Culinary travel offers the best of food and adventure

chefclaudioThis article appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of AARP Magazine.  I thought it may be of interest to my readers.  Enjoy!

Some say the way to most deeply understand a place is through its cuisine (just ask Anthony Bourdain). That’s the idea behind culinary  travel, where visitors learn to cook like the locals as a way to experience a foreign culture. “Travelers want to get out of the bus or the car and actively learn and do,” says Erik Wolf, executive director of the World Food Travel Association.

Colorado-based Epitourean says it sent about 3,000 foodies to Italy in 2012; in 2013, it was on track to send a few thousand more. Other popular destinations: California’s Napa Valley, and Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where low-country cuisine is the draw. David Loy, Epitourean’s president, says cooking trips are “on people’s bucket lists.”

Cost varies widely. Many U.S. bed-and-breakfast inns offer two- or three-day culinary getaways for less than 1,000. The Blair House Inn in Wimberley, Texas, has a three-day “barbecue camp” for $621 per person, double occupancy, plus airfare. But spending a week in France’s Loire Valley while learning how to make chocolate soufflé is about 3,000, fights excluded.

The article included a few trips to consider:

The International Kitchen – Various locations ($3,500 per person)
Enjoy Italy’s Amalfi Coast on one of International Kitchen’s best-selling trips–six nights in a boutique hotel where travelers cook classic regional dishes and visit places such as Pompeii. The price: $3,500 per person, double. May-September, excluding airfare; $2,950 during low season.

John C. Campbell Folk School – Brasstown, North Carolina ($1,107 per person)
Escape for a week to dig in the dirt and learn how to grow and cook with fresh herbs. The price is $1,107 per person, double, for six nights with family-style meals and a shared bath, airfare excluded.  Also at the folk school: A weekend class–wheat-free cooking, for example–costs $435 per person, double.

Los Dos Cooking School – Mérida, Mexico ($1,725 per person)
Try a three-day, four-night Yucatán cooking workshop. Oklahoma-born chef David Sterling teaches at his colonial mansion in downtown Mérida. Learn to make favorites like salbut (crispy tortilla topped with ingredients such as smoked port). The price: $1,725 per person, double, with a minimum of two, excluding airfare.

And here’s one that I’m familiar with:

Active Gourmet Holidays – Various locations (Prices vary by location)
Whether it be learning to master local dishes from a renowned chef in the heart of Provence, biking amidst the spectacular red poppy fields of Chianti, or tasting fine Tuscan wines from the Brunello region, Active Gourmet Holidays offers the perfect culinary tours.

A Champagne Primer for the Holidays

champagneWe’ll soon be kicking off the holiday season, and what better way to celebrate than with something bubbly. To help you prepare for festive gatherings with family and friends, I share with you this champagne primer from the Whole Foods Market® blog (wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/whole-story):

Champagne or Sparkling Wine? Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled “Champagne.” Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain, Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy and Sekt in Germany. Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers.

For What Price? Yes, champagne can be expensive. Is it worth the extra money over sparkling wines from other countries? Some say “yes” and others “no.” Yet, there’s really no right or wrong answer here—it’s truly a personal choice. Many of these sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and may be a better value.

What Makes Champagne Bubbly? Unless there is specific terminology on the bottle, all champagne and most domestic sparklers are comprised of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the less often used varietal Pinot Meunier. The bubbles are created through a process called “secondary fermentation,” which means they make regular wine first and then re-ferment it with yeast left in the bottle (which is filtered out later). This is why you’ll often get a fresh baked bread aroma from bubbly. Most bubblies are non-vintage or “NV,” meaning they are created from a blend of wine vintages.

How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.

  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apéritif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.

Bubbly Add-Ins. Once you’ve chosen your bottle, here are a few suggested add-ins for customized cocktails. Consider offering the entire selection at your party so guests can choose their favorite flavors.

  • Candied ginger
  • Pomegranate juice and seeds
  • Berries, muddled with mint
  • Orange or grapefruit juice with a twist
  • Sugared cranberries with a sugar- and black-pepper rimmed glass

Whatever you’re toasting with, cheers to the holidays!

