All posts by Barbara Payne, Editor

Writer/editor - food, wine, spirits, travel and fun, plus news about developments in biomedicine and about single working women

New protein bar and non-alcoholic drink ideas

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Most of us get excited when someone introduces healthier versions of tried-and-true ideas. Below are quick reviews and links to a new line of portable healthy eating from Atlas.

While we often look upon our wine and spirits beverages as the be-all, heck, sometimes we just want to imbibe something refreshing that isn’t mind-altering or too bad for us. Admittedly, my recently re-aroused passion for Diet Coke (used to adore Diet Dr. Pepper) has me worrying that I’m consuming way too much artificial sweetener and possibly caffeine. So when a new vendor introduces a less-sweet, non-caffeine, still-tasty drink – especially if it’s bubbly – I am all over trying it out. Check out the below notes on Sipp Sparkling, Som Flavoring Syrups and Petal Botanicals.

Seriously healthy protein bars

Atlas healthy protein bars come in lots of flavors
Atlas healthy protein bars come in lots of flavors

Atlas Protein Bars are made with vegetable glycerin, which acts as both a thickener – along with nut butters or other items – and a sweetener, in combination with the brand’s unique “adaptogens superfood performance blend – ashwagandha extract and maca root powder.” Said to be made completely with “whole natural foods,” the appeal is a much healthier way to satisfy a sweet tooth while getting lots of protein and fiber and yet not risking dental or diabetic issues. We found them to be perfect for grab’n’go breakfast, snack or dessert. Satisfying right away because of the creaminess and the touch of sweetness, and satisfying for longer because of the fiber and protein.

Flavors come in cool combinations like raspberry peanut butter, mint chocolate chip, chocolate cacao, almond vanilla chai, and more. Each bar is about 220 calories. These semi-creamy, healthy hits of nutrition, fiber and protein seemed to help fight the hungries anytime of day. Like any protein bar, their portability is part of their appeal. And one of the best parts is the fact that these are missing many of the not-so-healthy things we find in many other brands of energy bars – like salt, added sugars and refined carbs. Half a bar is a  perfect way to curb  your hunger pangs when you’re on the go – or just too lazy right now to cook.

Non-alcoholic flavor syrups and mixers

Non-alcoholic drinks are becoming more and more popular, as millennials seek out low- to no-alcohol treats that are lower in calories and added sugar. We just reviewed Petal Botanicals Sparkling water

A more recent couple of additions to the lineup include Som cane-vinegar cordials to use with your favorite bottled or canned sparkling water or to flavor a variety of exotic cocktails. Mix the pomegranate syrup – by the way, they are made with sugar but it’s not outrageous for a flavoring element as opposed to dominating the drink – with vodka and voila! You’ve got an elegant glamorous martini-ish cocktail. I’m sure you can think of a dozen ways to use the many flavors like Thai Basil, Tangerine with Sea Salt, Ginger and more. The New York Times talks about Som flavorings and how the makers have begun calling these vinegar-based drinks “cordials” to mitigate the public’s hesitation over a drink made with vinegar. Trust me, with the lovely flavors to focus on, you won’t notice.

In case you don’t feel like mixing, don’t hesitate to try a few of the all-natural, organic-ingredient-rich Sipp Sparkling Organics beverages. The unique flavor combinations will set your imagination alight. Think Lemon Flower or Summer Pear, or Mojo Berry or Ginger Blossom, and imagine one as an aperitif or as a tongue-titillating treat with some of your favorite dishes. Oooh, can’t you just imagine Lemon Flower or Ginger Blossom with Asian food? Other cool combos include Zesty Orange and Ruby Rose. Any of these also make a delightful chilled treat as an aperitif or snack. Just be aware, these have more added sugars. They’re all sweetened with agave which isn’t, strictly speaking, actual sugar but is slightly higher in calories than sugar and, therefore, not a great idea for diabetic diets. Get your first batch online or in town at Meijers, Kroger, Safeway and other popular markets.

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4 Food and drink products you’ll enjoy

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Always a pleasure to discover new products that touch us in some way – flavor being, of course, the #1 consideration. But sometimes the health benefits are significant, and sometimes the environmental impact is a blessing that results from the thoughtul care given by the entrepreneurs to the making of their products. And sometimes it’s just about the pleasure of consuming!

Vegetarian Traveler topperVegetarian Traveler Protein Toppers. The idea is to provide plant-based protein snacks/toppers that are good for you and good for the planet. And I was slightly surprised but really happy that these things are pretty darn good. One whole snack bag (1.25 oz, ~150 calories) provides as much protein as two and a half eggs. Plus, they are a whole lot less trouble to peel, since they don’t actually have to be peeled. Crispy, crunchy, full of protein, and lightly salted for your eating enjoyment. Tried these in plain Greek yogurt, but didn’t find that too appealing, texture-wise. But it sure was a big hit of protein – first time ever my Fitbit reported 46% protein in my daily stats. Have since found I like them just straight out of the bag as a snack or meal supplement. Nice healthier substitute for the allure of the dreaded potato chip…

Several varieties of Vegetarian Traveler Protein Toppers
Several varieties of Vegetarian Traveler Protein Toppers

The toppers come in three flavors, all of which involve some form of soy. So if you’re sensitive to that, these aren’t for you. But otherwise, these mixtures make a terrific, easy, relatively low-fat way to painlessly add extra plant-based protein to your diet – and contribute mightily to the health of our beloved planet Earth. Because the amount of land we have to use to grow food for those animals is staggering – and in doing so, we are destroying the forests our atmosphere depends on. Not available in stores in Chicago yet, you can buy these online from Amazon at $24.99 for a 4-pack of all three varieties. Free shipping if you’ve got Amazon Prime. Works out to about $2 a serving.

Petal sparkling watersPetal Sparkling Botanical Blends. This brand makes a line of very lightly sweetened botanical-based sparkling beverages that make great foundations for cocktails or as refreshing bubbly beverages on their own. Flavors include several rose petal-infused types as well as lemongrass-dandelion, elderberry with white tea flowers, and peach marigold. You can imagine how aromatic and delicate these are just from the titles! Each 12-ounce can is only 10-15 calories, due to the 2-3 grams of added sugar-in-the-form-of-agave in each can. Compare that to the typical 39 grams – nearly 10 teaspoons – in a regular 12-ounce soda.

The rose aroma is lovely, though I usually like it in cosmetics more than food. The rose flavor was delicate but seemed a little artificial-tasting – as we are wont to find most anything made with rose flavor. The peach marigold was very nice and tasted only a tiny bit artificial. You can buy these online or at a number of Chicago locations – use their handy store locator here. Whether you worry about artificial sweeteners or heavily sugar-sweetened drinks, and you’re looking for a unique beverage to help you cut down on soda consumption, these could make a good alternative.

Lucien Albrecht cremant
Lucien Albrecht cremant

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d/Alsace Brut Rosé. If you love a nice Pinot Noir, chances are you’ll enjoy this dry sparkling wine made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes. We have always had enjoyable experiences with wines by Lucien Albrecht.

With this one you’ll appreciate the nice balance – crisp acidity, with a creamy texture and long finish. This salmon-colored bubbly is made the same way genuine Champagne is – i.e., method traditionelle – and aged 14 to 16 months on the lees. Look for flavors of strawberry and wild cherry fruit that develop from the Crémant grapes grown in the lower end of the richly biodiverse soils on the slopes surrounding Orschwihr near the Vosges mountains. Under $20 and available at most wine merchants.

Miners Mix can enrich your cooking
Miners Mix can enrich your cooking

Miners Mix All Natural Spice Blends. We’ve all tried some of the many meat rub products out there. In a lot of cases we’ve discovered they’re loaded with salt. So it was with some skepticism we set out to try some of samples graciously provided by Miners Mix. They’re tagline is, “If it didn’t exist in 1850, it ain’t in here!” The point of which is to say the mixes are not loaded with artificial preservatives, HFCS, MSG or other artificial flavor enhancers. The heat in the spicier mixes comes straight from chiles instead of capsaicin oil.

Miners Mix can do wonders for chicken
Miners Mix can do wonders for plain baked chicken

In addition to the powerful flavors of these rubs, you’ll also get a powerful but pleasant shock to the tongue and tastebuds when you realize with the first bite that there’s decidedly less salt in these than many other seasonings with similar profiles. Started by a guy who loved grilling and eating BBQ from an early age, the company was conceived during a year-long visit to Australia where his California family felt terribly deprived of their favorite Mexican dishes. Returning home, his love of chorizo led him to want to create a better-tasting, less-fatty version of it. After much persuasion from friends and family, he started commercializing his recipe. And now you and I can get these delicious, lower-salt magic formulas to transform our grilled and baked dishes. Treat yourself to one of their dozen varieties here.

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Happy surprises in Chicago food and drink

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Ivy Hotel Sky Terrace rooftop
Ivy Hotel Sky Terrace rooftop
Ivy Hotel juicy, meaty BBQ pork belly
Ivy Hotel juicy, meaty BBQ pork belly

The boutique Ivy Hotel‘s cozy Sky Terrace rooftop space at 233 E. Ontario is good for enjoying their delicious drinks and apps outdoors without leaving the hotel. Don’t often find pork belly so crispy and meaty and not-too-fatty.  Oh, and definitely check out their delicious popcorn-batter-coated shrimp!

A Revolution Brewing surprise - a super fresh, creative composed salad
A Revolution Brewing surprise – a super fresh, creative composed salad

Who thinks about a brewery as a place to get delicious food? Surprise! Revolution Brewing, 3340 N. Kedzie Ave., recently put on a wonderful dinner to help Jameson’s Irish Whiskey introduce its newest family members – Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition and Stout Edition. These new editions draw their unique flavors from spending a little vacation in the craft beer casks where Revolution makes some of its favorite beers. And while you’re trying them, you just might fall in love with Revolution’s braised lamb shank with beet risotto!

Lovely matchups with Jameson's Caskmates and Revolution Brewing drafts
Lovely matchups with Jameson’s Caskmates and Revolution Brewing drafts

Jameson’s, the famous Irish whiskey company, is taking a cue from the many wines and spirits that have begun to collaborate with each other to give their creations extra complexity. In the case of whiskey in beer barrels, the whiskey adopts some of the flavor characteristics of the beer that came before it. The Stout Edition adopts flavors of coffee, chocolate and butterscotch from the Stout seasoned barrels and gets a creamier texture from this treatment. Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition shows hints of fresh hops, grapefruit and some sweet herbal notes from the IPA beer barrels in which she finishes. Jameson Caskmates Fist City Pale Ale Edition results from a partnership with the passion of the masters at Revolution Brewing and the Irish soul of Jameson. This whiskey is truly representative of the dedication both companies practice in giving back to their own neighborhoods.

When you imbibe one of the lovely Caskmates, look for the smoothness of Jameson with the malt and citrus notes of the infamous Chicago Pale Ale. Your nose will detect an initial citrus character and some mild notes of honey and sweetness. The taste is full-bodied with hints of hops with both of vanilla and a toasted oak character. Enjoy the long lingering finish as the spices and hops fade slowly, with fruit and toasted oak notes holding out along with the signature Jameson smoothness. Questions? Call the folks at Revolution and they’ll be sure to fill you in.

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South African wines surprise and delight

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South Africa – not a place we U.S. folks normally think of in connection with fine wines but, hey, the times they are a-changin’. And some excellent South African wine makers are making their presence known here in the U.S. with their wines that take full advantage of the many fine terroirs available there. Their 2019 visit to Chicago – Wines of South Africa Roadshow held at Bar Ramone – paired delicious appetizers with a range of varietals from five different wineries in various sections of South Africa. Some of the 4- and 5-star lovelies – with quite reasonable prices – included:

  • Haute Cabriere Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2018, Robinson & Sinclair. SRP ~$15.
  • Brut NV Rosé – 50/50 Chardonnay-Pinot Noir, Graham Beck. This one gets 4-6 hours of skin contact SRP ~$20.
  • Oak Lane Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Beau Joubert. Imported by Wein-Bauer. SRP ~$9.
  • Boschendal Brut Rosé NV, DGB. Imported by Pacific Highway. SRP ~$21. This one was a BIG favorite at the tasting.
  • Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016, DGB. Made from grapes grown in 45-year-old vineyards.
  • Bellingham Bernard-series SMV 2014, DGB. Great with heavy meats.
  • Boschendal Cabernet, DGB. A lovely, gentle red. SRP ~$20.
  • Glenelly Estate Reserve 2012. SRP ~$25.
  • Glenelly Lady May 2012. 89% Cabernet, 10% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc. Delicious! SRP ~$50.

Another day brought six South African winemakers to City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph, where they conducted a seminar to educate participants about how in the past ten to fifteen years South African winemakers have caught up with the wisdom of winemakers from many other countries.

Representing some of South Africa’s top winemaking talent, this collaboration brings together longtime friends and colleagues who have studied and worked together over the last 20 years. “This is the first time we’re telling our story in the United States and we’re incredibly excited to tell this story together,” says Adi Badenhorst of A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines.

In showcasing the diverse wines and landscape of South Africa, each winemaker represents a distinct terroir and perspective on the experimentation and innovation happening in the country today. The group includes:

  • Adi Badenhorst, A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines
  • Sebastian Beaumont, Beaumont Family Wines
  • Abrie Beeslaar, Beeslaar and Kanonkop Estate
  • Graham Weerts, Capensis
  • Eben Sadie, The Sadie Family Wines

These experienced winemakers have begun making new magic with some popular grape varietals like making Chenin Blanc. They’ve begun rarefying grape varietals to create the likes of Pinotage – a combination of Cinsault and Pinot Noir – that can be used to make a rich, delicious wine. And they’re putting together classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to produce especially deep, @arich wines. All of these wines are totally food friendly.

“South Africa is exciting in that it’s not monolithic, it’s incredibly diverse,” says Eben Sadie of The Sadie Family Wines. “It’s the oldest of New World wine regions, and at the same time there’s a novel approach to wine with many individual interpretations.”

The panel of winemakers collaborated over many hours of testing to select a small group of wines they felt were emblematic of the diversity in South African wines. And Rebekah Mahru, Beverage Director for City Winery moderated the master class so that each of these big-personality winemakers had the opportunity to speak from the heart about their wines. Here is a list of those specially chosen wines along with some of the panelists’ comments:

  • A.A. Badenhorst Ramnasgras 2017. 100% Cinsault. SRP ~$45. Adi said, “After 1995 most South African winemakers felt they had to make wines that were like those made in the U.S. Now, in the last ten to fifteen years, we are starting to make really South African wines.”
  • The Sadie Family Wines Soldaat 2017. 100% Grenache Noir. SRP ~$75. This wine tasted a bit grape-y to us. Eben Sadie said, “We have corrected many of the mistakes about where to grow grapes, etc. We’re a more focused, vibrant industry.” The Jackson Family is now investing in South African wines. “They have always been pioneers,” he said. Eben said he learned a great deal from having spent ten years living in Spain.
  • Storm Vrede 2016. 100% Pinot Noir. Pleasant, light, not too acidic, pale color. SRP ~$55.
  • Beeslaar Pinotage 2016. A 4.5-star 100% Pinotage (a hybrid of Pinot and Cinsault). SRP ~$55. This is Abrie Beeslaar’s own label, founded in 2011. Grown on shale, this wine has rich perfume and many floral notes. Pairs better than most wines with spicy foods.
  • Kanonkop Estate Paul Sauer 2015. A 5-star Bordeaux blend created by Abrie Beeslaar – 70% Cabernet, 15% Merlot and others. In South Africa they are allowed to plant anything anywhere they like. No rules, as in France. Beeslaar said the wind is a key factor in the quality of the grapes in this lower-mountain-slope vineyard. The winds cool the vineyards and limit the growth of the bush vine plants.
  • Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2015. 100% Syrah. Another wine from Eben Sadie, this one has a short finish bit is otherwise fully ripe and rich. SRP ~$65.
  • Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite 2018. 100% Chenin Blanc. Named after Beaumont’s grandmother, this wine is green-ish, light, elegant, grown on shale soils.
  • Capensis Chardonnay 2015. 100% Chardonnay. Made by Beeslaar.
  • The Sadie Family Wines Palladius 2016. This 5-star white is a blend of 11 dfifferent varieties from the Swartland area. Aged 24 months in clay amphorae, then in concrete eggs, then in oak foudres which don’t impart oak characteristics.
  • Vergelegen Flagship G.V.B. White 2016. 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. These vineyards are also scoured by howling winds on a regular basis. This wine is green, light, fresh and young, and is not yet available in the U.S.
  • Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2015. 100% Muscat de Frontignan. Lovely dessert wine that is more complex than many sweet wines. Jane Austen and others of her time were huge fans of Constantia wines. SRP ~$95.
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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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Wine wisdom from Matt Crafton of luxury Chateau Montelena wines

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Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash
Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash

Some wineries bring their wines to market via huge gatherings of trade and media reps, complete with educational seminars, panel presentations, slide shows, and so on. With luxury producers like Chateau Montelena, it’s more usual to showcase their wares by serving them in the conditions for which they’re designed – small groups that encourage conversation and allow the wines to reveal their true beauty over a shared meal of delicious food.

Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena
Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena

That’s the approach Matt Crafton, chief winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, takes when he brings a curated selection of his wines to a city. He works with local executive chefs to pair their creations and his with a deft and definitive touch. In Chicago recently, he worked with chefs at Maple & Ash, 8 W. Maple, to construct a menu ideally suited to the wines – perfect pairings for the luxury whites and reds he brought to represent the best of the Chateau’s small-production vineyard.

Crafton, who says he enjoys having his 7-, 5- and 1-year-old kids follow him around the vineyard, often checks his smartphone, even when he’s out of town, to see how the vines are faring. The winery has sensors all over the vineyard that constantly send stats about water levels to his phone. Those numbers tell him when the vines are being stressed – even before the leaves begin to show physical signs such as curling or turning – so that he can order countermeasures if needed.

Over a meal of meticulously paired and perfectly prepared dishes created by the chefs at avec Restaurant, 615 W. Randolph, Crafton generously shared a few of his thoughts and insights about wine in general and Chateau Montelena in particular.

Special points of his wine wisdom:

  • Be on the watch. The Bordeaux wine region in France has recently been spraying its vines with copper sulfate in order to control a mildew infestation. This is not good for the soil long term – and thus for the wines.
  • Food for thought: Seven percent of the entire human population is left-handed. In the wine making business, the share is forty percent.
  • Labeling a wine – or anything – “organic” is nearly meaningless in our current state of affairs. There are simply too few controls. Sustainable growing is, instead, the ideal for which we all should be striving.
  • Wine is a delicate custom expression of each terroir – and naturally varies according to the year’s weather and soil conditions. If you’re looking for the same experience every year in your beverage, drink beer.
  • When you want to age a wine, you’ll get a better result with 1.5-liter bottles than the usual 750 ml size. Why? Because with the same cork, you get twice the volume, which slows down the process.
  • Using an aerator is good, but it cannot remotely compare to actually aging a wine. Oak and grape skins contribute tannins. Cement and clay hold oxygen while keeping the fruit fresh. Aerators just add ambient air.
  • American oak is looser-grained and can contribute flavors like coconut, dill and vanilla. French oak is more subtle. Spanish wines, for example, use a lot of American oak and tend to have a vanilla aroma.
  • If you the big Italian red wines like Barolo but find yourself not enjoying somewhat lesser Italian reds, it may be you are not consuming them along with food – the experience for which they are specifically made.
Beautiful - Montelena Estate Cab 2005
Beautiful – Montelena Estate Cab 2005

