We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Highway 46 West (Paso Robles) Wine Tasting and Duck Fat Oven Fries

My Traveling Tales by Linda

"Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living."
                                                           ~ Robert Mondavi from his autobiography, Harvests of Joy

Susan Benson, of Dark Star Cellars, pours the delicious Ricordati for us.
A view into the Paso Robles hills from PasoPort Wine Company in mid-July.
   This past summer, when Mark and I celebrated our birthdays that are just three days apart in July, we decided upon the Central Coast as our destination. We chose Morro Bay as base camp, because it was central to all of the areas that we wanted to visit. Not only is Morro Bay beautiful, and right on the water, but it is only an hour and a half to the Santa Ynez Valley, which I still think of as home, and it is just thirty minutes from some great micro wineries that are situated along Highway 46 West. Pick up a free map when you are in the area (they are plentiful), but I could not find a decent one on-line.
   Before we begin our journey on 46 West, I will take a moment to extoll Mark's credentials in the wine arena. Mark is a wine professional and has been tasting and selling wines for the past 25 years. He recently attained his WSET certification and passed with distinction. He has proved to be a patient teacher with me, as I tend to have strong opinions, and I have discovered over the last two years that we have been tasting together, it takes time to develop one's palate. Michelle, even though she knows it's proper, isn't too fond of how he slurps the wine when we all go tasting together, mixing the wine with air and letting it run over his whole tongue, but hey… that goes with the territory when you are tasting with a wine professional.

   To be sure, there are many wineries as well on Highway 46 East, which is on the other side of Highway 101. That area is populated with quite a few larger producers who have built grandiose tasting rooms that are reminiscent of Napa. Mark and I took a drive through the area last summer in blazing heat, and headed right back to 46 West, where, not only did the temperature drop being closer to the coast, but the wineries are small and the wine that is made is not only a great value, but is lovingly crafted in smaller quantities. The artisanship is evident when you start tasting the wine. We only had a day to explore this past summer, and we vowed to return as soon as we were able.

"Micro wineries are the heart of Paso Robles" proclaims an article on a
bulletin board at Pipestone Vineyards. I concur.
   This past January, with the busy holiday season behind us retailers, Mark and I headed out for Morro Bay for rest and relaxation. We once again designated a day of wine tasting along Highway 46 West in our plans. I fully acknowledge in writing this post, that even after this past visit, we have still only scratched the surface as far as visiting the tasting rooms in the area. There are over 300 wineries to chose from. In this post I will be featuring just four of our favorites so far.

Those hearts are made from spent barrel hoops.
Dark Star Cellars

   Our first visit to Dark Star Cellars was based on a tip from my friends Clarke and Monica who had stumbled upon this great small producer on a trip to Cayucos. When they brought a bottle of Dark Star Ricordati to a special dinner, I was an instant fan. When Mark and I stopped in last summer, we were greeted by Susan Benson and her assistant in the tasting room. Susan is the wife of the owner and winemaker Norm Benson.

   The tasting room is warm and inviting, and so is Susan. When we stopped in on this trip, she remembered us instantly. The wines here are all beautifully made, and very affordable. Norm and Susan's son is now making his own label, and has set up shop right next door at Brian Benson Cellars. I always pick up a bottle of Ricordati for we sisters to share during Sistercations when we remember and toast those that we have loved and lost.

["Ricordati" ( Re-core-dot-ee), "Always Remember", is a delicate blend of 
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc which is produced to celebrate the 
memory of our friends and family. Ricordati began as a tribute by Norm to his father. 
It has now evolved into a wine that celebrates the memory of all of our friends and family 
who have passed away. A tribute to the positive impact they all have had on our lives.]

Carol Perata, of Fratelli Perata Wines.
Fratelli Perata

   In these micro wineries, we are almost always greeted by a person in the family who is helping to make the wine. Fratelli Perata is no exception. Carol Perata is a wife, mother and winemaker not to mention family historian, and from what I hear, an expert at cooking up the Italian dishes that the family has eaten for generations. She related on this visit about the preparation of the Christmas ravioli, telling us that, according to the tradition in their family, the Nonna says, "you know when the pasta is rolled thin enough, because you can read a newspaper through it." The family enjoyed that handmade ravioli this past year, with a '94 Cab from their library.

I love the Fratelli Perata Tasting Room... I feel like I just pulled up a chair in Carol's kitchen.
   The tasting room is a homey nook, with barrels aging in the larger part of the space, and family photos proudly hung on the wall with a map of Italy designating the family's roots, and a family wall mural that represents the generations past and present.

   This estate vineyard/winery is run by brothers Gino and Joe Perata and their families. It is a great place to taste varietals that are not commonly found in California such as Charbono, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese. It is now also my tradition to purchase a bottle of the delicious blend called Tre Sorelle, named after the three daughters of Carol and Gino, to share when we three sisters are together. The grapes are dry farmed at Fratelli Perata, so the grapes benefit from having intense flavors that have not been diluted by irrigation. This is also a much more eco-friendly approach to growing grapes.

   And this brings us finally to a discovery that we made through Carol Perata. She told us about another couple that is making great wine just up the road with draft horses, and neither Mark or I could resist seeing that.

Mark gets acquainted with Betty and Bobbie, the sister draft horses that help
farm the land at Pipestone Vineyards.
Pipestone Vineyards

   So in spite of the intense heat last July, we drove out a winding road that would lead us to Pipestone Vineyards. Mark, who loves horses, was greeted by Betty and Bobbie, two draft horses that are full sisters. They help Jeff Pipes, the owner/winemaker, plow the fields. Click here for a link on their website page that shows the girls in action.

Florence pours for us a delicious taste of their estate grown Viognier. Just perfect
on a hot and dusty afternoon in Paso Robles.
   Florence Wong manages the tasting room and sales. Again, a low-key space with a vineyard dog asleep on the floor, and serving up some really great wine. Not only is the wine delicious, but all the grapes are grown at this small family winery that has a dedicated history of sustainable farming and producing handmade Estate Grown Rhône-style wines from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. There is also a dry farmed Zinfandel.

   And just for a change up, and because I am fond of port, we stopped in at PasoPort Wine Company at the end of the day, because in my humble opinion, all great adventures are made better with a little dessert.

PasoPort Wine Company

   PasoPort Wine Company has a location on the West side of the highway. I found the pinup girl motif to be a tad cheesy, but we did enjoy the port quite a bit. Enough to purchase a couple of bottles. That was also due to the great customer service we received from a very knowledgeable, professional, and pretty woman that was attending the tasting room. If you like port, this is a fun stop.

PasoPort tasting room on Highway 46 West location.
   Other wineries that Mark and I can happily recommend are:

Say hello to Pam at Caliza for us… she is most knowledgable and hospitable.
Caliza Winery ~ check out the Pink
Winward Vineyard ~ exclusively well-crafted Pinot Noirs
Kaleidos ~ specializing in Rhône varietals

   Having established that there is great wine to be found on Highway 46 West, it should be mentioned that there is a dearth of places to eat. Many of the wineries have beautiful picnic areas, so if you are packing your own food, there is no shortage of great places at the various wineries which have beautiful locations to eat. But if you haven't packed a picnic, I have happy news for you. This trip we discovered Fundaro's Foodsteam which had parked for the afternoon at J Dusi Wines.

Hipster grub under the oaks in Paso at J Dusi Wines.
   Mark and I asked at Dark Star if there was any place to lunch? They responded enthusiastically about Fundaro's Foodstream. They graciously called to check where they would be that day, and sent us about a mile East. Not knowing what to expect, my hopes weren't that high, but when we saw the menu, we knew that we had found some great grub. 

   We decided to share the Green Egg and Hamburger, the New Mexico Green Chile Stew and the Hatch Poutine. Since we only eat gluten once in a blue moon, the brioche bun on the burger was quite the splurge. The food was outstanding, and tasted especially good after all the wine tasting. I spoke with Jack, the operator proprietor, and he was kind enough to pose for a photo when he wasn't running food out to picnic tables.

Jack of Fundaro's Foodstream.
   Mark and I loved, loved, loved the food! So much that we vowed to try a twist on the Poutin when we got home with a healthier version made with our duck fat fries. We also happened to have Hatch chiles in the freezer. But for the moment, we were satisfied to munch on our lunch, and we savored the great tasting food. There was also the added bonus that we were eating in the open air and under the oaks in one of our favorite places in California. 

Hatch Poutine with house cut fries, hatch chile gravy, chopped onions,
cilantro and feta cheese… sublime.
Mark tucks in.

 Oven Duck Fat Fries

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Homemade Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

by Michelle

"Money can't buy happiness. But it can buy marshmallows, which is kinda the same thing." 
Cousins Isi, Maddie and Bea spending quality time together in the kitchen.
   I know it is January, the month when we are all supposed to be getting healthy, but I didn't want to wait until the next indulging season to encourage you to cook and bake with someone you love. In this particular scenario it is quality time in the kitchen with my nieces, Bea and Isi from the Greater Washington DC area and my daughter, Maddie. If you frequent our sisters' blog, you know that Maddie and I enjoy spending time in the kitchen together, in particular, making sweets. Within the last year, Maddie has also began exploring the savory side of life, and often she will be on the opposite side of the counter from me dicing vegetables, demonstrating her good knife skills.

Maddie and Bea double-checking the directions pre launch.
   As I wrote last week, November and December were decidedly difficult months, culminating with the passing of my father-in-law. Carving out personal time to spend with the ones that I love helped to keep me grounded. Spending time with young ladies that exude youthful optimism, definitely helped alleviate some of the mental fatigue that I had been carrying around with me throughout the holidays. An afternoon of making a delicious confection with happy girls helped to brighten my outlook on life and to remember that there will be plenty of good times ahead. Without the bad times, we wouldn't recognize the good times.

Sticky ooie gooey deliciousness. 

Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Final Goodbye to 2013 and Michelle's Big Batch Chicken Soup

by Michelle
"I get knocked, down but I get up again
You're never gonna keep me down."
                                                                        ~Tubthumping by Chumbawamba

At ten to midnight, Maddie pours Champagne and Sparkling Cider.
   I am fully embracing this New Year. At midnight on New Year's Eve I greeted 2014 with a flute of champagne in my hand and joy in my heart. The year of our Lord 2013 was particularly difficult for me both professionally and personally. The start-up tech company that I worked for and dearly loved failed, and everyone in the company was laid off in one afternoon during a company meeting on April 15th. With a struggling economy, I was fortunate to find the right career opportunity and to become gainfully employed once more at the end of July. A new career path has its own unique challenges and, in this case, a steep learning curve. Everything was clipping along well until my Mom's health was compromised suddenly by excruciating pain in her lower back and hip. The pain was so severe that Mom went from walking normally to being confined to a wheelchair within a short period of time. The last of three falls resulted in an ambulance ride to the emergency room and then a transfer to an assisted living facility. Scary stuff.
  When caring for a parent while working full time, life becomes very vivid, very quickly. What confounded me the most is learning that the medical field moves at a snail's pace with a total lack of urgency. Trying to expedite doctors referrals and medical procedures is practically an exercise in futility. While the healthcare system moves at its own slow pace, my mother, in the meantime, was in extreme pain. If that wasn't terrible enough, suddenly I was thrown into the world of trying to understand insurance and legal documents. Just exactly what does Medicare cover? Do I have a HIPPA release? Medical Power of Attorney? Legal Power of Attorney? Living Will?
   When my sister Linda tried urgently calling my mother's doctor to inform the office about my mother's hospitalization, the office personnel said they couldn't talk to her because there was no HIPPA release on file. Linda, exasperated, said that she wasn't trying to obtain information about my mother, she was simply trying to provide an update to the current situation. Mid-conversation the office's representative hung up on Linda. I was stunned. So was Linda. Time for a new doctor. But, the time to find a new doctor is not when you are in the middle of a medical emergency.
   After the years I have spent on the planet, this much I know to be true: you never know what you have with someone—whether it's with a person or a company—until you have your first fight. What plays out in the aftermath is what is at the core of the relationship. Some things are worth fighting for; some are not. Some people you'll jump in the fox hole with, some people you won't. The earlier you find out what's what and who's who, the better you will be. Now, and in the future. Sadly, my mom had her first fight with her doctor's office, and when we really needed their help, attention, and expedited assistance, they came up short.

   In mid-December, while juggling all my responsibilities, I caught bronchitis, from which, I still have a sporadic, lingering cough. When I recognized the signs of impending doom from the tickle in my throat, I jotted down a grocery list and off my husband went to market. I knew the best thing for me, in a time when I could not completely crash and hibernate, would be to consume homemade chicken soup made with whole chickens. And lots of it.
   What little Christmas shopping I did was all transacted on-line. Fortunately, everything came gift wrapped. Hallelujah. I even purchased food on-line. After reading about the benefits of a glorious ham dinner in Bon Appétit Magazine, I decided to buy the recommended ham from the D'Artagnan website and conveniently scheduled a delivery date. In fact, this year I felt particularly overwhelmed by consumerism and harassed by the onslaught of holiday marketing. I was repelled by the daily e-mails from the same retailers offering the deal du jour. I am—for better or worse—no longer an enthusiastic buyer. You will not find me peering in the windows of a big box store while chanting, "Open, open, open."
   I feel discouraged that retail employees are required to work on Thanksgiving, a national holiday, so that Black Friday can be rolled back a day to become Black Thursday. Thanksgiving is the one day a year that the citizens of the United States all celebrate together, in a similar manner, without consideration of religious beliefs or ethnicity. It's a day for all of us to be thankful and grateful for the bounty and the blessings in our lives. It should not be about jumping in the car after dinner to chase a 50% discount on an X-Box at the local big box store.
Valerie and Chet enjoying the bonfire.
   To add to all the mayhem, at the end of December, my husband's father passed away, which brought our larger family together to say a last goodbye to a man that lived a long life on his own terms. Family members rotated in and out of our house as my husband and his brothers kept a 24-hour watch at the hospice, knowing that their father's end of life was near.
   My husband and I kept referring to Holiday Season 2013 as "The Christmas That Wasn't". My sister Juliette commented on my Facebook page that I was having a Long December in a Counting Crows kind of way: "The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls." Juliette's advice was for me to hang tough and as a consolation she would be loaning me her KitchenAid mixer until I could have mine repaired. Yes, even my trusty KitchenAid hit the skids.
   In spite of the varying circumstances, we managed, by the hair on our chinny-chin-chins, to buy and decorate a tree, a beautiful Nordmann, which is, according to the Christmas tree lot guy, the Noble Fir of Europe. Instead of unpacking all of the many boxes of Christmas decorations lingering in the garage, I opted to buy two big boxes of unbreakable ornaments from Costco. In buying and decorating a tree, we maintained some seasonal normalcy during a difficult time.

