Bordeaux wines galore – and at RPM wine dinner

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Last week was a great time for Bordeaux in Chicago. Dozens of winemakers and representatives from dozens of appellations in the Bordeaux, France wine region converged in one of the ballrooms at the elegant historic Drake Hotel to introduce their mainly 2014 vintages to press, trade and the public. Visitors walked around tasting while, behind the tables, reps from members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux gave out pour after pour of mostly red blends, plus a few whites and Sauternes for good measure. As you read my recommendations, keep in mind I’m partial to big, dry, complex reds.

A few of my favorites came from a region I hadn’t previously been very familiar with, Saint-Estephe, and included all four of the wineries present from there (check links for wine notes and prices): Château Ormes de Pez 2014, Château Cos Labory 2014, Château Phelan Segur 2014, and especially Château Lafon-Rochet 2014.

Others that I gave highest marks to were from among the Grand Crus de St. Emilion and included Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2014, Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 2014, Château Grand Mayne 2014, and Château Villemaurine 2014. Really beautiful wines.

I was also impressed with some from the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. Check out Château Beauregard 2014, Château Clinet 2014 and Château La Cabanne 2014. Two notables from the Pessac-Leognan appellation were Chateau Olivier and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, each of which presented both a white and a red.

And later that evening, a fine wine dinner at RPM Steak House featured 5 lovely wines from the Pouillac appellation in Bordeaux – food and drink to set the imagination afire. Amuse bouches were tiny and flavorful, including oysters with mignonette. The appetizer course was a generous-sized disk of Hamachi, studded with caviar and surrounded by a warm, slightly sweet yuzu emulsion. First course was an outstanding Pepper-Crusted Tuna Belly – one piece of which was prepared confit (NUM!) and the other ahi-style, both served with a spoonful of sturdy mushroom Bearnaise. Utterly succulent and delicious and perfect with a Bordeaux blend, Les Tourelle de Longueville, Pauillac 2011.

Next came Prime Dry Aged Beef – two small pieces of beef aged 90 days and two aged for 9 days. Both were spectacular and were served with two vintages of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac, one from 1990 and one from 2009. Lovely, rich reds.

Then came, not one but two desserts, both outstanding. One, poached apricots served in a warm almond custard that was to die for (I am wild about anything custard), and then a Sticky Toffee Pudding with rum raisin ice cream, both served with Chateau de Suduiraut Sauternes, one from 2004 and the other from 1975. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, RPM and thank you, makers of Bordeaux wines par excellence. (And thanks to Elizabeth for some nice shots!)
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Book reviews: 3 health-smart and delicious cookbooks

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I love to cook. I love to eat good food. As age has begun creeping up, my granddaughter’s growing older, and I keep learning more, I find myself thinking more and more about the nutrition in the things we eat. I happen to be lucky enough to love vegetables, which many people don’t – including most kids – so it’s not hard for me to get my big doses of vitamins with pure vegetables like tomatoes (according to my Fitbit food tracker, they are the #1 food I consume across all meals every day of the week), orange squashes, romaine, kale and spinach, to name a few. But that just doesn’t work for a lot of folks – some of whom may also have physical conditions that require special consideration in their meal planning.
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Below are three books I’ve recently been asked to review, and I gotta tell you, these are all three excellent books for eating delicious and nutritious foods every day of your life – one addresses stomach issues, another diabetes, and the third is about just plain wonderful recipes that also give you tons of extra nutrients. Five stars for all three.
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    1. pH Balance for GI difficulties
      pH Balance for GI difficulties

      The pH Balance Health & Diet Guide for GERD, IBS & IBD: Practical Solutions, Diet Management and 175 Recipes, by Dr. Fraser Smith BA, ND, Susan Hannah BA, BScH, and Dr. Daniel Richardson BS, MSc, PhD, DAANC, CNC. This is a carefully researched guide to helping people with certain disruptive gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. It gives the science behind the digestive system and detailed explanations about how highly processed foods acidify your system, as does a diet high in meat, dairy and sugar. Here are a few of the questions the book answers: Why acidity can contribute to illness in most body systems; why the Western diet is so poorly balanced for pH; and what you can do about it.

      For some people, the initial explanatory section and the many boxes giving more science may be too much information. But if you are suffering from a GI disorder, you want relief. And the suggestions for balancing your system make sense; the recipes are clear and uncomplicated. Plus, we think you’re going to just plain like the food. Check out the recipe for Crispy Coated Veggie Snacks (p. 195) that has you dip zucchini, sweet potatoes, etc. in yogurt, then breadcrumbs and bake. You can make your own Multi-Seed Energy Bars (p 194) with quinoa, sunflower and sesame seeds and puffed rice or millet with sweeteners like natural cane sugar or brown sugar and pure maple syrup or brown rice syrup. Orange French Toast (p. 179) uses orange juice and optional orange liqueur in the soak mix plus an Orange Marmalade Sauce with honey and orange liqueur (or not). Mmm. Don’t you want a piece right now?  Paperback on Amazon ~$21.
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    2. Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers
      Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers

      Whole Cooking and Nutrition: An Everyday Superfoods Approach to Planning, Cooking and Eating with Diabetes by Katie Cavuto. Thorough, user-friendly science and recipes for diabetics and anybody else who appreciates delicious foods that happen to be healthy, too. The author’s Italian, so there are some wonderful recipes that feature those full-flavor ethnic secrets. She offers a whole section on how to make your own way-healthier versions of pantry staples like tomato sauces, applesauce, nut milks, spice blends and other special dressings and spice-up-your-dishes condiments. Think: Everyday Roasted Garlic (p. 64) which she says you can spread on crackers, whisk into dressings, sauces and dips and swap out for fresh garlic in soups and baked dishes. You simply bake it with olive oil, squeeze out the cooked cloves, cover with a bit of oil and keep in the fridge for two weeks. You’ll feel virtuous for the nutrition and happy with the taste. Plus she gives a great recipe for using it: Garlicky Grilled Pork Chops with Navy Beans (p. 214) that also includes fresh lemon juice, lemon and orange zest, her Herb Oil (p. 60), parsley, canned navy beans and her Olive Tapenade (p. 113).

      The Sweet Potato Oats (p. 96) breakfast dish amps up the nutrition of a bowl of oatmeal with the addition of almond milk and sweet potato puree (you can use canned) and is seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup. The Chicken Sausage and Lentil Soup (p. 184) with Swiss chard, seasoned with thyme and fennel seeds, is her Italian family’s lower-fat version of a classic.

      Cavuto’s vegetable sides and mains offer some unique ways to put life into potatoes, red pappers, spaghetti squash (with walnut arugula pesto!) and more. Think about Roasted Cabbage “Steaks” with Vinaigrette (p. 150) – thick center cuts basted with vinaigrette and baked. The recipe for Roasted Green Beans with Smoked Paprika (p. 137) introduces a brilliantly easy way of seasoning and then cooking them in a very hot oven and dressing with a bit of fresh orange juice. All simple and delicious. Each recipe also gives full nutrition info plus the diabetic exchanges. Kindle $8, paperback $13 on Amazon.

    3. Get more nutrition and flavor in your food
      Get more nutrition and flavor in your food

      Sneaky Blends: Supercharge Your Health with more than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees, by Missy Chase Lapine, The New York Times Bestselling Author of The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. This and her other books are based on a brilliant idea: that you can add bales of nutrition – and serious extra flavor – to almost any recipe by using a super-nutritious puree of vegetables and/or fruits as one of the ingredients in a recipe. And she proves it with recipes for everything from appetizers, dips, salads and soups to entrees and desserts.

      I gave up eating pancakes a couple of decades ago when I discovered they left me starving an hour after I’d eat them. But my 9-year-old granddaughter loves pancakes – and generally eats the usual ones that are nothing but a load of empty calories and carbs. Lapine puts her Cinnamon Oat Protein Pancakes recipe (p. 123) on nutritional steroids by including 1/4 cup of Carrot-Sweet Potato “Base Blend,” (p. 86) some oatmeal and a couple of scoops of vanilla protein powder into the batter that’s also made with ricotta cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and a tablespoon of maple syrup (yes, in the batter). I’m telling you, I can’t wait to make these even for myself.

      Lest you freak out about the whole “base blend” concept – which seems to imply a bunch of extra work – Lapine gives ideas to substitute in a pinch (for example, baby food), though she points out that the original purees (most of which sound fairly simple to make like spinach-blueberry) are superior in nutrition and flavor. The idea is to combine a vegetable and fruit (2 veggies in the case of sweet-potato/carrot) and puree them together. She recommends using time-saving frozen versions of many veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash (for this last, she also gives a smart and easy new way to prepare). Adding purees to original salad dressing recipes, she says, ups the nutrition sufficiently that you “don’t have to eat your weight in greens to get your daily allowance.” {smile!} Check out her All Hail Eggless Caesar Dressing (p. 182, uses her Cauliflower Base Blend) on raw kale with grated hard-boiled eggs. Or her Raspberry-Beet Vinaigrette (p. 187) on arugula with goat cheese. Kindle $15, paperback $13 on Amazon.

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Cooking live lobster – an adventure story

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Lobster by Fabio delivers seafood. We were happy to be invited recently to review a sample of their wares. The large box – overnight from Maine – arrived on the morning of the day we’d agreed on for delivery. Nice that we didn’t have to wait all day for it.
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What we were not prepared for, however, was the fact that their product is alive when it comes to the door. Even though we’ve tried lots of challenging dishes over the years, the truth is, we’d never cooked live mussels or – gulp – live lobsters. Today’s the day, guys.
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Fabio seafood cooking instructions
Fabio seafood cooking instructions

Having read over the years probably dozens of recipes for cooking mussels, this part doesn’t feel too intimidating. Fortunately, the single printed sheet that comes in the box contains straightforward, simple instructions for preparation. The next challenge is that we don’t have on hand the scallions specified for the mussel-poaching broth. After briefly considering it, we reject the idea of going to the grocery store. Thinking first that we’ll go to the trusty Internet for help, we remember our handy-dandy little mini Julia Child cookbook, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. Naturally, she comes through for us once more. We luckily do have on hand the shallots and garlic she calls for – sauté them in butter, she says. Oh, good, we think. That sounds really good. So now it’s time to punt.

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We open the insulated box to see what’s in it. Underneath the layer of still-solid ice packs, the net bag of mussels looks easy enough to handle. The live lobsters – nestling in the dark, tight-fitting cardboard slots and trying to wave their rubber-banded claws about – look a great deal less so. Did I mention we never cooked live lobsters before? Oh, yeah. Gulp.
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After some discussion about the humaneness of cooking live lobster I urge my granddaughter to stop looking at them; we don’t want to make friends with them. She mentions again that she just ate an entire lobster a mere two nights earlier when her mom took her to Shaw’s for their annual Christmas lobster dinner. I tell her I’ll be glad to take hints from her on the most efficient ways to eat this seafood. She assures me – with all the finesse of a confident, experienced 9-year-old – she’s happy to instruct me.
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We first review Internet instructions for determining whether a mussel is dead or alive. We are reminded that if the mussel is open when it’s not cooked, that’s a bad thing. However, we also learn that we can tap the shell on the sink and if it then closes, that means it’s alive and okay to cook and eat. Dutifully we go through the bag and end up discarding about 10 mussels before cooking. I decide afterwards we could probably have tried cooking them and seeing what happened. But being newbies, we didn’t know how much leeway to give the little shell guys, so the percentage we deemed inedible was probably not typical with Fabio’s service.
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Live mussels cooked in buttery broth
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth

Ok. We bring the shallot-and-garlic-infused buttery chicken broth and white wine mixture to a gentle simmer, throw in the mussels and cover the giant skillet. Five minutes later our black bivalves are open and ready to eat. We dish those into a big serving bowl to wait while we tackle the giant clawed crustaceans next. First adding the provided bag of sea salt and seaweed to a couple of inches of water in the bottom of our biggest pot, we then set the steamer rack on top of that. Bring it to a roaring boil, the instructions say, so we do.

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Next step: put the lobsters in the steamer. There’s no way we’re removing the rubber bands from the claws until after these guys expire. Using a pair of tongs with some trepidation, we lift one out of the box and plunge it headfirst into the steaming cauldron. Same with number two and slam the lid on. It says cook exactly 14 minutes, opening the pot and rearranging the lobsters at the halfway point. Okay. So far, so good.
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Open is good
Open is good

Next, toast some bread and melt some butter for dipping. We’re getting excited now. Set out the big white china plates, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. I’d earlier gotten the big, fancy white serving dish down from above the cabinets and washed the accumulated dust and grease off – don’t often use serving dishes this big – so that’s ready to hold the two lobsters. We sit down with gusto to enjoy our mussels, and they are very good indeed. Dip bread in the broth. Num. We dispatch a lion’s share of the pile in under 14 minutes.

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Lobster by Fabio - fabulous!
Lobster by Fabio – fabulous!

The timer goes off. Open the pot. Wow, those lobsters are now an intensely bright orange-y red. Transfer to platter. Sit down. Realize we haven’t yet located the cracker. Get up and scrounge through every drawer. No dice. Think fast. Get the pliers out of the tool – aka junk – drawer and sit down. She starts with the legs. Demonstrates the technique for squeezing them with the cracking implement – whatever – and sucking the meat out. I try one but then can’t wait and go straight to a claw.

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Pliers work in a pinch
Pliers work in a pinch

Luckily, the pliers work fairly well for this delicate operation. As I crack along the edge, the succulent claw meat begins to peek out. Eventually, to my surprise, I get the beautiful claw out in practically a single piece. Dip in the puddle of rich, melted unsalted butter. Nibble. Close my eyes, the better to savor. How good it tastes! Is it the effort we put into it, or does this lobster really taste like the best I’ve ever had? We’re each wearing an oven glove to hold the shells so we don’t get stabbed as we wrestle the meat out – a technique we recommend for proper-techniqueanyone eating lobster at home. Companion cook/young lady and I continue attacking our plates with enthusiasm, the shell bits pile up, and then we’re both ready to eat the tail. She explains how you tear off and discard the main part of the body with its green goo – “unless you like that part.” And we both eat every last bite of the tails on our big, juicy one-and-a-half-pounders from Lobster by Fabio.

Wild-caught. Fresh from Maine. Sustainably grown. Flown and delivered overnight to your door. Utterly delicious. Do not hesitate to order some whenever you’re ready to do the honors. Bravo, Fabio!
P.S. Upon roaming around on their website the next day, I stumbled on a small section that explained how to kill lobsters humanely. You put them in the freezer for two hours and then plunge a knife in the back of their heads before you place them in the steam bath. So you might want to make sure there’s room in your freezer (these guys are big) before you order. Sorry, lobsters – but thank you for your wonderful meat! And thank you, Chef Fabio Viviani.
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