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Last week, a two-for-one coupon for a half day of touring, picking grapes, stomping grapes, wine tasting, and dining at Messina Hof, a vineyard and winery in Bryan, Texas, appeared in my Google Reader.  Hmmm.  Totally fun or totally lame?  I sheepishly emailed J to test the waters.  When he responded enthusiastically, I jumped on the deal.  And you know what?  It was really fun!

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Our day began indoors with a little history and geography lesson.  Did you know that prior to prohibition, Missouri was the number one wine producing state in the U.S.?  California was number five!  But because California maintained their vineyards through prohibition, they emerged as number one after the ban was lifted.  Here in Texas, vineyards were converted to more profitable crops during the same time period.  Now, however, we have 170 wineries in Texas, and with the local foods movement, they just might have a chance.  More and more restaurants are getting on board with serving local wines.  In fact, a contingent from Morton’s was there with us this weekend, and they seemed very impressed by Messina Hof’s port.

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I was also shocked to learn that, broadly speaking, Texas is too cold, rather than too hot, for many grapes.  Who would’ve guessed?  As far south as we are in the areas surrounding Houston, though, reds do quite well, and Messina Hof’s signature wine is their port. Traditionally, port is made by adding brandy to red wine to increase its alcohol level.  This was originally done to preserve wine being shipped from Portugal to England during the Revolutionary War when England and France were at odds.  The higher alcohol levels helped to preserve the wine.  But adding brandy to wine creates a sharp taste that can take years to mellow.  (This is all according to what we learned on Sunday.  I don’t know a thing about wine myself.)  Messina Hof decided to create their own port made without bourbon.  Instead, they use a painstaking, excruciatingly long and precise fermentation method to produce the same alocholic content (18% to 22%) as traditional port but without the sharp taste.  They were the first people in the world to do this, and they claim that their port tastes as great after only 1 year of aging as traditional ports taste after 7 years of aging.  It seems the experts agree, as they have received numerous international awards for this wine.

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After the lectures, the owners led us in a boisterous round of “Pick, Pick, Pick Your Grapes” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” before sending us out to ferret out the gorgeous, dark clusters nestled in the vines.  Tragically, I started reacting to the grape leaves and broke out in a rash all over one of my legs.  I quickly washed my hands and attempted to use gloves, but my forearms were still exposed, and eventually I gave up.  But not before I got a few good ones:

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My nutty husband had a good time among the leaves too:

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Sometimes I’m not sure whether to laugh or to hide my face in shame.  Mostly I laugh.  I’m not sure about our future children, though.  How will they cope?

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(You can’t really see it in the photo, but J and are are facing off with our grape cutting knives.)

A contest later pitted me against my dear friend Susan in what I thought was a grape cluster contest, but it actually turned out to be a talent contest:

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I didn’t stand a chance.  She danced a jig, people.  A jig.  I lamely said “Mi chiamo Alison.”  Sigh.

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I didn’t get any shots of us stomping the grapes (channeling Lucille Ball), but here’s a peek at our purple feet afterwards:

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After a wine tasting — with copious tips on visual examination, aeration technique, puckering, etc — we devoured a fabulous lunch of cold cuts, port cheese, salad with garlic-port dressing, sausages marinated in crushed grapes, chicken, hummus, pita chips, and vegetables.  The folks around me also tucked into some amazing cakes while I looked on forlornly.

If you live in Texas, I highly recommend visiting Messina Hof.  Harvest season isn’t over yet, so if you want try everything we did, just visit their website for dates and pricing.  They also boast a restaurant and a beautiful bed and breakfast crammed with antiques (some as old as the 15th century).  Go Texan!

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I’m planning a seven week trip to Europe this coming spring, and as I sift through apartment rental listings in Italy, Switzerland, and France, I am growing ever more eager to learn some Italian and brush up on French before my plane departs in April.  One great resource I’ve discovered so far is Byki, a competitor of Rosetta Stone that offers a “lite,” instantly download-able version of its language software for free.  In two days, I’ve learned twenty-five Italian words and phrases!  I also downloaded their French program and have zipped through those lists a lot faster.  I’m trying to decide if I want to pay $70 to buy the full version of their Italian program.  I really like the Byki approach so far and think it could be worth it.

