Category Archives: holidays

11 Beautiful Italian wines to warm your holidays

IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour
IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Sicilian wines under $20 for holiday meals

It’s never too early to start thinking about wines you might like to serve with your holiday meals. The selection is endless, certainly, but recommendations can help you hone down the list of possibles. Based on some recent complimentary review tastings, here are three we can recommend for various occasions, including various upcoming holidays. Two Sicilian whites and one red:
Donnafugata Lighea - unique Zibibbo grape wine
Donnafugata Lighea – unique Zibibbo grape wine

Lighea 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. This is a truly unique taste in white wines. It’s made of Zibibbo grapes (also known as Muscat of Alexandria), and the vines are grown in hollows on low bush vines (notorious for lower yields than traditional). This vintage was grown in a relatively dry season with weather that wasn’t overly hot, so the winemakers were able to focus on the quality of the grapes without worrying about quantity. Lighea has a brilliant straw color with greenish tints, a nose of classic notes of orange blossom, saturn peaches and Mediterranean scrub. The aromas reflect exactly what you’ll taste on the palate along with a fresh mineral vein – and that’s why this unusual combination produces such a unique flavor. Delicious as an aperitif and good with first courses like seafood or a light soup. SRP ~$15-20.

Donnafugata SurSur - light and lovely Grillo white
Donnafugata SurSur – light and lovely Grillo white

SurSur 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Made from the ubiquitous Sicilian grape, Grillo, this white wine has a fresh and fruity character and a bouquet of peaches, elderflowers and rosemary – so there’s a hint of savory that makes it lovely with seafood, vegetables and baked sturdy fish. Open it when you’re ready to serve and pour into medium-size tulip glasses to get the most out of the fruity aromas and the brilliant straw yellow color. Even the label, with its painting of a young girl running through the grass, makes you feel like you’re there with her, “listening to a thousand Sur Sur” (it means crickets). Nice value for an apertif at SRP ~$13.

Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d'Avola and many other grapes
Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d’Avola and many other grapes

Sedàra 2015 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Another of Sicily’s classic grapes, Nero d’Avola, is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes here and crafted into a quality red wine suitable for everyday enjoyment or favorite family occasions. The dark berries and slight spice notes come out in a pleasantly dusky quality that makes this wine good for pairing with rich foods like barbequed meats, pizza, or even seared tuna or roast turkey. A complex, structured red that benefits from letting it breathe a while before you drink. SRP ~$15.


Cooking live lobster – an adventure story

Lobster by Fabio delivers seafood. We were happy to be invited recently to review a sample of their wares. The large box – overnight from Maine – arrived on the morning of the day we’d agreed on for delivery. Nice that we didn’t have to wait all day for it.
What we were not prepared for, however, was the fact that their product is alive when it comes to the door. Even though we’ve tried lots of challenging dishes over the years, the truth is, we’d never cooked live mussels or – gulp – live lobsters. Today’s the day, guys.
Fabio seafood cooking instructions
Fabio seafood cooking instructions

Having read over the years probably dozens of recipes for cooking mussels, this part doesn’t feel too intimidating. Fortunately, the single printed sheet that comes in the box contains straightforward, simple instructions for preparation. The next challenge is that we don’t have on hand the scallions specified for the mussel-poaching broth. After briefly considering it, we reject the idea of going to the grocery store. Thinking first that we’ll go to the trusty Internet for help, we remember our handy-dandy little mini Julia Child cookbook, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. Naturally, she comes through for us once more. We luckily do have on hand the shallots and garlic she calls for – sauté them in butter, she says. Oh, good, we think. That sounds really good. So now it’s time to punt.

We open the insulated box to see what’s in it. Underneath the layer of still-solid ice packs, the net bag of mussels looks easy enough to handle. The live lobsters – nestling in the dark, tight-fitting cardboard slots and trying to wave their rubber-banded claws about – look a great deal less so. Did I mention we never cooked live lobsters before? Oh, yeah. Gulp.
After some discussion about the humaneness of cooking live lobster I urge my granddaughter to stop looking at them; we don’t want to make friends with them. She mentions again that she just ate an entire lobster a mere two nights earlier when her mom took her to Shaw’s for their annual Christmas lobster dinner. I tell her I’ll be glad to take hints from her on the most efficient ways to eat this seafood. She assures me – with all the finesse of a confident, experienced 9-year-old – she’s happy to instruct me.
We first review Internet instructions for determining whether a mussel is dead or alive. We are reminded that if the mussel is open when it’s not cooked, that’s a bad thing. However, we also learn that we can tap the shell on the sink and if it then closes, that means it’s alive and okay to cook and eat. Dutifully we go through the bag and end up discarding about 10 mussels before cooking. I decide afterwards we could probably have tried cooking them and seeing what happened. But being newbies, we didn’t know how much leeway to give the little shell guys, so the percentage we deemed inedible was probably not typical with Fabio’s service.
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth

Ok. We bring the shallot-and-garlic-infused buttery chicken broth and white wine mixture to a gentle simmer, throw in the mussels and cover the giant skillet. Five minutes later our black bivalves are open and ready to eat. We dish those into a big serving bowl to wait while we tackle the giant clawed crustaceans next. First adding the provided bag of sea salt and seaweed to a couple of inches of water in the bottom of our biggest pot, we then set the steamer rack on top of that. Bring it to a roaring boil, the instructions say, so we do.

Next step: put the lobsters in the steamer. There’s no way we’re removing the rubber bands from the claws until after these guys expire. Using a pair of tongs with some trepidation, we lift one out of the box and plunge it headfirst into the steaming cauldron. Same with number two and slam the lid on. It says cook exactly 14 minutes, opening the pot and rearranging the lobsters at the halfway point. Okay. So far, so good.
Open is good
Open is good

Next, toast some bread and melt some butter for dipping. We’re getting excited now. Set out the big white china plates, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. I’d earlier gotten the big, fancy white serving dish down from above the cabinets and washed the accumulated dust and grease off – don’t often use serving dishes this big – so that’s ready to hold the two lobsters. We sit down with gusto to enjoy our mussels, and they are very good indeed. Dip bread in the broth. Num. We dispatch a lion’s share of the pile in under 14 minutes.

Lobster by Fabio - fabulous!
Lobster by Fabio – fabulous!

The timer goes off. Open the pot. Wow, those lobsters are now an intensely bright orange-y red. Transfer to platter. Sit down. Realize we haven’t yet located the cracker. Get up and scrounge through every drawer. No dice. Think fast. Get the pliers out of the tool – aka junk – drawer and sit down. She starts with the legs. Demonstrates the technique for squeezing them with the cracking implement – whatever – and sucking the meat out. I try one but then can’t wait and go straight to a claw.

Pliers work in a pinch
Pliers work in a pinch

Luckily, the pliers work fairly well for this delicate operation. As I crack along the edge, the succulent claw meat begins to peek out. Eventually, to my surprise, I get the beautiful claw out in practically a single piece. Dip in the puddle of rich, melted unsalted butter. Nibble. Close my eyes, the better to savor. How good it tastes! Is it the effort we put into it, or does this lobster really taste like the best I’ve ever had? We’re each wearing an oven glove to hold the shells so we don’t get stabbed as we wrestle the meat out – a technique we recommend for proper-techniqueanyone eating lobster at home. Companion cook/young lady and I continue attacking our plates with enthusiasm, the shell bits pile up, and then we’re both ready to eat the tail. She explains how you tear off and discard the main part of the body with its green goo – “unless you like that part.” And we both eat every last bite of the tails on our big, juicy one-and-a-half-pounders from Lobster by Fabio.

Wild-caught. Fresh from Maine. Sustainably grown. Flown and delivered overnight to your door. Utterly delicious. Do not hesitate to order some whenever you’re ready to do the honors. Bravo, Fabio!
P.S. Upon roaming around on their website the next day, I stumbled on a small section that explained how to kill lobsters humanely. You put them in the freezer for two hours and then plunge a knife in the back of their heads before you place them in the steam bath. So you might want to make sure there’s room in your freezer (these guys are big) before you order. Sorry, lobsters – but thank you for your wonderful meat! And thank you, Chef Fabio Viviani.

Holiday drink surprise – Hot Ruby cider

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!

