Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Great Mascarpone Dessert & Excellent Eggplant Side Dish

On Sunday night, I prepared an Italian-style meal for good friends. Two of the dishes were really tasty, two were nice, and one was forgettable. The five dishes were:
- Pecorino Fonduta - nice
- Stracciatella - forgettable
- Saltimbocca alla Romana - nice
- Parmigiana di Melanzane - delicious
- Strawberry, Mascarpone, and Marsala Budini

I think that the Pecorino dish might have been better if I'd toasted the crostini a little more. In the case of the Saltimbocca, I think I cooked the veal too long. I will probably try it again, but won't provide a recipe unless I get great results.

Pecorino Fonduta

This recipe is very easy. It's a Donatella Arpaia recipe obtained from http://www.yumsugar.com/node/13002470/print/noimg


8 ounces young soft pecorino cheese (it should be less than 3 years of age), diced into cubes
3 tablespoons hazelnuts, chopped and toasted
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
Honey, for drizzling
Toasted bread, crostini, or crackers for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the cheese with the nuts, red pepper flakes, and thyme leaves. Transfer the mixture to an oven-safe serving dish.
  3. Bake for 12-15 minute until the cheese is melted and bubbling and just starting to brown.
  4. Remove from the oven and drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of honey. Serve with the bread, crostini, or crackers immediately.
Serves 8.

Strawberry, Mascarpone,  and Marsala Budini

1 8-ounce container mascarpone cheese*
6 tablespoons sweet Marsala (preferably imported)
3 tablespoons whipping cream
3 tablespoons sugar
3 cups sliced hulled strawberries (about 15 ounces)
2 1/4 cups coarsely crumbled amaretti cookies (Italian macaroons; about 4 1/2 ounces)*


Combine mascarpone, 3 tablespoons Marsala, cream, and 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl. Stir gently until well blended. Combine strawberries, remaining 3 tablespoons Marsala, and 1 tablespoon sugar in another medium bowl; toss to blend. Cover mascarpone and berry mixtures; refrigerate 30 minutes.

Place 2 tablespoons crumbled cookies in each of 6 goblets. Divide strawberry mixture with juices among goblets. Top berries with mascarpone mixture, then remaining cookies. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

*Mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and amaretti cookies are available at Italian markets and many supermarkets.

Parmigiana di Melanzane

This delicious recipe is from page 131 of Beautiful Italy. While the taste was terrific, it did require a lot of olive oil to fry the eggplant. I probably used about 3 cups.

Although the word Parmigiana refers to something from Parma, this dish is actually from southern Italy - Campania and Sicily.


- 2 lbs eggplant
- salt
- oil for frying the eggplant
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil for making the tomato and garlic sauce
- 2 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- freshly ground pepper
- 10 oz. mozzarella sliced (I bought 10 slices of mozzarella.)
- 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed


- Wash the eggplants and cut off their tops. (I also peeled them.) Slice the crosswise. Sprinkle with salt and arrange the slices on a plate. Top with a weight and prop the plate at an angle so that mose of the eggplant juices will drain out. Let drain for about 2 hours. (I used a different and easier approach to draining the juices. It was suggested by my wife. I took a cookie baking sheet and placed a cooling rack on top of it. Then I placed the eggplant slices on the cooling rack. I place another cookie sheet on top of the eggplan slices and weight on top of the second cookie sheet. That way, I did not have to put the plate at a slant, and the eggplant juices would drain into the lower cookie sheet.)
- Dry the eggplant and fry in 1/2 inch of smoking-hot oil until golden. Drain eggplant on paper towels.
- Meanwhile, heat the garlic in olive oil, add the peeled tomatoes, and some salt and pepper, and cook this sauce for about 30 minutes to reduce it.
- Spread a couple of tablespoons of the tomato sauce in the baking dish. Add a layer of the eggplant slices and a few slices of mozzarella. Scatter some basil on top. Continue layering ingredients until all are used, finishing with a sprinkle of basil leaves. Bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees F for over 20 minutes. Serve hot.

The recipe serves 6.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tasty Tuscan Soup and Another Nice Spinach Salad

Last night, I made one of my favorite Tuscan soups, Acqua Cotta Maremmana, and served it with a Giada de Laurentiis spinach salad that had a very tasty homemade dressing. The soup is from the Maremma area of Tuscany. Acqua Cotta means, "Cooked Water."
The reason it has this name is that the recipe uses water instead of stock or broth.

I served a 2008 Santa Cristina Sangiovese with the meal. This inexpensive Tuscan wine is always very pleasant. Since we once stayed next to the vineyard where it is produced, it brings back many fond memories.

While I mentioned Acqua Cotta in one of my first postings, I did not provide the recipe. This time, I will. I originally obtained the recipe from the web site http://www.florence-guide.it/. That recipe served 6. I scaled the recipe down by one third. I think it might still serve 6.

I chose the salad because I was looking to use some spinach in the frig in a salad that had Italian tastes. I found a nice recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. It was very easy to make and the homemade dressing was very tasty. The salad had only two ingredients - spinach combined with cooked and crumbled prosciutto. The dressing had a number of ingredients, but was very easy to make. I can see why the reviews for this salad give it a 5-star rating.

The Acqua Cotta recipe (I added the chili powder, garlic, and carrots from another recipe)

- 4 onions, finely diced
- 4 ripe tomatoes, diced
- 4 leafy celery sticks, finely diced
- 4 basil leaves
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
- salt and pepper
- 4 cups of water
- 4 pieces of toasted bread (I use either ciabatta or Tuscan bread)
- a little chili powder
- 6 tbsp of olive oil
- grated pecorino cheese

Cook the finely-cut onion, garlic, & carrots in a pan with the olive oil until tender. Add the tomatoes, celery, basil leaf, salt, and pepper. Cook all the ingredients for about half and hour, then add the water.  Cook another 30 minutes. Then add the eggs without breaking the yolk. Then cook the eggs for about 3 minutes or until the white is firm. Place the toasted bread in a small earthenware soup bowl and sprinkle the bread with the grated pecorino cheese, and pour the hot soup over the bread,

Spinach Salad Recipe

The recipe, copied from http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/spinach-salad-with-orange-vinaigrette-recipe/index.html, is as follows.

- 6 slices of prosciutto
- 2 oranges, zested
- juice from 2 small oranges or 1 large orange (juice from the zested oranges)
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbsp of honey
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 3/4 teaspon of salt
- 3/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
- 10-12 ounces of prewashed spinach


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the prosciutto slices on a baking sheet and bake until just crisp, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Crumble the prosciutto slices into a container and store in the refrigerator.
In a blender, combine the orange zest, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, honey, garlic, salt, and pepper. Blend until smooth. With the blender running, add the olive oil in a steady stream until combined. Transfer to a container and store in the refrigerator.
To serve, put the spinach in a large bowl. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to coat the spinach. Sprinkle with the crisp prosciutto crumbles, toss again, and serve.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Napa and Sonoma Winery Impressions

During our October visit to California, we visited 23 Sonoma and Napa wineries, at which we tasted 127 wines. We tasted another 15 wines at restaurants and private homes. Since we primarily drink red wines, we only tried a few whites. In general, the wines we had were very nice to excellent. There were only a few that we did not like. One of the unique pleasures of the Sonoma and Napa wineries was the terrific Zinfandels. Despite the fact that we prefer reds, one great tasting experience we had was the 1991 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, made in the style of its predecessor that won the 1976 Paris tasting.

A Beautiful Old Sonoma Vine

Another great experience during our winery visits was seeing the great Mike Grgich, whose splendid wine open the eyes of the world to the quality of California wines.

Mike Grgich

One important lesson I learned in Napa and Sonoma is how many different microclimates there are in that small region, and how strong a role those microclimates play in the production of the local wines.

California Wineries vs. European Wineries

Over the course of the past 10 years, we have visited 33 wineries in California and 30 in Europe - 17 in France, 10 in Italy, 2 Greece, and 1 in Spain.The winery in Spain was a very commercial sherry winery (Gonzalez-Byass), so I would put that in a different category than the others.

While the wines in California and Europe are comparable in quality, I have noticed some differences between the tasting rooms of the wineries in the two continents. California winery tasting rooms seem to be far more commercial than the European wineries. However, there were several European wineries that were similar to the California wineries in that regard.