Have you ever used Byki?  Would you recommend buying it?

What about other language learning resources?  I still have my French texts, workbooks, and tapes, so I’m mostly concerned about Italian at this point.  If I could do this for free, that would be ideal.  Do you know of free downloads anywhere else?  Any other suggestions?  I’d appreciate all the help I can get!

J and I experienced the new documentary Food Inc. a couple of weeks ago, and though I’m not through digesting it enough to share a whole lot of my thoughts here, I can’t not tell you about the Chipotle-sponsored free nationwide screenings of Food Inc happening this week.  If you haven’t yet seen this important film, or if you want to take friends or family members, please check out this link for a list of dates and locations.  Here in Houston, the free showing will be at the Angelika tomorrow night (July 15th) at 7:30 p.m.

I am so glad we saw Food Inc.  It reminded me of what I already knew, opened my eyes to new information, and gave me a major kick in the pants to keep me motivated in pursuing local and sustainable food.  Now, off to the Tuesday afternoon Rice farmers’ market!

(Huge HT to Vicki Powers of Houston on the Cheap for letting Houstonians know about this!)

After realizing that the Laptop Lunch was too small for J’s needs, I despaired a little, as it’s one of the biggest bento boxes on the market (see my complete review of the Laptop Lunch here).  According to the company, it holds 1400 mL or 3 cups, with each of the two larger compartments measuring 8 ounces and the two smaller compartments measuring 4 ounces each.  When filled according to the traditional bento ratio of 3 parts rice/carbohydrates, 2 parts veggies/fruit, and 1 part protein (all by volume), the box would provide a 1,400 calorie lunch.  That ratio, however, is not what works best for us, and our high vegetable consumption really drops the box’s caloric capacity.  What to do?

I zipped through Whole Foods one day on a Coconut Bliss run, when something shiny caught my eye.  A whole display of stacked, two-compartment, sparkly stainless steel lunch boxes, looking rather like an arsenal of space capsules, waved cheerfully at me.  Oh man.  I try to eschew impulse buys, but I just couldn’t resist this one.  It was big and looked easy to clean.  Bingo!

Here it is in action.

Step 1: fill bottom compartment.  This container is so roomy that I fit a generous portion of mixed baby greens, sliced cucumbers, shredded cabbage, sliced green bell pepper, sliced carrots, shredded organic cheddar, and a portion of homemade vinaigrette (the plastic dressing container is from the Laptop Lunch set).

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Step 2: place stainless steel divider over bottom layer.

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Step 3: pack top compartment.  It doesn’t look terribly appealing, I suppose, but this was actually quite tasty — seasoned brown rice, beef and veggie patty (kind of like meatloaf), and an herbed mushroom sauce.

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Step 4: slap the lid on top, slide it into its carrier, and fasten it securely.  Doesn’t it look just like a space capsule?

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Step 5: when  I manage to remember, I like to add a cloth napkin to the package, and on his workout days, I often slip a Lara Bar in the loop too.

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Cool, right?

Downsides:

  • Can’t be microwaved.  This doesn’t bother us since we try to avoid microwaves and don’t mind eating cold leftovers.
  • Doesn’t fit easily into an insulated bag with an ice pack.  Since J drops his lunchbox in the refrigerator as soon as he arrives at the office, though, this doesn’t affect us.

Upsides (compared to the Laptop Lunch Box):

  • So easy to clean!  And only two compartments!
  • No plastic.
  • Very cool retro look.
  • Large capacity.  That leaves lots and lots of room for vegetables.  Sometimes, I fill up the bottom compartment with cut up veggies and fruit and throw in a small container of peanut butter or hummus.

My great sorrow: It doesn’t have a brand name on it anywhere, I threw away the box, and I can’t find anything just like it online!  How awful is that?  They aren’t carrying it at Whole Foods anymore either.  I plan to ask a manager next time I’m there if they have records of the manufacturer.  I’m sure they do, and I would really like to buy another one.

It seems I’m not the only one with lunchboxes on the brain.  Apartment Therapy dumped yet another super cool brown bag idea in my inbox this morning.  I suppose it’s the economy.  Everyone wants to save a buck these days and, and taking a bagged lunch is one of the easiest, healthiest ways to save a whole bushel of ‘em.  And if you can pat yourself on the back for being green on top of it all, that’s even better.  But how about doing all of that in style?

oots1These lunchboxes by OOTS! marry good looks and practicality better than any I’ve seen so far.  I simply adore that blue and pink combo.  And look how my Klean Kanteen would fit on top!  I love it.  Love, love, love it.

Unfortunately, at $45 each when you by them with the inner lidded compartments (a must in my book), these boxes are a little harder on the budget up front than some other perfectly suitable options (exhibit a: the Laptop Lunch, which I reviewed yesterday).  The only catch is, this one is light years ahead of the Laptop Lunch in the cool quotient department, at least when it comes to adult usage.

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Oh dear.  I’m not sure I can justify spending the money on it right now, but I really want one.  Birthday fairy?  Santa Clause?  Easter bunny?  Are you listening?

Go check these out at the official OOTS! website. This design team has some really cool baby and child accessories too, by the way.

(Photos are from the OOTS! website.)

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my anticipation as I counted down the days to Valentine’s this past February.  I bought my husband a pile of gifts and could hardly stand the tension with them sitting wrapped on the table for what seemed like forever.

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Do you know that feeling of finding the perfect gift for someone you adore?  One they aren’t expecting?  One they couldn’t guess even if they tried for weeks?  It’s thrilling and excruciating at the same time.  I begged J to open them early.  He refused, of course, but his reaction was worth the wait.

Perhaps not many husbands would ooh and aah over a new lunchbox, but J did.  He loves taking his lunch to work.  It’s healthier than buying a lunch, it saves us a ton of money, and I also think that it’s a way he feels loved and cared for.  So he was tickled pink to discover that I bought him an Americanized bento box called the Laptop Lunch.

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I’m not sure why he felt compelled to deface his lunchbox with all of those stickers, but — alas! — he did, and sometimes we need to allow our husbands such childish expressions.  Sigh.  (I suppose it’s no secret now where he went to school and where he works.  :-)

Have you heard of bento?  According to Biggie, the author of the wildly popular bento blog, Lunch in a Box,

A Bento lunch is a compact, balanced, visually appealing meal packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself. See the Wikipedia entry on bento for more details.

The Laptop Lunch contains multiple compartments that keep all of your food separated and even houses utensils.  I call it Americanized for a few reasons.  First, it’s bigger than most Japanese bento boxes.  Second, it’s made in America and contains no BPA, lead, or the other scary things that are coming out of China these days.  Finally, it doesn’t have a Japanese look, though, frankly, I’m a little relieved about that.  The largest authentic Japanese bento box I found online sported the slogan “Pleasure Supply” on top.  Yes, really.  I’m not going to go there, but suffice it to say I thought we might be asking for trouble if J actually toted something like that to work.

Here’s the inside of the Laptop Lunch box:

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Unfortunately, this one of the less visually appealing lunches I’ve packed for him, but I happened to have the camera handy this time.  As you can see, I was able to pack some leftover braised lamb and natural chicken sausage, bell peppers, cucumbers, and potatoes.  The fork and knife are tucked into the slot on the right-hand side.  Because the man burns through so many calories, he also had a little baggie of nuts to go with this meal.

Why I Love the Bento Concept:

  • Bento boxes reduce waste.  No more zippie bags or disposable tupperware!
  • It encourages healthy choices.  The food we make at home is far healthier than almost anything you can buy at a lunch spot.
  • Bento boxes simplify what you carry.  Because I avoided zippie bags, J used to juggle a slew of little glass Pyrex containers on his way to and from work.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my Pyrex, but bento allows me to put it all in one box without all the foods touching each other.
  • No breakage.  Again, better than the Pyrex.
  • It saves money.  Although the boxes are a moderate investment up front (e.g., approximately $23 for the Laptop Lunch), the ability to pack a good, healthy lunch quickly and efficiently every day adds up to major savings over time.
  • I love the idea of making lunch visually appealing.  I think all of our senses are important in our experience of food.  If you want to go the extra mile in this department, there are lots and lots of guides and gadgets out there for making everything from themed lunch boxes to fashioning crabs and octopus out of sausages or piglets out of rice (to see more examples of elaborate bentos, go to Google Images and search for “bento”).  That’s not how I want to spen my time, but I can certainly appreciate those who pour their creativity into their children’s lunches.  I prefer the appeal of different colored fruits and veggies.
  • Compact.  J puts his lunch in the fridge when he gets to work, and taking up less space is definitely desirable.  This is all on top of making it easier for him to tote to and from the office.
  • I find it motivating.  I want to pack lunches for J now.  It’s just plain fun!

