Flashy Yet Frugal Friday - Colosi Sicilia Rosso $10

I discovered this little gem yesterday and just can not get over how good it is - especially for the price. The Colosi Rosso is made from 100% Nero d'Avola grapes grown on estate vineyards in and around Messina, Sicily. Nero d'Avola is Sicily's most important red grape and can be characterised by it's juicy, foward flavors of ripe blackberries, figs, raisins, stewed fruits and pepper. This particular Nero d'Avola is extremely well structured and mouth filling yet soft, round and silky on the palate. I would pair it with braised meats, BBQ, hearty red sauce pasta dishes or you can enjoy it as is. It's a wine that I would recommend stocking up on. You won't be sorry! Available at Sam's, Wine Discount, Binny's, Famous/Forest Park, Howard's Wine Cellar, Cost Plus and Lake Bluff Village Market.

Messina, Sicily

Colosi vineyards

*please note prices will vary according to retailer


Trader Joe's Discovery - Altano Douro Red

We split our grocery shopping between several stores but Trader Joe's seems to be a particular favorite as there's something about the place that makes me feel like I'm shopping at an outpost or getting the scoop on some secret deal or ingredient. I imagine their head buyer is a Hawaiian shirt wearing, Mr. J Peterman meets James Bond like character who travels the globe to find the most exotic strain of green beans ever from some remote area and then purchases the entire allocation for the next 40 years just to sell it to us $2.99 a package. The staff at the checkout lane are also abnormally inquisitive and I find they are always commenting on my grocery selections and offering tips on how to cook or serve certain items or asking me what I'm going to with a certain ingredient, etc. I guess wearing a Hawaiian shirt and ringing bells all day can do wonders for your disposition with customers. Anyways - this cold weather is putting me in the mood for something spicy and hearty so I headed to TJ's to pick up some groceries to make a jambalaya-esque stew of chicken, chorizo sausage, shrimp and veggies.

I wandered down the wine aisle and found this bottle of Altano, a Portuguese red for $8.99 that I thought would pair nicely with the spicy flavors of the dish. Sure Trader Joe's is the home of Two Buck Chuck but I have also found some really decent selections at affordable prices here.

Vineyards in the Douro Valley - Yikes!

The Altano is made by the Symington Family, a legendary Portuguese family who have been making Port wines in the Douro Valley for over 350 years. Their amazing portfolio includes famous brand names such as Graham's, Warre's, Dow's and Smith-Woodhouse just to name a few. In fact Port wines were originally produced as dry reds but the Portuguese merchants soon discovered they needed to strengthen or fortify the wine with neutral grape spirit in order to survive the voyage to thirsty customers in England. In 1999 the Symington family decided to produce non-fortified red wines and Altano was born as a result. The Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca grapes are harvested from breathtakingly high vineyards in Northern Portugal that are so steep it's hard to imagine finding anyone sane enough to work the land. By the looks of this picture, it's pretty easy to figure out where the name for Altano came from - as in alto or high. All this for only $8.99 a bottle. The biggest hurdle with Portuguese wines is that the grapes are not recognizable and are often hard to pronounce. This obscurity is good for bargain hunters as Portuguese wines are not at the top of the wish list for wine snobs therefore competition to purchase does not drive up the price.

When I first opened the wine, I found it was a little tight and had a bit of a short finish so I decided to throw it in a decanter to open it up and soften the rough edges. Decanting is like yoga for wine plus anything served from a decanter looks expensive. The wine was medium bodied and elegant with flavors of raisins, figs, prunes and dried cherries. It paired nicely with the chorizo and spicy flavors of the stew. It's a pretty decent drink and just what you need on a cold winter night.

Spicy Winter Stew

1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed into 1 1/2 inch pieces
3 links pork chorizo sausage from Whole Foods, sliced diagonally
3/4 lb 26-30 count shrimp, shells removed but tails still on
4 slices bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
3 zucchini, diced
4 medium carrots, sliced into chunks
1 14 oz can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon crushed chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Green Onions for garnish

In a large cast iron pot, on medium-high heat saute bacon until fat is rendered, add chorizo sausage and brown evenly on all sides, approx 4 minutes. Add chicken and saute until golden, approx 6-8 minutes. It's good to get brown bits on the bottom of the pot as this will contribute depth and flavor to the stew. Add Old Bay Seasoning, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, thyme, black pepper, onion, garlic, celery and both bell peppers. Cover pot and cook until onions and celery are translucent - approx 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, 3 cups of water, zucchini and carrots. Cover and cook for 20 minutes on medium heat until zucchini and carrots are done. Remove pot from stove, toss in shrimp. The residual heat will continue to cook the shrimp. Serve in bowls and garnish with chopped green onions.

Approx 6 servings


The strangest pizza ever

An Argentine winemaker told me how much Argentine people love their pizza and what a big deal it is down there. This made sense to me as many people from Argentina originally came from Italy. As a Chicagoan and a lifelong fan of pizza, I had to do my duty and give their version a try. While in Mendoza, we visited a local cafe that had been in business for over 50 years and pizza was their specialty. I saw the oven was very similar to the ones found in the famous pizza joints in New York and thought, hey I could be on to something here. For toppings we selected olives, anchovies, peppers and ham and voila this is what we got. Mind you the olives had pits in them. It actually was not as bad as it looks but I would not really call it a pizza as it was more of a cheese bread. The crust was very thick and slightly crunchy with a very thin layer of tomato sauce. Next came several slices of mozzarella cheese, a blanket of deli ham and well you can see the rest. If not good, it was certainly memorable and I just had to share.

Dec112008's what's for dinner in Argentina!

An Argentine sommelier once told me "To be a vegetarian in Argentina is like being a priest at the Playboy mansion. You are bound to suffer." Okay, so this is an exceptionally crass way to describe the Argentine love affair with all things meat but it is true. The per capita meat consumption in Argentina is 150 lbs every year and if you visit the country you will see how easy it is for them to rack up this number. A typical meal is a Dr. Atkin's dream come true and will include a small salad of mixed vegetables, sausages, sweet breads and other organ meats, french fries, potatoes tossed with mayo and of course MEAT! Despite this diet, the Argentine people are all slender with model-esque physiques. I read in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma that grass fed meat is supposedly better for you as the fat from grass fed meat is rich in Omega 3 - a healthy fatty acid. Who knows if this is true or not but the meat did taste really good to me. You can find grass fed meat in the US for example Bill Kurtis' Tall Grass project. Grass fed meat has a different flavor and texture vs. corn fed or corn finished beef but if you pair it with a strong, chewy red like Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon, it all makes sense.

We visited the famous La Cabrera Steakhouse in Buenos Aires. The fries covered with scrambled eggs were amazing! The diet Coke was surely not going to help the caloric count at this point but I needed the caffeine. We paired the meal with Dona Paula Los Cardos Malbec.

This was at Don Julio Steakhouse also in Buenos Aires. Notice the tablecloths and menus are made of leather. Malbec was also consumed this evening but I don't remember which one - must of had too much of it. Oopers!

I also really enjoyed the grass fed beef during my visit to Uruguay. In fact, Uruguayan beef is probably some of the best meat I have had in my entire life! It had a softer texture with a melt in your mouth consistency. Argentina does not export their beef to the US but Uruguay does. Now, I just have to find a place to buy it! An Uruguayan winemaker told me if you drink Tannat (Uruguay's most famous grape variety) with beef you can reach the soul of their ancestors. Pretty heavy stuff but it was delicious indeed!

This was at Lo de Tere Restaurant in Punta del Este

And this massive steak was served at Panini's Restaurant in Montevideo. It had a horseradish crust. We also had several Tannat wines at this dinner.


Empanada Recipe

I am a serious empanada freak! I will never forget the first time I tried an empanada, a savory or sweet stuffed pastry popular throughout South America. It was over ten years ago when I still lived in Monterey and worked with a Basque Chilean chef named Boris Ilabaca who bore a striking resemblance to Ringo Starr. Boris was very proud of the food of his native Chile and one afternoon during our family meal (restaurant speak for staff meal) he asked me if I had ever tried an empanada to which I shook my head no. The next day he showed up with a container of what looked like moon shaped pastries and reminded me a lot of Indian samosas. The outside crust was flakey and buttery and the stuffing on the inside was an intoxicating mix of meat, onions, olives, eggs and secret seasonings. I fell in love right there and then - with the empanada not Boris as he was and is still married to the lovely Arianna Ilabaca. I have learned over the years that every country and everyone has a different interpretation of what makes a good empanada. The filling varies according to the region and there is a strong debate over whether they should be baked or fried. Overall the key to a good empanada no matter the cooking method is the dough. It can't be too chewy, thick or thin and you can't be stingy on the filling either.

Of course, empanadas are popular throughout Argentina and on this recent trip, I ordered empanadas whenever I could as the versions found here in the states just don't taste the same. I ate so many of them that my friends started calling me "Alpanada". The empanada fillings vary according to where you are in Argentina but they are almost always baked, preferably in an earthen oven. I am in the baked camp as the fried versions tend to be too greasy.

When I returned to the States after my first trip to Argentina a few years ago, I kept ordering empanadas every time I saw them on a menu only to be dissapointed that they were not even close to what I had in South America. Maybe it's the water, beef lard, earthen oven or perhaps everything tastes better when you are on vacation but they fell short of what I remembered. I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and found this recipe which got me pretty darn close. You can make your own empanada dough or you can find frozen wrappers at your local Latin grocery store. I was told by my Argentine friend Nora that most people use the frozen wrappers.

Empanada Recipe

Recommended wine: Argentine Torrontes - try the Crios from Susana Balbo.

Preheat oven to 400°F


4 cups all purpose flour (plus extra for rolling out the dough)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg yolk
1 whole egg, beaten
1/2 cup warm milk
1 cup butter melted or shortening

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add beaten egg, yolk, milk and melted butter or shortening. The dough will be soft and slightly greasy due to the butter. Put in refrigerator to firm up as the chilled dough will be easier to roll out.


2 hard-boiled large eggs
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup crushed San Marzano tomatoes
3/4 pound ground beef chuck
2 tablespoons raisins (optional)
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped pimiento-stuffed olives

Cut each egg crosswise into 10 thin slices and set aside.
Cook onion in olive oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, cumin, paprika and oregano and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in beef and cook, breaking up lumps with a fork, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Add raisins, olives, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and tomatoes then cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced but mixture is still moist, about 10 minutes. Spread on a plate to cool.

Take a golf ball size piece of dough and roll into a 6 inch disc. Place 3 tablespoons meat mixture on disk and top with 2 slices of egg. Moisten edges of disk with water and fold over to form a semicircle, then crimp with a fork. Make more empanadas in same manner.

Place empanadas on baking sheet, brush with egg whites or milk if desired and bake until brown - approx 15-20 minutes. You can also freeze any unbaked empanadas.

Yield - 20 empanadas