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Category Archives: Alexander Valley

Spicy Stewed Sausage with Fennel

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Panini Girl posted a recipe for stewed sausage with fennel a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been eyeing it in my inbox ever since. She found the April Bloomfield recipe in the January issue of Food & Wine, in a feature about women chefs. This simple dish is full of flavor and easy to make. It’s ideal for a dinner party but if you make it for a smaller group the leftovers will last for days and only get better. I chose to make it for a group of six that Miriam and I hosted last week. As the recipe suggests, we served it over cheesy polenta, which Miriam had made. It was the perfect starch to soak up the spicy sauce.

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I did make a few adjustments to make it more saucy and kick up the spice, but I may have made it too spicy! I couldn’t find the chiles that the recipe calls for so I grabbed a few small orange ones, but I think they were way too hot – especially since I left the seeds in. Oops! Good thing most of the dinner guests like spicy food; there was one self-proclaimed spicy food wimp, but he was able to eat a sweet sausage with very little sauce after his wife taste-tested it for him. So cute.

Stewed Sausage with Fennel (serves 8)

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 sweet Italian sausages
  • 5 hot Italian sausages
  • 2 fennel bulbs—trimmed, each bulb cut into 8 wedges, fronds chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 x 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands, juices reserved
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2-3 chiles – quartered with seeds left in if you want it more spicy, otherwise leave them whole

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Heat half of the olive oil in a large pot over a medium-high flame. Place the sweet sausages in the pot and sear on all sides for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate, then add the rest of the olive oil to the pot and sear the hot sausages, then transfer to the plate with the other sausages.

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Next, add the fennel and sauté over medium heat until golden – about five minutes. Add the onion, garlic, fennel seeds and salt and continue to sauté for a few more minutes. Then add tomatoes, wine and chiles and stir to combine. Fold the sausages into the sauce and cook covered for 15 minutes over a low flame. Then uncover and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a serving dish and top with chopped fennel fonds; serve with polenta.

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Like I said, the sauce was pretty darn spicy but I still loved it – as long as I didn’t accidentally eat some chile. I has two portions of leftovers, which I ate with 1/2 cup of cooked farro to soak up the sauce. I think that when I made this again I will definitely adjust the spice of the chiles, but still do a mix of spicy and sweet sausages. I also want to try the less saucy version (only one can of tomatoes) at some point. But the best part of the recipe is definitely the fennel. I had no idea how delicious it was when cooked!

Pair this dish with a fruitful red wine with a bit of spice, such as a Washington Cabernet, an Alexander Valley Zinfandel or a Chianti – something that will compliment the acidity of the tomatoes but add some softness to the palate. And if it’s too hot for you, take a shot of milk!

Spicy Lamb & Sweet, Sweet Zinfandel

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I spotted a non-holiday recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit last week that made my mouth water: Lamb Patties with Nutty Garlic Sauce. First of all, I love anything with lamb, and especially on a pita. Secondly, I already had on hand nearly all of the ingredients in the recipe, making it the perfect quick weeknight meal for me and my new foodie friend, who shall be known as KJ from this point forth. Best of all, it was healthy and delicious!

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Spiced Lamb Patties with Nutty Garlic Sauce (serves 4)

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup almond butter
  • 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, dividedcabbage salad
  • tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • ½ medium onion, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • cooking spray
  • ½ small head of red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup thinly sliced English cucumber
  • radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 4 pita breads
  • Fresh mint for serving

To prepare nutty garlic sauce, chop garlic in a mini food processor. Add almond butter and 2 TB lemon juice and process to combine, then add 2 TB oil in a slow, steady stream while the motor is running. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine lamb, onion, parsley, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper and 1 TB oil. Mix with your hands, then form into small slider-sized patties. Heat a large non-stick pan over a medium-high flame and coat with cooking spray. Cook patties for 4 minutes per side, then transfer a wire-rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet (or a paper-towel covered plate) to drain excess oil; let rest for 5 minutes.

lamb meatballs

Meanwhile, combine cabbage, cucumber, radish, feta, 2 TB lemon juice, paprika, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add 1 TB oil then toss to combine.

Serve lamb patties on pita bread, then top with cabbage salad, sauce and fresh mint.

