Holiday gift guide for baby boomers – 4 edible ideas

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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 amyscandybar.com.

 

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Eating out Thanksgiving Chicago 2014

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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)

Entrees
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.

 

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Try this cranberry-ish holiday cocktail

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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.
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Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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Sparkling Italian wines and more from Veneto

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Provinces of the Italian region of Veneto
Provinces of the Italian region of Veneto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fine wines in Italy are certified as DOC or DOCG (read more about 4 excellent whites and a red from Romagna here and some fun info here), and a great many of them come from Veneto, Italy’s biggest-producing wine region. The region exports 28% of its wines compared to only 5% from Emilio Romagna and 12% from Trentino.

Reps from Veneto brought several wines to Chicago recently via the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014.  Below are a few you might like to try:

Sparklings

Wine service pouring a glass of the Italian sp...
Wine service pouring a glass of the Italian sparkling wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Selezione Raphael Dal Bo 2013 – from Raphael Dal Bo SRL.  Fruity, light (11% alc) and refreshing with a smooth finish and aromas of green apples and white blossoms. Excellent as an aperitif or with light starters, or to celebrate a festive occasion.  Some call this the “Swiss Army knife” of sparkling wines – good for most anything. (Price not available.)

Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Ca’ Delle Rose 2013 – from Domus Vini SRL. Fresh, lively and fragrant (11% alc) with floral, fresh fruit hints of apple, pear, citrus and yeast. This one’s grown near the Dolomite Mountains so has more minerality than some. Great as a cocktail and aperitif or with light foods, fish and seafood, and creamy desserts. (Price not available.)

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry 2013 – from Azienda Agricola Drusian Francesco. Fine and persistent on the palate with scents of green apple, pear, wisteria and white flowers. Drink as aperitif or with fish dishes (11% alc). Retails at ~$20.

White

Breganze Pino Grigio DOC Superiore Savardo 2013 – from Cantina Beato Bartolomeo da Breganze.  2013 was a good year for white wines in Veneto. This one is dry, crisp, fruity and fragrant with acacia blossoms and exotic fruits. (12.5% alc). (Price not available.)

Reds

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC 2012 – from Terredomini SRL.  Dry, velvety, with hints of baking spice, dark red fruits and tobacco, and an aroma of bitter almonds. Good with most anything: meats, cheese, pork medallions, veal shanks, etc. (Price not available.)

Venezia Rabosos Dell’ Arnassa DOC 2010 – from Castello di Roncade.  Full-bodied, pleasantly high acidity, with light wood notes and an aroma of vines with hints of mature red fruit and cherry. Goes great with the heaviest of meats such as venison, boar and duck. Retails anywhere from $15 to $25.

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4 white and 1 red Italian wines – Romagna Heart of Italy

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English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy
English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’ve been growing grapes and making fine wines in Romagna in Italy since the time of the Roman Empire. All the wines from this area are DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) or DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) – designations granted only to the best certified quality wines in Italy.  Romagna produces about 20 million bottles of this certified wine and exports 35% of it to other countries.

Romagna is known for its deep, dark Sangiovese reds and many white wines – from dry to aged dessert types. Since most of the winemakers are very small, they needed to band together to promote themselves. So 250 small winemakers and 200 partner wineries worked to form Consorzio Vini di Romagna. They brought some of their fine wines to Chicago recently during the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014.  Below are four of their white wines and one red I recommend:

Whites

Romagna Italian whites and Sangioveses
Romagna Italian whites and Sangiovese reds – part of the Simply Italian Great Wines tour

4 stars Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Progetto I 2013 – from Leone Conti Societa’ Agricola. Lovely white wine, dry and warm with aromas of yellow fruit, golden apple skin, wet rocks, oak and vanilla. Good with starters, first courses of fish and roasted white meats. Four stars and a great value at ~$15. This wine won over a Sauterne in a blind taste test.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco I Croppi 2013 – from Celli SNC di Sirri & Casadei Societa’ Agricola.  Rich, round, fresh, elegant with aromas of yellow pulp fruit and scents of apricot and melon. Four stars and another great value at ~$15. Good with noodles, grilled fish and white meats.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Alba Della Torre 2013 – from La Sabbiona S.S. Azienda Agricola. Dry, warm and harmonious, with a finish of burnt almond. This is a beautiful wine with intense fruity and floral notes and a whiff of peaches. Another great value at ~$15. Good for starters, fish, especially grilled fish, but really it would go well with your whole meal.

5-star beauty – Romagna Albana DOCG Passito 2010 – from Bissoni Raffaella Alessandra Azienda Agricola.  Creamy, slightly sweet, but rich and complex, with persistent tannins and aromas of apricot, dried figs, almonds, ripe dates and scents of rich fruit and spice mixtures. It’s a dessert wine, so go ahead and splurge at $45 retail. Serve it with almond pastries, and/or mature Pecorino or blue cheeses with honey or jam.

