I learned quite a bit about wine during the 6 wonderful years that I called Santa Barbara, CA home. Wine tasting became a hobby, a social pastime, and during the summer I spent working at a local wine room, it was even my job. As much as I love drinking wine, and as much as I thought I knew, I was completely out of my element visiting the Chianti wine region in Tuscany last summer. As I slurped Chianti along with my fellow American tourists, I was even more intrigued by the philosophy of Old World wine making than I was by the wine itself.

It was  a great reminder of just how much good stuff  there is going on in the world of wine, which is both exciting and slightly intimidating. Which is why today I am completely over the moon to introduce you to my friend, wine broker, and sommelier-extrodinaire, Zach Turner, who has so kindly agreed to share with us some insider tips on choosing wine, finding deals, and what to avoid.

 

 

Q: What factors do you find most helpful in choosing wine that you haven’t previously tried?

A: Truly the most valuable tool for any of us these days is our smart phone, iPad, or laptop.  We can snap a photo or punch the name of a wine into a search engine and instantly be reading a blog where multiple people have actually drunk the same wine the night before and have all sorts of opinions on it.  While these may not be “expert” assessments, there is a ton we can learn from their reactions to the wine that can help us make our decision on what to buy.  I use them to find out if something should be drunk now or later, if it’s decent value for the money or just hype, etc…

 

Q: How well does the price of a bottle relate to the quality of the wine?

A: Until very recently, with the advent of wine blogs and more educated consumers, this industry was all about asymmetric information.  Producers and salespeople could just make things up in hopes of keeping their profit margin as fat as possible.  But, it’s much more honest these days since people can just look things up online (ie. what is the wine going for in Napa vs. Bordeaux vs. Pittsburgh? ) What are people who’ve had the wine saying about its value?

Really the price is a function of the production costs, marketing costs, and whatever press or cache the wine/brand has.  For example, If a wine was farmed in a relatively flat valley where tractors can easily operate, a place with temperate weather and plenty of resources, one could assume the cost would be fairly low.  Whereas if farming in, say, Mosel, Germany, one of the coldest wine growing regions, and steepest (basically vertical) hillsides, where all work must be done by hand, by people literally repelling down the hills in harnesses….it’s easy to see that the cost of producing that type of wine would be much higher.  There are also many, many other costs like oak, storage, labeling, bottling, but you get the idea.

As for marketing and cache, assuming we are speaking only of quality wine (not Barefoot, Yellow Tail, etc.), we pay more for more established brands.  Silver Oak charges about $10 to $15 more for their Bien Nacido Pinot Noir than Summerland does for the exact same wine, made very similarly.  But, they are a much more well-known brand, and their marketing gets them the best ratings and visibility money can buy.  From a winery’s perspective, the more money you have, the more you have to put into marketing and paying people (Parker, Laube, etc.) to rate your wines.  In this country, ratings and visibility sells wine.  Nothing changes in the bottle, we just pay more because our culture still looks to the ‘tastemakers’ and press to tell us what we like :) .  BUT, this is why it helps so much to have even the smallest amount of general wine knowledge – we can know which brands are gouging us for quality or cache.

 

Q: Is there any information on the label apart from the varietal and appellation that can help you determine the quality of the wine?  

A: The vintage and producer can speak volumes, in addition to the varietal and region.  If we know that the winemaker at a certain winery uses American oak vs. French oak, or that they like to make a very high alcohol, fruit forward wine vs. one who favors higher acid, lower alcohol, and earth over fruit, we can choose based upon what we like to drink.  Also, some years are simply better than others.  Some years are very much worse than others.  Some years are great in one region and terrible for another.  Yet most producers make wine from each vintage.  Therefore it’s important to know (or at least look up) how the vintage was in the particular region for a wine you are considering.  Excellent producers all have bad vintages.

 

Q: Are there any varietals or regions that you think are underpriced or overpriced right now?  

