For better or worse, here I am—trapped in paradise. As long as I continue to live in this vital, inimitable spot on the globe,

I will continue to seek out the unique…the delicious…the innovative products, services and traditions of San Luis Obispo County.

Stay posted for a few of my favorite things.

About Me...

My photo
A wanderlust at heart... captivated by the California Central Coast. Join me on my culinary and vino-infused adventures as I explore and discover the regional novelties of San Luis Obispo County that make living here...easy to stay...and hard to leave.

Monday, December 21, 2009

SLO Austere

With a major holiday only a few days away and the end of the year sneaking up on me, I realize my Christmas cards remain unsent and my gifts for loved ones have yet to be purchased. But still I found time over the weekend to experiment with a family member’s traditional holiday recipe—a dense, moist, spicy dessert containing an exotic yet austere ingredient that reminded me of another life.

In the summer of 1995 I still remember stepping from an airplane into the sweltering humidity of Toyama Prefecture, a territory on earth known for such regional novelties as white shrimp, towering Alps, ornate woodwork, and delicious water. I embarked on my three-year journey in rural Japan, soon discovering seasonal habits and new crops that changed with the seasons.

During the fall, on a certain day in October—just like clock-work—my fellow teachers and students would suddenly appear in long-sleeve shirts and jackets, regardless of the temperature. Almost overnight, vending machines that once sold cold summery drinks of soda and tea transformed into hot beverage outlets. With the wet, snowy winter just around the bend, autumn boasted splendid colors of orange, yellow, and red on the mountainside (as if to tease the inevitable white blanket of snow). Fall also brought the beautiful burnt orange hue and seductive taste of the…persimmon.
The first time a Japanese friend offered me a crisp slice of the sublime, satisfying fuyu persimmon, this “true berry” tasted unlike any other fruit I’d ever tried. When my mother came to visit, her train rides in late November brought austere sightings of persimmon trees, with unadorned tree limbs stripped of leaves and beautiful orange kaki gently pulling the sparse branches. During this past weekend in San Luis Obispo County, she drove past a splendid persimmon tree, reminiscent of what she witnessed in a foreign land almost thirteen years ago.

The following recipe, contributed by my mom’s sister, Pam, allowed me to seek out the heart-shaped hachiya persimmon at my local SLO County farmer’s market. Pam originally received this seasonal union of ingredients from her family friend, Aunt Lou. Years ago, when Pam and her best friend, Colleen, would travel to Manhattan Beach, Colleen’s Aunt Lou always accompanied them to ensure they would “be good.” Pam reminisced that back then Aunt Lou seemed so old to her, although Pam believes she is now the same age as her. Each year, two days before Christmas, Aunt Lou would make the following recipe. My Aunt Pam carries on the tradition.

From one country to another…one generation to another…the austere persimmon astounds.

SLO Persimmon Pudding with Lemon Sauce
Original Recipe by Aunt Lou
Perfected by Aunt Pam

2 cups hachiya persimmon pulp—discard the skins
(These persimmons need to be very ripe. I found five at a local farmer’s market. When I happened upon a vendor with a whole box of ripe persimmons, he carefully checked and found five wonderful, mushy pieces of fruit that he felt would be right for the purposes of my recipe. When I assembled this in my kitchen, this fruit was so ripe I was able to squish the orange flesh right out of the skins).

4 eggs
½ cup butter (1 stick melted)
¾ cup milk
1 spoon vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
1 cup chopped nuts
(I used raw walnuts fresh from the farmer's market)
½ cup chopped dates

Thoroughly whisk wet ingredients in medium-sized bowl. Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry and combine. Add walnuts and dates last.

Preheat oven to 350 and butter a 9 x 13 glass pan. Spread ingredients and bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.

Lemon Sauce
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup boiling water

While pudding is baking, prepare lemon sauce by bringing water to boil and adding all ingredients. Whisk until incorporated and stir constantly until the sauce thickens (about five minutes).

My Aunt Pam recommends letting this recipe sit for two days to let the flavors meld. (I stuck mine in the fridge for that amount of time). I then served up a delicious slice, gently drizzled with lemon sauce, delighting in the dense fruity texture, the complex spices, and the tart citrus accent. Although the definition of austere is “severely simple; without ornament,” this dessert, containing one of my favorite austere ingredients, is anything but the contrary.
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, November 20, 2009

SLO Insomnia

Sleep deprivation can prove fruitful. As the moon and stars hover silently over San Luis Obispo County and my waking hour of two approaches each night, these quiet hours bestow the gift of time. Although my weary body and groggy mind hope slumber will soon return, until I drift off to sleep again, my thoughts flourish. Sometimes during the wee small hours of darkness I waste time worrying. Other nights my best ideas surface.

A few nights ago as I lay awake, the gleeful anticipation of an upcoming short work-week and the traditions of Thanksgiving settled in. Glimpses of fall-colored, tempting traditional recipes took shape in my mind and I dreamed up the following SLO medley. I attempted this recipe over the weekend and achieved stellar results. Ironically, I'll be dining out for this year's autumn harvest festival with family and won't have an opportunity to put this vibrant, healthy soup on the table next Thursday; but I offer up this recipe—wishing you a wonderful holiday, a bountiful feast, much to give thanks for...and a good night's sleep.

SLO Roasted Apple & Pumpkin Soup

1 - 29 ounce can pure pumpkin

Feel free to bake your own fresh pumpkin—you will need about 2 1/2 cups.

3 medium-sized apples, cored & sliced (feel free to leave the skins on)

I used organic Pink Lady apples fresh from the farmer's market that morning. The crisp, sweet yet slightly tart flesh makes for a good baking apple.

1 heaping tablespoon raw honey (I used Stoltey's mixed floral)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or grapeseed oil)

2 medium shallots

1 medium onion

2 stalks celery

2 large carrots
I used a combination of 4 smallish-sized SLO organic purple, white & orange carrots.

32 ounces vegetable stock

8 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

Red pepper flakes to taste
Go easy if you don't like it spicy, but this sweet & savory combination of flavors benefits from some heat.

Salt & pepper to taste

Organic cream (or crème fraîche) for garnish

Heat oven to 350˚F. Chop apples & shallots, toss in baking dish with 2 tablespoons oil, honey, salt & pepper to taste. (If you feel this is a strange combination, you're just going to have to trust me). Bake for 40 - 45 minutes, until apples are tender when pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, heat large pot over medium heat with 2 tablespoons oil. Chop and throw in onion, celery, carrots, salt & pepper, and red pepper flakes. Stir frequently, about 20 - 25 minutes. When veggies are flaccid, add sage leaves and pumpkin pie spice; stir for a few minutes and turn off heat. When apple & shallot mixture come out of the oven, reheat pot and add apples. Sautée with veggies for about 5 minutes. Your kitchen should be fragrant...your stomach growling...your mouth drooling.

Add a cup of vegetable broth to deglaze the carmelized bits from the bottom of the pan and bring up the myriad fall flavors. Add remaining broth and can of pumpkin, add a bit more salt, slap on a lid, lower heat, and simmer for about 60 minutes to let flavors fuse—tasting frequently and adjusting seasonings as needed (you might need more salt & pepper depending on your preference). Cool and transfer to blender and purée. Serve with a dollop of cream and sprinkle with parsley.

This substantial, almost bisque-like soup starter will feed a small group of pilgrims (possibly 8 - 10, depending on size of bowls) and has the potential to turn out thick enough to be served as a side dish. This pumpkin jumble will taste even better the next day, so feel free to make it the day before Thanksgiving and reheat.

This creamy autumn soup wouldn't be complete without a nicely paired SLO County wine. I recently discovered a pleasant, affordable white Rhone blend while tasting in downtown Paso Robles at The Paso Wine Centre. This retail location features over 40 wines dispensed by Enomatic tasting machines, many from SLO County wineries with no tasting rooms, and donates 100% of net proceeds to clean drinking projects around the world.

During this festive time of year, I felt especially good about supporting a noble cause. My purchase of Barrel 27 Wine Company's 2008 High on the Hog ($15) unified mix of Paso Robles appellation Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, and Marsanne varietals blessed the meal. Possessing a light golden hue and exuding a fresh citrus floral nose, the flowery notes of this well-balanced, weighty blend left lingering touches of honey and lemon, with a hint of mineral essence.

Count your blessings and enjoy. I wish you the happiest Thanksgiving yet!

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

SLO Seasons

I'm full of seasonal habits. And I like to eat that way, too. As the days grow shorter and the Saturday morning San Luis Obispo farmer's market vendors continue to offer up oddish-shaped squash...varietals of striking orange persimmons...crisp freshly-picked apples and other customary fall indulgences—autumn lingers in the air. During this cooler time of year I realize how much I crave warm, spicy combinations of SLO veggies, simmered slowly with whatever appealing and unique concoctions I conjur up.

Today's weather, with its sunny overtones and chilly nuances, felt like chili and beer. The following experimental recipe, consisting of beans, vegetables and a balanced mixture of slightly exotic spices, resulted in the perfect seasonal dish on a cool fall day. I look forward to further enchanting fall and winter creations, influenced by the weather and seasonal produce. Enjoy a bowl of my following SLO fusion with friends and family, served with your favorite beer.

SLO Vegan* Chili

1 - 15 ounce can black beans
1 - 15 ounce can chili beans in sauce (or use Ranch Style beans)
1 - 28 ounce can crushed tomotoes
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
1/2 bottle of your favorite beer
1 large onion
2 shallots
5 cloves garlic
1 large red bell pepper
1 medium-sized halapeno
1/2 teaspoon cinammon
3/4 teaspoon cumin (I bought SLOCAL: The Spice Hunter)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (The Spice Hunter)
1 tablespoon chili powder
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt & pepper to taste

*Vegan = no animal products

I had every intention of making this chili with ground beef, but life doesn't always work out the way we plan. Feel free to brown 1/2 pound lean ground beef with the veggies for extra flavor and protein.

Chop veggies. Heat a large pot with oil over medium heat, add vegetables and stir with salt & pepper and all spices. Open a bottle of beer and sip frequently. Sweat veggies for about 15 - 20 minutes. Your kitchen should be fragrant by now, your bottle of beer half gone. Add remaining beer to veggies, stirring frequently to remove the cooked, tasty bits of spices adhering to the bottom of the pan. Meanwhile, open cans of beans and crushed tomoatoes. Dump into veggie and spice mixture. Stir, cover with lid, and simmer for as long as possible to let flavors meld—at least 2 hours if possible.

