Feb 25, 2010

A Memorable Premiere Napa Valley 2010

Entering Napa Country...   (Photo: Copyright 2008 Jason Tinacci)

Premiere Napa Valley, organized by Napa Valley Vintners, has become a favorite winter tradition among local vintners. With the mad days of harvest long over and new wines at rest in the cellar, wine folks have time to put on a show for "the trade"--wine retail/wholesale buyers, cellar buyers for restaurants, and a few members of the media. Attendees have a chance to barrel-taste and bid on 200 unique small wine lots made just for the event. Lot bottles are specially labeled and each lot--ranging in size from 5 to 20 cases--can be sold to only one buyer. This guarantees exclusivity to the purchaser.

A two-day event, this year Premier Napa Valley ran February 19-20, accompanied by plenty of large and small celebrations around the valley. The auction was held on Saturday, the 20th, and it surpassed expectations, bringing in $1.9 million--a 30% increase over last year. The auction’s top lot: five cases of Shafer Vineyards’ Sunspot Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for $37,000.

I hit three pre-auction events on Friday, accompanied by a photographer friend. Wow: what a great time we had! Here's a rundown of our three events:

Appellation St. Helena 6th Annual Trade Tasting

Charles Krug Winery's Carriage House

First up, early Friday afternoon, was the 6th Annual Trade Tasting of Appellation St. Helena, held at Charles Krug Winery in an 1881 carriage house that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Behind the long tables ringing the large upper room stood representatives from about 40 of the appellation's wineries. Some had opened a range of their wines; others confined themselves to a single

Feb 18, 2010

Cookbook Review: The New Book of Soups

Once in a while a genre cookbook comes along that's really a standout. Such is the case with the Culinary Institute of America's The New Book of Soups. An update of the CIA's classic and popular The Book of Soups, the new version contains all the recipes and techniques from the original, but with 30 new recipes, techniques and color photos. Each recipe offers step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions

The opening chapter, Soup Basics, provides a solid overview of everything a cook needs to know about creating soups and stews, from how to select and prepare ingredients to choosing the right pots and pans, and a multi-page chart clarifies amounts needed when shopping for various ingredients.

Recipes come from a tasty variety of culinary traditions, divided into chapters on Broths, Hearty Soups, Stews, Cream Soups, Puréed Soups, Bisques and Chowders, and Cold Soups. Each chapter has its own overview of technique. For instance, the chapter on Stews discusses how to choose ingredients; properly flavor and season a stew; basic stewing methods; and more.

An unexpected chapter on Accompaniments--e.g., Rye Rusks, Gougères, Vegetable Chips, Popovers--contains recipes for extras to enhance any soup you create.

All in all, The New Book of Soups is a worthy addition to your culinary bookshelves.

Here's a recipe for Catalan Beef Stew from the book:

Catalan Beef Stew

The cuisine of Spain is rapidly becoming more familiar to cooks and restaurant-goers. This dish marries a flavorful cut of beef from the shoulder with some typical Catalonian ingredients: oranges, olives, red wine, and bacon. Bitter oranges are traditional, but if you don't have access to a bitter orange, use a Valencia (juice) orange and a touch of lime juice for nearly the same flavor profile.
Makes 4 servings

1 tbsp olive oil
5 slices bacon, thick-cut, diced
2 lb boneless beef chuck or bottom round, cut into 2-inch pieces
Salt as needed
Freshly ground black pepper as needed
2 cups chopped yellow onion
2 cups red wine
2 tbsp orange peel julienne
2 bay leaves
2 tsp minced garlic
2 parsley sprigs, minced
1 cup Spanish black olives, pitted
  1. Add the bacon to a casserole dish or pan and sauté until the bacon is crisped and browned, 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a bowl with a slotted spoon, letting the oil drain back into the casserole.
  2. Return the casserole to the heat and heat the oil until it shimmers. Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. Add the beef (working in batches to avoid crowding the pan) and sear on all sides until brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer the beef to the bowl with the bacon using a slotted spoon and letting the oil drain back into the casserole. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until deeply caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes,
  3. Return the beef and bacon to the casserole, add the red wine, orange peel, bay leaves, garlic, and parsley; bring the liquid to a boil. Immediately adjust the heat for a gentle simmer. Season the stew to taste with salt and pepper throughout cooking time. Simmer the stew, covered, until the beef is nearly tender, about 2 hours. Add the olives and continue to simmer until the beef is fork tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Serve in heated bowls.
Buy The New Book of Soups

Feb 15, 2010

The 30 "Most Important" Restaurants in the USA

The French Laundry   (Photo license: Creative Commons)

For the second year in a row, The French Laundry--located in the Napa Valley, California town of Yountville--came in with a perfect score of 100 in an annual survey that ranks the nation's 1000 "most important restaurants." Close behind in the No. 2 slot was Per Se, with a 99.73 score.

