Jun 28, 2013

Making your own fruit popsicles: it's easy!

A 5-day heatwave takes up residence in the San Francisco Bay Area today, with temperatures skyrocketing as high as 100°.

But I'm all prepared with my popsicles.

A few weeks ago I was in the kitchen section of Ikea and found a cute set of popsicle molds (photo below), so I snatched them up, figuring I'd probably want to use them during hot-weather sieges this summer (ordinarily I'm just not interested in ice cream, popsicles, etc.).

A couple of days ago, after reading about the coming heat wave, I whipped up my first batch of 'sicles. I whirled a quart of strawberries in a blender, and then diluted it just a bit with vanilla soymilk and a generous tablespoon of plain yogurt. I also added about 1 teaspoon of honey. Then I whirled it around in the blender again and poured the mix into my molds, which hold 1/4 cup each. After inserting the yellow plastic sticks/handles into the mold I popped them in the freezer. (The leftover mixture made a great smoothie.)

I was really happy with the result--not only the deep rich red color of ripe strawberries, but absolutely delish! People who like sugary things might want to add more honey or sugar (or a substitute), but to me they were perfect the way they were.

I bought some chocolate almond milk and want to see if that makes a good fudgesicle. Maybe I'll chop up a couple of squares of dark chocolate and add it to the mix (leaving it in pieces rather than putting the chocolate through the blender). I could even add some finely chopped, toasted almonds.

I'm also thinking about making layered popsicles, freezing the molds halfway full and then adding a different color fruit mixture on top. For the 4th of July I could make a red (strawberry), white (yogurt or white peach)  & blue (blueberries) mixture.

Stay cool, folks!

Jun 26, 2013

Just in: Gold Medal wine winners at California State Fair

Yesterday the winners of this year's California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition were announced.

Here's a list of the 2013 top-rated Best of Show winners:
  • Golden State Winery of the Year: South Coast Winery
  • Best of Show Red (Double Gold, 98 points): Imagery Estate Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc
  • Best of Show White (Double Gold, 98 points): Korbel NV Blanc de Noirs Methode Champenoise
  • Best of Show Dessert (Double Gold, 96 points): Navarro Vineyards, 2012 Gewurtztraminer Cluster Select Late Harvest
  • Best Value (Double Gold, 98 points): Barefoot Cellars NV Moscato
This year 2,769 entries were received. Wines were winnowed down by 72 judges, who sampled for three days, to 218 wines receiving gold medals. In addition, 977 were awarded silver, and 652 earned bronze.

A list of all winners is supposedly on the official State Fair site, but I couldn't find it. I'm guessing they  just haven't had a chance to upload it yet. Hopefully that will happen soon. Look for it at

I know a few people who await this list every year. As soon as it's published they grab copies and set off shopping, buying cases of heretofore "undiscovered" value wines--that is, wines nobody's heard about that are comparatively inexpensive. Once they win a medal they don't stay that way--so go shopping soon.

The 2013 California State Fair runs July 12-July 28 at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Check it out at

Jun 21, 2013

Summer Solstice Dining, Sonoma Valley Style

Central Courtyard, Kenwood Inn & Spa (Sonoma Valley, CA)
Last night had a wonderful meal at Kenwood Inn & Spa, where Executive Chef Steven Snook sources liberally from the hotel's gardens. It was a gorgeous Solstice Eve night, and the surroundings--an elegant Mediterranean-style courtyard with a central fountain, lush flowered plants, alcoves aplenty--were reminiscent of Spain's Alhambra.

I'd come in the afternoon for the inauguration of the new "Garden to Glass" series with Wine Director Ann Davis, who led us through a session centering around food/wine balance. The foods Davis used: green olives, lemons, tomatoes, strawberries, 70% and 100% chocolate, and a thin slice of cheese coated with pepper on one side.

Sitting comfortably around the hotel's horseshoe bar, we would taste a salty, acidic or sweet food, and then take a sip of wine, taking note of how the food affected the wine's taste. We went through all the foods except chocolate with Chardonnay, and then again--including chocolate this time--with Merlot.

