Leftover wine is a certainty at Rob Stewart’s house. Not because he’s a wine educator with 1,500 bottles in his basement, but because he and his partner of almost 24 years, Lisa Chedister, are serial entertainers.
“We invite people over at least once a week. It’s pretty casual, though,” says Stewart.
“Why not? It’s expensive to go to a restaurant!” Chedister chimes in.
As you might imagine, that makes them a popular couple among their friends and Arlington neighbors, as does their open-yard policy on herbs. A shared talent for making things grow nurtures the cheerful, anarchic cottage garden that surrounds their snug 1938 Cape Cod. Edibles push their way into the poppies, Shasta daisies, sedum and ageratum. The 40-plus rosemary bushes, a 20-foot-high bay laurel and random pumpkin vines are all testament to Stewart’s composting. He trots a steady supply of food scraps out to the bins behind their garage.
Stewart is the cook in the house. Chedister bakes and washes the dishes. The division of labor is mirrored in their refrigerator compartments: The top freezer holds flours, cornmeals, rices and phyllo dough, while the bottom shelves are packed with farmers market bounty, mustards, yogurt, butter and bags of cut fruit. A second fridge downstairs (“you have to have two,” he says) contains Stewart’s signature poultry stock, cured ham from his native Southhampton County, Va., and opened wine bottles.
Reds and whites never go to waste here. Stewart uses them for deglazing saute pans, for enriching that tawny-colored stock, which is long-simmered using a full bottle of wine, water, roasted chicken or duck or pheasant bones, onion, carrot, star anise, cloves, parsley, thyme and bay leaves. (“If you’ve done it right, it’s like gelatin.”) Leftover wines go into marinades, become poaching liquids for fruit and are reduced in fruit syrups.
The key to storing wine efficiently is, of course, eliminating oxidation. Air will turn a wine into something you don’t want to drink, Stewart says, so don’t pop a half-empty bottle in the fridge at dinner’s end — or worse, leave a partial bottle of red wine out at room temperature for days.
Stewart finds that wine vacuum systems work fine, but only for about three days. For long-term storage, he marries enough dregs to fill a 750-milliliter bottle, or transfers any lesser amounts to a smaller one, never blending wines of different colors. To prove his point, he offers a small glass from the wine he’ll soon use to make a French-inspired dish of chicken breasts in a light sauce of wine, cream, scallions, sage and bits of Virginia ham.
“That’s a combination of sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot blanc and chardonnay,” he says. A tightly stoppered, filled bottle can last for six months. “I wouldn’t serve it. But as you can tell, it’s drinkable. It’s just like they say: Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink.”
He never freezes wine in ice cube trays, the most common advice bandied about. “I’d think unwanted aromas would get in there, anyway,” he says.
Stewart, 57, has worked with wines for almost three decades, including as a sommelier at the now-defunct Wintergarden restaurant at the Watergate Hoteland as a wine salesman in the Washington area. He began teaching about wines to people in the trade and found a growing interest among the public, and so broadened his business, the Sommelier Wine and Food Society, to three sets of nine-week courses a year and shorter sessions about specific geographic areas or types of wines. Discussion about pairing wine with food is a significant component of the curriculum and reflects his culinary passion. Chedister, a former restaurant manager, helps with the classes and caters related private events.
They share a kitchen so small that Stewart, 6-foot-3 and square-jawed, can stand in the middle of the room with outstretched arms and almost touch both walls. With much of the counter space covered by his collection of vinegars, Asian sauces and a massive wooden knife block, the cook preps on a cutting board placed over part of the original sink board.
“He can do his thing and I can do mine, but we’re pretty much back-to-back,” says Chedister, 55.
Stewart begins to think aloud as olive oil shimmers in a wide, hot pan on a recent Tuesday morning. His assessment, on surveying ingredients for a saute of okra and corn (with a splash of vermouth), snapper fillets to be paired with pink-fleshed, par-cooked potatoes (with vermouth) and a gratin of summer vegetables just out of the oven: “We’re going to have a lot of food. Mind if I call a few people?”
Sooner than you can say Savigny-les-Beaune La Dominode, a trio of his pals materializes. Steven Bongardt, a neighbor to the left, happens to be off for the day and has been a frequent recipient of Stewart-Chedister largess. “He makes it look so easy,” Bongardt says. “My wife and I could never make soft-shell crabs the way Rob does.”
Dan Eichers is the appreciative stay-at-home-dad and neighbor to their right: “My 4-year-old loves to help over here in the kitchen.”
Rich Hooker was between shifts as the head banquet bartender at the Hay-Adams downtown. He has known Stewart since their fraternity days at William and Mary circa 1973. “Guys back then had hot plates in their dorm rooms or ate in the school cafeteria or delis around town,” he says. “Rob found the frat house had a kitchen and invited friends. He made food that covered the plate — you know, guys like that. He made roast chicken and Rice-A-Roni and a vegetable.
“A dinner at Rob and Lisa’s is usually impromptu,” Hooker says. “It’s a great meal with great wine to match.”
To accommodate their usual parties of eight, Stewart and Chedister hit upon a strategy that owners of small houses turn to at the holidays. The dining room table is in the living room; a couch and chairs make the dining room space quite cozy. “In the winter, I like to cook in the fireplace,” so it seemed to make sense, he says. The permanent arrangement allows Stewart to talk with guests while he prepares the meal.
Over the years, the couple have developed a set of requirements for entertaining:
1. No leafy green salads. (“We fix salads for ourselves for lunch. We like to put more effort into a first course.”)
2. Nice flowers.
3. Low lighting or candles.
4. In summer, a cold first course (wax beans with feta and red onion vinaigrette; chilled pea soup).
5. A warm first course in spring, fall and winter (Taiwanese-packed snails with bits of ham; an onion tart).
6. A beautifully set table.
7. Bottled water.
8. The right mix of people; very important in the Washington area.
9. Something that can be made in advance, whether it’s the first course, main course or dessert.
10. A memorable dessert to finish.
Nos. 1 through 9, especially No. 8, are in play even at this last-minute gathering. Stewart’s dishes and paired wines are consumed amid pleasant conversation, historical musings and memories of a time when folks ate a more substantial meal in the middle of the day.
“And just think,” Hooker says. “All this magic takes place in a kitchen the size of a phone booth.”