One red I recommend is the Romagna Sangiovese Doc Superiore Riserva Nonno Rico 2010 from Azienda Agricola Alessandro Morini “Poderi Morini.” Delicately soft, smooth and fresh with notes of thyme and oregano along with scents of plum, cherry, vanilla and licorice with a finish of ripe rose. Doesn’t it just make your mouth water? A good value at ~$20. Serve with filet of beef or other rich meats.

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Trentino – Fine wines from grapes grown in harmony with the mountains

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I tend to love Italian wines. And Italy has done more to make me enjoy white wines – they are really good at those – than anything else. Had a chance recently at the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014 to taste some beautiful white wines and a couple of lovely reds from Trentino, the northernmost wine-growing area of Italy.

Smaller wine growers have a hard time marketing outside their region, since costs can be prohibitive. So, many Trentino winemakers got together to extend their reach out to the rest of the world with their delicious wines. The “Vini del Trentino” consortium has 120 members and represents about 7500 winemakers.

Trentino produces more than 120,000 tons of grapes each year – equal to more than 21 million gallons of fine wine. But the region has so many different microclimates that you’ll discover many distinctive flavors and fragrances among those products. Grapes grow in vineyards located either on the valley bottom, on the hills, or on the Dolomite mountains. Ninety percent of the vineyards in Trentino make D.O.C. wines – that’s Italy’s own method of controlling quality. Here are a few I found 4-star or better:

Whites

  • Trento DOC Cantina D’Isera Brut S.A. (sparkling) (~$12) – 100% Chardonnay. Citrus and peach notes.
  • Trento DOC Cesarini Sforza Tridentum Brut 2009 (~$27) – 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Nero. Full and rich.
  • Trentino DOC Pinot Grigio 2013 (~$18) – 100% Pinot Grigio. Intense fruity aromas, including ripe pear.

Reds

  • Trentino Superiore DOC Marzemino D’Isera Etichetta Verde 2011 (~$10). Delicate, violets, fruits of the forest. This one can be aged two to three years after purchase. Great value.
  • Teroldego Rotaliano Superiore Riserva 2011. Robust red, notes of raspberries, plums and chocolate. This is a fabulous wine – 5 stars – and the price reflects it (~$31).

For more information, visit www.vinideltrentino.com.

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New holiday drink tradition

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The drink is called Good Memories. I made it last night and can see just why they gave it that name. I also got a kick out of my friends trying to guess what was in this delicious ice-cream-and-liquor delight – it’s a fooler. The combination of ingredients is so unusual and the flavor so unique, I’m guessing even a professional bartender might have trouble figuring it out. I can tell you I will be offering this to guests all this season as my new alternative-to-eggnog holiday drink tradition. Thank you, Bombay Sapphire!

You need several liquors, but don’t think they’ll go to waste. You might even want to make an occasional one of these just to treat yourself. Recipe below.

GOOD MEMORIES

  • 1.75 oz  Bombay Sapphire Gin (aromatic, sightly sweeter-than-regular Bombay gin – check out their gorgeous distillery)

    Make Good Memories this holiday season
    Make Good Memories this holiday season
  • 1 oz spiced rum (I used Capt Morgan’s 1671 blend)
  • 1 scoop Hazelnut ice cream (if you use Ben & Jerry’s Hazed & Confused you’ll end up with a bunch of tiny chocolate pieces in the bottom of the glass – not the end of the world, but smoother is nicer; next time I’ll try Talenti Hazelnut Gelato)
  • 0.5 oz  cherry brandy (I used Kirschwasser)
  • a dash of Jerry Thomas bitters (I left this out because I couldn’t find it, but if you can, it will make the drink even more aromatic and mysteriously flavorful)
  • Cinnamon

Method: Put the first four ingredients into a shaker or a big pitcher. Then either shake or blend with a stick blender ’til it’s creamy and smooth. No need to add ice. The ice cream will melt into the drink, chilling it out perfectly. Pour into either stemmed wine glasses or small cups with handles – you don’t want the warmth of your hand thinning the drink too much. Then stir in a dash of Bitters  and grate or sprinkle some cinnamon on top.

Now go make some good memories this holiday.

“It’s a delicious martini-style cocktail perfect for Christmas, with hazelnut notes and cloves, all surrounded with cinnamon aroma, cherries, and vanilla from the rum. It’s a cold blend that has a floral body from the Bombay Sapphire Gin, that warms you up in the cold. It is also perfect for a summery Christmas on a fantastic tropical island. Enjoy responsibly! Salute!”Created by Bombay Sapphire NY’s Most Imaginative Bartender Winner, Vincenzo Cangemi of Ovest Pizzoteca & Bar in NYC.

And here’s the next one I’ll be featuring. Stay tuned!

