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Friday, July 13, 2018

Vietnam---One of World’s Healthiest Cuisines

I’ve been organizing the Wine-Knows’ 2020 tour to Vietnam and I’m already dreaming of my third trip to this magical country.  While Vietnam does make wine due to its historical roots as a French colony, it’s the nation’s food that pulls at the culinary strings of my heart.  

Traditional Vietnamese cooking is well known for its fresh ingredients, along with its minimal use of dairy, red meat, and oil.   With nearly a 2,000 mile coastline, fish is a common ingredient in the diet.  There’s also a huge reliance on herbs and vegetables.  Because of this, many believe that Vietnam’s cuisine may be one of the healthiest diets on the planet.

Antioxidant fresh herbs

                                 Many dishes are served with a side plate of fresh herbs

Many Vietnamese dishes are accompanied by a large platter of fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint.  Lettuce leaves serve as a wrap for many items (like a burrito) and the herbs are placed inside the wrap along with whatever is being served.  

                                    This egg roll is wrapped in lettuce with purple basil & mint
Herbs have been used throughout history as a medicine.  We know today that they exert an antioxidant influence and contain essential oils, vitamins, and other important substances that help protect our bodies against infection, as well as boost our immunity systems.

Mind-boggling array of nutritious fruit

Vietnam is located in a tropical zone with long hours of warm sunshine, as well as humidity---both of which create nirvana when it comes to fruit.  Not only is there a tremendous assortment, but the Vietnamese pick their fruit ripe.  This has a big influence on why every fruit tastes so better in Vietnam.  It’s no wonder that people from China drive hours by car (or ride the bus) to the Vietnamese border to stock up on these extraordinary fruits.

Tropical fruits have long been known for their promotion of health.  High in essential vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fiber, they are a staple in the Vietnamese diet.  Fruits are served raw, juiced, used in salads, mixed with main courses and are served in desserts.


                                            Jackfruit can grow as large as 80 lbs!

One of my favorite fruits from any country is Vietnamese.  While we don’t grow it in the US, due to the vast Vietnamese population in California the fruit is now being imported.  Called jackfruit, if you don’t know it, you should!  This fruit is a party in your mouth.  Offering a mélange of big-time tropical flavors, it tastes somewhere between a pineapple, a banana and a cherimoya (another tropical fruit found in many countries including Vietnam). 

Jackfruit is definitely a love-at-first bite kind of fruit.  It is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, in addition to fiber and protein.  While it does contain some fat, it’s not the bad saturated fat that leads to cholesterol buildup in our arteries.

Very little saturated fat

Unlike Americans, the Vietnamese eat very little saturated fat.  While beef and pork are used, they are used in small portions---abundant vegetables and fruits are mixed with the proteins.  Fish and seafood are used, as is tofu---all appear in concert with vegetables and/or fruits.  In spite of their French linkage, there is no cheese or butter.  Also, very little processed food exists.

Vietnam February 2020

Enrollment on the trip is now open and there are only 7 remaining spaces.   Timing is immediately following their famous New Year celebration when the country is still filled with colorful decorations, and when the weather is the mildest in the tropics.  Come experience Vietnam's healthy way of eating with Wine-Knows!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Zucchini Flowers

                            Soon to be served as an appetizer at our villa rental on Lake Como

Somehow the 4th of July always marks the beginning of summer for me.  Luscious tomatoes are available in nearly every color of the rainbow, stone fruits are at their prime, wonderfully ripe melons abound, and farmers markets are over-flowing with zucchini flowers.   Over thirty years ago I fell in love with zucchini flowers on the island of Capri in Italy.  In fact, after having been served them one night for dinner, I so fell in love with them that I signed up for a cooking class at the restaurant during the week that I was there just to learn the chef’s secrets for zucchini flowers.

                            The Vietnamese version was dipped in batter and then panko

Since that time I’ve had zucchini blossoms prepared in several different ways and in several different countries.  On a recent trip to Vietnam I was served them in a family’s home.   Stuffed with minced pork and fried in a coconut-milk batter, they were sublime.  In France I’ve had them stuffed with goat cheese in a Michelin-star restaurant, and filled with scallops in another.  Both French renditions were baked and then topped with an ethereal sauce. 

                                        Simple pleasure...and a sure crowd-pleaser               

My favorite way to this day, however, is the way in which I was initially served them in Capri.  Over the years I’ve tweaked the recipe to resemble a more tempura-like batter by using cornstarch.  I’ve also lightened up the batter (and added to the taste profile) by using beer for the liquid.

A couple of tips:
1.       Having your oil at the correct temperature (375 degrees) is essential.  This   is important so that the flowers do not absorb the oil.
2.      Immediately salt the flowers when they are removed from the oil (this helps the salt adhere).

