Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Recipes & Wine Advice

This Thursday is Thanksgiving I'm sure many people are in the middle of devising their plans for how to celebrate this festive occasion. You might be trying to select a restaurant, deciding not to cook this year. You might be dining at home and trying to plan a menu of food and drinks for all your guests. You might be dining at the home of family or friends, and have been asked to bring a dish or a bottle of wine. So many decisions so I am here to offer some helpful suggestions that might ease your tension and worries.

Let me begin with some general advice, a sentiment which you should embrace. Stop worrying that everything needs to be perfect because it will never be perfect and it doesn't have to be perfect. This is a holiday where family and friends gather, to share everything they are thankful for and not to complain and nitpick about silly and irrelevant issues. It is a time for fun and enjoyment, to relax and chat, to eat and drink, to savor the day together. As long as people enjoy themselves, as long as the food and wine is good, no one will complain or even care about whether it was "perfect" or not, whatever that term might mean. Just everyone being together is perfect enough.

Now, I'll provide some more specific advice, including some easy recipes to prepare as well as some advice on selecting wines.

If you are cooking at home, or need to bring a dish to someone else's home, then let me suggest some relatively easy, but quite delicious, recipes. I have compiled for you a list of five such Easy Thanksgiving Recipes, including Buffalo Chicken Dip, Sangria, Double Corn Pudding, Special Potato Casserole and Swedish Apple Pie. Just about anyone can make these easy recipes and your family and friends should really enjoy the results. Plus, these recipes aren't just appropriate for Thanksgiving and you can enjoy them at any time. Buffalo Chicken Dip while tailgating? Sangria for your next wine party? Swedish apple pie for Sunday dessert? We regularly prepare their recipes during the holidays as well as the rest of the year and they always earn raves.

Choosing wines for Thanksgiving can seem intimidating but it really is not. Please don't worry about what wines to choose. Start by reading some general advice I previously wrote, Thanksgiving: I Want Wines To Make People Smile. I hope that will help decrease your worry over wine selections. There are so many good choices for Thanksgiving wines.For more advice and suggestions, check out my prior posts, Choosing Holiday Wines Part 1 & Part 2. Finally, for some out of the box suggestions, check out my Thanksgiving Wines? Consider Sherry Or Sakeboth which are very food friendly and would pair well with your Thanksgiving feast.

Whatever you do for Thanksgiving, enjoy yourself and appreciate all that you have, rather than worry about what you do not.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rant: America's Culinary Debt

The fate of Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrats are major issues right now, with plenty of heated rhetoric and arguments. Fear is at the heart of much of the discussion and though the threat of terrorism is real, the actual risks involved are much lower than doomsayers proclaim. The basic humanity of these refugees and immigrants needs to factor far greater into these discussions, and compassion needs to be a prominent value.

America owes a huge debt to the refugees and immigrants which have previously come to our country. They bring a diversity to our country which only benefits us all. Yes, there are some bad apples in the bunch, yet there are bad apples everywhere. We have to understand how these bad apples are the exception and not the rule. Those bad apples do not reflect the general mentality and behavior of the greater majority.

Let's consider but one area where America owes a great debts to refugees and immigrants: our culinary scene.

First, many restaurant kitchens, all across the country, couldn't operate without  the refugees and immigrants who perform some of the most basic, and still very important, duties, from dish washing to prep work. They work behind the scenes, unseen by the restaurant diners who might only see the chef. As they work unseen, too many people fail to understand their role and its importance to what ends up on their plate.

I''ve talked to a number of chefs who have been immensely grateful for these workers. Few others have been willing to do such jobs, from dish washing to basic prep work. Without these refugees and immigrants, it would be difficult to find others willing to do these duties. In addition, the chefs uniformly state that they are some of the hardest working people they know. For a significant number of these refugees and immigrants, they work multiple jobs, maybe in a couple different kitchens. These people contribute significantly to the community.

Second, these refugees and immigrants bring to the U.S. their home cuisines, including different ingredients, recipes and techniques, They have created a greater diversity in our culinary scene, opening diners up to so many new and different foods. Consider Boston and its neighboring communities and try to count the numerous country cuisines which are represented, which wouldn't exist except for the influx of refugees and immigrants to our country. Ethiopia, Lebanon, Mexico, El Salvador, Senegal, Afghanistan,  Vietnam and so much more.

In addition,other chefs have adopted the ingredients, recipes and techniques of these refugees and immigrants. Their culinary heritage has spread across the country, becoming firmly ingrained in our society. Without their contributions, our culinary world would be boring and plain.We revel in culinary diversity but need to understand and appreciate the myriad contributions of those refugees and immigrants.