The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)
The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)

 

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Antinori embraces Cabernet Sauvignon for Italian wines

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The Antinori family believes in tradition – and innovation, too. They introduced the Cabernet grape to Italy, in a spot where many other grape varieties can’t grow, and began experimenting with blending Cabernet with Italian grapes. The resulting wines have been exceptional, and now they are spreading the word.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia and Niccolo share their passion for Antinori wines

She’s tall and slender, full of energy, and passionate about her mission. She is Alessia, the youngest daughter in the Antinori vintner family – the winemaker who travels the world alone and with her father, Marchesi. The family is the 26th generation to grow wines in Italy and now in Napa Valley. Together they imbibe lessons from cultures on several continents, the better to enrich their own winemaking wisdom. Alessia and her two sisters work closely with their father to manage the three Antinori wine estates in Italy and in America.

Alessia’s shoulder length, softly wavy brown hair moves in time to her graceful arm movements as she nods to emphasize her words. She is introducing five of the Antinori wines to a group of 60 people in Chicago. The Antinori wines being introduced are all made with some percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for that is the theme of the evening: The Antinori Family’s Fascination with Cabernet around the World. Each wine has a subtle complexity along with delicacy and elegance in its blending. Several of them (see list below) are extraordinarily subtle and refined on the palate, especially the only-made-in-exceptional-years 2011 Solaia Toscana, made from grapes grown in a small southwest-facing vineyard next to their Tignanello vineyard in the Chianti Classico area of Italy.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Only in exceptional years – Solaia Toscana

As Niccolo Maltinti, U.S. Commercial Director and Brand Ambassador, said about this Solaia, “This is not a Sophia-Loren-type wine. It’s one of the most elegant wines, but with a backbone. You want to spend time with it and discover it slowly.” He said the poor, rocky soil here, “makes Cabernet Sauvignon grapes speak with an Italian accent.”

Alessia speaks warmly about the commitment to quality and the passion with which her family has been making wines for 600 years. She says these family values are transmitted seamlessly from generation to generation. Since her great-grandmother was American, her family has always felt a pull towards the United States – so it only made sense when her father visited Napa Valley that he would fall in love. He promptly bought 500 acres, built himself a home (an American style home built by an Italian architect) and went to work creating their estate vineyards.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Coco Pazzo’s fabulous venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction

The Cabernet event, held in the Florentine Room of the J.W. Marriott Chicago, paired a number of Antinori wines with fabulous Italian food creations, among them osso bucco with saffron risotto, braised lamb lasagna, and from Coco Pazzo, handmade venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia’s – and my! – favorite il Bruciato

Alessia gives away her secret – the wine she drinks every day at home is their il Bruciato, a full-bodied red made of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah. It’s wonderfully red and deep and pairs perfectly with many types of foods. And I was pleased to learn that the wine I liked so much that evening – and had to go back for more of – turned out to be her favorite, il Bruciato.

Barry Devine, the wine manager at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Lincolnshire, said he already carries several Antinori estate wines. He considers “Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato, the second label of the winery, and the Tormaresca Neprica (a blend of Negroamaro, Primativo, and Cabernet Sauvignon) fine examples of elegant wines at great value.” He said another great wine and great value is their Villa Antinori Toscana (Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blend). In addition to being “great values, these wines are good representatives of their respective areas,” Barry said, and generally score in the 90 point range in respected wine publications.

I asked Alessia a little about herself. She said realized when she was a teenager that she had a choice of where to go in life. Her father never forced her to go into the business, she said. But when she asked her father if she should go for art history or go to Milan to learn winemaking, he unhesitatingly said, “Go to Milan!” Though she knows she could have done something else, she loves the profession she has committed her life to.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia, sharing her enthusiasm

When asked if it was unusual today for women to be winemakers, she said, “No, not today. But 20 years ago when I started, I was one of only two women in a class with 30 guys.“

She spoke of how being a family-owned winery makes a difference. I asked her to elaborate. “How our family succeeded – it takes humility, open-mindedness, culture, passion, and curiosity. With the family transmitting the culture and commitment from generation to generation, it assures a continuing sense of responsibility. Otherwise people change, and they don’t have the same commitment.” She spoke of how pleasant it is to be involved with nature. “It took 26 generations to build this company,” she said. “It can take only one moment to destroy it. Everything depends on how you behave, how you transmit the values and ideals to the future generations.“ These values are natural in a family-owned wine business, said Alessia, but they must be tended constantly. “When I speak at events like this, that’s how I show my passion.”

On promoting their wines: “My father was a pioneer in the 1970s in discovering new areas, and in Italy we went to other cities to bring our wines and to promote wine drinking in general.” About traveling alone to India and Asia she said, “It was very challenging. I learned about their traditions, culture – very similar to ours – their religious commitments, history, and ancient culture. Also, no one knew me; I could be myself as a person.”

