Monthly Archives: September 2011

TASTE: Dark Chocolate Tasting

When it comes to challenging one’s palate, so often, wine is the only medium with which we work.  In an effort to expand, hone, and build our tasting skills (ahem – purely professional, we assure you), the PSPR team gathered recently for an informal dark chocolate tasting.  Bringing our incredible team around a few plates of rich chocolate was a fun, easy, and affordable way to challenge the old taste buds.  Here’s how to host a tasting of your very own.

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  1. Pick three chocolates with a relatively similar cocao percentage.  We chose three from Trader Joe’s: The Colombian Dark Chocolate Lover’s Bar (85% cocao), Valhrona Le Noir Amer from France (71% cocao), and the generic dark chocolate imported from Belgium (72% cocao).
  2. Open the bars and break them into similarly-sized pieces on three different plates.
  3. Present the chocolates “blindly,” or without the wrappers anywhere nearby.  This will force your guests to think objectively about what they’re tasting.
  4. Taste together through the chocolates. Usually a chocolate will taste different depending on what was tasted just before, so experiment with the order.
  5. Ask which chocolate guests liked best, as well as which they thought was priciest.
  6. Reveal!  You will often be very surprised how your palate disregards price for its favorite.

For our chocolate tasting, some very interesting observations were made about the bars before us.  For example, Linda noticed that one of the chocolates was debossed with the image of a flower, thus leading her to believe it might be more expensive.  All of us noticed how fruity – almost wine-like – the Colombian bar was, particularly if tasted after the Belgian.  Interestingly, that inexpensive, generic 72% Belgian bar was the favorite of three of our tasters.  The most expensive – the Valhrona from France – was the least favorite for its simplicity and one-dimensional quality!

It just goes to show that price isn’t everything when it comes to quality or personal preference.

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Mixology: New name for an old art

You’d really have to be living under a rock not to have come across the term “mixology” anytime lately.  No longer do we visit bars to sip cocktails made by bartenders; Now they’re “crafted” by “mixologists.”  Ah, semantics.

Whatever you choose to call them, mixologists sure are doing amazing work these days with the revival of vintage cocktail recipes and the public’s passion for fresh farm-to-table ingredients.  Take Erik Lorincz, for instance.  Named the 2011 Diageo Reserve “World Class Bartender of the Year” in Athens, Erik is a London-based mixologist of Slovakian descent who began mixing drinks out of a passion for herbal plants and tinctures.

Erik Lorincz

 “When I was 16 I fell in love with herbal plants. My grandmother was a a great herbalist and during the summer she would prepare different tinctures, oils and would dry herbs for the winter and make various herbal teas. I learned from her how to use them, and started to make my own tinctures and teas. Today I realize that even back then, I was already somehow connected with the art of alchemy.”
Here’s a recipe from Erik for the “Savoy Daisy,” a rum and ruby port cocktail he concocted while at the Savoy Hotel in London.

Savoy Daisy

  • 2 ounces ruby port
  • 1/4 ounce Bacardi 8-year aged rum
  • 1 ounce Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva rum
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon muscovado sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 1/2 tablespoon grenadine
  • 1 orange twist

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all of the ingredients except the orange twist and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with the twist.

Here on the Central Coast, we’ll soon have a mixology competition of our very own to observe at Sunset SAVOR the Central Coast.  At the LA vs. SF Food Town Smackdown: Cocktail Edition, one mixologist from San Francisco and one from Los Angeles will meet on “neutral ground” (San Luis Obispo is midway between the two cities) to compete for the honor of representing the best cocktail city in the great state of California.  Erik Adkins of San Francisco’s The Slanted Door and Damian Windsor of LA’s The Roger Room will take their art to the ring and fight for the title this October 2 at 4pm during SAVOR’s Main Event.  (For more information on the four-day celebration of food, wine, and good living that is Sunset SAVOR the Central Coast, please visit www.savorcentralcoast.com.)

Here are a couple of cocktail recipes from the contestants.  May the best mixologist win…

Damian Windsor

Spiced Mule
by Damian Windsor of The Roger Room

  • 1 ½ ounces Sailor Jerry spiced rum
  • ½ ounce lime juice
  • ½ ounce fresh liquefied ginger
  • 1 ounce spice-infused simple syrup* (recipe follows)
  • 1 ounce club soda
  • Cinnamon, freshly grated

*Spice-infused simple syrup (makes 1 quart): Bring to boil 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar, then simmer 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Add 3 teaspoons vanilla extract, 3 cloves nutmeg and 3 cinnamon sticks. Let syrup sit for 4 days. After 4 days, it’s cocktail ready.

Add first 4 ingredients to a mixing tin with ice and shake. Strain over fresh ice in highball glassbar keeper and add club soda. Dust with cinnamon.

Erik Adkins

Filibuster
by Erik Adkins of The Slanted Door

  • 1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce pure maple syrup
  • Dash of Angostura bitters
  • 1 large egg white
  • Ice
  • 1 lemon twist

Fill a cocktail shaker with the rye, lemon juice, maple syrup, Angostura bitters and egg white and shake well. Add ice and shake again. Strain the drink into a chilled coupe and garnish with the lemon twist.

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Turn, turn, turn: Autumn Equinox

On the Central Coast where we live, work, and play, Sunday night was one of the most beautiful nights ever.  There was a slight breeze, and the air smelled of leaves and earth.  On top of everything, a majestic Harvest Moon rose huge and golden over the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo, and later, coyotes cried beneath it in the wee hours of the morning.

As per tradition, the Harvest Moon – aka the Wine Moon, Singing Moon, or Elk Calling Moon – is always the full moon closest to the date of the Autumn Equinox.  We were curious why the Harvest Moon always appears to be so large and golden.  Of course, Wikipedia helped us out (warning: heavy scientific language ahead!):

Often, the Harvest Moon seems to be bigger or brighter or more colorful than other full moons. The warm color of the Moon shortly after it rises is caused by light from the Moon passing through a greater amount of atmospheric particles than when the moon is overhead. The atmosphere scatters the bluish component of moonlight which is really reflected white light from the sun, but allows the reddish component of the light to travel a straighter path to one’s eyes. Hence all celestial bodies look reddish when they are low in the sky.

It appears larger in size because the brain perceives a low-hanging moon to be larger than one that’s high in the sky. This is known as a Moon illusion, and it can be seen with any full Moon. It can also be seen with constellations; in other words, a constellation viewed low in the sky will appear bigger than when it is high in the sky.

This year, Autumn Equinox will occur on September 23rd.  If you’re anything like us, you don’t know the first thing about an equinox.  Feel free to benefit from our small bit of research.

An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth‘s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth’s equator. The term equinox can also be used in a broader sense, meaning the date when such a passage happens. The name “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day have approximately equal length.

While the technical reasons behind the Autumn Equinox are interesting, we’re more fascinated by different cultures’ approach to celebrating this day of change.  For instance:

  • the September equinox marks the first day of Mehr or Libra in the Iranian calendar. It is one of the Iranian festivals called Jashne Mihragan, or the festival of sharing or love in Zoroastrianism.   This is one of the few pre-Islamic festivals that continues to be celebrated in Iran.

    The ancient Persian festival of Autumn called Mehregan.

  • In Korea, Chuseok is a major harvest festival and a three-day holiday celebrated around the Autumn Equinox.
  • The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, oftentimes near the autumnal equinox day, and is an official holiday in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and in many countries with a significant Chinese minority.  Traditions include eating mooncakes (a round pastry), matchmaking, carrying brightly lit lanterns, burning incense, and fire dragon dances.

    Mid-Autumn Festival in Beijing

  • The traditional harvest festival in the United Kingdom was celebrated on the Sunday of the full moon closest to the September equinox.
  • The September equinox was “New Year’s Day” in the French Republican Calendar, which was in use from 1793 to 1805. The French First Republic was proclaimed and the French monarchywas abolished on September 21, 1792, making the following day (the equinox day that year) the first day of the “Republican Era” in France.

Here on the Central Coast, we have our own ways of celebrating the season. Several wineries across the area invite the public for traditional “grape stomps,” such as Vina Robles Winery’s “Stomp Til’ You Drop” in Paso Robles and “The Great Grape Stomp” at Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez.  And for the sweetest old-timey harvest festival around, check out the Arroyo Grande Valley Harvest Festival, which is in its 74th year (!) and features the produce of 20 local farms as well as old-fashioned activities like three-legged races, a mustache and beard contest, a diaper derby race for babies, a chili cook-off, bake-off, and outdoor film screening.

Happy Harvest!

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The first hint of fall: apples!

While the weather has been a bit odd this summer in our neck of the woods, it has fortunately been perfect for the cultivation of apples.  Although California’s finest weather is just starting to set in, the first hints of fall are ripening and weighing heavily on branches everywhere you look.  We are so blessed to live close to some of the best apple farms in the state, including one that is considered an authority on heirloom apple varieties.  Here, a peek into the delicious world of Central Coast apple season.

Gopher Glen Apple Farm (2899 See Canyon Road San Luis Obispo, CA 93405, 805-595-2646) is always the first farm to open in our area at the end of the summer with several early-ripening varieties to choose from.  Right now, they’re offering Gravenstein, Gala, Mutsu, Empire, Laura Red, Burgundy, Tohoku, and Mollies Delicious, but they’ve been known to carry three times as many cultivars later in the season.  Gopher Glen has been a staple of Central Coast apple farms for many moons, and recently, a children’s book called The Apple Lady was published about life at Gopher Glen over the years.  The book can be purchased at their charming farm stand in See Canyon, or online at www.AppleLadyBook.com.

Every apple you bite into at Gopher Glen is simply delicious, but even better is their freshly-pressed apple cider.  The proprietors recommend the following recipe to try with their fresh cider:

Simple Lime Squeeze

Our family loves this — as do our guests! Fill a glass at least half-way with ice. Fill the glass with cider and squeeze a quarter of fresh lime into the glass (dropping the lime into the cider after squeezed). You can top this off with a slice of apple dropped into the glass as well. This drink is scrumptious!

Windrose Farms (5750 El Pharo Road Paso Robles, CA 93446, bandb@windrosefarm.org, 805-239-3757) is an unlikely source for apples because it is located in Paso Robles, which is widely considered to be a Central Coast hot zone.  But the microclimate on the farm is just right for crisp, sweet apples whose heritages tell a fascinating story.

These old apples can have a powerful pull. Bill Spencer of Windrose Farm likes to tell about the first year he and his wife, Barbara, brought their old apples to market. “There was an old woman from Germany or somewhere and the first time she tasted a Belle de Boskoop [an old variety from the Netherlands], she just broke down,” he says. “Tears were just streaming down her face. It was home and she hadn’t tasted it in 40 years.” — From the Los Angeles Times article, “At long last, heirloom apples,” by Russ Parsons, September 12, 2007.

For Mutsu apples, which are also known as Crispins and are Bill Spencer’s favorite variety, we like to cook up an old-fashioned batch of apple sauce.  And it couldn’t be easier.

 The PSPR Off-The-Cuff No-Added-Sugar Apple Sauce Recipe

Peel and core Mutsus and place in slow cooker.  Add a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of cinnamon, put the lid on and cook on low for about 4-6 hours.  Mash sauce with a potato masher.  Allow to cool and enjoy!

Mike Cirone

Cirone Farms is another See Canyon apple farm, but you can only buy the apples at farmer’s markets, including Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo Thursday and Saturday markets, and the famous Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays.  Farmer Mike Cirone has been featured in the press A LOT for his dedication to cultivating heirloom apple varieties, including Spitzenberg, Arkansas Black, Smokehouse and Bellflower.  In other words, he farms apples that your local grocery store has never heard of…and he does it all without irrigation.  That’s right: Cirone Farms apples have been dry-farmed for over fifteen years.

[The Esopus Spitzenberg apple is a] highly respected American apple variety named after the settlement of Esopus, Ulster County, New York, where it was found towards the end of the 18th century. It was rumoured to be Thomas Jefferson’s favourite apple. It was widely planted in the USA in the 19th century and used for both dessert and culinary purposes, but subsequently fell out of fashion although it remains a popular variety for gardeners and trees are available from many US nurseries. The apples have an excellent flavor, which improves with storage. — OrangePippin.com.

A terrific recipe for Cirone Farms Spitzenberg apples is this apple cake from Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan.

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dark rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan and put it on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and put the springform on it.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl.

Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth, rather thick batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it’s coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and poke it around a little with the spatula so that it’s evenish.

Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes.

Carefully run a blunt knife around the edges of the cake and remove the sides of the springform pan. (Open the springform slowly, and before it’s fully opened, make sure there aren’t any apples stuck to it.) Allow the cake to cool until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature. If you want to remove the cake from the bottom of the springform pan, wait until the cake is almost cooled, then run a long spatula between the cake and the pan, cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment or wax paper, and invert it onto a rack. Carefully remove the bottom of the pan and turn the cake over onto a serving dish.

Serving

The cake can be served warm or at room temperature, with or without a little softly whipped, barely sweetened heavy cream or a spoonful of ice cream. Marie-Hélène’s served her cake with cinnamon ice cream and it was a terrific combination.

Storing

The cake will keep for about 2 days at room temperature and, according to my husband, gets more comforting with each passing day. However long you keep the cake, it’s best not to cover it — it’s too moist. Leave the cake on its plate and just press a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper against the cut surfaces.

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