Sunday, August 14, 2016

Learning Wine Basics: Not Your Mama's Bootcamp

The explosion in the number of Virginia wineries in the last 20 years has bred a common weekend pastime: visiting the vineyards via any one of a number of different routes and areas. But those visits tend to revolve around tastings of that particular vineyard's products. That's not hard to understand -- they want to sell what they're peddling. There's nothing wrong with discovering new wines that way and learning what you like and don't like, but those tastings don't often result in much of an education about wine.

Winemaker Carl was informative
and entertaining.

Enter the Wine Bootcamp at Little Washington Vineyards. Held by winemaker Carl in one of the rooms next to the tasting room, the Wine Bootcamp was informative, relaxed, and fun.  In 2 hours we learned about the process of taking grapes from planting to harvest to fermentation to pressing, aging, racking, filtration and bottling. During the talk we had a chance to taste several wines from around the world that complemented the information Carl imparted. Here's where this winery differs from most of the others I've been to in Virginia: Instead of a focus on their own wines, we were introduced to wines from Chile, France, Italy, Uruguay, plus one from the U.S. -- a wine from Idaho. Yes, Idaho!

My personal fave -- Sawtooth Skyline
Red from Idaho.

Since we were there in summer, rosés were a topic of discussion and one of the wines we tasted. Carl quickly quashed the naysayers, explaining that rosé's reputation for being cloyingly sweet is inaccurate and likely a leftover from his generation's exposure to such sweet rosés as Mateus and Lancer's. We all had a good chuckle as we recalled what we thought was the height of sophistication in our late teens/early 20's.

About halfway through our class, we were ushered onto the deck with sandwiches that were carefully paired with a crisp sauvignon blanc while the staff changed our place settings for part two of the class -- chocolate pairings.

Sandwich break on the deck. This photo doesn't
do the pretty view justice.
When we returned to our seats, we each found three small chocolates -- one milk, one dark, and one chocolate-covered peppermint patty -- along with one white and two red wines. I was certain that the peppermint was some sort of joke or test to see if we'd foolishly screw up our palates. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised when we paired a bite of it with the sauvignon blanc. It was delicious! Carl explained the molecular pairing theory, the chemistry of why certain foods pair well with certain wines. The Sawtooth red was delicious with the dark chocolate. I'm not a fan of milk chocolate, so while its pairing with an Italian red bubbly was surely appropriate, it didn't do anything for me.

Chocolate pairing setup.

Carl imparted a healthy dose of practical information for dining out:

  • DON'T bother smelling a cork at the restaurant --  none of them smells good.
  • DO swirl the glass before tasting and accepting the wine you've ordered if it came with a natural cork; "corked" wine can destroy the wine with bacteria and smells like a wet paper bag. Swirl it, give it a few seconds, sip. Do it again. (Note that there's no risk of a corked wine with screw topped and synthetic corks.)

And for buying wines:

  • The ultra cheap wines (a certain "Chuck," for example) are high in arsenic and to be avoided. 
  • 2007 had a dry spring, which was good for Virginia wines. Conversely, spring 2016 was wet, so it's not likely to be a good year.
  • Virginia's Viogniers are best when they come from areas south of I-64. The weather is typically too cold north of 64 to sustain a successful harvest and a good wine. 

Little Washington has a number of award-winning wines they can be proud of, including George, its signature Meritage blend. George has been named the #1 red in Virginia and is a "frequent ringer of the $100 Bordeaux guess in blind tastings."

What a terrific afternoon. Little Washington offers several of these classes -- I think I might try Around the World in 80 Minutes, The World of Malbecs, or Virginia Versus the World next.  Thanks, Carl!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Channeling the du Ponts and Wyeths

Some of Longwood's iconic fountains.

I'm certainly not the first to discover that a visit to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA pairs nicely with a visit to the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford. They're within about 7 minutes of each other in an idyllic, semi-rural Pennsylvania setting.  Longwood was founded by Pierre S. du Pont.  And the Brandywine area is famous for inspiring at least three generations of Wyeths.

A late July visit ensured lots of blooming color at Longwood, and I did my best to capture a representative sampling during my 3-hour visit.

Why don't my coreopsis look this good?

Yay for the pollinators.

I love these other-worldly monsters.

The beds are arranged by color. Here we are in the pink!

Those dahlias were huge and an interesting
combo with the coleus.

Onto the red section.

Oh, how I love orange.

Silvery-whites -- a nice view in the sticky heat.

Pitcher plants -- they look prehistoric -- just before
the start of a shady walk.

So clever. They used a split stump to
house ferns in one of the shady areas.

Ferns a go-go.

I think every shade of green was represented
in this bucolic spot.

Why is nobody enjoying these cute chairs?

No regular steps, these -- it's a waterfall.

The start of the meadow walk.

Wildflowers have been re-introduced into the meadow.

Surprisingly tolerant bunny foo-foo on the meadow walk.

Succulent roof on a bird house -- I want to
try this at home.

Inside the conservatory.

So peaceful inside the conservatory.

I didn't take any snaps in the art museum, but while touring his studio did capture one shot of Andrew Wyeth's 900-piece toy soldier collection with my phone. Makes my 14-piece cowboy and Indian collection seem rather pathetic.

Andrew Wyeth's 900-piece toy soldier collection, preserved
in his studio in Chadds Ford.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Making Your Yard a Wildlife Sanctuary

Cardinal in front yard azalea in winter.
The National Audubon Society is well known for its support of birds and other wildlife through the conservation and restoration of natural habitats. What you may not know is that through a few simple steps and an interest in this important effort, you can work toward meeting the requirements to be designated a participant in the Audubon at Home Program with your very own wildlife sanctuary.

Bluebird eggs in side yard nesting box.
The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia is the chapter that hosts meetings and activities in my area. I happened to attend a bird talk a few months ago, where I picked up a flyer on the Audubon at Home program.  I'm lucky to live on 1.5 acres, more than half of which is wooded and filled with all manner of birds, reptiles, and other wildlife. With that in mind, I was hopeful that meeting the Program's requirements wouldn't be difficult. I was right! Even if you have a more modestly sized yard -- say, a typical 1/4 acre for suburban Northern Virginia -- you might be surprised at how a few small actions can help you meet the requirements for this Program.

In my case, I read up on the Program, then filled out the application (choose the one for your area at the bottom of the Audubon at Home page). Checking off the species and features in my yard that the Program looks for, I was able to meet the requirements immediately.

Frog on edge of back yard fountain.
After an initial review by a the Northern Virginia team, my application was accepted and two members from my county contacted me to make an appointment to visit my property.  Their visit took about an hour as we walked around my yard and they observed various features, asked me a few questions, and answered a few questions that I had. Where removing invasive plants was impractical, they offered excellent advice on controlling them. They even offered suggestions on plantings for the property's shady slope and runoff areas.

Within a few days I received an official letter congratulating me for meeting the requirements for the Audubon at Home Program. Woo hoo! I was so thrilled, enough to mail in a check for $35 for the official yard sign.

Several of my neighbors have shown an interest in doing what I did. How cool would it be to have our whole street designated?! 

A couple of days after I put up my sign, I was awakened by my favorite song bird, the wood thrush, singing his heart out at the top of the trees on the edge of my property. I'm fairly sure he was thanking me for doing my bit to protect his 'hood.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chicken Sweet Potato Hash

A friend gave me several sweet potatoes at about the same time I happened to tune into the Barefoot Contessa cooking show on TV.  In that episode, Ina Garten prepares her own take on a dish that Truman Capote served to guests at a Black & White Party -- chicken hash.  Her version uses regular white potatoes, so I needed to make a few adjustments in quantities and process.

The result? Delicious! It makes a wonderful dinner served with a green salad, and leftovers are terrific warmed up on their own, or with a poached egg on top.

Jan's Chicken Sweet Potato Hash
(Two generous servings)

1 or 2 boneless chicken breast halves (depending on their size)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. dried basil
4 T. butter, divided
1 sweet potato, scrubbed and cut into small dice
1 large or 2 small white onions, diced
1/2 bell pepper (red, orange, or green work fine), diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. tomato paste
Salt and pepper

Rub chicken with olive oil and sprinkle with basil, salt, and pepper. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until internal temperature is 165.  Set aside until cool enough to handle and then chop into dice. Set aside.

Baked seasoned chicken, diced.

Melt 3 T. of butter into a large skillet over medium heat.  Toss in diced sweet potato, salt and pepper, and saute for 8 minutes. Add onion and saute an additional 10 minutes, until evenly browned and sweet potatoes are tender.

Sweet potatoes and onions have reached
a nice color and the potatoes are tender.

In another skillet, melt remaining 1 T. butter over medium heat. Saute bell pepper and garlic to combine, then stir in paprika, thyme, and tomato paste. Saute for 5 minutes.

The bell pepper mixture is ready.

When sweet potato mixture is tender, add chicken chunks and bell pepper mixture and stir to incorporate and warm all ingredients for 2-3 minutes.

Nyum nyum nyum.