Wine Country Entertaining – Downton Abbey Style

Entertaining in the wine country means being flexible. Whether it’s a small group of friends, large chaotic kids party, or small intimate formal dinner, it’s all about combining fabulous friends and flavors.

Of course throwing parties with kids is an entirely different animal as the entertainment options can range from as simple as coloring sheets and play dough to extravagant hired entertainers and traveling petting zoos.

Recently while enjoying a quiet laid back casual dinner of homemade pizzas and local wine, the conversation turned to our favorite TV show, Downton Abbey. The four of us decided to throw a small intimate black tie dinner party for fellow Downton fans. We decided to do something revolutionary: have a party without kids. Us parents don’t get out much, so the thought of adult time made it more fun.

The beginning planning stages involved conversations about whether it would be white or black tie, when to send invitations and what to serve.

downton 3From the invite to the place settings, every detail was thoughtfully planned. I used Paperless Post for the invitations. I chose a formal design with a picture of a chandelier similar to the one that would decorate the party.

Having sent the invitations, it was time to plan the other details such as decorations, place settings, music and menu. Planning ahead made it such a success. For the cooking portion, I have to thank Ina Garten for her tips published in one of her fabulous cookbooks. For example, she suggested a cooking timetable. Well, when coordinating seven courses, the timetable was key. In the days before, the schedule made the little tedious tasks like unpacking crystal and silver more manageable. For the day of the party, having a written schedule took the stress out of things. Another key factor was hiring an assistant to help serve the meal and help with washing the legions of dishes left in the wake of a 7 course formal meal. (Emily – you rock!)

So, for the menu, I had a 24 pound turkey that I built the menu around.

Passed Appetizers, Bubbles & Lady Mary Cocktail

Endive with roasted garlic cream cheese and shrimpdownton
Dates wrapped with prosciutto
Lady Mary Cocktail (bubbly, Lillet Blanc, lemon & basil) or (sprite, lemon & basil)
Main Meal

Mushroom sherry soup (mushrooms + sherry + shallots) with a heavy cream drizzle
herb roasted turkey, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, English peas & cherry port gravy
mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette
cherries jubilee over ice cream (this is fun as you light it on fire)
cheese course (cheeses, dried fruit, crackers)
homemade fudge & port

For wines, the party featured those from Peter Cellars Pinot Noir & Roche Winery Merlot

As far as set-up, Emily Post was helpful in setting the scene. The detailed diagrams helped guide the European table setting required for a formal Downton evening. Admittedly though, I didn’t follow it exactly as to make things easier I put the dessert utensils on the table. (Gasp!) A sin for which I likely would have been fired or put on probation had I been working at Downton Abbey.

With most of the food ready to go, greeting guests was a pleasure! We enjoyed the flavors and libations. And, afterwards silly fun with fake mustaches (really worth a laugh). In Downton Style the men departed for cigars & scotch and a chat about all things manly. Us ladies did the same (cigars, scotch and a chat about all things girly).

downton2Of course ages after our bedtime, we dimmed the lights and started dancing the night away. Like I said earlier, us parents don’t get out much so we are easy to entertain.

Now it’s on to planning our next one. Perhaps it will be Mad Men cocktail party or a Gone with the Wind garden party.. Any ideas??

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Spring in the Wine Country is Like the Perfect Chardonnay

With spring all around, this past week reminded me of why the wine country is like no other place.  It is just dreamy to live here.   Amongst the budding vines are hints of purple, pink and yellow wildflowers.  Birds are singing. Butterflies are flying. Blubs are blooming.

In some ways, spring is like the perfect chardonnay.  A beautiful smell like budding flowers, delicate tastes with a buttery finish that evoke thoughts of walking barefoot through new spring grass.

spring 3Spring in Sonoma also means the Sonoma International Film Festival.  It is a unique time when the Hollywood vibe mixes with the casual country.   Glamorous tourists decorate the square wearing their Jimmy Choo stilettos which makes for prime people watching especially considering the uneven cobblestone streets.  Local businesses host a variety of events and film showings.  And, the town is bustling with activity.

An intimate event was hosted by Roche Winery, where guests were able to mingle with those involved in the film Favor, including the actors.  Personally, something about actors makes me turn into a bumbling idiot.  Somehow my educational training in being able to ask a myriad of questions and think on the spot goes off into the universe for a moment.  And, the conversation becomes something like I would have had with a guy I had a crush on when I was in elementary school.   Actor – “Hi, I’m an actor.”  Me – “wow.”  Actor – “well, I was in Star Trek.” Me – “really [pause] wow.  ”  In any event, luckily there were other folks who chimed into the conversation.

All in all though, the evening was an exceptional wine country experience especially since it was paired with my all time favorite wine, the estate chardonnay by Roche Winery.  Oh Roche Winery, however do you create such a rich and enjoyable chardonnay?  Whatever you’re doing, please keep doing it and I’ll keep buying it.