Serves 2 - 4. Consider serving cornbread on the side. And don't forget your favorite beer.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

SLO Frolick

Unexpected discoveries help keep life smooth, even when the road traveled is a bit bumpy. Recently, as my mother and I drove off the beaten path of San Luis Obispo County—lost, confused, and in search of a small winery located on top of Frog Pond Mountain on the west side of Atascadero—I wondered if our final destination was within reach. But finally, just when we had given up hope, we stumbled upon the right course, leading us to the home of Frolicking Frog (formerly EROS Cellars), Atascadero’s only winery.

Perched obscurely amongst oak trees and surrounded by stunning hillside views, we began to understand how “a fine wine begins with nature’s blessings and virtuous expectations.” Our gracious hosts for the afternoon, winemaker Stu Goldman and marketing and sales director Maria Montijo-Goldman, greeted us at their lovely home and winery, paying no mind to our 45-minute late arrival. Open only by appointment, they welcomed us with open arms. Although my mother and I already had the pleasure of tasting a few of Frolicking Frog’s smooth, delicious wines at SLO County events during the past year, we had no idea what an indulgent and educational afternoon lay ahead.

Stu and Maria led us to their quaint winery facility, full of American oak barrels brimming with ageing wine and vats of fermenting grapes. Removing the lid of one of the tanks of crushed Zinfandel and stirring its fragrant purple mash, Stu allowed us to revel in the awesome sight (and scent) of fermenting fruit. Melded for about two weeks, this spicy varietal would soon be barrel-aged for two years before bottling. This year, utilizing only Paso Robles appellation grapes, their annual production of 400 cases will include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Zinfandel. These winemakers—who originally only produced Cabernet Sauvignon—have come a long way.

Moving to their stunning property almost 20 years ago (which now includes goats, dogs, cats, chickens, and wind chimes—to ward off rattlesnakes), Stu recounted why he started making wine, pointing to the Mission grapevines they inherited with the acreage, growing just beyond their house and laughed, “If life gives you lemons, what are you going to do?” After experimenting as home winemakers for several years, they went commercial in 2003 with Cabernet Sauvignon, venturing out in 2006 to include other varietals.

Stu’s “hobby gone wild” now keeps him busy, in addition to his full-time responsibilities as a goldsmith. Visiting vineyards throughout the year, Stu tastes for complexity and keeps an eye on the quality of the grapes he chooses to purchase. Close to harvest-time, he tests the ph and acid levels. Stu recounted that although this year ph levels were off and acids were low, creating more of a challenge to make a good wine, his confidence to create quality wine remained high. We soon got a taste of the past successful fruits of his labor.

Stu and Maria seated us at their stunning outdoor tasting facility next to the winery, where we readied ourselves for seven wines. The first pour, a taste of their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($18), yielded a light buttery hue; a soft bouquet of vanilla, apricot, and honey; and a silky taste with notes of light citrus, vanilla, and stone fruit. As we moved on to their red varietals, the buttery vanilla nuances of their low-tannin American-oaked wines became a familiar theme, yielding smooth, creamy flavors. The 2006 Syrah ($27) splashed the color of cherries in our glasses, also hinting of cherries on the nose and palate, and alluded to a caramel finish. This pleasant red wine warmed up our palates.

The next taste, their 2006 Cabernet Franc ($26)—one of my favorite varietals—exhibited a rich, lush berry hue with a beautiful raspberry nose. Its lovely, smooth, caramel and buttery flavors finished with sweet berry undertones. The 2006 Zinfandel ($30) exhibited a soft purple tinge and light fragrance of berries and cinnamon, displaying smooth, buttery qualities with a spicy zing on the finish, reminiscent of a traditional Zin.

The fifth indulgence, a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), exuded both a smack and shade of rich, dark berries. But its bold cherry and soft vanilla flavors left a smooth, mellow finish. The 2006 Petite Syrah ($32) played out with beautiful deep plum hues, wafting of berry and vanilla and its smooth, buttery qualities mischievously finished with fun, peppery undertones. And the last treat of the day—the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)—left us impressed with its robust berry color, nose and smooth flavor.

According to Stu, these smooth wines with soft tannins and balanced acids make for nice food-friendly wines. I couldn’t agree more. Meticulously picking out the stems before fermentation and utilizing particular yeasts to keep the tannins low (tannins act as a preservative), Frolicking Frog’s smooth, sip-friendly red wines can be stored for a maximum of five years. I purchased several bottles to take home with me in anticipation of future meals. I paired my following recipe with their 2006 Cabernet Franc, which yielded smooth, delicious results.