It was extremely illuminating to see how the same wine could be delicious one moment and horrible the next, depending on which food had preceded it. For the first time I realized why Italian recipes for tomato sauces call for a small amount of sugar: it balances out the acidity of tomatoes. Another interesting discovery: the Merlot with 70% cocoa was a match made in heaven; with 100% it was foul-tasting.

The Garden to Glass series will be held one Thursday a month into early fall, usually the third Thursday, from 4-5 p.m. The cost: $40/person or $70/couple. It's a good way to get to spend time here, because the facilities and restaurant are usually open only to hotel guests. For information, call the Inn at 707.833.1293.

But back to that meal, which was superb. I wish I'd taken a photo of my salad: the lettuces had probably been picked within the hour, and they were topped with an assortment of colorful vegetables shaved very thin--in particular, the various colors of beets were beautiful.

Here are a few dishes enjoyed by my group:

Roasted Mary's organic chicken breast, grilled artichoke, Kalamata olives, capers, crisp potato gnocchi, Meyer lemon, fresh garden herbs. This was my choice, and it was delish, especially when accompanied by a glass of Roederer Estate Sparkling Brut Rose (Anderson Valley NV).

Pan-roasted branzino fish, soft tomato polenta, blistered multi-colored cherry tomatoes, Italian flat leaf parsley, 20-year aged balsamic vinegar
Not sure if I've got this one right, but I think it was house-made pappardelle pasta with a spicy Italian sausage sauce. I don't remember what the cheese is.
I'm pretty sure this was the Cowabunga cheese from Sebastopol's Bohemian Creamery.
For me, after that big and wonderful meal, a bowl of berries was the perfect dessert choice.

A delicious chocolate creation.

Jun 11, 2013

Successfully surviving a party in hell

It was hell, all right. Or so it seemed at 108° Fahrenheit, the result of some kind of freaky high-pressure situation that hit the San Francisco Bay Area last Saturday. For a week or 10 days we'd had below-normal temperatures, and then wham! Saturday, the 8th of June, was predicted to be sizzling, tortuously hot, sheer hell.

And it was. Especially in the Sacramento Valley, home to the college town of Davis, where 50 or 60 family members and friends were gathering. It was a can't-miss and don't-wanna-miss occasion, too: an outdoor celebration for my niece, Melanie, who had graduated from high school that week and will soon be leaving the nest to enter U. C. Santa Cruz.

But thanks to some good planning by my brother Rick, and a lot of generous pitching-in by others, the party was a happy success. The heat was there, certainly, but we were able to keep it at something of a remove and didn't allow it to spoil the fun.

If you find yourself in similar circumstances this summer, here are a few "survive hell" tricks I learned on Saturday:

1. Hydration is paramount. We had about 15 large coolers arranged in a semi-circle, each filled with lots of ice and specific beverages. One cooler held bottles of plain water; others held sparkling water, fruit drinks, beer, sodas and so on. I spent most of the day clutching ice-cold Perrier, with a couple of side trips that included some lovely Mumm Napa (drunk from a red plastic cup, it was even more delightful than usual) and a very nice Rosé from Lodi's Borah Vineyards.

2. Cool-downs save the day. A big plastic tub was filled to the brim with ice and water, and decorated with a few sliced lemons. Then dozens of inexpensive terry cloth towels--you can buy them in lots of 50 at places like Home Depot--were rolled up and submerged in the icy water. The point was to squeeze out a towel and wrap it around your neck. Every once in a while you'd return to the tub, re-submerge your towel in the ice, and re-wrap. It was heavenly! 

3. Spray bottles work wonders. Half a dozen spray bottles filled with cold water were always in action. Kids, especially, liked walking around with them and offering to spray the air beside you. That spray really cools you off. 

4. Shade is vital. This party took place in a wonderful park tucked away in a leafy neighborhood. There was plenty of shade. Tables, chairs, and the caterer's portable kitchen -- all were set up beneath old, large trees. Everything was in shade. If you can't find such a location, hang canvas drop cloths or borrow camping/portable gazebos. 

5. Provide icy treats. In this instance, Rick hired an ice cream truck to spend the day with us. The owner pulled his truck into a clearing beside us, and dispensed his treats to all guests at no charge (well, no charge to the guests). Ordinarily I never even think about ice cream and probably hadn't had any for a couple or even three years. But on Saturday I made two trips to the truck and loved every minute of my frozen choices. If hiring an ice cream truck doesn't fit your needs, fill a cooler with dry ice and pack in enough popsicles for everyone at the party. 

6. Invite fun and interesting people. It really did help to have so many great people around, with good conversation and ideas distracting us all from the fact that it was 108°.

Do these people look like they're suffering? No way!

Here's to a great summer!

Jun 3, 2013

Celebration: Wedding of the Century...

 ...the 19th Century, that is!

I've never been much for historic re-enactment, but after yesterday I'm revising my opinion.

I was one of about 100 guests invited to witness the recreation of an 1863 double wedding--150 years and one day after the actual event--that united two of the most powerful families in California: the Vallejos and the Haraszthys.

In case you're not up on California history, General Mariano Vallejo founded Sonoma in 1835 as a military outpost on what was then Mexico's northern frontier (many of the buildings he constructed remain in use on the town's central plaza). "Count" Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman, founded Sonoma's Buena Vista Winery in 1857; it was the state's first commercial winery and Haraszthy is recognized as the "father of the California wine industry."

Both Vallejo and Haraszthy were brilliant men with powerful personalities. When Haraszthy moved to Sonoma in the mid-1850s with his family, the two men hit it off. Apparently their children did as well...leading to the double wedding between Attilla Haraszthy, 28, and Natalia Vallejo, 25, as well as Arpad Haraszthy, 23 and Jovita Vallejo, 19.

Yesterday's recreation took place on the grounds of Buena Vista Winery, whose 1857 and 1863 buildings were completely renovated and retrofitted last year by the winery's new owner, Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates.

A lover of history, the French-born Boisset made a point of incorporating respect for the past into the winery's refurbishment. Among many innovations, one of the first things he did was to  hire a professional actor, George Webber, to dress and take on the persona of Count Haraszthy--thus serving as Buena Vista Winery's ambassador to the world. (And I do mean world; Webber, dressed in full 19th century gentleman's regalia, is always off somewhere on the planet having a great time as the Count.)

So, anyway, yesterday's wedding...

The wedding took place exactly at noon outside the 1857 winery building. The service was a short distillation of the long original, but it was historically accurate. Afterward guests made their way down the official receiving line, shaking hands with all the Vallejos and Haraszthys. And then it was into the winery building, where a magnificent feast was laid out.

Ten tables were set out in one of the big rooms; the day was hot, but inside that old stone building it was nice and cool. We marveled over the fabulous food, drank fabulous wine, laughed at champagne toasts to and by the wedding party. I was thinking that my date, Richard, and I had the great fortune to sit at a rollicking table of extroverts, but then I looked around and saw that all the tables were on fire with fun. It was just that kind of event.

After lunch we reassembled outside to cut the wedding cake and then slowly, inevitably, wandered back the pathway to 2013 and everyday life. But the glow--ah, the glow!--lingers on.

A few snaps from the day:

Count Haraszthy and his wife, Eleonora, walk down the aisle.
Here's General Vallejo walking his daughters, Natalia and Jovita, to meet their future spouses.

The priest stands waiting, the two couples at his side.

The entire wedding party (Buena Vista Winery owner J-C Boisset is at far right).

Preparing tables for the feast.

Cutting the cake.

My favorite "What century am I in?" moment of the day, wherein Count Haraszthy can be seen taking a photo.

Here I am with the Count on the left and the General on the right. I've interviewed the Count on many occasions for various articles, but had never met the General before.