There was only one thing that could make it better, exceptional nibbles.  As luck would have it Mara Roche created a delicious spread oozing with flavor, love and wine country personality.  Deviled eggs with wasabi essence, hand crafted Thai spring rolls, tri tip sandwiches, and goat cheese with quince tantalized my palate while complimenting the wines being poured.

spring 2The next morning, I took my boys out to have some wine country fun.  We stopped by the Studdert Family Farm where some newborn lambs were just getting acquainted with farm life.  I’m not sure who liked meeting the lambs more, me or the boys.  There is nothing quite like watching your little ones meet something that’s even younger than they are.  The pureness of a one day old lamb is breathtaking.   Bobby loved petting the lambs while CJ enjoyed chasing them around the barn.

After the boys had tormented the lambs enough, it was time for walk.  We walked our favorite loop winding through budding grape vines, past llamas and near a few parked train cars.  Of course, walks with two little guys are leisurely to say the least.  They are a favorite way to enjoy an entire morning.   So, we had to stop at the trains.

The boys climbed aboard the trains and pretended to steer the train down the track.  While they were having their choo choo bliss, a couple of out of towners were passing by.  Wearing Premiere Passes to the Film Festival and impressively sized diamond earrings, they stopped to admire the boys and chat. For the second time in a 24 hour period, I had another star struck stupid moment.   The guy with crystal grey blue eyes and friendly stature was strikingly similar to Jeff Bridges.  In any event, we chatted about my boys’ zest for trains and, how wonderful Sonoma is.  After all where else can little ones climb on parked train cars at a kid’s park with the sound of live music from a farmers market beaming in the background?

Was it Jeff Bridges?  I’ll never know.  All I do know is that it doesn’t matter, even if it was, it shows how enjoyable this town is for all especially in spring.  For those of you who don’t believe me, then come check it out.

Light Brunch: Greens, Gruyere & Girly Bubbles (including how to make the perfect fried egg)

Life in the wine country means enjoying lovely food.  There are days when unexpected visitors provide a fun excuse to to create a lovely lunch and savor company as well as local flavors.  A recent creation of mine is too easy and delicious not to share.  A green salad topped with eggs and Gruyere cheese.  The perfect compliment to a glass of chilled bubbly!
eggs

Ingredients

Heart of Romaine Lettuce

Eggs

Hard cheese (any of the white hard cheeses from Vella Cheese would work)

Lemon

Salt & Pepper

Fresh herbs

Preparation

The best part about this recipe is that it is absolutely as simple as can be.  The hardest part is literally shaving the cheese.  Start by cutting some fresh greens.  I like Romaine as it maintains a crunch when topped with something warm like eggs.  Add some shaved white cheese.

Top with two fried eggs.  I fry mine in bacon fat, as everything is better with bacon.  To get the perfect fried egg heat a pan on medium.  Add enough fat (bacon fat, butter or olive oil) to coat the bottom.  Then, once the fat is melted, add your eggs.  Turn down the heat to medium-low.  Check the eggs in 2 minutes.  If they are mostly cooked with a little bit of uncooked whites, then cover with a lid or foil.  Turn off the heat.  Let the eggs sit for a minute.  Check, if the whites look fully cooked then you’re done.  If not, cover for another thirty seconds.

Top with  salt, pepper and a dash or two of lemon.  Sprinkle fresh chopped herbs.  Basil & tarragon work wonders.   Pour a glass of bubbly and enjoy!

Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Defending Girls Night Out

Sometimes a gal just needs to hang with the gals. Why is it that some guys have a hard time stomaching this idea? I mean us ladies are also known for going to the restroom in groups.  So maybe our nature makes us a bit different from our male counterparts.  Our maybe we just want to be able to chat with friends.  In any event, the joy of being around girlfriends is enriching in a way that differs from hanging with spouses.  Not that it’s any better, but just that an occasional change of pace can be absolutely refreshing.

For me, sometimes time away from my testosterone filled household is more than necessary.  This has been especially the case lately.  With an epic winter season of back to back colds and flu, it’s been rough.  After surviving norovirus, flu, and potential rabies exposure, coupled with coming out of working long hours to craft arguments to defeat summary judgment, I more than craved some time off.

Lucky for me, the wine country offers so many decadent options. From luxurious spas to quirky movies, the area is full of things to do. I decided to do a little bit of everything. I tried Pilates for the first time ever. Can I tell you that in the days after Pilates, I discovered muscles in places I never knew they could exist. Ouch! A glutton for punishment, I surely will be going back. I also ventured to a funky film at the local vintage theater which offers a transporting experience. Walking into it is like going back in time. Fully decorated with velvet seats, curtains, and beautiful woodwork, the theater is the primary attraction. But to be able to sit and watch a film, uninterrupted, is a delicious treat.

But the question of who to invite along, if anyone is a different story. And should I want to hang with gal pals, is it discriminatory towards men and families? So, technically speaking I guess it is. But I have had to ask myself whether there was any harm in engaging in such discrimination. Or conversely what the effect might be of not doing so? After all how could it be a bad thing if moms have an excuse to hit the town and recharge.

