Monday, August 16, 2010

I've Moved!

That's right, from now on you can follow me & my blog at my new website!  There are now links to my upcoming events, pairing ideas, and much more!  I hope to see you all over there. Cheers!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wine Tasting Tips

One of my friends on Facebook posted a question on my wall earlier this week about 'tips for going to a wine tasting'. Her and her husband recently had a baby and they are going to their first wine tasting for some "grownup time". I responded to her with the following tips:
1. Pace yourself - don't get schnookered (you'll look like a novice & probably buy more than you wanted to)
2. Drink plenty of water - to help pace yourself and keep hydrated.
3. Be sure to eat beforehand - Another way to prevent against getting schnookered.
4.If going as a couple, decide who will be responsible for driving home (just in case tips #1-3 don't work out for you)
5. Do whatever makes you comfortable - if swirling a glass or slurping your wine feels awkward, don't worry about doing it. It will just make you paranoid and you'll be too caught up in 'looking proper' (no one likes a wine snob or wine slob).
6. Don't wear white. Dark colors are best, in case you get bumped or are too overzealous with your swirling.
7. Don't wear cologne or perfume - people are there to sniff and enjoy the wine, not to smell your potent perfume.
8. Take notes or take photos with your camera phone so you can remember what you liked.
9. If you like any of the wines you taste, it is usually a better deal to buy them at the event, then somewhere else later; but don't feel pressured to buy anything if you aren't crazy about any of them.
10. Relax and have fun!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some Things are Worth the Time/Effort - A Recipe for New Orleans BBQ Shrimp

The first time I tried this recipe was back in 2003, when I was still in college and tinkering around with the idea of going to culinary school.  I loved putting off homework so I could bake, stir-fry, and experiment with new cooking techniques.  These days I don't have quite as much free-time as I did back then, but some things are worth making the time for.  So I decided to take the couple hours needed to create one of my favorite dishes, Emeril's New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. Here's the recipe with my additions/alterations:

3 pounds large Gulf shrimp, in their shells
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning (i used Zatarains)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 bay leaves
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 cups water
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used an Aussie white blend)
1 cup heavy cream

Peel the shrimp completely and de-vein. Reserve the shells and set aside. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning. Use you hands to coat the shrimp with the seasonings. Refrigerate the shrimp while you make the sauce base.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the reserved shrimp shells, the remaining Creole seasoning, the bay leaves, lemons, water, Worcestershire, and wine. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan.
Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook until thick, syrupy, and dark brown, for about 15 minutes. 

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the seasoned shrimp and saute them, occasionally shaking the skillet, for 2 minutes. Add the cream and enough barbecue base to coat. Stir and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the shrimp to a warm platter with tongs and whisk the butter into the sauce. Remove from the heat. Mound the shrimp in the center of a platter. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and around the plate. 

This time around I decided to serve the shrimp with some grits (polenta), but in the past I have served it with white rice (which I think is better).  I had a little leftover BBQ base, so I have it in a storage container and have since added dollops to my mac'n'cheese, BLTs, and baked is so flavorful and delicious on/in so many things!  

My recommended wine pairing with this recipe is an off-dry Gewurztraminer to help quench your thirst that all the spiciness creates, while still working well with the depth of flavor the dish provides.  
Cheers & bon appetit! 

Monday, July 12, 2010

How I Spent My Fourth of July Weekend

Some people camp, others go on a road trip or I decided to go out on a limb and fly out for an "audition" at one of our nation's finest restaurants.

Months ago, I had decided to shake things up a bit and send in my resume to The Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, WA.  For those of you that follow my blogs, you will know that I vacationed to that area in February.  Well, The hubby and I liked the area when we were there and I have always been in awe of what The Herbfarm has achieved, so we thought it would be a nice move. But I thought it was a shot in the dark because their job posting had said that they were looking for candidates in their immediate area.  It seems that after several months of searching, they just couldn't find the right candidate nearby.  So I got an email and then a phone call.  Then another phone call. Then another and another.  Next thing I know, I am online booking a flight so I could check the place out firsthand and they could check out me.

Thursday afternoon I arrived and had an interview at 1pm.  I sat down with the two owners and current sommelier for an hour long interview where I was asked to do a sample pairing menu, a mock service demonstration, and talk about my career goals.  I was then dismissed, so I could rest up before returning to the restaurant for dinner.  When I returned at 6:15pm, I was greeted with a delicious non-alcoholic punch and wondered down to the cellar.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop...a really, really big, expensive candy shop.  I chatted with the owner for a little while and then made my way outside for the garden tour.

One of my favorite things about The Herbfarm is that they specialize in something that is so important to me-they grow all of their own herbs and produce, utilize products that are sustainably grown or caught locally, and really focus on the guest experience. It is quite the experience to tour their herb farm and listen to the owner talk about their growing practices and history, all while tasting/smelling things like day-lily petals, chive blossoms, and lavender. 

