This weekend my husband and I went to a cooking class at Sur La Table. It was called Date Night: Cabernet Lover’s Feast. Although I am not a huge fan of Cabernet, the menu sounded delicious!

Blue Cheese Crostini with Applewood Bacon-Cabernet Reduction
Roasted Beet Salad with Toasted Pecans, Goat Cheese and Cabernet Vinaigrette
Au Poivre Ribeye with Roasted Garlic Potatoes
Cabernet-Poached Figs with Vanilla Ice Cream

There were 16 people in the class and we were broken up into two tables of eight. We were taught by Heidi, the head chef and an additional staff of four others. Heidi started by telling us about the different knives we were using and how to correctly hold them. Seems we have been doing it wrong for years. To properly hold a knife, you should hold the blade with your thumb and index finger and place your middle finger against the bottom, where the blade meets the handle. Most people hold the blade by the handle and place their index finger on the top of the blade. It really does make a difference.

We were each given a course to work on – my husband and I were assigned the Crostini. Some of the work was already done for us to save time. In our case, the bacon was cooked and chopped. We needed to chop an onion and it turns out that we have been doing that wrong, too. I worked in hot dog and beef restaurants and thought I knew how to dice an onion. Heidi showed us a better way and it yielded small, evenly chopped pieces. She also lit a tea light candle while we were chopping to help relieve the tearing that sometimes goes with chopping an onion. Heidi talked about how to get rid of the smell of onions (and garlic) by rubbing your hands on the inside of a stainless steel sink. Amazing!

As we continued with the rest of the recipe, Heidi went around the room and helped the others. Often she would stop and give us a tip, like when to use a garlic press (when the garlic will be served cold) and when to mince the garlic (when it will be served hot). She explained the myth about cooking with EVOO. It is not meant to cook at high heat and if reaches the temperature where it starts smoking it turns into a trans-fat. She mixed hers with grape seed oil which is more tolerant to high heat. It was very interesting and informative. While we cooked, we talked to the other couples. The age span was 20’s to 60’s with us right in the middle. Sur La Table did not have a liquor license for serving so we were only given taster cups to drink from. They did offer us coffee and water and had a nice cheese and cracker plate for us to nibble on. The whole time we cooked, the staff picked up our empty bowls, used knives, etc. and cleaned everything. It was nice to not have to worry about the cleanup.

The class was two hours long and we got to eat our dinner at the end. The crostinis were done first, so we munched on them while the steaks were cooking. I can’t wait to make this appetizer for the next party. It was so yummy! The rest of dinner was good, too. I tried beets for the first time in the salad and I will definitely cook with them again. The potatoes were not that exciting as I make them at home that way. The steaks were pepper crusted and juicy. My only complaint is that there were 6 steaks for 16 people and for the price of the class I would have thought we would have a least ½ a steak each. Figs are not my favorite so I tried them and then passed it on to my husband. (Poor guy, whenever we don’t like something or want to finish it, we always offer it to him.)

After dinner, we went next door to have drinks with friends. It was a great evening of learning, entertainment, food and wine and drinks with friends. Can it get any better than that?


I just finished a great book called The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy. I saw it at the bookstore a few months ago but I didn’t buy it. I wasn’t sure if it sounded as good as the two books I already had in my hand so I planned to pick it up at the library instead. Unfortunately, it was on a really long hold list so I forgot all about it for a few months. Last week I got an email telling me it was ready for me.

It is an historical fiction book set in the early 1940’s. Vivienne lives on the small island of Guernsey, between England and France. Her husband, Eugene, has already left to fight in Europe. Vivienne lives with her two daughters, Blanche and Millie and her mother-in-law, Evelyn. Evelyn has dementia and is very confused by the changes in their life. As the war goes on, Vivienne must face the German Occupation, food rations and curfews in addition to the struggles of everyday life. Her moral beliefs are tested and her choices change the course of her life.

What goes better with a good book than a glass of wine? My husband and I were supposed to go to our wine tasting group a few weeks ago, but because I wasn’t feeling well, we stayed home. The tasting was for Zinfandels; normally not my cup of tea. However, the wine we chose was from my favorite California region, the Russian River Valley – Pellegrini Zinfandel Eight Cousins Russian River 2008. It was a very floral wine with scents of blackberry and spice. I was expecting heavy tannins on the finish, but it was a really smooth texture. I sipped my wine with cheese and crackers while I read my book, but it would have gone better with a hardy meal.

I recommend picking them both up and taking some “me time” during the busy holiday season!

When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving. They had a two-bedroom home on the north side of Chicago. The kitchen was small, so tables were set up in the basement. My grandfather had a bar in the corner of the basement near the window so you could see the feet of those passing by. He built the bar himself and kept it stocked with several different bottles of alcohol. Guests at his house could get whatever drink they desired. Even though he was not a wine drinker himself, my grandfather always offered wine at his Thanksgiving table.

