Food, Wine, Good (and Evil) Spirits

salmonI like bourbon, but not whisky. I know, I know, bourbon IS whisky, but to me there's a big difference. American bourbon is smooth and sweet and has complex flavors that I enjoy in food--warm spices, fresh herbs, toasted nuts, all kinds of fruit, vanilla, coffee, toffee, chocolate, caramel and more. Whisky, is fire water. Though a fan of all whisky, Chef Michael Symon summed it up this way, "drinking whisky should be a massage, not a wax!"

Symon was in San Francisco to talk about bourbon and Knob Creek in particular, an award winning bourbon made in small batches. It's aged in very deeply charred oak barrels, and is bottled at 100 proof. It has a distinctive sweetness and big flavor. Symon told me he like the boldness of it, saying it goes great with the kinds of things he likes to cook. "It's smoky, you can taste the age, like you can with a good salami. It has great depth of flavor, like wine and I appreciate what goes into making it--the 9 year aging process." Bourbon matches Symon's approach to cooking, "Things I like to cook take time and patience like charcuterie. Knob Creek is the charcuterie of the spirit world."

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proseccoThere is no better way to celebrate a special event than with a glass of sparkling wine. All across the world people turn to sparkling wine in moments of great celebration, be it holidays, birthdays, or any momentous occasion. The French have Champagne, which is named after the region in which it is made. The Spanish have cava, which is named after the natural caves in which the wine ferments. Anywhere else we call wine that bubbles sparkling wine. Italy's version is Prosecco or what I like to call the wine of sheer joy.

Prosecco is a white wine made from grapes of the same name. It is one of the most armoatic wines that you will ever try. And its taste and finish are crisp, clean, and refreshing. This year I'm drinking Prosecco for New Year's Eve and I have many reasons why. It is affordable, extremely flavorful, very elegant, and it's easily a crowd-pleasing drink. Prosecco is a wine that not everyone is familiar with, but it is a wine that is easy to adore.

Prosecco is produced in the Veneto region of Italy, of which Venice is the capital. It originally was produced as a still wine, but somewhere along the way fermentation was introduced into the process, and a sparkling wine was created. Today we would not recognize the original Prosecco as a sparkling wine, because the bubbles were very soft and delicate. Many Prosecco wines produced today have vigorous bubbles. The lightly sparkling version is called frizzante and the fully sparkling version is called spumante. Either is very nice. It's personal preference that dictates which you choose.

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The-Best-MojitoThe mint growing in my garden is prolific. I'm really bad about getting out there and thinning it so it pretty much takes over. I don't mind though, I love sprinkling it over summer fruit and mixing it into iced tea and water in the summertime. As far as I'm concerned I could never really have enough mint, I find it's uses endless.

Between the prolific mint and a recent trip to Mexico, (where Mojito's were flowing) and a slight suggestion for a mojito party, when we returned to the states...the Best Mojito Recipe was born.

Up until now, I was a mojito drinker, not maker. I'm not sure why, but it's something I left to the bartender. So I did a lot of research and read a lot of comments about certain recipes. Mojito's are a finicky drink and can quickly go from refreshing to medicinal tasting, when the ingredients are not balanced. As a winemaker I'm always concerned with balance in wine, in food and cocktails. I found that specific ingredients make a difference for varying reasons.

I hope you give my version a try.

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vinsantocakes.jpgWhen I saw this in Gourmet magazine several months ago, I knew I had to make it.  I knew it would be fabulous and the rest is history.

What I didn't know is I would decide to make these Individual Grape and Vin Santo Cakes on a day when temperatures outside would climb to 90 degrees.  It was a little hot from the oven, but oh well.  It was worth it.

Now you are saying, what is Vin Santo?

Well, it's one of my favorite Italian dessert wines originating from Tuscany.  Vin Santo does have a dry version but I prefer the sweet.  Made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, I love sipping Vin Santo while dunking almond biscotti into the wine.  This is the classic way to serve it.  You have to try it.

Vin Santo can be pricey as the grapes are hand-picked, hung from rafters in a building and dried. Once dried they are pressed and the juice fermented in caratelli (small-cigar shaped barrels).  After fermentation is complete the caratelli are sealed and placed under the winery roof for aging....for a long time. The result, is an amazing nutty-nectar that warms you as it goes down. 

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tavernwinecheese.jpgAs a devoteé of all things wine, I am on the constant lookout for events that allow me to expand my palate without hurting my pocketbook. It's rare to find me at large "Grand Tastings" because I find it difficult even with pouring/spitting to get my $50-$100 worth and still be able to function or remember what I drank. Living in Los Angeles, "bang for the buck" wine-centered evenings are few and far between so when I heard about the Tavern's bi-weekly Wine and Cheese Club, I made a reservation immediately. The Larder, where the tasting takes place, is the casual cafe attached to Tavern, which is Suzanne Goin's latest restaurant venture. Even though I've never been to her reknowned wine bar A.O.C. – it's horrifying I know, I'll get there, I promise – I knew this was going to be good. It's what she does. Plus, four wines paired with cheese and nibbles for $29? There's nothing wrong with that equation. Except the drive, which thankfully for us was against traffic.

The evening is very casual, though there is some "education" about the wine region being featured, the backstory behind each wine and why it was selected, as well as what they hoped to accomplish with each pairing. It was probably 5 minutes of information before each course, leaving you plenty of time to socialize with your dining companions while savoring the pairings. Questions are encouraged, but not necessary to the enjoyment of the evening.

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