7 wines under $20 for the 2016 holidays

Recent tastings from wide-flung areas of the world have yielded a fresh list of possibilities for your holiday edification and enjoyment. Consider one of these under-$20 selections for your holiday celebrations.
California’s Little Black Dress label
We love it when wineries come up with fun names for their brands. Take, for example, the label  “Little Black Dress” (LBD). Stirs up visions of sexy intrigue or at least something elegant, doesn’t it? Recently sampled a couple of their reds and enjoyed them.
1. Diva Red. Winemaker notes: Decadent notes of dark plum, cocoa and caramel leading to a finish accented by hints of cinnamon and chocolate-dipped strawberries. We found it a pleasant medium-bodied red blend that sits comfortably on the palate, works pleasantly on the nose and goes nicely with food of many kinds. Well worth a try at SRP ~$8.
2. Little Black Dress Cabernet Sauvignon. Consider this value-priced rich red for your everyday wine. Winemaker notes:   Rich aromas of dark berries and toasted oak, a hint of vanilla spice and a lasting finish. Again, well worth trying at an SRP of ~$10.
Nero d’Avola elegance from Sicilia DOC
Speaking of “little black,” consider the Nero d’Avola grape –  indigenous to Sicily. For centuries Sicily has been a benchmark for the global wine market and this grape variety is an icon of Sicilian enology. Today a new generation of winemakers have lifted the “little black grape” to new heights of elegance and drinkability.
Saia - Nero d'Avola
Saia – Nero d’Avola

3. Nero d’Avola Feudo Maccari Saia 2011 Sicilia DOC. This Saia has lush, deep aromas and flavors of dark and sour red cherries, spearmint, spice and oak. Palate flavors are velvety, plush, and concentrated, balanced by fine acidity and ripe, sweet tannins, before a long finish. A superb match for full-flavored meats and game, especially stews and roasts. Saia, like all these wines, balances freshness with the ability to evolve over time. SRP ~$20

Naked Moon wine shines
Naked Moon wine shines

Lovely Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy
4. Luna Nuda (Naked Moon) Pinot Grigio Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT 2015. Born in the perfect-for-Pinot-Grigio clay soils atop the saw-tooth ridges, snow-capped peaks, and alpine meadows studded with glittering waterfalls in Alto Adige, this wine of straw-yellow with green lusters brings rich aromas of fruits like pears and apples. Well-balanced and structured, the taste is dry and smooth with a pleasing minerality. Perfect for pairing with lighter foods and fresh-water fish. At 12.5% alc., this is a sturdy white wine that makes a nice aperitif, too. SRP ~$15

JaM Cellars “breakfast” trio of wines
Butter, Toast and Jam sounds like a breakfast menu, but it’s actually the names of three different wines – one red and two whites – that come from JaM Cellars. These are a cut above your everyday house wines and guaranteed to make you and your guests feel special. Perfect to go with your Thanksgiving or other holiday meals. JaM Cellars wines are available nationwide and through the website at
5. 2015 Butter Chardonnay offers ripe, stone fruit and baked-lemon aromas and is cold fermented to rich creaminess, aged in a blend of oak giving this wine a lovely, long, vanilla finish. 14.89% Alc. by vol. SRP ~$15
6. 2014 JaM Cabernet Sauvignon has soft, dark berries and plums on the nose and palate, and is aged in new oak to smooth and round the wine, adding a touch of vanilla. 15.1% Alc. by vol. SRP ~$20
JaM Cellars - toasting with Toast
JaM Cellars – toasting with Toast

BONUS: Non-vintage (NV) Toast Sparkling, made with traditional méthode Champenoise techniques, offers juicy aromas of honeydew, white peach and orange blossom followed by tastes of tropical pineapple and honeydew combined with a light toastiness. It’s light at 12.5% Alc. and, okay, at $24.99 a little over the headline-promise of $20/bottle. But we didn’t count it in the original 7, so think of it as a bonus recommendation.

South African sparkling wine
Did you know that South Africa is among the many nations that are becoming producers of respectable wines these days? Had a chance recently to review a couple of sparklings from that region. One in particular seemed a worthy addition to a list of decent possibles for holiday meals – or any time you’re in the mood for some bubbles.
7. Boschendal Pinot Noir Chardonnay Brut NV. This sparkling wine, made with Methode Cap Classique (South Africa’s version of the traditional Champagne method) is a clear golden color with a fine effervescence. Aromas of fresh lemon fruits along with a creamy flavor make it a pleasant, value-priced bubbly that’s more complex than many similarly priced Proseccos and will make an equally nice accompaniment to lighter foods and even desserts. SRP ~$11

Have fun with these!