A: HELL YES. Really has to do with a lot I have said above…knowing the region, vintage, winemaking style, and then looking stuff up.  For instance I know that Americans don’t really understand Spanish wine yet.  So pretty much everywhere I go, I know that I will be able to find quality Spanish wine, but it will be priced lower because it’s harder to sell in this country.  Same goes for almost all regions I mentioned in the “Underpriced Regions” paragraph below.

Overpriced Regions: Napa, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Burgundy, Champagne.  I could go on for hours about this, but the bottom line is people can’t afford to pay their premiums (relics of the days of trying to have the largest margins as possible).  People are also becoming more educated and realizing there are so many other products they like just as well or better out there.  Consumers also are rarely, if ever, aging their wines, and they are tiring of huge, oaky wines (Napa, Bordeaux).

Overpriced Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir.  Cab has been shoved down peoples throats in the media forever (Bordeaux and Napa), and we screwed the world of Pinot lovers by making the movie, Sideways.  Now the exact same wine by the same producers has doubled and tripled in price.

Underpriced Regions (Read: Regions to Buy!): SPAIN: Ribera del Duero, Rias Baixas, Penedes. US: Central Coast of California, Washington, Idaho, New York (Fingerlakes).  FR: Languedoc/Rousillon, Loire, Rhone, Provence, Alsace. IT: Gavi, Sardinia, Veneto.  Greece: anywhere.  Portugal: anywhere.  Chile: anywhere.  Slovenia: anywhere.  Argentina, South Africa: almost anywhere :) .  Australia: great value for the price, so just look up anything you see – the region is vast.

Underpriced Varietals:  Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Gamay, Cabernet Franc (except from the east coast of the US!), Pinot Meunier, Riesling (except from the Mosel!), Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Rousanne, Marsanne, Albarino.

 

Q: Has working in the wine industry affected the way you choose wine?  

A: In general, I knew nothing about wine before I got into the wine business.  In that sense it has completely affected the way I choose wine.  Being inside the business, you know the trends, who and what is hot, and actually deserves the reputation amid all the hype.  You also know more about what you like since you taste so many wine from so many different places and producers.  I am fortunate to be able to consistently select wine that works well for each occasion.  That is probably the best way the industry has had an effect on me…I no longer think, “What is the best wine?” I think, “What is the best wine for this particular set of circumstances?”  …and it’s usually Cava!  haha

 

Q: How do you feel about boxed wines?  

A: They used to be abhorrent, now many excellent producers are putting wine into bladders and boxes.  The reason is that winemaking technology and equipment has advanced so much, even in just the last ten years, that we are able to make quality wine quite cheaply.  It is not going to be a wine that lasts long, or has oak or many layers of depth.  But it will be fruity and fresh and light and delicious.  It has its place.  Like tabel wine France or Spain.

 

Q: Are there different strategies for choosing wine at a restaurant as opposed to buying a bottle at a store?  

A: Again, knowledge of producer, region and vintage will be the best tools for you so you know can know just how high a restaurant’s mark-up is, and where to look for value.  Usually wines are 50% to 100% above retail at restaurants.  That’s quite a range, so also knowing a bit about the restaurant is helpful.  You will see that certain restaurants tend toward a lower mark-up to encourage more consumption by the bottle, and other restaurants may have a higher mark-up, but great by-the-glass pricing to encourage that program.

ALSO, on that topic just quickly – beware of by-the-glass options if you have doubts about the restaurant staff.  They are the ones caring for those wines at the end of the night, and it’s more often than not you are paying $12 or $15 for a glass of wine that has been open for a couple days.  I have no shame in asking them when they opened the bottle.  If they say “I don’t know,” order beer. :)

 

Q: Do you have a favorite place to buy wine? What do you look for in a wine shop?

A: My favorite place is always the small, local, Ma & Pop type shop.  I am all for the great deals you can get at Costco or Whole Foods and such, but I really love the smaller shops whose staff really cares.  None of them make much money, and they really do it out of love, and I just want to do my little part to make sure they get to keep doing what they love.

I pulled my fair share of all-nighters when I was in college. This was aided by my discovery of coffee / coffee flavored drinks. One of my favorite drinks, served at a local coffee shop, was called a Jumping Monkey. It was a simple drink – just a banana blended with 4 shots (yes, 4) of espresso, and it fueled many a late night study session.

 

Banana Espresso Cupcakes

 

Although today I can barely stomach 2 shots of espresso (let alone 4), I haven’t forgotten the delicious banana / espresso flavor combination. So in honor of finals week, which at Pitt is this coming week, I decided to create a caffine-laced cupcake version of a Jumping Monkey, and topped it with creamy mocha frosting.

This coffee-house inspired project was not without setbacks. Banana cupcakes are tricky because the moisture-filled  banana tends to weigh down the cake, and the first iteration of the cakes turned out too dense for my taste. I even tried including egg whites beaten to stiff peaks to no avail. That’s when I decided to  try something new – meringue powder. I had some in the cupboard, as it’s often used in cookie decorating. It’s basically dehydrated egg whites with a few other additives to keep it from clumping. When mixed into batter, it adds structure and lift without adding anymore moisture. Just look at the difference it made in my banana cupcakes!

 

Meringue Powder

 

Jumping Monkey Cupcakes

(Makes about 12 cupcakes)

Ingredients
1/2 cup Unsalted Butter
3/4 cup Granulated Sugar
2 Eggs
2 ripe Bananas, mashed
1 Tbsp. Instant Espresso
2 Tbsp. Heavy Cream
1 1/2 cup Flour
2 tsp. Meringue Powder
1/4 tsp. Salt
2 tsp. Baking Powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together espresso powder and heavy cream until dissolved. Then set aside. In a large bowl cream butter and sugar until pale yellow, and then add eggs one at a time. Mix in the bananas. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining dry ingredients. Then incorporate the dry ingredients a bit at a time, and mix until fluffy. Pour the batter into floured or lined cupcake tins, and bake at 350 degrees for 18-20 min until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before frosting.

 

Easy Mocha Frosting

Ingredients
1/2 cup Butter
2 cups Powdered Sugar
2 Tbsp Instant Espresso
1/4 cup Heavy Cream
1 oz. high quality Semi-Sweet Chocolate

In a small bowl mix espresso powder and cream. Cream butter and sugar then add in espresso mixture. Melt semi-sweet chocolate in a double boiler (or carefully in the microwave). Pour melted chocolate into frosting, and mix thoroughly.

 

Banana Cupcake Mocha Frosting

 

Here’s to a smooth sailing through finals week.

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Dr. Man and I were “on the market” this year, which is just academic-speak for looking for jobs. This arduous, 6-month-long process typically culminates in February, but we somehow managed to draw it out a bit longer this year. We finalized our search two weeks ago, and I’m happy to say that Dr. Man, Professor Puppy, and I will be moving our home to Memphis, TN in May.

 

Memphis

 

As some of you already know, Dr. Man has accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, I will be teaching at Rhodes College, and our darling fur-baby will be begging for hush-puppies in the land of the delta blues . Although it will be difficult for us to say goodbye to the lovely city of Pittsburgh and all the wonderful friends that we’ve been so blessed to make, we’re excited to begin a new chapter in our lives.

In the midst of this nerve-racking yet exciting process, our family also faced the very difficult task of saying goodbye to our mother, grandmother, matriarch, and friend – Gladys Teupel. Although not unexpected, the loss was difficult nonetheless.

