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Valentine’s Day Experiences

March 1, 2019 2 comments

Valentine's Day RosesCooking is the ultimate expression of love. This is always true, but even more though on Valentine’s Day, as the whole holiday is all about love – the holiday which exists since about the 5th century – it is really fun to celebrate something so deeply rooted in history.

Our personal love story was simple – yet, probably, equally uncommon – the love at first sight. It took three days since the moment we saw each other for the first time until everything was decided. So you can imagine that Valentine’s Day was always an important holiday for us. At first, we tried to follow to common path, working hard to score coveted restaurant reservation – until the dinner at one of the most expensive, and supposedly, best Italian restaurants in Connecticut, which we left asking each other “what was that???”. That was the end of our “eating out” Valentine’s Day celebrations, and the beginning of the “eat in” tradition.

One of the advantages of “eat in” celebrations is a much better wine program. You don’t need to desperately comb through the pages of the wine list, finding that you can’t afford any of the wines by the bottle you want to drink, and common sense preventing you from getting any of the wines by the glass which can be classified as a “seemingly affordable rip off”. Instead, you can spend hours combing through your own wine shelves, looking for the bottles which you will deem worthy of a special celebration –  and which will also work with the menu you have in mind.

Valentiens Day wines

Martinelli Syrah which you see in the picture was a backup wine in case anything will be wrong with the Pinot. Now it is back in the cellar, waiting for its turn.

Last year’s celebration was about steak and Cab – obviously, I couldn’t repeat myself, so the search was on to find an appropriate protein replacement. Somehow that resulted in the duck breast – and what wine does the duck breast call for? Of course, the Pinot Noir!

Before we talk Pinot we need to talk bubbles. Bubbles don’t have to exclusively narrow down to Champagne. Champagne is a wonderful sparkling wine, perfectly appropriate for any celebration – but the world of wine moved up tremendously over the past 15-20 years. I don’t have any stats to prove this objectively, but I have a feeling in the USA at least a third of all wineries if not half of them produce sparkling wine – if not for the wide distribution, then at least for the wine clubs and tasting room visitors.

I also have to say that ever since I visited the Franciacorta region in Lombardy, Italy, Franciacorta sparkling wines became my go-to choice of bubbles for any special celebrations. In my mind, Franciacorta wines are very consistent, and today, as they honed their production methods to perfection, this translates into the “you can’t go wrong with” Franciacorta wines in general. La Valle was one of my top highlights of that Franciacorta trip and the La Valle Rosé really hit the cord then – and it continues to do now. This 2011 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta was superb – fine mousse, delicious strawberries on the nose with the hint of the toasted bread, and more strawberries on the palate – a perfect opener for our evening.

Now, the Pinot time. Similar to the bubbles, Pinot Noir also enjoys quite a universal appeal around the world nowadays. There some regions, however, which do a better job than the others – and California Russain River Valley is definitely one of them. I tried 2007 Charles Mara Pinot Noir for the first time back in 2010. It was silky smooth and powerful at the same time. I was so impressed with this wine that it became the top wine of the inaugural Talk-a-Vino Top Dozen Wines list. I still had a bottle of 2007, and I decided that it would be a perfect choice for our Valentine’s Day dinner – and the wine didn’t disappoint. Now, 9 years later, this 2007 Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley became even more round and less “in your face”. Characteristic California Pinot plums and smoke on the nose, succulent dark fruit on the palate with a hint of violets, perfect acidity, perfect balance, lots and lots of pleasure. And it also worked perfectly with the duck.

Let’s talk about the duck. I had it a number of times before, either made by friends or at the restaurant – but duck is rarely my go-to dish. The form of duck I cooked before was either duck legs as part of the Cassoulet or the whole duck as part of the Turducken. I never attempted cooking the duck breast before, so obviously was concerned with the outcome. After studying a number of recipes, I was concerned even more, as a number of commentators complained about rendering duck inedible even after repeated attempts, so I was really not sure about my own success.

I don’t know if it was a quality of the ingredient, Moulard Duck Magret, which I got at our local Fairway Market, or the cast iron pan, a combination of the above, or the beginner’s luck, but the duck breast came out perfectly. I also made a Port (you saw it in the picture above) and berries reduction, which elevated the nicely gamey taste of the duck breast and was a bridge to connect it all to Mara Pinot Noir – all in all, a delicious dinner. Nevermind the paper plate in the picture – everything in life has a story, but this is not the story for this blog post.

There you go, my friends – not a timely share, but still an experience worth sharing. If you still remember, I’m curious to know how was your Valentine’s Day dinner. Cheers!