SLO Stuffed Peppers

8 bell or pasilla peppers
1 cup brown rice (cook 1 cup according to package directions with 1 cube vegetable bullion—I used basmati)
1 ½ cups red or black beans (cook according to package directions with 1 cube vegetable bullion—or use 1 or 2 small cans of your favorite pre-cooked beans)
1 large chopped halapeno
1—2 chopped chipotle peppers in adobe sauce (omit if you don’t like it too spicy)
A friend recently informed me that I enjoy spicy food so much because I’m a Scorpio.
½ cup chopped sweet onion
2 large chopped shallots
3 chopped cloves garlic
2 teaspoons sweet (or smoked) paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
6 tablespoons grape seed oil or extra virgin olive oil (reserve 4 tablespoons)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 cups shredded cheese (reserve ½ cup)
(I used an aged, semi-hard goat cheese with soft flavors—use your favorite cheese)

Cool cooked rice and beans. Heat medium sautée pan with 2 tablespoons oil. Add halapeno, chipotle peppers, onion, shallots, garlic, paprika, oregano,and salt & pepper. Stir frequently, about 10 - 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350˚F. Cut stems of peppers off and scoop out seeds. On a large baking sheet or glass pan, coat with 2 tablespoons oil. When sautéed mixture is translucent, mix in with rice and beans. Add 1½ cups of cheese and mix. Stuff peppers and place on baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with salt & pepper, and cover with alumimun foil. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes, until peppers are tender when pierced with a fork. Cool slightly, serve with remaing shredded cheese melted on top.

This recipe proved delectable with the Cabernet Franc. Paired with a spicy meal, the wine boasted a syrupy feel; its underlying smooth qualities offset the spiciness of the pasilla peppers and beautifully accented the light earthy tone of the goat cheese.

If you plan a visit to Frolicking Frog, please call ahead for an appointment and directions. Once you arrive, you'll be grateful you made the trek to experience these smooth wines on the top of Frog Pond Mountain!

Consider joining the "Horny Frogs" wine club, ensuring members three bottles of wine, twice a year! You can also find their wine at various grocery stores and restaurants throughout SLO County. Look for these details on their website, including online ordering and delicious wine recipes.

Stu and Maria associate winemaking "like a journey and expression of the appreciation of art."

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SLO Spicy

There's no doubt about it: I'm a workaholic. Or, maybe simply an "Elizaholic" as a friend recently described me, which apparently doesn't convey a connotation quite as grim. Regardless, I tend to take on too much, ignore my own needs, and eventually my body screams for a break, allowing pesky airborne bugs to invade my normally tranquil immune system and bring me to a halt.

Over the last ten days I've worked my tail off to build someone else's business; attended the Cuesta College Writers' Conference; spent time editing and submitting a story by a fellow JET Alumni for Sushi and Sake Magazine; stressed about my up-and-coming close of escrow and unexpected expenses; spent time with family and friends; and repeatedly driven to the far reaches of San Luis Obispo County, bringing local wineries a glimpse of exciting wine and film events that will transpire in March as we prepare for the 16th Annual San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Sometimes I have to remind myself to eat.

This afternoon, as my run-down body screamed for some TLC and the paranoia of catching the swine flu increased every time I turned on the news, I decided to brew up a batch of tasty, anti-oxidant rich, spicier-than-hell chicken soup...guaranteed to scare off any bug that dared to attack my cells. I vaguely remembered a Rachael Ray recipe for Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup that I used to enjoy and decided to throw a few key ingredients together to provide my weary body with a much-needed fiery elixir. Simple. Flavorsome. Beneficial. Be well!

SLO Spicy Fall Soup

Use organic ingredients whenever possible...

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large sweet onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 chopped chipotle peppers in adobe sauce
(buy a small can and freeze the remaining peppers)
28 oz. can crushed tomotoes
32 oz. vegetable or chicken broth
16 oz. mixed frozen vegetables of your choice
(I haven't had time to visit the farmer's market these past few weeks)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
Salt & pepper to taste

Sautée onion, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, and oregano over medium heat in a large pot until onion is translucent (10 - 15 minutes). Add chicken and stir often for 10 additional minutes. Add remaning ingredients, stir well, and cover pot. Reduce to low heat and simmer for 45 minutes - 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Ladel into bowl and cool slightly before imbibing. This recipe will feed 4 - 6 people and pairs nicely with a loaf of heated whole-grain bread drizzled with olive oil. Leftovers freeze well, or let the flavors meld in the fridge overnight for an even tastier (and spicier!) lunch or dinner the next day.

Spicy on the tongue. Hot on the finish. Prepare to feel better.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

SLO Wine Cooked

SLO = San Luis Obispo
Vin = Wine
Cuit = Cooked
The contemporary world shrinks a bit each day. As modern technology brings us all closer with the click of a mouse and the bright globe we live on continues to grow smaller, perhaps the events of this past week further demonstrate how connected we really are, even when separated by thousands of miles. During a recent visit to San Luis Obispo by my brother Matthew and his wife Viviane (who live in the beautiful wine region of Rolle, Switzerland), Matthew amused me when he shared that their local Swiss grocery store sells several wines from Paso Robles. How appropriate then, that he and Viviane brought us a traditional Swiss ingredient—Vin Cuit ("wine cooked," or "cooked wine" if you prefer)—transporting a slice of French-Swiss culture across the world to SLO County.

On the first night of their visit, my mom opened the carton of thick, syrupy Vin Cuit and followed a Swiss recipe provided by Viviane's sister, Nadine, to construct a traditional dessert that yielded a rich, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth pie with lingering tastes of fruit and raisins. Curious about this dark, molasses-like ingredient, we went online and found that the name is misleading, as Vin Cuit contains no wine. According to Wikipedia, this concentrated fruit syrup common in the Swiss Alps, made from pear, apple, or sometimes grape juice, is used in place of sugar in several desserts. Manufactured in large cauldrons and slowly heated for 12 – 36 hours, the juice cooks down to a viscous concentrate, resembling the consistency of molasses and exudes a strong, intense fruity smell.