Conducted by online guide Opinionated About Dining between September 1 2009 and January 8 2010, the survey is based on rankings from approximately 1900 respondents. To make it into the Top 30, a restaurant must earn a rating of at least 95 points in the survey.

The Top 30: 
1. The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif., 100 (Buy The French Laundry Cookbook)
2. Per Se, New York, 99.73
3. Masa, New York, 99.00
4. Manresa, Los Gatos, Calif., 98.53
5. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, N.Y., 98.50
6. Mini-Bar, Washington, D.C., 98.48
7. Urasawa, Beverly Hills, Calif., 98.43
8. Jean Georges, New York, 98.30
9. Alinea, Chicago, 97.78
10. Corton, New York, 97.53
11. McCrady's, Charleston, S.C., 97.50
12. Le Bernardin, New York, 97.17
13. Sushi Yasuda, New York, 97.08
14. Guy Savoy, Las Vegas, 97.00
15. Schwa, Chicago, 96.71
16. Kuruma Sushi, New York, 96.43
17. Eleven Madison Park, New York, 96.27
18. Momofuku Ko, New York, 96.26
19. Komi, Washington, D.C., 96.11
20. Cyrus, Healdsburg, Calif., 95.93
20. Providence, Los Angeles, 95.93
22. Marinus, Carmel, Calif., 95.81
23. Town House, Chilhowie, Va, 95.73
24. Coi, San Francisco, 95.72
25. Hugo's, Portland, Me., 95.66
26. Bouley, New York, 95.45
27. Aubergine, Carmel-By-the-Sea, Calif., 95.39
28. L' Atelier de Joel Robuchon, New York, 95.28
29. O Ya, Boston, 95.16
30. Elements, Princeton, N.J., 95.04

Feb 11, 2010

Recipe: Pollo a la Brasa con Citron

Spotted this recipe on It's easy to prepare and promises to be exceptionally tasty, so I'm passing it on. If you're cooking a single chicken, just divide ingredients by 3. I'll be cooking a single chicken and cutting it up, altho' the recipe calls for a whole bird.

By the way, offers a huge and sortable recipe bank. Recent featured recipes include Orange Mango Lassi, Orange Tapioca Crème Brûlée, and Citrus Flank Steak "Cuban Style" with Mashed Sweet Potatoes.


Pollo a la Brasa con Citron
Serves 6-8
  • 16 ounces orange juice
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 10 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 whole chickens
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine orange juice, soy sauce, lime juice, garlic, cumin, oregano, paprika, pepper, and oil in blender; blend until smooth.  Pour mixture over chicken; cover and marinate in refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours.  Discard marinade and pat chicken dry with paper towels. 

For cooking in a conventional oven: 
Preheat oven to 450° F. Season the cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper.  Tie legs together to hold shape; tuck wings under body. Place chicken in roasting pan. Roast chicken 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F. Continue roasting for about 1 hour 20 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 165° F. Remove from oven and let cool.

For rotisserie cooking: 
Place chicken on rods and roast according to manufacturer’s directions or until internal temperature reaches 165° F. Remove and let cool.

Feb 8, 2010

Soda Pop and Pancreatic Cancer: Is There a Link?

This morning, Reuter’s news agency reported the results of a new study in which regular soda drinkers had an 87% higher risk of pancreatic cancer. The theory points to sugar as the culprit in fueling tumors. Here is the Reuter’s report:
People who drink two or more sweetened soft drinks a week have a much higher risk of pancreatic cancer, an unusual but deadly cancer, researchers reported. People who drank mostly fruit juice instead of sodas did not have the same risk, the study of 60,000 people in Singapore found.

Sugar may be to blame but people who drink sweetened sodas regularly often have other poor health habits, said Mark Pereira of the University of Minnesota, who led the study. “The high levels of sugar in soft drinks may be increasing the level of insulin in the body, which we think contributes to pancreatic cancer cell growth," he said. Insulin, which helps the body metabolize sugar, is made in the pancreas.

Writing in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Pereira and colleagues said they followed 60,524 men and women in the Singapore Chinese Health Study for 14 years. Over that time, 140 of the volunteers developed pancreatic cancer. Those who drank two or more soft drinks a week had an 87 percent higher risk of being among those who got pancreatic cancer.

Pereira said he believed the findings would apply elsewhere. "Singapore is a wealthy country with excellent healthcare. Favorite pastimes are eating and shopping, so the findings should apply to other western countries," he said.

But Susan Mayne of the Yale Cancer Center at Yale University in Connecticut was cautious. "Although this study found a risk, the finding was based on a relatively small number of cases and it remains unclear whether it is a causal association or not," said Mayne, who serves on the board of the journal, which is published by the American Association for Cancer Research. “Soft drink consumption in Singapore was associated with several other adverse health behaviors such as smoking and red meat intake, which we can't accurately control for."

Other studies have linked pancreatic cancer to red meat, especially burned or charred meat.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with 230,000 cases globally. In the United States, 37,680 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in a year and 34,290 die of it.
The American Cancer Society says the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients is about 5 percent.

Some researchers believe high sugar intake may fuel some forms of cancer, although the evidence has been contradictory. Tumor cells use more glucose than other cells.

One 12-ounce (355 ml) can of non-diet soda contains about 130 calories, almost all of them from sugar.
I never developed a soft drink habit. My mother refused to buy the stuff when I was a kid, so my drink selections were confined to milk, orange juice, lemonade, and water. The result? As an adult, I never even think about soft drinks when I'm thirsty (or any other time); I opt instead on hot days for sparkling water, a real cooler-off, and just plain ol' water out of the faucet the rest of the time. I still like milk, too, both cow milk and soy milk. I'd rather have an orange than orange juice, though. And of course I drink wine, beer, and cocktails...

How about you? Do you reach for a soda when it's hot? If not, what quenches your thirst?

Feb 5, 2010

California's Central Coast, Part 2: Morro Bay

Massive El Morro Rock dominates Morro Bay's harbor   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

This is the second in a three-part series about traveling (and eating) on California's Central Coast.
  • Part 1 of this series discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2, which you're reading, covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
Morro Bay

Morro Bay, a thriving fishing port about an hour south of Hearst Castle, offers travelers an endless array of outdoor activities, ocean-going adventures, and excellent bargains.

Whale-Watching on Morro Bay: We started Day 2 with a whale-watching adventure from Virg's Landing, which has been squiring people on fishing and sea-going adventures for decades. January is a prime month for whale migration, but the boats hadn't been able to go out for a week because of the heavy rains. However, we lucked out big time: that morning was clear and calm and soon we were underway. We traveled about six miles out, past the massive rock--really a volcanic plug--that juts from the harbor and guided long-ago explorers; past a buoy where half a dozen baby seals were taking the sun; and through a group of more than 100 dolphins leaping joyously through the water, crossing our wake, and swimming alongside.

Baby seals, Morro Bay Harbor   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

Finally we reached the whales. We saw a bit of spouting and plenty of tails, but no breaching. Then, suddenly, a few feet from the starboard side, a whale popped out of the water, turned on its side to eyeball us, rolled back onto its stomach--we could clearly see the barnacles encrusted on its back--and disappeared. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than 30 seconds, but packed one whale of a thrill! It was so quick, so startling, that nobody managed to grab a photo. One of the crew said he'd been going out for years but had been so close to a whale only twice in all that time.

Cruising Morro Bay by Yacht: The next day we had a completely different boating experience in Morro Bay, never leaving the harbor. We boarded a 72-foot luxury motor yacht, the Papagallo II, for lunch and a slow cruise around the incredibly picturesque bay. The ship is owned by Leonard and Midge Gentieu, a charming pair who owned a series of successful restaurants before realizing Leonard's life-long dream of owning and cooking on a yacht. Download a PDF about the Papagallo II.

Midge and Chef Leonard Gentieu     Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

Leonard is a 1968 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and probably anything he might have prepared for us would have been sensational. But on this particular day we were joined by Brad Buckley of The Abalone Farm on Estero Bay in nearby Cayucos. That's right: farmed abalone, with intake pipes carrying a high flow of ocean water up a cliff to the farm's water distribution facility, simulating the abalone's natural environment (take a photo tour of the facility). For special meals--perhaps Valentine's Day?--you can have fresh abalone sent to you overnight at about $75/pound. Thanks to Brad, we had plenty of fresh abalone for lunch (see Leonard's recipe, below).

The Papagallo II can be privately hired, and it also runs popular public cruises with live music and substantial hors d'ouevres.

Here's Chef Leonard's recipe for abalone:

Abalone for 6

16 oz. abalone medallions
2 whole eggs beaten
2 cups crushed saltine crackers
1 cup clarified butter
1 fresh lemon
2 tsp. Wildwood Blends All-Purpose Seasoning

Mix the Wildwood Blends All-Purpose Seasoning with crushed saltine crackers. Dip the medallions in the beaten egg, then bread in the crackers and spice mix. Melt the butter in a heated sauce pan and place the breaded medallions (medium to high heat) for 45 seconds to 1 minute on each side. Should be golden brown.

Finish with squeeze of fresh lemon before removing from pan. Pour a little pan drippings over medallions when serving. Great served over angel hair pasta with little chopped parsley and butter or cream.
Other Things We Did in Morro Bay:

Judy Aron holding her award-winning Primitivo    Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez
  • Museum of Natural History: Best place possible to get an overview (through interactive and other exhibits) about the flora and fauna--particularly the birds--found in, on, and around Morro Bay. A small gift shop offers nature- and guide-books. Shaded picnic tables provide a beautiful view of the water.
  • Shopping: The Embarcadero, which runs right alongside the water, is filled with shops and restaurants of all kinds. 
  • Aronhill Vineyards: Taste Aron Hill's double-gold Primitivo at their small shop right on the Embarcadero. Owner and grower Judy Aron is often there to pour the wine herself.
  • The Wine Line: We were driven about all day by The Wine Line--the perfect solution for visitors who want to visit local wineries but leave their car at the hotel. The Wine Line offers a hop on/hop off service that lets you get around on your own.
Where we ate in Morro Bay: The town's only Italian restaurant--with a nice emphasis on seafood--Ciao Bella affords fabulous water views and an extensive selection of primi, zuppa, insalta, pasta, and dessert selections.

Credit for all photos: © Suzanne Rodriguez
To learn more about California's Central Coast:

This is the second in a three-part series about traveling (and eating) on California's Central Coast.
  • Part 1 of this series discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2, which you're reading, covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
A popular book about driving on the California Coast was written by my friend, Karen Misuraca:

Feb 1, 2010

California’s Central Coast, Part 1: Hearst Castle and Cambria

 Outdoor Swimming Pool, Hearst Castle   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez
The Culinary Gadabout is on the road again. This time my travels have brought me to California's mid-coast region: Hearst Castle, San Luis Obispo, Cambria, Avila Bay, Pismo Beach, and Morro Bay.

This is the first in a three-part series:
  • Part 1, which you're reading, discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2 covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
Hearst Castle

Yesterday I had the great good luck to be invited, along with five other travel and food writers, to lunch on the patio of Casa del Mar--the largest guest house at Hearst Castle. Beforehand I worried that I'd feel intimidated by all the gold-leaf ceilings and centuries-old finery, but that wasn't the case. Despite the lavish pomp and wealth of the surroundings, Hearst wanted his guests to feel comfortable and relaxed. An "ease of use" feel was built into the property right from the beginning, and all these decades later it hasn't gone away.

Over the years I've visited Hearst Castle 7 or 8 times, but it's always exciting. Besides, this place is so beautiful, so vast, and so unique that it takes many visits to comprehend what you're seeing. And no matter how many times you visit, it's impossible to even begin to understand the sheer audacity William Randolph Hearst possessed in dreaming up such an undertaking. Not to mention actually carrying it out.

What Hearst put together on this bit of California coast is akin to Louis XIV dreaming up and creating Versailles. Like Louis, Hearst loved art and beautiful objects. Like Louis, he wanted a home where he and his guests could be surrounded by the beauty he'd collected. Like Louis, Hearst had the money, the power, the will, and the drive to bring his ambition to reality. Unlike Louis, Hearst's dream is now managed by caretakers who invited me for lunch.

While eating we gazed down the mountain, across the endless expanse of Hearst property, and out over the blue Pacific. It’s been raining heavily throughout the state for a couple of weeks, but yesterday was a day of pause between storms. The sky was partly overcast, with plenty of blue shining through, and the sun flirted in and out of the clouds.

Lunch was accompanied by lively conversation and lots of laughter from our group—but also by the ghosts of people and times past. How many over the years had lolled on this porch, just as I was doing, nibbling a sandwich while pondering the magnificent scenery? And who where they? Gable, Lombard, Hepburn, Chaplin, Cary Grant? Quite likely. At one point I wandered around the patio, away from my companions, and sprawled on a white marble chaise to contemplate the view and relish the unlikely reality of being alone for a few moments at Hearst Castle—just like any honored guest from the past.

Here’s the good news for you: starting this March, Hearst Castle is introducing the self-guided Gardens and Vistas Tour. That’s right: self-guided. Imagine strolling through the gardens at Hearst Castle just like any guest in the 1930s, sitting on a bench while listening to water flowing in the fountains and admiring the statuary. The tour ends at sunset, so you’ll actually be able to watch the sun descend into the ocean before boarding the tram and making your way downhill. I'm betting that, starting when the self-guided tour gets underway, a good many proposals and even more propositions will take place on the grounds of Hearst Castle as that sun sets.

The price of $24 per adult ($12 for children 6-17) includes the movie, “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream.” Shown on the giant screen at the Visitor Center, the fascinating film is filled with vintage clips and explains the background and building of the Castle. It’s a must-see when you visit here; I’ve watched it twice and it was just as interesting the second time.

Download a free brochure about Hearst Castle


My group of writers is staying two nights at the Cambria Pines Lodge in the arty coastal town of Cambria. The 26-acre Lodge is known for its beautiful and often whimsical themed gardens (one of my favorite flower beds here is an actual bed frame covered with blooms). A pathway composed of native California plants leads to the associated nursery and florist. The garden contains firepit gazebos; an extensive collection of succulents; excellent mosaic and stone work; and a whole lot more.

Cambria itself is one of my favorite coastal towns, small and artsy. The area is rife with artists, thanks to the arts program at California Polytechnic State University in nearby San Luis Obispo, and many live in and around Cambria. So expect to find  many galleries here.

Cambria has a number of excellent restaurants. Last night we dined at Robin’s Restaurant, which delivers all the way on its promise to serve “handcrafted global cuisine.” In business since 1985, Robin's has been devoted for decades to local sourcing of ingredients, so the menu changes frequently. The setting is cozy, intimate—and friendly.

Summer Garden at Robin's Restaurant   Credit: SLO VCB

We shared a diversity of Robin’s tapas—Indian Spiced Lamb and Sweet Pea Phyllo Rolls, Saffron-Sherry Steamed Mussels and Clams, and Sesame Seared Ahi Sashimi were among my favorites. Big hits among the entrees were the Korean BBQ Glazed Flat Iron Steak and Slipper Lobster Enchiladas. One of the signature dishes, Salmon Bisque, received raves from most, but it was my least favorite.


Cambria Pines Lodge: Discussed above, the Lodge has significant gardens and lovely rooms. It's a great base for exploring the coast; you can also walk into “downtown” Cambria from here for dinner or shopping and leave your car behind.

Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort: Just a few miles down the road from Hearst Castle (and on former Hearst land), this family-owned resort gets a 50% repeat visitor return. After a conversation with the owner it’s easy to see why: he, and his entire family, believe that the customer rules. The property is on Highway 1, smack dab on the ocean. They have a three-tier rate, with ocean-front rooms being the most expensive. Even if you don’t have an ocean view, though, you are but steps away from the sand and you’ll hear the waves pounding to shore all night long.

  • Part 1 of this series, which you're reading, discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2 covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
A popular book about driving on the California Coast was written by my friend, Karen Misuraca: