Friday, March 27, 2015

Phở Sure

                                    Fabulous Beef Phở served on the street in Hanoi

It's no doubt that most urban Americans have heard of Phở, Vietnam's signature soup. Pronounced "fuh," Phở is a popular street food throughout Vietnam (vendors actually set up small booths on either the street or sidewalk---most have a few simple tables and folding chairs).  On my recent trip to Vietnam I saw street stalls in Hanoi serving Phở to motorcycle riders who were downing their soup while straddling their bikes.) 

                                 Street stands such as this are on every corner

Phở is to the Vietnamese what hamburgers are to Americans---incredibly popular, available in nearly every restaurant, eaten by the rich and the pool, the young and the old.  Like hamburgers, this soup is also served with garnishes;  Phở, however, is accompanied by a heaping plate of mint, Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos, and sometimes fried shallots.  It's all about aroma and texture.  The trick is to add a little pinch of each of the items as you eat your way through the soup.  Timing is everything.  If you add the garnishes too soon you'll end up with darkened, less aromatics herbs and soggy sprouts and shallots.

                                                              It's all about the broth

The earthy, complex broth is critically important---layers upon layers of subtle nuances, starting with the richness of a cornucopia of meats and bones, with herbs (e.g. ginger and cilantro), and spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and stair anise are the most common)...all added strategically throughout the broth's long simmering process.  Phở  is primarily beef, however, chicken is sometimes found.  Noodles are always made from rice and are linguine shaped.  Phở changes from region to region within the country, differing by noodle width, the sweetness of the broth, and even the choice of herbs used in the broth.  In the South (think Saigon) the soup is eaten mainly for breakfast and occasionally for lunch, whereas in the North (e.g. Hanoi) the dish is eaten at any time. 

                        Phở ingredients awaiting the last & most crucial element, its broth

If you're coming with us to Vietnam next February (we still have some availability), you'll have the opportunity to experience the best Phở---at a street stall, as well as a formal restaurant.  At both stops you can sip the broth, savor its complexity, and appreciate the painstaking time that has gone into birthing this delectable liquid. Phở sure you will become a fan.

For more information on our 2016 February tour to Vietnam, check out:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tortilla Español---New World with Old World Heritage

                                            Classic tortilla Español with Spain's Piquillo peppers

Tomorrow I’m conducting a Spanish cooking class in Florida.  For the appetizer I’m demonstrating Spain’s tortilla Español (a quasi-omelette filled with potatoes and onions).  The tortilla, which appears on every restaurant’s menu, is also a mainstay of every tapas bar in the country.  The best rendition of this traditional starter that I have ever had (after more than a dozen trips to Spain) was in the Ribera del Duero wine country.  I was so impressed with this version that I talked the chef into sharing his recipe during a cooking class the following year when I returned with a group.

How Spaniards named their most popular dish the tortilla has always puzzled me.  Spain’s cuisine does not use traditional tortillas.  In fact, Spaniards had never even seen corn until the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico.  I recently heard a story that makes a lot of sense to me and it goes something like this… 

The Aztec Empire made flat rounds of yellowish bread from ground corn.  Spanish explorers were taken with this new flavored bread, but had no such word in their vocabulary to describe it.  As it reminded the Conquistadors of the omelette in their native homeland (round in shape and yellow in color), the Spaniards gave this unknown bread the name “tortilla” as it looked similar to the tortilla back home Spain. According to this theory, the Mexican tortilla was actually named after the potato omelette in Spain, based on its association of shape and color.

Here’s the actual recipe I cooked today which I learned during the professional cooking class in Spain some years ago from chef Pedro.  The only thing I changed was the addition of my beloved Piquillo peppers from Spain (very mild, smoky, flavor-chocked red peppers, now thankfully available in the US).

  • 2 lbs potatoes, sliced thinly
  • 2 cups extra virgin olive oil (can be used later for sauteeing other items)
  • 6-7 eggs (depending on size)
  • 1 lb onions, sliced thinly  (white or brown)
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic (depending on size)
  • 8 oz jar of Piquillo peppers, drained & cut into strips
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Place olive oil in a skillet and heat to a moderate temperature (do not get it anywhere ner smoking level or it will oxidize).  Add the potatoes and cook for 30 minutes on moderate heat, allowing potatoes to slightly brown on all sides.  Remove and drain on paper towels.  Next, sautee the onions in olive oil over moderate heat, cooking about 5 minutes.  Lower the heat, add the garlic and continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Remove and add to the drained potatoes.  Strain the olive oil and refrigerate for later use.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper.

Return back 2-3 tablespoons of the strained oil to a non-stick skillet.  Heat the oil to a moderately high heat (but again avoid that smoking point.)  Add the egg mixture and turn down the heat immediately.  Next, add the potatoes, onions and strips of Piquillos...making sure all of these items are submerged in the egg mixture.  Cook over moderately low heat until the top of the tortilla is almost set.  Put a large plate over the skillet and then turn the skillet over quickly so that the tortilla slips on to the plate.  Turn up the heat, add a few more tablespoons of oil to the skillet, immediately lowering the heat once again.  Cook an additional 5 or so minutes until the tortilla is totally cooked through.

Typically a tortilla Español  is served at room temperature in a wedge shape.  While it is often served as a tapa, it can also be served as an entree---a simple mixed salad is a perfect accompaniment.

Viva España!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unusual Dining Spots of a Lifetime

I’m preparing to take a group of Wine-Knows to Savannah and Charleston.  I typically ask trip participants to write in advance of the tour an introduction about themselves for others.  In this “dossier” I ask them to answer a cluster of questions such as their favorite travel spot or what food would be in their last meal.   One question I’ve never asked (but shall for the next group) is what is the most unusual place they have dined.  Here are mine…

Submarine in San Francisco Bay
Looking for a unique dinner experience in the Bay Area?  If so, you should consider this one.  You’ll be picked up at one of the piers along the waterfront in a small boat and then wisked off to a venue not far from shore.  Technically a “floating island,” this amazing nautical experience allows you to choose a submerged dining room with port holes, or dine alfresco upstairs on its dec overlooking incredible views of the city of San Francisco, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay.

                                         Dining below the surface of the water...

Bedouin Tent in the Sahara Dessert
I love my creature comforts but I couldn’t resist the romance of an overnight excursion to the Sahara to stay in a Bedouin tent.  Just getting there was priceless…we rode several hours on the back of camels across miles of dessert.  Arriving just in time for a glorious sunset over a vast sea of sand dunes, we first refreshed in our own private tent, then had a Moroccan dinner in a large community tent right out of a Hollywood movie set.   Glorious.

                                        A fantasy spot in the middle of the Sahara

Grotto on Italy’s Adriatic Sea
I first dined in this special spot >25 years ago but I can still recall my amazement when the elevator door opened into the restaurant.  Twenty years later I returned and the thrill was just as compelling.  The enchanting candle-lit grotto has tables placed to take advantage of the sea rushing in meters away.  On this last visit I was surprised to learn that the restaurant had become very famous and now has a world-class chef, with world-class prices.  Personally, I would be happy eating just a panini here, but I have to admit that my latest upscale dinner and a bottle of exquisite Barolo could not have been more magnifico.

                                              Super romantic dining in a grotto                                           

Costa Rican Rain Forest

Twenty-something years ago one of the globe’s first eco-tourism inns was featured on the cover of Travel & Leisure.  It so took my breath away that I vowed without even opening the magazine to journey to this piece of paradise---regardless of where it was located.  The following year I packed my bags for Costa Rica.  As the inn’s remote area was not served by commercial flights, it necessitated a private plane from the capital city…but I was on a mission.   The individual bungalows were as gorgeous as the magazine’s cover.  The dining room was surrounded by a verdant forest, including a canopy of wild orchids in every color of the rainbow.  One dined to the melodies of parrots and cockatoos as wild monkeys skirted from tree to tree.  The menu was all uber fresh items grown at the lodge, hunted locally, or fished from the nearby streams.  Pure magic.

Let it rain, let it rain!

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Low-Down on Lodi

The Lodi wine district (<1 hour's drive south of Sacramento) has pleasantly surprised me on three occasions.  The first was 15 years ago at a national wine conference in Sacramento when I tasted Spenker Zinfandel.  The second time was a few years ago at a Society of Wine Educator's blind tasting seminar of eight Tempranillos from around the globe---Lodi’s Bokisch Winery stole the show.  The third time was just days ago when I was actually was in Lodi wine tasting.  I was amazed at the quality/price ratio of these sleeper wines.  Below are my standouts.

Oak Farm Vineyards is surrounded by several majestic oaks that are hundreds of years old

Oak Farm Vineyards blew me away.  The drop-dead gorgeous property and visitor center could have easily been located among Napa Valley’s priciest wineries.  (It’s easy to understand why this setting is one the most coveted for weddings in the area.)  But, considering their price point, it was Oak Farm’s wines that truly rocked my world. Their Portuguese  white varietal Verdelho (2013) was a gorgeous aromatic mouthful of honeysuckle and lemon curd---with a nice little finish.  If I lived locally, I would buy oodles of cases to use as our summer wine.  A real steal at $17 per bottle. 

                            Tievoli's label captures the winery's prized 450 year old oak

But, Oak Farm is not a one trick pony.  Their Tievoli (Italian slang for “you gotta have this”) is a blend of several grapes including Zinfandel, Barbera, Petite Syrah and few percent of some whites.  It offers up a soft, elegant wine full of plums and cherries.  While this one had me at hello, its lingering velvet finish sealed the deal.  Another block-buster value for $24. (

Bokisch Vineyards stood out again during my recent visit, however, this time it was their 2012 Graciano varietal that earned top honors.  The first US producer to plant this Spanish red grape, Bokisch’s rendition was an enticing play of chocolate and fig mixed with blackberry and gentle spice.  All of  it wrapped up in a bow with silky smooth tannins, this one was ready to drink now.  $23 bucks and worth every cent.  (

For Rosé lovers, Lange Twins Winery stepped up to the plate with a lovely 2014 Sangiovese version.  Think strawberries, raspberries and roses.  Beautiful color and a pretty wine with a price tag of $15.  (

BTW...if you’re in the area, don’t miss Cheese Central in downtown historic Lodi (  It’s a gem of a place, with a small but exquisite selection of top rate cheeses.  If you’re staying overnight, consider attending one of the shop's cheese classes that are held in a handsome, professional classroom in the back of the store.  Moreover, if you're passing through Lodi and only have time for one stop, make it the Lodi Visitor's Center wine tasting room ( which has an excellent collection of wines to taste and a very knowledgeable staff.

Lodi to many wine lovers is an unknown district.   If you know of Lodi wines, you may erroneously think of them as just Zinfandel.  Things are changing.  If you're looking for a terrific price quality ratio, the above producers in Lodi should be strongly considered.