Drink up for National Rum Day August 16


Have you discovered the beautiful flavors of serious rum? While rum is one of the oldest and most popular spirits in the world, it comes in a wide range of qualities.  Below are a few ideas for celebrating National Rum Day on August 16, 2016

Fine Diplimatico rum with coffee, chocolate and lime - num
Fine Diplimatico rum with coffee, chocolate and lime – num

Premium means top quality, and it’s certainly true about Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva (SRP $40). This rum received a Double Gold Medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and a score of 92 from the prestigious Ultimate Spirits Challenge this year.

Diplomático comes from Venezuela, where sipping cocktails along the 2500 miles of coastline is part of every day life. So skip the rum-n-cola or rum punch this National Rum Day and  treat yourself to a lovely cocktail set off with chocolate and coffee notes.

Willie Juancho and The Chocolate Factory
1.5 oz Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva
.5 oz Dark Creme de cacao
Instant coffee
Stir Diplomático and Crème de Cacao.  Wet the rim of a snifter glass with lime and dip in instant coffee and pour the mix into prepared snifter glass.

On a completely different rum note, thanks to RumJumbie sending samples, we’ve recently discovered the joys of premium Jumbie flavored rums – Pineapple Splash and Coconut Splash.  These are premium rums – you can tell from the first rich sip. No aftermath of fake pineapple or coconut flavors; instead you get a feeling of smoothness and richness in these liquors, even drunk neat. I’m not normally a tropical drink fan, but these rums didn’t need all the added sugar and flavor-disguisers that many tropical cocktail recipes call for.

What really surprised me was my immediate urge to pour the Coconut Splash rum all over some kind of fruit. Almost any fruit sounded appealing, but I happened to have a chunk of nicely ripe watermelon on the counter. So I chopped off a hunk and did just that. Chopped the melon into bite-size pieces and poured the coconut-infused rum over it. Yes, yes. Refreshing in the extreme. And so delicious. I then started picturing it on top of things like creme brûlée, peach or nectarine slices, ice cream, brownies, and on and on. No liquor has ever inspired me with so many ideas, mostly in the dessert category or, if I should happen to be – or want to be – on vacation, I’d find the idea of fruit/dessert-with-rum positively inspiring for brunch. ” )

English: The Meyer lemon, Citrus × meyeri.
English: The Meyer lemon, Citrus × meyeri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pineapple Splash made me think of mixing with red fruit juice of some sort with lots of ice and maybe a squirt/slice of lime or Meyer lemon. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. We’ve tried a lot of rums over the years, and these seem to have a friendly vibe. And at about 15 bucks a bottle, they’re an exotic bargain. Read more at, including the history of the unusual name.

Happy #National Rum Day today!

Last-minute spirits gift guide – and a cure for too much


Okay. You didn’t finish shopping. Many stores are open today, but what if you can’t think of anything good to get? Serving special drinks is a great way to celebrate end-of-year holidays – and giving the spirits themselves is a fabulous solution for quick and easy gifts that tend to be much appreciated. Below are a few ideas for your giftees – or for yourself:


Caliche brand rum comes honestly by its cachet as a super premium white rum. Rande Gerber, one of the original pioneers of South Beach nightlife, partnered with Destileria Serralles in Ponce, Puerto Rico – a long-time producer of fine rums – to produce Caliche in response to the nuances and preferences of cocktail consumers. My take: it’s a fairly smooth, clean-tasting rum that’s suave enough to serve alone if you’re a rum lover, but it also goes well with just a dash of something creamy. Ice cream and eggnog are wonderful pairings, but even half-and-half works. This clear, white Caliche Rum is also great in mixed cocktails. A bottle goes for around $25, depending on where you shop.

Captain Morgan, another well-respected maker of rums, put out a commemorative version of spiced rum this year that’s just delicious – neat or in creamy or other cocktails. Called Captain Morgan 1671, its unique blend of spices makes it festive (all year!) with notes of dried fruit, vanilla, caramel and oak. Finished with Spanish oak to deliver a smooth and refined drinking experience. Around 20 bucks a bottle – they made only limited quantities, so get one soon.

