Saturday, November 27, 2021

Piquillo Peppers are Perfect for the Holidays!

Piquillos stuffed with lamb were a big hit in a recent tapas cooking class I conducted on Mallorca

Looking for something different for your upcoming December culinary festivities?  If you're also interested in a scrumptious item that will beguile even the most discerning of your foodie friends, then look no further than the holiday-red piquillo peppers from northern Spain.  Piquillos are sweet and smoky flavor bombs that can be served in multiple ways.                        

                    Piquillos stuffed with goat cheese infused with herbs make a perfect holiday starter

While they're now becoming increasingly popular in the US by those-in-the-gastronomic-know, these peppers were essentially unknown in the US twenty years ago.  I know because that's the first time I tasted them in Spain and returned home on a mission to find them.  Thank heavens for the Internet and for importers of specialty Spanish food items.  Fast forward twenty years later and even Amazon is carrying them.  Once you taste a piquillo, you'll understand what all the hoopla is about.

                                        Crab stuffed piquillos epitomize the Christmas season

So what is so special about these bite-size peppers?  Piquillos are slow roasted over a wood fire, thus their distinctive smoky flavor.   They are then peeled and grilled again for extra flavor.  Last, they're de-seeded by hand prior to being packed into jars or tins with olive oil, or a simple brine.  While they are small in size like a chili pepper, piquillos are definitely more like red bell peppers in flavor than actual chili peppers.

Piquillos are met to be stuffed and make a perfect couple of bites for a holiday tapa.  They are often filled with seafood, cheese or meat.   I particularly like them filled with minced lamb laced with a host of Middle Eastern spices like tumeric, cumin and mint.  (Top them with chopped chives or parsley and you have Christmas on a plate.)  On the other hand, just the peppers themselves are wonderful in an omelette, pasta, risotto, or even used as a sauce.

                                            Brighten up bland-looking chicken over pasta with piquillos

While Piquillo peppers scream "holidays," I use them year around.  They are an especially great addition to a Fourth of July party (stuffed with an herb infused goat cheese), or a Spring fling piquillo puree served with Spring veggies like radishes, asparagus, fennel, and artichokes.

Happy holidaze! 


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Top 7 Wines 2021

I've just returned from nearly two months in Europe where I tasted several hundred wines.  My travels took me to Croatia, Greece, Spain and Italy.  I've narrowed down my list to my favorite seven that are available in the US (I know they are available, as I just ordered at least a case of each).  Availability aside, each one of these is an excellent wine.  Many are bargains, but all are worthy of every penny regardless of their price point.  An added bonus is that most are made from grapes we don't have in the US, so they present an opportunity for wine lovers to explore unknown varietals.


Best Quality /Price:  Black Horse Winery's Mega Vieta, 2020 (Croatia)

                                                       Mega Vieta is a "Major Victory"


This gorgeously crafted white wine is from the Croatian island of Korcula.  It's made from their indigenous Posip grape, a variety rarely seen outside of the Dalmatian Coast.  This highly aromatic wine is complex with citrus and stone fruit flavors.  It is balanced and offers a quite good finish.  I found the wine online at CroatianPremiumWine.com at <$19 per bottle, including shipping and tax.  In my book, that's a steal for the quality of this wine.

Best Rose
There are actually two stunners in this category:  one from Greece's Santorini Island, the other from Spain's Rioja.

                                             Gaia's Rose would please even Dionysus

  • Gaia 14-18 Agiorgitiko Rose, 2020 (Greece).   I know and love this producer.  In fact, we have visited Gaia three times with groups of Wine-Knows on Santorini.  When I saw their Rose in a Greek wine shop, I grabbed a bottle.  It was so good that I immediately went back for two more bottles.  The grape, Agiorgitoko, is one we don't have in the US.  I ordered a case online from WineMadeEasy.com.  The cost was another amazing bargain ringing it at $18 per bottle, including tax and shipping.