Further curiosity led me to attempt to replicate Vin Cuit, SLO-style. The process was indeed slow and I warn you that this recipe is not for the impatient-minded cook—I spent several hours in the kitchen this weekend, hovering over my Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grape juice concoction as it toiled and bubbled down to its desired syrupy-like consistency. The next time I have the inclination to simmer juice into Vin Cuit, I'll prepare a quadruple batch to keep on hand, as it will keep for at least a few weeks in the refrigerator.

But the fruits of my labor paid off. After the pie was set and cooled, I cut a piece for myself and took a bite of this delectable, one-of-a-kind dessert, deeming my efforts a success. How sweet to meld a traditional Swiss recipe with the local flair and vibrant flavor of Paso Robles wine grapes, connecting two regions across the globe. As the dessert melted in my mouth, I thought about how much everyone enjoyed Matthew and Viviane's recent visit, and couldn’t help but feel grateful for having the best of both worlds—a wonderful life in beautiful SLO wine country, and future visits to look forward to in the equally-impressive Swiss wine provinces.

SLO Vin Cuit Pie
(Adapted from Nadine's Swiss recipe brought to us from her sister, Viviane)

3 cups wine grape juice
(I went SLOCAL: Mill Road by Monahan Family Farm, Paso Robles Winegrape Juice, Cabernet/Syrah)
1 cup verjus (see past article)
Dash or two of cinnamon
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 ready-made pie crust dough

In a medium saucepan, bring grape juice and verjus to a boil. Reduce to a light simmer and stir frequently to prevent scorching, for 3 – 4 hours, until mixture reduces to a thick syrup (you will be left with about 1 cup). Add cinnamon, stir and remove from heat and cool. Pour into glass jar and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until the consistency thickens. After cooling, whisk 4 tablespoons of SLO Vin Cuit with sweetened condensed milk and whipping cream until thoroughly incorporated. Set in refrigerator for at least 1 hour (or overnight).

Although the traditional Swiss Vin Cuit is thick enough to cut with a knife, mine produced a consistency thicker than syrup but not quite as heavy as molasses; delicious nonetheless.

When you're ready to make the pie, heat oven to 400˚F. Shape pie-crust in pie pan, cover with a single layer of dried beans (to prevent crust from puffing up so that you end up with a flat, smooth surface for this delectably creamy filling) and bake in pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. Remove crust from oven and discard beans. Pour SLO Vin Cuit pie mixture in crust and bake for an additional 8 - 10 minutes (until center is set). Cool, slice and serve at room temperature along with fresh grapes and your favorite glass of Port. Voila!
Matthew and Viviane brought their own Swiss-American creation on their recent visit—my little nephew Kylian! What a blessing!

Matthew in Switzerland, wandering the lush orchards and vineyards.

Swiss-terraced vineyards near Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

SLO Fuzion

The Universe knows me well. As it gently nudges and provides direction to my inner instincts, my quest to seek out the exceptional creations of San Luis Obispo County continues to unfold. This weekend, on a whim, a minor impulse led me to drive into the warmer temperatures of Paso Robles, down the scenic, vineyard-strewn stretch of Highway 46 West. Although my ultimate destination was clear—an intriguing, mysterious winery I’d recently heard of that claimed wines “infused with spirit”—little did I realize what exceptional unexpected novelties, tailored to my personal tastes, awaited me.

After pulling into the vineyard’s parking lot, the flourishing backdrop of rolling acres of grapevines surrounding the charming farm-style buildings set a welcoming tone. Wandering past the grassy lawn towards a tall, ominous crooked tree-house, I knew I’d stumbled on something out of the ordinary. I continued on my path of discovery, meandering along a pathway of pink stone slabs that guided me to the genius of Vinfuzion Wines.

Pleasantly greeted outside by Vinfuzion's humble servant, Mark Pietri—a musician in a former and current life, also known as the Vin-dude—I was invited in to their austere tasting room, where immediately I felt a sense of East meets West, a balance of yin and yang (reminding me of the shops I used to frequent while living in Japan). Noticing the light wooden tasting bar adorned with gemstones, the smooth stone sculptures set on either side of the room, and the serene artwork hung throughout, I seated myself on a planked wooden seat and relaxed in this tranquil, peaceful setting. Mark encouraged me to take my time through the tastings and “dance with the wine.”

Over the next hour, my slow dance with the nuances of Vinfuzion’s cleverly-crafted, well-balanced creations, allowed me to savor and learn about eight of their wines, some of them delicately infused with enlightening botanical substances, all of them fined over energetic gemstones. Mark explained that their wines remain "fruit first" and the essence of botanicals doesn't change the flavor, but enhances the taste, adding an extra "note." The use of finishing their wines over crystals softens the tannins, shifting the "mouth feel" and adding energy. These unique techniques stem from the creativity and diverse background of his sister, Pamela Pietri—the Proprietor and Vin-Alchemist. A former writer and acupuncturist who stumbled upon the art of winemaking several years ago after attending a harvest, her newest endeavor as a Paso winemaker extraordinaire has resulted in a fusion of her Eastern-based medical training combined with the process of transmuting grapes into wine.

