Sunday, March 7, 2010

Entertaining Is My Sport

In an Editor's Letter in Martha Stewart Living Magazine* Gael Towey declared that "entertaining is my sport." I loved that line! It got me to thinking about how entertaining and sports - in my case running - have a lot in common.

Training - I recently trained for a half marathon (and have just started training for another). Prior to running 13.1 miles, I did a number of training runs that got increasingly longer. They prepared me for the race physically and mentally - which, it turns out, are equally important. The same holds true for recipes. Try a recipe out before serving it to company. Not only will you be able to make sure the recipe actually works and do any tweaking, you will be less stressed about serving it because you have practiced. A calm host is happy host.

Equipment - running does not require much in the way of special equipment but there are a few must-haves such as professionally-fitted running shoes and (for women) a running bra. Equipment for entertaining can vary and each party will have its own set of requirements. Dinner parties need napkins for example. Think through what sort of party you are having and gather up your necessary equipment well in advance.

Nothing new on race day - any runner who has run a race has heard this advice. That means broken-in shoes, clothes you have run in before, pre-tested race snacks, etc. For entertaining I'd soften this advice to "very little new." And what's new should not be very important - for example, trying a new cheese as part of an hors d'oeuvre platter or trying a new vegetable side dish. Trying a new main dish is probably more stress than you need.

Pacing - pacing is huge in a race. If you go out too fast you risk burning out before the end. Pace is also really important for entertaining. A two hour cocktail hour is great for a cocktail party, not so great for a dinner party. Take some time before the party to think through what you are making and what needs to happen at the last minute for each dish. Consider logistics such as oven and stove space. Sketch out a timeline. Do as much in advance as possible.

Post race relaxation and recouping - I always take a few days (well, sometimes a week) off from running after a race. The same goes for entertaining. Make it a point to relax after your party and don't have another one too soon!

*I believe it appeared in the July, 2009 issue

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wine Tasting Tips

Living in California, I have had lots of opportunities to go wine tasting. When I first started going tasting we'd get in the car, drive to Napa, hit wineries randomly (easy to do along Highway 29), drink what was served to us and drink all of it. This was an OK experience, pretty fun but not very memorable. I don't think I learned much about wine or tasted anything terrific.

As I learned more about wine and later moved to Sonoma County, I began to focus my tastings a bit more (example - today we are just going to taste Pinot Noir) and even (gasp!) plan in advance where I wanted to taste and (gasp, again!) make an appointment or two.

Regardless of how you go about selecting your wineries and planning your tasting agenda (and there is no right or wrong way), here are some tips to make it more productive and enjoyable:

- Spit. Yes, spit. I used to never want to spit at a winery because the idea of spitting into a shared spittoon was - and still is - gross. Also, how do you spit without getting wine all over yourself? Enter the personal spit cup. It can be as simple as a disposable cup or as fancy as the Italian ceramic ones that we sometimes cart around (see photo above). With your personal spit cup you can spit into it and then just dump into the spittoon.

- Share a taste. Since you are spitting, volume matters less. You can save some money by sharing a taste with a companion or maybe spring for one taste of a higher level of wine.

- Eat food, drink water. If you are drinking wine, even if you are spitting, you need to eat food and drink water.

- Know your limit for the number of wineries you can do in one day. Even with shared tastes and spitting, I top out at about five wineries. At that point, I get palette fatigue.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My Top 10 List of Sonoma County Wineries

I am often asked for my list of must-visit wineries in Sonoma County. It's not that easy to put the list together. First, there are so many wineries. Second, not all wineries are open to the public. And third, everyone's priorities are different. Some people are OK with a lot of structure and don't mind making tasting appointments. Others want to be footloose and fancy free and want no appointments. And others might be looking to mix wine tasting with other things such as art collections, pretty gardens or a game of bocce ball. I have divided my top 10 Sonoma County winery list to address the three types of tasters. It's not an exhaustive winery list by any means, but it's a list I would give to any friend.

J Winery: make a reservation in the Bubble Room for the wine and food pairings. A bit pricey but worth it. You can also walk in and taste in the tasting room. Cool building and good art.
Matanzas Creek: Go there less for the wine, more for the lavender. In June it looks like the south of France. They sell lots of lavender products in the tasting room year round.
De La Montanya: You can buy a bottle of their wine and have a picnic and game of bocce ball in the pretty garden.

Need an appointment
Siduri: Siduri makes a range of wines and their tasting room is a warehouse! Not your typical 'winery' experience but well worth a visit.
Talty: Good zinfandel, family run winery where the owner is likely to do your wine tasting.
A. Rafanelli: Good zinfandel.

Don't need an appointment
Lynmar: Very good (but a bit expensive) pinot noir. Nice tasting room and nice patio for tasting outstide.
Bella: Bella's wine caves are neat and they make good zinfandel.
Seghesio: Good zinfandel, bocce is available there too.
Rochioli: Most of their high-end wines are sold to their mailing list only. However, they do have a tasting room so it's a good opportunity to try their wines. They may only have a few wines to taste, but the tasting room is pretty, especially when the roses are in bloom.

Next up, some tips for wine tasting!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Food Epiphany: Meyer Lemons

My favorite citrus of all is the Meyer lemon. A Meyer lemon is a cross between a lemon and an orange (possibly a mandarin). They are relatively thin-skinned, very fragrant and have a sweetness that almost seems to make the lemon lemonier.

I "discovered" Meyer lemons about eight years ago. The neighbor of one of my friends has a large tree that seems to have a bumper crop year round. My friend started sending a few lemons home with me whenever I would visit. Then I started seeking them out at the grocery store - hint, they are usually in the organic section and always fairly pricey. I even found them at Costco once. Then, I decided to grow them.

I now have two dwarf Meyer lemon trees in the back yard. They are in their third winter. I count the years by winter because my goal is to get them through the winter without frost damage. It's been cold this year so the trees are draped in a double layer of frost cloth. The trees were full of lemons when I put the frost cloth on in late November and I was very happy because it was a good crop. It was not time to harvest yet, so I left the lemons on the trees under the cloth. And there was a freeze. I lost about 60-70% of my crop. Live and learn.

I harvested the rest of the crop - regardless of ripeness. Now, I have Meyer lemon decor with bowls of lemons finishing their ripening process indoors (I don't think they will be as good, but no way was I going to throw them out!). As the lemons ripen I am enjoying Meyer lemon juice in water (as I write this), in salad dressings, on vegetables, etc.

In addition to fresh lemons, I always keep some Meyer olive oil on hand. I really like the one by O Olive Oil which is based in Sonoma County. It's a great addition to your pantry.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Midweek Wine Recommendations

Around our house we have something we call the the "midweek wine." It's different from a Friday night wine or a weekend wine. The primary attribute is that it needs to cost less than a weekend wine. BUT, and this is a biggie, it still needs to be a great tasting wine that pairs well with food because weekdays deserve good wine too!

Here are some wine pairings that work well with winter food such as soups, stews, meatloaf, pizza, etc. Most are about $20 - some are less!

Rosso di Montalcino: Rosso comes from the Tuscany region of Italy and is made from the Sangiovese grape. It can vary from being a lighter red to something that is quite dark and heavy. I open a Rosso anytime I am looking for a "rougher" sort of red that will stand up to hearty food. Some labels to look for: La Fortuna and Valdicava (this one may run you more like $30 but it's worth it!).