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At my request, KJ brought over a bottle of Zin – specifically the 2012 Ridge Ponzo Zinfandel. I tasted this wine only a few days earlier when we visited the Ridge tasting room in Lytton Springs, so although it’s a relatively young wine I was sure that it is drinking well now. Not only did it taste delicious but it went perfectly with the spicy lamb dish. With flavors of blackberry and spiced vanilla on the nose, the palate highlighted notes of pomegranate and dark cherry, with a long, smooth finish. These elements provided the perfect fruity balance to the nuttiness of the meal, and complemented the sweetness of the cabbage salad.

Fresh Leftover Pizza

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It’s beginning to be my favorite food time of the year, filled with persimmons, pomegranate, squash and apples. I officially welcomed fall when I made a big pot of chili last Sunday, despite the fact that it was a hot Indian summer night (and I followed up my two bowls of chili with a walk to a gelato shop). Quite fittingly, today was cold and rainy and I said goodbye to summer by finishing the last of my home-canned heirloom tomato sauce. I also had to get rid of some hot and sweet peppers that had been in my fridge for a while, and I remembered that I had some mozzarella cheese leftover from when I made lasagna. So of course, it had to be a pizza night.

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Saucy Pizza with Hot Peppers and Sausage 

  • 1 pizza crustpeppers
  • 1 cup homemade tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
  • 1/3 lb spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1/3 cup chopped red onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4-5 small peppers, sweet and spicy
  • 2 TB shaved parmesan
  • dried oregano
  • fresh basil

My neighbor (who shall be known as Jimmy from this point forth) introduced me to TJ’s par-baked organic pizza crusts, which are an okay substitution for my sorely missed Giorgio’s rolled-out doughs. They come with two per package, and can be found in the freezer-section of TJ’s near the other pizzas. These are perfect for a night when you just need to throw some leftovers on a pizza, which is exactly what I did!

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, and place a baking sheet in the oven to get hot. Meanwhile, brown sausage in a nonstick skillet for about 8 minutes. Drain the oil, wipe out the pan with a paper towel, then coat with a thin layer of cooking spray. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes, then add peppers and continue to sauté over a medium flame for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

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Remove baking pan from oven and cover with parchment paper, then place dough on top of paper. Top pizza dough with tomato sauce, then mozzarella and Gruyère. Add onions and peppers, then sausage, and top with shaved parmesan and a sprinkle of dried oregano. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool for 3-5 minutes before cutting. Top with fresh basil and enjoy!

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Between the sausage and the hot peppers, this pizza was pretty damn spicy! It called for a fruity yet powerful Zinfandel, like the 2011 Seghesio Old Vine or the 2012 Ridge Lytton Springs – both from vines that are 90-100 years old in Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. These wines exhibit red fruit with spicy pepper and sweet, firm tannins, and stand up well to spicy, Italian food.

The Ultimate Ridge Experience

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There’s no doubt that one of my father’s favorite wineries is Ridge Vineyards. Since I can remember, I’ve seen the all-too-familiar rows of block lettering on the countless bottles of Ridge he has served at dinners past. For his 60th birthday last year, my family gifted him 6 bottles of 1995 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon in the original wooden crate (purchased through a collectors sale on Invino), and I’ve never seen him more excited. And I’ve certainly heard him proclaim more than once that he “has had over 500 bottles of Ridge in the last 30 years and never had one bottle that was corked.” To my father, this is one of the highest forms of complimenting in the wine world, and he was sure to mention it (at least twice) to the staff at Ridge during our epic visit last month.

My father waiting for the Ridge gates to open (we were a little early to our appointment).

My father waiting for the Ridge gates to open (we were a little early to our appointment).

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My father is not typically one to enjoy tours during visits to wine country, but when I mentioned that Ridge offered an Estate Tour and Tasting (including their legendary Monte Bello) at their Lytton Springs Estate in Healdsburg, he agreed that it would be worth it. And, was it ever!

Side view of the Lytton Springs Visitor Center

Side view of the Lytton Springs Visitor Center

We visited on a Friday in February when the winery wasn’t too crowded, and luckily we were able to have a private tour and tasting with David (which usually accommodates up to 10 people). He took us on a guided golf-cart tour of the estate, driving through gnarly rows of old-vine Zinfandel, and circling around various ponds and hilltops. David not only explained the history of the Ridge winery and its vineyards, but also gave us an overall history on the geography of Northern California, and what makes Lytton Springs so special for growing Zinfandel. But before I get into that, let me tell you how it all began…

In 1885 San Francisco Doctor, Osea Perrone bought 180 acres on Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains – now one of the most highly regarded wine growing regions in Northern California. After planting some vineyards and contracting the winery at Monte Bello, the vineyards were abandoned during the prohibition era. It wasn’t until 1949 when William Short replanted the Cabernet Sauvignon on Monte Bello, as well as first time plots of Chardonnay. Ten years later, three scientists from Stanford University’s Research Institute purchased the property from Short and made a small amount of wine from the ten year old Cabernet vines. In 1962 they formed a partnership that became Ridge Vineyards and began to produce wines for commercial sale. In 1969, Paul Draper joined Ridge as their winemaker, and it was his 1971 Monte Bello that won fifth place among French and California wines at the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Thirty years later, there was a “Judgement of Paris 30th Anniversary Wine Tasting” in London and California, and the Ridge 1971 and 2000 Monte Bello won first place in both the original vintage wine and new vintage wine categories.

A poster in the tasting room, describing the results of the Judgement of Paris

A poster in the tasting room, describing the results of the Judgement of Paris

While Ridge is primarily known for their Monte Bello property, Lytton Springs is much easier to get to and also has quite a bit of history. The winery was purchased in 1991, along with the old vineyards surrounding it, and expanded to the western portion of Lytton Springs in 1995 when they purchased more land. In 2004 Ridge completed construction of the new winery and tasting room at Lytton Springs with a focus on sustainability and the production of Zinfandel. The 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that cover the hills of Lytton Springs thrive because the foggy mornings are balanced by warm, sunny afternoons and breezy late evenings. The soils are made up of gravelly clay, providing moisture retention and ensuring that the grapes ripen at a slower pace. In essence, it’s a wine growing area with perfect balance, which is made even more balanced by the foundation of their sustainability practices.

Old Zinfandel vines of Lytton Springs

Old Zinfandel vines of Lytton Springs

After our exciting and information-packed tour with David, he took us up to a private tasting area in their winemaking facility. We tasted side-by-side pours of 2009 Mazzoni, 2011 Geyserville and 2011 Lytton Springs Zinfandel, as well as the 2010 Perrone Merlot and 2010 Monte Bello Cabernet. Included in the tasting was a plate of cheese, spiced almonds and bread, as well as a water glass, dump cup, note cards on the wines, and a blank chart and pen for us to make our own notes. I’ve been to other tastings like this – where expensive, upscale wines are poured side by side in an intimate setting – but this one was different. There was no ostentatiousness or stuffiness, but rather an air of intrigue and enthusiasm; this can mostly be credited to David’s laid-back personality and unpretentious knowledge of Ridge Vineyards.

As for the wines… well, they were spectacular. David told us that all the wines had incredible aging potential, but they tasted pretty great in the moment (he opened them about three hours before we tasted). Of the Zinfandels, my favorites were the Geyserville and Lytton Springs. The Geyserville was very elegant with rich fruit flavors, while the Lytton Springs was a little more complex with notes of licorice and olives. The Perrone Merlot was very good, and it was interesting to compare it to the Zinfandels and the Monte Bello. The Merlot had bright cherry fruit with a good balance of acid and oak, and was very pleasing to the palate. My father’s notes simply read, “AWESOME!!!”. He noticed right away when he smelled the Monte Bello that it was blended with the Perrone Merlot, which was confirmed by David. The Monte Bello was of course the highlight of the tasting, and we went a little nuts over it. It’s hard to say what makes this wine so special, but I think Antonio Galloni puts it best when he says,“dramatic and towering in style.”

tasting setting

After we finished off the last sips of our glorious Monte Bello, David led us back downstairs to the main tasting room where he poured us some samples of other current releases, including the Carignane and Syrah. The assistant winemaker popped his head out to pour a blind taste of something he was currently bottling. I’m ashamed to say that I was a little clueless, but my father immediately guessed that it was the Petite Sirah; and in fact, it was the 2012 Lytton Estate Petite Sirah. I guess I have a lot to live up to when it comes to blind tasting!