Although infused wines and the use of stones date back centuries (Ancient Greeks put amethyst in their goblets, thinking it would keep them sober), Vinfuzion’s unparalled creations of the spirit are a modern marvel. Producing 1200 - 1800 cases per year, their wines are crafted from organic, bio-dynamic grapes, contain minimal amounts of sulfites, and their vineyards are carefully watched over by Steve Brown—the Source du Vin—who oversees 33 acres of Viognier and Syrah vines.

Much to my delight, I learned that all of their white wines hail from their Estate-grown Viognier—my favorite varietal! This Northern Rhone grape, typically exuding tropical flavors and a creamy mouthfeel, is crafted in small, carefully-monitored batches by Vinfuzion. My first taste of their Isla VI ($32), a delectable stainless-steel aged 2006 Viognier fined over Peridot crystals (used as a “power stone” for centuries), radiated a light hue and soft peach nose, creating a feast for the senses. Dry, and exuding exotic flavors of vanilla and citrus with a clean almond finish and soft feel, this enchanting Viognier was unlike any other I’d ever experienced.

The next pour led me to the graces of Archangel VI ($38), another luscious Viognier. The infusion of Angelica, a botanical touted in ancient scripts to foster longevity, imparted a refreshing fragrance and rich golden hue. The syrupy feel and undertones of caramel flavor, along with its dry, clean mineral finish with hints of lingering botanicals, left an elegant impression. Archangel VII ($38), Vinfuzion’s newest release of Angelica-infused Viognier, was fined over Celestite (a crystal touted for its harmonious properties). This fragrant, fruity yet dry, smooth wine with a light finish, hinted of peaches in the background.

Next we forayed into the unusual—their Rosé—a blend of free-run Syrah and one percent splash of Petite Verdot. Romeo VIII ($18) romanced me in its glass, showing off a lustrous caramel, orangish hue. The nose of berries, fragrant roses, and a light essence of rich caramel readied me to imbibe, where I found its dry charcoal qualities offset by floral undertones. This one-of-a-kind wine left me stymied for food pairing ideas.

We moved on, my palate now warmed and ready for reds. Vinfuzion’s Estate-grown Syrah, blended with Clarksburg Petite Syrah and elegantly infused with Mimosa flowers for serenity and calmness, resulted in Om VI ($46). Fined over Herkimer diamond, a quartz crystal renowned for manifestation energies, this unified mix chanted notes of an alluring medium-berry hue; a light, fruity and flowery scent; flavors of blackberry, cherry and spiced chocolate with a hint of Petite Syrah popping in the background; and flowers lingering on the finish. “Om really is where the art is,” as Mark suggested.

The use of Clarksburg Petite Syrah was artfully blended again, this time with Paso Robles Petite Verdot. Obsidian VI ($58), fined over the jet black layers of Obsidian glass, resulted in a velvety concoction, emanating a gorgeous deep purple hue. The waft and taste of berries, as well as lingering hints of smoke, chocolate, and warm spices, was sublime. And if that wasn’t enough, Mark further tantalized my senses by introducing me to some of Vinfuzion’s dessert wines.

Solstice IV ($45), a “Cigar Wine,” crafted from barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon from the Adelaida region, resulted in a medium-hued, caramel-colored, after-dinner wine exuding a nose of berries. Not overly sweet, leaving a delicious chocolate berry finish, I conjured up images of dark Swiss chocolate. The next and final wine, Telos VI ($75), was pure heaven. This slightly syrupy, sweet late harvest Viognier, exhibited all the divine nuances of honey, with enduring hints of exotic spices on the tongue. Named for the Lemurian city located inside Mt. Shasta, Telos truly lives up to its meaning: Communion with the Divine.

In ancient times, alchemists sought the transmutation of common metals into gold as well as transpired to achieve wisdom. I found a contemporary version of this philosophy at Vinfuzion. My impromptu North County SLO tasting adventure led me on a destined journey, where I encountered genuine hospitality, allowing me to truly "dance" with these wines and rediscover my favorite varietal. I learned how the metamorphosis of carefully-tended grapes, infused and fined with exotic, ancient traditions, brilliantly transforms into energetic, spirited innovations. The talented trio at Vinfuzion make a difference by embracing the values of spirited wine...promising to infuse your core!

Now in its fifth vintage, Vinfuzion is the oldest bio-dynamic vineyard in Paso Robles. Their organic grapes receive no pesticides or chemicals and all of their natural grasses are left in place, leaving the soil intact. Hence, there is no need to net their grapes to keep the birds from devouring their crops; with the complete eco-system intact, the birds are provided with their natural fodder and have everything they need.

Visit Vinfuzion's peaceful tasting room Friday, Saturday & Sunday from 11am - 5pm.
Tasting fee is $10 for 6 tastings, waived with the purchase of two bottles.

Located at 2485 Highway 46 West in Paso Robles, this barn-style building is home to both Vinfuzion Wines and Lone Madrone Winery tasting rooms.

