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Friday, August 16, 2019

Vietnam’s Exotic Fruits

                                    Vietnam's fruit opens a whole new world for food-lovers

Vietnam is replete with exceptional tropical fruits.  These fruits are a strong part of the nation's culinary profile.  For example, there are as many street food vendors selling fruit as there are serving the country's signature soup dish, Pho.  Fruit is so popular that carving it has become an art-form.  Moreover, no meal in a Vietnamese home is served without some type of fruit.

Most of these exotic fruits are unknown to Americans and Europeans.  However, due to the large population of Vietnamese in California many of the delectable fruits are now showing up in Cali grocery stores.  Not only are they insanely delicious, but they present beguiling opportunities for the foodie to experiment with new products.  

Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world

I simply can't get enough of jackfruit.  I loved this fruit so much that when we moved to San Diego ten years ago I attempted to have a tree planted---until I learned that it took 20 years for the tree to bare the first fruit.  Thankfully, I was able to find an Asian market that carried it.  Last year my local grocer began selling jackfruit, so it appears that I'm not the only one wowed by this seductive fruit.

Jackfruit's taste is somewhere between a pineapple and a banana.  It's distinctive.  It's also addictive.  When cooked, the fruit has a texture similar to pulled pork, thus it has become popular in vegetarian cooking.  (Trader Joe's sells a frozen jackfruit curry that is subline!)  My favorite way, nonetheless, is the raw fruit.

 Durian's taste is delectable

I was introduced to this fruit on my first trip to Vietnam years ago by a Vietnamese friend living in California.  She and I went to Vietnam to retrace her roots from living there as a child.  She made certain to warn me that this fruit was like a horribly stinky cheese in France.  She was right:  just get past the smell and you find a mouth-watering fruit.

Durian's taste, an almost indescribable cacophony of flavors, is a combination of sweet and savory.  The texture is super creamy.  Unfortunately, durian is very expensive due to its short period of ripeness.  Don't miss it if you see it.

Rambutan are harvested twice a year in Vietnam

Rambutan, which belongs to the lychee family, is an absolutely visually stunning fruit.  The first time I saw it I thought it was a flower.  Its Vietnamese name actually translates to "messy hair."  Once peeled, the interior reveals a white fleshy fruit which is a little like a grape in texture and taste.

Longan is eaten raw or dried like a date

Longan is another member of the same family as rambutan and lychee.  Its name means "dragon's eye" for when the fruit is peeled it resembles a large eye.  The fruit's musky sweet taste is similar to that of lychee with gentle flowery notes.  While eaten raw, it is also popular in desserts.

Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit is a feast for the eyes & taste buds

While this fruit is actually native to Central America, it is widely grown throughout Vietnam.  Its bright red shell decorated with green scales resembles a dragon, thus, its name in Asia.  Inside is a white fruit studded with tiny black seeds.  Personally, I don't find much taste at all in the fruit, however, others feel its taste is a cross between a kiwi and a pear.

Star Apple
Star apple's interior is very creamy

The star apple is a gorgeous purple-tinged fruit when fully ripe.  Measuring only 2-3 inches in diameter, the small found fruit gets its name from the star pattern seen when the fruit is cut in half.  A spoon is necessary to scoop out the sweet interior as its delicate jelly-like pulp is juicy.  The Vietnamese call star apple "milk fruit" because of the rich milky liquid that oozes from its center.

The inside of the hard-shelled exterior is a big surprise

Native to Southeast Asia, the mangosteen is one of the best tasting fruits in all of Vietnam.  It's tough exterior resembles an acorn but a soft and sweet interior tastes like a melange of orange, banana and peach.  The fruit's segmented flesh is similar to than of an orange, however, the flesh is white.

Those coming with us to Vietnam in February 2020 will be able to sample most of these fruits on the foodie's tour of Saigon's exciting central market.  There are two seats remaining on this trip:

Friday, August 2, 2019

Worcestershire Was An Accident

                   Worcestershire sauce adds an umami complexity to both salads & meats

Wine-Knows has just returned from its inaugural group to England to sample the Brit’s exploding sparkling wine industry (recently the English “fizz” has beaten numerous well regarded Champagnes in blind tastings).   We stayed in the enchanting Cotswolds area, a region filled with fairy-tale villages right out of a painting my modern day artist Thomas Kinkade.   Worcestershire sauce, created by accident, comes from the Cotswolds' town of Worcester.

In the early 1800’s two pharmacists in Worcester were hired by a local aristocrat to construct a culinary sauce similar to a savory condiment he had tasted in India.  The pharmacists, John Lee and William Perrins, made a concoction but it tasted nothing like what the noble lord had savored on his Indian journey.  Mr. Lee and Mr. Perrins were stuck with an entire barrel of the sauce which set in their basement for years.  One day they discovered the forgotten barrel, re-tasted it and were delighted to discover that it had completely changed to something delicious with the passage of time.

Lea and Perrins began bottling the condiment in 1837 and it became a big hit.  Condiments in Britain at the time were very popular as they gave flavor to an otherwise bland cuisine.  Worcestershire also helped to tenderize tough cuts of meat so it became even a bigger success.   The sauce came to the US in 1839.  To ship it across the Atlantic the company wrapped each bottle in a classical paper wrapper to prevent breakage on the sea journey.  Today, bottles are still wrapped in this brown paper.  Worcestershire, the oldest commercially bottled condiment in the US, is now exported to more than 75 countries.

So what’s in Worcestershire sauce?  Lea & Perrins lists the ingredients on each bottle:   vinegar, anchovies, garlic, molasses, onions, salt, sugar and water.  Although the components are known, the actual recipe is a closely guarded secret. 

Why not celebrate summer with a bottle of English fizz and feature recipes made with Worcestershire?   Worcestershire is terrific as an ingredient in BBQ well as in the dressing of a Caesar salad.

The World’s Best Mussels

                                  Green-lipped mussels with onion & garlic in a wine sauce 

New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels are worth the trip across the Pacific to the southern hemisphere.  The good news, however, is that an international flight is not necessary.   Green-lipped mussels have become so popular in the US that they are now being widely imported.  Upscale Cali restaurants are featuring them cooked with everything from the classical wine and garlic sauce, to an Asian-inspired dish made with coconut milk and lemon-grass.  Google green-lipped mussel recipes and you’ll find nearly a half million suggestions.

So why are these mussels the latest craze?   This varietal (only found in New Zealand) is the largest mussel on planet earth---it can grow to over nine inches in length.  Biggest isn’t always best, but in the case of these mussels it surely is!   These mussels are flavor-bombs.  Their distinctive taste is both sweet and delicate… somewhere between a clam and an oyster.  Their plump meat is also tender and juicy.   In addition, the mussels also work well with a variety of cuisines (in Spain a few months ago I saw them prepared in a saffron-tomato sauce).  Last, let’s also acknowledge that these mussels are absolutely a feast for the eye---their electric green shell color is stunning, and the contrasting bright orange colored meat is a radiant against the backdrop of the green-black shells).

                                        Wine-Knows will visit a mussel "farm" 

The green lipped mussel industry in New Zealand is now valued at more than 350 million US dollars.  If you have a seat on the sold out Wine-Knows' trip in February 2020 to New Zealand you will not only be able to eat these delectable morsels, but will actually visit a mussel farm in the ocean.   Here you'll learn about how the mollusks are grown and harvested.  Then a chef will prepare for your lunch.  Of course, they’ll be washed down with some of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Best Tapenade

                 The best of many versions I tried in France was one made with both olives & figs

I’ve recently returned from several weeks in Provence with two Wine-Knows’ groups who stayed at the villa where Julia Child wrote her hallmark cookbooks, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  One of the classical culinary stars of this French region is tapenade.  Tapenade is a finely chopped olive dish that is typically mixed with capers, anchovies, garlic, herbs and olive oil to form a thick paste.  Traditionally spread on a piece of bread, it is used mainly as an appetizer, however, I noticed in the last few years that many restaurants in this area are using it in other courses as well (e.g. chicken stuffed with tapenade, or a vegetarian dish studded with tapenade).

Tapenade is everywhere in Provence.  There are even dish towels and placemats with Tapenade recipes printed on them.  There are vendors at every Provencal outdoor market hawking free samples of the delectable treat.  I tasted tapenade in every flavor of the rainbow:  artichoke, sun-dried tomato, eggplant, and even hummus tapenade.  In every foodie shop I visited there were many different types available for purchase.  Some used the pungent local Ni├žoise olives, others used a mixture of black olives.  Some preparations featured only green olives, yet there were others that used a mixture of both black and green olives.

While I especially loved the artichoke and sun-dried versions, the one that really stood out for me was made with figs.  I simply couldn’t stop eating it.   I have tweaked several recipes and come up with my own fig masterpiece.  Do note that my recipe does not include anchovies.  While I love them, I felt they simply overwhelmed this version---regardless of how few I put in.   (BTW:  there is a traditional tapenade recipe featured in Julia Child’s cookbook but I much prefer the fig one as the figs add another level of complexity).

June's Fig & Olive Tapenade
  • 1/3 cup dried figs (cut in small pieces)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 C mixture of both green and black olives, pitted
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 1/2 tablespoon capers (rinsed to get rid of brine, then drained & squeezed dry)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme (plus more for garnishing)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Baguette (sliced)
  • Goat cheese (at room temperature)

Cook the figs with water on low-medium heat in a covered sauce pan for 20-30 minutes until they are soft.  Save the juice for thinning the tapenade

Put the drained figs, olives, lemon juice, mustard, garlic capers and thyme into a food processor.  Pulse several time to mix ingredients well and pulverize.  With the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil a half of teaspoon at a time to incorporate it into the paste.    Finally, thin the paste to the desired consistency with the left over fig water.  Taste for salt and adjust if necessary.

Serve over toasted baguette slices (brushed with olive oil prior to toasting), with goat cheese on the bottom, then topped with tapenade and fresh thyme.

Bon appetit!