If you’re planning a trip to Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley, I highly encourage you to schedule a tour and tasting at Ridge Vineyards. Even if you decide to skip the tour, be sure to stop in for a tasting – though, I think David’s tour really enhances the overall experience and is totally worth the money considering the cost of the wines that you’re tasting. Our experience lasted a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes, which runs a little over the usual 90 minutes, but time flies when you’re tasting great wines with even greater people.

The Other Hawkes

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It’s widely agreed that last night’s Super Bowl was perhaps the most boring football event in history. I was rooting for the Denver Broncos because the Seahawks beat out the San Francisco 49ers a couple weeks ago, but in all honesty I didn’t give a damn who won by the end of the first quarter – and it was pretty clear what the outcome was going to be by the end of the third. So congrats to all my Seahawks-loving friends, but today I would like to tell you about another kind of Hawkes.

In the last month a few different people have mentioned this not-so-new winery to me called Hawkes. Eventually, and after much anticipation, I decided to check out their Sonoma tasting room last week (their winery and other tasting room is in Alexander Valley), and I was thoroughly impressed!

I showed up on a Tuesday afternoon, and lucky for me I was the only visitor during my 2-hour stay. Douglas, the tasting room manager and all-round awesome guy, walked me through the tasting and poured me samples of their exclusive 2012 Home Chardonnay, 2009 Alexander Valley Merlot, and 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as some tastes from the Barrel of their future cabs.

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I looooved the Chardonnay. The wine is aged sur lie for about three months in Hungarian oak barrels (my favorite kind of oak). There is a good minerality and a certain brightness to this wine, which is somewhat unconventional for Chardonnay but is becoming more preferred by winemakers and consumers. They produce only 560 cases and sell it for a mere $20, so it’s no wonder they reserve it for club members only to purchase – it’s a good thing I know two members!

Next was the Merlot, another great wine and a perfect example of how to make excellent Merlot. As some of you may know, Merlot sales plummeted after being bashed by Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. But it wasn’t entirely the movie’s fault. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s everyone thought Merlot was going to be the next big-selling red wine because of it’s approachable flavor. So thousands of acres were planted, and unfortunately not in the best locations. In order to produce a complex Merlot, it needs to be grown in good, deep soil with the right amount of sun exposure and timely irrigation. The hillsides and bench lands of Napa Valley and Sonoma are ideal for growing and making great Merlot; such is the case with Hawkes 2009 Merlot from Alexander Valley. The vines are grown on their Red Winery Vineyard, originally planted in 1973. The soil is made of up various types, and the section where the Merlot grows is mostly clay. These conditions make the Merlot vines work a little harder, and thus produce an excellent wine with bright cherry fruit and undertones of baking spice. It was my only purchase of the visit, and I plan to hold onto the bottle for quite some time.

fruit fly trap

After I spent a little too much time savoring the Merlot and helping Douglas concoct a fruit fly trap, we moved onto the Cabernet collection. The first I tasted was the 2009 Alexander Valley Cab, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit of all three of the Hawkes estates: Pyramid, Stone and Red Winery. Aromas of dark plums and dust are followed by a slightly sweet palate of blackberries. This wine certainly has aging potential, but is also ready to drink right now. Douglas graciously poured me some Cabernet samples from their three barrels – one for each estate. The Pyramid was probably my favorite of the three, but each of them were quite unique and showed a lot of potential for future bottling.

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I have to say, while the wine at Hawkes really stood out, it was my experience with Douglas that really made the visit memorable. His excitement about the wines, combined with his generosity, sense of humor, and general musings on life in the wine industry made him the perfect host. Plus, the convenient location of the tasting room (right off Sonoma Plaza, just next to Girl and the Fig), make the visit all the more seamless. Douglas even drew a little map for me, outlining all the best tasting rooms in the plaza. But because I spent way more time than I planned at Hawkes (no regrets), I will have to reserve his suggestions for another day. Until then, Go Hawkes!

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