Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

When was the last time you cleaned out your kitchen pantry? I mean really cleaned it out? Sure, you try to stay on top of it, but the next thing you know you’ve got expired cans of tomatoes dating back to 2009. Oh, wait, maybe we’re talking about me.

Not long after 2016 made its debut, I opened up my pantry door to find not the can of beans I was after, but pure chaos. I practically needed a machete to hack through the jungle of “vintage” condiments, dusty spices and botulism-enhanced canned goods. How did I let it get that bad? I resolved then and there to mend my disorganized ways.

I began by taking every single thing out of the cabinet and surveying the damage. Holy Moses, was there any edible food in there? These are just some of the treasures I unearthed:

  • Cardamom seeds that expired in 2007.
  • A half-used pouch of never-good-in-the-first-place taco seasoning, “best enjoyed by” May 2008.
  • Two nearly full, expired bottles of Old Bay seasoning.
  • Truffle salsa brought back from a trip to Umbria in 2007.

No one likes a braggart, but I think I set some kind of record with this one: a bottle of Chinese five-spice powder from 1995!

Taking on the challenge

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Three large grocery bags could barely contain all the forgotten food items I hauled out to the trash bin. I didn’t know whether to feel triumphant or ashamed.

The fun part was starting with a blank canvas. After tossing all the expired stuff, there wasn’t much left. (As much as I love having six different olive oils and five varieties of vinegar at my disposal, these items do not actually qualify as food.) A trip to the grocery store soon remedied that, and I returned with peanut butter, oats, polenta, pasta and other staples for my sparkling-clean cabinet.

Bottles and boxes tend to go rogue once the pantry door is closed, migrating to who-knows-where the minute your back is turned, so I also picked up a couple of baskets and a Lazy Susan to help keep everything in check.

Olive oils are now happily segregated in one of the baskets, placed in the front of the cabinet for easy access. My vinegar collection resides on the Lazy Susan, where a quick spin lets me find the bottle I’m looking for in seconds. Pastas and grains live together in harmony on the third shelf, and baking supplies stand ready on the bottom-right shelf. Few projects I’ve taken on lately have given me such satisfaction! Sometimes I open the pantry door just to admire the lack of clutter.

Starting fresh

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Now that all my pantry foods are neatly organized and unlikely to poison my dinner guests, all I have to do is keep them that way. My pantry got out of control because I kept adding new stuff without purging the items that were past their prime. Well, there’ll be no more of that.

You too can start 2016 with a tidy pantry filled with still-edible foods. Just follow these tips:

Create groupings that make sense. For example, store all your baking supplies together, so you don’t end up buying multiple bottles of vanilla extract and jars of molasses. The items will be easier to locate, and you won’t have duplicates taking up extra space.

Pay attention to “use by” and expiration dates. If an item is stamped with a “use by” or “best by” date, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat when that day comes; it means the product’s quality can no longer be guaranteed. An expiration date, however, means “eat at your own risk.”

When you buy canned goods, place them behind the older ones on your pantry shelf, so you’ll remember to use them before they expire. In general, the shelf life of foods canned in liquids is one to two years.

Staying on track

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried beans seem like they should last forever, but that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, beans that have been stored longer than a year may never get soft enough, no matter how long you soak or cook them. They’ll last longer if you keep them in an airtight container.

Check your spices. Dried herbs tend to lose their color and flavor after a year. Ground spices last longer, up to three years. If you have the time and patience to grind whole spices as you need them, you can keep them up to five years.

Move that honey! For decades I made the mistake of storing honey in the pantry, then gnashing my teeth when it became hard and crystalized. Well, guess what I learned while researching this article? Honey never expires! It just hates being kept in dark places. If you leave it out on the counter, it will remain fluid and keep its lovely amber color.

Look out refrigerator, I’m coming for you next.

Main photo: Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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Citrus fruits can help add flavor to everything from salads to dressings in winter, when many other fresh fruits are not in season. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

The orange trees outside the window are laden with fruit turning the colors of a sunset and pulling the branches down with their weight. The lemon tree is full of new buds awaiting a glimpse of sun before they burst open while baby lemons turn from green to yellow among the buds and last season’s fruit drops on the ground.