Recipe for 24 flowers (plan on 3-4 per person if they’re small;   2-3 if they’re large)
  • 3/4 cup of corn starch
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • enough beer to make a thin pancake batter consistency (if you add too much beer, just add a little more corn starch)
  • EVOO (enough to fill about 2 inches of a skillet)
  • salt

1. Make batter
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in skillet
3. Dip each flower in batter and fry until golden brown on both sides 
4. Drain on paper towel and salt immediately

Buon appetito !

Friday, June 22, 2018

Make Your Own Tonic

                                                 Ingredients for homemade tonic water

Okay, my last Blog was on gin….so how could it not be followed up with tonic?  After all, I am in England.  Prior to coming to Europe, I actually studied how to make your own tonic.  As a medical professional I had long known that tonic’s base ingredient (quinine) had been used to treat malaria.  But, there was an entire body of knowledge about 21st century tonic I didn’t know.  For example, who knew that tonic water contains the same amount of sugar as a coke? 

I have a client who has long ordered a special tonic water online that is nearly impossible to find in stores.  She swears that it makes the best gin and tonic.  This got me thinking.  What makes a great tonic?  I always buy Schweppes or Canada Dry or whatever is on sale at the supermarket.  After a long internet search on the best tonics I now see that I have been way off base.

Most tonic water purchased at the supermarket is nothing more than carbonated water, processed sugar, quinine and artificial flavorings. The question of what makes a great tonic for gin, however, is subjective and depends on the individual’s preference.  Some tonics have floral nuances while others offer notes of citrus or even herbal notes.  There are definitely tonics that feel sweeter.   The more quinine tonic contains the more bitter the drink.  Some tonics advertise they are made with “botanicals.”  This is marketing-speak for plants.  Duh. 

I read several articles promising that homemade tonic beat out all of the store-bought competitors.  So, I was obliged to try.  I used the following recipe with a few tweaks.  First, I used a melange of three spices (allspice, star anise and cardomon totalling one teaspoon). Second, I steeped the cinchona bark alone in 2 cups of hot water, and then added it to the citrus mixture after it had been cooked in 3 cups of water.

Three of us blind tasted the following gin and tonics:

1.  Schweppe's diet tonic with Beefeaters
2.  Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic with Beefeaters
3.  Home made tonic with Beefeaters

All ingredients were carefully measured and poured into identical glasses with exactly the same number of ice cubes.  All ingredients were well chilled prior.  A slice of lime was added to each.

One of drinks was a brownish color (like a cup of weak tea).  Having seen the color of the homemade tonic (brownish), I immediately knew which one it was.  As I had spent hours shopping for ingredients and making the tonic, I was really hoping this one would wow me.   It didn't.  Nor, did it wow the other two tasters.  While it wasn't bad tasting, it just didn't taste like a gin and tonic to any of us.  One person didn't like it at all, but two of us thought it could easily be offered as a cocktail by another name.  

The Fever Tree is more than ten times the cost of the Schweppe's tonic.  One person chose it as their favorite while the other two didn't feel there was an appreciable difference between it and the inexpensive Schweppe's.

Bottom line?   Making your own tonic may sound like a fun adventure.  It was.  I spent about $35 on the ingredients.  If anyone wants to make their own let me know and I'll ship you the quinine bark which was the most expensive ingredient.  (BTW:  you can buy the citric acid at Walmart in the canning section.)  

Friday, June 15, 2018

Let the Party BeGIN !

I'm preparing to board a flight from Nice to London and I'm contemplating my first gin and tonic.  Not only is it one of my favorite summer drinks, but four of my closest friends are waiting for me at Heathrow and I know they all love it as well.  I am already envisioning our nightly aperitif on the riverside terrace of the historic Cotswolds home that I've rented for the week.

                       Our Cotswold home was once an old mill...note the gin & tonic chairs

Gin's history goes back to the Middle Ages.  While many associate gin with Great Britain, this spirit has roots in the Netherlands where the mixture supposedly originated.  Once sold in pharmacies for the treatment of kidney, gout or stomach ailments. the elixir was also used by Dutch soldiers prior to battle to help decrease anxiety.

Gin became very popular in England in the 16th century.  During this period a heavy tax was levied on all foreign liquor by the British government.  Locally-made gin, however, was not taxed.  Overnight, gin became the alcohol of choice, especially among the poor since English gin was dirt cheap.  However, too much of a good thing became a huge social issue.  To reduce over-consumption, legislation was finally passed to tax British gin.  There were riots in the streets.

Ingredients of gin are closely guarded trade secrets among the distilleries.  While the main ingredient, juniper berries, is always present, each company offers their own spin with a melange of other botanicals.  Gin can have floral nuances.  It can have a citrus profile.  Or, it can tend toward herbal notes.