Barbera: Barbera comes from the Piedmont region of Italy. I had never had one until we went to Piedmont a few years ago. We checked into our hotel (a renovated castle!) and the proprietor gave my husband and me some wine to enjoy outside in their beautiful garden. That wine was a Barbera. I loved it at first sip and have never looked back. Back in the U.S., I was thrilled to discover that Barbera is typically a really good deal. It has good acid, making it a great food/wine pairing candidate. It's not heavy on the tannins so you can drink it young. Barberas pair well with a variety of food, including pizza and any sort of food with a red sauce. Some labels to look for:
- Unti
- Rivetti La Spinetta Barbera d'Asti "Ca di Pian"
- Michele Chiarlo (about $10)
- Ruggeri Corsini Barbera d'Alba (about $15)
- Ruggeri Corsini Barbera d'Alba "Armujan"

Pinot Noir:
Inexpensive Pinot Noir is tough. However, so many foods pair so well with this wine that you need to have a few well-priced Pinots in your mid-week repertoire. Some names to look for:
- Saintsbury Garnet (about $16)
- Keller Estate (our Costco has this for $20)
- Melville Estate Verna's
- I have also found good deals on Pinots from Longboard Vineyards and Hook and Ladder.

A few other mid-week wine ideas:
- Keep a mini barrel of Red Truck wine in your fridge
- Check out my value priced white wines list

Monday, January 11, 2010

Is 2010 the year of the vegetable?

I am wondering if 2010 will be the year of the vegetable. In the past year home gardening has become a hot trend. Even the White House has a garden - as showcased in the recent Food Network Iron Chef competition. Going to farmers' markets and getting CSA shipments has been a trend for awhile. Yep, I am sensing a vegetable revolution.

Well all know we should eat more vegetables. What I think that does NOT mean is more of the same. It means trying new vegetables and coming up with new ways to prepare the same old vegetables. It means taking inspiration from professional chefs for flavors and interesting ways to prep vegetables.

I will be the first to say that I need all the help I can get. Here is where I am starting:
- I got a new vegetable cookbook that, thus far, has promise.
- I am re-creating restaurant dishes that feature vegetable dishes that are either new to me or are prepared in interesting ways. The best restaurant dish, hands down, that I ate in December was a heavenly shaved Brussels sprout salad at Bottega in Yountville. It featured Brussels sprouts, marcona almonds, sieved egg, pecorino and a whole citrus vinaigrette. I am working on re-creating this dish.
- I am focusing on adding more veggies to meals - lunch in particular. I recently made three veggie-heavy soups for the freezer: minestrone, potato leek and split pea.
- My goal is to learn to prepare vegetables without a bunch of extra fat. I'd eat broccoli every day if it was doused in hollandaise sauce. Who wouldn't? On the other hand, I don't want to go too far to the other extreme of dry broccoli with just lemon juice for flavor. That will get old fast. There has to be a balance.

Please share your ideas for eating more veggies in 2010!

(The photo credit for the terrific veggies above goes to my friend and neighbor Terrie. Clearly, I need to accompany her to the farmers' market more often!)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Salt on my counter 2.0

I wrote a few posts ago (and a few months ago - yes, I will try and be better about posts in 2010!) about the bowls of salt on my counter. Wow! That post got a lot of response. Due to the kindness of several readers, I ended up with a lot of great new salts to try. This necessitated the purchase of new, smaller salt bowls so that more will fit on the counter. I visited Calistoga Pottery and got one large bowl for kosher salt and eight small bowls. I actually need more like 10 bowls - believe it or not, all of the new salt is not out yet!

I started with a salt tasting. I got a baguette and some wonderful,unsalted European butter. I cut the bread into rounds, spread on some butter and sprinkled a round with each of the salts. And tasted ... butter. Hmmm, that did not work so well. So, I will be working through the salts with food. Which is how you use them anyway. Stay tuned.

Here is the line-up:
- Kosher salt (big bowl)
The rows of small bowls go from left to right:
- Cyprus flake salt
- Himalayan pink salt
- Pinot noir salt
- Murray River flake salt
- Several salts from France:
- A salt called 'sel fou' which translates to 'crazy salt.' It contains paprika, and some other herbs.
- A fennel salt
- A salt and five pepper combo
- A salt and herb combo