Refreshing Wine Cocktails for Summer Sipping

cucumber-mint-wine-cocktailWhile attending a North Carolina Symphony Summerfest concert recently on an unusually pleasant June evening under the stars at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, I was reminded of how occasions such as these—basking in the laid-back easiness of the season with dear friends and good music—are perfect for a light, refreshing wine cocktail.

In searching the Web to find some recipes to share with you, I came across these concoctions that combine two my most favorite things: wine and herbs. I’m super excited to try them all, and I hope they whet your palate, too. Here’s to many more carefree summer evenings!

Gewürztraminer Agave Ginger Ale (From WineFolly.com)

Perfect wine cocktails balance sweet, spice, sour and savory. In this cocktail, the spiciness of the ginger is balanced with sweet (agave) and sour (wine). Cava adds spritz without reducing alcohol content. Tabasco adds just the right amount of savory to the mix.

Recipe:

• 3 oz Gewürztraminer (such as $7 Chateau St. Michelle)
• 3 oz Cava (such as $7 Cristalino Brut)
• teaspoon of muddled ginger
• 3/4 oz agave syrup
• Optional: 1-2 dashes of Tabasco

How To:

Put sliced ginger and agave in a cocktail glass and muddle with a wooden spoon until ginger pieces are fragrant. Add Gewürztraminer. Stir. Strain into a sugar-rimmed cocktail glass with ice. Top with sparkling wine.

Cucumber Mint Fume Blanc Fizz (From WineFolly.com)

If you’re not into super-sweet, this potent potable sounds like a yummy alternative. Cucumber wine cocktails are refreshing and savory. Mint and lime add sour to balance the drink. This drink is not for everyone because it’s not sweet. However, if you’re reading this and your mouth is already watering because you’re sick and tired of overly sweet summer drinks, then read on!

Recipe:

• 3 oz Fume Blanc / Sauvignon Blanc (such as $6 Barnard Griffin)
• 3 oz Cava (such as $7 Cristalino Brut)
• 1 oz cucumber water
• 1/2 oz lime juice
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• pinch coarsely chopped mint

How To:

Make cucumber water by grating, blending and straining a cucumber. Add cucumber water, fume blanc, lime juice, sugar and mint to a cocktail shaker. Shake with ice. Strain into a serving glass and top with 3 ounces sparkling wine.

Strawberry Basil Moscato Lemonade (From WineFolly.com)

In this summer stunner, basil adds more savory.

Recipe:

• 6 oz Moscato (such as Wine Cube Moscato, from Target)
• 4 Strawberries
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 sprig basil
• 1 ounce lemon juice

How To:

Blend all ingredients, except wine, together. Strain into tall glass with ice. Pour over moscato. Add bendy straw.

Lemongrass & Blood Orange Wine Spritzer (From KitchenConfidante.com)
Serves 4.

Recipe:

Lemongrass Syrup
2 stalks lemongrass (plus extra for garnish, if desired)
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar

Spritzer
ice cubes
2 cups Lemongrass Syrup
1/2 cup blood orange juice
white wine (Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio work well)
seltzer water

How To:

To make the lemongrass syrup: Trim the ends off the lemongrass and chop into 2-inch pieces. Using a morter and pestle or the back of a knife, crush the lemongrass stalks to help release the juice. Combine lemongrass, water and sugar in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Let it cool in the refrigerator. Strain.

Fill glasses with ice cubes. Add 1/2 cup lemongrass syrup and 1/8 cup blood orange juice to each glass. Fill remainder of glass with white wine and a splash of seltzer water. Garnish with a lemongrass stalk and serve.

Can a Glass of Wine a Day Keep the Doctor Away?

wine-glass-medI’m sure we’ve all seen the myriad headlines over the past few years touting the health benefits of wine.* But can including wine in your daily diet really make a difference? I’m pleased to report that, in moderation, indeed it can. Extensive studies on the topic disclose some pretty impressive findings suggesting that wine—especially the red variety—may promote a longer lifespan, improve mental health, protect against certain cancers, and provide benefits to the heart.

