Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Scenes From Napa: Day 1

My husband and I spent the last few days in Napa Valley eating and drinking as if we were preparing our bodies for hibernation. Over a whirlwind three-day trip we sampled wines from twelve properties, visiting smaller wineries as well as several of the more renowned estates.

Our first day began at noon overlooking the manicured grounds of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. We followed the 2005 Insignia, the last of 7 wines poured during the “Terrace Tasting”, by drinking 3 estate bottled wines in Grgich Hills’ Estate Wine Library, then moved onto a “Harvey Tasting” featuring 7 wines known as Salon Selections in the Salon Room at Swanson Vineyards, and finished with an impromptu, complimentary 6 glass tasting in Jessup Cellars’ Yountville Tasting Room.

Looking out from the terrace at Joseph Phelps Vineyards

Last month Wine Spectator awarded 93 points to Joseph Phelps Vineyards' 2007 Sauvignon Blanc

Grgich Hills Estate

My favorite at Grgich Hills- the 2004 Yountville Selection

A complimentary cheese plate and wine tasting at Jessup Cellars' Yountville Tasting Room

A rosé from Jessup Cellars

While each of the wineries we visited during the course of the afternoon provided a unique experience, Swanson Vineyards emerged as a clear standout. The Swanson family (the same pioneering family that introduced frozen dinners in the 1950s) began producing merlot in the 1980s. The family’s vineyards, complete with a whimsical circus tent for small events, currently produce a number of varietals in addition to merlot. The 90 minute “Harvey Tasting” took place around a beautifully decorated table in the family’s colorful Salon Room. Swanson's 2008 rosato, 2007 chardonnay, 2005 merlot, 2005 sangiovese, 2005 Alexis (the vineyard’s signature wine, named after the proprietor’s daughter), 2005 Arsene, and les trois filles (a dessert wine) were perfectly paired with caviar (showcasing the family’s playful side the caviar sat atop a crunchy potato chip and crème fraîche), artisanal cheeses from Italy, France and California, and an Alexis wine infused bonbon made exclusively for Swanson Vineyards by Vosges Haut Chocolat of Chicago.

The table setting for Swanson Vineyard's "Harvey Tasting"

Menu for the June 27, 2009 1:30pm "Harvey Tasting"

Cheeses included a mimolette vieux from France, a grana padano from Italy, and a bermuda triangle from California

The 2007 chardonnay paired with a Yukon Gold potato chip, crème fraîche from Vermont, and wild American caviar from Mississippi

Pouring the 2005 merlot

Friday, June 26, 2009

California Crisps

When I travel, I can't leave home until I have two things securely packed within easy reach: (1) a book that can hold my attention for an extended period of time; and (2) plenty of snacks. This weekend my husband and I are California-bound. Our scheduled flight time from New York to San Francisco is a very long 6 hours and 49 minutes, followed by a 2 hour drive to Napa Valley. Given the duration of our travel time, and the fact that I plan to consume copious amounts of wine from arrival through departure, I decided to pack something a bit more substantial than my usual airplane snacks (in my opinion different modes of transportation require different snack planning). In addition to one medium sized bag of m&m's, one sandwich sized baggie filled with roasted and salted almonds, and one pack of Trident strawberry-lime flavored gum (my staple snack-trio for flights 3 hours or less), I packed a batch of hearty, nutritious crackers I made using whole grain spelt flour, toasted wheat germ, a generous amount of sunflower kernels, and dried cranberries for a touch of sweetness. My recipe for "California Crisps" is below. Note- baking time is dependent upon desired thickness and shape.

California Crisps (Yield, approx. 16 14in.x1in. crackers)
1 cup whole grain spelt flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1/2 cup roasted and salted sunflower kernels
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup warm water
1. Whisk together flours, wheat germ, dried cranberries, sunflower kernels and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook attached.
2. Add extra virgin olive oil and warm water. Mix on medium speed for approximately 5 minutes.
3. Remove dough ball to a separate bowl and allow to rest, covered, for 30 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat oven to 450 degrees.
4. On a floured surface, roll dough into a thin layer and cut individual crackers into desired shape.
5. Using a fork poke small holes in each cracker.
6. Bake on a lightly floured cookie sheet for approximately 15 minutes (or until crispy brown).
7. Allow crackers to cool on a cooling rack.

