The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe On Earth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile Colleen is Winelandia’s resident baking expert, I’ve been known to bake a thing or two from time to time… sometimes poorly, other times really well. Either way, it doesn’t stop me from trying! One of the easiest things that anyone can bake (including me) is chocolate chip cookies.

Let’s be honest… everyone loves a chocolate chip cookie. They are perfect for all occasions; birthdays, office parties, get-well-soon gifts (they have magical healing properties), housewarming, you name it. I was recently reminded of this awesome cookie recipe when my husband finished his dinner the other night, then looked over at me asking what was for dessert. I had nothing planned and it was getting late, but I was feeling generous so I told him I’d make him some cookies if he went to the store for the chocolate chips. The store was closing in 15 minutes, he was back in 5.

This cookie recipe really is something special for a few reasons. You don’t need to use “softened butter”, you can just melt it in the microwave. This is a huge time saver as many cookie recipes want your butter to be room temperature, and who plans making cookies? Not this girl. These cookies are big, crispy on the edges, and chewy in the middle. There is an ample amount of salt and butter in this recipe, which makes a cookie that is balanced, not too sweet, perfectly salty, and as buttery as Paula Deen circa 2008. They are not health food, people.

I can’t remember where I found this recipe, but it’s been my go-to for as long as I can remember. Like an old, tattered recipe passed down for generations, I’ve moved this one from blog to blog and now I will share it with you. The only things that I would suggest to ensure 100% cookie success is to line your baking sheets with parchment (this makes for a super crunchy edge) and that you measure them out with a 1/4 c. measuring cup. You want these cookies to be big for them to come out both crispy and chewy. They keep well in an air-tight container for 3 days.

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies on Earth

Tools:
Cookie sheet(s)
1/4 c. measuring cup
Parchment paper
Rubber spatula or wooden spoon
Stand mixer, hand mixer, or good old fashioned elbow grease

Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (16 ounces)

Method:
1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
3. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
4. Beat together butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer or in your stand mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Lightly beat 1 egg with a fork in a small bowl and add 1 3/4 tablespoons of it plus 2 remaining whole eggs to butter mixture, beating with mixer until creamy, about 1 minute.
6. Beat in vanilla.
7. Put your mixer away! The next step should be done by hand to ensure a tender cookie.
8. Add dry ingredients to butter/sugar mixture and mix by hand with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until just blended, then stir in chips. Do NOT over-work your cookie dough.
9. Scoop 1/4 cup batter for each cookie, arranging mounds 3 inches apart, on 2 baking sheets. Flatten mounds into 3-inch rounds using moistened palm of your hand. Form remaining cookies on additional sheets of parchment.
10. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and continue making cookies in same manner using cooled baking sheets.
11. Crack a jug of milk and enjoy some of these cookies while they are still warm from the oven.

Make Your Own Tonic Water at Home

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Here at Winelandia, we are big fans of doing things “the hard way.” Sometimes doing things this way yields better results than doing them “the easy way,” and generally it’s never as “hard” as it initially sounds. Case in point: tonic. Buy the cheap stuff (Schweppes or Canada Dry) and what you end up with is high fructose corn syrup-infused, quinine-laced, artificially flavored Citrus Drank. It tastes about as good as it sounds. Go a step further and buy Fever Tree brand tonic and you are in much better shape… although it costs about $6 for four small 7 oz bottles. Our advice is to ditch the commercial options and make your own. No tonic tastes better than the kind you can make yourself.

There are a few fundamental principles of tonic. First: It always contains quinine, a chemical which occurs naturally in the South American cinchona tree’s bark. This chemical has been known to reduce fevers, act as an anti-inflammatory agent and anti-malarial, and has medicinal uses dating back to the 17th century. Second: Tonic usually has a citrus flavor which can be derived from the zest or juice of any citrus fruit, or by adding lemongrass. Really, you can use whatever you want but I think citrus as a foundation is a good plan when you are first getting started. Third: Tonic needs to have flavor components to balance out the bitterness of the quinine; botanicals have been added to tonic as flavoring agents to make the healthful tonic more approachable, but I think it’s more important to use sensory elements such as sourness and sweetness to balance out the bitterness. We do this by adding sugar and citric acid to the tonic.

