Category Archives: beverages

Food news you can use

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 One of our favorite things to do is to taste-test new and interesting food products for this blog. We were recently invited to try out products from Just Spices,  Peter & Pat’s Pierogies and molly&drew®. Now we’ve got a couple of new ideas for cooking at home and for gifts for other cooks. Below are some thoughts.
  1. Just Spices is a German company that makes a series of flavorful seasoning powders, some spicy, some sweeter (like the new berry flavoring for yogurt) that are USDA organic and “sourced with love.”
     The one for barbecue popcorn is a surprise – it gives your evening popcorn a barbecue flavor that doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, like many BBQ seasonings do. Especially if you pop your popcorn in coconut oil – so delicious – you don’t want to overwhelm it with spice. This BBQ seasoning is delicate yet definite enough to make your mouth pay attention.

     The Just Spices Mexican seasoning is transformative. Now an avocado-studded taco salad – minus the beans and the meat – can be pretty delicious with just romaine, cilantro, red onion and salsa, topped with thickened 2% Greek yogurt (lower fat and calories than sour cream) and lots of fresh lime juice. Add a few drops of Habanero sauce and you’re good to go. But then, if you add a quarter teaspoon of the Just Spices Mexican seasoning, that same dish puts you on the sun-soaked hacienda of an elegant Mexican resort. And you immediately want to order a margarita with your salad. Even if it’s 8:30 AM. We also added it to our turkey meatballs and to the tomatoes we cooked ’em in and really enjoyed the whole thing.
     Go try some of these. They just introduced 20 new flavors, too. You won’t go wrong buying one of their boxed sets as a gift for a hostess or friend who enjoys cooking but isn’t fanatical about making their own seasoning. These provide a shortcut that any non-professional cook – and maybe some professionals, too – will appreciate. Each individual package is 100 milliliters and priced from $5.99 to $7.99. Available online only at www.justspices.com/

  2. Peter & Pat's Pierogies make an easy dinner entree
    Peter & Pat’s Pierogies make an easy dinner entree

    Peter & Pat Pierogies. And how about some low-fat, low-cholesteraol all-natural pierogies to back up – or be – your dinner entree? Peter & Pat love traditional Eastern European food so much they built it into a thriving catering business over the past 20 years. The most popular dish on their menu is the pierogies. In fact, theirs has become one of the top-selling pierogie brands in the United States. It’s been so successful they’ve now officially launched in Costco locations across the Midwest.
     We can personally vouch for the flavor and filling ability of the 4-cheese-and-potato version they sent to test – delicious mix of creamy mashed potatoes with Cheddar, farmers, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses. Yet only 240 calories for four pierogies – not bad for so much creamy, cheesy goodness. Frozen bags of 4 pounds – that’s a lotta pierogies (65 per bag – 12 servings) – for $9.99 at Costco.

  3. molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy
    molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy

    molly&drew® Single Serve Mug Cake Kits come in four flavors include, Ooey Gooey Chocolate, Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel, Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Candy Cane. Just add water, microwave for 90 seconds and ditch the need to mess up the kitchen. Fast, easy dessert for one or two. Top with whipped cream to make it more decadent.
    molly&drew® also craft their own beer breads and beer cakes that let you blend your favorite beer into ready-to-go mixes. Try the beer bread for appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts. There’s a cake mix, too, which we sampled – fun to make a cake with beer. We did, however, find the sizable dose of almond extract in the Amore Amoretto flavor somewhat overpowering. We left the cakes sit out for a day and the almond flavor diminished a bit. Still, what a fun – and EASY – idea for sharing with family and friends for brunches, barbeques, dinners, parties, sporting events and more.

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The Symington family of fine port wines

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Charles Symington in the vineyard
Charles Symington in the vineyard

Interestingly, port wines often do not state vintage years. Instead, when a wine is particularly good one year, it is “declared” a vintage after it’s been bottled. Because differences in weather are unpredictable every year, only great years can command a declaration. It is always an exercise in self-restraint for port winemakers to decide which years deserve to be declared.

Rupert Symington checking the grapes
Rupert Symington checking the grapes

Some of the biggest names in port from the Douro Valley are all owned by the Symington Family Estates. Cousins Rupert and Charles Symington came to Chicago recently to introduce their exciting 2015 vintages and showcase a few of their older premium offerings.