As kids, it was our job to help clean up. We carried the food upstairs while someone else had washing duty downstairs in the laundry tubs. Sadly for us kids, there was no dishwasher. My grandparents both helped put things away, including the leftover wine. It was then that I realized how little my grandfather knew about wine. I watched him gather up the bottles of red and white. He then got a funnel out of the kitchen drawer. I saw him pore the red wine into the white wine bottle and cork it up for next time. Even as a kid, I knew that you should not create your own “rose” and imagined that like pop (we ARE from Chicago), it would not be drinkable by just re-corking it.

I am telling you this because Thanksgiving is next week. Many of you will be hosting. You may even serve wine. I don’t think people worry about pairing the wine with the meal. With turkey, you would expect a white wine to be served. However, wine is very personal, so people are going to drink what they enjoy. For my family, the majority will have reds – Pinot Noirs, Nero d’Volas, Cabs, Merlots, etc. I am a white wine drinker, so we will have Chardonnay as well. Sorry rose drinkers – none for you!

I always bring my own wine to a party. I bring a bottle for the host (usually a red) and the bottle that I enjoy drinking. Most of my family and friends drink red, which is traditionally served at room temperature. Actually, that is too warm, but like I said, drinking wine is a personal thing. Here is a chart of storage and serving temperatures for red and white wines.

Non-white wine drinkers think that all white wine is created equal. How wrong they are! “Oh, you like white, I have some Riesling for you.” Ew! That is a dessert wine. I don’t even like that with dessert! Plus, they are usually showing you a bottle that they are pulling out of their cabinet. It is room temperature. When I remind them that white wine is supposed to be served chilled, they offer to put an ice cube in it. Gross! If I chilled your red wine, would you drink it if I popped it in the microwave for a few seconds?

If you are not a wine drinker, I suggest you ask your guests what wine they like or tell them that you know nothing about wine and ask them to bring their own. Wine drinkers will be happy to bring what they like instead of drinking bad wine. And if they complain, have them sit at the kid’s table!

The first Russian River Valley (California) wine I had was a Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay. I loved the dryness of the oak, the slight buttery taste combined with the simple flavor of citrus or vanilla that is found in Russian River wines. Sonoma-Cutrer uses grapes from several appellations, but Sonoma Coast is most often found in stores. Whenever I order wine in a restaurant, I always scan the wine list for Russian River wines.

My husband is a red wine lover, preferring Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. His palate is much larger than mine and he appreciates white wines as well as red. He will always have a glass of my Russian River Chards so I thought I would look into the region and see what other varietals they had. Forty-one percent of the grapes grown in the Russian River are chardonnay and twenty-nine percent are pinot noir. It turns out that because of the coolness of the Russian River and the early fog that rolls in from the Pacific ocean, the grapes have a longer growing season. This allows them more time to mature on the vine. That, coupled with the varied soils in the area, makes a beautiful grape for wine.

For my husband’s birthday in June, I got him a bottle of Pellegrini Pinot Noir from the Russian River that he thought closely resembled the Santa Maria Pinots that he is so fond of. It was a $20.00 bottle, which was cheap compared to most of the Russian River Pinots the store carried. Most of them were $40-$80. The pinots from the Russian River have similar flavors to the Santa Maria wines – black cherries, currants, black licorice. They also have a hint of vanilla like the chardonnays.

On Friday, we went to the wine store again, specifically looking for more Russian River wines. I found a bottle of Healdsburg Ranch Chardonnay which went well with the crab legs we had on Saturday night. My husband chose a Bearboat Pinot Noir. He thought it was “ok”, but I really liked it. We had it with steak and potatoes with dill on Friday night. Both wines were about $16.

Let me know if you decide to try these wines – in fact, give me a call and I’ll help you drink it. 😉

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I are in a Wine Appreciation Group at our church. Every month someone hosts the wine tasting at their house. It is the host’s choice on the type of wine we will be tasting. Our friends, Ruth and John, hosted last week and chose “Funny Sounding Reds”. Not only did we judge the wine on taste, there were also prizes for best wine name.

Normally, we do not know the names of the wine when we are tasting them. They are usually revealed to us after the wine tasting. This time, we received a sheet of paper with all the names of the wines. The wine was served under “number X” and we had to rate the wine and guess the name of the wine. Here are the names of the wines we tasted:

Sinister Hand
Murphy’s Law
Wrongo Dongo
Royal Bitch
3 Blind Moose
Rocky Gully
Menage a Trois
Gnarly Head
El Bastardo
and ?

We brought the ? wine.

When we hosted in March, someone brought the El Bastardo and it was voted third place. However, I don’t think anyone could pick it out in the tasting. I think the most correct “guesses” was two. A lot of these wines were blends, so they were not easy to pin point when tasting.

So who won? The best three are listed below:
Bitch – 2009 Aragon Grenache
IL Bastardo – 2009 Sangiovese di Toscana
Rocky Gully – 2008 Shraz Viognier

The best name was Wrongo Dongo.