This is the season of citrus, and just about every corner of the U.S. has grapefruits, limes, lemons, tangerines and oranges in produce bins at farmers markets and grocery stores. The versatility of the different varieties makes it easy to include them in your daily diet in exciting and delicious ways. One of the best is to add the peeled, segmented fruit to salads or recipes.

How to segment a citrus fruit

Using a sharp knife, cut off the top and bottom of the fruit so it stands flat and stable on the cutting board. Carefully cut the skin off the flesh from top to bottom, rotating the fruit as you go, until all the skin and white pith is off the flesh. Then cut each segment from the membrane. Work over a bowl to catch all the juice for use in dressings, cocktails, smoothies or just to drink.

Oranges and tangerines

Oranges and tangerines are a good choice for adding flavor to a smoothie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Oranges and tangerines are a good choice for adding flavor to a smoothie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Oranges and tangerines — with names like navel, Cara Cara, clementine and Satsuma — may be the most popular citrus fruits. For eating out of hand or squeezing for juice, these sweet, tasty citrus have no match.

  • Try them peeled in a smoothie for breakfast; I like to use three oranges or tangerines, a banana and a good handful of spinach, which dyes the smoothie emerald green.
  • Zest the skin and add a tablespoon to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe for a zingy blast — there is nothing like the combo of chocolate with orange.
  • Add segments to raw spinach and thinly sliced red onion for a tangy salad. Toss with a quick dressing of rice vinegar, honey, a dash of sesame oil and olive oil, then top with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Limes

One use for limes: using the juice for making fresh guacamole. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

One use for limes: using the juice for making fresh guacamole. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Limes are one of nature’s seasonings and are absolute necessities for a well-stocked bar, in Southeast Asian cooking and as part of a gutsy margarita.

  • Add the juice to avocados, cilantro, salt and garlic for a creamy bowl of guacamole.
  • Stir coconut milk and lime juice with a good curry paste (I like Sukhi’s or Patak’s) then simmer briefly to make a sauce. Add cooked chicken, sliced fresh mango or peeled pears, peas and chopped sautéed onion for a quick chicken curry. Serve with steamed basmati rice and naan.
  • Make a marinade using the juice and zest of one lime with soy sauce, minced garlic, minced jalapeño and a drop or two of honey. Use on mild white fish, chicken, shrimp or skirt or flank steak cooked on the grill.

Grapefruit

These somewhat unwieldy fruits are too large to take in a lunch box, require a knife to cut or peel and have a surprisingly tart/sweet flavor, but what would winter be without this juicy fruit? In salads, dressings, juices, sodas and cocktails, both pink and yellow grapefruit add a tart/sweet smack of flavor. My favorite varieties are Oro Blanco and Melo Gold.

  • To make a healthy winter salad, mix segments of grapefruit and slices of ripe avocado with a mix of arugula and spinach, shavings of fennel and a sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds over the top. Make a dressing with the grapefruit juice saved from segmenting, balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of honey and olive oil.
  • For a quick snack, cut a grapefruit into medium-size wedges and eat, pulling the sections off the skin. Stand over the sink or the juice will dribble down your front.
  • For a warming winter cocktail, shake vodka and ice with grapefruit and lime juices in a cocktail shaker. Strain into glasses and fill with pomegranate soda. Add a couple of cubes of ice and enjoy.

Lemons

Lemon juice adds nice flavor to dressings. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Lemon juice adds nice flavor to dressings. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Lemons are the most versatile of citrus fruits, used year-round and the world over. For squeezing on fish, adding the juice to marinades, dressings, curd, iced tea and cocktails, or zesting the skin into gremolata, baked goods and even pasta, every part of the lemon can be put to good use.

  • For a salad dressing that can be your go-to, whisk the juice of half a lemon, chopped garlic to taste, a dab of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil to form an emulsion.
  • Pile the zest of one lemon, a handful of parsley, ½ teaspoon of fresh rosemary needles, 1 large clove garlic and salt and pepper on a cutting board. Finely chop all ingredients together into a paste. Mix with a little olive oil and spread on halibut, albacore tuna, chicken or pork then grill over coals or sear in a hot pan, lower heat and cook to desired doneness. It’s a heavenly smell!
  • Combine lemon juice, a pinch of zest, honey and a knob of peeled fresh ginger in a teacup. Fill with boiling water and steep 2 minutes then sip for cough and cold relief.

Tools for citrus fruits

Working with citrus fruits requires a few basic kitchen tools. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Working with citrus fruits requires a few basic kitchen tools. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Pictured above are must-have tools for working with citrus fruits. A handled microplane grater is perfect for zesting citrus quickly and easily. Before microplanes were born, we had the most pathetic zesting tools, now this guy makes it painless.

A small wooden reamer is what I use to juice limes and lemons, it squeezes out every drop. The large juicing reamer is good for any citrus fruit and traps the seeds as well. It also snaps onto measuring cups or bowls for easy catchment of juice.

Main photo: Citrus fruits can help add flavor to everything from salads to dressings in winter, when many other fresh fruits are not in season. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

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Chocolate and raspberries blend deliciously in these cookies. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Having been married for more than two decades, I realize many factors contribute to the longevity of my marriage. Perhaps the most important is how my husband and I blend.

People often ask how we’ve done it, as if there is a secret. But there really is no secret. Just like the pairing of raspberry and chocolate, my husband and I are together despite our differences. We know how to compromise and work together, which we actually do most of the time.

Love is not “never having to say you’re sorry.” Chocolate is temperamental, so if you add the wrong amount of moisture from, say, fresh raspberries, you will have something to apologize about. But you get another chance. As in longtime relationships, you learn and grow.

Better together than apart

I love offering up treats that focus the partnership of raspberries and dark chocolate because of the magical synergy that makes them better together than individually.

In the past, dark chocolate was relegated to the lowest shelves in grocery stores. Over the last two decades, though, it has become very au courant. I would like to say that the only reason I give myself permission to eat dark chocolate is because of possible health benefits. But in truth, I like the taste. I find its bitterness to be complex and appealing.

What makes dark chocolate dark?

Dark is only defined relative to all other chocolates. It’s darker in comparison with milk or sweet chocolate candy bars. It has a higher percentage of cocoa, less milk fat and less sugar. The higher the cocoa percentage, the deeper and more intense the chocolate flavor. My favorite for baking and cooking is around 72%.

When choosing your dark chocolate, like choosing a mate, there are two more issues to consider: Where it was born and where (and how) it was processed. Dark chocolate is often labeled with the place of origin, the cocoa percentages and where it was processed. Climate and soil give chocolate its inherent nature, and that’s part of its heritage. The style of preparation is also key. To many, Switzerland’s chocolate production is the gold standard. In my book, it’s equaled or even bettered by Belgian chocolate.

Equal partners

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Lest you think that chocolate is the alpha dog of this relationship, raspberries are an equal partner. They are more than just juicy and lovely to behold. They are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C, and full of fiber. They taste sweet — with a uniquely tart undertone and a deep complexity. Just like chocolate. Raspberries aren’t mild-manned, singular sweetness, like the ever-affable strawberry or cherry. They are an assertive flavor in their own right.

Like any paramour partnership, each ingredient brings something unique and yet retains its distinctive character even as it blends with the other ingredients. Raspberries are juicy, but chocolate is silky. Both have a little sexy undertone that makes them interesting. Together they make a wondrous bite.

May they live happily ever after.

Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl Cookies

These charming swirl cookies, tucked, wrapped and snuggled like the spiral of a snail or a conch shell, are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is oh-so-gently sweet, and the filling bursts with both the tartness of raspberry and a cacophony of rich chocolates. Like a good relationship, they contrast but support each other and together they create an enticing synergy. These cookies have one more touch of meaning: I developed them for my fantasy meal for Rashida Jones, an actress and writer I admire greatly. She is the co-author, co-producer and star of one of my favorite sad but sweetly tender and real films — “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” I wanted to make a cookie that hinted at the Jewish facet of her identity, so these cookies are a bit rugelach-ish. These are simply a joy to eat and fun to make.

Yield: About 28 to 30 cookies

Prep and baking time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup (116 grams/4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 sticks (¾ cup/170 grams/6 ounces/12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (54 grams) dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (see Notes)

1 3/4 cups (228 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped

3 ounces milk chocolate, very finely chopped

1 large egg yolk

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup brown turbinado sugar

1/2 teaspoon any large-crystal salt

Directions

1. Prepare the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or if you are using a hand-held mixer, in a large mixing bowl), combine the cream cheese and butter and mix until completely blended. Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and mix well. Add the vanilla bean paste and mix well. Add the flour and mix just until fully combined. Prepare a large piece of plastic wrap and scrape the mixture onto it, wrap, shape into a rough square or rectangle and seal well. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until fully chilled.

3. Wet a work surface with a few drops of water or a swipe of a wet paper towel. Quickly place a large piece (11 x 14 inches or larger) of parchment paper on top. It should stick. Dust the parchment paper very lightly with flour. Roll a rolling pin in the flour to coat it lightly. Place half of the dough on the floured parchment and roll it into a 6-by-9-inch rectangle that is 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick.

4. Using a pastry brush, coat the rectangle with raspberry jam, leaving a 1/2-inch border bare around the edges. Sprinkle the chocolates over the raspberry jam, distributing the pieces evenly. Position the parchment and dough so that the short side of the parchment is in front of you. Using the parchment, lift the short side of the dough up and over the filling, covering it by about 1/2 inch. Continue rolling to make a cylinder, rolling as tightly as you can. Place the roll on a large piece of plastic wrap and wrap well. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until fully chilled.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats and set aside.

6. Remove the rolled dough from the plastic wrap and, with a very sharp, long knife, cut it crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Place the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies.

7. Prepare an egg wash by beating the egg yolk and water gently in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, liberally brush the egg wash over the cookies, making sure to cover both the dough and filling. Sprinkle with the sugar and salt and bake (both sheets at once) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheets before removing them, as the raspberry jelly will be very hot. They will crisp as they cool off.

Notes:

1. Vanilla bean paste is a form of vanilla flavoring that is made from vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder (sometimes it’s what’s left over from producing the extract and sometimes fresh vanilla bean seeds), mixed with a binder such as sugar syrup, corn syrup or, in commercial preparations, xanthan gum. It has the consistency of a paste and an intense, distinctly vanilla flavor. It’s available in well-stocked markets and online, but if you can’t find it, use pure vanilla extract.

2. Turbinado sugar is a minimally processed, minimally refined sweetener made from cane sugar. Brown in color, it is often confused with brown sugar. Turbinado sugar, however, has a higher moisture content, which will make a difference in baking, so it’s best to use the sugar that is called for in the recipe unless you are skilled enough to reduce another liquid in the ingredient list. With its large crystals, it’s great for sugar toppings on cookies and other baked goods. Like demerara sugar, it is made by drying the juice of the sugar cane and then spinning it in a centrifuge to purify it. Store in a cool, dry place.

Main photo: These Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl cookies are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

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Forget trendy cleanses; eating healthy is the best way to promote health. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

Still looking for the perfect cleanse to start the year off right? Look no further.

Whether you’re following the brouhaha surrounding the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans or not, I’m betting you already know what the basics of a healthy diet (still) are: mounds of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and lean and sustainable proteins like beans, nuts and legumes. Healthy oils like olive, grapeseed, walnut and flax also play a role. If these foods are the stars of your plate, your year is off to a terrific start.

So what of the other things we chomp, such as cookies, chips, ice cream, candy, chocolate, soda and the like? And if you did overindulge during the holidays, what’s the remedy for restoring your health, and perhaps even losing a few pounds?

Exactly right. You need a cleanse.

Not that type of cleanse

A short-term diet or cleanse offers little in the long run to sustain weight loss and promote health. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

A short-term diet or cleanse offers little in the long run to sustain weight loss and promote health. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

No, I’m not talking about the kind of cleanse touted by too-skinny celebrities and junk-science food bloggers. There’s no evidence behind the vast majority of regimens floating around cyberspace. And guess what? Homo sapiens is a wondrous machine equipped with “detox” organs like the liver, kidneys and the gastrointestinal system, which work to clear your body of noxious substances you don’t need — including those found in food. That’s not to say that treating your body like a dump is a good idea; it’s not, and there’s no reason to make it work extra hard by feeding it junk. But human metabolism is magnificent at removing toxins from the body, while a short-term diet or cleanse offers little in the long run to sustain weight loss and promote health; some may even be harmful.

The cleanse I’m referring to doesn’t have a catchy name (sorry) and doesn’t require a blender (thankfully). And it’s not some weird juice with strange ingredients and a funky flavor (happily). Most important, there are plenty of studies to support that this type of cleanse will, if done correctly, improve your health and weight.

Now take a look around your kitchen pantry, counter, refrigerator and freezer. What do you see? If you’re staring at gallons of ice cream, boxes of cookies, bags of chips and cans of soda (not to mention sweetened yogurts and granola bars), the thing that would most benefit from a “cleanse” is not your body, but your abode. And, unlike your human form, your habitat needs you to do the cleaning. Simply speaking, no matter your dietary vices — and you know what makes you drool — they don’t belong in your house.

Behavioral research studies examining eating behavior (like this one, for example) show that you shouldn’t keep temptations close at hand, since that means — Duh! — you’re more likely to gobble them up. Science aside, common sense and adages like “out of sight, out of mind” tell you exactly the same thing.

Treats are often consumed in too-large portions that contribute substantial calories and few nutrients. They also tend to be loaded in sugar and refined carbohydrates (like white flour), and most of us eat more than is good for our health. Indeed, consuming foods with lots of added sugar (not the kinds found naturally in fruits) are related to a greater risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes; the risk remains, even if you’re at a healthy body weight. That’s why the new Dietary Guidelines state that everyone should limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of daily intake.

Enjoy, in moderation

 The key is to keep goodies out of the house, rather than trying to keep temptation at bay. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

The key is to keep goodies out of the house, rather than trying to keep temptation at bay. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

Make no mistake: I love indulgences like gooey brownies and crunchy potato chips just as much as the next girl. I developed a keen sweet tooth growing up and it took many years to tame. The key was learning to keep goodies special, as if a guest were visiting, and never give them a permanent place on my grocery list or on my kitchen counter. Certainly more logical (and less painful) than rigging the cookie jar with a mousetrap.

I still think about savoring something sweet after everyday dinners, like many of us. But guess what? If there’s nothing around, I get over it. Or I suck it up: you simply cannot eat what’s not there. Excess-calories-I-don’t-need and overeating episode averted. Following most suppers today, I enjoy cut-up fruit or berries, and occasionally a small piece of chocolate. (And I save the outrageous desserts that I adore for special occasions only.) 

Once every few months or so I’ll take a trip to my local gelateria or pick up a pint of ice cream that my husband and I share over a couple of days’ time. If I’m craving salty snacks, I’ll buy a single serving bag or split a small sack with my husband. Do remember: ridding your house of temptation doesn’t imply you’ll never eat these scrumptious things, it simply means they aren’t commonly found in your freezer. Over time, you’ll find you have less of an appetite for sugar and salt as your taste buds adapt.

You can’t control many things in your environment, whether the workplace cafeteria, shopping mall food court or supermarket aisles. But you can control what you have in your house — as well as your car and your office. The spaces where you spend the most time should be filled with food that nourishes your body, not packed with nutritional landmines ready to explode at every turn. To clean up your diet, clean out your house.

It’s the only “cleanse” you need.

Main photo: Forget trendy cleanses; eating good foods is the best way to promote health. Credit: Copyright Dreamstime.com

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Podere Forte's vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Upon drying, the flavor of porcini mushrooms is intensified, making them the king of dried mushrooms in the kitchen. Whether you are a forager or purchase your dried porcini, you can use them to great advantage when seeking to add richness to your cooking. With a little imagination, you can inject umami into some unexpected places.

Porcini flourish in the height of summer in Colorado. Plucky mushroom hunters venture into the Rockies early in the day, seeking out the local species of porcini, one known for having a deep auburn cap responsible for its name Boletus rubriceps.

Fresh porcini are dense and heavy, feeling more like a potato in hand than an equally sized commercial mushroom such as portobello. As a celebration, I cook the first and best porcini of each trip fresh, often atop white pizza or simple pasta. Fresh porcini are surprisingly mild. If you serve them with more assertive flavors, such as in a tomato sauce, their flavor is nearly lost.

Where porcini truly excel are as dried mushrooms. Dehydrating them deepens their aromas of loam, minerals and cocoa. To open a jar of dried porcini is to be bowled over with the scent of the woods. For this reason, I spend most of my time cleaning, slicing, and drying my porcini harvest for later use. In a typical year, I like to have several gallons of dried porcini awaiting me in my pantry.

You might expect to use dried porcini in soups and risotto, but they have a much better reach than just the expected dishes. They can be used to add potent mushroom depth to recipes, and also to add a punch of umami in unexpected places. Dried porcini can be used in a number of ways, from rehydrated slices to powder, contributing savory richness at every turn. They are a workhorse and a staple in my home. I realize my good fortune in being able to reach for a handful of porcini whenever the mood strikes. However, even people who have to purchase dried porcini can get a lot of distance from their flavor, and add a special element to everyday dishes. Store-bought dried porcini are expensive. Small amounts of them can be combined with less expensive fresh mushrooms for a nice effect.

Instant gravy from porcini mushrooms

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Dried porcini can be ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice mill. The powder from ½ cup of dried porcini combined with a tablespoon of cornstarch, ½ tablespoon of salt, pinches of onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, sumac and black pepper can be whisked together with 1 ½ cups of cold water and brought to a quick boil for gravy.

Mix the dry ingredients together ahead of time to keep on hand for when you need gravy in minutes, or if you have vegetarian guests at your table. Instant porcini gravy pairs with nearly every kind of meat, is a natural spooned over mashed potatoes and works well in casseroles.

Porcini soy sauce

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Simply combine dried porcini with your favorite soy sauce and let them infuse together for at least a week before sampling. Porcini add an element of complexity to ordinary soy sauce. This works beautifully in Asian recipes and also makes for an unexpected element in other styles of cooking. Save those salty soaked mushrooms to season your soups.

Bouillon cubes

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Combine porcini powder, onion powder, salt, soy and powdered dry gelatin with enough water to bind, and you have homemade bouillon. The bouillon are equally functional as camp food or to take in your work lunch. You can form the bouillon into actual cubes or balls while still wet, then set them out to dry. Or you can keep the mixture dry and pack single servings into snack-sized containers. Take it one step further and box up the porcini bouillon, a few dried vegetables and some dry quick-cooking noodles, and you’ve got a classic instant noodle lunch that needs only the addition of hot water.

Hot chocolate

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Want to make your hot chocolate decadent without adding alcohol? Stir in a little dried porcini powder. It may sound like an odd combination. However, dried porcini have notes of chocolate in their scent, and they add an earthiness to hot chocolate that keeps it from being cloyingly sweet. Porcini hot chocolate is especially nice topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of bitter cocoa powder.

Deviled eggs

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Add a new twist to deviled eggs by stirring a spoonful of dried porcini powder into the yolk filling. This is where you step outside the box and start using your creativity with your precious porcini. Imagine all the possibilities when it comes to distributing that mushroom goodness. Take your family favorites for a walk in the wild woods. Do you eat meatloaf once a week? Try adding a tablespoon of porcini powder to the mix. Do you always have a pot of stock bubbling? It’s another great place to add porcini. Are you known for your special homemade barbecue sauce? Try increasing the flavor with dried porcini. The possibilities for bumping up the savory element in your cooking with dried porcini are as limitless as your creativity.

Main photo: Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It’s hard to go hungry on a cruise. In fact, the all-inclusive eats and, often, all-inclusive drinks are a big part of the allure of cruise travel. On just about every ship sailing the seas, there’s food for the taking from bow to stern: from pasta and pizza to curries and what seems like a never-ending dessert selection, there’s something for everyone. These days, that’s even true for those on special diets. Whether you’re looking at a menu or walking the buffet line, healthy choices can be found; sometimes they’re just harder to see.

Special diets

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas ship dedicates a corner of the daily menu in the main dining room to explaining special diet options. Various icons indicate dishes that adhere to an assortment of dietary needs, including gluten-free and lactose-free items. Then there’s the Vitality option, a three-course meal of 800 or fewer calories; the ShipShape Fitness Center offers corresponding Vitality daily workouts to help keep passengers’ nutrition and weight management on track during vacation. (Some classes are complimentary, while others require an additional charge.)

Devinly Decadence is a specialty restaurant open for complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner on Quantum and Anthem of the Seas. Devin Alexander, author of eight cookbooks and the chef for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” has brought her take on healthy cooking to the high seas. Breakfast options include skinny takes on typically indulgent favorites like “no-sin-a-buns” and “banana mania” muffins. All entrées, including popular comfort foods like beef stew and chicken enchiladas, are under 500 calories each.