Dough, before covering to rest

Rolled out dough

Individual crackers cut 14in.x1in., ready to bake

After baking, cooling on a wire rack

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wine Essentials: Part II

The second segment of the Institute of Culinary Education's six-part Wine Essentials course took us through the Burgundy region of France with a quick diversion to the Rheingau region of Germany. Richard Vayda, the course's charismatic instructor, began with the class with a history of Burgundy, followed by a lesson on quality as it relates to cost and labelling, moved onto French regulations, and finished with a discussion of the eight wines and one distillate we tasted throughout the two-hour session*.

Burgundy is a region of France surrounded by hills housing a patchwork of vineyards with multiple owners. This fragmented system was founded by monks many years ago and was ultimately reapportioned to members of the middle class following the French Revolution. The three varieties of wine produced in Burgundy are chardonnay, gamay, and pinot noir. The more specific information included on a bottle's label, the better the quality and the higher the price. For example, if we moved back to the United States and came across a wine with little more than "American Pinot Noir" written on it's label (although it's more likely to be found in a box as opposed to a bottle), we would know that this particular wine isn't the best quality nor should it drain our wallet. The highest quality and most expensive bottles of wine in the United States include on their label- the state (ex: California), the region or AVA (American Viticultural Area- wine growing regions based on geographic, climate, and soil characteristics; ex: Napa), the sub-AVA (ex: Stag's Leap District), the vineyard (ex: Stag's Leap Vineyards produces The Leap), and finally that it is "Estate Bottled".

As our class moved from the United States back to France, we learned there is no such thing as "European Pinot Noir". Wines are designated by country with the most basic bottle (more likely a jug) of wine including the name of the country (ex: Product of France). If a wine store is charging a premium for a bottle of wine from France, the bottle's label should include the following information- the region or AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlé- defined wine growing regions in France where strict regulations designate methods of growing and production standards, aging requirements, grape-variety, alcohol content, etc.; ex: Appellation Bourgogne Contrôlé), the sub-district (ex: Côte de Nuits), the sub-sub-district (ex: Vosne Romanee), the vineyard (ex: Richebourg), and finally who is making the particular wine on that specific vineyard (the history lesson comes in handy here- remember many of Burgundy's vineyards are owned by multiple families; ex: Gros Frères et Soeur Winery). When the wine bottle is in front of me and there is someone telling me what to look for it all seems easy enough, but I know I will need time to get used to the missing grape- how will I know a gamay (red wine from the Maconnais district or from any area in Burgundy south of the Maconnais district) from a pinot noir (red wine from any other district in Burgundy) if I'm not schooled on the geography of the Burgundy region? It's a disaster waiting to happen!

I found the majority of wines we sampled to be delicious (I can't say the same for the distillate), and while I was able to identify hints of specific berries and oak in the pinot noirs or gamays, I can't say I had as much success with the chardonnays. When the finish of a chardonnay from a top vineyard (a "grand cru") in the Chablis district was described as water running over fresh stones I felt completely hopeless as I've never stood in a running stream to suck water off a fresh stone. I'm not entirely certain how one goes about finding a fresh stone (what does an unfresh stone look like?), but I will be sure to be on the lookout before next week's session when we move through France and settle in Bourdeaux.

*Wines (and one distillate) in the second class included:
1. Macon Lugny, 'Les Charmes', Cave de Lugny 2007 ($14.00);
2. Saint Romain, Maison Bertrand Ambroise 2005 ($25.00);
3. Chablis, Grand Cru, Blanchot, Domaine Vocoret et Fils 2005 ($45.00);
4. Meursault, Premier Cru, Les Perrieres, Louis Jardot 2006 ($75.00);
5. Fleurie, Georges DeBoeuf 2007 ($14.00);
6. Bourgogne, Pinot Noir, 'Maximum', Laboure Roi 2006 ($18.00);
7. Beaune, Premier Cru, Clos des Mouches, Joseph Drouhin 2006 ($80.00);
8. Rheingau, Pinot Noir, Spatburgunder, Georg Breuer 2005 ($25.00); and
9. Bourgogne, Marc Tres Vieux de Bourgogne des Dames Huguette, Joseph Cartron, NV ($25.00).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Salad

