Category Archives: beverages

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: naturally flavored sparkling water. 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 10% 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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Book reviews: 3 health-smart and delicious cookbooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crown Royal Vanilla greets the new year

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Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink
Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink

Crown Royal’s Canadian blended whiskies offer something for almost everyone. Its Signature series includes smooth Deluxe, Rye and Black. Its high-end Master series features XO and XR and more. And its Flavor series includes apple, maple and, now, a lovely vanilla-scented and -flavored version that mixes beautifully – and simply sings on its own. Maker’s tasting notes for Royal Crown Vanilla: “Rich vanilla bean with delicate hints of oak. Creamy vanilla on the palate with a smooth, light whisky finish that’s viscous and warming with a Crème Brulee aftertaste.” Yikes. No wonder we love this new version with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla! Makes us feel in some ways like we do when we sip a fine long-aged rum.

The company’s new tag line is especially meaningful in our world today. “Live generously and life will treat you royally.” In sending a sample for review, the company lived up to its motto by sending not only a bottle of the new vanilla-flavored Crown Royal to taste but also a bottle of the original Crown Royal. Each was nestled in a signature Crown Royal drawstring bag – one reading “One to keep” and the other “One to give.”

This kind of attitude in a business is admirable. We all know that corporations are in business to make a profit. So it stands out when a company takes a higher road in its advertising and then lives up to that position in other ways.

And if you like smooth sippin’ whiskey, you’re bound to love one or more of Crown Royal’s sophisticated blends. Get ’em at Binny’s or your favorite spirits merchant.

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Holiday drink surprise – Hot Ruby cider

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Hot Ruby cranberry cider
Hot Ruby cranberry cider

Surprise is right. We have always been tepid fans of sweeter drinks, including even fresh-made-in-the-fall apple cider. But this drink has us making an exception. Hot Ruby is a rich red cider with cranberry and citrus flavors and spicy-warm aromas of cinnamon and cloves. It tastes really good by itself just heated up in the microwave, like any heart-and-hand-warming winter beverage should. Love the intensity of both the flavors and the spices.

Hot Ruby hot and cold recipes
Hot Ruby hot and cold recipes

But if you’re celebrating the holidays on the beach somewhere, Hot Ruby changes personality in the twinkling of an eye. Try one of their chilled cocktails like Ruby on the Beach, Paloma Rojo, or Bubbly Ruby. Check out all the neat recipes – both alcoholic and not – on the card in the photo. Just expand it so you can read the ingredients, or read ’em here.  Intriguing combinations of flavors like coconut rum and Hot Ruby, or Hot Ruby and sparkling wine sound just delightful. This drink would make a fun party gift for your host/hostess or just bring a bottle or jar along when you next go visiting. Highly recommended. Buy it online because it’s not yet available in Chicago, but we hope it will be soon.

Works for romantic intentions, too!
Works for romantic intentions, too!
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