 They brought four of their renowned name brands and presented the 2015 vintage along with carefully selected  older vintages of the same brand. It was a fascinating horizontal and vertical tasting exercise that highlighted the differences between young port wines and mature. It very clearly showed how aging in the bottle changes and deepens the complexity and flavor in a fine ruby port.
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Cockburn's vintage port 2015 label
Cockburn’s vintage port 2015 label

Our favorite among all was the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, its bicentenary vintage. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s from the  company that had been operating it since the family sold it in the 1950s – to the detriment, they believed, of the fine brand. “We wanted to bring back the spirit of Cockburn’s,” said Rupert. So they organized a tasting of some of the very oldest Cockburn’s vintages – from 1912, 1920 and so on. They knew, then, what their goal would be to engineer the re-birth of the Cockburn excellence. Their 2015 has lush aromas and flavors of maraschino and black cherry that eventually turn into Kirsch-like flavors. Rupert described it as “tropical jungle.” The 2011 vintage port is a perfect example of this super-refined structure and power of the Cockburn port profile: dark, brooding, powerful.

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The Symingtons offered a couple of observations about grapes: Touriga Franca is like Merlot – softer, forgiving, aromatic. Cabernet is more like Touriga Nacional – dark and needs softening.
Port goes through three phases: 1) young, fresh and full of fruit flavor; 2) after 10 to 15 years the port starts to mature and begins to get that raisiny flavor; and 3) 20-30 years when the port loses some of its intense, deep color and becomes much more subtle as it approaches serious maturity.
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Vintage port is made with extraordinary grapes. Then they add a colorless brandy with a 20% level of alcohol. The brandy gradually gets absorbed into the port and basically disappears, and then the wines darken up. A simple fact: it takes 7 liters of wine to make one liter of brandy– which is how they do it in Spain.
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Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2015 was lovely. Made from tiny grapes, it has been declared a vintage. Shows very concentrated fruit and a pure expression on the nose. Slight tropical notes, Only 345 cases made.
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Six Grapes is a Grahams brand of port that uses the same grapes as Dow’s port. When Dow’s declares a vintage, the next best barrels go into Six Grapes bottles. When there is no declaration, the best grapes of all go into the Six Grapes brand. You get the finest quality at a much lower price with Graham’s Six Grapes.
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Their Quinta do Vesuvio winery does not declare – it bottles. The wines are velvety and sweeter with lots of fruit aromas. Sweetness makes it smoother on the palate. All Vesuvio vintages are trodden by foot. producers are so consistently exceptional that they simply call it a vintage almost every year.
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Dow’s rounded out the selection of pairs – themselves very nice, slightly drier wines. Quinta del Senhora da Ribeira has had almost ideal climate for growing port grapes. All their wines are velvety. Floral tones from the Touriga Franca, resin and spicy flavors from the Nacional along with some tar and smoke
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Profile – Rémy Martin Cellar Master Loiseau

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Remy Martin Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau
Remy Martin Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau

The message is clear: Rémy Martin XO Cognac, savored slowly, yields oh-such-rich rewards. Baptiste Loiseau is young to be in charge of creating some of the finest Cognacs in the world. At 36 – tall, slender, handsome and impeccably groomed – he is the youngest Cellar Master ever to be appointed to the Rémy Martin house of fine Cognacs. And he’s earned that place, learning at the right hand of Rémy Martin’s then-Cellar-Master after having already paid his dues studying wine making around the world.

Loiseau spoke with passion about how memories connect with fine Cognacs – the layers and subtleties of this fine distilled spirit evoke not only aromas and flavors but also feelings. He grew up spending copious amounts of time with his grandparents, who grew flowers and vegetables and taught him from an early age to pay close attention to scents and flavors.
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He decided first to study agriculture, in honor of his fond memories of learning at the feet of his grandparents, and then moved into research. But he found he missed contact with people. Wanting to be in a job with much contact with others – and of course that included good food and wine in some way – he settled on winemaking. He knew this career would also allow him to travel the world. In particular he wanted to pursue the intense curiosity he’d developed from reading about South Africa. In the six years he first studied winemaking, he spent two in Toulouse, then traveled to Montpelier, Bordeaux, South Africa and New Zealand, learning techniques along the way.
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Flowers with Waldorf-Astoria's signature royal purple
Flowers with Waldorf-Astoria’s signature royal purple