For as long as I can remember my father was the guy who demanded an extra squirt of whipped cream on his calorie heavy stack of syrup and butter covered pancakes. Rich desserts weren't an option in our household; they were a staple food group. Needless to say, my father was never the most fit man in our neighborhood. He has recently changed his attitude about his health and in doing so has lost 50 pounds (and counting…). The guy who would, without a second thought, pick the largest, heart-attack inducing item on the menu now exercises daily and eats healthy foods in moderation. Anyone who has ever attempted to lose weight knows that shedding 50 pounds is no small feat, and I couldn't be happier to see his smile grow with each pound he leaves behind. I put this earthy, flavorful recipe together for him. HAPPY FATHER'S DAY!

Pearl Barley and Veggie Salad (Yield, approx. 16 cups)
2 cups uncooked pearl barley
16 oz bag frozen shelled edamame
12 oz bag frozen supersweet corn
2 cups sweet grape tomatoes, quartered
2 tbsp mint, chopped
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Prepare pearl barley, shelled edamame and supersweet corn as directed. Drain and combine with quartered sweet grape tomatoes and chopped mint.
2. Add fresh squeezed lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, tossing to coat all ingredients.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Enjoy warm or refrigerate for a cold salad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wine Essentials

Outside of my personal likes (drinking Cabernet Sauvignon from California is like devouring sweet, addictive candy) and dislikes (drinking Port is like trying to stomach a thick alcohol infused raisin-flavored syrup), I don't know much when it comes to tasting wine. Because of this, and a fast approaching trip to Napa Valley, I decided to enroll in the Wine Essentials course offered by the Institute of Culinary Education (www.iceculinary.com). The six week course is taught by Richard Vayda, a man with a funny, welcoming personality and a laundry list of credentials.

In the first two-hour session we discussed the history of wine, the basics of wine production, and finished by tasting and comparing eight varieties from France, Georgia (a region vastly different than the peach producing Georgia we know in the United States), Germany, Portugal, and South Africa*. We worked our way through each wine's appearance (clarity, color, and opacity), smell/nose (off odors, aroma, bouquet), taste/feel (weight, flavor, finish), and ended by suggesting appropriate food pairings (apparently it is criminal to serve a fruity white wine with a juicy steak). Reminiscent of a game of follow-the-leader, I realized it is substantially easier to distinguish a specific taste or smell in a certain glass of wine when someone first suggests what he or she tastes and smells.

As a wine tasting novice having just dissected eight glasses of wine, I walked out of the first of six classes with one certainty- my palate has a long road to travel before it can help me identify a hint of cooked lemon in champagne, or a tinge of pink grapefruit in a young sauvignon blanc. I am doubtful it will happen over the course of the remaining five sessions- but I am happy to try and to sample some delicious wines along the way!

* Wines in the first session included:
1. Pouilly Fume, Ladoucette 2006 ($35);
2. Constantia, Sauvignon Blanc, Buitenverwachting 2008 ($20);
3. Alsace, Pinot Gris, 'Reserve Personnelle', Trimbach 2001 ($35);
4. Mosel Saar Ruwer, Riesling Kabinett, Bernkasteler Badstube, Dr. H. Thanisch 2007 ($25);
5. Mukuzani (Georgia), Saperavi, Teliana Valley 2006 ($30);
6. Champagne, Brut, 'La Francaise', Taittinger NV ($45);
7. Champagne, Brut, 'Special Cuvee', Bollinger NV ($50); and
8. Porto, Tawny, 20 Year Old, Taylor Fladgate ($45).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Big Apple Barbecue

The seventh annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party is currently underway in Manhattan's Madison Square Park. Proceeds from the event, billed as a weekend long "celebration of mouthwatering barbecue, sizzling live music, 'cue seminars and more," are earmarked for the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

With coveted fast passes hung securely around our necks, my husband and I set out for the Block Party in the early afternoon. In past years producing a fast pass saved its owner from starvation by granting him or her access to food without having to suffer through one of the worst aspects of any public event- the waiting. Compared to previous years, it seems the sponsors of this year's Block Party have sold an overabundance of fast passes. We entered the area reserved for fast pass holders, immediately noticed hordes of hungry New Yorkers, and resigned ourselves to the unavoidable wait in extremely long lines. The strong sweet, smokey smells gave us strength to persevere.

Upon hearing Driftwood, Texas' The Salt Lick BBQ and Fairfield, Connecticut's Wilson's Barbeque had run out of food, we decided to start at the northwest edge of Madison Square Park. We fought our way through the growing crowd to Raleigh, North Carolina's The Pit where we spotted Bon Appetit magazine's restaurant editor and frequent Iron Chef America judge, Andrew Knowlton, laughing with legendary Pitmaster Ed Mitchell. The Pit's whole hog sandwich, seasoned with the Pitmaster's special blend of spices, and accompanying coleslaw were worth the wait.

Disappointed at The Salt Lick BBQ's empty tables

Pitmaster Ed Wilson handing out scraps from the Wilson's Barbeque table

Andrew Knowlton and Pitmaster Ed Mitchell

The Pit's whole hog sandwich with coleslaw

Still hungry after our first taste of pork, we deviated from our initial plan of attack and decided to look for the smallest line. Our new path brought us to Charleston, South Carolina's Blackjack BBQ for pulled pork shoulder sandwiches and more coleslaw. Luck must have been on our side, because I can't think of one reason Blackjack BBQ's line would have been shorter than the others- the meat was hot and had a fresh taste rounded out with a hint of vinegar.

Blackjack BBQ

Chopping pork shoulder at Blackjack BBQ

Blackjack BBQ's pulled pork shoulder sandwich with coleslaw

Our bodies close to shutting down from sandwich overload, we decided to sample the St. Louis ribs and baked beans made by Pitmaster Skip Steele of St. Louis, Missouri's Pappy's Smokehouse. We topped the ribs with Pappy's Original BBQ Sauce- a concoction so flavorful I briefly envisioned myself drinking a bottle in the solitude of my apartment.

Pappy's Smokehouse's billboard

Pappy's Original BBQ Sauce

Pappy's Smokehouse's St. Louis ribs and baked beans

Just as our pork intake hit an all-time high, the mist we did a fantastic job ignoring all afternoon turned into a steady rain. We made a dash for the Beer Garden to meet our friends and sample a few cold beers under the cover of Madison Square Park's tall trees. Sipping a refreshing $6.00 beer is, in my opinion, a nice finish to a gluttonous pork-filled day.

Beer Garden, crowded with umbrellas

Watching the live band, Lucero, under tree coverage

Cold, refreshing beer to end the day

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Granola Mania

When it comes to snacking, granola is at the top of my list. If I'm running errands I put a snack size portion in a zip-lock baggie and take it on the go. I make my own extremely simple version as the typical store bought granola is loaded with sugar and usually overpriced. The beauty of making your own is that you can tailor the ingredients to your liking. Below is my go-to recipe. If you want a specific nut, include it. If you don't like my choice of dried fruits, choose your own favorites.

Granola (yeild, approx. 6 cups)
2 cups old fashioned oats (not quick cooking or instant)
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup roasted and salted almonds
1/2 cup roasted and salted cashews
1/2 cup roasted and salted sunflower kernels
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raw blue agave nectar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt (the nuts are salted so you don't have to include salt if you don't want the extra saltiness)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup carob chips
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Coarsley chop nuts and dried fruits.
3. In a bowl, combine all ingredients except carob chips.
4. Spread contents of the bowl on a sheet pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes/until brown, stirring occassionally. I try to get my granola as brown and crunchy as possible without burning.
5. Remove the sheet pan from the oven and allow the granola to cool. As the granola cools add the carob chips. If the granola is still warm, the carob chips will melt, further binding together clumps of deliciously crunchy granola.


Dried fruits

Granola before being baked and without carob chips

Monday, June 8, 2009

Playing With Food

Most children are bound to hear the words "don't play with your food" at least once in their lifetime. If I ever become a mother, or happen to come across a child playing with his or her food, that phrase will never escape my mouth. After being introduced to soybean crayons while spending time with my 11 month old niece and 2 1/2 year old nephew, I plan to live out the rest of my life encouraging all children (and adults for that matter) to play with their food.

While attending Purdue University in 1994, Don Rote, Jocelyn Wong, and Thomas Chang entered their inventive soybean crayons in a Soybean Innovation contest founded by two of Purdue's professors. Working as a team, the three students developed the crayons using all-natural, biodegradable soybean oil. Up until that point most crayons were made with paraffin, a toxic derivative of petroleum oil. The innovative soybean crayons caused such a buzz that Dixon Ticonderoga Company, a manufacturer and marketer of writing instruments and art supplies, bought the rights to produce them and ultimately introduced them to the U.S. market three years later in 1997 (yes, it is 2009- so it only took me 12 years to notice). Soybean crayons are brighter and less toxic (the taste may be unappetizing, but they can literally be eaten with no ill-effects) than their paraffin based counterparts, and they are completely biodegradable. If two Purdue University professors had not encouraged students to experiment with food, children all across the U.S. may be filling coloring books, and quite possibly their mouths, with dull colors made from toxic crayons.

*In addition to the aforementioned soybean crayons, past winners of Purdue University's Soybean Innovation contest include soy-based lip balm, biodegradable ski wax, soy candles, economical hydraulic fuel and cereal.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

150 Cakes And Counting

Although they were born years apart, three of my immediate family members celebrate their birthdays during the same week in June. This year my sister turned 32, my mother turned 60, and my father will turn 59 (HAPPY BIRTHDAY MICHELLE, MOM & DAD!). Each successive year the multiple food filled festivities cause my wallet to get a little lighter and my body to get a little heavier, but I always look forward to the special week when I have the opportunity to feast on three different cakes without anyone giving it a second thought (I was born with an insatiable sweet-tooth).

Collectively, there have been 150 birthdays between the three of them (151 in a few days), and through the years we've eaten a few awful birthday cakes and several delicious birthday cakes. Far from a cake expert, I can say with certainty that I have learned the two main indicators of a well received cake:
(1)the obvious- an empty cake box; and
(2)waking the following morning with cake on the brain, ready to forego a nutritious breakfast for a chance to dig into the leftovers.

This year, on the morning after my mother's 60th birthday (I spent the night at my parent's house in Buffalo), I woke to find her hovering over the remnants of the amazingly decadent birthday cake we tried to polish off the night before, fork in hand, looking like a deer in headlights. This particular cake had been so heavenly that I couldn't help but join her. The Dessert Deli's Chocolate Extreme cake (chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse filling lays between rich chocolate cake that is topped with chocolate buttercream and chocolate ganache icing) was gone shortly thereafter.

Birthday leftovers

My mother, feasting on birthday cake for breakfast

The Dessert Deli
716 Maple Road
Williamsville, New York
716 689-2115

Monday, June 1, 2009

Edible 007

Today marks the beginning of England's first ever National Ice Cream Week (June 1 - June 7). To kick off the celebrations, Del Monte Superfruit Smoothies released limited edition "license to chill" popsicles in blueberry, pomegranate and cranberry flavors. The purple hued popsicles are an edible replica of Daniel Craig's torso, complete with enviable six-pack, as he gracefully emerged from the clear blue ocean waters in 2006's Casino Royale. 007's short blue swim trunks and ripped physique make the scene hard to forget. The idea for the frozen treat came to fruition when representatives from Del Monte Superfruit Smoothies surveyed one thousand British women to determine which celebrity they would most like to see immortalized on the end of a stick.

Although it's almost too pretty to eat, I imagine many American women would also weather a case of brain freeze to taste a little piece of 007.

Daniel Craig as an edible frozen treat

Daniel Craig as James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale