6 unique food, drink and product ideas

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It’s fun to experiment sometimes. Below are 6 unique interesting and unique product suggestions – one made with a hitherto mysterious ingredient from Greece, one a Chicago-based candle company that helps young mothers, a line of products all made with cocoa, a lightly sparkling drink sweetened with agave, an energy snack infused with with tea, and a super-thin cracker from Italy.  Try something new for your New Year adventure!

  1. Mastiha is a resin that drips off the bark of the mastiha tree that grows only in Chios, Greece. The Greeks have been harvesting it for thousands of years – since 600 B.C.E. It’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties and is now considered by many to be a super food – used as an ingredient in cosmetics, gum, oils, food, and liquors. It’s even sold in capsules and in powdered form to treat a vast number of conditions. The ELMA brand chios mastic gum comes either sweetened with sugar or sugar-free and contains natural gum mastic and mastic oils. It’s tasty and is said to freshen the breath. Some of the cosmetics made with mastiha include products from the Lira Mystiq line such as Mystiq Illuminating Cleanser and Mystiq Illuminating Polisher for your skin, each of which contains ingredients that are derived from the original mastiha.
  2. Bright Endeavors, based in Chicago, makes clean-burning soy candles that smell lovely and come with your Chicago city skyline imprinted on the cover. What’s more, all the proceeds go to their non-for-profit organization that provides job training for young mothers so they can support their children and participate fully in their communities. They’ve served more than 500 young women so far and show no signs of stopping. If you’re going to buy a candle for someone, this is a terrific opportunity to make your giving extend beyond just the gift itself. @Bright_Endeavors #Chicagocandle.
  3. THE COCOA EXCHANGE™ POD & BEAN makes cocoa-infused products of many types. Cocoa-infused barbeque sauce might be an acquired taste for some, but it certainly is a bold way to stand out from other options. Stone ground cocoa-infused mustard intrigues. Imagine Cheddar Ale cheese dip sparked with a tablespoon of that. Fascinating, eh? Consider some of the other unique sauces: Blackberry Chipotle, Korean Barbeque, Mexican Simmer, and more. It’s great how they have little graphic icons on each jar suggesting what foods the sauce goes well with. If you love cocoa and chocolate and are willing to open your mind, some of these products could be just what your taste buds have been looking for. Check out this amazing recipe for Bacon Ale Cheese Dip for a crowd. Check their website for more cool recipes.
  4. Sipp is a brand new soft drink created by founder Beth Wilson-Parentice when she got downsized out of corporate America. Sparkling and organic, Sipp comes in several unique and delicious flavors. A fabulous mixer with bubbly or all by itself if you’re skipping alcohol. Their website even offers Sipp-with-food pairing ideas that’ll jump start your imagination. At 88 calories per can (100 per bottle) and sweetened with agave, it’s not a low-calorie or sweetener-free option, but it is completely free of chemicals and artificial sweeteners – more and more a big selling point for health-conscious consumers. Check out the Ginger Blossom flavor – ginger, smooth vanilla and lime. Or the Zesty Orange – zesty blood orange, lime and jalapeno. Or Lemon Flower – zesty lemon, elderflower and a touch of aromatic tarragon. Don’t those sound exciting? Based on our sampling for review, that’s just what they are. Bottles (12 oz) and cans (10.5 oz) available at Target and other retailers as well as on Amazon.
  5. TeaSquares – Tea-infused Energy Snacks. A startup company here in Chicago makes these crispy light snacks that promise to provide low-cal nutrition along with a little shot of caffeine to perk you up and help you focus during the day. They’re made with puffed millet, crunchy almonds and fruits infused with tea. Enjoyably light and easy to carry around (except they could get crushed easily in a big, overfilled tote), they come in several nice fruit-combo flavors and are available online.

    Tuscanini packaging
    Tuscanini packaging
  6. Tuscanini Italian Parchment Crackers. Super thin and crispy, these hand-made crackers make a light, crunchy base for appetizers or cheese, and they go beautifully with soups or salads. They are made in Sardinia, Italy, and imported from there by Kayco. Try one of their tasty flavors: Olive Oil,  Rosemary with Olive Oil, or Oregano with Olive Oil. Lower calorie than bread spread with olive oil, but just as satisfying.
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Mago Grill & Cantina – delicious discovery in South Loop

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We were invited to visit here recently after we’d heard about Mago Grill & Cantina‘s fun and creative take on combining traditional Hanukkah dishes with a Mexican flair. The location was a surprise – the sophisticated and beautiful shopping complex called The Roosevelt Collection (off E. Roosevelt Rd., next to the Target store and near Clark St. in the South Loop). But the food surprised us even more – so very, very good.

The space at Mago is expansive. Almost a suburban type ambiance – spacious, modern, colorful. But the food is quite a few levels above what you usually find in a typical suburban establishment.  Perfect for savvy sophisticated millennials, yet totally family friendly. The tables are set far enough apart that you have real privacy for your conversations. Ideal for ladies who lunch and want to shop at a few upscale shops afterwards, or for baby boomers looking to enjoy an excellent meal and some good conversation. The space is open and welcoming enough that almost anyone will feel comfortable.

It was fun perusing the menu – both the Hanukkah specials and the regular items. We greatly enjoyed the homemade taco chips with three types of salsa – mild, medium and really hot (made with sesame seeds). Our server Ageo was most helpful explaining the menu and making suggestions. We tried a few things specifically at his recommendations and they were excellent.

For starters we tried, at our server’s recommendation, the empanadas. Excellent choice. A delicious crust with a great deal more character than most we’ve tasted before. The shrimp empanada was especially flavorful – tasted like shrimp of the highest quality roasted to perfection. Crispy turnovers served with frisee, queso cotija and crema Mexicana, in a choice of ground beef picadillo with chimichurri, chicken tinga with roasted tomato salsa, or tequila shrimp with habanero salsa. And you get to choose one each of two choices. Lovely!
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Mago Camarones en Chile
Mago Camarones en Chile

The Camarones en Chile was nicely roasted shrimp in a savory poblano pepper sauce, served with special chunky mashed potatoes and a huge pile of roasted poblano peppers, all bathed in a succulent brown sauce. Delicious.

Another shot of the beef rib with mole - num!
Another shot of the beef rib with mole – num!
 The short rib – a regular menu item – was dressed up for the Jewish holiday. Tender, richly browned and served with a rich, thick, dark mole sauce and a chunk of grated, seasoned plantain that was fried crisp and tasted amazingly good. As a side, the chef prepared potato latkes and added cilantro to honor Hanukkah and give them a Mexican touch. This dish smelled and tasted so good that my granddaughter came home from school and immediately consumed the leftovers.
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Mago coconut flan
Mago coconut flan

The flan of the week was coconut – incredibly thick and not too sweet and loaded with coconut, drizzled generously with rich caramel sauce and topped with a big beautiful pile of whip cream and a strawberry. It was served in a huge dish dusted with powdered sugar. No problem polishing off this gem all by myself.

This was one of our favorite recent restaurant meals  – and so surprising for a weekday lunch. Felt like a 4-star dinner. Mago Grill & Cantina is well worth a trip for its creative approach to blending cuisines and its commendable attention to the details of execution that take dishes several notches above the usual.
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Mago Grill & Cantina is located at 1010 S. Delano Court East. The place is a breeze to get to. CTA buses and trains are a short walk away. And if you drive, no need to fight downtown traffic hassles. Take Lake Shore Drive to Roosevelt or the Dan Ryan and pull right in. The shopping mall has ample underground parking – no need to stress on that score either. Go here. We will be back with friends very soon to try more dishes on the menu.
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Around the world in 3 wines – Niven Family Wine Estates

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Now’s the time to plan your celebrating and gifting, and here at FoodandDrinkChicago we’re happy to help by pointing out some delicious yet affordable special occasion wines. Happily, Niven Family Wine Estates recently introduced us to three of their wines – each with a completely different and unique character – that are perfect for holiday entertaining or gift giving. Sampling these wines is a bit like tasting around the world without leaving your California armchair. And by the way, check out the Niven Family Wines wine club. Several options for treating yourself or for giving a membership as a gift for wine-loving friends and family.
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Tangent Albarino
Tangent Albarino

Tangent Albariño 2015. The Spanish Albariño grape is the varietal typical of the Rias Baixas region in Galicia. Grown for this wine on the rolling slopes of Edna Valley California, the result here is a lovely, well-balanced white that is SIP™ (Sustainable in Practice) certified sustainably grown. The nearby ocean  ensures cool growing seasons with even climate. “Pure and vibrant with a slight salty characteristic, it starts with Mandarin orange and tangerine on the nose and goes on that way through the finish. A round mouthfeel is balanced by a slightly crisp acid structure.” Delicious as an aperitif and paired with most seafoods and especially with oysters and clams. 13.5% alc. SRP ~$17.

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Niven Zocker
Niven Zocker

Zocker Grüner Veltliner 2015. Zocker is a winery that reflects its name – Zocker being the Austrian word for gamble. It’s the latest endeavor of the Niven Family Wine Estates on their Zocker vineyard in Central Coast California where their veteran French winemaker Christian Roguenant makes unconventional wines exclusively from the white varietal grapes known as Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. This 2015 is rich and round with great acid structure, which some call steely, and with a definite minerality. Slightly earthy, it has a strong white pepper note with flavors of ripe melon and fruit cocktail. A lovely aperitif or a delicious  counterpoint to creamy cheeses or sauces. 13.5% alc. SRP ~$20.

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Niven True Myth
Niven True Myth

True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. Grown in Paso Robles, the grapes for this classic red fully reflect the region’s characteristic polished aromas – blackberry, cherry and vanilla – and make a rich, smooth yet approachable wine that can age for years in your cellar. Or drink it now and immerse yourself in the flavors of dark red fruits and black currants with hints of pepper, cocoa powder and caramelized oak. A bold wine that’s a worthy accompaniment to red meats and pairs well with smoky and grilled flavors. 14.5% alc. SRP ~$24.

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11 Beautiful Italian wines to warm your holidays

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IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour
IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour

IEEM is an Italian organization that’s helping to improve knowledge and foster greater enjoyment of Italian wines by countries around the world. Their  Simply Italian Great Wines Tour 2017 once again this year brought to Chicago many special wines chosen from a selection of Italy’s multitudinous wine regions. Trade and media attended guided tastings-cum-educational seminars on such wine regions as Moscato d’Asti, Prosecco, Sicily and more, each of which offered glimpses into a broad array of Italy’s offerings. Below are a few of the many lovely ones the #SimplyItalianTour showcased.

 
IEEM Nero d'Avola wines
IEEM Nero d’Avola wines

#SicilianWineArt has become huge business since the country established its Sicilia DOC designation. Two grape varieties – Grillo and Nero d’Avola – are grown exclusively in Sicily and are used to make a wide range of respectively white and red wines. Sicily has 100 days of harvesting every year when you count all the areas where grapes are grown. Colomba Bianca, Sicily’s biggest wine cooperative representing five different wineries, brought to Chicago samples of some of its offerings.

  • Grillo Sicilia DOC Lavi 2016. Hand-harvested 100% Grillo grapes are turned via the Charmat method into a light straw yellow bubbly with intense, complex aromas like white flowers and orange blossoms with a citrus note. On the palate, taste nettle and sage, jasmine and melon. Minerally, crisp and fresh. Delicious with first courses of fish or vegetables and with white meats, tabouleh, mozzarella, anchovies and tomatoes.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Vitese 2016. Hand-picked and put into small crates during late August/early September, the skins for this organically made wine are macerated at low temperatures for two days to extract the sweet tannins an delicate color. Intensely ruby red – beautifully purple-red – it offers fragrant fruity aromas of red berries (cherry, blackberry) that are also minerally (graphite) and spicy. The tannins and acidity are perfectly balanced within a wine of great structure, smoothness and intensity. Serve it as an aperitif or with mature cheeses, cold cuts and meats of all types. We love this wine *****5 stars.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Kore 2016. One of Colomba Bianca’s classic red wines, this 100% Nero d’Avola wine is ruby red with purple tinges and unmistakable aromas of prune, cherry and light spice. It’s soft and velvety on the palate with a pleasing structure and a distinct fruitiness that’s also elegant and refined. Serve with typical Sicilian dishes like spaghetti alla norma with eggplant and smoked ricotta. Even more complex and rewarding than the Vitese, these are both excellent choices for your best holiday occasions. *****5 stars.
IEEM Prosecco
IEEM Prosecco

Prosecco DOC wineries included Piera Matellozzo 1899, Masottina, Supmanti Valdo, Barollo, Astoria and more. Here are two standouts from among their samples:

  • Barollo Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry Treviso DOC 2016. Gorgeous (we gave it 5 stars) wine made from 100% Glera grapes. This small-production (25-30,000 bottles) Prosecco is fragrant with notes of candied citron and acacia flowers, yellow apple, peach and crusty bread.  On the palate it’s dry, soft and fresh with a elegant fruity aftertaste. Perfect as an aperitif or with risottos with vegetables and fish dishes. 11% alc. ~$19. *****5 stars.
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  •  La Marca Prosecco Sparkling DOC, imported by Gallo. Made with 100% Glera, this delicately golden straw yellow Prosecco brings fruity notes and a distinctive floral aroma along with a lively and persistent perlage of full-textured bubbles. The palate is fresh and clean with flavors of ripe lemon, green apple and grapefruit with an agreeable minerality. Well balanced with a light, crisp, refreshing finish. Serve chilled with starters and fish dishes. 11% alc. ****4 stars.
 
Chianti Rufina
IEEM Chianti Rufina

Other Italian wine regions came to introduce Chicago to their wines this year. Consorzio Vino Chianti presented guided tastings of wines from the seven subregions of Chianti – Montalbano, Rufina, Montespertoli, Aretini and others, plus Chianti Classico – all located in Tuscany between the great Italian cities of Firenze (Florence) and Siena. They explained how Chianti DOCG is now requiring bottles to be sealed with traceable labels – an important move to protect the integrity of fine wines from this region. The entire Chianti region has a new focus on quality rather than quantity as had been the case for many decades. A few memorable vintages from the tasting, all coming in at around 14% alcohol:

 
  • Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva 2013. 95% Sangiovese, 5% blend of three grapes indigenous to the region. A beautiful wine grown on rocky soils and made with traditional wine making processes, including fermenting in steel vats and maturing in big oak barrels for two years and in the bottle three months. Fine, delicate aromas due to late-growing Sangiovese. Perfectly balanced. *****5 stars.
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  • Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva 2013. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. A single-vineyard blend made from grapes grown in mixed soils with riverstones. Grown on old vines with at least 1 meter between the vines. *****5 stars. ~$13.
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  • Chianti Montespertoli DOCG Riserva 2013. 100% Sangiovese. This is a single-vineyard wine that’s light and acidic – the result of planting Sangiovese grapes in a northern exposure. This results in greater structure yet the expression is very well-balanced. 14% alc. ~$25.
 
IEEM Friuli Grave - The Sparkling Life
IEEM Friuli Grave – The Sparkling Life

A third Italian group, Consorzio Vini Friuli Grave, this year brought to Chicago a selection of its DOC sparkling and still wines – “fresh and fun wines,.” Made from grapes grown in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a northeastern area of Italy that’s rich in tradition, colors, aromas and flavors, these wines tend to be lighter, with alcohol content ranging from around 11% to 13%. You’re sure to find something to please anyone within this portfolio. Here are a few they brought here to sample at #TheSparklingLife presentation:

 
  • Spumante Rose Extra Dry “Collevento 921” from Antonutti Vini dal 1921. This delightful sparkling wine belies the old reputation of spumante as overly sweet and syrupy. It’s made with 80% Merlot and 20% Refosco via the Charmat method. The color is bright pink with a bouquet of red berries (raspberry, currant and strawberry) and a light, fine lingering perlage. Its lovely character is due in part to the fact that the Merlot grape never gets overly ripe in the cool weather of this area. Excellent as an aperitif or with appetizers or fish platters (the Italians love their fish!). Priced between $8 and $15 depending on where you get it, it’s perfect for the holidays. 11% alc.
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  • Friuland “Le Bastie” 2011 DOC Friuli Grave by Tenute Tomasella. This small-production (2500 bottles) wine made of 100% Friuli grapes has a creamy texture with great fruit taste. An intense golden-hued straw yellow color, its bouquet is refined yet intense and features a blend of spices and fruit with a hint of vanilla. It’s because they use a process called “friulano” which reduces oxidation in white wines that this wine actually ages well. Priced ~$23, we think it’s worth going into splurge mode. 13% alc.
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  • Sauvignon “Braida Santa Cecilia” 2016 DOC Friuli Grave. Made with 100% Sauvignon A3 clone, this pale yellow white wine takes its name from the Italian meaning “clearing in the forest,” which describes the weather conditions in the northeastern area where they can grow this grape. Unlike the New Zealand Sauvignon blanc – which some Italians describe as smelling like a sweaty sock – the passionfruit, sage and yellow pepper nose of this wine compares more to a Sancerre. This wine is made by Kim Crawford’s husband, who excused himself from making the “Kim Crawford” type of Sauvignon to go renegade and make a new kind of Sauvignon. He calls his highly award-winning winery Pitars so as not to confuse people with the Crawford name. We give his version a solid 5 stars. 12.5% alc.
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