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The most difficult part about making tonic is finding a supply of cinchona tree bark. If you live in a culturally-diverse major metropolitan area, you can find it pretty easily at Asian or Latin markets. It’s usually sold in baggies with the other spices. If you can’t find it at the store, you can find it online pretty easily. I can’t attest to any of the brands found online, but I can find this Eden brand cut cinchona bark at the Duc Loi market on Mission street in San Francisco. You can find it in two different forms; powdered or cut. I have only ever found the cut bark at the aforementioned market, but you can put it through a mill grinder to make powder if you want a more concentrated tonic (don’t hold me responsible if you break your mill grinder, that bark is tough). Cinchona bark is dirt cheap, I recommend stocking up if you find it in a store because you will undeniably want to make gallons of tonic after you experience your first sip.

Citric acid is another ingredient that can be a little tough to find, but you can always find it at your local home brew shop, as it’s a common chemical used in home brewing and winemaking. If you’re unable to find it at a store, you can find it easily online. I got mine on Amazon.

Once you have your cinchona tree bark and citric acid, the rest of the ingredients are really easy to find and you can channel your creative energy into new, unexpected and exciting flavors. I am going to post a basic recipe first, and then I’ll post a list of potential ingredients that you could mix and match to make a flavor profile to complement your favorite gin.

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Basic Tonic Recipe
(adapted from SeriousEats, Imbibe & my brain)

Tools:
Small saucepan
Sharp, sturdy chef’s knife
Citrus zester
Coffee filter, French press, cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve

Ingredients:
2 tsp ground cinchona bark or 4 tsp cut cinchona bark
1 lemon
1 lime
1 large lemongrass stalk
1.5 tsp citric acid
1.5 c sugar
2 c still water
Carbonated Water

Method:
1. Combine sugar, still water, citric acid and cinchona bark in a small saucepan and put on medium-high heat.
2. Cut lemongrass into 1/2″ pieces on the bias and add to saucepan.
3. Zest lemon and lime, then add zest to saucepan.
4. Juice lemon and lime into saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 25 minutes (if using ground cinchona) or 45 minutes (if using cut cinchona).
6. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes.
7a. IF USING CUT CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a sterilized glass jar.
7b. IF USING GROUND CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove the large solids; then run the mixture through a coffee filter, 4 layers of cheesecloth, or french press to remove the finer particulate matter. Ground cinchona is very fine and will take a very long time to strain if using a coffee filter. Be patient, the coffee filter method will produce the most visually appealing result. Once filtered, put into a sterilized glass jar.
8. Allow tonic syrup to cool.
9. Add 1 part tonic syrup to 4 parts carbonated water for consumption by itself, with a squeeze of lime; or as a cocktail (just add 1 oz. gin or vodka).
10. Store left-over tonic in the refrigerator for a week or freeze for later use.

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Now that you have your basic recipe down, it’s easy to start adding/replacing botanicals to create a flavor profile all of your own. My suggestion is to look for things you already have in your kitchen that will add a delicious and unexpected flavor combination to your next batch of tonic. Below are some ideas I’ve gleaned from my own kitchen, friends and research. In reality, you can add anything. Just be sure to use an ingredient that can hold up to extended periods of heat without damaging the flavor.

Kaffir Lime Leaf
Kumquat
Allspice
Lemon Verbana
Tangerine
Tarragon
Coriander Seed
Grapefruit
Thyme
Rosemary
Stonefruit
Star Anise
Bay Laurel
Pink Peppercorn

Do you have suggestions for other botanicals to use in home-made tonic, or combinations of them to create new and delicious flavors? Let us know in the comments!

Pastry Perfection, or; What I Did with All Those Sour Cherries

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Were you as crazy for pop tarts and toaster strudel as I was as a kid? I swear I ate them every day for years. Maybe that’s where my love of flaky, crispy pastry started – but I’m actually pretty sure it started with my grandmother making apple pie for me. Anyway, those little toaster pastries filled with jam-like fruit were the first thing that came to mind when I was assembling what came to be known as The World’s Largest Pop Tart for Tala’s birthday party last month.

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This pastry, a riff on Smitten Kitchen’s Sour Cherry Slab Pie, was, as Deb says, the perfect ratio of crust to filling. Tons of crust, some filling – pastry perfection. That giant sheet of pastry up there is the largest single piece I have ever rolled. And not to toot my own horn, but I have rolled a lot of pastry in my life. This is actually the only challenge the entire recipe. I used a double recipe of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Favorite Flaky and Tender Pie Crust, and split it into two even pieces to rest overnight. I SWEAR BY this recipe, but as I heard once, just use the pastry recipe that works for you. You’ll need double the amount as for a regular double-crust pie, and store bought would be just fine. Roll it into a rectangle that fills any sheet pan that you have.

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The filling is about 4 pounds of sour cherries from that batch we pitted and froze a while back. This is exactly why I did so much – I knew this would be Tala’s birthday treat and I needed a lot of cherries. My pan was 18″ x 13″. Honestly and truly, all that’s in this filling is the freshest sour cherries, the juice of a half a lemon, 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of corn starch, and a half teaspoon of salt. I suggest mixing the cherries, the lemon juice and sugar together, then tasting the cherries to see if they’re sweet enough for you. If not, add more sugar to taste. Stir it, pour it, top it, bake it, ice it. This bakes in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. You’ll probably have a beautiful rustic crack appear, through which you can tell if the juices are boiling or not. All you really need is bubbly filling and golden brown pastry, so once you have both those visual indicators, you can take it out of the oven. Start checking at 30 minutes.

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Rolling the top pastry is a little easier because it can be a bit smaller than the bottom one. The bottom piece has to fold up and over the edge of the top to seal, and that extra 1.5″ may cause you to tear your hair out. It’s true, there may have been a near pie-pocalypse in the baking of my own World’s Largest Pop Tart, but I was able to rescue it. My only advice is this – make sure your pastry’s edges are quite thin, or they may melt off the rim of your baking sheet while in the oven.

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The last touch is a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze. I poured it in a lattice pattern to make it seem even more like a breakfast pastry. The glaze amps up the visual appeal of the entire thing. I just can’t get over the contrast of those magenta cherries and the golden brown crust. They still manage to have that beautiful glow even when baked. But if you’re looking at this and thinking you hate me because you can’t find sour cherries, this recipe is very adaptable. You can easily use about the same amount (4 lbs) of any other fruit. Great variations could be blueberries, apples, peaches, blackberries… Lots of options here. So, did you get any sour cherries this summer? How did you use them? Let us know in the comments!

Nine Delicious, Affordable Wines Perfect for Summer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis last weekend, Colleen and I hosted a tasting with some friends of ours in her home. The theme was Summertime Wines. We have had some unseasonably pleasant weather in the past few months and we decided it was a suitable topic of discussion; there are so many wonderful, affordable, easy to drink wines out there that just beg to be consumed on a warm summer afternoon. We put together a list of some really great wines we have been dying to try, Colleen cooked up an amazing tasting menu to go along with them, and we invited some friends over to experience it all with us.

I made sure to head over early so I could “help” Colleen with the food and set everything up… and by “help” I actually mean “bring over a kick-ass bottle of real Champagne for us to drink before anybody else gets there.” We enjoyed a bottle of Emmanuel Brochet NV Le Mont Benoit Extra Brut ($68), which we both loved. It was full of brioche, mineral and fruit with a super creamy mousse, zippy acidity and mega drinkability.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce all of the food was prepared, glasses were set out, paper plates were in place and the droves of thirsty friends arrived, we started popping corks & twisting screw caps. Don’t let a screw cap scare you off, tricking you into thinking the wine is of inferior quality. Many “drink now” wines are bottled under a screw cap because they are cheaper, non air-permeable and more sustainable to use than the traditional cork. If you don’t need to age a wine, there’s really no need for a cork.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur wine list for the evening:

2002 Chateau Tour Grise Brut – Saumur, France
Certified Organic & Biodynamic, 30 year old Chenin Blanc (100%) vines grown in limestone soils. Dry. Brioche, tangerine, white flowers, mineral nose; honey, yeast, meyer lemon, kumquat on the palate.

2011 Domaine Rimbert Blanc – Saint-Chinian, Languedoc, France
Organically farmed Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Carignan Blanc. Picked in the early morning to preserve acidity. Conservative use of SO2.

NV ‘Il Brut and the Beast’ – Valli Unite, Piedmont, Italy
Organically farmed Cortese & Favorita. Produced in a commune of 15 families in Piedmont. Honey, bright green herbs, mineral on the nose. Slightly sweet & effervescent.

2012 Ameztoi Rubentis Rosado – Gipuzkoa, Spain
Petillant-naturel from the Basque region of Spain, blend of Hondarrabi Zuri (white) & Hondarrabi Beltza (red) grapes. Grown near the Atlantic ocean.

2012 Lioco Indica Rosé – Mendocino, CA
Stainless steel-fermented rosé of Carignan. 60 year old vines, dry farmed & head trained in Mendocino. Aromas of nectarine pit, orange blossom & rock dust lead to the flavors of wild strawberry, watermelon rind & kaffir lime. Bone dry & high in acid.

2012 La Clarine Rosé – Sierra Foothills, CA
Organically farmed, native yeast fermentation, no added SO2 during winemaking, minimal SO2 at bottling. 62% Syrah, 18% Mourvedre, Semillon & Viognier. Aromas of mineral, earth & blood orange.

2011 Matteo Correggia Anthos – Piedmont, Italy
100% Brachetto grown in sandy soils. Stainless steel fermented & aged. Medium bodied; aromas of red fruit & rose petals. Limited use of SO2.

2009 Domaine Dupasquier Gamay – Savoie, France
100% Gamay aged in used foudre. Aromas of earth, iron & mineral with tart cherry & bright acid on the palate.

2010 Hexamer “Quarzit” Riesling – Nahe, Germany
Bouquet of tropical fruit, stony minerals & citrus. Bracing acidity matched by ample sweetness make this a balanced but bold riesling. These grapes are grown in soils composed of Quartzite and clay which lend a ton of minerality to this wine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsidering the fact that we had such a spectacular wine list, Colleen felt it was only appropriate to make a humungous spread of food to go along with the wines. After all, when you are pouring this many wines, it’s a good idea to make sure people aren’t hungry. Plus, all of our wine selections were loaded with acidity and when you have wine with acid, the natural next step is to enjoy it with food.

Our food pairing menu for the evening:

Bagna Cauda with Poached Vegetables
Emmental Gougeres
Fromage Fort on Toasts
Pepper Steak Crostini with Whipped Horseradish Creme Fraiche
Green Bean Salad with Cherry Tomatoes & Sauteed Shallots
Basil Peach Financier

One of the best things about wines that are suited for warm weather is that they are extremely food-friendly. I love rosé with salad, gougeres with anything oxidative, slightly sweet cakes with an off-dry wine. Colleen made the steak crostini served at room temperature to go along with the two red wines we were serving slightly chilled. The Financier were just a little sweet, mildly herbal and absolutely delicious with the off-dry Riesling.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe crowd favorite wine of the evening was the Ameztoi Rubentis Rosado. This pink wine is a cult favorite in the Bay Area; it’s already sold out from the store we got it at. It’s super fresh, light, aromatic, fizzy, thirst-quenching, mouth watering and perfect in every way. Best of all, it was only $22. The runner up was the Matteo Correggia Anthos Brachetto. This wine was absolutely stunning with feminine, sexy aromas of rose petal & bright red fruit. Everyone was blown away by how prominent the rose aroma was from this light-bodied red wine. Not everyone wants or expects their red wine to smell like a flower, but it was a welcome surprise to all of us. At $19 per bottle, there’s no reason not to pick up one or three if you find this wine in a store.

All of these wines (Champagne excluded) were between $18 and $24 each, and there was not a single wine we didn’t love in the whole lineup. Most of these can be purchased at Ruby Wine in Potrero Hill, SF. Last time I checked, there was still some of that Brachetto left. I would highly recommend you make your way up the hill to grab a few before they’re gone for good, I know I will (and these ladies, below, probably will too)!

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Cooking Techniques: How to Dice an Onion

We recently reached out to some of our readers and asked what they would like to see on the blog. One of the first responses was “How do I chop an onion… correctly?”. Well, esteemed reader, today is your lucky day. Here’s how to dice an onion uniformly and quickly, every time.

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Tip: Save yourself a lot of trouble and maintain the edge on your good knives. Dicing an onion is much easier when your knife is sharp. You can maintain the edge of an already-sharp knife with a honing steel (above, left), which is included in many knife sets. You can also purchase one for about $20. Just remember that you have to start with sharp knife if you want a honing steel to be effective. If your knife is dull from years of neglect, take it to your local knife sharpener first. A honing steel does not sharpen a dull blade, it only keeps an already sharp blade in great condition. I have my knives sharpened about once a year but I hone my knives before every use. This slideshow demonstrates how to use a honing steel.

Fine vs. coarse dice: The size of your dice depends upon the size of your cuts in the onion. The closer the cuts are, the finer your dice will be. If you want to do a very fine dice, make the cuts as close together as you can. If you want a coarse dice, make them farther apart.

Tools:
Chef’s knife
Honing steel
Cutting board

Ingredients:
Onions

Method:
1. Hone your knife & wipe with a soft cloth.
2. Slice your onion in half lengthwise, through the root-end of the onion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. Peel off the papery exterior, then trim the opposite end from the root. Leave the root end intact.

4. Slice the onion horizontally towards the root end in layers, starting from the bottom and working your way up. Do not slice all the way through the root end of the onion; think of the slices like pages in a book, with the root end being the spine. Keep your fingers out of danger’s way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA5. Next, cut the onion lengthwise. Again, be sure not to cut all the way through the root end of the onion. The root end will be what binds the onion together when you do the final step and will make your life much easier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA6. Finally, cut the onion across as shown below, making your dice. Go all the way until you reach the root end, and discard the roots.
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Voila! A perfect dice every time. I learned this method in a knife skills class I took many years ago. I also dice shallots and garlic using this method.

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Ruby Wine in SF has Everything You Need

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Fairly recently, it came to my attention that there was a great little wine shop perched atop Potrero Hill that I had never been to. I knew of its existence through social media, but hadn’t made time to visit. I knew that they had a great wine selection from word-of-mouth and that there were often winemaker-hosted tastings featuring wines that I really loved. I finally got off my butt to pay Ruby Wine a visit, and I am so glad I did.

Let’s get one thing straight: This is no K&L. This great shop is nothing if not small. Don’t let the size of it fool you, though. The owner, Aran Healy, is the curator of all of the wines in this shop and he has impeccable taste. Lots of the wines are organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’. He carries wines from all corners of the earth so you will definitely find something you love. The best part is that most of the wines here are in the $15-$30 range, which means you can easily find a bottle to take home and enjoy on a Tuesday night. He also carries a great selection of high-end wines and grower Champagne (his personal favorite).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to the staggering selection of natural wines, Ruby Wine also does tastings and wines by the glass every single day. You will never see the same wine being poured from one day to the next because Aran takes it upon himself or leaves it up to the staff to decide what they want to pour for the day. Usually there are four wines open and all of them are available to be enjoyed by the glass in the intimate little shop, which has plenty of seating. The prices are very fair and you can expect to pay much less for a glass of wine here than you would at a restaurant or downtown wine bar.

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In addition to the lovely European wines being sold here, there is a very good selection of domestically made natural wines to choose from. Right now these wines are all the rage and you can find selections from many of your favorite small, local-ish producers such as Dirty & Rowdy, Jolie-Laide, Matthiasson, Forlorn Hope, La Clarine Farm, Arnot-Roberts, Porter Creek & Dashe Cellars. It’s not often you see so many of my favorite wine producers in one spot. I can only think of one other wine shop that can even get close.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you find yourself to be so dazzled by the selection that you simply can’t decide what to buy, you can join their wine club which includes 2-4 wines every month. You can opt in for two reds, two whites, one red & one white, or two reds & two whites. This is a great way to expose yourself to new wines that you wouldn’t normally try, and rest assured that you will love them. Aran has a gift for picking great wines for wine novices and geeks alike.

Ruby Wine is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 1PM-9PM, on Sundays from 12PM-8PM, and is closed on Mondays. The shop is located right next door to Chez Maman on 18th Street. Do as the locals do and stop in for a glass of wine while you wait for your table at the restaurant next door. This lively neighborhood spot is busy every night of the week and you certainly won’t leave disappointed.

Ruby Wine
1419 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 401-7708

Declare Ham Independence with La Quercia!

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Have you ever had a transcendental experience with pork? Well, last weekend at the La Quercia // Magnolia prosciutto and beer tasting at 18 Reasons, Tala and I did. We had the good fortune of sitting in a room, sampling 6  fine cured prosciutto products from La Quercia (pronounced La Kwair-cha), out of Norwalk, Iowa paired with 5 great beers from local favorite Magnolia Brewery.

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Herb and Kathy Eckhouse started La Quercia after spending several years living in Parma, Italy, and being inspired by the delicious food products from the area. Coming from Iowa, they felt confident that the resources and farmers there could offer them the exceptional raw material (great pork) they needed to make out of this world prosciutto. Turns out, they were right.

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We tasted 6 products from La Quercia, including two of their acorn fed or finished prosciuttos. One of these was hand shaved by Herb on the spot. This pork was flavorful and complex, with a distinct nutty overtone. It had luscious fat and tender meat – Tala’s favorite for sure.

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The one I loved the most, though, was the Speck – smoked prosciutto. It’s much more delicate than American bacon, which also smoked pork. The fibers were short, the smoke flavor was slight and understated, and the meat was delicious. This could be because it was paired with my favorite Magnolia beer, the Cole Porter. The subtle smoke in the meat, combined with the malty nuttiness of the beer was a match made in heaven for me.

In a product as simple as this – as Herb and Kathy said, they only have 2 ingredients, salt and pork – the quality of the ingredients really matters. La Quercia’s relationships with their farmers are critical here; where they are involved in many aspects of the husbandry, rearing, and finishing of the pigs that eventually become La Quercia’s cornerstone products.

I can’t recommend this prosciutto enough – everything was delicious and tender, delicate and versatile. It’s readily available in our area, at places like Whole Foods, Bi-Rite, and Berkeley Bowl, and they have a diverse line of products including salame, guanciale, and lardo. Make sure you pick some up for your next party, and let us know what you think in the comments!

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Special thanks to Joe Ruvel from Beer at Joe’s, who invited us to cover this great event at 18 Reasons. What a great time!

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Day Trip: Russian River Valley Winery Tour

Colleen and I are in agreement: The Russian River Valley is one of California’s finest AVAs. It’s the birthplace of some of the New World’s most refined Pinot Noir & Chardonnay because of it’s warm days and cool, foggy nights. This swing in temperature preserves the grape’s natural acidity and extends the growing season which in turn produces wines that have great complexity and excellent age-worthiness. The best thing about the Russian River Valley is that it’s just an hour an a half outside of San Francisco/Oakland. You can easily make this a self-guided day-trip with plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful places in California.

The first stop on your day trip should be the fair city of Santa Rosa. She is smack-dab in the middle of the Russian River Valley AVA, home to several awesome wineries, and one of the first cities you will pass on your way to rural RRV backroads.

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If you are coming out on a Saturday (but not on a Sunday, because even wine people need a day off), be sure to pay a visit to the Natural Process Alliance. If you’ve ever seen a wine being poured from a reusable Kleen Kanteen, it was probably a NPA wine (you can have these refilled with delicious wine for a discount after a $15 refundable deposit on the Kanteen). The owner and winemaker, Kevin Kelly, also produces wine under his Salinia label. He has a very natural approach to winemaking and produces some pretty interesting stuff. He is very warm and welcoming, and no appointment is needed to visit on Friday & Saturday from 10:30AM to 4PM.

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One of our favorite NPA wines is the ’25 Reasons’ petillant-naturel of skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is lightly sparkling, highly aromatic and completely mind-blowing. Kevin recommends you stand it upright in the fridge the day before you want to drink it, letting the sediment settle to the bottom (the wine has lees in it from the pet-nat process). You then carefully pour the first two glasses ‘clear’. This clear wine is subtle and elegant with more obvious mineral notes. Then, you give the last bit of wine a quick shake and serve the rest cloudy. The resulting wine is tropical, fruity, earthy, full of body, and delicious. This would be an excellent wine to pair with pork chops, roasted chicken or vegetarian dishes. If you want to get your hands on some, act quickly. There are only six cases left at the winery. You may be lucky enough to find it in a place like Arlequin Wine Merchant or Bi-Rite Market in SF.

The next stop while in Santa Rosa could very well be Punchdown Cellars (by appointment only!), home to about 30 different wine producers which include Dirty & Rowdy, Ceritas and Lioco. This custom-crush facility provides very small producers the resources to produce fine wine with with the latest equipment and technology. During our visit, we met with Jim from Lioco. They are a producer of high end Sonoma County Pinot Noir & Chardonnay but they also make a lovely Pinot Blanc, Carignan and rosé.

photo (14)It’s not often, but sometimes you encounter a wine that makes you absolutely lose your sh*t. Colleen experienced this while tasting their Pinot Blanc from the Chalone AVA. It was rich, spicy, fruity, full of body, with complex aromas and balanced acidity. If there’s anything Colleen loves, it’s a complex white wine with body AND acid. At $28 a bottle, it’s definitely a steal. While we loved all of the wines, we felt the other stand-outs were the rosé of Carignan, $18 (which had tons of acid, picked at 19.5 Brix); the RRV Chardonnay, $35 (delicious, classic RRV Chard); and finally the Indica, $20 (a rustic red blend of mostly Carignan with a screw-cap closure, insane QPR).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow on to the backroads. From Santa Rosa, head down Guerneville Road towards the city of Sebastopol and pay a visit to Iron Horse Vineyards. This spectacular winery is located at the top of a hill in one of the Russian River Valley’s coolest and foggiest subregions, Green Valley. Like many RRV producers, Iron Horse makes Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, but they also produce sparkling wine from these grapes in the traditional method. Colleen is a wine club member here and we love to stop by to pick up her allocation and also taste through their current releases. Their newly released 2009 Summer’s Cuvée was just what the doctor ordered because it was over 100F that day and we were melting. This is a great place to enjoy a glass of bubbles while taking in the amazing view.

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While Iron Horse is not a small producer (they even make a wine for the White House!), we love their sparkling wines, friendly staff and gorgeous quince tree at the entrance, which we couldn’t resist taking a photo of. What is a quince, you say? Well, if you’ve ever had that red jelly called Membrillo that you see on cheese plates at fancy restaurants, you’ve tasted a quince. They are a hard apple/pear type fruit which is inedible in it’s raw form but when cooked for hours turns a lovely pink color and develops a floral flavor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe feel that three wineries is the right number to visit in a day. If you visit these three, you will not be disappointed. That said, check out our very own Tasting Room Guide for more wineries not only in the Russian River Valley, but other surrounding areas. If you are going to Iron Horse, Dutton-Goldfield is nearby and is definitely worth a visit. If you plan to head further West towards Guerneville, call and make an appointment at Porter-Bass. If you’re heading North to Dry Creek, take a detour along Westside Road and stop at Porter Creek Vineyards along the way. You’ll definitely find something you love.