Saturday, August 17, 2013

Benziger Family Winery

By Julia

When Katie asked me to write a piece about wine for her blog I immediately thought about Benziger Family Winery. Katie and her husband joined me on a tasting tour around California wine country last summer and this was our unanimous favorite winery. Benziger is a small production Sonoma wine-maker that has been at the forefront of eco friendly wine making. All of their estate vineyards are certified biodynamic and their non-estate wines are produced from grapes grown in either certified organic or sustainable vineyards.

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I was unfamiliar with the distinctions between biodynamic, organic, and sustainable wines until I saw a television program about it a couple of years ago. Sustainable farming is the most basic of these and emphasizes environmentally responsible growing practices which include consideration of soil fertility, pollution of water and soil, soil erosion, the use of pesticides, and, of course, the quality of the grapes. Wines produced from sustainable vines may or may not be organic. Organic wines are produced from vines that have been farmed without the use systemic fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. Biodynamic farming is the highest level of holistic viticulture. The concept of biodynamics focuses on transforming the land and the vines into a self-nourishing and self-regulating system to grow grapes. The Benziger estate utilizes “good” insects as a natural insecticide to fight the insects that eat the grapes, sheep in place of herbicides, and cows to produce organic fertilizers.

Now onto the fun stuff, the wine! Whether you care about eco friendly vine growing or not, if you are an appreciator of good wine then you are bound to enjoy what Benziger produces. They offer a range of wines, both red and white, that can fit most budgets and even their lower end wines are more than satisfactory for any occasion. Being a small production winery, their estate wines are unfortunately sold only through Benziger. Fortunately for those of us not lucky enough to live in Sonoma, they have a wine club through which you can access their amazing catalogue of wines. I have chosen a few of my favorites in varying price ranges.

1. Tribute (certified biodynamic, $80): This is a predominantly cabernet red blend. Tribute ranks at the top of my list of spectacular reds that I have been lucky enough to sample in my life. This is a monster red without being harsh or overwhelming with tannins (the element of grape skins and stems which give wine its dry texture and flavor). If you like really big, complex, sophisticated reds then you will love this one.


2. Signaterra “West Rows” Chardonnay (certified organic, $32): I am not a drinker of chardonnay. I find them to mostly be too sweet and buttery and generally unpleasant, so I like to think it says something that this is the only bottle of chardonnay I came back with from California wine country. It is light and fruity without being too sweet or dense.


3. Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon (certified sustainable, $20): Benziger makes this cab as well as a certified sustainable merlot ($18) which are more affordable and very easily accessible. I can even pick them up at my local wine shop in the middle of nowhere and I have seen them at every Whole Foods I have been to. While neither is as impressive as some of their more pricey wines, they are both great examples of what a basic cabernet or merlot should be. These are my go-to wines when I feel like something a bit nicer than I would normally drink but don’t want to blow a huge amount of money on a single bottle.


Benziger was also featured on James May and Oz Clarke’s BBC program Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure. It is a highly entertaining and delightfully British show that I HIGHLY recommend to anybody interested in learning more about wine while laughing at two hilarious, middle-aged English blokes.

You can find the Benziger episode on YouTube, as well as the full first and second seasons of the program.
If you are interested in learning more about Benziger and biodynamic farming or signing up for their wine club, I recommend visiting their website at

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ingredient 27 - Heirloom Tomatoes

If you have been to a farmer’s market in the last week or so you probably noticed that every vendor has heirloom tomatoes. I bought some last week, figuring it was time to learn what makes heirloom tomatoes different from the typical grocery store tomato.  Heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes whose seeds are passed from grower to grower; they are not hybrids. There are roughly one hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes, each differing in shape, size, and color.  Grown for their flavor, heirloom tomatoes have a shorter shelf life than their commercially grown counterparts.  Heirlooms are in season from the middle of summer through early fall.

When selecting heirloom tomatoes, look for plump fruit lacking bruises and decay.  Heirloom tomatoes are susceptible to cracking, but cracks are fine so long as they have healed, no exposed flesh.

Tortellini with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Whole Foods
Serves 2-3
1 package tortellini -  I used pork, prosciutto, and parmesan. 
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1 .75 oz package fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1 tbp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Graded parmesan cheese for garnish

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Begin by cooking the tortellini according to the directions on the package. While the water is coming to a boil, dice the garlic and roughly chop the basil. Next core and chop the heirloom tomatoes. To core, slice the tomato into halves or quarters and cut out the meat that sits directly below the stem. In my tomatoes, the core was fibrous and not very juicy.

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Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (medium heat) and add the garlic, cooking until lightly browned. Add the tomatoes and a dash of salt and pepper, cook for 2 to 3 minutes.  Turn off the heat and add the basil and cooked tortellini to the pan.  Gently stir contents until pasta and tomatoes are mixed.  Plate and garnish with parmesan cheese. 

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I really liked the simplicity of this dish.  It came together in less than 30 minutes and tasted wonderfully fresh.  I think this is an excellent and easy upgrade to my standby meal of frozen pasta and jarred sauce.
With one successful heirloom tomato dish under my belt I am eyeing more complicated recipes.  At the top of my list, Joy the Baker’s Heirloom Tomato Tart, it looks amazing.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ingredient 26 - Cherries

I love eating sweet cherries and am sad that they only show up in the stores in the heart of summer.  When in season, I buy a big bag every week and take some for lunch everyday.  I do this until I can't stand to look at another cherry.

However, last week I decided it was time to actually make a dish that featured cherries.  I considered making a pie but that felt too cliché.  So I made a hearty salad that is great for lunch or dinner, or both.

Kale and Chicken Brown Rice Salad with Cherries
Adapted from Saveur
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
½ tbp sugar
1 clove garlic
A pinch of salt and black pepper, less than 1/2 a teaspoon

1 cup cooked brown rice
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
8 oz can artichoke hearts
2 cups kale
½ cup slivered almonds
2 cups cherries, pitted and halved

Start by cooking up the brown rice, follow the directions on the package.  1/2 cup of uncooked rice yielded roughly 1 and 1/4 cups of cooked rice.  While the rice is cooking, pound and cook the chicken breasts.  Saveur did not provide an advice for seasoning the chicken so I sprinkled on some Cookies Seasoning before cooking the breasts in butter and olive oil (medium-high heat).  For those not from Iowa, Cookies seasoning is a mix of salt, black pepper, and chili powder.

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The breasts should take between 10 to 15 minutes to cook.  Once cooked, set the chicken aside to cool and start preparing the cherries.  I used this salad as an excuse to buy a cherry pitter.  You can use a paring knife to cut and pit the cherries if you don't want to buy another kitchen tool.  Be warned, pitter or not, your hands will get covered in cherry juice. 

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Next, wash and dry the kale.  Remove the stems and cut the remaining leaves into thin strips. Drain and rinse the canned artichokes and cut them into quarters.  When the chicken has cooled, cut it into bite sized pieces. 

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To make the dressing, place the basil, garlic, olive oil, sugar, salt, pepper, and lemon juice into a food processor or blender.  Pulse or blend until fully combined and season with salt and pepper.

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Assemble the salad in a large bowl.  Toss the rice, chicken, and kale in the dressing.  Gently stir in the cherries, artichokes, and almonds.  Plate and enjoy, this salad needs no accompaniments, it is perfect on its own.
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