 

 

grandma

 

 

My most cherished memories of my grandmother revolve around food – making chokecherry jam from berries that we harvested in Black Hills National Forest, eating coffee flavored ice cream and (of course) feeding some to Sugar the dog because it was her favorite, kicking my sister out of the kitchen because she won’t stop eating the flour, and planning big holiday meals because holidays, after all, really are all about food.  Gladys passed down to me not only a love for cooking, but  a veritable treasure trove of family recipes as well. You’ve seen some of them already (pasties, sauerkraut, and my most favorite of all – pie), but there are many, many more to come.

So just know that I haven’t abandoned you – my internet friends. I simply paused in mid-Feburary to catch my breath, and low-and-behold, here we are – rapidly approaching the end of March. But I guess that’s life.

 

I’ve been dying to use Trader Joe’s Coconut Cream, ever since I first saw it on the shelves a couple months ago.

 

 

Ingredients

 

These taquitos turned out to be a perfect application. The sweet potato puree  - flavored with roasted garlic, dry roasted chile de arbol, and coconut cream – makes a perfectly creamy filling for crispy rolled corn tortillas. The black beans add a little substance, and the coconut avocado cream… do really need to say anything else besides Coconut. Avocado. Cream. Yum!

 

sweet potato taquitos

 

The only disappointment is that taquitos are a pain in the butt to photograph. Maybe it’s because I was tired and hungry, and not feeling very creative, but after taking just a couple pictures, I gave up and chowed down. Anyway, you’re just going to have to trust me that they are amazing. I’m honestly a little bit taken aback every time I bite into these crunchy, but fanstastically creamy taquitos. They are pretty much, the perfect party food.

I’ve taken them to one party so far (definitely a show stopper), but they violate one of my cardinal hosting rules – “never let them see you deep fry”.  Luckily, although they are best if fried right before serving, you can fry them ahead of time, and then reheat in the oven before serving. I’ve included instructions for reheating below. You can also use heavy whipping cream as a 1:1 substitute for the coconut cream if you don’t like coconut (what??) or if you don’t live near a Trader Joe’s (I pity you).

 

avocado coconut cream

 

Spicy Sweet Potato and Black Been Taquitos

(Makes 12-18 Taquitos)

Ingredients
2 lbs of Sweet Potatoes
3/4 cup of Coconut Cream, whisked
1 medium bulb of Garlic
1 – 1 1/2 tsp. Chile Powder (I use fresh roasted Chile de Arbol)
1 tsp. Salt
1/4 tsp. Black Pepper
12 oz. can of Black Beans (low sodium)
12-18 Corn Tortillas
Canola Oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the tops off of the bulb of garlic, so that each of the cloves is exposed. Place the garlic in a oven safe dish, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Add about a 1/4 inch of water and cover with foil. I recommend roasting more than one bulb, because it will keep in the fridge (or freezer) for quite some time.

Pop the garlic in the oven along with the sweet potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Remove from the oven and allow sweet potatoes to cool for at least 15 min, and you should be able to slide the skin right off.

Put the pealed sweet potatoes in the food processor, and blend. Add 3/4 of a cup of coconut cream, and blend until smooth. Squeeze the roasted garlic out, and blend into the sweet potato mixture. Mix in the chile powder, salt and pepper, and scoop out into a bowl. Rinse the black beans in a colander, and stir them into the sweet potato puree.

You will need to warm the corn tortillas, so that they are soft and easy to roll. You should heat them without oil  - more detailed instructions can be found here.  Put about 1/4 of a cup of the sweet potato mixture into the middle of each tortilla, roll tightly, and secure with a toothpick.

Pour about 1” of canola oil into a pan and heat to 350 degrees. Fry the taquitos until golden brown on each side, remove, and place on paper towels to drain. Remove the toothpick before serving.

The taquitos are best if served immediately after frying. Alternatively, place them on a cookie sheet, cover, and put in the fridge. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the taquitos for 10-12 min. and serve warm. You can also freeze extra taquitos, just add a few minutes to the cook time.

