Appetizers
February 27, 2009
Saturday night is Open That Bottle Night

The 10th anniversary of Open That Bottle Night arrives on Saturday, so what are you going to uncork? This annual wine event was founded by two writers from the Wall Street Journal - Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher - with the idea of savoring a bottle (or two) that's been sitting in your cellar or cooling unit for too long. For some Internet action related to Open That Bottle Night, check out www.openthatbottlenight.com and live twittering at www.twittertastelive.com.

I'm still mulling over three candidates for Open That Bottle Night. They are:

- d'Arenberg 2003 Dead Arm Shiraz: bought this bottle a few years ago on a whim, even though I'm not the biggest fan of Aussie shiraz. I'm not usually into wines that are so jammy that you could practically spread them on toast. These big-bodied wines really benefit from time in the bottle, and some of its baby fat might be shed by now. Part of me wants to let it sleep longer, and the other part is ready to make space in my cooling unit.

- Mayacamas 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon: I bought this bottle upon release, knowing that Mayacamas wines can be hugely tannic when young and are glacier-like in their aging. I was planning on opening this one about five years from now ... Though 1998 was a largely panned vintage for California cabernet, time has shown that many of these wines are aging much more gracefully than their 1997 counterparts. Time to pop this Mayacamas and check its evolution? Tempting ...

- a bottle of 1986 semillon, though I can't remember the producer at this point. All I know is that I've had some wonderful examples of aged semillon recently (just love that mix of fig and baked apple flavors) and this bottle certainly isn't getting any younger.

Again, what are your candidates for Open That Bottle Night? Leave them in the comments section...

February 27, 2009
Old Soul, Oh My


We get a lot of company-wide e-mails. Most of them are about important but not necessarily interesting things like fire drills, training seminars, and employee milestones.

But I couldn't believe my eyes when I logged on this morning and spotted an e-mail from Human Resources titled "Old Soul Baking Company Comes To The Bee."

For years, food service companies have tried and failed to make a go of the cafeteria on the third floor, where many employees will grab a coffee and a pastry to crank up their day. Rarely is the coffee better than decent -- 5 out of 10. To me, coffee is either very good or it's bad. There are too many choices these days to settle for bad coffee.

For years, I would go for a walk to get my coffee, mostly at Peet's Coffee & Tea on 19th Street near S Street, where the quality is mostly 8 out of 10.

As a coffee lover, I am thrilled to hear about Old Soul's arrival. The company roasts its own beans, has very high standards for quality and has employees who take pride in making good java, whether that means a robust pot of drip coffee, a nicely executed espresso or a well poured cappuccino.

Old Soul also seems to have excellent taste. The warehouse-style shop and roasting house in the alley near L and 18th streets is something of a trendsetter in Sacramento. We need more places like that. Old Soul recently took possession of Weatherstone on 21st Street near H (it's now called Old Soul at The Weatherstone), where I recently had a very nice lunch. As I write this, I'm actually sipping on a coffee made from beans I bought at Old Soul - Papua New Guinea "Kimel Peaberry," it says on the label. Excellent, 9.5 out of 10.

Perhaps the Old Soul stylists can even transform our drab cafeteria into something aesthetically pleasing and inspiring. Hip, would also be nice, but I'm not going to push it.

I'm already fantasizing about walking down the hall from my desk and getting a great espresso. Old Soul arrives at The Bee on March 2. This is the greatest company-wide e-mail I've ever read..

February 26, 2009
Violets are in view

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I know spring has come to Sacramento when my forsythia blooms a bright yellow, announcing to my street that another winter has passed. Another marker of seasons turning is the sweet purple violets popping up all over - I've noticed it in midtown at least. They're brightening lawns as well as that no-man's-land patch of grass between sidewalks and the streets.

Find your inner Frenchie and candy them! The French use candied violets to decorate cakes and pastries. Here is a simple recipe to get you started.

Candied Violets
Recipe from Flora's Recipe Hideout
Makes 1 cup of syrup

INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar, granulated
Almond extract or rosewater
Fresh violets (Note: Do not use African violets)

INSTRUCTIONS
Make a syrup by stirring water into sugar in a small saucepan. Boil until slightly thickened. Stir in almond extract to taste.
Let syrup cool slightly. Place violets into the syrup a few at a time and cover completely. Remove and place on wax paper to dry.
If syrup gets hard, reheat and add a little more water.

An alternative method is to coat petals with a lightly beaten eggwhite and sprinkle on fruit sugar.

February 26, 2009
Three-course meal for an Andrew Jackson

For one week only - March 2-8 - you can get a three-course meal for $20 at both Spataro Restaurant and Bar and Esquire Grill. Paragary Restaurant Group is offering this deal through its free online newsletter and we thought we'd put it on Appetizers to share with everyone else.

To redeem the offer, call the restaurant to reserve a table. It is available for in-restaurant dining after 5 p.m. Spataro: 916-440-8888; Esquire: 916-448-8900

Then use the code: iEat

Finally, clean your plates and make Andrew Jackson proud.