But his heart was drawn back to Cognac. Having experienced the rich multitude of aromas emanating from those small copper pot stills full of eau de vie, he wanted to learn what was going on in there. So his next step was to spend two years researching the connections between grapes and eau de vie. And that’s when Rémy Martin invited him to join their team, led by their Cellar Master – actually, Mistress. She took him under her wing and taught him everything she knew about how to turn eau de vie into the distinct style of Rémy Martin. He spent seven years under her expert tutelage, learning how to select the eau de vie, determine the quality of the cask, and make the blends. “She was like my mother at work,” said Baptiste.

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And then, when he was just 33, she handed him the reins. He looks ahead now to always innovating while honoring the spirit of Rémy Martin. He welcomed Chicago visitors recently at the Waldorf-Astoria.
 One of the distinguishing differences, said Loiseau, between Rémy Martin and other Cognacs is the fact that all their grapes and eaux de vie derive from just two plots of chalky soil in the Champagne region of France. Also, they don’t just distill the clear eau de vie but also manage the lees – the natural yeasts that contain so many of the aromas and are present in wine cellars. “Our wines from which we make eau de vie must, in themselves, be perfect,” said Baptiste. “The vapors from these wines escape and become liquid, creating the heart of the eau de vie – elegant with concentrated fruitiness.”
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Rémy Martin XO new decanter and gift box
Rémy Martin XO new decanter and gift box

Okay, what’s the right way to taste the finest Rémy XO? You must take your time, says Baptiste. The aromas reveal themselves gradually as the liquid sits in the glass. First, you will notice some fruitiness. Then comes the richer flavors of nuts. And later, the surprise of complements to dark chocolate. “Do you keep the chocolate in your mouth when you taste the Cognac?” He nodded and watched my surprise as I experienced an explosion of flavors and sensations all around my mouth – utterly delightful. He smiled. “That is what happens when you combine dark chocolate with XO. But you have to wait a while. The right complementary flavors and aromas are not released until the liquid has been in the glass for a little while.”

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“The floral notes don’t reveal themselves until the spirit has aged at least 10 years,” he said. “The bitterness of the chocolate highlights the softness of the spirit.” He kept murmuring: “butterscotch, oranges, rich, yeasty brioche…” It was a pleasure to see how deeply involved he was in experiencing and naming all the complexities of this magnificent Cognac. Gives the rest of us something to aspire to.

He talked about the tasting events they put on at the distillery for four to six guests at a time. They offer each group 20 to 30 samples of eaux de vie during the winter season. The first round of tasting, guests are asked to choose their own reactions to each – fortunately for the aroma-impaired, you are given a multiple-choice sheet to check off – and then they go through the tastes again with Baptiste leading the process. He asks guests what feeling they experience with each sample. Plus, guests are allowed to assign bonus points to each deserving sample.
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Besides the XO, Rémy Martin makes a VSOP that exhibits a harmony of flavors like vanilla and dried apricots. 1738 expresses nuts and vanilla. If you’re looking for a luxury gift for your Cognac-loving dad or grad, you won’t go wrong with Remy Martin.

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Wine in cans, organic spirits, and real-fruit sparkling water

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New players in the huge beverage market are out there contending for our drink dollars and responding to the public’s deep desires for 1) convenience, 2) organic and natural, and 3) healthy alternatives to soda pop. We don’t include plain bottled water ‘cuz we worry a lot about companies siphoning water from natural springs that already belong to the people – and charging us for processing it and putting it in bottles. Doesn’t sound like a pyramid scheme at all, right? So here are a few new items worth a try:
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Backpack Wines
Backpack Wines

Backpack canned wine. You’ve heard of boxed wine, of course, and a number of makers are putting out some excellent quality in that formerly-scorned-but-becoming-more-popular packaging. Now comes wine in a can. Backpack Wines, based here in Chicago, recently put out two blend varieties: Cheek Rosè® and Snappy White®, in four-can packs. Made with grapes from quality vineyards, the wines come in recyclable cans you can take anywhere with the same convenience you get from canned beer or soda. We’re not talking luxury wines here, but the taste is reasonable and the convenience unbeatable. Chill a few cans for your next barbecue, picnic, beach outing – or just sip one with a friend sittin’ on the patio on a summer evening (yes, summer is going to hit with a vengeaance any minute).

Prairie cucumber vodka
Prairie cucumber vodka

Prairie organic spirits. Another new player in the alcoholic beverages category is the line of Prairie organic Spirits. “Made with respect from seed to glass,” Prairie Organic Spirits offers 100% certified organic vodka, made from a single-sourced, organic corn grown on a handful family-owned and operated Minnesota farms. Each bottle of Prairie Organic Spirits takes three years of meticulous work. The Cucumber version we sampled gives off lovely and unmistakable aromas of fresh cucumbers. Immediately upon opening the bottle we imagined making our favorite chilled gazpacho or Bloody Mary recipe spiked with this pure, unadulterated spirit. It’s also great as a mixer with flavored sparkling water or in your favorite cocktail. Without question will increase the aromatic intensity of whatever you use it in.

Spindrift sparkling fruit water
Spindrift sparkling fruit water

Spindrift fresh-squeezed-fruit-flavored sparkling water. It’s always important to stay hydrated, but it can be problematic if you don’t enjoy plain water. And there’s some evidence that neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are very healthy, so here’s a new option: sparkling water made with real fruit. Spindrift is the only bubbly that uses real fruit to flavor its water. It’s refreshing on its own or a great mixer for summer cocktails. These waters are flavored only with 100% organically grown fruit – juice and purée. We love the fruit aromas and the bubbles of all the flavors. Now imagine topping up a shot of Prairie cucumber vodka (above) with ice and a few ounces of cucumber Spindriftr sparkling water – and top it with a spring of mint. Hard to get more refreshing than that. Comes in blackberry, cucumber, grapefruit, orange mango, lemon and – our favorite so far – raspberry lime.

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Cafe Brauer – good food, cocktails and great views

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English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Re...
English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Refectory is a National Historic Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It is currently run by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.

I love the fact that the patio  sits right next to the Nature Boardwalk that meanders through a nature preserve. Watch people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, enjoy the scenery. Or bring your own dog – the restaurant welcomes dogs on the patio.
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English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln P...
English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.

Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.

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Fried chicken with french fries
Fried chicken with french fries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad,  Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?

Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.

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If you hop the bus through Lincoln Park, you can catch either the 156 or the 151 down Stockton Blvd. There are several stops you can get off at; the first stop for the zoo on the southbound 151 is at Webster. The next stop, Armitage, lets you off close to Cafe Brauer.
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Hours for the patio are 11 to 9pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 to 9pm on weekends. Obviously, Café Brauer has been around quite a while, but it sure feels nice to discover this charming option. BTW, they have free Wi-Fi, and if the restaurant is not busy, you are welcome to sit and enjoy as long as you like. So delightful. Thank you, Chicago. Another reason to love our city.
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Redeem yourself on Dad’s day – toast with Redemption Whiskey

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We are big fans of distilled brown spirits of all types. And if you happen to be, as well, Father’s Day is a great excuse to splurge on a really nice bottle. But, then, so is Memorial Day, or summer, or Saturday, or… Heck, who needs an excuse anyway?

Redemption whiskey comes in several versions
Redemption whiskey comes in several versions

Redemption WhiskeyThe bold, flask shaped bottle is a perfect fit for the hardworking Dads in our lives, and the story of the whiskey is right on the label.

Redemption Wheated Bourbon ($44.99; 48% ABV) – NEW! This new limited edition offering, coming June 2017 just in time for Father’s Day, is harmonious on the palate, delicate, yet robust and intense. Most Wheated Bourbons have between 20% and 30% wheat in their mash bill while Redemption has 45%. Flavors of roasted coffee bean, smoked meats and hazelnut marry harmoniously with spicy notes of cardamom and black pepper and a fresh hint of mint. Deep topaz and amber with hues of orange and lime.

Redemption Rye ($29.99; 46% ABV) – A true expression of the rye grain, beautifully flavored rye spice with light floral and citrus notes. Slight mint finish makes this great or sipping or mixing in a classic cocktail.

Redemption Bourbon ($29.99; 42% ABV) – The high amount of corn gives this bourbon a classic sweet taste with notes of vanilla and caramel from the wood, and the rye adds some light spice flavor. Bottled at 84 proof for a lighter experience, great on the rocks or in mixed drinks.

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Wisdom from Jackson Family winemakers – Masters of Oregon Pinot Noir

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Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley
Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley

If you’ve ever thought a Pinot Noir from Oregon tasted like a Burgundy, you’re not alone. Though half a world away from each other, both regions are located on nearly the same latitude and many winemakers in each area practice similar vinification techniques. Early makers of Pinot Noir in America had to go to Burgundy to study because no wineries here were making Pinot Noir at the time. Willamette Valley has been focusing on Pinot Noir for the last 51 years, and its capricious weather keeps winemakers on their toes.

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Oregon, according to a panel of Jackson Family Wines Collection winemakers from there who visited Chicago recently, is a state of mind that’s slightly different for each of them, but all of them speak about the need to be flexible and creative and collaborative because of the challenge of Oregon’s cool, fast-changing climate conditions.
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Chicago is 6th in the United States in consumption of Oregon Pinot Noir – consumption here is up by 26% in the last year. And one of the big reasons is the excellent quality of the Pinot Noirs produced in the Willamette Valley by these very winemakers.
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Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Va...
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is a glimpse into the collective wisdom of these passionate and skilled winemakers – a somewhat loose arrangement of interesting bits about winemaking from the half-dozen panelists – who were, by the way, having more fun up there than we’ve ever seen in a wine tasting program!

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  • The soils in Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it, dammit) are actually oceanic, which is really good for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As the earth’s tectonic plates scraped against each other creating mountains in that area, they dislodged soil that was formerly at the bottom of an ocean and deposited that in the valley between the two mountain ranges, Cascade and Coast that both influence the environment and protect the grapes that grow here.
  • In 1988 there were only 49 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 700.
  • Unlike in Napa Valley where many owners don’t live, Jackson Family winemakers live on site. They also meet regularly and readily share information with each other. For example, when one grower decided to try earlier thinning than tradition, he readily passed along the results: vines mature better and the grapes have more flavor.
  • California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, is too warm to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It seldom has difficult growing seasons, whereas Oregon’s climate is a constant challenge to wine growers.
  • Julia Jackson, born in Sonoma, said her mother had a vision of going to Oregon, and then the whole family fell in love with wines grown there. Julia herself loves being out in the vineyards, being stewards of the land, a sense of discovery about the great wines.  Jackson Family winemakers also believe in educating visitors and so sponsor collaborative trips for that purpose.
  • The grapes in Willamette are more transparent than those grown in Burgundy, yet the finished wines can easily be aged 10 to 15 years. Burgundy has many different producers. Willamette offers multiple mesoclimates. Producers must be in intimate touch with the features of their terroir, and most consider their big markers as the specific site and the vintage – yielding wines with a rustic nature and a nice backbone of tannins. Even though Oregon Pinots have a darker profile, they tend to be fresher and more acidic than California’s.
  • Napa is most known for its Cabernet; Willamette is identified with Pinot Noir; Argentina with Malbec. La Crema was the first Jackson Family winery to move into Oregon. They definitely don’t try to make a California version of Pinot, but rather work on discovering what’s there and stay true to that. Willamette’s vintage-to-vintage variability necessitates constant continuing education. Jackson Family winemakers are required to dedicate 5% of land to biodiversity as part of the goal of keeping the land healthy.
  • Lots of volcanic soils are good for winemaking and viticulture. They have greater water holding capacity. Results in plush, fruit-driven wines. Sedimentary soil (as in Willakenzie) drains more freely. Vines struggle more, resulting in wines that are a bit more rustic, firm, structured. Oregon has only these two soil types – sedimentary and volcanic. California has many more soil types than France.
  • Wind is a moderating influence, and in Oregon it is significant. The last two wines listed below are grown in seriously windy areas. Zena-Crown is in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the same strong wind blows all year, even on 90-degree days. “We pick 2-3 weeks later, because vines shut down at night. It’s always been a truism that we can’t plant above 1000 feet, but now we’re considering it because the summers have been so much warmer. Skins get thicker from the wind – which helps grapes defend against weather. Keeps higher acidity, which equals freshness and tannins.” Read more about the cool-climate growing conditions in Willamette Valley.
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The winemakers are taking their program to various destinations around the U.S., and they said the character of the just-opened wines changes with every location – influenced by such things as barometric pressure, humidity, and the altitude at which you drink them. Even being on an upper floor, as we were in one of the beautiful Kimpton Gray Hotel event spaces where the program took place, would make a difference. They all said the wines were giving off more florals and more spice here than they had in the previous city. Ha! Most of us can only dream of one day achieving the level of sensitivity of such highly educated noses and palates…
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Jackson Family winemakers talk to each other and taste wines together. They are individual artists who make their own decisions. The Jackson Family does not prescribe that a winemaker must do something in a particular way. In fact, they even allow them to use blocks of land from partner wineries to make their blends.
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Structure, texture, and aroma are the concerns when putting together a blend. All Jackson Family vintners use French wood barrels and must be instinctive about how many oak barrels to buy – a decision that’s made long before the harvest.
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“Look out for the tannins,” said one panel member. “The fermentation process can get away from you. It’s not good to add salt later in the process – that amounts to ‘remedial winemaking’ and isn’t where we want to go.” In Oregon, it always rains during harvest, but every good winemaker will say that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. They know how to compensate.
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One panelist said they don’t drink their own wines at home, but rather experiment with others. “We go to the grocery store and buy European wines for $18-$20 a bottle. We want to know what the consumer is buying and experiencing.”
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Below are the names of the six wines the panelists provided for tasting, organized from lightest to most substantial in structure. Each is marked with our totally subjective star rating (remember, we tend to love highly structured wines) and a few winemaker tasting notes.
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  • Siduri Willamette Valley 2015. ***1/2  This Pinot is made with a blend of three different regions, uses 25% whole cluster (means they keep the grapes on their stems) and is made using Burgundian vinification techniques. Winemaker notes: “Darker berry and currant flavors, along with hints of cherry joined by earth, dried brush, and even tobacco flavors.” SRP ~$24
  • WillaKenzie Gisele Willamette Valley 2014. **** Blended to produce a rustic, brambly fruit flavor. Winemaker notes: “Juicy acidity and flavors of raspberry, plum and a hint of white pepper. The mouthfeel is elegant and polished with a long, velvety finish.” SRP ~$24
  • Penner-Ash Willamette Valley 2014. ****1/2 A gorgeous dark purple color but transparent. Jammy flavor. Winemaker notes: “Experience ripe, fresh raspberry, red plums and strawberry compote with a hint of subtle cedar. The fine texture and silky tannins enhance the vanilla, brown sugar, and leather notes on the finish.” SRP ~$40
  • La Crema Dundee Hills 2014. ***** Purple/garnet color with a mid-palate richness. Grown by the independent Oregon contingent of this famed La Crema California winery from two clones in an area sheltered from the winds, so with a longer growing season. This vineyard has 18 different soil types within its 80 acres. Winemaker notes: “A nose brimming with violets, cherry pie and earth. Flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and anise. Nuanced yet concentrated.” SRP ~$50
  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton 2014. ***** Another wine made with 25% whole cluster. Lovely pink-purple color. Winemaker notes: “Cranberry and rose hips up front that transform into orange zest and Meyer lemon on the mid pallet. This is followed by morel mushroom, red cedar, and exotic spices as allspice and mace.  Precise but broad; exhibiting restrained power and elegance combined with immense aging potential. Finish lingers giving impressions of pipe tobacco, earth, white sage and pure cocoa. Shaped like a teardrop rippling outward at the point of contact with a still body of water.” SRP ~$45
  • Zena Crown Slope Eola-Amity Hills 2013. ***** Couldn’t put it better than Wine Spectator’s 93-point rating – “Rich and expressive, featuring black cherry and pepper notes set against tangy mineral flavors. Comes together smoothly as the finish gains traction, with a light bite of tannins. Drink now through 2023. 348 cases made.” SRP ~$100
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Trader Todd’s shows off its brunch chops

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If you know Trader Todd’s, 3216 N. Sheffield, you may think of it mainly as a karaoke joint with tiki-bar-style drinks and atmosphere. But guess what? They are now doing brunch, and their Executive Chef Mark Hill really knows how to put food on the plate, with here and there his own unique touch to dishes you thought you knew.

Sweet spicy crunch chicken and waffles
Sweet spicy crunch chicken and waffles

For example, ever ordered fried chicken and waffles? It’s always seemed like a stretch to understand what makes the two go together. But Chef Hill has changed that up for many Trader Todd brunch customers. The way he combines these two is totally unique – kind of like eating your main course and your dessert at the same time. The waffle has a sweet crunch, and the chicken comes in chunks bathed in a rich, brown, slightly sweet-spicy jerk sauce sparked with Chef’s own mixture of allspice and peppers and maybe some or all of these: cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, and salt. It’s his secret – and it’s a good one.

Tenderly cooked eggs make a moist omelette
Tenderly cooked eggs make a moist omelette

And lest you wonder about the kitchen’s ability to do standard brunch items up right, check out the lovely omelette, cooked so that the eggs come out tender and moist rather than dry and tough. Get your choice of cheeses and fillings and eat ’em with the kitchen’s house-made fried potato chunks – tender inside and just enough crust on the outside. Delicious.

Pile the toppings high on your burger
Pile the toppings high on your burger

Or if you’re in the mood for a burger, Trader Todd’s does ’em good. Nice helping of ground beef, grilled and served with whatever toppings your heart desires. And some more of those good fried potato chunks.  But don’t stop there. They’ve got Benedicts and sliders and conch cakes, Jerk Chicken and Jerk Pork sandwiches and more. It’s pan-tropical food and drink to make you feel like you’re in the islands. Lots of open-air space, and there’s even a boat you can sit in in the back bar. It’s a faux-island paradise for brunchers to start off a Saturday or Sunday of relaxation.

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Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

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Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
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2 new rums and a Chile liqueur

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Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes
Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes

Rum is one of those drinks that can vary wildly in taste and smoothness. Some of the best are so smooth and delicious they can be enjoyed neat – like brandy/cognac, sipped as a post-prandial libation or nightcap. One of the leaders in the rum game is Captain Morgan, and they make a dozen different varieties from spiced (love it!) to regular to tropical flavored and super-premium. Below are a couple of rums and a unique chile liqueur we just learned about.

Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap
Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap


Oakheart Spiced Rum from Bacardi
 is delicately but richly spiced and tastes utterly lovely all by itself, even without ice. In a recent blind taste test, results indicated Oakheart won out over Capt. Morgan, but of course, you must judge for yourself. Oakheart is a clear winner for our nightcap needs around here.  Love the subtle layers of flavor and the gentle spicy warmth going down.

Uh, yeah. You can mix this with cola, but we think it’s a shame to drown all these flavors: “characteristics of oak barrel staves with the essence of bourbon or brandy, a hint of smoke from the charring process, background notes of dried fruit and heavy delivery of sweet creamy butterscotch. Notes of custard, maple and honey flavors [emphasis ours!] coat the tongue and [the drink] finishes with a touch of pepper.”

Havana Club Añejo Clasico Puerto Rican rum is a dark rum with oaky hints of vanilla and almond, along with fruity notes akin (think pineapple and apricot) with a robust and velvety finish. It’s really good in mixed drinks like the one in the recipe below. Perfect with a weekend brunch or a fireside session.

And on the 8th day...
And on the 8th day…

The 8th Day

  • 1 ½ parts HAVANA CLUB Añejo Clásico Puerto Rican Rum
  • 3 parts Chai tea
  • 1 ¾ parts coconut milk
  • 1 part simple syrup or 1 tbs white sugar

Method: Prepare Chai Tea. While the tea steeps, warm coconut milk over medium heat, do not boil. Combine ingredients in a high temperature resistant mixing glass, adding rum last and stir. Serve in an Irish Coffee Cup or preferred glass coffee cup, and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different
Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different

And then there’s the unique Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur from Puebla, Mexico. It’s good for after-dinner or aperitif, depending on your mood and your menu. This has been a favorite around here since we received the review sample. Thick and creamy, dark amber color, heat and peppery flavors make this a unique experience for your tongue and nose. Maker’s notes say: “Pleasantly sweet, followed by chile with moderate heat and slight acidity. Hints of spices, tamarind, plum, cacao, apple and almonds then subtle notes of fine herbs. A pleasantly lingering pungent taste on the finish.” Works for us!

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