Monday, October 28, 2013

Pumpkin Carving

Mark and Melissa invited us over for a casual dinner. Nothing fancy. Not a wine tasting competition. I was skeptical about this. I know this group . . . We brought a bottle of wine I thought would pair with Chili and Cornbread. Dan and Denise brought a wine from Mexico. Of course Mark and Melissa already had a bottle open.

The theme was to be “Pumpkin Carving”. Each of us brought a pumpkin, except Dan and Denise shared one. The table was waiting for us with a big bowl for carving and scooping tools, and one for pumpkin guts. Melissa had a stack of templates to choose from.
It was so nice to sit together chatting, carving, and sipping. We truly enjoy each other’s company, and that doesn’t mean conversation is always light. At times, like recently, we have some pretty heavy stuff on our minds, but it is still so good. I highly recommend having a group of “Through-thick-and thin” friends. Its old fashioned, but it shouldn’t be.

So Joe picked a traditional pumpkin design. I did the cat face. Dan surprised me by taking on the task of carving, he chose a bat. Mark did a strange looking face. It sorta looked like a happy Frankenstein.
Melissa chose an amazingly intricate design of a tree with Happy Thanksgiving written above it. I couldn’t believe how fast she did it. She must have been in training. Denise coached us all and kept us entertained through the whole thing.

Finally we turned our attention to the homemade chili and the best cornbread I’ve ever had in my whole life. I took a picture of the tattered, stained recipe for you. He said he doubles the glaze. It was delicious.

I brought an old stand-by, Apothic Red. It’s an inexpensive blend and packed with flavor. I thought it would pair with the flavors of chili. Mark and Mel had a couple of bottles open, CG Di Arie Proprietor’s Blend and Berghold Syrah Voignier, so we got to sip at a variety. Dan and Denise had been in Mexico recently in the wine country. A region of boutique wineries has flourished near Rosarito Beach. This one tasted like a dessert wine, it had such a strong blackberry/current flavor.

Even when they try to be casual it turns out wonderful!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Northern Italian Feast

Joe and I recently went to Northern Italy for two weeks. We stayed with a couple we’d met in the Bahamas, Gianluca and Egle. Their home in Milan made a great base for visiting Venice and their family’s homes. His folks live just outside Milan, and Egle’s dad lives in Trentino, up in the Dolomites (Italian Alps).

As you probably already know, a trademark of Italian cooking is to use fresh ingredients. This all inspired me to give it a try . . . a casual home style northern Italian meal.

I started with ¼” slices of Zucchini instead of crackers. I combined Sweet Pepper and Ancho Chili Chutney with Honey-Goat Cheese. It made a great little spread for the Zucchini discs. I also threw in a plate of thinly sliced Gruyere with whole wheat flat bread.
I opened a bottle of Chianti with our friend’s label. He had adopted a row of grapes and gifted us with a bottle of his personal stock. Great for the appetizers.
But now it was time to pull out the competition wine; “An Italian Blend”. We’ve never had such a diverse selection of wines. We headed outside to eat. Throughout the meal we kept a running dialogue on the wine and made notes on the glasses with our wine-glass markers.

Gianlucca’s parents prepared a feast for us one night, when we showed up hungry. His father kept getting up from the table, disappearing, and returning with vegetables which he’d cut up into big chunks. The freshness and bulkiness of it all inspired me. I went shopping with an open mind for what was fresh and seasonal. I ended up with a big bowl full of Boc Choy, Cucumbers, Tomatoes from my garden, Baby Bell Peppers, Snap Peas, and Avocados. Little dipping bowls were provided to doctor up their veggies (a very California thing); Poppyseed, Sesame Ginger, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese Vinaigrette.
While in Venice I tasted Torta Rustica for the first time at a little corner shop. I became obsessed. I had to repeat it for my dinner party. Egle and I practiced back at their condo. It was close. When I got home I attempted to replicate it, but was unable. Our ham is cured differently. That being said it came out pretty good.

Torta Rustica is extremely simple to make. Crust, ham, and mozzarella cheese. The only trick is to deal with all of the fluid produced during the cooking process. I made a baster-size chimney out of foil, and when the Torta was done I pulled the ham water out through the chimney. It worked. I roasted Asparagus and Carrots with Olive Oil and Herbs de Provence (we were very close to France J ).
For dessert, I got a hold of a fabulous recipe for Fresh Peaches marinated in pureed Basil. This I poured over store bought Italian-style Vanilla Gelato. Excellent.