Sparkling wine – can’t-label-it-champagne-but-it’s-bubbly

Pasternak Wine Importers carry a number of delightful sparkling wines that will surprise and delight you and your gift recipients. Here are a few for your consideration:

  • Domaine Lucien Albrecht, Blanc de Blancs, Brut – Distinguished by a fine and elegant bead, a beautiful straw color; a light, delicate palate. It is delicious at any time of the day and with many foods.
  • Domaine Lucien Albrecht, Rose, Brut – Strawberry and wild cherry fruit, with a touch of richness on the mid palate. Well-balanced with dry, crisp acidity and complimented with a creamy texture and long finish.
  • Valdo, Oro Puro Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Brut – Floral with fruity aromas of strong pear and golden apple. The palate is refined and harmonious, with lingering aroma and savoriness.
  • Valdo, Prosecco DOC, Brut – Well-balanced structure, matched with its flavorful and aromatic fruity fragrance make it the perfect pairing with starters and particularly with delicately flavored dishes and especially seafood. Excellent as aperitif due to its distinctive characteristic of being “easy to drink.”
  • Valdo, Rose, Brut – The bouquet has fine and elegant blossoms, with a consistent presence of raspberry. The palate has a tickling fine perlage of minute bubbles; pleasant round warm flavor with a charming fruity aroma.
  • Lady of Spain, Brut – Fine, delicate and very clean, with lightly toasted pastry notes and syrupy fruits. Fresh and fruity, well structured, crispy, balanced carbonic and good persistence. Light recall to pastry and fresh fruits

Another nice, light bubbly is Ruffino Prosecco – Intense sensations of apples and peaches drive a pleasant aftertaste with fruity and floral aromas. Ideal as an aperitif and a versatile food companion. Around $11, 11% alc.

Vodka for every occasion

English: Picture of an old Smirnoff Vodka 375m...
English: Picture of an old Smirnoff Vodka 375ml bottle standing up found in my grandparents garage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always been a Smirnoff vodka fan, even as fancier brands have taken the cocktail scene by storm. I found out not long ago that Smirnoff regular won big in a blind taste test. That made me happy. Then recently I found out that Smirnoff has a huge line of flavored vodkas – I mean an amazing array. I haven’t tried them all yet but did like some a bit more than others. Some of the flavors tasted a little artificial when drunk neat. The aromas are strong, but I think that’s intentional because these flavored guys turn out to be wonderful for mixing with other ingredients.

The first broad category of flavors is the trademarked Smirnoff Sorbet® collection – a series of reduced-calorie, fruit-flavored vodkas (all triple distilled as is the original Smirnoff) like Light Mango-Passion Fruit, Light Pineapple-Coconut, Light White Peach, Light Summer Strawberry, Light Lemon and more. I thought the White Peach had a strong aroma and was a little artificial tasting when I tried it neat, but this was cured easily by mixing with  club soda. Then later I tried some of the flavors with ginger ale and with half-and-half, and they were lovely.

Then there’s the Smirnoff® Confections series. Kissed Caramel® – nice aroma, sweet taste, delicious mixed with half-and-half or poured over vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Cinnamon Churros – great aroma, excellent taste – like many other of these flavors, great with something bubbly or creamy. Whipped cream – I wanted to love this one, but it was a little too chemical-tasting for me. But again, this improves dramatically when you mix it with something creamy. This series includes Fluffed Marshmallow, Root Beer Float, Vanilla and more. Don’t you want to go out and get some of these flavors right now? I’m taking a bottle of Smirnoff® Kissed Caramel to my family Christmas eve gathering tonight. You ­­­can’t go wrong.

Hangover remedies

And in case you or your companions overdo things in this department, there’s a quick help for the day after called “Hangover Naturals.” These lozenges are drug-free and fortified with Vitamin B and C. They come in a box of six in a variety of good-tasting flavors: ginger, raspberry, or lime. They were created by a registered nurse named Noni who focuses on helping people with healthy lifestyles.

For your edification, here’s the list of ingredients: dried cane syrup, corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors (made with essential oils) and natural colors. They taste – you guessed it – sweet, and low blood sugar is one of the effects of drinking alcohol. When I checked their store finder, I didn’t see any retail locations in the Chicago area, but you can get these bad boys in the online store, so you should be able to get some in stock for possible upcoming New Year’s needs.