  • Muga Rose, 2020 (Spain):  I had this wine at a restaurant in Spain overlooking Gibraltar:  on my left was the Mediterranean, on my right the Atlantic, and 9 miles in front of me Morocco.  I'm a great fan of Muga (have visited this Rioja producer with too many groups of Wine-Knows to count).  The Rose was so good that we returned twice to the same restaurant and re-ordered it each time.  The 2019 is available at multiple shops on WineSearcher.com for $15 per bottle (plus shipping & tax).  I'm waiting for that gorgeous 2020.

Best Summer White: Valle dell'Acate Grillo Zagra, 2020 (Sicily)

Getting Wine-Knows to this remote winery was a challenge, but their quality wines were worth the trek

This gem is a great taste of Italy on a warm summer's day.  Made from the Grillo grape (mostly unknown outside of Sicily), think of this variety as the Mediterranean's Sauv Blanc.
Stainless steel fermented, it boasts a lemon & apple profile.  Several stores on WineSearcher.com have it for about $20 per bottle (plus tax & shipping).  


Best of the Best
These wines were my three favorites out of hundred of wines, regardless of whether they were imported.  Luckily, all are!   They range in price from $30-70.  When considering their complexity, all are great buys.

                       This wine was served at a Wine-Knows private dinner held at the Planeta Estate

  • Planeta Cometa Fiano 2019 (Sicily).   Planeta is one of the premier producers in Sicily.  The moment this wine hit my mouth I was smitten....actually, it was more like I was completely seduced.  This serious white wine is a complex bomb of apricots, nectarines and peaches, laced with back-notes of flowers and herbs.  Expect to pay $50 a bottle for this the real-deal sip of Italy.   I ordered the last 18 bottles from Saratoga Wines in New York, however, WineSearcher.com has it available at multiple locations.  Don't miss.
                             Unfortunately this magnum was empty & only for display 
  • Nounat by Binigrau (Mallorca).  I've been in amor with this white wine for the last 5 years.  A combination of Chardonnay & the island's native grape Prensal Blanc, Nounat is simply one of those wines one cannot forget.  The problem is that everyone loves it and it's very difficult to find.  Currently, the 2015 is the only vintage available online in the US, but I think it's a little over the hill.  I'm watching for the 2021 to arrive and so should you.  It's about $30 per bottle, but I would pay a lot more for it.
                              Passopisciaro's grapes are grown at 3,000 ft on Mt Etna

  • Contrada G by Passopisciaro, 2019 (Sicily).  Grown on the slopes of an active volcano, these grapes make a deep, rich, complex red that is sure to cause the earth to move under your feet.  Made from a native variety only grown on Mt. Etna (Nerello Mascalese), this wine is most expensive on my list of favorites.   It's $70 a bottle.   


Saturday, October 30, 2021

A Foodie's 24 Hours in Rome

Rome offers a plethora of fabulous foodie experiences outside of fine dining

A gastronomic tour of Rome in only one day?  Some may say impossible, but I’m proof it can be done.   Why only one day?  I have visited Rome 30-40 times, but I had a WineKnows’ group in Sicily and the only tolerable routing back home was one that required an overnight in Rome.  Senza probelma!

Here’s my schedule:

9 am:  Depart Palermo, Sicily

10 am:  Arrive airport Rome

                      Hotel Campo di Fiori is located in the historic epicenter of Rome

11:30-12:30:  Check-in to my beloved Campo di Fiori hotel, where I had a glass of fresh squeezed OJ & a cappuccino on my terrace to prepare for the remainder of the Herculean day.

                                  Campo di Fiori's magical setting market attacks locals & tourists  

12:30-1:15:  Then, a quick tour of the Campo Fiori daily market located just out my front door.  The market was brimming with luscious autumn produce such as fresh funghi porcini (Italy’s premier wild mushroom), glorious eggplants in several shapes and sizes, as well as a wide assortment of persimmons and pomegranates.

                     Think of Eataly as a football stadium full of items for food-lovers

1:15-2:30 pm:  Next, I took a cab to EATALY.    A foodies’ one–stop shopping emporium, EATALY is located a 10-15 minute cab ride from the heart of downtown Rome. The huge complex, once a train station, is now three stories of pure unadulterated pleasure for food-lovers.

I bought a basket full of goodies such as dried funghi porchini mushrooms, white truffle oil, and truffle-flavored balsamico (perfect for travelers, it came in a small plastic bottle).  I also purchased several kitchen towels for my foodie friends back home.  I wandered through their outstanding wine area, however, as tempting as it was my bags were already packed to the brim after nearly two months of travel.   

                              Eatlay's smoky wood-fired pizzas are some of the best I have ever had 

As the small glass of orange juice was the only food I had eaten, I dropped by Eataly’s wood-fired bakery and bought a small piece of fresh-out of the oven buffalo di mozzarella & fresh funghi porcini pizza.

2:45-3pm:  Returned by cab & dropped off purchases at my hotel.

                            Sant'Eustachio is crowded at all times of day or night

3-3:30pm:  One of my favorite coffee places in all of Italy is located near the Pantheon, just a short 5-7 minute walk from my hotel.   Sant’ Eustachio Caff√® has been on my coveted list for >40 years.  I would consider it sacrosanct to visit Roma without one of their coffees.   The bar area offers some of the best people watching in Rome.  Local businessmen in Brioni suits jockey for space with tourists in t-shirts.   

                   Piazza Margana is only a few minutes from the Forum, but a world away

3:45-5:30:  Revived now after my coffee I decided to enjoy a long walk through some of my favorite spots:  the Roman Forum & Colisseum, the wedding cake monument (AKA Victorio Emmanuelle), the Theatre of Marcello, and the tiny but charming Piazza Margana (where I rented an apartment for a week some years ago). 

                                           A tartufo is an insanely rich deep chocolate ice-cream

5:30-6:15pm:  The restaurant in which I had reserved didn’t open until 7:30 and my orange juice & small piece of pizza had long ago faded for sustainment.  I decided to splurge (hey, it’s my last night after being gone nearly 2 months!), so I made my way to Piazza Navona (just a few minutes walk from my hotel).   Although the square is one of the most iconic in all of Rome, I was here for a tartufo at Caffe Tre Scalini.  Their tartufo is akin to a religious experience for chocolate lovers.  Pure decadence, I can think of no better way for a foodie to say “Arrivederci, Roma.”  

6:30-7:30:   A yummy bath to prepare for the long journey home tomorrow.

                               Counstanza is a hidden culinary gem well worth seeking-out

7:30-9pm:   Located just off the Piazza di Campo Fiori (hence, only a few minute’s walk from my hotel), is one of my favorite restaurants for Roman cuisine, Coustanaza Hostaria.   Located in a cave (yes, a cave!), Coustanza knocks it out of the park with an enchanting setting, superb service, and amazing classical Roman cooking.  My first course was Roman-styled artichokes (first prepared by the Jews of Rome >1,500 years ago), then a small plate of funghi porcini pasta. 

                                    Campo di Fiori's rooftop is splendido day or night

9:30pm:   I had been in Rome less than 12 hours and I wasn’t quite ready to say buona notte.  Hotel Campo di Fiori’s rooftop garden offers a wonderful respite from the fury of Rome's nightlife,  and is the perfect quiet spot to detox from a long journey through Croatia, Greece, Spain & Italy in the midst of a pandemic.  Plus, it was a full moon so I couldn’t resist.

8 am:  My taxi swept me away through a tangle of Roman rush hour traffic.  I loved the slow ride as it gave me time for one last look at Rome.   I’ve been here less than 24 hours but with so many memories of my >30 trips to this wonderful town, it felt like a week….or two.

Viva Roma!


Friday, September 24, 2021

Cold Soups of Southern Spain


                         In Andalusia gazpacho is commonly served in small glasses to drink

I’m on the island of Mallorca but will soon be heading to Spain’s southernmost mainland province, Andalusia.  Home to the magnificent Moorish cities of Granada, Seville and Cordova, it’s also the epicenter of Sherry wine.  But, another compelling reason to visit Andalusia is that it offers the best culinary experience for discerning foodies.   While there are many Andalusian dishes I love, its cold soups are simply stunners.