So time for the unveiling of the wine. Mark and Melissa won with their Rosso Fuoco by Torre de Lancia. Dan and Denise pulled in a tight second with Rosso Piceno by Saladini Pilastri. We came in dead last with our Oreno 2010. It’s all about food pairing!
An added bonus was having A-Liu from Taiwan staying with us. She was my amazing prep-chef. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She wasn’t impressed with our wines until we opened the Muscato, and the Collaboration Port, Dan and Denise make, for dessert.

Friday, June 14, 2013


So when Mark and Melissa told us to bring a bottle of wine that would pair with chocolate, I questioned them. “So you want a dessert wine?” But no . . . they were preparing a four course meal, each made with the ingredient of cocoa in it. I've honestly had little experience with cocoa in regular food, other than Mole Negro.

The first course was the cheese platter. The one that knocked my socks off was the Mt. Tam triple cream brie with dark chocolate balsamic glaze drizzled over it. I really dug into the orange spiced cocoa glazed mixed nuts. Okay Heidi stop eating. Gotta save room for dinner.

The spinach and pecan salad was gorgeous. I think salad can be gorgeous, but then again I love food. This was tossed in a chocolate-based vinaigrette. I bet they got the balsamic at the olive oil store up in Murphy’s, in Calaveras County. I use a chocolate balsamic mixed with espresso balsamic and chipotle olive oil to marinate filet mignon. They placed fresh thinly-sliced pears around the plate. Perfect.
Dinner was so pretty I forgot to take a picture! Asparagus tossed with prosciutto and cocoa nibs, mushroom cocoa ragout on crostini, and a little mountain of Italian Dolce Forte over Casarecce Pasta. Talk about an all-out assault on the senses. Not only did I not know what to think of the food flavors, but I couldn’t settle on a wine.
Then dessert. By then I was stuffed, but I managed to eat most of it anyway. They’d made this really dense low-flour brownie and stored it the freezer. According to Mark, they had taken a bite of the brownie while was still frozen, and loved it! So voila, that’s how they served it, with chocolate sorbet and fresh raspberries.

Each carafe of wine changed with each course, and with each portion. I changed my mind several times and ended up adding up the winning vote from each course for a grand total. The  2010 Klinker Brick Zinfandel held its ground through each course and Mark and Melissa took the Gold. Gamba Zinfandel 2010 came in second, and Bjorn Barbera came in third. Each wine was outstanding in its own right, but paring with the food was the competition.
Next Wine Tribe event is at our house. Based on our recent visit to Italy you can guess what it will be J

Saturday, March 23, 2013

French Theme at Dan & Denise's

Bon Appetit

Denise invited us in, and with a wave of her hand she said, ‘An ode to Julia’. Using Julia Child’s extensive cookbooks, Dan and Denise created an elegant French meal. I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised when other people go through a great deal of trouble to make every aspect of a meal from scratch. I just wasn’t raised that way. My mom made meals from cans, boxes, and from whatever she had in the garden. For example I’ve never made Pate du Campagne in my life.

That Cornichon is this amazing little pastry stuffed with
brie and bits of fruit.I ate too many.

This was my first experience with
Endive Salad. It’s one I plan to
repeat. I thought the endive had a
nice texture, and of course anything
with Roguefort is good!

The French Onion Soup was the best I’ve ever tasted period. It might be the way their daughter diced up the onions J

The Beef Bourguinon was so good I
asked for extra to take home. 
That way I could relive the
experience the next week at work.

And of course they finished with
dessert . . . I tasted the cake,but
I was so full by then I managed
two bites.

They challenged us to bring a French Blended wine. Unfortunately, Joe heard Italian Blend . . . we sampled for 2 weeks before settling on one, only to find out it was supposed to be French. I didn’t have time to taste any French wine, so I just bought a bottle from Bel Aire that had a cool label with a chicken on it J La Vieille Ferme. It was only 9 bucks, but it was good . . . third place, but good! Mark and Melissa took home the medal with Les Halos De Jupiter from Chateauneuf-Du Pape. Dan and Denises was D66! Couldn’t tell you much more than that except we drank every drop and it came in 2nd.