Here are just some of the benefits that you get from drinking wine:

The Benefit: Promotes Longevity

The Evidence: A Finnish study of 2,468 men over a 29-year period, published in the Journals of Gerontology, 2007 showed that wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than those consuming beer or spirits. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Slows the Aging Process

The Evidence: Researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that red wine has anti-aging properties. Specifically, resveratrol (from the red grape skin) was the compound found to have the beneficial effect. Their findings were published in the journal Cell Metabolism. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

The Benefit: Reduces Heart-Attack Risk

The Evidence: Moderate drinkers suffering from high blood pressure are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack than nondrinkers according to a 16-year Harvard School of Public Health study of 11,711 men, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 2007. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease

The Evidence: Red-wine tannins contain procyanidins, which protect against heart disease according to a study at Queen Mary University in London, published in Nature, 2006. Wines from Sardinia and southwest France have more procyanidins than other wines. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Reduces the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

The Evidence: Research on 369,862 individuals studied over an average of 12 years each, at Amsterdam’s VU University Medical Center, reveals that moderate drinkers have 30 percent less risk than nondrinkers of developing type 2 diabetes (as published in Diabetes Care, 2005). Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Stroke

The Evidence: The possibility of suffering a blood clot-related stroke drops by about 50 percent in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol according to a Columbia University study of 3,176 individuals over an eight-year period, published in Stroke, 2006. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Decreases the Risk of Cataracts

The Evidence: Moderate drinkers are 32 percent less likely to get cataracts than nondrinkers; those who consume wine are 43 percent less likely to develop cataracts than those drinking mainly beer according to a study of 1,379 individuals in Iceland, published in Nature, 2003. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Cuts the Risk of Colon Cancer

The Evidence: Moderate consumption of wine (especially red) cuts the risk of colon cancer by 45 percent according to a Stony Brook University study of 2,291 individuals over a four-year period, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Developing Dementia

The Evidence: A Loyola University Medical Center study, published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, reported that moderate red wine drinkers had a 23 percent lower risk of developing dementia compared to nondrinkers. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

The Benefit: Reduces the Risk of Depression

The Evidence: Drinking wine may reduce the risk of depression, according to researchers from several universities in Spain. Data was gathered on 2,683 men and 2,822 women aged from 55 to 80 years over a seven-year period. The findings were published in the journal BMC Medicine. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

*The health benefits come from moderate wine consumption, defined by the American Heart Association as one to two four-ounce glasses a day.

Smartphone Apps to Improve Your Wine Smarts

hello-vino-resultIn this age of smartphones, tablets and instant access to information, it’s no surprise that the adage of “there’s an app for that” has made its way to the wine world.

Whether you’re a seasoned oenophile or a novice wine drinker, a little knowledge can go a long way towards choosing the perfect bottle. In researching this article, a few apps appeared repeatedly as favorites and I’ve summarized them for you here:

Hello Vino (hellovino.com) is a robust wine pairing and suggestion app for the iPhone and Android. It can recommend wines with popular picks, value options and accolades. It lets you browse categories and subcategories of wines based on occasions, taste preferences, and wine varieties. You can take pictures of wine labels and use the app to get ratings, food pairings and tasting notes among others. It has a photographic memory which will help you remember your favorite wines. It also provides audio reviews. Cost: Free

Snooth Wine Pro (snooth.com/iphone-app) for iPhone lets you snap a picture of a wine label and the app automatically matches it to Snooth’s database of over one million wines. Once a match is found, the app gives you plenty of data to help you locate it near you or find an appropriate substitute if it’s not available close by. With this app, you can also add the wine to your Wishlist or Virtual Cellar; purchase the wine online through the Snooth retail network; read expert and user reviews and post your own; and browse for similar wines by winery, region, or varietal. Cost: $4.99. Note: A free version of this app is available as well, but the image recognition capability is not available and ads are displayed.

For Android users, check out Swirl Pro. It has a lookup function that accesses the Snooth database for similar details, but you have to type in the name of a wine rather than taking a picture. Cost: $2.99. Note: There’s also a free version that allows all of the browsing and tagging, but only lets you add a couple of wines.

Wine Events (localwineevents.com) is a simple, yet useful iPhone and Android app to have if you like to attend tastings, festivals, auctions and other wine-related activities and want to stay current on events in your area. It offers a plethora of choices for wine lovers, plus it gives you the option of posting the event to Facebook. Cost: Free

Cor.kz (http://cor.kz) is an all-purpose iPhone app touted as “like having a sommelier in your pocket.” Its most popular feature is its CellarTracker, which lets you access information on over one million wines. Use the search tab to find wines by name, region or varietal. There’s even a barcode scanner that identifies your bottle and delivers thousands of user ratings, tasting notes and other general information about the wine. Keep track of wines you like or want to try by rating them and adding them to your virtual cellar. Cost: $1.99

Wine Ratings Guide (nirvino.com) is another app for iPhone and Android that’s likened to having a personal sommelier with you at all times. This highly rated, user-friendly app connects to a database of over a million wines to provide reviews, tasting notes, pairing suggestions and price points. It offers room to add your own ratings and the ability to view customized lists from other users. Cost: $3.99

A few other apps worth checking out are Corkbin (corkbin.com), the Approach Guides Wine App (agwine.com), Drync Wine Pro (drync.com), and Vivino (vivino.com).

Have another favorite wine-related app? I’d love for you to share your recommendations with me.

Cozying Up with Winter Warmers

DrinkingRedWine_Fire-On a cold, dreary January day, I like to settle in with a robust red wine that warms me to my extremities.  Following are four reasonably-priced favorites that we keep stocked at my house for those winter weekends when we have the luxury of hibernating indoors.

Mark West Pinot Noir (http://www.markwestwines.com/)
Winemaker’s notes:  Enticing aromas of strawberry and raspberry with barrel notes of caramel, vanilla and baking spices.  Oak aging rounds out the palate and gives the wine its body.  The wine drinks of deep, concentrated raspberry, cherry pie with a touch of cola berry.  The wine shows juicy fruit texture and subtle oak.

Lisa’s notes:  At $10 a bottle, I think this is a very nice California pinot noir.  Although it’s slightly heavy on the oak, the fruit surfaces enough to make for a well balanced wine.  I’ve found it to be a nice accompaniment to salmon.

Cupcake Red Velvet (http://www.cupcakevineyard.com/)
Winemaker’s notes:  Over the top aromas of chocolate, deep rich blackberries, red fruits that follow through the palate to a creamy mocha finish that is unmistakable in its intensity and length, with a hint of coconut.  It’s reminiscent of a blackberry chocolate cupcake with a mocha coulis.

Lisa’s notes:  This California wine, averaging about $10 a bottle, is a tasty blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah grapes.  With just a hint of sweetness on the finish, I find it to be light and velvety enough to drink on its own.  The winemaker suggests pairing it with sweet and spicy Hoisin steak, a barbecue bacon cheeseburger, or even dark chocolate fondue.

Banfi Centine (http://www.castellobanfi.com/)
Winemaker’s notes:  A blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  On the nose, fruity notes of raspberry and plums, but also spicy hints of coffee, liquorices and cinnamon.  The complex structure, soft and round at the same time, makes this wine particularly elegant.

Lisa’s notes:  Having visited the Banfi vineyard estate and winery while vacationing in Italy, I find the “Super Tuscan” Centine just as appealing at home as it was in its enchanting birthplace.  This ruby red beauty is medium-bodied with intense cherry and blackberry flavors.  It’s an exquisite wine with soft tannins and a lingering finish.  And at $9 – $12 a bottle, it’s a superb value!  While I enjoy it on its own, it also pairs well with pastas, roasts, grilled meats or poultry, and medium-aged cheese.

Salvatore Principe Malbec  (http://www.prestigewinegroup.com/brand-salvatore-principe-33.html)
Winemaker’s notes:  This Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina is complex and beautifully crafted.  The grapes are harvested from low yielding vines, creating a wine that is rich in color showcasing dark plum and cherry flavors accented by layers of chocolate.  Twelve months of oak aging adds character and tantalizing tannins.

Lisa’s notes:  My husband and I were introduced to Malbec at a 2010 Christmas Eve dinner and were instantly infatuated.  When we happened upon a bottle of Salvatore Principe’s Malbec at Sam’s Club, the artistic label enticed us to try it.  This luscious wine, which costs $9 – $12 a bottle, blends flavors of ripe plum, warm spices, a hint of chocolate, with a finish of juicy raspberry.  Try it with pasta, vegetables, cheeses, pizza and roasted meats.