 

Coconut Avocado Cream

Ingredients
1 ripe Avocado
3/4 cup Coconut Cream
Pinch of Salt
2 tsp Lime Juice

Place avocado in the food processor, and blend. Add the coconut cream and blend until smooth and creamy. You may need to use a spatula to push the avocado down the sides.  Blend in the lime juice and salt.

Oh my goodness. I am so excited to share these with you.

 

Raspberry Jam Roll

 

Way back in August one of my oldest friends (Hi Scott!) went to Japan to visit his wife, and posted a stream of mesmerizing photos of Japanese food. I love learning about what people eat in different countries – especially what they eat for dessert. One of the most interesting foods that he shared was fruit flavored “cinnamon” rolls. No cinnamon. Just fruit. I knew immediately that it was something that I wanted to try.

 

Pan of Raspberry Lemon Rolls

 

It only took me 4 months, but I finally got around to making them a few weeks ago, and they were fabulous.  I love, Love, LOVE  the raspberry – lemon combination, especially this time of year, when everything outside is so cold and dreary. I can eat these and pretend that it sunny springtime. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, these raspberry lemon rolls would be a perfect Easter treat.

 

Pan full of Raspberry Rolls

 

I’m not going to lie to you, these take a fair amount of time to make since you have to allow the dough to rise twice. Because of that, I’m not sure I would attempt them for breakfast, but if you really wanted to, I think you could prep them, and let them rise  the night before, and then pop them in the fridge overnight before baking them off in the morning. It was a fun Sunday afternoon activity for me, and I’m happier having something sweet for dessert anyway.

 

Raspberry Lemon Rolls

 

Anyway, you should definitely make these, and you should definitely do it as soon as possible. Just looking at these pictures… I am totally craving some raspberry rolls right now. Ugh! I might just have to whip up another batch this weekend. Anyway, now that I’ve gotten past cinnamon, I feel like a whole new world of rolls has been opened up to me. And I can’t wait to try some new flavor combinations. That’s exciting, but also a little scary because I have no idea what to do next.

 

DSCN7169

 

Lemon Raspberry Rolls

(Adapted from Paula Deen’s Cinnamon Rolls)

Ingredients

1 scant Tbsp (or 1 1/4 oz. Packet) Instant Dry Yeast
1/2 cup warm Water (about 110 degrees)
1/2 cup Milk
1/4 cup Granulated Sugar
1/3 cup Unsalted Butter, melted
1 tsp. Salt
1 large Egg
3 1/2 cup Flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup seedless Raspberry Jam

2 cups Powdered Sugar
2 Tbsp. Unsalted Butter, melted
1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp. Lemon Zest
2 Tbsp. Lemon Juice
2 Tbsp. Milk or Heavy Cream

 

Mix the yeast with warm water, and set aside to proof.

In a small saucepan, heat the milk until bubbles just begin to form around the sides of the pan, and then remove from heat.

In a large bowl, mix the scalded milk, sugar, butter, salt, egg, and 2 cups of flour. Mix in the proofed yeast. Note: If no bubbles have formed on the yeast, it is probably dead. You should throw it out and start over with fresh yeast.

Mix in the remaining 1 1/2 cup of flour, and scoop the dough onto a well floured surface. Kneed the dough for about 5 min. until it becomes elastic. Then place in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

Once doubled. Roll the dough out on a floured surface into a rectangle that is about 18” x 9”. Spread the jam evenly over the dough, and roll up the long end of the rectangle. You should now have a log that is about 18” long, and trim a couple inches off of each end. Using a sharp knife, cut 1” rolls, and place into a greased pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover the rolls and allow to rise until doubled in size (about 30 min.) Then bake at 350 for 30 min. until golden brown.

While the rolls cool, mix up the glaze – powdered sugar, melted butter, vanilla extract, lemon juice and zest, and heavy cream. Once cool, pour the lemon glaze over the raspberry rolls, and enjoy!

 

DSCN7182

 

Why should cinnamon have all the swirly fun anyway?

 

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