Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

The Tournament of Rosés

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Dan, our gracious co-host (pictured at far right below), laid out the ground rules simply in his email:

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Bring a favorite bottle of rosé to share. Heck, feel free to bring more than a bottle if you’re the magnanimous sort. We love diversity, so no bring no more than one bottle of any one rosé, unless of course it’s Tempier or Valentini. Note-taking, reviewing or rating of the wines is heartily discouraged, and anyone overtly pimping bottles they don’t make themselves will be asked to leave (but we’re happy to send a note to your boss telling them that you did an admirable job representing the brand).

For eleventeen years or so, Dan has co-hosted a pagan summer event dedicated to the celebration of that most summer-y of beverages, rosé wines. The Tournament started on the deck outside his second-storey Malibu townhome with just a dozen or two people, and has grown geometrically in the years since, relocating to his friend Françoise’s back yard in Santa Monica. At first, it seemed something of a quirky kind of wine to revere. Much like the Jews, rosés wandered for years in the wilderness, having been given a bad name in America by the likes of Mateus and Lancers and (more recently) Sutter Home White Zinfandel. In fact, that one wildly popular White Zin was so poorly received by the cognoscenti that — despite being an economic juggernaut — it nearly tanked the reputation of the Zinfandel grape, and red Zinfandel (or just Zinfandel) is as far from white Zinfandel as red pepper is from white pepper. [That said, my pal Van Williamson makes a delightful rosé of Zinfandel (he calls it Rosato), so it is possible to make a “white Zin” that’s palatable.]

“So what,” I hear you ask, “is the key takeaway here? After all, I wasn’t invited to the party, and even if I had been, I missed it.”

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First of all: Don’t be afraid of rosés! They’re the perfect anti-wine-snob wines, mostly inexpensive, and the obvious bridge between people who claim not to like red wines and people who maintain they’re not interested in whites. They go great with food, from grilled meats to seafood to veggies. They’re widely available; most major grocery stores usually have one or two really tasty ones for under $20 (unless you happen to live in one of those unfortunate states where the liquor sales are controlled by the government, and even the state stores in places such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire frequently carry an acceptable selection). If your local wine store clerk gives you attitude over your selection, give him — trust me, if it happens, it will always be a him — a clout upside his snooty pate and proceed proudly to the checkout counter. After all, the French, who know a thing or two about wine, consumed an average of 11.8 liters per capita in 2010.

One of several well-stocked coolers at the 2013 Tournament.

One of several well-stocked coolers at the 2013 Tournament.

Twenty years ago, red wines constituted 73.4% of wines sales in supermarkets in France; in 2011 (the most recent year for which I could find figures), they had declined to 56%. Over that same period, rosé’s market share had grown from 13.1% to 27.3%. As per usual, we’re a little behind the curve, trend-wise, but experts in the American wine business are saying that rosé sales are expected to continue to rise here as well. Maybe Brangelina’s recent foray into rosé territory will jump-start the movement here; the first 500 cases of their Miraval rosé sold out in six hours.

A few of the 84 bottles that were consumed at the 2013 Tournament of Rosés.

A few of the 84 bottles that were consumed at the 2013 Tournament of Rosés.

In addition to being a great hang, parties such as this are a terrific way to get exposed to wines you otherwise might never know about. And clearly, having friends who are in the wine business (and who have outstanding cellars) are a positive boon such a gathering. But even without that, getting friends together to share and compare can be both entertaining and educational. [It’s real easy to forget about the educational part after the first few glasses, so I just take pictures of bottles I like.]

A picture of bottles I liked.

A picture of bottles I liked.

I don’t recall who first introduced me to the two-point wine scale, but it’s served me well: ultimately, it’s either “yum” or “yuck.” While far from being an expert, I’ve spent a fair amount of time tasting, reading, and making notes about wine myself, so the last thing I would want to do is disparage others who analyze wine the way people of a certain age used to pore over the cover of Abbey Road for clues that Paul was dead. But the final question for me always boils down to whether or not I would want to consume some particular wine again, ratings be damned. And today, I was richly rewarded.

Rosés, much like roses, come in many colours.

Rosés, much like roses, come in many colours.

Here are a few faves (in no special order) that are widely available, all under $20 and many a good deal less:
2012 Charles and Charles, Columbia Valley, WA
2012 Caves d’Esclans ‘Whispering Angel’ Rosé, Côtes de Provence, FR
2012 Domaine de Triennes Rosé, Vin de Pays du Var, FR
2012 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Rosado, SP
2010 Château Bonnet Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, FR
2010 Falesco Vitiano Rosato, Umbria, IT
2012 Château de Campuget Costières de Nîmes Tradition de Campuget Rosé, FR
2012 Ameztoi “Rubentis” Rosado Getariako Txakolina, SP
2012 Château de Lancyre Rosé, Pic Saint Loup, FR
2012 Chateau de Lascaux Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc, FR
2012 Domaine M. Chapoutier Belleruche Rosé, Côtes-du-Rhône, FR

And here are a couple that you probably won’t ever get to taste, and which I will likely never taste again, thanks to the generosity of one of our wine collecting friends, who pulled a couple of special bottles for the Tournament.

From our pal John's cellar. Magnificent.

From our pal John’s cellar. Magnificent.