    This is the other bit of wisdom that I have gleaned over the years. No matter the tragedy or travesty, we all must eat to live. So despite everything that was unfolding, to keep on with the business of living, we kept everyone fed. With prepping assistance from my daughter and grilling skills provided by my husband, we produced a beautiful Filet Mignon Christmas Eve dinner served with Mark's Classic Potato Gratin, Sautéed and Caramelized Mushrooms and Grape Tomatoes Halves Glazed with Balsamic Syrup Vinaigrette.
   The next day, for Christmas dinner we baked up the "Big Ass" bone-in ham—all 19.2 pounds of it—as the pièce de résistance. Sadly, for my husband, he lay in bed with a 102 degree fever. Even he, who normally doesn't, succumbed to what my mother refers to as The Galloping Crud. We rounded out the menu with Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes, Hawaiian Skillet Vegetables (a dependable and easy side dish from Linda's catering days) and homemade sourdough rolls.
   The menus were chosen because I could produce all the dishes in my sleep, if necessary. My brother-in-law marveled that I made so many potatoes (suspecting that I had made too many), and that the leftovers would surely be destined for the trash. Over the course of a few days, every last cheesy carb-o-licious morsel was consumed with and without leftover ham. There is no such thing as too many potatoes, in my humble opinion.
   When New Year's Eve arrived I turned to another instant classic to feed our small group of friends and family: Sonoran Hot Dogs. Since I already have homemade Pinto Bean Chili con Carne in the freezer, the meal was practically as easy as defrosting and heating. The day before, my nieces, daughter and I made pillow soft Vanilla Bean Marshmallows. We jointly agreed to make Rocky Road Brownies for NYE dessert, with the Rocky derived from leftover Maple Sugared Candied Walnuts that I make every Christmas regardless of the state of my family's affairs.
   And, since I believe life is seemingly always better with margaritas, I stirred up a big batch to have with the jumbo sized all beef hot dogs that were draped in roasted Hatch chilies and wrapped generously with two strips of thick apple smoked bacon. 

My niece Bea gets into the spirit of piling on the toppings.

Sisters Isi and Bea garnish with flair.
Since I'm always behind the camera, Val asked to use my camera to turn it on me. Fair enough!
My brother-in-law Jeff makes the best Sonoran Hot Dog... ever!

   All I needed was a big bonfire to make my soul sing. As the world turns, we just so happened to have in the fire pit our Christmas tree from 2012. It seemed as though, every time we wanted to have a big fire last year, the wind would stir and the conditions became unsuitable for pesky but beautiful sparks. As Shakespeare wrote, all's well that ends well. As I watched the fire leap and soar, hungrily devouring the dry tree, I thought about the sorrows I wanted to let go, and I then I released them to the black sky, dismissing sad thoughts one by one. Then, I had dessert.

We added Maple Sugared Candied Walnuts and homemade Vanilla Bean Marshmallows
to our Ooiest Gooiest Chocolatiest Fudgiest Brownies recipe.
The brownies are ready to go into a preheated oven.
Cousins Isi and Maddie both just so happen to be reading the Divergent series.
When I jokingly call the first book Deviant my daughter disapprovingly slaps my shoulder.

   It may seem silly to some folks, but I truly believe that homemade chicken soup, rich with bone broth gelatin, helped to keep me going through a difficult December. That, and my Scots-Irish roots and sheer determination. I felt like Mel Gibson in Braveheart but without a trusty horse and warrior face painted blue. The Chubbawubba song from 1996 kept repeating in my head like a personal mantra, "I get knocked, down but I get up again." And, thank you to my sisters, for always listening and supporting me, no matter the circumstances, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. I am also thrilled to report that Mom is walking again and returning home as of today. Here's looking forward to a brighter and better 2014. May there be prosperity and health for all. Salud, to you!

My husband Jay, my daughter Maddie, and me; a little worse for the wear, but still smiling.

Michelle's Big Batch Chicken Soup
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