Rather than worrying so much about the greatly exaggerated risks of refugees and immigrants, let us devote much more consideration to all the positive contributions they can make to our country.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Francesinhas: Hearty Portuguese Sandwichs In Medford

The Croque Monsieur is a delicious French sandwich with ham and cheese, and the Portuguese found a way to create a similar sandwich, except one on steroids, ramping up the meat content. The Croque Monsieur is commonly topped with bechamel sauce while the Portuguese opted for a tangier, tomato-based sauce. This tasty Portuguese monstrosity is known as the the Francesinha and is now available locally, at a small, new restaurant in Medford.

Antonio Pereira, a native of Portugal, recently opened Tasty on the Hill at 321 Boston Avenue, Medford, across the street from the Danish Pastry House. The restaurant is currently open only for breakfast and lunch, with breakfast served all day. The menu has plenty of traditional American breakfast items, from eggs to pancakes, waffles to omelets, all reasonably priced. The lunch items include burgers, wraps, and other classic sandwiches. However, their most unique menu item is the Francesinha though in the near future, they will be opening for dinner, on certain nights, offering a number of traditional Portuguese dishes.

The restaurant seats around 24 people and it is very clean and spacious. It has the ambiance of a diner, and the staff is very welcoming and friendly. I've only been to the restaurant once so this is only an initial impression, but one which was so positive it was worthy of making my readers aware of this new restaurant with its compelling Portuguese sandwich.

I ordered Green Iced Tea, which I was pleased to see was freshly brewed with Organic Bigelow Tea. A good start to my lunch.

Yes, that is one big-ass sandwich!

The restaurant serves six variations (each $13.95) of the Francesinhas, including the Traditional, Grilled Chicken, Tasty Burger, Vegetarian, Bacalhau, and Smoked Salmon. All of the Francesinhas come with French fries. In the photo above,you can see the Tasty Burger, with a burger, American cheese, ham, linguica, bacon, and a fried egg, topped by a special sauce and accompanied with shoe-string French fries.

The term "francesinhas" is said to translate as "little Frenchie," "little French one," or "little French girl." The sandwich, which is most common in the city of Porto in Portugal, has murky origins though one theory seems to be dominant. The most common story is that the Francesinha was invented in the 1950s by Daniel David da Silva, a Portuguese man who was born in the municipality of Terras do Bouro. Seeking work, he traveled to Belgium and France, eventually becoming a barman. When he eventually returned to Portugal, he started working at A Regaleira restaurant.

He was considered to be an inventive cook and one of his experiments was a sandwich which was an adaption of the Croque Monsieur. Daniel David added more layers of meat and topped the sandwich with a spicy sauce, allegedly made with tomato sauce and beer. Why did he call it a Francesinha? The reasons is again uncertain, some saying he did it to reflect the robust,spicy women of France as opposed to the more sulky Portuguese women.

In Porto, you'll find many variations of the Francesinhas, though it commonly is a stack of different meats, topped by an egg, between two pieces of bread with melted cheese atop it and covered by a spicy tomato-based sauce. The recipe for the sauce is usually a big secret, though beer and sometimes even Port, is used in the making. At Tasty On the Hill, their sauce recipe is a secret, though it is supposed to contain 12 ingredients and has been a family recipe that originated about 30-40 years ago. Through some online searching, it seems that the Francesinha is not easily found in the U.S. so Tasty On The Hill is a pioneer in introducing this sandwich to Americans.

So let me describe the Francesinha I ate for lunch, the first of these sandwiches I have ever eaten so I can't compare it to those made in Porto.

It is a hearty sandwich so you need to bring your hunger if you hope to finish it. It also is very much a fork and knife sandwich, or be prepared for a very messy sandwich in your hands. The sauce was tangy, savory and slightly spicy with a strong tomato flavor. Very tasty, it was a fine topping for the thick sandwich. All the different meats provided different textures and spices, and they blended harmoniously together, enhanced by the fried egg and all the melted cheese. The bread seemed to be a large, soft roll and it stood up well to the sauce. It was a carnivore's delight, a hearty meal which should satisfy. And the French fries were a good addition, and I liked their taste with the sauce.

Overall, it was an impressive sandwich, a delightful blend of flavors and textures. I'm looking forward to returning to try some of the other variations of the Francesinha, such as maybe the Bacalhau, the salted cod. I recommend that my readers check out Tasty On The Hill, especially for the unique Francesinhas.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events..
1)  Puritan and Co. will host their 3rd Annual Harvest Dinner showcasing seasonal flavors on Wednesday, November 18, with seatings starting at 5:30pm. Puritan & Company Chef/Owner Will Gilson, Chef de Cuisine Alex Saenz, Sommelier Peter Nelson and the restaurant’s talented team invite guests to enjoy the flavors of the season at upcoming Harvest Dinner, a delicious four-course meal of Puritan & Company’s signature seasonal New England fare and an optional wine pairing.

The Menu can be seen here.
The four-course meal is $60 per person with an optional wine pairing for $35 per person.
For reservations, please call (617)-615-6195

2) On December 2, Legal Sea Foods in Park Square will host a wine dinner with Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards. Since 1973, Sonoma-Cutrer has been producing the finest quality wines since it opened as a vineyard company. Its foundation is built in the hillsides and rocky foothills in the region recognized as the Sonoma Coast Appellation. In the 1970s, the company planted several different grape varieties and virtually overnight Sonoma-Cutrer’s Chardonnay grapes had gained a reputation for exceptional quality and were in high demand by many premium wineries.

Legal Sea Foods will team up with Winemaking Director, Mick Schroeter, to host a four-plus-course dinner featuring signature cuisine paired with his selections from the Sonoma-Cutrer vine. The menu will be presented as follows:

Sandy Neck Oyster on the Half Shell, Blood Orange Granita
Ponzu-Marinated Cod, Cucumber Cup, Mizuna Micro-Greens
Bang Bang Shrimp Skewer
Sonoma-Cutrer “Winemaker’s Release” Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, 2014
Nantucket Bay Scallop Casserole (lemon, garlic, mixed greens)
Sonoma-Cutrer “Les Pierres Vineyard” Barrel Selection, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Lobster “Pot Pie” (lobster Newburg sauce, English peas, baby mâche)
Sonoma-Cutrer “Founders Reserve Legacy” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012
Grilled Tuna Steak (chanterelle duxelles, farro salad, beurre rouge)
Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2013
Roasted Pear Crostata (mascarpone, honey ice cream)
Sonoma-Cutrer “Winemaker’s Release” Late Harvest Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012

COST: $95 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservation required by calling 617-530-9397

3) With the holidays now upon us, there’s no better way to celebrate the season than by throwing a festive fete and treating your guests to tasty tipples and tempting sweets. Join Temple Bar on Saturday, December 5t, from 3pm-5pm, and let Bar Manager and trained pastry chef Jenn Harvey show you how to take your holiday food and beverage game up a notch.

Calling upon her training in both confecting and cocktailing, Jenn will walk you through cocktail basics while sharing three ingeniously easy punch recipes sure to help your friends and family get their fa-la-la on. And what are the holidays without a cookie or two? Once everyone has wet their whistle, Jenn will share a few of her own family’s cookie recipes to help step up your baking game this season.

While snacking and mingling, learning has never tasted so sweet as Jenn explains the finer points of pairing desserts with drinks.

COST: $30 (tax included) per person
TICKETS: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cocktails-confections-holiday-edition-tickets-19233218073

4) Zebra’s Bistro and Wine Bar has earned acclaim for its delicious seasonal dishes and thoughtful wine collection. But when it comes to the holidays, it is perhaps best known for its Annual Parent-Child Gingerbread House Making Class. Held every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you can choose to either build and decorate a Gingerbread House, or decorate a hand-made pre-built house that the Zebra’s pastry staff will build for you. Prices range from $69-$99 depending upon the number of people at the table (no more than 3); and if you want the house pre-built. The class lasts 1-1 ½ hours.

Private Class For a Group of Six or More Adults
Did you say Gingerbread Martinis? Gingerbread Houses aren’t just for kids anymore. Zebra’s hosts private Gingerbread House classes for adults with a group of six or more. There will be a house for each adult to build and decorate, and cocktails as well! Each group has its own instructor to help lead the way with building and decorating tips. Gingerbread House & Martinis is available for adults, $69.00 per person, weekdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 4pm-5pm. Advance Reservations required.

Planning a December birthday party or holiday celebration between Thanksgiving and New Year? This is the one that everyone will talk about. Each guest receives handmade gingerbread pieces to assemble their own house and decorate under the guidance of Zebra’s pastry staff. The houses are yours to keep and to use as a centerpiece for your holiday celebrations. Please call early, dates and times go quickly.

Zebra’s Gingerbread House Making Kits are available to purchase. With the kit you can build and decorate your gingerbread house at home. The kit includes the baked gingerbread pieces, a foundation board, royal icing, and plenty of candy decorations. $59 per kit; or $69 for a pre-built house ready to decorate at your home. Please call in advance for pickup, Nov. 27-Dec. 23, 2015.

Reservations: http://zebrasbistro.com/gingerbread/

5) This holiday season, Bar Boulud invites novice bakers and pastry perfectionists to join Chef Robert Differ for an intimate pastry class featuring the traditional Parisian holiday dessert: Bûche de Noël.

Upon arrival, participants will transform into a pastry apprentice as they sip a complimentary glass of bubbly prosecco or a rich cup of hot cocoa while preparing to expertly craft a standout, celebratory sweet that’s guaranteed to impress guests at their next joyful occasion. As the demonstration gets underway, Chef Differ will highlight the history, preparation, technique, and assembly required for crafting this iconic dessert in the confines of each home cook’s kitchen. Each participant will then be presented with a pre-rolled Bûche de Noël that serves as a confectionary canvas, ready to receive each student’s artistic touch.

Emphasizing festive decorating techniques, this tailored class allows students to focus on all of the fun aspects of holiday baking without the stress of measuring, mixing and manipulating each ingredient from scratch. Each class participant will depart with a recipe for crafting this iconic Christmas-themed dessert at home, along with a freshly-baked Bûche de Noël to share with friends and family.

WHEN: Sunday, December 6 and Saturday, December 12, 11am-12:30pm
COST: $85 per person (plus Eventbrite fees)
Reservations can be made through Eventbrite. For more information please call 617-535-8800

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Franciacorta: Serious Bubbly You Should Be Drinking

Will the Fans of Franciacorta please step forward and testify!

I recently posted about Choosing Holiday Wines, recommending that you don't buy the same old wines and seek out something different and delicious, such as Franciacorta. In short, Franciacorta is Italian Sparkling Wine, made in the méthode traditionnelle, and produced in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. For more details and basic information on Franciacorta, please consult my prior post Franciacorta: Bubbly That Needs To Be On Your Wine Radar.  As a brief update, in 2014, annual production of Franciacorta was about 15.5 million bottles, roughly a 10% increase since 2012.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of Franciacorta is exported to the U.S. so it is easy for it to get lost in the deluge of other Sparkling Wines that are available. However, it is worth seeking out as it presents delicious & quality wine, reasonably priced, and less expensive than most Champagne. You can check out some of my prior Franciacorta reviews in Fun With Franciacorta  and see that the 2007 Villa Franciacorta Brut made my list of 2013 Top Ten Wines Over $15 (But Under $50).

In the last several months, I've participated in two Franciacorta Twitter media tastings, sampling nine more Franciacorta wines. In general, all of these wines were delicious and intriguing in their own ways. They commonly are dry and crisp, some with a tasty creaminess, and usually have bright,lively flavors and tiny, fine bubbles. Franciacorta is very food friendly, with everything from Sushi to Potato Chips, Swordfish to Caviar (all which I have eaten with these wines). As most are priced in the range of $25-$35, they are less expensive than most Champagne, and I believe they deliver plenty of quality at their price point. During this holiday season, Franciacorta can easily fill all your Sparkling Wine needs.

Let me provide you some Franciacorta options you can consider this season.

The NV Barone Pizzini Animante Franciacorta Brut ($35) is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Noir, & 4% Pinot Bianco. Though the winery was founded in 1967, wine making in their family extends back centuries.It was the first winery in Franciacorta to adopt organic viticulture and in 2001, all their Franciacorta vineyards attained the organic certification.  The vineyards cover a total surface area of 47 hectares and in 2006, they constructed an eco-friendly winery and have been working at making another of their vineyards Biodynamic.

The Animante is aged for about six months in stainless steel, spends 20-30 months in the bottle on the lees, and has an alcohol content of 12%. With a fine golden color, the nose presents appealing floral and citrus notes. On the palate, it is dry and crisp, with delicious tastes of green apple, white flowers, mild honey notes and a touch of toastiness. On the long finish, there is some delightful creaminess. This is complex and serious bubbly, sure to impress, and would be perfect for seafood.  Highly recommended.

The NV Le Marchesine Franciacorta Brut ($27) is also a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Bianco. The Biatta family founded this winery in 1985, though the family's connection to wine extends back to 1196 when an ancient ancestor was a négociant éleveur. The family now owns about 47 hectares, producing approximately 450K bottles annually.

This Brut spends about 24 months in the bottle on the lees and has an alcohol content of 12.5%, This wine also shows floral notes on the aroma as well as some spices, notably ginger. On the palate, it is also crisp and dry, fresh and tasty, with more herbal and spices flavors, especially ginger. The ginger is dominant but far from overwhelming. It is not as complex as the Animante but is easy drinking bubbly which should please your palate. As a food wine, it is excellent to help cleanse your palate, especially with those ginger notes.

The NV Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Brut ($25) is a blend of 90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Bianco. During the 1980s, the Moretti family converted a brickyard into a winery. This Brut spent about 7 months aging, partially in stainless steel and partially in barriques, and then 18-30 months in the bottle on the lees. It has an alcohol content of 12.5%,  This is a Franciacorta that is mostly about the fruit, as well as being clean, crisp and dry. There are delightful flavors of apple and pear, and it drinks so easily. Yet it is more than a one-note wine, containing plenty of character for this price point.

The NV Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Rosé ($25) is a blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir. This Rosé spent about 7 months aging, partially in stainless steel and partially in barriques, and then 24-30 months in the bottle on the lees. In this wine, fruit plays a dominant role as well, plenty of delicious red berry with hints of apple and even pineapple. It is dry and crisp, with some subtle mineral notes and a hint of rose petals. It is a fun wine, eager to please, but with its serious side too. An excellent value at this price point.

The La Montina Argens Saten ($28) is made from 100% Chardonnay. The winery owns about 72 hectares and the grapes for this wine come from their best vineyards. This wine spent at least 24 months in the bottle on the lees. I was reminded of herbed rolls when I tasted this Saten, as the wine had plenty of herbal and toast notes. It was a more savory and rich taste, both dry and crisp. A very different style than some of the more fruity Franciacorta and would be a nice pairing for dishes like roast chicken and even lamb.

Franciacorta and firearms? Yes, the NV Lo Sparvierre Brut Cuvee No.7 ($35), is from a winery that is owned by a famous firearms manufacturing company, Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta. The Beretta company was established back in 1526 and is currently owned and operated by Ugo Gussalli Beretta and his sons, Franco and Pietro. The Lo Sparvierre estate consists of about 150 hectares, 30 which are vineyards. The term "Sparvierre" means "sparrowhawk" and is on the coat of arms which was in the original 16th-century building on the estate.

This Brut is made from 100% Chardonnay, aged in the bottle for about 30 months on the lees, and has an alcohol content of 13%. This was an impressive wine, with an alluring nose of honey, brioche and pear. On the palate, it is crisp, dry and complex, with an intriguing melange of flavors, including honey and ripe pear, hints of peach and toasty notes, a mild nuttiness and some mineral elements. With a lengthy and pleasing finish, this was bubbly to slowly savor and enjoy. It would also enhance many types of dishes. Highly recommended

The NV Guide Berlucchi '61 Brut ($30) is a blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir. It is produced by the winery which brought sparkling wine to Franciacorta. Guido Berlucchi hired Franco Ziliani, a young enologist, to assist with his winery. Franco was full of enthusiasm and ideas, and desired to produce a sparkling wine. Guido allowed him to do so, and in 1961, they produced their first bubbly, Pinot di Franciacorta, which was also the first time that the term "Franciacorta" appeared on a wine label.

This Brut spends about 18 months in the bottle on the lees and sees no malolactic fermentation. This is such an elegant wine, smooth, complex and alluring. Delicious and clean flavors of green apple, melon and citrus with a rich mouth feel. It is an impressive wine, one which could be enjoyed on its own or paired with food. This wine tastes better than many Champagnes priced at $50-$60. Highly recommended.

The 2009 Antica Fratta Essence Rosé ($35) a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The original winery had an excellent reputation in the mid-1800s but was eventually abandoned until it was purchased in 1979, giving birth to Antica Fratta. This Brut spends about 36 months in the bottle on the lees and has an alcohol content of 13%. This is an elegant Rosé, dry and crisp, with a taste of creamy red berries with a hint of herbal accents. Savory and delicious, this is an appealing wine that should please anyone. It is food friendly but also would be excellent on its own.

The 2010 Villa Franciacorta Boké Rosé ($25) is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. In 1960, Alessandro Bianchi purchased the hamlet of Villa, whose buildings date to the 16th century, and a hundred hectares of land surrounding it. Wine had been made in Villa for centuries, and Bianchi continued that tradition. They produce only about 300K bottles annually and only make vintage Franciacorta using only estate grapes.

This Rosé spends at least 36 months in the bottle on the lees. The 2010 vintage was a bit rainy during the growing season but the harvest took place under ideal conditions. I was impressed with this wine too, loving its bright and fruity nose. It was crisp and dry, elegant and complex, with plenty of red fruit flavors, enhanced with some mineral notes. It has a lengthy, satisfying finish and it plain delicious, one of those wines that you finish and immediately ask for another glass (or bottle). Highly recommended.

So why aren't you drinking Franciacortia?