An Andalusian gastronomic specialty, these cold soups come in several different colors.   There’s probably not a traveler who has been to southern Spain during the summer that has not enjoyed a refreshing brilliant red gazpacho soup.   Gazpacho is synonymous with Andalusia for many reasons.  First, the temperatures of inland Andalusia pulsate during the summer  at >100 degrees so a cold, light soup is the perfect choice.  Secondly, Andalusia is the agricultural capital of Spain---it is where the country’s tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and garlic are grown.   Home to millions of olive trees, Andalusia is also ground-zero for Spain’s olive oil.  Sherry wine vinegar is also produced in the area.  All of these are the ingredients of gazpacho.

                                         Salmorejo looks super creamy but there is no cream

Gazpacho, however, is only one of the cold red soups Andalusia has to offer.  A “cousin” of gazpacho, Salmorejo, is made using only tomatoes.  It is thicker and creamier than gazpacho because of bread that is added.  The way that the tomatoes, bread and olive oil emulsify make some think that there is cream in the soup, however, there is not.   Salmorejo, is typically served in a bowl with a diced hard-boiled egg on top and small pieces of cured Spanish ham so it can easily be a meal in itself.  

                                  Gazpacho verde (aka green gazpacho) is a crowd pleaser

But, wait.  There’s another relative of gazpacho that you must try.  It’s called green gazpacho and here’s why:  it’s made from green tomatoes (popular in Spain), green bell peppers, cucumber, spinach, parley, mint and avocado---along with the traditional onion, garlic, olive oil and sherry wine vinegar.  Try it.  You’ll like it!

                                                Ajo blanco is sometimes called "white gazpacho"

Ajo blanco is yet another cold soup of Andalusia.  While it literally translates to “white garlic soup,”  this is not a vampire dish as there is very little garlic.  In fact, it’s mostly Marcona almonds and it’s often made with the addition of a green apple and topped with green grapes.   Ajo blanco is thought by some to be the original cold soup of Andalusia and the precursor for today's gazpacho (before tomatoes were bought from the New World).


Why not celebrate the first days of autumn by making a refreshing cold summer soup?


Friday, September 17, 2021

France’s Quintessential Wine Village

                               Grand Cru vines surround the medieval village of St. Emilion

Out of the several hundreds of wine villages in France, the one I would pick to visit is o St. Emilion in the Bordeaux district.  Located <25 miles east of the city of Bordeaux, this village has it all:   enchanting history,  stunning hilltop location surrounded by a sea of vines, spectacular medieval architecture, and of course stellar wines.  I’m in St. Emilion today and this town of 2,000 feels like it may have doubled in size---it’s swarming with visitors from around the world who have come for the annual Ban Des Vendanges (wine harvest festival).    

St. Emilion is named after an 8th Century monk who was traveling to the Holy Land.  As the legend goes, when the monk reached Bordeaux his gourd of water supposedly turned to wine.  He took this as a sign that he was supposed to stay there….and he did so until his death, taking care of the sick pilgrims who were also bound for the Holy Land.

       St. Emilion's limestone was used to build most of the grand buildings in the city of Bordeaux

The village of St. Emilion is legendary for its limestone.  Bordeaux's Opera House and its beautiful Stock Exchange buildings are just a few examples of stone from St. Emilion.  Quarrying has left St. Emilion with large underground areas from where the limestone blocks were removed.  Some of these subterranean parts are so large that they will fit hundreds of people.  Others are small chambers with secret passageways under St. Emilion.  

The limestone also serves an important purpose in the area's wines.  Grapes love limestone soil because it provides a perfect drainage system.   Many of St. Emilion's vineyards sit on top of subterranean caverns from where stone was quarried.   When touring these underground caves it’s normal to see vine roots cascading down through the ceiling from vineyards located 20-30 feet above.

Centuries-old ramparts still surround some of the hilltop St. Emilion

The village of St. Emilion is also a medieval architectural jewel-box.  It’s no wonder that several movies have been filmed here as the city appears much as it was > 500 years ago. The United Nation’s cultural arm now protects the entire village and its surrounding vineyards.  Under UNESCO, no changes can be made without approval of the World Heritage Council.     

Wine-Knows has several special events planned this weekend.  Tonight is a private dinner at Chateau Coutet with the owner/winemaker, and tomorrow is dinner at Chateau Guadet at the owner’s home.  Sunday Wine-Knows will breakfast with the Mayor of St. Emilion at City Hall, and then indulge in the festivities of the harvest festival:  the blessing of the wine at a formal mass, followed by a 3-4 hour lunch with the members of St. Emilion’s esteemed Jurade.