Personally, I didn’t really like any of the wines. My husband kept a rate sheet, but I opted out of it this time. I am not a big red wine lover and I think I would have rated them pretty low. There is one wine that we liked the most this tasting. It was called Plungerhead – a Zinfandel.

If you decide to sample any of these wines yourself, let me know how you liked them. Next month – Chardonnay!

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a wine tasting at our house. We belong to a Wine Appreciation Group that is part of our church. We meet once a month and the hosts choose the wine that we taste. The group tastes red wines most of the time. I only like Old World Italian reds, so that is what we tasted this time. On our invitation, we told them to bring a bottle of one of these lesser known Old World Italian wines:

Nero D’Avola
Monte Pulciano

Our choice of appetizers to go along with the wine included:

Tuscan bread
Fruit – berries
Red Pepper and Roasted Eggplant dip (Trader Joe’s)
Hummus (4 varieties – also Trader Joe’s)
Several sausages and cheeses
Prosciutto rolls
Roasted Peppers with Goat Cheese

The Wine Appreciation group has its own glasses, bags, number tags and note pads that go from house to house. The guest brings a bottle and it is put into a bag and marked with a number. The numbers are just pulled from a bag to keep it random. In the case of the red wines, they are all uncorked to allow them to breathe. Everyone mingles and eats while we are waiting for the rest to arrive. Some start drinking beer or wine, but many of us have water before tasting.

The host then goes around and pours everyone about 1 oz. to taste. In honor of National Poetry Month, my husband made up rhymes for every number we had. He got a little more creative as the night went on. Remembering it was our church group, he said “Number Four, Number Four. Turns a good girl into a …..bore.” (What were you thinking?)

We tasted 13 bottles that night. We have a notepad and paper to make comments and/or use your own rating system. My husband and I just rate based on a 1-10 scale. As hosts, we did not have the time to comment as we usually do so I can’t tell you what we liked or didn’t like about each wine. When all wines had been tasted, we tallied up the winners based on a show of hands. The winners were:

Malvira San Michele Barbera D'Alba

This wine was number one. I gave it an 8 and my husband gave it a 7.

Damilano Barbera D'Asti

This wine was number two. I gave it an 8 and my husband gave it a 6.

Il Bastardo Sangiovese

Wine number three got a 7 and 8 from us again.

Tato Montepulciano

This is the wine we brought. It got a 7 from my husband and a 3 from me. It came in 4th place. Although we brought the first place wine at two other tastings, we didn’t do as well with the one we hosted!

Morgante Nero D'Avola

This is the wine that we both liked. We both rated it a nine. However, only 4 people liked it – including us.

It was a great evening. We joined the group knowing only one other couple and have made many friends as a result of our common interest. Next month we are tasting a Meritage Wine. A meritage is a Bordeaux blend of grapes which were grown on non-French soil. The blend of grapes from a meritage are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. I’ll let you know what happens.

When my husband heard I was willing to try some other red wines, he was thrilled. The next day he ran out and got several different bottles of his favorite wines. Again, these are all from Trader Joe’s and under $10.00.

We like to have a quick appetizer with a glass of wine before dinner. This is usually cheese, hummus, crackers, sausages, bread or whatever else we have in the house. It is our wind down time to make dinner and discuss the day’s events. Let me tell you, this is not necessarily a quiet time. Kids run in and out, the phone rings and dogs pace the floor, hoping for a crumb to drop. However, we have to take what we can get.

Over the past week, we have tried three different bottles. Surprisingly, I liked them all. The first one was a Sangiovese Di Toscana. It is an Old World Italian wine. There were gentle tannins and you could taste the oak, spices and anise in the wine. What I liked best about this wine is that I could drink it without food. For me, reds are so harsh that they need food to soften the flavor. With this one, you can drink it socially without dinner.

The next wine we tried was Abrazo Del Toro Reserva. This is a blended wine* – 60% Garnacha and 40% Tempranillo. It is a Spanish Wine. This wine had a velvety texture and the wine’s bouquet was very floral. You can taste the spices and cherries in the wine.

* A quick funny on blended wines. My Irish and non-wine drinking grandfather used to blend his own wine at the end of parties. His bar was full of leftover “rose” wines he made by mixing red and white. It was gross. He also boiled his coffee on the stove in a sauce pan, so he wasn’t a good judge of flavors.

The third wine we tried was a Malbec wine from Argentina. This is a VERY dry wine, like a Cabernet Sauvignon, but softer. It had silky tannins, not overbearing like the Cabs. You could taste the oak, black currant and spice. My first taste of this wine was a big turnoff. Then, we tasted it with a Calabrese Salame and it really brought out the flavors. I would not suggest drinking this wine alone. It definitely needs to go with a meal. Here is more info on Malbec Wines.

This weekend we are going to another wine tasting. I’ll let you know if we found anything worth drinking. Let me know if you try any of these wines and what you think of them.

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