Special points about Chateau Montelena:

  • Chateau Montelena was one of the California wineries that came crashing onto the world stage with the famous “Judgment of Paris” back in the 70s when Napa Valley wines, red and white, received top honors over France’s finest – as decided by French judges doing blind tastings.
  • Chateau Montelena sets aside 5 to 10% of every vintage of Chardonnay and Cabernet each year and cellars it so that customers who cannot or choose not to age a bottle on their own will be able five years hence to purchase one that shows off how well that vintage has aged in the bottle.
  • Their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP ~$65), typically blended with Merlot or sometimes Cabernet Franc – is made to be approachable when young.
  • Their Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet (SRP ~$175) is never blended with Merlot – because they don’t grow those grapes on the estate –  but sometimes with Petit Verdot. This gem takes time to reach its peak and will open up much more after a longer time in the bottle.
  • The estate consists of 100 acres behind the Chateau and is partly situated on two mountain ranges that each contribute a different kind of soil – one of volcanic ash and the other mineral-rich from having been under the sea.

Crafton said he likes to bring Chateau Montelena to others around the country in order to demonstrate what their values are. “We take our wines very seriously,” Crafton said. “But we try not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, it [making wine] is about making people happy.”

Some of the luxury wines he brought to Chicago included:

Happily, when you’re looking for that special wine you want to save for the future or that special wine you want to drink to celebrate a momentous or even just a festive occasion, you can frequently find Chateau Montelena wines at Binny’s, Mariano’s, and many small wine shops and restaurants in and around Chicago.

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Loire Valley shows how to match flowers to wine

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  1. Whether you’ve always wondered about it or you’ve never given it a thought, wines can be paired just as delightfully with flowers as they can with food. Spring to Loire 2019 (see our earlier review here) came to Chicago and presented an entire separate seminar on the art of matching your flowers to your wines at any special occasion.  A florist/wine aficionado showed attendees how to match three different wines – a red, a white and a sparkling – with its own specific  flower type. So next time you plan a brunch or dinner party with wine and flowers, consider these notes and let your imagine run wild:

Red – Sancerre rouge Joseph Mellot Le Rabault 2017 -100% Pinot Noir. Color: deep ruby. Nose: the nose starts with black cherries, elderberry and blackcurrant. A hint of toasted bread.  Mouth: balanced with a beautiful volume, structure and fine and silky tannins associated with the freshness of Pinot, a gorgeous mouth-feel and silky-smooth tannins yielding lovely structure. Flower: White Hyacinth, with its slightly bold spring fragrance adding a zippy finish akin to the natural spice finish of cherry.

White – Menetou-Salon blanc Henry Pellé Les Bornes 2017 – Sauvignon Blanc. Color: clear yellow. Nose: green apples, citrus and melon. Mouth: Citrus, peach, apples and mineral all the way. Long aftertaste, full bodied. Flower: Sweet Pea, with its spicy and green elements that make it feel very balanced.

Sparkling – Crémant Domaine Xavier & Agnès Amirault Les Quarterons – Chenin Blanc. Type: small bubbles with aromas of old rose and lemon, enlivened by drops of honey. An enticing wine in which the breadth of Chenin and the confidence of Chardonnay blend to perfect effect. Flower: Honeysuckle, the main note of which is fresh apple, which makes it smell lightweight and sophisticated.

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Loire Valley Wines refresh and delight

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Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium
Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium

Want a wine that evokes gloriously fresh surroundings? The wines of the Loire Valley bring to mind a range of pleasant springs and mountain streams as well as gentle sun, lazy breezes and relaxed days. They come in a myriad styles – from dry to sweet and everything in between – and in all price ranges.

Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars
Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars

Recently, Jamel A. Freeman, wine director at the Bellemore Chicago, presented seminars at Spring to Loire 2019 in Chicago – facts, figures and stories about these lovely wines. He explained that Loire Valley wines are best known for crisp, dry, white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc and aromatic Chenin Blancs. yet they also produce fruity red wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes as well as earthy red wines from Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Not to mention their selection of dry and off-dry rosé, elegant sparklings and luscious sweet wines. All are known to be:

  • Moderate alcohol, refreshing acidity and minerality that make them ideal for pairing with foods.
  • Pure expressions of varietal and terroir unmasked by oak.
  • Excellent value.
Jamel presented three separate seminars. One on the Diversity of LV wines. A second on the Sauvignons of LV. And a third on LV sparklings. He also shared additional interesting facts and figures about Loire Valley and about wines in general. Herewith a few tidbits:
  • The balance of acid and fruit is a good indicator of how well a wine will continue to develop in the bottle – like a fruit ripening, a wine may be high in acid to begin with and then become  mellower and sweeter as it ages.
  • Loire Valley:
    • Is France’s #1 producer of white wines, and the #2 producer of rosés.
    • Is the #1 region for the number of AOC sparkling wines
    • Is the 3rd largest vineyard in France.
    • Has 51 appellations and denominations
    • Produces 320 million bottles per year.
  • Ever notice how Prosecco seems to go flat quickly? That’s because it’s produced by the bulk method. Loire Valley and other sparklings produced by methode traditionale are fermented a second time in the bottle – which results in longer-lasting bubbles.
  • Stress to vines develops complexity. Higher elevation means more acidity and more minerality.
  • Vouvray – which has become almost a generic name for sparklings from Loire Valley – is half as bubbly as champagne, but creamier than Cremant.
  • Chenin Blanc grapes are more aromatic than Charadonnay, but Chardonnay can be more easily manipulated because of its less powerful aromas.
Most of the wines Jamel presented are available at Binny’s. A few of the excellent wines showcased at the program are listed below. For more information about Loire Valley wines visit www.loirevalleywine.com/.
Sparklings
  • Vouvray NV, Domaine VIgneau-Chevreau. A sparkling with lots of flint, minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc from 25 year old grapes. Just delicious! SRP ~$23-26.
  • Jean-Francois Merieau Vouvray 2012. 80% Chenin Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Seashell minerality and a nose of floral notes and white peaches. SRP ~$19.
Whites
  • Vincent Grall Sancerre 2017. This wine is the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc in Loire Valley. Aged in oak or acadia wood. SRP ~$26.
  • Domaine Paul Buisse Touraine 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely value-priced white with seashell minerality on the palate; sage, bell pepper and crushed chalk aromas SRP ~$13.
  • Vignobles Gibault Touraine-Chenonceaux 2017. 100% Sauvgnon Blanc. Long, slow fermentation pulls out the aromatics, and this wine features rich notes of pears. ~$21
  • Henry Pelle Menetou-Salon 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A nose of organic white peach blossoms, yellow apple flesh. Rich tasting white. SRP ~$23.
Reds
  • Sancerre 2016 Joseph Mellot. 100% Pinot Noir. Complex with a long finish. Similar in characteristics to Northern side of Burgundy.

Be sure to look for our next post on pairing Loire Valley wines with flowers!!

Any way you look at it, you’re almost guaranteed to have an enjoyable wine when you choose from the broad selection of Loire Valley Wines.
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