The fresher, the better

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

On the AmaWaterways river cruise line, healthy eating isn’t defined by calorie counts; it’s about fresh, local ingredients and their preparation. Through recipe adaptation, favorite dishes can be healthy, address growing dietary concerns (gluten-free and lactose-free dining in particular), and still taste great.

Every morning at breakfast aboard AmaSerena, AmaWaterways’ Healthy Corner offers the expected selection of fresh fruits and yogurts. But its Vitamin Shot of the Day can offer a sweet boost that’s strong enough to keep you away from the tempting pastry table. Every day the chef whips up a new blend of fresh fruit shakes: One morning you might wake to a blend of strawberry, kiwi and bananas, the next a mix of apricots, plain yogurt, bananas and sparkling water.

Snacking at sea

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Special diets are a great tool, but they don’t replace smart choices. Think about how you eat at home to help you stay on track. If you don’t usually snack between meals, try not to do it at sea; a bite of this here and a taste of that there have a way of adding up quickly. But if hunger sets in and your next meal is still hours away, don’t just grab what’s easy. Steer clear of confections and baked goods like cookies and pastries, and do your best instead to grab something that’s good for you.

Fruits and veggies are your friends. On the typical weeklong sailing, Freedom of the Seas serves cruisers 40,000 pounds of fresh fruit and 70,000 pounds of fresh vegetables. Aboard the AmaSerena, fruit is always available in the main lounge. And the selection goes beyond a simple bowl of apples: Think three tiers of ripe and fragrant choices that, depending on the day, can include apricots, peaches, citrus, green grapes, red grapes and bananas.

Drink … a lot

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Drink a lot, but choose your hydration method carefully. Drink water instead of soda, sweet tea or lemonade. Keeping a water bottle handy can help keep you sipping smart.

When choosing cocktails (it’s vacation — you know you’re going to have them), try not to overdo it. You don’t want a collection of colorful paper umbrellas before you make it to dinner.

Sitting down to dinner

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Going out for dinner is always fun, but servers on cruise ships take the experience to a whole new level. After one night, along with your name, they somehow also manage to remember how you take your coffee or the fact that you dislike lima beans but love peanut butter.

So enlist their help in making your calories count. As surprised as they may be, let them know that you plan to stay strong and pass on the bread. And there’s no rule that you have to order an appetizer, entrée and dessert. One night maybe skip the appetizer or order an appetizer instead of an entrée. Get creative. I’ve never met a cruise server who didn’t aim to please.

On Carnival Cruise Line, the floor staff even sings and dances between courses. Diners are encouraged to join in, so take advantage of the opportunity to burn some calories during dinner.

Browsing the buffet

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Buffets are standard operating procedure on large cruise ships. But you should resist the urge to dig into the first dish you see. Take a spin around and check out all of the choices before you pick up a plate; make a point to look for salads and vegetables. Opt for smaller portions. If you really like a particular dish, there’s plenty more waiting. At the buffet aboard Royal Caribbean, healthier options are marked with the same Vitality logo used in the ship’s main dining rooms.

Be choosy. Pizza doesn’t typically taste any different on a cruise ship than it does at home, so spend your calories on some truly vacation-worthy eats like freshly prepared sushi or a cooked-to-order breakfast chocolate crêpe.

Just desserts

One won't hurt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

One won’t hurt. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

You’re on vacation. It’s OK to indulge a little. The pastry chef aboard Un-Cruise’s Safari Explorer puts out a plate of cookies every afternoon; one won’t do you in, but a handful is a different story.

Make smart choices throughout the day, and there won’t be any reason to feel guilty when you dip your spoon into the gooey center of a famous Carnival Warm Chocolate Melting Cake. Mixed by hand and cooked to order, each Carnival ship serves an average of 900 per day. All those cruisers can’t be wrong.

Main photo: Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

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A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.

Hidden vineyards

Terraces planted with banana palms -- and a few vines -- above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Terraces planted with banana palms — and a few vines — above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.

Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.

A happy accident

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy's cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy’s cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”

The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.

Worth the expense

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy's, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy’s, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.

A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.

Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”

Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check www.winesearcher.com for your nearest supplier.

Top Madeira producers (commonly known as “shippers”) include Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Barbeito and H.M. Borges.

Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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