In case you want to try curing a hangover with stuff you’re likely to have around the house, check out these 7 natural hangover cures.


Holiday gift guide for baby boomers – 4 edible ideas


As Baby Boomers, we mostly feel like we don’t need any more “stuff,” yet we still might like to buy presents for friends or relatives who are in the same boat. What to do if you simply must buy something?

For people who have everything, or simply don’t want or need anything else, giving a food-related gift is just the ticket to express your gratitude, appreciation or love. Truly, you can’t go wrong with food. It’s dear to the hearts of every one of us – especially at this time of year… “ ) Here are a few ideas to consider.

OpenTable Gift Card

Let 'em dine and think of you!
Let ’em dine and think of you!

No, you don’t eat it, but this instant-gratification gift gets your giftee into a place she’d will want to eat. OpenTable Gift cards let you or the recipient personalize the gift precisely to taste – you pick her favorite restaurant or let her make the choice. Ideal for foodie friends and relatives who love new dining experiences. When you purchase an OpenTable gift card (available in denominations starting at $10), pick from the list of 180 restaurants in and around Chicago – or if she lives elsewhere, pick from more than 2,000 restaurants in 30-plus cities. The gift arrives via e-mail, and your giftee can either print it out and redeem it at the restaurant (good any hours the place is open), Or she can just show it to the server on her mobile device. The full amount of the gift is deducted from her final bill (remember to tip on the original amount!). Talk about convenience, and no fees – every penny of your gift counts.

Choose from several nice designs and put in a short or long personalized message. Then either send it right away – I love that it comes instantly into her inbox – or set the specific date you want it to arrive. And the fact that you can just carry it on your cell phone or tablet makes it super convenient – no coupons to forget or misplace. Every year OpenTable is becoming a bigger and better player in the food/restaurant space; this gift card idea beats the generic gift card all to heck.

Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel confections

Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel
Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel

If you love caramel apples, try one of these beauties. Mrs. Prindable’s uses deliciously crisp fresh apples and coats them with thick, softly chewy caramel and nuts, or stripes them with caramel and dark and milk chocolate, and decorates them to fit the season – e.g., beautiful Christmas or Hannukah trimmings. Their Chicago-style nut-and-chocolate-covered toffee makes a timeless, seasonless gift. You can order basketsful of Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel goodies of any size, starting at $29.99. Even if you’re watching the budget this year, you can still surprise your giftee with a box of four chocolate-covered caramels for $5.99 or a pack of three chocolate-and-caramel-covered pretzels for $7.99 – though if you don’t want to pay shipping [$10.99 for that $5.99 item), you can pick up your order in Mrs. Prindable’s Factory Store, 7425 Croname Rd in Niles. While you’re there, check out the dark or milk chocolate Nut Clusters, the Truffles and the endless combinations of boxed delights. These goodies are beautifully packaged in beribboned packets and boxes. The apples I tried arrive still cold from refrigeration, so don’t worry they won’t hold up with shipping.

GODIVA chocolates

GODIVA - synonymous with luxury
GODIVA – synonymous with luxury

The name speaks for itself. Visit one of the Chicago-area GODIVA boutiques (three in downtown alone) or order online. Below are a few to consider for a sublime holiday indulgence:

  • Holiday Ballotin ($50 – 36 pcs) – The GODIVA signature assortment of classic Belgian chocolates (caramels, ganaches and pralines) presented in the gold box tied with a red ribbon.
  • Limited Edition Holiday Chocolates & Truffles Collection ($50 – 12 pcs) – All-time favorites mixed with limited edition holiday chocolates and truffles like Gingerbread, Eggnog and Raspberry Linzer Torte.
  • Signature Truffle Gift Box ($50 – 24 pcs) – Select from the full truffle line, adorned with a red ribbon.
  • Hot Cocoa Gift Set ($20 – 12 pkts) – GODIVA cocoa packets (three milk, three dark and three caramel).

Amy’s Candy Bar – Candy made by a trained French pastry chef

Bly a pastry-maker turned candy artist
By a pastry-maker turned candy artist

Just in time for the holidays, Hyde Park welcomes a pop-up Amy’s Candy Bar store, 1546 E. 55th St., to go with the original Lincoln Square location, 4704 N. Damen Ave. Hand-crafted confections at the new store include Orangettes (dark-chocolate dipped orange peel), almond toffee covered in dark chocolate and sea salt, meringues, and signature caramels dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with a new variety of gourmet salts.