If you're ever in southwest France, St. Emilion is definitely worth a detour.  Plan to spend at least a couple of nights as there is much to soak in...wine included.


Friday, September 10, 2021

Tarragon's Origin Will Surprise You!

          Tarragon works magic with seafood, chicken & veal, but it can also create magical desserts

I will be in France in just a few days and I'm already looking forward to my first Wine-Knows' meal....which, by the way, will include a dish made with tarragon.   This herb is often associated with classical French cooking (e.g. Bernaise sauce is made with tarragon, as is the country's quintessential "fine herbs" blend).  Our first group dinner will be at jaw-dropping Chateau Bychevelle (Wine-Knows has leased the entire property for four nights).  The starter will be lobster poached in a tarragon-infused butter and white wine sauce.  While the French adore tarragon, the herb's origin is far from France. 

        3 Michelin star cannelloni of crayfish over a tarragon consumm√© served with a sprig of tarragon

Tarragon originated in either Siberia or Mongolia.   While the Greeks were using tarragon 500 BC for medical purposes such as toothaches, the herb seems to have worked its way into Europe's cuisine sometime after Genghis Khan's army invaded Europe in the 12th century.  While the Mongolians never made it to France, they did capture parts of Germany and Italy, both of which border France.  History indicates the Mongolians were chewing tarragon both to clean their teeth and as a sleeping aid.

The tarragon herb has an anise-licorice taste so it's understandable how chewing it morphed to using it in cooking.  While there are millions of recipes that use tarragon (in countries that range from the Middle East to Asia in savory and sweet recipes), the one that really stands out in my mind is Julia Child's veal scallopini with mushrooms:  Escalopes de Veau a l'Estragon (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, pages 367-8.)   If you don't have the book just Google the recipe as there are copies her recipe on the web.

One last tidbit.  Did you know that tarragon was a member of the sunflower family?


Friday, September 3, 2021

The World’s Oldest Wine Society

                             The Jurade harvest festivities are a wine-lovers' dream experience

The year was 1199.  England controlled the entire southwest of France, including the Bordeaux region.  King John (the brother of Richard the Lionheart), commissioned a brotherhood of wine to be formed in the medieval town of St Emilion located across the river from the city Bordeaux.  Known as the Jurade, this elite organization received special dispensation from the English Crown.  In return, England was given the first rights to St Emilion’s wine.

The freedom provided to the brotherhood of the Jurade (composed of the area’s top winemakers), allowed the Jurade to maintain rigorous quality control.  If the vintage was poor, winemakers were encouraged not to make wine that year.  Over 800 years later, the Jurade of St Emilion is still active.   Wine-Knows’ participants on the upcoming harvest festival tour to Bordeaux will be guests of the Jurade at their extravaganza private luncheon.

                        June Dunn, owner of Wine-Knows, became a member of the Jurade in 2016

On September 19, Wine-Knows will attend a private breakfast in St Emilion’s City Hall with the Mayor and members of the Jurade.  Dressed in long flowing theatrical red robes, the Jurade will depart city hall in unison and parade down the people-lined cobblestoned streets (with Wine-Knows marching right behind them in the procession).  This is one of the most important events in the Bordeaux wine district.  Photographers and television cameras will abound.

                        The Jurade's private lunch is one that would even impress Bacchus

The spectacle continues all the way to St Emilion’s church where a mass for the blessing of the harvest will be held.   After the mass, new members of the Jurade will be sworn in.  Then, the wine begins to flow as the Jurade and Wine-Knows will move to the city’s famous medieval Cloistures for a glass of Champagne to celebrate.   The coup de etat, however, will be the private luncheon in one of St Emilion’s ancient palaces.   At the last Jurade Wine Knows attended, lobster was the first course, foie gras the second, and the main was a tenderloin of beef.   Ten bottles of premier St Emilion adorned each table for 8 persons.  The lunch typically lasts for 3-4 hours.

A toast to the Jurade, s'il vous plait !