Hell o dear
This is a new test!
Giving gifts can be a huge challenge. Here are a few products we’ve sampled that you could consider for your kitchen-neatnik pals (Wellslock Storage Containers), your vegan-only circle (Just Sauces) and your chocoholic/sweets friends (American Heritage Chocolate and Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee). Or you, if the shoe fits.
Wellslock single-snap storage containers. The container portions are made of a really sturdy, super clear, freezer and microwave safe plastic (but don’t put it in there empty), and their unique locking lid is leak-proof with one double-snap. Took us a bit to figure out how to get the lids off smoothly. Sometimes the closure was so firmly seated that we felt we had to use a sharp knife to pry it open – which we were pretty sure was not the right approach. But once we figured it out, they come off pretty easily. The trick is to push/slide the lid to the opposite side once you release the double-snap closure tab. We love the sizes and shapes these come in – several interesting ones that you don’t typically find in storage containers. One configuration, for example, is perfect for holding two partially cut lemons or limes, or a giant red onion, or a cut avocado, notoriously difficult-fit items. And happily, these actually are airtight, unlike some containers that claim to be but then fail. These are great for storing food items or, really, anything you want to be able to see into the containers to identify. No cloudy plastic to obfuscate the contents. The lids are made of regular somewhat cloudy plastic, but the containers themselves are almost as clear as glass, without the weight or the breakability factors. Don’t know how much scratching will happen over time with using knives and forks in the dishes. So far no sign of that. Prices start at $9.99 for a single large container and then up to $29.99 for the 22-piece set. BPA free, freezer and microwave safe. Great gift for the foodie or crafty types on your gift list.
Just Sauces. This collection comes with mayo, Ranch, Chipotle and others. These are lower-calorie, vegan options for dressing salads, fish or whatever. You’ll need to test out the flavors for yourself; opinions seem to vary widely. Our tasters thought the taste and appearance were somewhat artificial (it does contain modified food starch and canola oil – said to be genetically modified), so it doesn’t feel like a “whole food” kind of product. But then, it’s vegan. Many of us meat-poulty-fish-egg-eaters might feel that way about anything vegan. And, just as some Amazon reviewers complained, our samples arrived with imminent expiration dates. This line of products is a great idea but may not yet have thoroughly overcome its birthing pains, but if you’re looking for vegan sauces to spark up your meals, these are a good starting point at a reasonable price ($4.69 and up on Amazon).
American Heritage Chocolate makes old-fashioned chocolate, and the company behind it is the Mars Wrigley Confectionary Company, so you know they know what they’re doing. Yes, delicious chocolate in grated, chunk and other forms, as well as things with chocolate in them, like hot cocoa and bark and so on. Their downloadable original recipes for both savory and sweet chocolate treats are good to make for your holiday guests, or pass them on to your giftees so they can make the most of your gift of chocolate. The company has even established a historical research grant. Launched in 2013, the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant, named after the company’s owner, awards grant funds for projects that investigate/educate the public on the history of chocolate or the chocolate making process from one or more cultural, historic or scientific perspectives. A good reason to gift friends and loved ones with chocolate, especially when it’s artisan-made and you can get 20% off (coupon on their website) from Amazon.
Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee comes in a bunch of toothsomely delicious flavors like Butter, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Cranberry Pecan, Maple Bourbon Pecan (oh, my!) and more. It’s chewy toffee, not the crispy-break-apart kind you might be thinking of. Like any good toffee, it will stick in your teeth somewhat – that’s part of the pleasure of toffee, right? And you can really taste the cream they use to make it. Num! It comes in jars and in cute pouches or mini-pouches with pictures of jars on them. They even sell a jar of scraps already broken up so you can use it as a topping. Or buy it in big variety tasting packs to hoard for yourself or split up to give to many friends. Pricing starts at $2.99 for a mini-pouch and goes up from there. A sweet-heart something-for-everyone gift for the holidays.
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.
#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.
Prosecco DOC wineries included Piera Matellozzo 1899, Masottina, Supmanti Valdo, Barollo, Astoria and more. Here are two standouts from among their samples:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 anyone 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!
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Have fun with these!
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.
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
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. ” )
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 www.rumjumbie.com, including the history of the unusual name.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Amy’s Candy Bar – Candy made by a trained French pastry chef
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.