                                  These botanicals are a sampling of what are used in gin

Today, gin has come full circle in a kind of Cinderella story.  Once a drink of the impoverished, it is now sold in fancy packaging and a an impressive selection appears in swanky bars.  It's moved well beyond the local pub-gin-and-tonic, to a high end alcohol that can be served solo at the most exclusive of restaurants.  For example, the most expensive gin, Watenshi, sells for the equivalent of $3,000 a bottle in London.  In a smaller package than the standard wine bottle, Watenshi is one that should definitely be sipped at the end of the meal like a fine Cognac.

I will be conducting a blind gin tasting with my four friends.  Watenshi won't be on the list, but here are the contenders:

   ~ Martin Miller (made in England using water from Iceland)
   ~ Oliver Cromwell (supposedly a great bang for the sterling)
   ~ Hendrick's (made in Scotland)
   ~ William Chase  (made in western England near the Wales border)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Awesome Antibes for Food-Lovers

              Antibes has it all:  Picasso's Museum, glorious scenery & a food-lover's paradise

I took the Julia Child group this week to the glorious seaside town of Antibes to shop for dinner ingredients.  A super charmer surrounded with centuries-old stone walls overlooking the Mediterranean, it also offers a cornucopia of delicious culinary gems.    

Antibe’s outdoor covered market was a must visit first stop.  The olive selection was mesmerizing with an endless parade of sizes, shapes and preparations (e.g. tampenade in every imaginable flavor).  Vegetables included fava beans, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini, leeks, peppers in several different colors, an array of ten different types of radishes, and a mélange of jaw-dropping lettuces.   Fruit vendors offered an enticing array of intoxicatingly fragrant products.  The strawberries and raspberries were sublime, as was the local Cavaillon melon which you could smell ten feet away.   

Close to the outdoor market was one of the Holy Grails for foodies.  Fabre (whose moniker is “the master of meat,”) has been in business since 1899.  This boucherie was Julia’s favorite meat purveyor.   After visiting I now understand why.  Fabre’s showcases featured milk-fed veal and Kobe beef among a gorgeous array of meats that could have walked the red carpet at the nearby Cannes’ Film Festival.  This place is the real deal for serious meat-lovers.

Not far from Fabre’s butcher shop was a killer boulangerie by the name of Veziano.  Even though I went to buy their late-bake breads for breakfast, I couldn’t resist the pissaladiere, the French Riviera’s version of pizza with carmelized onions, niçoise olives and anchovies.

With a few blocks was another tempting place.   La Ferme au Foie Gras was the perfect foodie emporium offering a huge array of culinary gifts for friends back home.

Need wine?  The Julia Child group did so we picked up some great wines at the city's well-stocked wine shop,  Cave La Trielle d'Or.  In addition to a terrific collection of Provence wine, there was a superb selection of Bordeaux, Burgundy & Champagne.

Table linens or items for the kitchen?  No problem.   Old town Antibes was a maze of pedestrian-only streets filled with the best that France has to offer for your home. There was one problem, however, that most of the women I brought to Antibes had.  Where was the luggage store to buy an extra suitcase?

Friday, June 1, 2018

Charming Hills Towns of the Riviera

                                   Minutes away from the Riviera's beaches...but another world

I've just arrived on the French Riviera.  Many people think beaches or film festival when they think of this area.  While I love the beach and the glitz and glam of Cannes or Cap d’Antibes, I actually prefer the hill-top villages a few miles inland from the Mediterranean.  Many of these perched villages are filled with day-trippers from Nice, but I especially love them in the evenings when these stone hamlets revert back to the locals.   Children play in the park, beret-touting men gather to play petanque (bocci ball), and cafes are filled with French drinking pastis.  Below are my three favorite villages.


Fashionable Mougins is so picture-perfect that it feels like a movie-set.  It’s no wonder that Catherine Deneuve, Yves St Laurent, and Christian Dior have chosen to live here, as have Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso.  With perfectly-coiffed backstreets, this tony hilltop town exudes a refined air of elegance and sophistication.  Only 15 minutes from Cannes, Mougins feels a world away.   

                                            Mougins' charms are irresistible

No cars are allowed in the old village, requiring visitors to park in lots around the outskirts.   Although the immediate area surrounding the ancient village has grown dramatically in the last 40 years (drop-dead gorgeous villas appear in every nook and cranny), the actual hilltop town remains untouched from centuries past.  

Wandering the cobblestoned streets you’ll find several art galleries, along with high-end boutiques and antique stores.  The center of the town has a pretty center square ringed by numerous restaurants and outdoor cafes catering to those with a big wad of Euros in their designer wallets.  But, the entire package is one of a quiet refinement that is friendly to visitors.