The menus, pick one from each category:

Esquire Grill
First course - carrot soup, cornmeal-fried asparagus or Caesar salad
Second course - grilled salmon, pan-roasted chicken breast, or shrimp fettucine
Third course - Esquire Grill sundae or New York cheesecake

Spataro
First course - mixed green salad, bruschetta or polpettini
Second course - breaded pork cutlets with roasted potatoes; Florentine-style crepes stuffed with chicken, spinach and fontina; linguine with Manila clams
Third course - gelato, tiramisu or cannoli

February 26, 2009
The birth of a bar

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There are so many bars out there promising to give you energy, stave off hunger, or provide you with enough protein for an active lifestyle. Veronica Bosgraaf, a mom from Michigan, doesn't promise that. She simply offers the mantra, "Eat pure. Live pure."

Bosgraaf invented Pure Bars after her 6-year-old daughter announced she was going vegetarian. Each bar is soft and chewy and jam-packed with flavorful goodness that makes you simply feel healthy knowing each bite is made from organic and raw ingredients without added sugar. The flavors include apple cinnamon, chocolate brownie, cranberry orange, wild blueberry and cherry cashew, and each is certified vegan and gluten-free.

Buy them for about $1.50 each at Whole Foods Market, Raley's or Trader Joe's.

February 26, 2009
Maynard James Keenan: better to see in concert than get a bottle signed?

Did anyone make it to Whole Foods Market last week, when Maynard James Keenan from the rock band Tool signed bottles of his wines? I missed it and was curious ow this turned out. The backstory: Keenan is the vintner behind two wine labels: Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars/ Merkin Vineyards. Sacramento was a stop on a bottle signing tour with winemaker Eric Glomski, and you can read more about all this in my interview with Keenan.

It sounds like it was a veritable mosh pit of wine buyers and Tool fans. Tere Romo of Sacramento sent this e-mail, and here's her take on the event:

---

"The wine signing event was a memorable experience, though I had mixed feelings about it. I went with my niece (19) and nephew (31) who are also avid fans. Who else would be up so early and in the first of three lines at 6:45 a.m.? And there were already 21 fans ahead of us. It paid off, though because when we got back for the wine selling line in the afternoon, we got through quickly and then went to wait for the actual wine signing line.

"I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the event in that you actually felt like you're part of a Tool family/nation no matter your age or gender...By the time we emerged from the signing, the Whole Foods parking lot had been taken over by Tool fans. It was after 5 p.m. and there were still lots of people in lines to both buy and sign.

"We got a case of Chupacabra (from Merkin Vineyards) between my nephew and I and had them all signed. I just wish that Maynard had been more pleasant or even friendly. I know that he is not about socializing, given his persona on stage, and I was very surprised that he was doing this. I also know that it must be hard to go around the country and signing, what by now must be thousands of bottles. But, he looked like he really didn't want to be there; in contrast, his partner (winemaker Eric Glomski) was very friendly and thanked us for coming.

"Finally, after I thanked them for doing this Maynard looks up and thanked us, too. I wanted to ask him which wine he recommended for seafood since Chupacabra was the only one I have tried, but it just didn't seem like I should...It could have been that his placement in the store wasn't the greatest (way in the back and pretty cramped) or he was tired after signing bottles for over 600 in Fresno the day before...but it was disappointing. In the Bee article, he came off as really trying to entice new converts to his wine, but then acted totally disinterested. Too bad, because I don't think that it will help his wine sales in the future."

February 25, 2009
Pepsi and Mountain Dew "throwback"

I've waxed on the virtues of Mexican Coca-Cola before, and how this bottling of Coke uses cane sugar instead of the high fructose corn syrup in its gringo counterpart. That's why I've always preferred Mexican Coke and its less in-your-face sugary taste. And it just so happened that I'm eating carne asada tacos for lunch at my desk, and washing it all down with a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola while checking the latest dish at the Heckasac blog. How's that for multi-tasking ... anyway, someone posted a link in Heckasac's comments section to a story about Pepsi and Mountain Dew releasing a "throwback" line where these sodas use real sugar. Yes! This original information was culled from a story in Beverage Industry magazine, and looks like these "throwback" sodas will be available in mid-April. Could we be seeing a back-to--sugar trend in the soda world? Me and my sweet tooth sure hope so.

February 25, 2009
Wine exports surpass $1 billion

Exports of wine exceeded $1 billion in 2008, according to new figures from the Wine Institute, a trade group representing California's wineries. The exact dollar amount is $1,008,259,000, and marks the first time wine exports have surpassed $1 billion, and represents a 6 percent increase from 2007. Note that 90 percent of these exports are California wines.

55 million cases of wine were shipped in 2008, representing some 130 million gallons, and is an eight percent increase over the previous year. Shipments to the European Union account for almost half these exports, followed by Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico. The hot growth market for 2008 was China, where exports increased 34 percent.

February 24, 2009
Twofer at T.G.I. Friday's

Fellow food eaters on a budget, I have some good news and some bad news.

The good: T.G.I. Friday's has a buy one entree, get one entree free campaign that runs through March 1.

The downside: You have to eat at T.G.I. Friday's.

Just kidding!

I mean, hey, who isn't looking for a deal in these days of furloughs and the tanking stock market. And what better way to get your mind off all this than to fall into a food coma after scarfing down some Jack Daniel's Ribs & Shrimp and an Ultimate Lynchburg Lemonade cocktail.

To cash in with this deal, visit this following link for a coupon.

Now the fine print: the deal is valid for one offer, per party, per visit and applies to entrees of equal or lesser value. T.G.I. Friday's entrees range from $5.99 to $18.29, for those counting at home.

See you there ... I'll be the guy with a bib and face full of baby-back ribs.

February 23, 2009
How much yogurt is too much yogurt?

In the middle of a long, late walk with the three dogs and my significant other/human campanion, we stopped in at one of our favorite midtown locations, the MARRS (Midtown Art Retail Restaurant Scene) project, which stretches from J to K streets on 20th. We were eager to try the new frozen yogurt shop, Top Culture, to see how it stacked up against the area's heavy hitters.

Gina recently wrote about trying Swirls, a new yogurt shop on El Camino near Watt Avenue, and it seems like a new such shop is opening somewhere every month or so.

With the weather damp and chilly, this is clearly not frozen yogurt season, but I can imagine Top Culture will be a popular place to sit outside, socialize, sample the yogurt and become transfixed by the thump-thump-thump disco beat emanating from a nearby bar that never seems to play the Eagles or Bruce Hornsby.

Top Cultured has adopted the same formula that catapulted Big Spoon to star status a couple of years ago -- serve yourself yogurt, add your own toppings and then weigh your creation.

Top Culture had two tart favors out of six. I first came across the tart flavors at Yogurt-a-go-go at L and 19th. For me, the taste is crisp, clean and more satisfying than the traditional sweet flavors like chocolate, vanilla and cookies and cream. I topped it off with blueberries for the antioxidants and, well, brownies for the oxidants.

The best part about this new venture is the location (pretty much the epicenter of midtown) and the hours -- open until 11 p.m. weeknights and until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

February 23, 2009
New venture for David Berkley

I'm back in the office after spending last week in Napa for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. My final stop before heading back to Sacramento was a tasting at Shafer Vineyards (highlights of the tasting were the gorgeous 1995 and 2002 vintages of its Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon). The tasting room was also being lit up by a jovial David Berkley, the longtime gourmet grocer and wine merchant from Sacramento. David Berkley Fine Wines and Specialty Foods still operates in the Pavilions shopping center off Fair Oaks Blvd., though Berkley sold the business in June due to such health issues as impending double knee replacement surgery. Berkley ran his shop for 23 years, and was a White House wine advisor during President Reagan's administration.

But as Berkley chatted up the room, sharing hugs and laughs with winery president Doug Shafer, Berkley offered this scoop: he's coming back with a new venture. Berkley didn't offer many details, such as where his new business will be located or what kind of flavor it might have. But Berkley says he's looking to open in eight months, so we'll stay on top of this and pass along more details as they come through.

February 23, 2009
Hot Italian on a cold, rainy night

I stopped in at Sacramento's newest restaurant, Hot Italian, for a first look Sunday night. It's so new it's open but still not finished.

Though I walked several blocks along Sacramento streets to get there, I could have sworn I was somewhere else entirely when I stepped inside. I'm saying that so often these days that it seems Sacramento must be reinventing itself.

Hot Italian has style. It embraces modern design, with plenty of creative touches, from the stools crafted with bicycle wheel rims at the espresso/gelato bar to the pendant lights made of Illy coffee tins hanging from the ceiling. Even the bicycle racks outside are beautiful, functional, sculptural pieces.

Hot Italian, which is still working to finish the exterior and make a few nips and tucks inside, is Sacramento's first LEED certified restaurant. That's a rating you'll be hearing a lot about in the years to come. It stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and comes from the U.S. Green Building Council.

But what about the food? The menu is limited (by design) at the moment until the grand opening in the weeks to come. I hope to do a full review down the road. But first impressions: very impressed.

This is a place whose reputation will rest on its pizzas. These are New York-style, which happen to be Naples-style -- thin crust baked at high heat for only a couple of minutes. That charring you may spot on portions of the crust is a sign of authenticity. Don't send it back.

Pizza aficionados who travel the globe in search of crust done right will enjoy what's coming out of the wood-fired oven at 16th and Q streets. It's just the right combinations of crisp exterior and chewy on the inside. It's thin and light, with the kind of flavor that takes several days to create (while the raw dough retards in the refrigerator).

What's more, our server could not have been better - experienced, attentive, knowledgeable and, well, charming.

When I moved here a decade ago, I was told Sacramento was a bad pizza town. Now there's pizza everywhere -- and it's the good stuff. Will Hot Italian lead the way? Will the new-ish Masullo? Chicago Fire and its deep dish? How about the quirky Zelda's? Luigi's? Paesano's? Uncle Vito's? Pieces Pizza by the Slice? Or will a chain like California Pizza Kitchen, opening in the spring in what appears to be a beautiful Zocolo-like renovation-in-the-making at 16th and L just blocks away from Hot Italian, find a downtown foothold with pizza lovers?

And don't forget One Speed, the pizzeria-to-be in East Sacramento. It's the creation of Rick Mahan, the chef at Waterboy, the midtown restaurant that has become the standard bearer in practically every category. Like Hot Italian, it will express it's love for cycling, which is practically a way of life in Italy.

One Speed is expected to open in the months ahead.

By then, Sacramentans, once pizza poor, might be able to brag about living in something of a pizza Mecca.

February 20, 2009
Mushrooms for the masses

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It wasn't so long ago that when a recipe called for mushrooms, it meant those white button ones that could be purchased sliced or whole at the grocery store. Now, with growing interest in the hundreds of edible varieties out there, and busy foragers (sometimes former loggers whose livelihood now depends on trees remaining standing), many mainstream grocery stores are offering an increasing variety of the formidable fungi.

In homage to this welcome trend, I made a wild mushroom lasagne for dinner last night. It was a combination of cheesy goodness and melding flavors from the chanterelle, oyster, beech, trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms that were included. Look out for Wednesday's Food & Wine section for more on a day of foraging with Connie Green, owner of Napa's Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms, which supplies some of the Bay Area's most talked-about restaurants and Sacramento's Ella and The Kitchen, and Todd Humphries, chef and co-owner of St. Helena's Martini House. We even end up back in Humphries' Michelin-rated kitchen to cook up some matsutakes.

In anticipation of Wednesday's coverage, here's the lasagne recipe to whet your appetite. And read more about lasagne here.

Wild mushroom lasagne
Recipe from "Mushroom" (First Lyons Press, $29.95, 160 pages), by Johnny Acton and Nick Sandler
Serves 4
INGREDIENTS
For the béchamel:
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt and a little pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups parmesan, grated
For the spinach layer:
10 ounces spinach, washed, de-stalked, blanched and finely chopped
a heaping cup of ricotta
1/2 teaspoon salt
a generous grind of black pepper
For the mushroom sauce:
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 ounces shallots, finely diced
1/3 cup olive oil
10 ounces mixed mushrooms, sliced (about 3 cups)
a couple sprigs of thyme, chopped
a handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
a generous amount of black pepper
1 cup crème fraîche, or heavy cream
For the lasagne:
10 ounces fresh or dried lasagne sheets, or enough for 3 layers

INSTRUCTIONS
For the béchamel:
Heat milk and creme to a simmer.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a thick-bottomed saucepan, add flour, and cook resulting sandy paste over low heat for a couple of minutes taking care not to burn.
Keeping heat low, slowly pour in a little milk. Whisk until thick and smooth. Then add a little more milk, again whisking until smooth, and so on, until all the milk has been added.
Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and sprinkle in half of the parmesan. Whisk until smooth. Cook slowly for 10 minutes, stirring continuously to prevent sauce from burning. Set aside, putting wax paper on top to prevent skin from forming.
For the spinach layer:
Mix together ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
For the mushroom sauce:
Fry shallots and garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, then add mushrooms and cook for 10 to 15 minutes until they are cooked. Add the rest of the ingredients and, stirring frequently, reduce the sauce over low to medium heat.
For the lasagne:
Check lasagne package to see if it needs to be precooked.
Start putting the dish together by spreading a little béchamel on the bottom of a rectangular lasagne dish, then place a sheet of lasagne on top. On this, evenly spread the ricotta mix. Add another layer of lasagne and pour mixed mushroom sauce on top. Next comes the last layer of lasagne, and finally the béchamel sauce. Sprinkle with the last of the parmesan.
Cook in oven at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. If lasagne needs a little more browning after cooking, finish off under the broiler.

February 20, 2009
Carbs reinvented

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When a big brown box came into the office the other day filled with packages of fresh naan, I figured I would like it. I am, after all, Atkins' worst nightmare. But I didn't realize how much I would like it nor how versatile it could be.

Tandoori Naan, made by Fabulous Flats in Canada, is hand-stretched and baked in a traditional tandoor, or clay oven, that heats to extremely hot temperatures. But beyond scooping up some Indian curry, the back of the package offers serving suggestions - as a dipper for hummus, as wraps, as a stand-in for sandwich bread, or cut into strips for salads. There are also a number of ways to heat it - on the grill, in the oven, on the stove, or charred over a gas flame like a tortilla.

I ate the garlic version plain with a little butter, after using tongs to heat it over my gas stove. But I was truly sold when I made the plain version as an accompaniment to a shrimp salad. I spread some butter on it, sprinkled on some fleur de sel, and popped it in the oven for a few minutes for a truly fabulous flatbread. More please!

The naan comes in regular, whole grain and garlic flavors, and contains no preservatives. It stays good for five days at room temperature, or keep some in the freezer for any carb craving. It comes in packages of two for $2.99 and can be found at Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Raleys and Save Mart Supermarkets.

February 19, 2009
Freeze-dried fruit fad

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My inbox is filled with emails hawking everything from "healthy" Crisco to happy hour frozen yogurt (TCBY offers half-priced smoothies everyday from 5 to 6 p.m.).

So I thought it was interesting there are two companies selling freeze-dried fruit packets - could this be some new fad? I had to wonder, "What's wrong with plain old regular fruit?" But, as it turns out, this crunchy, freeze-dried stuff isn't half bad, especially if you're trying to get the full requirement of fruit servings into a kid.

I tried the Funky Monkey brand that comes in flavors with radical names like Purple Funk (banana with açai), Jivealime (pineapple with lime), and Bananamon (banana with cinnamon). Each 1-ounce packet sells for $1.99 to $2.99 at Super Target, Whole Foods Market and AllergyGrocer.

The other brand, Crispy Green, has simpler flavors - apple, pear, pineapple - and sells for about $1.49 at Whole Foods.

Crunchy and flavorful, without added sugar, preservatives or flavoring, it's the most natural version of processed food there is. Plus, it contains no fat or cholesterol, and has a really long shelf life.

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February 19, 2009
Catching up from the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

An extended break is about the only thing rarer than the 1937 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon that I saw yesterday on display. But it's Thursday afternoon, and I've got two hours all to myself at Meadowood in St. Helena. So I'm decompressing in my room after another day of panels and sensory evaluation exercises at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Oh, and there was a hearty lunch as well, with a variety of Napa cabernet sauvignons that stretched from the early 1990s until the present day, all ready for the tasting. My personal favorite was a 1995 Burgess Cabernet Sauvignon, even though most of my table - including Alder Yarrow of vinography.com - thought the fruit had faded and were put off by the earthy nose. I thought this all rang of a tasty Bordeaux, and the subtleties of this wine were refreshing after a couple days of tasting young and ripe Napa wines that just might put hair on your chest. But I digress ... all I know is that I need to hit the gym in a big way when I get back to Sac.

Even though I could use a nap right now, the writer in me is feeling charged. Yesterday I practically pinched myself during lunch at the Culinary Institute of America, where we ate in the former Christian Brothers Winery barrel room that now hosts the Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame. Across the table was Ross Schwartz, screenwriter for "Bottle Shock," and dishing some behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this wine-related movie. And sitting next to me was Elin McCoy, author of "The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr.," who talked about Parker as an interview subject (great on the phone, not as open in person). And the historical display of California wine from the David and Judy Breitstein Collection really brought out my wine geek, especially looking at those pristine bottles of the Heitz Cellar 1966 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, that Beringer from 1937 and a port wine produced in 1835. Hope I didn't leave any drool on the glass case ...

But for all the eating and wine sipping, it's been a blast to meet fellow wine scribes, share ideas and also talk about our collective anxieties during these wacky times for wine publishing. Tonight is the final dinner blowout, followed by more wine tasting and socializing. One of the writers here is a songwriter, and I hear he's going to bring a guitar to the final soiree. It'll be a full night ... and we've still got a 7:45 a.m. bus to catch Friday morning, where the symposium concludes with a morning program at the Culinary Institute of America.

February 18, 2009
Farm to table

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I've always been amazed at the food we have access to, simply because of our location. Right now, you can eat carrots, chard and spinach straight from local fields. I had an orange today plucked from a friend's yard, and made a salad dressing with the lemon from a tree down the street.

Learn about some of the local farmers who have dedicated their lives to this idea of sustainability. On Wednesday, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op will sponsor the first of a quarterly event series focusing on issues of healthy lifestyles and the environment. There will be farmers from most of the notable organic farms in the area, as well as an organic supper and winetasting preceding the event.

What: A panel of organic farmers
Where: Sierra 2 Center Theatre, 2791 24th St., Sacramento
When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 25
Cost: $15 adults; $5 for children younger than 12; available for purchase at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op
More info: A $10 per person supper will be held at 6 p.m. with wines costing $1 per taste


February 18, 2009
Napa-stye wine immersion

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Greetings from the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

The trip to St. Helena was a soggy one, but it's Tuesday afternoon and I'm here at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Some 60 writers and panelists are here through Friday at Meadowood, a very cozy yet classy resort, where we'll discuss the finer points of wine writing, interviewing and other related matters. And yes, we'll be doing plenty of eating and drinking. 150 wineries from the Napa Valley donated bottles to our cause, and that grassy and citrus-y taste of the Stag's Leap Cellars sauvignon blanc was the perfect way to decompress after this rainy traveling. Whew ...

Some of my friends are ribbing me about this whole event, and guess I can't blame them. Four days of epic wine drinking and eating, and at this posh resort? Yeah, pinch me already. I certainly feel fortunate to be here. I was lucky to win a fellowship for this symposium based on some writing samples I'd sent in December. Had I not been selected, I'd be back in Sacramento wondering how this was all going. So yes, this affair sounds pretty hedonistic during such penny-pinching times. But for those of us in attendance, wine writing is a serious vocation. So many stories can spring from wine: the agri-business angle; profiles of the winemakers behind this multi-billion dollar industry; lifestyle and travel pieces; trends in how and what we drink. After all, wine culture stretches back thousands of years ... hey, even Jesus was a fan. So the purpose of this event is to nestle into the worlds of wine and writing and learn from some of the best, including Eric Asimov of the New York Times and "Wine Bible" author Karen MacNeil.

Right now we're all in that "getting to know you phase." The symposium kicked off with a reception and then into panel sessions on reporting skills, market research about current wine consumption and tips from past alumni. (Speaking of alumni, my pal and colleague Rick Kushman is a previous symposium fellow, though not here; he's the co-author of the wine book "A Moveable Thirst."). So I've got just a little more downtime before we formally introduce ourselves and then have dinner. Hold down the fort in Sacto., and I will be in touch soon with another dispatch. Salud!

February 13, 2009
Pizza for a penny

Pizza Hut is celebrating Abraham Lincoln by offering an honest deal - buy a large pizza at regular price and get a medium one-topping pizza for a coin that bears the former president's likeness. The deal began Thursday, on Lincoln's birthday, and runs for a limited time, although the company has not set an end date. Pass the parmesan!

February 13, 2009
Martin Yan in person, for free

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Martin Yan, host of the pioneering television series "Yan Can Cook," will be demonstrating recipes from his newest book, "Martin Yan's China," next Sunday at Sacramento's Tsakopoulos Library Galleria. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and autographs, and seating is first-come, first-served.

What: Martin Yan in a live food demonstration
When: 2 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 22
Where: Tsakopoulos Library Gallery, 828 I St., Sacramento
Cost: Free
Information: (916) 264-2920 or Sacramento Public Library

February 13, 2009
Wine & chocolate @ Capitol Cellars

So it's the afternoon of Valentine's Day and you want to do something sweet with your sweetie. Here's an idea, and one that doesn't cost a grip. Check out the tasting of wine and chocolates at Capitol Cellars (110 Diamond Creek Place, Ste. 100, Roseville) from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The lineup of includes some crisp and fruit whites, including Caymus 2006 Conundrum California White Table Wine and Mer Soliel 2006 Silver Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay. On the red side, Capitol Cellars will feature tastes of Belle Glos 2007 Meiomi Central Coast Pinot Noir and the acclaimed Educated Guess 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Just make sure you wash your palate well with water because red wine and chocolate don't really mix, right?

So listen up, lovers. This tasting costs $10 and for more information, you can call (916) 786-9030.

All my love,

Appetizers

February 12, 2009
Furlough breakfasts

Another freebie/discount for furloughed state workers - free breakfast at IKEA in West Sacramento. Just show your state ID card on the first and third Fridays of the month from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and grab your plate of eggs, bacon and potatoes. Add some coffee and get your day off to a good start.

And if you're looking for something to do after that, my yard needs mowing!

February 12, 2009
Don't go bananas

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I have a confession. I like bananas. But I like them to be slightly green; no ripe bananas for me, and forget it if they're overripe. So what do I do with bananas that have been sitting on the counter a tad too long? Peel them, throw them into plastic bags and store them in the freezer. They make the perfect smoothie ---- put frozen bananas in the blender, add a little orange juice and you have a quick pick-me-up. It's especially delicious after a sweaty yoga class!

The same goes for berries that are about to go south. And check out smoothie recipes for inspiration.

Do you have money-saving ideas? Share them at the SacBee.com forum.

February 12, 2009
Crowds for Spandex

If you're going to be among the crowds hoping for a peek at Lance Armstrong on Saturday, here are some spots for you.

- Buckhorn Grill, at L and 18th streets.
- Le Petit Paris, on 19th Street between L and Capitol, is taking reservations for $19. It includes the seat, lunch, dessert and champagne.
- Spataro, at L and 15th streets, will have bleacher seating, an outdoor bar, and the finish line displayed on big screen.

A list of public events can make it an entire day ordeal.

February 12, 2009
Taste olive oil for yourself

You learned all about olive oil (see previous post), and now you want to understand the differences for yourself. Slow Food Sacramento is sponsoring a tasting of oils from local makers at The Waterboy on Sunday. Dan Flynn, executive director at the UC Davis Olive Center will explain how to judge clarity, aroma and the flavor attributes. And chef Rick Mahan will serve light appetizers.

When: Sunday, Feb. 15; 1-3:30 p.m.
Where: The Waterboy, 2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
Cost: $25; $20 for Slow Food members

February 11, 2009
Frozen yogurt reinvents itself, again


Back in the 1980s, frozen yogurt was the dessert du jour for fat-free food enthusiasts (remember the SnackWells desserts that advertisers hawked as diet food?). But then everyone got smarter about calories and anything sweet equated to bad once more.

Frozen yogurt is back again in a big way. All the stars seem to be eating the Southern California-based PinkBerry, lured by tart flavors, fresh-fruit toppings and promised benefits of live cultures in every swirly bite.

Here in the Sacramento area, we've got Big Spoon, whose serious draw is the choice of more than 75 toppings you put on yourself, with the cost of your yogurt determined by weight. There's also Yogurtagogo in Midtown that draws from the high-end PinkBerry concept of fresh fruit and active cultures, along with the make-it-yourself experience. And then there's mochii yogurt, also in Midtown, that sells its concept of handmade yogurt.

There's even a Red Mango, the legitimate South Korean yogurt company that seems like the long lost twin of Pinkberry, at the Roseville Galleria.

I recently popped into yet another shop, Swirls Frozen Yogurt, 3328 El Camino Ave., Sacramento, next to the Chipotle at Country Club Centre. At 39 cents per ounce, I went with two kinds of yogurt, a tart mango and the always-necessary chocolate, and topped it off with Cap'n Crunch, mini M&Ms, and chunks of Reese's peanut butter cups. OK, so maybe it wasn't the healthiest of lunches, but I'm sure the good bacteria will outweigh any bad that was involved.

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February 11, 2009
Sae hae bok manhi badu seyo! The year of the Ox has commenced.

It's the year of the ox, and in my Korean family, that means ringing in the new year with a steaming bowl of duk gook - rice cake soup topped with egg and dried seaweed. Chinese families might celebrate with Beijing-style boiled dumplings known as jaozi; Nepalese eat potatoes and cauliflower cooked with tomatoes, cilantro, roasted cumin and coriander; the Vietnamese have sticky rice cakes with pork meat and mung beans.

Learn about Lunar New Year foods tomorrow with chef Thy Tran of The Wandering Spoon as she discusses the significance of dishes for the new year. Tastings are included.

What: A Tasty Exploration of Asian Lunar New Year
Where: Barton Art Gallery; 1723 I St., Sacramento
When: Thursday, Feb. 12; 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $45
Note: Asian beer will be served; attendees must be 21 or older

February 10, 2009
2008 winegrape harvest: by the numbers

Figures were released today about 2008's winegrape harvest, and in not such surprising news the numbers were down. An estimated 3.05 million tons of winegrapes were crushed statewide in 2008, down 6 percent from the 2007 harvest, according to Preliminary Grape Crush Report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Some 3.67 million tons of all grape types (table, wine and raisin varieties) were crushed in 2008.

2008 was a tough growing season, memorable for negatives like an April frost that hurt many vineyards across California and below normal rainfall. The upside is that summer and fall temperatures were overall mild, so growing grapes didn't get blasted too hard from the heat. But 2008 marked the third consecutive year of light crops, compared to the mammoth harvest of 2005 in which 3.76 million tons of wine grapes were crushed.

Here's what Leon Sobon, founder of Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate, said about Amador County's 2008 harvest in a statement:

"Our 2008 harvest started about 10 days early (and was) down 40 percent this year. Spring frosts did a lot of damage by either burning the grape bunches before they had bloomed or damaging them sufficiently so they produced bunches with fewer berries... Two years of lighter than normal rainfall added to the vineyard production problems. The 2007-2008 rainfall was 50 percent of normal and since our vineyards are dry farmed that presented a problem... Quality in general was very good. Flavors of the resulting wines are better than normal, tending toward richer and fruitier notes."

February 6, 2009
Cook your way through Southern Italy with Kurt Spataro

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Whole Foods Market and Paragary Restaurant Group have teamed up for monthly cooking demonstrations at the Arden Way store. Executive Chef Kurt Spataro will prepare some of his favorite dishes on Tuesday. The class costs $60 and includes wine. You must be 21 or older to attend. Get more information here.

Where:
Whole Foods Market
4315 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95864

When:
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009; 6:00 PM - 8:30 PM

February 6, 2009
Furlough Fridays at Brew it Up

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It looks like the newest trend on the drinking scene is giving furloughed state workers a way to work out their beer-lifting arms. Brew it Up is another spot offering discounts every other Friday starting today - 25 percent off full-priced brews between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; $2 10-ounce featured draft beers and specials on wines by the glass and cocktails.

It seems a lot ot state workers will be drinking away their days off. Perhaps it'll inadvertently jumpstart the economy. We can only hope.

February 6, 2009
"Bottle Shock" on DVD

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(Note: corrected the winemaker behind the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay)

Back in August there was a lot of buzz in the wine world about the movie "Bottle Shock." In case you missed it the first time around, "Bottle Shock" is now on DVD. This film centers around one of the all-time transformative blind tastings, the so-called "Judgement of Paris." Two California wines - Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon - took top honors in their respective categories for red and white wines, beating the best from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Snooty French judges were shocked, and worldwide respect for California wines was born.

And a movie was inspired as well. "Bottle Shock" focuses on Jim and Bo Barrett, the father-son team behind Chateau Montelena, in a film that's something like the "Rocky" of wine. The movie also plays loose with the facts: Mike Grgich, the winemaker behind that winning chardonnay, is left out of the storyline. In the meantime, lots of cars break down in the film and a romantic subplot develops between Chateau Montelena's assistant winemaker (played by Freddy Rodriguez) and Sam the intern (Rachael Taylor).

Let's just say that "Bottle Shock" is no "Sideways," but it's pretty much required viewing for fellow wine geeks. Alan Rickman's performance as Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant who organizes "The Judgement of Paris," is pretty much worth the price of admission. The DVD version of "Bottle Shock," which was released Tuesday, also comes with some bonus goodies. Extra features include a documentary about Chateau Montelena, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage. So go make it a Blockbuster night, with a little "Bottle Shock" and a glass of Napa chardonnay.

February 5, 2009
Furlough Fridays at Rubicon

Attn.: State workers
From: Rubicon Brewing Company
Re: Furlough Fridays, 10 percent discount

Due to mandatory unpaid days off on the first and third Fridays of each month - otherwise known as "furloughs" - affected state workers are being encouraged to spend those days off with a pint of ale in hand. Rubicon Brewing Company, the midtown microbrewery at 2004 Capitol Ave., is offering a 10 percent discount to state employees on their bill during furlough days. Whether you're classified as an SSA, OA, OT or any other state employee acronym, the Rubicon is prepared to cut you a break.

"If they take a pay cut, why shouldn't we?" said Rubicon owner Glynn Phillips in a statement.

The 10 percent discount related to this memo will commence Feb. 6, and conclude upon which date the furlough order is terminated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (also known as: your boss). Thank you for your attention - now back to work.

February 4, 2009
Hitachino Nest White Ale: a love/hate affair

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Oh, Hitachino Nest White Ale, how much I love you - I mean, how much I hate to love you. Before this all starts sounding like an Erasure song, let me explain.


Hitachino Nest White Ale, I remember when we first met. Josh Nelson from the Selland restaurant family introduced us back in November. He said that you weren't the typical Japanese beer - you know, the dry type that's often brewed in Canada and makes for a boring date.

From that first pour, Hitachino Nest White Ale, I knew you were different from the others. I was struck by your golden and slightly hazy color, with a fizzy but light foam. And then I took a sniff, my eyes growing huge like an anime character. Belgian styled ales like you usually boast some wonderful aromatics, but I'd never smelled a beer like you. Once I inhaled those wonderful orange, ginger and coriander scents, well let's just say I was totally sprung.

And how I loved your spritziness when I took a drink, plus all of that maltiness and fruitiness that made this love at first sip. You have a fairly light body, but I've never had a beer in this style with so much character. Some burly hophead types might think you sound too much like a soda-beer, but I will defend your honor until the end.

So here's the part that makes my heart sink: in stores you cost a little over $5 for a single 11.2 ounce bottle. In such local restaurants as the Kitchen and L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen, you can cost from $8 to $9 per bottle. I understand that you're not a cheap date since you're produced in small lots, utilizing some sake brewing techniques and have to be imported from Ibaraki, Japan.


Hitachino Nest White Ale, I could buy a six-pack of Budweiser for the same amount spent on only one of you. But all of those Buds put together don't come close to your character in just one glass. But $5 per bottle? Why do you have to play with my emotions like that?


It's tough when I see you on the shelves at Corti Brothers and the BevMo on Arden Way. I try to resist, but too often I end up taking you home. You're best poured in a snifter glass to capture your aromatics, and I'm known to enjoy you in a large Bordeaux wine glass. That may sound like hearsay (or perhaps, "beersay") to hopheads, but I don't care.

I love you, Hitachino Nest White Ale. When I see your price, I hate you. But mostly it's love.

February 3, 2009
A bit of France in Granite Bay

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Bistro La Petite France, which former restaurant critic Mike Dunne gave three stars back in 2007, has moved from Roseville and found a new home at 8230 Auburn-Folsom Road in Granite Bay.

Mike's review discussed Chef Christophe Ehrhart's hearty approach to French cooking, and described the coq au vin as "dark and deeply saturating" with buttery croutons and accompanied by Alsatian spaetzle, tiny poached dumplings of flour and egg seasoned with salt and butter.

Um, yes please.

The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. Dinner is served from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.



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