Domingos Soares Franco brings J.M. da Fonseca wines to Chicago’s avec

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Domingos Soares Franco, the tall, handsome, silver-haired winemaker of Jose Maria da Fonseca wines, came to Chicago recently to share three of his rich, elegant reds and two of his exquisitely multi-layered Moscatel aperitif/dessert wines with a beautifully paired selection of foods at avec, 615 W. Randolph. Attendees enjoyed a stellar experience of some of the many wonderful wines that Portugal has to offer.

On the eve of its 40th vintage in 2020, the seasoned winemaker  shared some tidbits about his 200-years-in-the-business family’s processes and philosophies:

  • Jose Maria da Fonseca makes one million cases each year – 60% reds, 25% whites, 5% Moscatel, and the rest roses. They make a blend every two years. They carefully follow the same formula each year in order to keep the style consistent. And then, as with fine Port wines, the winemaker must decide which blends will be declared vintages. Soares has been in charge of this critical part of the vineyard’s approach for several decades. And now he is encouraging the people with whom he works – some for 10, 30, even 50 years – to take this responsibility. He said they finally agreed to try – and he’s proud to say they made the last blend perfectly.
  • In regard to climate change, he said it is inevitable – but that there is no guarantee whether in the end we will cool down and warm up.  His advice to all winemakers is, if the climate heats up, don’t change the vines. Change the clones. He and his team, for example, use 12 clones of a single grape – and these clones give the best chance for the winemaker to control conditions.
    Soares is not a fan of “blockbuster” type wines – the kind many Americans are trained to find most desirable. He said his team will make wines that cater to that market segment, but he prefers more subtlety, for example, by using less and less oak in his vinification.
  • Moscatel wines can remain in the bottle indefinitely because you can just put the cork back in after it’s opened. Because of the way it’s made, the wine cannot oxidate any further, and it cannot become vinegar because of the high alcohol content. Domingos said that though it’s legal to use caramel to adjust color and sweetness in Moscatel wines, some do so because some consumers tend to prefer a darker color. Your secret to knowing whether caramel has been used to enhance color is to hold your glass over a piece of white paper and look for a green rim on the wine. That is a sign of the genuine wine without color enhancement.

Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal 20-year-old. 100% Moscatel de Satubal grapes grown on the Setubal Peninsula. Silky mouthfeel, layered aromas of orange peel, citrus, apricots, nuts, dried figs, and almonds, leading to a whiff of cigar box. Complex and rich. Alc 18.4%. SRP ~$70.

Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 40-year-old. 100% Moscatel de Setubal grapes grown on the Setubal Peninsula. Like all fortified wines, brandy is added at precisely the right moment to halt fermentation at its ideal stage. Then this wine is aged in used oak. SRP ~$150.

Jose de Sousa 2017. Made with Grand Noir (98%), tinicaderia (22%, and Arogones (akin to Tempranillo) 20%. Soares ferments a small portion of this wine in clay amphora before resting it for 9 months in French and American oak casks. Akc 14.5%. SRP ~$20

Periquita Reserva 2017. Made from Castelo 56%, Touriga Nacional 22%, and – Soares’s favorite – Touriga Francesa 22%. Fermented 7 days with full skin contact, then aged 8 months in new and used French and American oak barrels. SRP ~$15.

Domini Plus 2015. Made from 96% Touriga Francesca and 4% Touriga Nacional. Fermented in the traditional manner with full skin contact, then rested for 10 months in new French oak casks. SRP ~$45.

Established in 1834, family-owned José Maria da Fonseca (J.M. da Fonseca) is one of Portugal’s best-known and most historic wine producers, with vineyard holdings in the country’s most important wine regions, including the Douro, Vinho Verde, Setúbal and Alentejo.J.M. da Fonseca has been owned and managed by the Soares Franco family for seven generations. Father and son team Antonio Soares Franco, Sr. and Antonio Maria S. Franco, Jr. stand at the helm, together with chief winemaker and vice president Domingos Soares Franco (brother and uncle, respectively, to Antonio Sr. and Antonio Jr.). Domingos holds the distinction of being the first Portuguese national to graduate in fermentation sciences from California’s U.C. Davis. He couples a modern perspective with a respect for Portuguese tradition in all his winemaking initiatives. Domingos will celebrate a personal milestone with the year 2020, which will mark his 40th harvest.

The J.M. da Fonseca winery, located in Azeitão on the Setúbal Peninsula just south of Lisbon, welcomes visitors year-round. Guests can tour the original 19th century estate and cellars, and enjoy a wine tasting and a stroll through the tranquil gardens which surround the estate. No visit is complete without a tour of the impressive Fernandes Soares Franco winery, established in 1999 and inaugurated in 2001 by the President of the Republic. Although this state-of-the-art winery is entirely computerized, it maintains time-honored methods of winemaking dating back to the early 1900s.