What about here in the US? “I learned about the huge market potential of the U.S., and that everyone focuses on the main cities. In the 50s and 60s it was more about whiskey and beer in the US. There is a huge revolution here, enormous. In Napa Valley we learned a great deal about using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.”

Alessia’s favorite everyday Antinori wine, il Bruciato, is available at Binny’s and sold in Eataly by the glass.

Antinori Cabernet wines:

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Cool tips n tricks for Halloween at home – plus a dozen Chicago Halloween parties

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Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties
Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties

Nadia G., the popular Food Network show host, was writing comedy at an early age, has moved up fast in the world of TV and happily offers her own take on how to “do” Halloween right. Following are her top party ideas and Halloween recipes that will make your party the hot spot Halloween favorite.

  1. Try decorating your buffet with genuine old stuff – like broken dolls you find at a thrift store. Headless,  armless, blackened eyes, whatever.
  2. Present your party spread on a bloodstained tablecloth! Get your hands on a white sheet and have some gruesome fun staining it with theatrical blood handprints and splatters!
  3. Lighting is everything, so replace your crummy lightbulbs with red ones, and light lots of black candles to create a spooky (and sexy) ambiance.
  4. Fill a surgical glove with water and freeze, use this creepy
    Nadia's "severed hand" looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch
    Nadia’s “severed hand” looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch – See recipe below

    “severed hand” to cool your punch bowl!

  5. Stay away from generic “scary” props like cheesy spiderwebs.
    Try: blood red roses, mice, pictures of Phil Spector… Use your imagination!
  6. Finished planning your party and playlist? Try making some  of Nadia’s coffin-shaped grilled cheese sandwiches for the buffet. And then check out all her other Spooky Recipes!

Find out more about celebrity chef Nadia G.

And here’s where to buy cool Halloween costumes.

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BUT, if you’re just not in the mood to throw your own bash, here are a few tips for outside Halloween fun in Chicago:

  • From pub crawls to boat cruises or just regular Halloween parties at bars, check out EventBrite’s listing.
  • Consider the masks-mandatory (you can buy one at the door) upscale Halloween bash going on at the just-opened River North SHAY nightclub, 222 W. Ontario.
  • Bar Takito, 201 N. Morgan St. (at Lake) in the West Loop celebrates Halloween. Special $5 menu including $5 margaritas and food items will be available to any guest wearing a costume on Friday, October 31 and Saturday, November 1. Try their Sangre Del Toro (or “Blood of the Bull”) cocktail.
  • Newport Bar & Grill, 1344 W. Newport in Lakeview, hosts a Halloween costume party Friday October 31. A $500 cash prize for the “Best Group Costume” – $200 cash for “Best Individual Costume”. The bar will feature a live DJ all night long and offer $4 Craft Drafts, $4 Fireball shots, $5 Three Olive cocktails and $5 Bacardi bombs. An optional $20 package will be available from 9 p.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Masked Halloween wine tasting –  Taste eight different varietals and wine a prize for guessing the most correct. WineBar at Plum Market, Inside Plum Market Old Town, 1233 N. Wells St.
  • Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, 626 N. State St., is putting on its traditional Halloween Wine Bash on Thursday, October 30, 7 to 9 pm. $25 gets you a selection of beer, wine and delicious Italian-with-the-Quartino-touch fare, along with music and (of course) a Halloween costume contest!
  • Bar on Buena, 910 W. Buena, EVIL TWIN DEVIL’S NIGHT EVIL COSTUME BASH on Thursday, October 30th (Devil’s Night!). 7pm – til ?? – a night of frightening flicks, macabre music, spooky spirits. Prizes for the most evil costumes include VIP Blackhawks tickets, BOB Gift Certificates, Beer Swag and more.
  • Chicago Q, 1160 N. Dearborn St., an upscale barbeque place with a gorgeous wood-paneled bar, gets in the Halloween spirit, this October 31 with the Spooky q Potion cocktail ($12 – Bourbon, Cinnamon Simple Syrup and Apple Cider served on the rocks with a gummy worm garnish).
  • Plymouth Restaurant & Bar, 327 S. Plymouth Court,  on Friday, October 31, serves up a complimentary buffet full of Swamp Dip and Cheesy Freddy Fingers. Wash it down with Blue Moon pints for $4.00 and Pama Pomegranate Martinis for $5.00, and The Scary Night drink special for $5.00. Costumes encouraged.

*Spooky Halloween cocktails include Witches Brew punch:

Witches Brew

  • 4 oz. Once Upon a Vine® Fairest Chardonnay
  • 2 oz. Pear nectar
  • 1 oz. Lime juice
  • .5 oz. Simple syrup
  • 3 Sprigs of thyme

Directions: Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled glass.

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Lovin' how Chicago does it!