Friday, July 19, 2019

Treasure Island---Sicily

                                      Magnificent wines & fabulous gastronomy await visitors

Italy’s Mediterranean destination-island is a treasure trove of perfect seafood, intensely flavored vegetables, superb olive oil, and world-class wines. Strongly influenced by its many conquerors---from the Greeks, to the Romans, the Arabs, the French and the Spanish---the island’s culture represents a unique crossroads of the Mediterranean.  Stunning island geography, along with a breathtaking tapestry of art and architecture (including two of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world), completes this Italian jewel.

Grapes are grown on the slopes of Mt Etna

One of the biggest show-stoppers of Sicily is its wines.  Prepare yourself for new varietals that only are  grown in Sicily.   Indigenous grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Grillo, Catarrato, Carricante and Insolia are not grown elsewhere.  Adding to the attraction is that many of these grapes are grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil which imparts interesting complexities.   There’s no problem ripening fruit in Sicily due to its idyllic year around climate.  All of this translates into lush, fruit-forward wines with a hint of minerality.  Simply put, Sicily’s wines are stunning and full of unique personality.

                                           Even the eggplant are special varietals

Sicily’s cuisine is different from any other Italian region.  In fact, the mainland Italians consider Sicily a continent.   The island’s culinary prowess comes from its vivid and diverse background of past conquerors who left their indelible mark on Sicily’s gastronomic scene.  Expect hints of exotic spices like saffron and cinnamon paired with local ingredients—lemons, blood oranges, almonds, fresh capers, and wild mountain oregano.  There’s an abundance of fish and seafood, with swordfish being one of the specialties.

    Vegetables are like you've never had them before 

Wine Knows will be visiting Sicily during their grape harvest in September 2020.  The trip is sold out.  If you will not be joining us but wish to explore the island's great quality/price ratio wines, here are my suggestions for the best producers, listed in alphabetical order:

  • Cusumano
  • Donnafugata
  • Occhipinti
  • Passopisciaro
  • Planeta
  • Tenuta Fessina
  • Tenuta delle Terre Nere


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Worth Its Salt

                                      Watermelon nibbles are a luscious summer appetizer

Beloved friends of mine gifted me with a culinary salt block and I became an instant fan.  Not only is this a magnificent serving vessel for a variety of foods, but the block of salt also cleverly flavors the food.  Seems like I’m not the only one enamored... there are a variety of books on not only what to serve on it, but even books on how to actually cook on the salt block.  While I’ve never attempted cooking on my salt block, I love to use it as a tray for hors d’oeuvres.  It’s a conversation piece and a fun way to start the party.

Now, a little about the salt tray.  It’s an actual block of salt from the Himalayan mountains.   Supposedly these pink-hued slabs of salt were formed between 550- 600 million years ago.  That in itself ought to jump start any get-together. 

There are several reasons I enjoy using the salt block.  The first is its intriguing story, and the second is its pink-marbled beauty.  I also enjoy the delicate flavor it imparts to the food on which it is served.  The only downside is that the block is very heavy.  Its weight of twelve pounds is daunting.  (I have the 12” x 8” block that comes with an attractive black cradle which makes it easy for carrying.  It does, however, come in smaller sizes.)

Some of my favorite things to serve on the block are foods that require a little salt.  In the summer-time, I use it for cubed watermelon topped with a few fresh herbs from the garden and a small amount of feta.  I also like the dramatic color and taste profile of using it to showcase cantaloupe melon balls speared with a piece of a black Mediterranean olive.  Both of these warm weather appetizers are exquisite with the salt block to play up the sweet-salty combination.  My final fave is large shrimp that have been quickly sauteed.

Bon appetit.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Seeing RED on the 4th!

                                                        Summer calls for lighter bodied reds

The 4th of July always signals to me the switch to lighter bodied red wines:  out with the highly structured Cabernets, those big Mouvedres from Bandol, the intense Malbecs from Argentina, and those California Zinfandels with soaring alcohol levels.    The heat of summer calls for easier drinking reds without a lot of tannin or alcohol.  Here are my favorite four to honor the 4th.

Pinot Noir:
One of the best summer reds is Pinot Noir.  A more feminine grape, Pinot has lower tannins than most other red grapes which means it’s easier drinking in the warmer temperatures of July and August.   Silky and soft, Pinot Noir can be a refreshing summer alternative to the more powerhouse big reds of winter.

Barbera is also a good choice for summer-time quaffing.  The grape has very little tannin and lots of fruit profile.  Mainly grown in the Piedmont district of Italy (home to the heavily structured Barolo and Barbaresco), Barbera works well with summer’s menu of simple grilled meats, poultry and fish.

One of my fave red wines to drink during the heat of the summer is Frapatto.  Grown primarily in Sicily, this gem of a wine is perfect as an aperitif or with a lighter main course such as poultry or fish.  When I think of Frapatto I think of strawberries as this berry is very prominent in both the varietal’s taste and aroma.   Serve it and I guarantee people will rave.

This grape, which is native to Spain, is also grown in France’s Rhone Valley.   Both countries make lighter-style red (unless the wine is aged in oak).   This low tannin wine serves up an impressive lineup of summer-time flavors of red fruit such as raspberry and strawberry (versus black fruit of the more highly structured reds).

Here’s to the RED white and blue!