After the garden tour, I was seated at one of the European tables with 4 couples that came from various backgrounds and places. It was a lively and fun group.  We talked about our hometowns and jobs, about other restaurants we'd dined at, and our favorite movies; but as each course came out, everyone would fall silent for a moment as we all fell in awe of the flawless execution of the delivery and presentation. The conversation would slowly start back up, beginning with 'ooh's and 'ahhs' about the food before us.  After 9 heavenly courses I sauntered back to my hotel room to rest up and get ready to see it from the other side.

On Friday, I arrived just before 3pm to help the sommelier set up for the evening service.  We opened and decanted bottles, studied the night's reservation list, and organized our service station.  I studied up on the menu, tried to calm my nerves, and got ready for the "audition" to start.  It all felt a little overwhelming and chaotic to me, but I did my best to just absorb and organize everything in my mind. I welcomed guests, ran out courses, cleared plates, opened doors, and...oh yeah...poured wine. I didn't have too many opportunities to connect with guests like I usually would because I was too concerned with making sure I was walking the right way around a table, holding things in the correct hand, and doing everything I could to stay out of the way. After a long night of controlled chaos, I decided I had better get some rest, recalibrate, and relax.

On Saturday, I came back with two goals: 1) Be more confident on the floor and 2) make the guests' experiences memorable. I felt like after my Friday night bootcamp, I could come back knowing how to do things and doing them with my own flare.  I wanted to make sure that I could see myself doing this and enjoy doing it day after day.  About two hours into the evening, I completely forgot that I was there for an interview and fell into this zone.  I was joking with guests, taking photos for them, and walking the floor like I had done it a million times before.  It didn't take long before I was snapped back out of it, though, when I was asked by one of the owners to explain the dish (in detail) that was going out.  I tripped over my words and chopped my way through it.  Definitely needed some more practice on that.  Though, it was reassuring when, at the end of the night, one of the servers came up to me and said that she didn't even notice me on the floor that night.  Which is a good thing because it meant that she was constantly trying to correct me or maneuver around me.

After the last guest was gone, the service staff all worked together to get the room reset and cleaned up.  After that we sat down with the owners to go over the evening of service and discuss areas of opportunity.  Then, I was told that I could head back to my hotel room and that they were all going to stay to talk about me.

I got a phone call from one of the owners two days after I returned to WI.  Bittersweet news...they liked me, but needed me to have more PacificNW wine knowledge and felt that I was a little out of practice being on the floor.  This news meant that I didn't have to take a big risk and move 2,002 miles, find a new house, sell my current house, help my husband find a job, and leave my current gigs.  But it did leave me a little disappointed that I missed out on a new adventure - an adventure that would have thrown me out on that dining room 'stage' every night, would have allowed me to work for such a respected restaurant with owners that value so much that is dear to me, and would have landed me in an area that I find so astounding...

But I remain optimistic and excited about my wine-filled future.  Who knows, I may end up living in Seattle...or France...or back in California... or....?  For now, I am going to continue riding the fun and turbulent wave I'm on and keep seeing where it will take me....

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Book Whirlwind

Well, it has been far too long since my last post, but I have been riding one heck of a wave lately!  My book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, came out on June 1st and since I got the first copy in the mail, I have been out on the road promoting it.  In 25 days I have signed over 120 books at over 10 events and paired over 50 dishes/foods at these events. I have put over 4,000 miles on my car and taught classes to over 300 people... And I'm just getting started! 

It has been so much fun to teach people about wine and food pairing basics and to experiment with some really unusual pairings at each of the classes.  My coauthor, Jeanette has been able to also attend many of the events (often with her 4month old cutie in tow) and has shared so much of her cheese knowledge at each of our classes (many of which have been based around cheese, since we live in the cheese state).  One of my favorite wine/cheese pairing tips that she taught me (and I finally got to try first hand) is to add a little fresh-cracked pepper to your cheese when drinking it with red wine.  It really makes the flavors of the red wine pop!

Some other new and unusual pairings that were fun to try included:
  • Reuben Dip (all the ingredients you'd have on a Reuben sandwich, but in dip form) with a German Pinot Noir. 
  • Cream Puffs with an oaky Chardonnay (not a 'perfect' pairing, but it really made for an interesting combination. I need to seek out some late-harvest Chardonnay and try it with some cream puffs come State Fair time).
  • Merieke Gouda with a lightly-oaked chardonnay.
  • Sweet Salmon Spread on crackers with Spatlese Riesling.
  • Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding with a dry, Paso Robles Zinfandel (the bread pudding wan't too sweet and worked wonderfully with the Zin). 
 Hopefully I'll be able to get back in the habit of updating my blog regularly and sharing other unusual pairings, as well as some new wineries and wine regions in the US that I'll be visiting.  But until then, CHEERS!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finally Getting Back to Normalcy

Well, it has been nearly a week since I was out in California, working hard to earn a green pin, and I am just now starting to get back into the swing of things.  It is so weird to go from studying every single spare moment, to being able to do simple things like clean the house, enjoy a mimosa, and pet my cats.

