John JuergensWhat's for Dinner?

I have two things to discuss this week. What kind of wine to take to someone's house when you don't know what they will be serving, and a recipe for perfect lobster.

Let's say you have been invited to a friend's house for dinner and you would like to take them a little happy in the form of a bottle of wine. But you don't know what they will be serving, and you think it would be kind of tacky to call and ask. What do you do? There are several ways to approach this situation.

First, it depends on whether you want to take something to serve as a cocktail or to go with the meal itself. Then you need to think about how knowledgeable your hosts are, and next, how formal the dinner will be.

For a cocktail wine, a white is your safest choice. A rich Chardonnay from California or Australia will always work, as will a Sauvignon Blanc for a slightly more sophisticated group.

For dinner you want to take something that will be consistent with the tone of the meal. For example, if it is a cook out, you probably don't want to take a fine old bottle of French wine. In this case you would take a more "casual" wine such as something from California or Australia. A red Zinfandel, a Syrah, or Shiraz-Cabernet blend are always safe bets, and they can appeal to a wide range of palate experience. These wines are easy drinking and can stand up to most of the robust flavors of grilled meats.

On the other hand, if the dinner is going to be more upscale, you might want to invest in something in a higher price range, i.e. $15 - $20. It can be either red or white, and wines in this category tend to be more elegant and complex, with the exception of Merlot. For the same money you can buy a hell of a lot better wine than Merlot in a red Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Pinot Noir from any country.

Of course, it always helps to know what kind of wine your hosts enjoy. But let's say that you really don't know these folks all that well. In that case, just wing it and take something that you know you will like in the price range you want to buy. It is best to take a wine that you have already tried so that you don't get an embarrassing surprise if you don't like the wine.

The other very important consideration is whether you are taking the wine to be consumed that evening or as a gift they can open some other time. It is critical that you indicate your intentions for the wine.

If you take a wine that you are dying to taste yourself, don't wrap it up in fancy paper. This will suggest a gift to be opened later, and you will spend the evening kicking yourself while you fantasize about your wine. You can put a bow or other modest decoration on the bottle, but when you hand it to your host, tell them you brought a little something to go with the meal or as a cocktail wine. If it is a white wine, make sure it is already chilled.

If it is a gift, make it look like a gift and tell the host you brought them a little something to put in the cellar. If you give them a white wine, do not chill it. This way you spare your host the awkwardness in deciding what to do with the wine.

Don't worry if your wine turns out to be a terrible match for the main course, it can always fit in somewhere before or during the meal. And even if your host has a tanker full of Mondavi 1978 Reserve Cabernet pulled up to the back door, your bottle still will be appreciated.

Now, for those of you who like lobster and would like to learn how to cook it yourself, the time is right. This is the lobster harvest season and prices have dropped dramatically. It's incredibly easy to create a sensuous feast.

You will need a pot that holds a minimum of two gallons of water with enough room left over for expansion, and a lid for the pot. You can cook two lobsters at a time this way.

Heat the water to a full boil, and, as with boiling any kind of seafood, use a generous dosage of salt. I use about one-fourth cup to two gallons of water.

Grasp the lobster toward the back of the thorax, i.e. the hard shell just in front of the tail. With the lid in one hand and the lobster in the other, quickly slide the critter into the water head first and upside down, that is, with its underside facing up, and then quickly close the lid. This head first inverted position quickly stuns the animal and prevents it from using its tail to splash scalding water on you and maybe even leaping out of the pot, ala Woody Allen.

Hold the lid on the pot and don't be surprised if you feel the lobster bang against the lid a few times before it settles down. (Wouldn't you?) Also, there is absolutely no truth to the stories about lobsters screaming as they are boiling. They don't have vocal chords. I have cooked over a hundred lobsters and have never heard anything like a scream. After about thirty seconds, you can repeat the process with the second lobster.

Cooking time is critical and there is a foolproof way to get it right. As a rule of thumb, boil a one and a half pound lobster for 12 minutes; adjust this up or down depending on the size.

At the end of the approximated cooking time, pull out the lobster out by the tail, drain the excess water for a few seconds, and place it upside down on a plate. Insert a meat thermometer directly through its mouth and into the body cavity, making certain it does not touch any part of the shell. The lobster is cooked perfectly when the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees. If the temperature has not reached that level, put the lobster back into the water for another 3 minutes or so. Recheck the temperature and repeat the procedure until you get there.

After they are cooked, drain as much water as you can from the lobsters and allow them to "rest" for a few minutes before you dig in. Some people like to do all sorts of fancy things with their lobsters after they are boiled, such as pulling off the tails and putting them under the broiler, dressing them up in cute little outfits, and so forth. But I like mine straight up on the plate, and I think part of the fun is to engage in a wrestling match with my catch. It's amazing how much fight these sea armadillos have left in them even after they are dead.

Of course, it wouldn't be lobster without the hot melted butter running down your arms and chin. As for the wine, you can go with the tried and true, and clichéd, dry white wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, but if you really want to be adventurous and add an entirely different dimension to your lobster feast, go for a red Zinfandel. The fruit flavors match up perfectly with the sweetness of the lobster and the butter flavors. Add whatever vegetable you like to make your conscience feel better about all the fat, calories, and cholesterol. This is a truly Platonic dish as far as I'm concerned.

My wine picks of the week are a new line of wines in town called Guglielmo (Gool-YELL-mo) from California. They have a nice fruity Chardonnay with a touch of butteriness and almost no oak; a nicely balanced, rich Cabernet Sauvignon that is a winner with tomato based sauces; and a very delicate Merlot that has some interesting fruit flavors that can be overwhelmed by even the mildest of cheeses; but, it still makes a good cocktail wine. And the best part is they each sell for about $10. Cheers!

Oct. 30, 2000

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