Storeowner Amy Hansen graduated from the French Pastry School and trained under renowned chocolatiers Regis Bouet and Lionel Clement. Her handmade treats are made with premium ingredients including European-style butter, organic cream, Madagascar vanilla, Belgium chocolate, and fresh fruit purees. The OMG Bar – hazelnut praline sandwiched between salted caramel and milk chocolate ganache – had Food & Wine Magazine hailing Hansen as a “candy making genius,” and named hers one of the five best candy stores in the country.

Amy’s Candy Bar in the Hyde Park Shopping Center (612.269.0970) is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11-7. Lincoln Square is open Monday, 3-7, Tuesday-Saturday, 11-8 and Sunday, 11-6. For more info, visit



Eating out Thanksgiving Chicago 2014

English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people don’t like to cook, let alone put the Herculean effort in to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving feast. I used to spend days preparing – and oh, how we loved to enjoy! These days, my son-in-law does most of the work (we travel to Cleveland), while I usually sous-chef the carrots and green beans and hand-strip the fresh herbs from their stems for his delicious stuffing.

In case you aren’t up for cooking and aren’t going to a house where someone is, here are a few places you can go to get your Thanksgiving eating game on:

  • Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan, is offering a $35 prix fixe menu, available on Thanksgiving Day only. The menu includes a choice of appetizer, entrée, side dish and dessert. Here’s the mouth-watering menu:

Appetizer – Roasted Chestnut Soup (truffle oil and chives) OR Bitter Green Salad (escarole, radicchio, frisee, bleu cheese, pomegranate pom vin)

Roasted Turkey Roulade – stuffed with chestnuts and collard greens with sweet potato mash and turkey gravy OR
Fried Ham Steak – bacon and Brussel sprout hash OR
Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto – sautéed whitefish, pecan and sage brown butter

Sides – Green Bean Casserole OR Buttermilk Biscuits OR Turkey Stuffing with Cranberry Sauce
Desserts – Apple & Cranberry Cobbler OR Pumpkin Pie OR Cheese Plate

  • Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron in the Felix Hotel, is offering a holiday themed special with a French twist. Their Roasted Turkey Sandwich is topped with cranberry compote and Brussel Sprout slaw and is served on a croissant alongside hand-cut sweet potato frites ($14). The special will be available Monday, November 24 through Sunday, November 30.
  • The Brixton, 5420 N. Clark St., closed Thanksgiving Day, has a special on Tuesday, November 25; Wednesday, November, 26 and Friday, November 28, Chef Kevin McMullen’s Confit Turkey Leg is served with cranberry aioli, house stuffing and fried sage ($9).
  • Maxwell’s at the Club, 500 N. Kingsbury St. inside the East Bank Club, offers traditional Thanksgiving dinner from 1 to 7 pm. Reservations are a must. Parking lot available. Check out my review. If their other food is any indication, you’ll very likely enjoy your holiday vittles here.



Try this cranberry-ish holiday cocktail


It’s fun to experiment for special occasions, and I couldn’t resist this charming holiday-colored version of the martini. The Bombay Sapphire version of gin – made with juniper berries from Tuscany forgodssakes – gives it an extra depth of flavor. Hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving.drink Yuletide martini

Yuletide Martini

  •  2 oz Bombay Sapphire
  • 2 tsp Cranberry Sauce
  • .25 oz dry curaçao
  • .25 oz cinnamon syrup
  • 1 dash five spice bitters (Bar Keep)

“The Martini was called ‘the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet’ by H.L. Menken. and, although the classic recipe involves only gin and vermouth, in the American spirit of invention, the cocktail can be experimented with to no end. In light of the holidays, The Yuletide Martini takes inspiration from some of the brighter flavors of the holidays, and incorporates cranberry, orange and spices to evoke the feeling of holiday spirit. E.B. White called the martini the ‘elixir of quietude,’ and this martini is meant to be just that: a quiet moment to be found in the hectic rush of the holiday season. Cheers.” – Created by Bombay Sapphire Denver’s Most Imaginative Bartender Winner, Tacy Rowland of Bol in Denver.

Hmm. Is this right? My plate never looks this skimpy at Thanksgiving.