Articles in Drinking

A spot of whipt posset. Credit: Charles Perry

Here’s a holiday drink that’s loaded with tradition — and most respectable tradition at that: It comes from Martha Washington’s personal cookbook. But it’s not eggnog. In fact, it contains no egg, and it’s served cold, with a sporty flavoring of rosemary and lemon zest. Martha’s recipe calls it “posset,” but it also resembles an old English dessert/drink with the particularly silly name of “syllabub” — which itself has a family resemblance to a dessert with the particularly foolish name of “fool.”

Posset’s ancestry is somewhat obscure. The name itself is a mystery. When it was first written down in the 15th century, it was more likely to be spelled “poshet” or even “poshoote.” The descriptions of the time show that it was a soothing drink for people in sickbed, consisting of milk curdled by the addition of ale and flavored with spices, which were thought to be medicinal. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become something people drank for pleasure — Lady Macbeth helps her husband murder his rival Duncan by drugging his chamberlains’ possets. In the 17th century, possets were generally made with cream and raisiny Mediterranean sweet wines such as sherry or Malmsey. (Sometimes they were thickened with egg yolks in a manner similar to modern eggnog, complete with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon.)

Flavored with German wine

Martha Washington’s recipe is unusual in that it’s flavored primarily with German wine. This gives it a lighter, more floral character than eggnog has, without so much of the musty dried-fruit aspect that can grow kind of tiresome during the holiday season. In fact, though the recipe also contains sherry, I prefer to cut the amount down to half a cup to give Riesling a chance.

And the degree of sweetness is up to you. Her recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, which is a whole lot for flavoring seven cups of liquid. Go ahead and use that much if you want, but remember the condition of the Father of Our Country’s teeth. I prefer one cup.

Finally, Martha’s version is a whipped (or as she wrote it, “whipt”) posset. It doesn’t whip up anywhere nearly as high as whipped cream, but it does thicken appetizingly, and the foam gradually rises to the top as a kind of frosting on the drink. In this it resembles syllabub, which was also a mixture of cream and wine (though not whipt as much) that separated into alternately rich and winey layers. Note that a certain degree of curdling is caused by the acidity of the wine, giving posset its affinity to the aforementioned English dessert fruit fool.

Whipt Posset

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Total time: About 10 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 quart (2 pints) whipping cream, well chilled

2 cups German Riesling such as Rheinhessen, or a California or other New World Riesling, if preferred

1 cup cream sherry

1 cup sugar

1 lemon

Several sprigs of fresh rosemary

Directions

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, Riesling, sherry and sugar. Whip at low to medium speed for about 5 minutes, then 5 minutes more at medium to medium-high speed (so long as it doesn’t spit posset out of the bowl).

2. Grate the zest of half of the lemon and stir into the mixture. Cut the remaining half of the lemon peel into twists.

3. Squeeze a sprig of rosemary between your fingers, drop it in the bowl, stir and let sit for a minute or two. Taste to see whether you like the amount of rosemary flavor; if you’d like more, stir the mixture again and leave the sprig in a bit longer.

4. Spoon the posset into wine glasses, using a large-mouthed funnel to keep the presentation neat, and garnish each with a rosemary sprig and a twist of lemon.

Main photo: A spot of whipt posset. Credit: Charles Perry

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One of the wines from Trader Joe's Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley's Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists. Personally, I feel sparkling wine is ideal as a drink before, during or after a meal, but when entertaining, I round up a good selection of still wines too.

Although my husband and I frequent specialty wine shops, a weekly visit to Trader Joe’s is a routine, and we’re not alone. Checking out doesn’t take nearly as long as finding a parking space at any of the Los Angeles area Trader Joe’s stores. Part of that chain’s mantra must be, “If they really want our bargains, they’ll fight for parking spaces!”

The grocery chain was founded as Pronto Market in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, and the store’s name was later changed to Trader Joe’s. The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California, and now there are more than 400 stores in 40 states. Southern California has a heavy concentration of the stores, and it’s a favorite haunt for shoppers looking for global food flavors and wines for less than $10 a bottle.

Trader Joe’s wine comes with free tastes

On a recent visit to Trader Joe’s on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, I heard a friendly “Hi” in the wine section and turned around to see my neighbor Karis.

“I’m looking for a wine under $10,” she said. Her pick had to be kosher because she was buying it for a Hanukkah party that evening. Together we took a look at the limited selection of kosher wines, and I pointed out a 2012 Baron Herzog Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif., that cost $9.99. The price was perfect.

In addition to bargain bottles, Trader Joe’s also stocks pricey brands to give people options for gift giving. “This time of the year people spend money,” said Jason, one of the managers at the La Brea store. The hot sellers are reds and sparkling and dessert wines, he said.

Pricey wines may not always be on display, though. “When people are looking for expensive wines for gifts they’ll ask one of our staff,” Jason said. The most expensive purchase at the La Brea store was Napa Valley’s 2008 BV LaTour Cabernet Sauvignon at $89. That’s a far cry from the less-than-$10 category, but customers buy these wines for parties, the manager noted.

Trader Joe’s is well known for its affordable wines, and the bottles are served at many Los Angeles parties or art openings. At the latter, don’t be surprised to find so-called Two Buck Chuck, those Charles Shaw wines that have, in fact, gone up to $2.49 (prices vary nationally) from the original price of $1.99. But the stores also have a nice lineup of pricey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines from well-known brands such as Grgich Hills, Stags’ Leap, Caymus and Whitehall Lane.

The chain has added wine-tasting counters at five of its Los Angeles and South Bay stores, as well as some other stores nationwide. I stopped by for a taste at the store at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. The counter offers three tastes of wines, and they are rotated every three to four days. One of the daily offerings will be a Trader Joe’s brand.

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Trader Joe's Grand Reserve Meritage from Napa Valley. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

I found the Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve series impressive and affordable. Ranging in price from $7.99 to $14.99 a bottle, these wines are from distinct California appellations and display case production and lot numbers on the bottles.

The Grand Reserve 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted had a delicious, round mouthfeel. From Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation, the label read 999 cases produced. Others in this series include wines from various Napa Valley appellations: Zinfandel from Howell Mountain, Merlot from Spring Mountain, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros and Malbec from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.

For less than $10 a bottle, Trader Joe’s carries a wide selection. The non-appellation designate California Pinot Noirs range from $5.99 to $7.99, and the Central Coast classified Pinots fall in the $7.99 to $14.99 category. In fact, Caretaker, a Santa Maria Valley-designate Pinot from California’s Central Coast, is an excellent buy at $9.99.

The Bordeaux Superieur lineup from labels such as Chateau Payanne and Mayne Guyon are good bets for a party, as are Malbecs from Argentina, Carmènére from Chile and California Zinfandels from Cline, Ravenswood, Bogle Old Vine and Rutz Alexander Valley.

Among the less-than-$10 category for Italian wines, you can find a good selection of Tuscan wines, such as Valpolicella Ripasso, Casa Rossa Rosso and Il Tarocco Chianti Classico. From Spain’s Rioja region, you can’t go wrong with Crianza wines (which have been aged two years, one of which must be in oak) from both Marqués De Riscal and Marqués de Cáceres.

For white wines costing less than $10, go for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Nobilo and Picton Bay, Mouton Cadet’s Sauvignon and Semillon blend, or the citrusy Picpoul de Pinet wine from Cuvée Azan in the Languedoc region in France.

And because it’s the time of the year to traditionally pop sparkling wine, why not treat yourself to a really pricey Champagne? Perhaps a Veuve Clicquot Rosé ($58.99) or Moët Chandon Imperial ($36.99)? In the mid-price range — $12.99 to $26.99 – you’ll find good California bottlings from Schramsberg, Piper Sonoma and Gloria Ferrer.

But if you’ve blown your budget on Christmas gifts and your wallet is a little thin, there’s hope. You can ring in the new year with sparklers costing less than $10, such as Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley or Trader Joe’s Reserve Brut and Blanc de Blancs.

Cheers … and safe drinking.

Main photo: One of the wines from Trader Joe’s Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Winter red cider. Credit: Courtesy of Snowdrift Cider

It’s that time of year when raising a glass of bubbly is de rigeur. What would holiday-time commercials be without happy people clinking flute glasses of delicately hued golden nectar, tiny bubbles making a purposeful beeline to the rim of the glass?

But what about revelers who don’t like Champagne or sparkling wine? While I can hardly believe such folks exist, the fact is they do, and they eschew these carbonated wines for a variety of reasons.

For some, Champagnes and sparkling wines are too dry. For others, they are headache inducing, and for yet others, they are too high in alcohol. What, then, to do when asked to raise a glass of cheer to ring in the new year?

Raise a flute of dry, hard apple cider instead.

A revolutionary drink

In the 18th century, hard cider was the preferred drink of the American everyman. Most often brewed at home, it was drunk at breakfast or in place of water — by men, women and children alike.

“The cider of the 18th century is probably around the same strength as today — typically around 7% (alcohol by volume) — but would be much more sour them modern versions,” said chef Frank Clark, the director of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. Clark and his staff have made historic ciders at Williamsburg and have found them to be much more tart than modern versions. “That was because of both the type of apples traditionally used and the lack of sterilization and sanitation used at the time.”

Hard cider went out of fashion in America as beer took over as the everyday alcoholic drink of choice. Up until recently, the little hard cider still made in this country tended to be overly sweet — more reminiscent of soda pop than the ciders of yore.

Clark said that was due to a process called back sweetening, adding sugar after the drink has fermented to give it a much sweeter taste.

Happily, however, a new crop of craft cider makers, following the footsteps of draft beer distillers, are producing drier and more sophisticated ciders that are neither sweet nor syrupy in finish or appearance.

Cider is a renaissance cocktail

Many of the new American hard ciders, particularly those from smaller distillers, come in a variety of packages, alcohol percentages and tartness. Unlike wines, or even beer, don’t judge a cider by its package — some of the best I’ve found have come in cans or wine bottles versus stout beer-type containers.

Like a good Champagne, the more sophisticated hard ciders come from a mix of varietals skillfully put together by a master cider maker.

“In England, for example, there is a rising trend of doing single varietals, but even there most of the cider makers I spoke with preferred to drink a skillfully blended cider,” said Tim Larsen, the owner and cider maker of Snowdrift Cider Co. in Wenatchee Valley, Wash. “Someone who is skillful at blending cider can create a delicious cider that is uniquely different than the ciders that went into it. By carefully marrying flavors and aromas you can multiply the effects of each and produce a cider distinct and better than its components. ”

The alcohol content in hard ciders ranges between 6% and 8.5%. When testing hard ciders to use in place of Champagne or sparkling wine, consider the level of acidity, particularly when pairing them with rich holiday foods or for drinking alone.

“Savory foods, like steaks and burgers, do well with cider,” said Eddie Johnson, co-owner and director of the bar Publik Draft House in Atlanta.  “The acidity of the fruit cuts through the richness. Ciders are also great to cook with — a splash of cider in pies and tarts pushes some of the flavors forward. It is also a great aperitif, as it has similar characteristics [to] Champagne.”

Remember that newer hard ciders are generally less aggressively carbonated than some of the versions that have been on the market and often less so than a traditional champagne or prosecco. The carbonation level is most like that of cava. For those who don’t like carbonation at all but want a cleaner-finishing drink with which to toast, there are even some good still versions of hard cider as well.

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Golden State Cider from Devoto Orchards in Sonoma, California. Credit: Courtesy of Devoto Orchards

Here is a primer on available hard ciders as an alternative to Champagne for ringing in the new year.

Devoto Orchards in Sonoma, Calif.: The orchard’s Cidre Noire, 1976 and Golden State Cider truly live up to the spirit of the craft. Dry without a hint of the vinegary aftertaste found in some dry ciders, the surprise star in this line is the Golden State Cider in a can. Effervescent and almost mineral-like, once poured it lives up to any bottled version and is my favorite for toasting. Cidre Noir is best served with fatty foods like cheese or charcuterie, while the 1976 works well with spicy fair.

Eve’s Cidery in Finger Lakes, N.Y.: I’ve long been a fan of Eve’s Cidery Northern Spy, which I first sampled at the New York City restaurant Northern Spy Food Co. It is extremely tart with hints of apple cider vinegar, so it’s not for everyone and is best had with food. The cidery’s Albee Hill Still and Dry is a delicate wine-like cider worth trying for a more subtle cider experience.

Snowdrift Cider in Wenatchee Valley, Wash.: Like winemakers in the region, Snowdrift produces a good and dependable product with little variation and democratically appealing flavor. The Cliffbreaks Blend is tannic enough to stand up to both fatty foods and stand in for sparkling wines for toasting.

Eden Sparkling Cider in Newport, Vt.: This half-sized bottle is one of the most Champagne-like of the hard ciders I sampled. Made with English apples and aged in French oak for a deep golden hue, this product works nicely as a substitute for cocktails that require Champagne as a base.

Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H.: This is a drier line of ciders, and it includes a still version.The green-labeled Extra Dry was most to my liking, but the Red Labeled Semi-Dry is also hardly sweet — and Champagne aficionados will find that, despite the lower alcohol content, even the semi-dry is less sweet than champagnes of the same description.

Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Calif.: A fun brand of hard cider that harkens more to commercial varieties like those by Vermont Cider Company, but with a far drier finish. The Hatchet is an apple variety, while the Pitchfork represents pear, and the Anvil has added Bourbon flavor, making these ciders feel like a good, stiff drink. These are good options for beer or harder-liquor drinkers who would like to raise a bubbly glass with body.

Vermont Hard Cider Co. /Woodchuck in Middlebury, Vt.: Vermont Hard Cider Co. is probably best known for reintroducing hard cider to the American market as a bottled drink. Brewers such as Stella Artois have recently followed in the company’s footsteps with products such as Cidre. While the company is most noted for its Woodchuck hard cider, its product line now also extends into seasonal, reserves and fruit ciders such as pear and raspberry. Overall, these products are sweeter than the varieties listed above, but folks who eschew the dryness of traditional sparkling wines or who appreciate sparklers like the sweet Moscato will appreciate this company’s core offerings.

Main photo: Winter red cider. Credit: Courtesy of Snowdrift Cider

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Troy Carter at the cider house where he hand-bottled the first vintage of Troy Cider. Credit: Courtesy of Troy Cider

Old, overgrown apple orchards were everywhere Troy Carter looked when he took a post-college motorcycle trek along the back roads of California’s Sonoma Coast. Planted in the 1950s, the trees had been fending for themselves in the generations since wine arrived.

A kombucha fan, Carter treasured artisanal hard cider’s funky flavors and guessed the ugly apples would be the perfect raw material for his favorite libation. An orchard owner told him he could pick all he could carry.

The first pressing of Troy Cider was in the fall of 2012 using the mostly Gravenstein apples he and about 100 of his Stanford University friends harvested one afternoon. To manage the wild yeast fermentation, Carter hired organic winemaker Tony Coturri to produce his inaugural vintage. Artisanal hard cider makers view cider apples and orchards much like vintners view wine grapes and vineyards. The taste of the “place” is in the cider.

Fresh-pressed apple juice with nothing but the orchard’s natural wild yeast, cold-fermented in Pinot Noir barrels, Carter’s hard cider made itself. He aged it for eight months in those same barrels before bottling it, unfiltered.

The 25-year-old who thought to check out the apples by the side of the road has moved on in his peripatetic journey around the world. While Carter remains the “artist in residence,” he sold his cider operation to Mark McTavish, a Los Angeles hard cider importer Half Pint Ciders and distributor who says he will stick to Carter’s protocol. The third vintage of Troy is now available.

Troy seemed an oddity when it launched but it is part of a nationwide revival in the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition, an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were, perhaps, a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400 with new farm-based cideries opening every day.

Sensing a trend, big beer companies recently jumped on the hard cider bandwagon, producing commercial hard ciders that are selling faster than their beers. Launched in 2011, Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard Hard Cider now commands 40% of the $300-million commercial hard cider market.

Artisanal vs. commercial ciders

Don’t be confused. The difference between artisanal and commercial ciders is stark. Artisanal cider is made with fresh fruit. Commercial hard cider relies on reconstituted fruit juice, often from as far away as China. If there is much residual sweetness, it’s probably a commercial cider. “If you want to drink it over ice, it’s crap cider. Artisanal hard cider is best sipped at room temperature,” says McTavish.

To the uninitiated, artisanal hard cider can be difficult to understand. In the Spanish tradition, the ciders have a slight vinegary flavor and lots of funky mushroomy, savory notes on the finish. English hard ciders are austere drinks that highlight the tannins from the apple skins with refreshing acidity. French-style hard ciders tend to be softer, gentler. Most artisanal hard ciders have a light spritz.

Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched The Cider Journal last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”

On the West Coast, Tilted Shed is another Sonoma County-based cidery gaining traction for its fresh, earthy hard ciders. Wark recommends E.Z. Orchards in Oregon and Snowdrift Cider Co. in Washington state. With its vast apple orchards, the Pacific Northwest welcomes a new cidery into business every week, according to industry analysts.

Main photo: Troy Carter at the cider house where he hand-bottled the first vintage of Troy Cider. Credit: Courtesy of Troy Cider

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Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo

There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.

It also makes a delicious cocktail.

“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.

It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.

“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”

When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.

“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.

“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”

The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”

Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.

Native Kitchen's kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

Native Kitchen’s kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.

The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.

Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.

The Ginger Mule

Ingredients

2 ounces vodka

1 ounce honey

Juice of 1/2 lime

3 ounces kombucha

1 ounce ginger juice*

*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.

Directions

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.

The Pommy

Ingredients

3 ounces pomegranate juice

1 ounce lime juice

1 teaspoon local honey

6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)

Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)

Directions

1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.

Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Nochevieja, or old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance. All across the country, welcoming the New Year includes 12 grapes and a glass of first-class cava.

On Dec. 31, when the clock signals the midnight hour, people eat one grape for every toll of the bell. The traditional grapes are known as las doce uvas de la suerte, or “the 12 grapes of luck,” and no one would want to start the New Year without them. But Spaniards like to wash down these grapes with the best bubbly they can find. And with every new year, their choices for first-class cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, get better and better.

While most people consider Champagne the New Year’s drink of choice, there are many options from around the world for sparkling wine that rival the best from that French region. Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti from Italy, Sekt from Austria and even Crémant from elsewhere in France. But in Spain, most Cava comes from the Penedés DO near Barcelona in the Catalan region and is one of the few sparkling wines that mimics Champagne’s production called méthode champenoise or método tradicional as it is known in Spain.

The approach is straightforward enough, but requires a laborious multi-step process. It begins by creating a low-alcohol still wine, then adding a mixture of yeasts and sugar known as licor de tirajo to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the wonderfully tiny bubbles for which sparkling wine is known. The final step is to slowly invert the bottle over a few weeks (riddling) to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck, freeze the neck, remove the temporary crown cap and a small plug of ice and replace it with the cork that makes the quintessential “pop” when you are ready to start celebrating.

Catalan cava has true regional flavor

Like French producers who use three traditional local varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — to make the blend known as Champagne, Spain’s cava producers rely on their own regional grapes: Xarel·lo, Macabeo (known as Viura in Spain’s Rioja region) and Parellada. Other varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are permitted for use in the Penedés region of Catalonia, but the best Catalan winemakers are increasingly using grapes emblematic of the area to showcase the unique style of their sparkling wine.

With a strong regional pride typical of the highly independent Catalan region, these top producers represent the best that Spain has to offer in today’s vintages. The result is a dry, crisp quaff redolent of apples, lemons and almonds, a little less sweet than Italy’s Prosecco and not quite as nutty as France’s Champagne.

Yet like many other Spanish wines coming out from under a long-standing reputation for middling quality, prices still trail far behind the improvements in taste. Some vintages, like Agustí Torelló Mata’s Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature, rival the cost of high-end French Champagne, yet most contemporary cava options represent wonderfully priced, first-class quality.

Many of these producers export great vintages to the United States, and their prices reflect some of the best bubbly bargains around. So this New Year’s eve, start celebrating with 12 grapes and some Spanish cava. The first will bring you luck, the second will bring you happiness.

Cava producers and labels worth celebrating 

Agustí Torelló Kripta Gan Reserva Brut Nature Sparkling

Castellroig Sabaté I Coca Reserva Familiar Xarel·lo

Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Sparkling

Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Sparkling

Llopart Leopardi Brut Nature Sparkling

Raventós Blanc de Nit Sparkling (which incorporates a bit of my favorite regional varietal, Monastrell to create the perfect pink sparkling wine)

Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva Brut Nature

Main photo: Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Three easy salsas for a New Year's Eve party. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

This time of year, most of us make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. To jump-start my own plans, and to help my friends who are all making the same resolution, I host a healthy New Year’s Eve party.

For advice and inspiration, I consulted the experts at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., one of the country’s premier spas. I asked Stephen Betti, executive chef of Canyon Ranch, what beverages to serve.

He offered up several yummy Canyon Ranch “mocktails” (recipes below) — nonalcoholic, healthy drinks. All can be made ahead of time and set out in pitchers so guests can help themselves. Among my favorites is Almosjito, with a hint of maple sugar and intense citrus tang that’s so delicious that no one will miss the tequila.

Healthy New Year’s party foods

Next onto food: What to serve that’s delicious, fun to eat and good for you? Again, Betti came to the rescue with a slew of great nibble suggestions, starting with an assortment of homemade salsas, low-calorie and low-fat sauces made with chopped veggies, and even fruits that can be served as a dip for raw veggies, tortilla chips or boiled shrimp.

“Salsas are easy to make,” Betti explained. “They are also easy on the host, as salsa ingredients can be chopped in a food processor using the pulse button.” The yellow pepper salsa is delicious and surprising because it doesn’t use tomatoes, one of the most common salsa ingredients. This is an especially good recipe to enjoy in winter when tomatoes can be rock hard and flavorless. Instead, the yellow pepper salsa calls for jicama, a root vegetable. If you’ve never tasted jicama, you’re in for a treat. Jicama’s white crunchy flesh has a sweet, nutty flavor and is delicious served raw or cooked. Use what’s left of the jicama from the salsa recipe as one of the ingredients in a crudités platter.

In addition to the simple-to-make salsas, Betti shared Canyon Ranch recipes for chicken gyoza and spicy crab cakes (recipes below). Both can be made ahead and kept frozen until the day of the event, then heated in the oven just before serving. Both are easy-to-eat two-bite finger foods perfect for a party.

The gyoza, which are effortlessly prepared with ready-made wonton wrappers, are better than any I’ve tried from a restaurant. I used chicken but also leftover turkey, which I had frozen after Thanksgiving, but both are terrific. You can adjust the seasonings to suit your own taste too. For example, I added more ginger, less wasabi and substituted cilantro for the lemongrass in one batch for excellent results. It is one of those recipes that, no matter how much you tweak, the dish is delicious.

Five party tips

OK so let’s say you cannot host your own healthy feast. What can you do to jump-start your New Year’s resolution? I asked for help in how we can avoid overindulging from Lori Reamer, nutrition director for Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. She had these five tips for coping with holiday parties:

1. Have a healthy snack an hour before arriving to the party

2. Offer to bring a fabulously delicious but low-cal, healthy dish to the event.

3. Eat from a small plate and drink from a small glass to control portion size and avoid overindulging.

4. Select only the most special dishes. Don’t waste calories on supermarket fare!

5. Don’t focus only on the food. Embrace the entire party experience — the company, decorations, music, conversation. Food is just one small part of the fun!

If you do happen to overindulge in food and drink on New Year’s Eve, all is not lost! You can repair come of the damage on New Year’s Day. According to Canyon Ranch’s Kevin Murray, a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist, “The best ways to rid your body of last night’s alcohol is by drinking lots of water the next day, eating light and getting plenty of sweat-producing exercise.”

Mocktails

Courtesy of Canyon Ranch Spas

Almosjito

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients
1/2 fresh lime

1/2 fresh orange

4 sprigs fresh mint

1/4 cup white grape juice

1/4 cup sparkling water

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

1/3 cup crushed ice

Directions

Squeeze lime and orange into cocktail shaker. Add mint, white grape juice, water, maple syrup and ice. Shake and strain into glass.

Bloody Mary

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 6

Ingredients

1 tablespoon horseradish

1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

2 teaspoons celery seed

2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Pinch black pepper

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 cups low-sodium tomato juice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for tomato juice in a blender container. Puree briefly. Add tomato juice and blend well. Serve over ice.

Margarita

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4

Ingredients

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups water

2/3 cup lime juice

2/3 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Directions

Combine sugar and water and allow to dissolve. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Serve cold or over ice.

Pomatini

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 6

Ingredients

3 cups white grape juice

3/4 cup pomegranate juice

6 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Pinch sea salt

12 fresh mint leaves

Directions

Combine grape juice, pomegranate juice, lime juice and salt in a large pitcher. For each beverage, add 3/4 cup juice mixture to a shaker with 2 mint leaves and 3 ounces of ice. Shake and pour into a glass.

H2 Tini

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients

1 fresh lime wedge

1/2 cup fresh watermelon juice

1/4 cup sparkling pear or apple cider

4 sprigs cilantro

1/3 cup crushed ice

Directions

Squeeze lime into cocktail shaker and add peel. Add remaining ingredients and shake. Pour into martini glass. Garnish with a thin slice of watermelon.

Party Food Recipes

Adapted from “Canyon Ranch Cooks”

Yellow Pepper Salsa

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 cups

Ingredients

1 large yellow bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup diced jicama

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 teaspoon minced, canned chipotle pepper

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well.

Pico de Gallo

Prep time: 20 minutes

Yield: 3 cups

Ingredients

4 medium tomatoes, diced

1 1/2 cups canned, diced tomatoes

1/2 cup diced red onion

3 tablespoons chopped scallions

1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper

1 tablespoon diced jalapeño pepper

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions

Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix briefly.

Chipotle Salsa

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 cups

Ingredients

1 (15-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained

1/4 cup diced red onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1/4 teaspoon minced chipotle pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Pinch chili flakes

Directions

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender container and blend until smooth.

Spicy crab cakes make for great party foods. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Spicy Crab Cakes can be made ahead and kept frozen until the day of the event. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Spicy Crab Cakes with Tomato Herb Coulis

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8

Ingredients

4 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 Roma tomatoes, about 8 ounces, chopped

1 cup diced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

5 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 pound lump crabmeat

1/2 cup minced shallots

2 tablespoons diced scallions

1/4 cup minced red bell pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large egg plus 1 egg white, beaten

2 tablespoons low-sodium tamari or soy sauce

1 cup bread crumbs

1 teaspoon canola oil

Directions

1. To make the coulis, sauté garlic with olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer,and cook about 5 minutes, until tomatoes begin to break apart. Add the red onion, basil, thyme, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, salt and pepper, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and transfer to a blender container. Puree the coulis until smooth and reserve.

3. To make the crab cakes, combine the crabmeat, shallots, scallions, red bell pepper, 3 remaining tablespoons of parsley, cayenne pepper, eggs, tamari sauce and bread crumbs in a large bowl and mix well. Make 2-inch patties using about 1/4 cup of mix each.

4. Heat a sauté pan until hot over medium heat. Lightly coat with the canola oil. Place crab cakes in pan and cook until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and continue to cook to golden brown.

5. Serve crab cakes accompanied with the coulis.

Chicken gyoza are a terrific party good. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Chicken Gyoza are effortlessly prepared with ready-made wonton wrappers. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Chicken Gyoza With Wasabi Soy Sauce

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Yield: 24 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 tablespoon diced lemongrass

1 tablespoon low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon wasabi (Japanese horseradish)

1 sliced chicken breast, boned, skinned and defatted

2 tablespoons chopped scallions

1 large egg white

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons olive oil

24 4-inch wonton skins

Canola oil

Directions

1. To make the wasabi soy sauce, bring 3/4 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons of the ginger and 1 tablespoon of the garlic, reduce heat. and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Add the lemongrass and tamari and continue cooking until the liquid reduces to about 1/3 cup. Strain and cool.

3. Blend the sauce in a blender with the rice vinegar, lemon juice and wasabi until well combined. Reserve.

4. In a food processor, chop chicken breast at high speed, until finely minced. Add the remaining tablespoon of ginger and garlic, scallions, egg white, pepper, salt and oil and mix well.

5. Arrange wonton skins on a flat surface. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of chicken mixture in the center of each wonton. Brush edges with water. Fold into half-moons and lightly pinch edges together to ensure a good seal. (May be frozen at this time for future use.)

6. Lightly coat a large sauté pan with canola oil. Arrange wontons in a single layer in sauté pan. Sear bottoms only to a golden brown color. Transfer to steamer and steam for 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Serve the gyoza with the dipping sauce on the side.

Main photo: A trio of salsas — yellow pepper, pico de gallo and chipotle — make for easy, healthy party foods. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

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Pouring out the Champagne. Credit: iStock

Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.

For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?

Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.

Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?

In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.

What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.

That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.

Why is Champagne so expensive?

Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.

Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.

Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?

Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.

What does ‘brut’ mean?

It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.

Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.

What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?

Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.

Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.

Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.

Are there any good American sparkling wines?

Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.

Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.

What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?

Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.

But what about dessert?

Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.

Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.

What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?

Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!

Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock

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