One aspect of the commercial focus of the California wineries was the fee for tasting wines. In general, the European wineries were less expensive or free. There were a couple of exceptions - Chateau Mouton Rothschild in France, and Antinori and Castello di Brolio in Italy.

Another difference that I experienced was responsiveness to emails. All of the European wineries to which I have sent emails have responded. None of the California wineries responded to my emails, even when I explained that I was searching for wines to use at a tasting for our wine club. I chose wineries that had interesting historic backgrounds and explained why I was interested in them. I referred them to the Tuscan Wines page of my blog as an example of the type of presentation I do. Nonetheless, there was no response.

Sonoma vs. Napa

We also noticed that Sonoma winery tasting rooms tended to be more friendly and less commercial than their Napa counterparts. However, there were some in Napa that were very friendly - particularly Charles Krug, Louis M. Martini, Grgich Hills, and Chateau Montelena. The cost of tastings was generally more expensive in Napa than Sonoma.

Discounted and Free Tastings

We discovered that there were a number of ways one could obtain discounted or free tastings:
1. Internet coupons. Many wineries have wine tasting coupons on their web sites.
2. Credit-card discounts. Bearers of Visa Signature credit cards were entitled to free tastings at some wineries.
3. Hotel-provided coupons for wineries. Some Napa and Sonoma hotels and inns offer their guests coupons for free or discounted tastings at nearby wineries.
4. Recommendations from other wineries. Some winery tasting rooms offer visitors coupons to visit other nearby wineries. In one case, we were giving a free tasting because we told the pourer that we had been sent to the winery by an individual at another winery.
5. Residential Discounts. Some wineries offer discounts or free tastings to area residents and sometimes to their guests.

Wine Clubs

All of the wineries we visited had wine clubs that offered significant discounts to members - typically 20%. However, shipping costs have to be added to the bottle cost. A little research indicates to me that the least expensive option is to purchase the same wine at my local wine store, if available, rather than directly from the winery. Some wineries are so small that all their wines are sold from the winery. In other cases, some larger wineries produce certain special wines in such small quantities that they are only available by direct purchase from the winery.

Tra Vigne, St. Helena, Napa Valley - A Delicious Dinner

The last restaurant where we dined during our stay in the Napa Valley was Tra Vigne (http://travignerestaurant.com/tv.html) in St. Helena. The meal was very nice.

Tra Vigne, which means "Among the Vines" was fairly large and was only about one third full. It had a neat-looking bar.

Inside Tra Vigne

Chef Michael Chiarello, the owner of Bottega, where we had dined the previous evening, had formerly worked at Tra Vigne.

We were seated at a table for two. Our waitress was a blonde woman named Cheryl.

My wife started with Forni Brown Gardens Organic Lettuces Salad for $9. In addition to the lettuces, it had Spring Mountain Pears, candied walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, and red wine vinaigrette. It had lots of pears. She enjoyed it very much.

My first course was Mozzarella Cheese "Al Minuto" on grilled bruschetta for $14. The cheese was house-made that day. I added heirloom tomatoes for an extra $7. The melted cheese was put on four large slices of bread. The tomatoes were served separately. The bruschetta with cheese was tasty, but the best part was the heirloom tomatoes. They were incredibly delicious. I thought that one piece of bruschetta was a bit burned. I did not like its taste. My wife thought it was fine. The bruschetta portions were large enough that this dish could easily have been shared among four people.

The lady who served our meal (not the waitress) had an unenthusiastic, monotone voice. She said words like "enjoy" in a way that sounded robotic.

My wife's entrée was butternut squash ravioli with toasted sage brown butter, amaretti cookie crumbs, and parmesan for $18. She loved the dish and said that one great thing about it was that she could distinctly taste the ingredients with which the ravioli was filled.

My entrée was Maltagliati Verde - herb-infused, house-made pasta with Pozzi Ranch lamb and sangiovese wine sugo for $16. It was delicious. I was a bit put off by the olive green color of the pasta, but that was my problem, not any defect in the dish. The name of this pasta - maltagliati - means, "badly cut." It derives its name from the fact that it is made with scraps left over from making other pasta.

Our wine was a 2007 Benessere sangiovese from St. Helena for $58. It was very nice. It did not taste like a Tuscan sangiovese.

For dessert, we both had the butterscotch panna cotta with sea salt caramel, crème frâiche, and rosemary, accompanied by hazlenut cookies for $9. It was terrific.

We finished with espresso - a single for my wife for $3.25 and a double for me for $4. The espresso was delicious - much better than the miniscule serving we'd had at Bottega the previous evening.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Markham Vineyards - Nice Wines in a Corporate Atmosphere

The last winery we visited on our trip was Markham Vineyards (http://www.markhamvineyards.com/) on Highway 29 on the north side of St. Helena. It was located at the intersection with Deer Park Rd., the first intersection north of the entrance to Charles Krug. While the wines we tasted there were very nice, the atmosphere of the tasting room felt like it was part of the operation of a large corporation, as it is.

The first winery at this location was established by Bordeaux immigrant, Jean Laurent in 1874. In 1879, he built the stone cellar that is at the heart of the current operation.

In 1978, Bruce Markham founded Markham Vineyards at this location. The winery is currently owned by Mercian Corporation.

As you walk up to the front of the winery, you see the impressive old Laurent stone cellar building ahead. To the right is the tasting room, which is very modern, and, in my opinion, has no soul.

Original Stone Cellar

The Tasting Room

They offer two tastings - one for $15 and and one for $25. The $15 tasting includes five wines. The $25 tasting includes the five wines of the $15 tasting plus three high-end wines. We chose to share a $15 tasting, but only tried four of the five wines. We were not interested in the Chardonnay. The wines we tried were the following, which were all very nice. Prices are the retail price at the winery:
- 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 68 % Sauvignon Blanc, 21% Sauvignon Musqué (S.B. clone), 11% Semillon - very nice - $15
- 2007 Napa Valley Merlot, 76% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot - very nice - $23
- 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot - very nice - $34
- 2009 Muscat Blanc - very nice - $24

Charles Krug Winery - Loved It!

One of the most enjoyable wine tastings we experienced during our October trip was at Charles Krug (http://www.charleskrug.com/) on the north side of St. Helena in the Napa Valley.

Charles Krug was founded by Prussian immigrant Charles Krug in 1861, just 3 years after the first winery was established in the valley. Krug ran the winery until his death in 1892. It was sold to Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi in 1943. It is currently run by his son Peter.

Peter’s brother Robert worked at the winery until he was fired in 1965, and left to found his own winery - Robert Mondavi - in 1966.

Charles Krug owns 850 acres in 11 vineyards in four different areas of the Napa Valley.

At Charles Krug, we asked for Art, and told him that Whitney from Louis M. Martini had sent us. He was gracious and very knowledgeable. 


I explained to Art that I was gathering information for a presentation and tasting I planned to do for our wine club in February, 2012. I explained that before coming to California on this trip, I had naively thought that I could do my presentation on the wines of Napa and Sonoma. After learning that there were so many different microclimates and terroirs in Napa and Sonoma, I realized that my chosen theme was too broad. I was trying to narrow the theme and thought that perhaps I should limit the tasting to wines of Napa or wines of Sonoma. Art came up with a better suggestion - that I pick one type of wine and do it for both areas; e.g., the Zinfandels of Napa and Sonoma. That’s what I’ve decided to do.

The wine tasting menu had 14 wines - 2 whites and 12 reds. We tried 9 wines - 1 white and 8 reds. Five of them were excellent - the most at any of the 23 vineyards we visited. The prices below include both the retail and the wine club prices:
- 2010 St. Helena Sauvignon Blanc - very nice - $18/$14.40
- 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir - very nice $25/$20
- 2008 St. Helena Zinfandel - excellent - $25/$20
- 2008 Merlot, 79% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Syrah, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon - very nice - $24/$19
- 2009 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon, 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 6% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Syrah, 1% Malbec - Ex - $27/$21.60
- 2009 Limited Release Pinot Noir - Dr. Galante Vineyard, Green Valley, Russian River, proprietary blend, 179 case produced 0 excellent - $50/$40
- 2009 Limited Release St. Helena Zinfandel, proprietary blend - excellent - $60/$48
- 2008 150th Anniversary 1.5L Magnum Cabernet Sauvignon, 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot - excellent - $150/$120
- 2007 Petit Verdot, 100% Petit Verdot - nice