And, by the way, the food at avec was worthy of note for its creativity. Small plates came in a wide variety that featured vegetables in a big way. First, wood-oven roasted beets with spring peas, quinoa tabbouleh and berbere pecans. Next, charred carrots with black harissa, whipped feta and crisp wild rice dukkah. Then chicken liver crostini with rhubarb mostarda and mint.

Next courses included salty, warm, crispy focaccia with taleggio cheese, ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs – num! – along with a gorgeous dish of wood-fired chicken with hummus, zhoug, green garbanzo and seed cracker fattoush.  And then came a small platter of delicious and unusual cow cheeses – St. Agur, Omorro, and Vento d’Estate. Desserts were 5-star for sure: vanilla bean cheese cake with candied pistachio and strawberry, plus a sweet mezze – “spread” – of caramel cashew squares, cinnamon sugar shortbread, and cacao nib biscotti, all delightful.

Executive Chef Paul Kahan’s team served up one delicious dish after another – all absolutely perfect accompaniments to the lovely wines. The quality of the food ingredients and the masterful presentation showed off the kitchen’s originality and its superior powers of execution as well as its ability to highlight the wines. Unquestionably a 5-star experience.

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5 summer pleasures for home and in Chicago restaurants

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Every nice day in summer is another great excuse to indulge yourself – after you work, do your chores and exercise of course, right? Everywhere you turn in Chicago – and online of course – another opportunity presents itself to help you get creative with your enjoyment. Here are just a few restaurant ideas and home cooking/drinking products to get you rolling:

River Roast is celebrating summer with their weekday happy hour Oysters & Rosé special. Every weekday from 3 to 5 pm enjoy a dozen oysters and bottle of Rose wine for $35. Sit at the bar or along the river soaking in the sun all while enjoying a refreshing summer combo that’s irresistible.

And while you’re dreaming about enjoying the outdoors, think about having friends over – or just treating yourself – and serving something unique and easy: Sangria in cans, the most popular product made by Round Barn Winery, located in the hills of Southwestern Michigan, complete with tasting room. A fizzy, lightly sweet version of the drink beloved by so many in Spain, this Sangria is a nice combination of fruit, dry wine and sweetness. Be aware of the calories, though. A single 12-ounce can packs a whopping 290 calories, so feel free to consider this dessert…

Oh, and if you’ve got your grill out and ready to go, here’s a spice company that puts together some really tasty combos to rub on your meat, poultry and even vegetables. Pereg Natural Foods offers classic blends that are made from fresh, natural, 100% pure spices, bringing more than 100 years of expertise and quality to the table. Get to know some of these Middle Eastern-style secrets when the grill heats up.

Pereg’s Koobah starts with baharat, a ubiquitous Israeli and Mediterranean staple, and then adds warm layers of cinnamon, allspice, rose, nutmeg, and cardamom for a complex finish. It makes an excellent dry rub for grilled or roast lamb, salmon, and chicken, sprinkled into burgers, mixed with hummus, or tossed onto vegetables (particularly corn on the cob and eggplant) before roasting. Use their Kabab seasoning to douse cubes of chicken, beef, or lamb liberally with Pereg’s hearty mash-up (paprika, black pepper, coriander, garlic, and cumin). Thread on skewers with vegetables of your choice, and grill over medium heat until fully cooked. Serve on warm pita bread with tahini and cucumber salad for an authentic version of Israeli street food. And check out their special take on Shawarma and Ras El Hanout plus some sweet mix seasonings.

Casati’s, the family owned, modern Italian restaurant – claiming  designation as home to the “healthiest pizza in Chicago” – offers Pinsa creations, which offer 90% less fat, carbs, and gluten than traditional pizzCasati’s, which is home to a new 42-seat, pet-friendly patio, will also offer 40% off specialty cocktails and wine during lunch. Owned and operated by Italy-native Stefano Casati, and run by Michelin Star Chef Christian Fantoni, Casati’s aims to bring light, fresh, healthy, and authentic tastes of Italy to Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Carnivale Restaurant, 702 W. Fulton St. Things are heating up outside AND inside at Carnivale, where  talented chefs and mixologists have created a new Lounge menu that features a Charcuterie Tabla, Sliders, Carnivale Mai-Tai, Jackie’s Daiquiri, and much more! Lounge open: Monday – Thursday from 4-10, Friday 4-11, Saturday 5-11, Sunday 5-9. *Every Weekday, enjoy Happy Hour from 4-6:30pm.

Coming soon: more beverage ideas perfect for summer sipping.

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NYT Mark Bittman teams with Peapod – and we all win!

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Chicken cacciatore has always been a big hit with my family. My recipe from years ago is laden with chicken-tomato-onion-pepper-mushroom goodness. Some years after this became a standard that I could make without consulting a cookbook, I developed a skinless, lower-fat version that still knocked everybody’s socks off.

Mark Bittman's latest cookbook
Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook

So I was really curious when I was given a review copy of Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook, Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways – Easy, Vegan and Perfect for Company. Think about it. Under the “Pot Roast” heading, he’s got 1) Easy – Pork Tenderloin simmered in peanut sauce; 2) Vegan – Cabbage Pot Roast, first boiled gently til tender, then stuffed with processed steel-cut oats and hazelnuts seasoned with parsley, and braised in a fragrant tomato sauce; and 3) Perfect for Company – Braised Pastrami that you coat with a homemade rub mixture for 7 days, then cook on very low oven heat on a bed of hickory chips, then simmer gently until the meat is super tender.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has written a number of cookbooks during his career. And now he’s piggybacking promotion of his latest one onto the work of a reliable Chicago service called Peapod Grocery Delivery, a service we’ve been using for more than a decade. Together, Bittman and Peapod are delivering Bittman’s recipes along with the high quality food you need in order to make the most of his cookbooks. His recipes are top notch. Their meats and vegetables and groceries are excellent quality, and their delivery service is flexible, affordable and dependable. Perfect combo.

Bittman's boozy jackfruit sandwich
Bittman’s boozy jackfruit sandwich

Bittman’s book is extremely easy to use. Beautifully laid out with photos and lots of white space to make it easy on the eyes, it also has some unique photography like the one of a “Boozy BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich.” But now, back to my opening paragraph on cacciatore. Interestingly, Bittman labels this chapter just “Cacciatore.” The three versions he presents include 1) Drumstick Cacciatore, 2) Hearty Vegetable Cacciatore, and 3) Rabbit Cacciatore.

Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman's chicken cacciatore
Unique flavors and creative combos in Bittman’s chicken cacciatore

The first version thankfully refers to drumsticks from chickens (as opposed to rabbits, quail or some other exotic creature), and boy, does it have a different method. Definitely fewer ingredients and a simpler process than my old standby recipes. Eliminates the onion and peppers completely, but leaves the succulence of garlic and sauteed mushrooms. Suggests different herbs. Adds some heat with chile flakes. But the real killer trick is the sauce – tomato paste and balsamic vinegar.

I was intrigued by this unusual – to me – combination for a sauce. And worried that it would be too thin without any flour or other thickener. Did the browning step – loved his explanation of how to brown chicken without having it stick to the skillet – and then mixed up the sauce. It sure did look thin. Poured it in and finished the cooking – a surprisingly fast total of 30 minutes – and the sauce wasn’t quite as thin now.

Then I tasted. Wow, truly a different experience from a traditional cacciatore recipe. The sauce was rich without being heavy. Piquant. Lightly spicy. The chicken and mushrooms bathed in the garlicky, just-enough-tang juices was a seriously tasty combination. I consumed the entire dish myself over only a couple of days with veggie sides and a glass (or two) of red wine. Num.

His vegan version of cacciatore stars portobello mushrooms and features white wine (or water), red onion, red pepper, olives, potatoes, fava beans and whole tomatoes. This may be my next encounter with Bittman’s expertise. The company-suitable Rabbit Cacciatore has similarities with my traditional recipe, including flour for browning, but it calls for brining the rabbit pieces ahead of time and garnishing with fried capers. Sounds like a winner, but as a former owner for ten years of a lovely pet rabbit, I might have to substitute some other meat protein.

Peapod fresh picks
Peapod fresh picks

We love PeaPod around here. The freshness and quality of their stuff is excellent. Their delivery window options are extensive. The packaging is thorough; keeps all frozen stuff together, all refrigerated, etc. If anything, their packers are almost too thorough  – a single head of garlic doesn’t really need to be in two separate bags.

And if you should, by some chance, run into a quality problem – like a cauliflower with too many brown spots – just pick up the phone. Their customer service is 100% responsive. They will immediately – without asking questions or demanding proof – issue you a refund for the price of that item on your next order. All of this makes shopping a much easier experience than any get-to-the-store, run around and hand-pick every item type of trip. Yes, I know you might say, “Oh, only I can properly pick out my fruit and vegetables, etc.” Yes, I understand. But almost without fail, you will feel like you personally hand-picked the items that show up in your PeaPod insulated grocery boxes. The quality is that good. Prices on many items are, if anything, only slightly higher than, say, Mariano’s, but if you’re watching the budget, do some comparisons. Plus, they regularly offer special deals on delivery fees.

So pick out one of Mark Bittman’s 419 excellent recipes – for yourself, your family, your vegetarian/vegan friends, or when you entertain your boss. – Or make it even easier. In order to get exactly the right ingredients without any stress, order one of Bittman’s meal kits from #PeapodDelivers. Yep, shop from the comfort of your couch and have the ingredients brought right to your door. I’m telling you. You cannot beat it.

Here’s more about Mark Bittman.

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