Pros of the Laptop Lunch:

  • Made in the USA
  • As safe as plastic can get
  • High quality construction (the plastic is thick and sturdy)
  • Fun to look at, though I do wonder that J never batted an eyelash over the bright purple exterior!  All the fun colors could be a big plus for enticing children to eat healthy lunches.  (By the way, other colors are available at http://www.laptoplunches.com)
  • The size is perfect for older children, women, and men with smaller appetites.  This does depend on what you put in the box, of course.  We try to go heavy on the veggies, and they take up a lot of room without providing many calories.  The picture I showed above has a lot fewer vegetables than we try to eat at each meal, which bothers me.  If your family goes mostly meatless or likes a lot of starches, this size box might be  just right even for dad.  That’s just not how it works in our home.

Cons of the Laptop Lunch:

  • All the tiny compartments can be super annoying to clean all the time.  I highly recommend buying a second set of “innards.”  I caught a sale and was able to do this.  It helps a lot!
  • Too small for really big appetites.  J stands 6’5″ tall, has a naturally high metabolism, and works out on top of it all.  He burns through a lot of calories.  Plus, we like to eat our biggest meals at lunch time, so the Laptop Lunch doesn’t really suit his needs.  He always has to take lots of snacks with him when he uses this box.

Overall, I highly recommend Laptop Lunch boxes.  They are safe, well-constructed, and well-designed.  My only real complaint is the availability of only one size.  I’d love a larger one for my husband, but this size probably works beautifully for most people.

I have since bought something that suits J’s needs even better, so I’ll share about that next time.

Definitely check out the Lunch in a Box blog if you want to learn more about all of this.  I find it all quite fascinating, though I’m happy to enjoy bento at far less sophisticated (and time-consuming!) level.

I love cooking with wine, but because I don’t often relish drinking much of it (I’m a total lightweight!), I used to run into the problem of letting wine go bad after opening a whole bottle and using only a cup or two for a particular dish.  If I was really conscientious, I would try to cook another meal with wine the same week, but let’s just say that it was pretty rare for me to use it all before it went bad.

Lo and behold, one day at my HEB, I asked for help in picking out a dry white for cooking purposes, and a helpful associate turned me on to this wondrous creation:wine edited compressed

Now, maybe I’m the last person on the planet to discover sets of four tiny wine bottles, but I was tickled pink!  Each bottle holds just about a cup of wine, which is perfect for most of my recipes.  Ever since, I’ve opened only as much wine as I can use in a single recipe.  That means a lot less guilt for me.  The extra $1 it costs me over buying a single bottle is completely worth it.

If you go looking for these four mini-bottle sets, you’ll find a bit of variety in terms of price.  What I’ve pictured above is about the cheapest of the cheap.  You don’t have to go that low for the sake of convenience.  I usually don’t, but I was in a pinch.  I have to say, though, that when we intend to drink wine with dinner, we typically buy a regular, significantly nicer bottle for drinking and cook with the lower-grade stuff.  I know that I’m not supposed to cook with a wine I wouldn’t drink, but, hey, I’m not made of money, and it’s a compromise I’m happy to make at this point in my life.  At least I’m not using nasty “cooking wine.”

That’s my Kitchen Tip!  For more great ideas, visit the Kitchen Tip Tuesday Carnival at Tammy’s Recipes.

P.S.  FYI, I’ve tried freezing leftover wine in ice cube trays, but it didn’t work very well.  The alcohol content keeps it from getting very firm.

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