                              The feel of Biot is a local's village ...devoid of the Riviera's bling

Also an ancient hillside village, Biot is the antithesis of Mougins.  Biot’s main street offers resident services such as a city hall, post office, bank, teensy supermarche, and a boulangerie.  There are a few tourists shops sprinkled in between, some featuring the city’s famous glass and others offering the usual Provencal goodies made from the area’s brightly colored fabrics.   

Like Mougins, no cars are generally allowed in Biots narrow cobblestoned streets.  A walk through its backstreets is like a step back in time.  Whereas impeccable Mougins’ buildings are perfectly coiffed, Biot offers a slice of reality....a few stray cats, old olive oil tins that have been turned into make-shift geranium planters, and clotheslines strung between buildings filled with laundry.  It feels like an authentic village.  

                                        Biot glass is available in every shade of the rainbow 

An added bonus for Biot is its artisinal glass blowing factories where visitors can watch artisans making the city's famous bubble glass.  Although there is a Michelin star restaurant in Biot, my favorite is Les Arcades.  This small hotel-restaurant offers a rare slice of life from the old Provence.  The family that owns Les Arcades has been renting rooms and feeding diners for over a century.  As it was also one of Julia Child's favorite places, I am bringing both of the Julia cooking groups here for dinner.

St Paul de Vence

                         Art galleries throughout the village feature paintings such as this 

The stunning pedestrian-only village of St Paul de Vence has it all: one of the Riviera's top modern art museums, chic boutiques, pretty squares filled with fountains and stone bougainvillea-dripping buildings, plus a plethora of gorgeous restaurants with attractive outdoor dining.  It has that je ne sais quoi that defies description. 

One of the oldest medieval villages on the Riviera, St Paul has only 3,500 lucky residents (like most of the Riviera hilltop towns, however, the majority of the population lives outside of the old town in swanky villas).  This is an art lover’s paradise.   There’s an endless array of galleries filled with eye-popping paintings of the beautiful town, and the Maeght Museum along with Chagall’s nearby masterpiece wow even the most discerning art lover. 

Foodies will appreciate an assortment of shops filled with everything from hand-dipped chocolates to high-end olive oils from the region.  One of my faves is La Petite Vigne which offers a killer selection of the best of Provence's culinary specialties.  The shop also has a 50-shades-of-pink selection of Rosés.

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Foodie’s French Riviera

In a few days I’ll be flying to Nice for two weeks at the estate in which Julia Child wrote her famous cookbook duo, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.   I’m already dreaming of the Riviera’s culinary landscape.   What’s not to love about olives, herbs de Provence, lamb, and bouillabaisse, right? 

One of my favorite experiences on the Riviera is to visit the supermarche of all supermarkets.  Carrefour in Antibes is like Whole Foods, Costco and William Sonoma all under one roof…but on steroids.  There are 73 check-out lines and the staff wear roller skates to traverse the seemingly football-sized-stadium offering everything that any foodie could possibly desire.   There are four monstrous aisles of just yogurt alone.  The place is mind-boggling.  If you can’t find it here it probably doesn’t exist.  Check out this quick video of the incredible store:

Another special place for the food-lover to procure ingredients for a dinner or a picnique is the polar opposite of Carrefour.   Cannes’ Forville Marché is a covered market in the center of the super swanky city, just a few blocks from where the star-studded film festival is held.  It was one of Julia Child’s favorite places to shop, especially for fish.  I’m taking both groups I’ve organized for a week’s homage a Julia here.   Hopefully one of the groups will be cooking bouillabaisse that night for dinner.

                                     Alziari's is a treasure trove for foodie gifts to bring home

My favorite olive oil producer’s shop is located in the heart of old town Nice.  The Nicolas Alizari company has been producing magnifique oils since 1868.   This jewel box of a store makes a perfect visit when wandering through the cobblestone streets of the historical center.  

Cours Selaya market in Nice offers a bounty of fresh food products

Not far from Alziari you’ll find Nice’s famous outdoor covered market.  Less than 100 meters from Nice’s bikini-clad beach, you’ll find vendors whose families have been renting the same food stalls for generations.  Don’t miss the "socca lady" selling the Riviera’s beloved garbanzo bean crepes called socca---she cooks them as her ancestors did over an open wood fire in a huge, specially-crafted skillet.  And, do sample everyone’s tampenade as each family has their secret twists on the classic.

                               Stunning Biot glass can be mailed home from the factory

The French Riviera offers a plethora of yummy edibles for the gourmand, however, don’t forget the mind-boggling array of Provencal fabrics to buy for your tablescape back home.  Gorgeous placemats, napkins and tablecloths can be found at every outdoor market in Provence's colorful fabrics, as well as some of the area’s finest shops (but make sure you get the ones made in France and not the Chinese knockoffs).  Finally, don’t forget to pay a visit to the enchanting village of Biot, where artisan glass-makers are still making the town’s famous bubble glass into stunning wine and water goblets, and over the top dinner service.