“People who love to eat are Always the best people.” Julia Child

Sunday, February 17, 2013

French Theme at the Cabin

The cabin

We were nervous, but it was our turn to produce the feast. My Step-Mom, Kathy, inspired me with another French dish; tourtiere (meat pie). We followed what is becoming tradition and invited the Wine Tribe to the cabin in Calaveras. We were a little worried about snow, but it stayed clear for us. Snow to look at, but not to slosh through. Plenty of firewood, food, and wine.


We found a French wine to serve with the hors d'oeuvres. I decided to be serious about the cheese and chose only French creations (Grand Affinage Compte Herie Mons Affinage, Explorateur Triple Crème Brie, and Young Mimolette Isagny St. Mere). I set out salami rolled in herbs de province and another in crushed pepper. Imported mustard from Dijon France for dipping (Trader Joes).

Goat cheese layered with beets

Joe and I were at a winery in Sutter Creek and I found a recipe on a postcard for beets layered with goat cheese. I don’t know if that is a French dish, but it sure was fun to make as a sort of salad.


I made a practice run with the tourtiere and fell in love with the softer flavors of allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. After much trial and error I decided on carrots glazed with whiskey and brown sugar, and toasted Brussels sprouts tossed with balsamic reduction and craisens (dried cranberries).

Dessert is NOT my forte, so I bought little French tarts and a late harvest Zin from Villa Toscana which never got opened. Even we have our limit.
Ah, the wine you ask . . . We chose Merlot for our tasting. When I first started tasting wineback in the 80's Merlot was a “transition” wine from rosé to red. It was light and fruity. Now it is returning to its ancient roots as a big bold varietal with almost no tannins. It was hard to find a truly traditional merlot, but HourGlass in Napa created a great bottle, so we bought it. Mark and Melissa brought Twomey, Dan and Denise chose Ehlers Estate.
Of course it was a close race, as always, but we won. The gold medal is hanging in my kitchen until the next gathering.
When we go to the cabin we extend the festivities to Saturday night, and I cook my spaghetti. This time Denise made her homemade crackers (amazingly delicious) and Mark made this chocolaty cake with a chocolate sauce drizzled over it. We put out the challenge to come up with the best wine to pair with the spaghetti. This may sound easy, but its not. My spaghetti is spicy. It wasn’t easy, but we had 3 spicy, firm wines to choose from. Believe it or not Michael David’s Seven Deadly Zins won over some pretty expensive wine. It just goes to show that American spaghetti is a truly peasant meal!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Harvest Theme at Mark & Melissa's

My mouth was watering long before we arrived. The email said to bring a Cabernet Sauvignon, and think ‘Harvest’. We were greeted by Toffee, the dog, who also happens to be a red wine aficionado. She wagged her entire body in anticipation (much like myself).

The dinner table was set with fall leaves, and glittering autumn colored candles. First item to catch my eye? The Mushroom Stilton Gilette. I love pie crust. I love pie, but it’s because of the crust. This was awesome because it had the crust and it had mushrooms. It was beautiful.

Next to catch my eye was an odd pile of rectangle blocks. I bit into one and burned my tongue. Fried Polenta Sticks with Sage. Talk about melt in your mouth. In a bowl nearby was glazed spiced nuts.

After our elaborate process of transferring the wine to the carafes, Joe brought them all to the table and the feast began. A new system was initiated that night. Each table setting had three wine glasses, numbered 1-2-3. This was something we’d talked about because we didn’t like having to finish a pouring before moving to the next wine. Each wine should be tasted with each food item, so having all three wines present throughout the meal made sense. I think it worked very well and will be repeated.

A bowl of Acorn Squash Soup with Toasted Walnut Butter was the first course. Nothing says “Harvest” like squash soup! Next course was Pork Tenderloin with Cider Glaze and Dried Fruits. This was a nice blend of pork and soft dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots (I think?). Braised Fennel with Olive Oil and Garlic was a surprise. I’ve had fennel leaves on things before, but this was the root of the fennel. It looked like an onion. I liked the slight anise taste. On the plate was a little soufflé bowl filled with Sweet Potato Soufflé. It had some sort of sugary layer on top that was scrumptious.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the dessert was so good that I regretted eating my meal. It was one of those deals where you take one bite too many because you simply can’t help yourself. You know you’ll never make it yourself, and never find it in a restaurant. It was a crunchy Caramelized Nut Tart with homemade Rum Raisin Ice Cream.