 

 

Holiday Gift Guide 2018 – Your Shopping Stops Here

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Source: Unsplash.com

Yes, it is that time of the year again. The word “Holidays” is the one you hear the most. Holidays are great – it is the time to celebrate family, friends, life. But – of course, there is a “but” for everything – often, the holidays are not just festive, they can also be stressful and frustrating. No, I’m not necessarily talking about all the extra pounds and the desire to break the scales into the thousand little pieces. I’m mostly talking about the gifts.

We always want to see our family, friends, and colleagues happy – but in the holidays season, we especially want to express our gratitude and appreciation with the gifts. And this is when frustration settles in. We want the gifts to be meaningful and want to see the smile of delight on the faces of the recipients – but finding the right gift might be a mission impossible.

I can’t help you solve this, once and for all. However, if you are reading this post (are you?), there is a chance that you and the people you want to please might be interested in wine. In this case, I might be able to help. Of course, I don’t know your friends. But – all I want to do is to give you some ideas. Once you are armed with the idea, I’m sure you can do the rest – and I will be happy that you will be happy. Well, ohh, let move on.

Here are some suggestions which I hope will reduce the holiday stress for you. In the interest of the full disclosure, I have to tell you that I’m not compensated in any way to give you these recommendations. These recommendations are based on my personal experience, and if you got a wine and food lover in your life, you will find something here to please them. Heck, I would be absolutely delighted with any of those gifts myself – but this, of course, is not about me. Here we go:

Jordan Vineyard and Winery Holiday Gift Guide: While Jordan Winery makes only two wines in Sonoma Valley – Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, they make them very well. Jordan Gift Guide goes beyond the wine – it also offers gourmet foods, such as American sturgeon caviar and Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Wrapped with the beautiful packaging, Jordan Winery gifts are guaranteed to evoke a huge smile from your gift recipients.

Knudsen Vineyards Gift Sets: Here is another winery which makes only two wines, now in Oregon – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – but their wines are definitely gift-worthy. I discovered their wines last year, and if you got a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir aficionado you want to please, Knudsen Vineyards wines are up for the task.

Gloria Ferrer Gift Collections: Bubbles and holidays – need I say more? Gloria Ferrer is one of my most favorite sparkling wine producers in California. Classically structured in Champagne style, but with the addition of California’s generous fruitiness, Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines will highlight any celebration. In addition to the beautifully packaged wines, you can find other gift options there – saber, wine glasses and more.

Source: Pexels.com

JUSTIN Winery Gifts: JUSTIN Winery is one of the very best producers in Paso Robles. Their range of Cabernet Sauvignon wines is superb and will make any oenophile happy. However, the gift options go way beyond just wine – coasters, candles, wine openers – there is something there for everyone.

Wente Vineyards Gifts: There is a good chance you never heard of Wente Vineyards before – or the Livermore Valley which it proudly represents. Meanwhile, it is one of the oldest wineries in California (established in 1883), but it is not just the history which is important here. Go ask your favorite California Chardonnay producer what type of Chardonnay grape clone they use – and don’t be surprised to hear “Wente clone”. You will find many delicious gift options available from Wente (don’t worry – their reds are excellent too) – go ahead, surprise the wine lovers on your list – they will thank you later.

Pat LaFrieda Gifts: Now, we can’t leave on the wine alone, can we? Sometimes, we crave meat. Discovery of Pat LaFrieda meats was one of the highlights of the year for me, proving that expensive meat can be still worth the money. You will find a range of gift options at Pat LaFrieda website, from gift cards to the amazing meat combinations. This is the meat which worth the money – take the word of the convert for this.

Kevin Zraly Wine Classes: Who thinks that the gift of wine education is the best gift of all, raise your hand! I honestly do. As someone who had a pleasure of going through the Windows on the World Wine School and listening to Kevin Zraly, I have to say – that experience was incredible. Anyone who wants to learn more about wines of the specific region or style will learn a great deal from the master – and taste an incredible array of wines which one can’t easily get an access to. I guarantee you – your gift recipients will tell that this was the best gift ever.

Here, I hope I made your life easier. No thanks is necessary, but feel free to add my name to your gifting registry at any time. Cheers!

 

 

Flavor, Next Level – Beyond Salt And Pepper

April 17, 2018 11 comments

I love cooking. Cooking allows you to be creative, and you are only limited by your own imagination in what will show up on the table in the end. That and maybe some skill – but skill, of course, can be learned and mastered.

While creativity, imagination, and skill are important, one quality will separate success and failure in the final dish – flavor. Of course, the situation is not that dramatic in real life – this is what “not too bad” and “interesting” descriptors are for, but the flavor rules. This for sure is true in the home cooking. If dish on the table looks great – excellent, definitely a bonus. The texture typically is important too – if the rice more resembles mashed potatoes, that is not really cool. But flavor rules – once we take the first bite, the presentation becomes secondary and the flavor is what we are looking for to either jump of joy and pleasure or make face and say “ouch” (don’t strangle that inner kid in you, let the reaction come out).

One of my favorite shows on the TV is “Beat Bobby Flay” on the Food Network. Bobby Flay, who is an Iron Chef and a well-known restaurateur, is challenged by some other, also well established and well-regarded chefs, to cook the dish of their choice, their own “signature dish”. The panel of three judges decides on who made a better dish in a blind taste test. Quite often, Bobby Flay wins even when he has to cook the dish he only tried once in his life and never cooked before – and sometimes even those which he never tried. What makes him the winner? When you listen to the judges explaining their decision, there is one most important word which you hear over and over again – flavor. The dish might not look anything like the classic version, and sometimes even not taste anything like the classic version, and nevertheless, the Flavor is the word you hear the most often, explaining the vote of A versus B.

If you see home cooking as a chore, this is probably not the post you want to continue reading. If, however, you are after the pleasure of both cooking and then eating the tasty food, let’s talk more about flavor. As a home cook, you have an arsenal of tools available to you to achieve the flavor – you start simply with herbs and spices, and then enlist the help of various techniques and methods – marinating, basting, slow cooking, pressure cooking and on, and on, and on. I personally like cooking with open fire, and thus grilling is definitely one of my preferred methods, especially when the weather is cooperating.

One of the things I like using to enhance the flavor of the food on the grill is a cedar plank. I would typically make salmon on the cedar plank so the salmon would have that delicious sweet smokey flavor. There is only one problem with this – I typically forget to pre-soak the plank at least for an hour – and unless the wood is soaked, it will burn in no time on its encounter with open flames.

It appears, that my problem (don’t tell me it is only my problem, and looking on a gorgeous piece of salmon you never had to hit yourself on a forehead saying “why I didn’t prepare the plank before”) had been solved! Here comes Beyond Salt and Pepper – a company which was founded (I’m very happy to give you full disclosure here) by my close friend Henry. We always shared our love for cooking with Henry, but Beyond Salt and Pepper takes that passion to the next level.

Pre-soaking of the plank is required before using it for cooking. I’m sure that when you think about soaking of the wood, you think water. But why only water? Wine is a liquid too, and wine is used in cooking, so maybe…? That’s right – we can use the wine, but not only the wine, also beer, rum, bourbon and any other type of alcohol – each one bringing its own unique flavor profile to the table – your table.

I visited my friend – and essentially, the headquarters of Beyond Salt and Pepper, located in the garage, as any self-respecting startup should – and we had a blast (a feast would be a better word).

First, I saw the process – the pre-cut planks of cedar – but not only cedar, Henry uses white oak too and says that imparts particularly nice flavor on the steaks – are soaked in the liquid of choice for days. Then the planks are getting into the machine where they are vacuum-sealed. Put on the label, pack, and voilà, ready for shipping.

And then there was cooking, lots of cooking. If you are still thinking planks are only for salmon, forget this notion as soon as possible. Unleash your imagination – you can make anything you want on the planks – and you can see the proof here in the pictures.

When cooking with the planks, there is a bit of technique which goes into the process – all explained in the recipes available on the Beyond Salt and Pepper web site. In most of the cases, you need to pre-heat the plank by putting in on a hot grill for 1 – 2 minutes on each side. And then you slightly pre-cook the food – for instance, sear steak on one side, and then flip it over on the plank and let it continue cooking as usual – that’s about all the special technique you need.

We had asparagus, artichokes and snap peas cooked on the Chardonnay-soaked planks – we couldn’t keep the snap peas on the table, everyone loved them. How about some little red wine infused smoke on the mushrooms and potatoes? Salmon and tiger shrimp on the Bourbon soaked planks? Yes, please! Chicken with some Merlot smoke on it – yum! Then the steak on the white oak and rum planks – superb. And then some cheese for dessert – but of course, made on the Chardonnay infused plank. Flavor, flavor, flavor – there are no limits to one’s creativity.

 

Here you are, my friends – a simple tool to add to your cooking tools arsenal, to get the flavor to the next level. If you are interested in trying these planks for yourself (and you should, seriously), you can get them directly from the website, or on Amazon (the website offers a bit wider selection). If you need some inspiration and cooking ideas, follow Beyond Salt and Pepper on Instagram. And by the way, while on the website, look for their selection of gourmet peanut butter… Mmmmm… Happy cooking!

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