberry Coulis

Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, 1975