Join Vinfuzion on the lawn the evening of Friday, September 11, for a screening of "1 Giant Leap," an ambitious project that travels the world collecting inspirational music, images and insights from musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, etc. In association with Hopedance Films, admission is $7 dollars. Wine is available by the glass for $8 and bottles are available for purchase at 10% off. Food is also available for purchase, provided by Pier 46 Seafood. Don't forget to bring a lawn chair!

Vinfuzion is the Spirit of Wine!

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

SLO Medley

My culinary plan of action for an upcoming family meal, thwarted by a lack of green tomatoes at the local farmer’s market, left me wandering aimlessly in desperate search of a new recipe idea. After the organic basil vendor commented, “You look so serious today,” I realized I needed to get it together. I turned to the rows of fresh, shiny fruits and veggies for inspiration. What looked especially good?

My eye caught some earthy golden beets, fresh out of the ground, attached to long, leafy stems. Maybe a sweet roasted beet salad drenched in a tangy vinaigrette would be a flavorful, healthy choice. Next stop: I found some bright, vibrant green limes, and then meandered a bit more. Pausing at a fruit stand to admire the lovely nectarines and peaches, the farmer offered me a slice of a delicious crisp piece of green Briar plum. Tasting this light-green stone fruit for the first time, its slightly tart, light, plummy flavor inspired me further, and I conjured up images of a sweet and piquant plum salad. I continued strolling along, picking up other interesting, fresh San Luis Obispo County produce, including a nice, fat bunch of garlic chives and a few ears of beautiful corn. Then I made yet another new SLO discovery!

Noticing a bottle filled with a light reddish-pink liquid labeled “Verjus” at Mill Road Orchard’s stand, I incorrectly assumed I’d stumbled upon some apple juice or cider. The vendor enlightened me by revealing that verjus is juice made from the runoff of unripe wine grapes. Picked when the grapes begin to soften and change color, this lightly fruity yet tart, unfermented grape juice can be used in place of vinegar or lemon in recipes. This novel SLO find was exactly what I needed for my vinaigrette and salad…reminding me that sometimes we need to have faith that with a little improvisation and imagination, we will inadvertently stumble upon what we need, steering our taste buds in the right direction.

As a result of my spontaneous meanderings, below are several recipes that my family and I enjoyed together at our meal (including my six-year-old nephew who has very discerning tastes!). Each one of us contributed to this lunch, resulting in a pleasing medley of sweet and tangy flavors ending up on our plates, tied together by a few common ingredients.


8 – 9 beets (mix of red & yellow)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste


1 medium lime, juiced & zested
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
(I went local from Templeton: Carriage Vineyards mission varietal)
3 tablespoons verjus
(Paso Robles: Mill Road by Monahan Family Farm)
1 tablespoon Italian parsley
Dash of red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tablespoon garlic chives, chopped

Heat oven to 350º and scrub beets. Cut off tops, place in roasting pan filled with 1 – 2 inches of water, drizzle with olive oil and salt & pepper. Cover with aluminum foil and roast until just tender, about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make vinaigrette, add all ingredients to blender—except garlic chives—and purée. Transfer to bowl and add chives.

When beets are tender, cool until able to handle and peel skins by rubbing with a paper towel (wear gloves if you don’t enjoy beet-stained fingers). Slice beets into wedges and saturate with vinaigrette while still warm. Sprinkle with garlic chives. Marinate for at least 4 hours.


6 green Briar plums (or the standard purple varietal)
1 tablespoon purple basil, finely chopped
1 teaspoon garlic chives, finely chopped
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons verjus
Salt & pepper to taste

Wash and cut fruit into bite-sized pieces. In a medium-sized glass bowl, whisk remaining ingredients and add plums to dressing. Marinate in fridge for best results.

These crisp plums, just shy of ripening, paired exceptionally well with the light, refreshing, sweet...yet tart nuances of the verjus.


Even though I had no luck finding green tomatoes at the farmer’s market, my mom managed to pick up a gigantic green heirloom tomato at a local grocery store. My sister baked some cornbread cakes (utilizing the fresh corn I picked up), and the combination of the tangy fried green tomatoes served over the sweet cornbread was a perfect match.

2 large green tomatoes
¼ cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon chopped purple basil
Salt & pepper to taste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Heat cast iron skillet over medium-high heat with oil. Slice tomatoes into 1-inch sized round slabs. Mix cornmeal with basil, salt & pepper, and coat tomato slices on both sides. Fry tomatoes on each side for 4 minutes, or until crispy and golden brown. Drain on paper towel before serving.


My dad’s contribution to our Sunday meal was one of his specialties—barbequed chicken. Inspired by a recipe from a recent edition of Sunset Magazine, we sautéed, boiled, and blended the following ingredients, resulting in a pungent, syrupy sauce that was a big hit with everyone.

1 cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (this oil stands up to the high temperatures of a barbeque)
2 medium peaches (or apricots), peeled and chopped
¼ cup apple cider vinegar (Paso Robles: Mill Road by Monahan Family Farm)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
15 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon allspice
Pinch or two of red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sautée onions and garlic with salt & pepper until tender. Add chopped peaches and continue stirring over heat until peaches soften and mixture thickens. Add remaining ingredients, stir, and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to blender, purée, and baste chicken during last 10 minutes of grilling.


I searched for a SLO County wine that could hold up to this medley of tangy and sweet flavors. After a visit to Taste of SLO in downtown San Luis Obispo, my choice of Salisbury Vineyards 2006 Pinot Grigio ($24), with its almost opaque, golden-tinged hue and enticing nose of orange citrus, proved just right. This clean, crisp wine left an interesting musky, almost peppery finish, and the nice balance of fruit and acid held its own against the assortment of flavors in the food. By the end of the meal the soft flavors of orange, lemon, and vanilla in this wine left a smooth finish to our end-of-summer gathering. This meal was a success in itself...not to mention the new SLO discoveries!

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

SLO Showdown

Gummy bears, raisins, fortune cookies…and frog legs?! These secret ingredients (revealed only moments before two top San Luis Obispo County chefs took center stage to vie for the winning title of Paso Robles Olive Festival’s Head-to-Head Chef Competition) captivated the audience, evoking laughter and surprise. But this seemingly incongruous combination of fodder didn’t faze Chefs Giancarlo Cucumo or Neil Smith, a long-time family friend. They jumped into action, each armed with their knives and cooking utensils; full kitchen stations and pantry of supplies; an array of fresh and interesting ingredients—including olives and a selection of SLO County's Olea Farm olive oils; and maybe most importantly, their sous chefs.

With the clock ticking and only one hour for each team to devise three unique dishes—a salad or appetizer, an entrée showcasing the star ingredient (frog legs), and a dessert—my sister and I along with our friend, Chef Paul Gorton, eagerly watched and wondered what culinary masterpieces would result from this friendly, but intense competition. Chef Paul mused, “You can’t do anything with frog legs.” But the knives started flying. The vegetables got sliced and diced at alarming speeds. The skillets and ovens heated up and fragrant scents began to waft in the blustery wind. These culinary teams, although cooking on a gazebo in the middle of Paso Robles’ Downtown City Park amidst 120 olive oil, winery, and other vendors (with hundreds of visitors milling about), looked right at home and up for any challenge.

Passionate about the art of crafting food into delicious meals, these two professional chefs are no strangers to pressure. Night after night they immerse themselves in the intense kitchen-life that goes hand-in-hand with working in successful, well-respected restaurants. Chef Giancarlo, the owner of Giancarlo's Ristorante Mediterraneo in Morro Bay, and Chef Neil, the Executive Chef at Windows on the Water, also in Morro Bay, kept their cool over the next hour. While they worked their magic in the makeshift kitchen, the Culinary Arts Program Director for Cuesta College, Chef Phillip Riccomini, entertained the captive audience, throwing out food jokes, fun culinary facts, and surmising what these tight-lipped, focused chefs were creating for the panel of four judges. As the hour drew to a close and the teams scrambled to plate their dishes, the seated panel readied themselves to judge the flavors, textures, creativity, appearance, and use of the secret ingredients (as well as the olives and Olea Farm olive oil) in their upcoming feast of the senses.

Chef Giancarlo charmed everyone with his Italian accent and wowed the judges and onlookers by beginning his ad hoc meal with a beautiful salad tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, mixed with a medley of caramelized raisins, fruit-stuffed olives, and poached pears. He followed with a simple pasta puttanesca, the linguine flavored with garlic olive oil, Kalamata olives, and tomatoes; topped off with a fried mixture of parmesan cheese, raisins, and fortune cookies. His main dish—frog leg casserole—started off pan-fried with olive oil, raisins, and white wine, then finished baking in the oven. Served with olive crepes stuffed with jelly and sundried tomatoes, this dish was a hit. His caudled Italian dessert of zabaglione pudding (made with fruit jelly, a touch of olive oil, sherry wine, sugar, and egg yolks) gently spooned over gummy bears in wine glasses, made clever use of this chewy hodgepodge ingredient.

Chef Neil’s brilliant creations were equally impressive. Sporting his signature dark sunglasses and admitting that, “The gummy bears threw me for a loop,” his first course proved that he closed that loophole. His salad of segmented oranges, white peaches, and Roma tomatoes flavored with basil olive oil touched with a hint of orange and lemon citrus, included the ubiquitous gummy bears. His main entrée of frog legs, stuffed with Kalamata olives served over thyme-infused rice with sun-dried tomatoes and green beans, was lightly covered with a tarragon-herb butter sauce and plated beautifully. His gorgeous dessert served up in martini glasses, with layers of caramelized peaches, lemon blush crème anglaise, fresh berry compote and fortune cookie "dust" sprinkled on top, made us all envious of the judges.

As the panel voted and tallied their scores, the culinary teams toasted one another—Chef Giancarlo sipped on a much-deserved glass of white wine, while Chef Neil and his sous chef went straight for the Corona beers. In the end, the judges’ tough decision edged out Chef Neil by only one point and Chef Giancarlo was narrowly declared the winner. Look for Chef Giancarlo at next year’s Olive Festival when he competes again to defend his reigning title. In the meantime, I foresee visits in my near future to Morro Bay to enjoy the clever creations of these ingeneous chefs (minus the gummy bears). Buon Appetito!

News Flash: Later that afteroon, the event organizers discovered a miscalculation of the winning scores. The innovative cuisine of both teams resulted in a tie, leaving Chefs Giancarlo and Neil both as this year's reigning title-holders. Rumor has it they will share the coveted trophy below during the next year, on display in each of their respective restaurants for six months.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

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