While I wasn't successful in my first attempt at the Court of Master Sommeliers' Advanced Exam, I feel like I gained so much from the experience.  I learned so much, drank some darn-good wine, and forged some amazing friendships.  (Hey, I'm an honorary Seattleite now!)  Sure I wish I would have earned that green pin, but when only 13/52 people pass, I can't feel too terrible.  It is a hard exam (that's an understatement) and an emotional rollercoaster (wheeee!), and I now know how to better prepare myself for it all. 

So, I managed to survive...and I can't wait to get back in there and do it again next April.  But for now, I am going to relax (yeah, right) and get ready for my book release.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wine-ding Around the US #3 - (Northern) Idaho

If any of you reading this are from Idaho or know Idaho wine, you are probably thinking to yourselves, "why would a wine geek go to Northern Idaho to find wine, instead of Southern where all the action is?"  That's exactly why. Well, okay, not really.  My grandparents chose Northern Idaho to retire to and I was able to coordinate a visit with them, along with a winery visit (or two).  I very rarely go to a wine region just for the sake of going to a winery.  It usually involves a tradeshow, grand tasting, exam, family get-together, or other miscellaneous visit.

For this visit, my husband and I stayed at probably one of the neatest and most unusual (in a good way) places I've ever stayed at - Cedar Springs B&B.  The owners grow their own produce, grind their own flour for waffles (their breakfast specialty, which you can top with a plethora of homemade fruit preserves), and live in harmony with the land around them.  The couple that owns Cedar Springs B&B were fascinating and friendly - albeit a little odd - but I loved 'em.  The rooms were clean, the food was delicious, and the surroundings were surreal.

About an hour north of Cedar Springs B&B is a town called Sandpoint - home to a bleu cheese factory, an awesome pub with amazing grub (Eichardt's Pub), and a winery with a difficult name until someone says it for you.  (Oh, and Coldwater Creek clothing company started in this city of 6,000 people and still has its headquarters and a wine bar there, too.)  I could totally tolerate living in a place like this - wine, cheese, beer...what else do you need?  Plus, it all is nestled along a beautiful lake - the Pend d'Oreille, which is where the winery I visited got its name.  "Pend-or-rell"? "Pen-duh-oree-al"? Nope. Think French - "Pend-duh-Ray". See? Much easier than it looks.  My husband and I bellied up to the tasting bar between some other tourists and locals that were already sipping away.  The locals were enjoying a glass while they waited to have their magnum wine bottle refilled - yes, Pend d'Oreille Winery has a refill program on their house red blend.  But, before I got too excited, I wanted to find out if this refill wine was even worth refilling.

I sampled Pend d'Oreill's Bistro Rouge (their house red) and it was...well, delicious.  They bottle the wine in 750ml bottles (mainly for out-of-towners), but also store it in wine kegs used for their in-house refill system.  Locals can take home a full bottle of Bistro Rouge and when the bottle runs dry, they can bring it back and have it refilled.  This not only keeps your house-wine supply full, but it saves a glass bottle from ending up in a landfill. It is green, but you fill it with red.  What an awesome concept.

Pend d'Oreille's other local specialty is their the Huckleberry Blush.  I am not one for non-grape fruit wines, so I was not exactly eager to try this one out.  Once I was discovered as a wine professional, I was introduced to the winemaker/owner and the assistant winemaker and got a tour of the backroom (if you go as a regular patron, the tasting room staff will also be happy to show you the winery backroom, just ask).  I just so happened to join them just as they finished bottling their new vintage of Huckleberry Blush and they were eager to let me try some.  It is predominantly made with Riesling grapes, but finished with the juice of fermented huckleberries (the local fruit that seems to be incorporated into just about anything).  For a sweet fruit-wine blend, it was actually pretty tasty - who woulda thunk it?   I could totally see myself enjoying a bottle of it on the shores of Lake Pend d'Oreill on a hot, sunny day.

In addition to their Bistro Red and Huckleberry Blush, Pend d'Oreille makes all sorts of other delicious single-varietal whites and reds including Chardonnay, Viognier, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Primitivo.  Most of the grapes are imported from Washington (just a few hours away) and all the pressing, fermenting, and bottling takes place at their winery.  They offer various tasting flights in their tasting room and they give you some tasty little breadsticks to help cleanse your palate between each wine. The tasting room also doubles as a gift shop, but unlike others I've seen, this one doesn't over-run the place with clutter and cheesy wine knickknacks galore (who really takes wine seriously when sitting next to something like this?).

The folks at Pend d'Oreille really know what they're doing.  Their staff is friendly and passionate, their wine is delicious and well made, and the whole place just had this energy about energy that is created by happy people that are actually having fun at their jobs and truly love what they do. 

Now I just need an excuse to go back (and stay).