Note the coveted plastic medal
 The meal was coming to an end and the gold medal glittered in the candlelight. Who would win? Carafe number one came in first . . . Ours! The Earthquake Cab from Lodi won, followed by Rutherford Hill Cab and La Castillana Cab, both out of Napa. The Earthquake got everyone’s attention straight off the block, but with food pairing the other two gained momentum. In the end it was a tight race, but we won finally :)

Next Wine Tribe Gathering is scheduled for January, so until then . . .

Napa Valley Theme at Dan & Denise's

Friday night marked the second anniversary of the Wine Tribe. This is a small monthly gathering of three couples. We take turns hosting the event. The hosting couple goes all out, with amazing appetizers, dinner, and dessert. For some unspoken reason we always choose a theme.

My mouth waters over the memory of our creations. Usually the theme is national; Thailand, Italy (Chianti), France, Mexico, Spain, India, Napa. Some are thematic; comfort food, ranch food, my mom’s spaghetti, California barbeque, white trash food (but gourmet somehow). I’m forgetting many of them I’m sure.

The table is set to match the theme. This can get complicated, trust me, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. I remember at Mr. & Mrs. S’s house they used woven Mexican purses for placemats for the ladies settings, and we got to take them home with us. For comfort food night, Mr. & Mrs. W used all their oldest china and glassware . . . an impressive collection. When we did French Provencal, I used at least ten flowered napkins spread out to make a tablecloth. The cabin weekend gatherings are always spectacular, especially with Joe's barbequed ribs. 

The first night we gathered we each presented a bottle of wine for the long evening. Little did we know how it would evolve. A decision was made that first night (I think it was the first night?) to brown bag our wine at the next house and do a tasting party. Now we have a system. It’s a bit complicated, but we discovered we couldn’t be trusted to vote fairly if we knew whose wine belonged to whom. We always seemed to have very close scores . . . very diplomatic and hospitable. Now we have 3 carafes, 3 cloth wine bags, tags 1-2-3, and fancy wine-tasting score sheets. We even have a medal. It looks like it came out of a bubblegum machine, but we covet that medal! The hosting family chooses the varietals. Here’s how it works:

• One person from each couple separately enters a designated room, pours their wine into a decanter, and bags their bottle (completely covered). They place their bottle and decanter side-by-side and leave.

• One person who didn’t go into the room is chosen to go in and wrap a numbered tag around each decanter. They then place the corresponding tag on the corresponding bottle.

• Finally that person carries out the decanters, but leaves the bagged and tagged bottles in the other room.

• When the scoring is done, the bottles are brought out and revealed.

So this begins a long journey of sharing our Wine Tribe dinner events with our wine and foodie friends. I begin with the 2nd anniversary dinner party at the W’s.

We entered their home and were welcomed to Napa. In the center of their kitchen they’d rolled a real wine barrel for the cheese and crackers. The counter was loaded with sliced artisan bread and crackers, Smoked Trout Pate (caught the week before in Alaska by Mr. W) and Kahlua Baked Brie. The table had a runner of lightweight burlap, a large basket of fresh fruit, and each table setting had a menu with a fall leaf attached.



Smoked Salmon Trout Pate
Kahlua Pecan Baked Brie
Cheese Plate


Great Bering Sea Ceviche (mouth watering)


Tagliata With Baby Spinach and Arugula
Wild Alaskan Salmon (with some sort of coffee-bourbon-molasses rub)
Gorgonzola Croquettes
Braised Green Beans with Portabella Mushrooms


Flourless Chocolate Cake and Carmel Sauce (decedent)


We were told to bring a “blend”, so we brought a bottle of Prisoner (Orin Swift), the S’s brought 2010 Berhold Crankcase. The W’s cheated and presented their own home-made wine, a blend of Syrah and Zinfandel. The S’s stole the medal from us for best food-pairing wine, but the W’s wine was savored ‘til the wee hours over nibbles of chocolate cake, and gazing at the stars.

All-in-all, another wonderful evening of fellowship. Next Wine tribe gathering . . . November.

By-the-way . . . we will be in the Bahamas for two weeks in October. For my Travel Buddies, be on the look out for new postings!