I think back to college and pre-husband days when hitting the town wasn’t a big deal. Just call up a friend, head out and stay out until whenever.  Without limits and the pull of children at home, it was a much simpler affair.

With kids it’s a different story. Coordinating schedules and arranging details gets to be a little chaotic. Then just when it’s all set up, there are the number of things that can go wrong and get in the way, including picking up one of the many sicknesses snot laden school aged kids come home with.

These challenges make it all the more worth it when it actually works out. So, the next time your girls night is met with opposition for being discriminatory, I say screw em and just do it anyways. So go out, just do it! You can thank me later.

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P.S.  Want to try a new wine on girls night?  I suggest sampling the latest from the boutique winery, Bump Wine Cellars. Try the 2008 Zinfandel. Smooth, flavorful with a bit of spice, it won’t disappoint.

Swapping the Sound of Cars for Crickets

There is something about swapping the sound of cars for crickets.  At first I was convinced that I was camping.  After all, who wouldn’t camp, blocks from the main town center, a beautifully kept square park surrounded by shops, restaurants and wine tasting rooms.  Getting there, though, was a different story.

Selling a house with a newborn is as close to hell as one can get.  With baby swings, gear, strollers, bottles galore, who wants to keep a house staged when you have a newborn?  No one.

Let me tell ya, it was completely horrific.   Luckily, after a wink and a smile it was time to pack it up and move.  Thank the heavens above for movers.  And, my husband, who slowly moved carloads up to Sonoma.  Once the house was all packed, scrubbed and cleaned,  it was time to say goodbye.   Closure.  The end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

Making the trek through the green pastures to the countryside was soothing.   And, I immediately felt a sense of calm upon entering my new home.  A picturesque town with stone buildings, cobblestone sidewalks, and manicured homes.  Sonoma just can’t help but ooze charm.Plaza

 On one side of my new home was a lush farm called the Patch, behind me was a hill with hiking trails.the patch

A short walk away was an amazing cheese shop, Vella Cheese.  Housed in a stone building, Vella offers country charm.  With cheeses that are handcrafted with love and care, each bite is creamy bliss.  I immediately fell in love with the Toma.  And, would frequent there.  Ok, so the girls know my boys by first name.  And, they know me as the once pregnant lady who would go in for her daily dose.  Embarrassing,  yes, but worth it.  You have to try the cheese!  Gotta love the wine country!vella

Across from Vella was the local market.  Every year, a little farm, called the Patch would open a side gate and sell beautifully grown organic produce.  For over 100 years, this farm-stand has been selling the bounty from the area.  A dinner of fresh Romano beans sauteed in garlic and local olive oil, with a wedge of cheese became an instant favorite.  Even my hubby liked it.

So, with cheese and veggies a short jaunt away, my wine country adventure was off to a raging start.  Of course, the next discovery would be an equally decadent wine to go with.  But that’s the subject of another blog post.

Thanks for reading.

In The Beginning…

IMG_1062My love affair with the wine country began officially three years ago.  It all started with a simple question.  Where did I want to raise my then 6 month old bustling  baby boy?

At the time, I was in Oakland, living in a beautiful historic craftsman built back in a time where the tradesmen poured love into details like interior cabinets decorated with glass, thoughtfully placed windows, elegant floors decorated with wooden inlay and intentionally selected warm tiles surrounding the hearth.  With beautifully preserved and restored elements like leaded glass windows, dark wood paneling and a full gourmet kitchen that even Ina Garten would envy, the bungalow was a perfect marriage of old and new world architecture.

While my husband and I loved it (well, to be honest, I loved the historic part, he the modern), having a baby put a different spin on things.  I couldn’t escape what lay outside our historically modern oasis.   The car bomb or later described electrical fire was one reminder of city living.  A million dollar house, and a car bomb?  Don’t get me wrong, Oakland is a fabulous bustling city.  With premiere restaurants, funky culture and edgy fashion, it’s no wonder that Oakland is such a popular place.  Add that to being nestled steps away from markets, bakeries and boutiques, with a short train ride away from the big city.  For some Oakland is ideal; for me it was so for awhile -until Bobby arrived on the scene.  I longed for a more relaxed environment to raise my boy.

After my husband and I considered our options, which admittedly took a long time as indecisiveness (as my husband would tell you) runs in my family, we took a day trip up to Sonoma.  I had been before as I was raised thirty minutes away in Santa Rosa, the big city to Sonomans, and had even considered getting married at the Mission. Turned out, the small cozy mission  with room for standing room only, was logistically unfeasible to hold any segment of the guest list.  2 large families both of which are as you’d expect, stereotypically dysfunctional and Catholic.  I love love our families.

When I visited Sonoma I instantly knew the wine country was where I wanted to be.  With a classy, laid back culture, warm and friendly faces, and beautiful landscapes and space for my boy to roam, staying in Oakland was no longer an option.  Ahh, selling a home and moving with a baby was a royal pain in the butt, but absolutely worth it in every way.