Peroni Nastro Azzurro

Peroni Nastro Azzurro

“Una birra per favore,” says the lovely lady in my car stereo. “One beer please,” parrots her male counterpart.

With the death of CDs, practically the only thing in my car is an old set of ‘Learn Italian in Your Car‘ discs I got for Christmas ages ago. When I can’t get Pandora to play on my phone for some reason, I fall back on these CDs rather than abuse my ears with broadcast radio. I love listening to these CDs actually because the woman’s voice is so sweet and perky with just a hint of attitude. Plus Italian is a beautiful language.

The reason I bring this up is that we bought some Peroni lately to make macaroni and cheese, and I’ve been cooking with it ever since. Yes, some of the beer does make it into the food–I don’t drink all of it while I’m slaving away in the kitchen.

Peroni Nastro Azzurro is an Italian beer, a pale lager to be exact. This is not a fancy beer by any stretch of the imagination. It’s best described as ‘typical’ Italian birra. It’s light, bubbly, and best served cold. It has sweet malty and yeasty flavors, with a hint of white wine, and ends with a satisfactory bitterness that is just right. It’s not going to satisfy the real beer drinkers, but it’s not Michelob Ultra.

It’s a nice beer for cooking with because you’re not wasting a good beer by burying it under other flavors, and there’s just enough flavor from the Peroni coming through that you can taste the beeriness. Beside the obvious use in the cheese gravy for the mac-and-cheese, I’ve also been using it in pasta dishes since I’ve run out of my usual white wine and have thus far failed to put it on my shopping list (blast and damnation!). The acid from the tomatoes and citrus is highlighted by the mellow beer notes and that final slight bitterness.

I’ve been holding onto a beer bread recipe that calls for a pale beer, and I think this might be the time to try it out. I’ve always loved beer bread because of its interesting texture and ideal combination of beer and bread flavors. (I know, those are actually the same flavor generally, but it’s like the fascination with twins–a variation on what should be the same thing actually.) Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

In the mean time, I am waiting to get the point on my ‘Learn Italian‘ CDs when the cheerful, sassy lady tells me how to say “Ho mangiato la pasta così tanto che sto per esplodere!” That should be a handy phrase to know for when we head over to the big boot.

Peroni Birra, SABMiller
Peroni Nastro Azzurro
$6-9 6-pack


Crispin Hard Cider, Honey Crisp

Crispin Hard Cider, Honey Crisp

There’s that guy you know. Every circle of friends seems to have one. He makes money, and he lets everyone know. When he gets back from a skiing trip to Europe, he lets you know about that too. He uses a lot of product in his hair, gets mani-pedis, and dates a series of interchangeable, vacuous young girls that he usually picks up at the gym. His watch is aerodynamic and expensive looking. He doesn’t just sit–he lounges everywhere. You tolerate his ego because he can be entertaining, and sometimes he shows up with an expensive bottle of liquor.

In the world of cider, his name is Crispin. (For the record, we are talking about hard cider, not apple juice.) And Crispin has definitely tossed a great deal of cash at a marketing team to make their branding seem trendy, classy, and classic. That’s not to say it’s a shallow, soulless cider. But the flashy externals always put a question mark over the quality of the content.

I am not a dedicated beer drinker, so The Man patronizes my quirk of drinking cider instead. On a recent beer forage trip to Dorn’s, he carried home a bottle of Crispin’s Honey Crisp hard cider. This is one of the artisanal varieties they produce, and it’s flavored with organic honey. After a chill in the fridge, we popped the top off the 22 ounce bottle and poured the pearly cider.

It tasted of fresh apples, spring water, green grass, and honey. It was definitely crisp. It was absolutely made from apples. But it lacked that intrinsic cidery flavor of old, fermented apples that lingers in the back of your mouth. It was too clean and clear. Too young. And it took me a while to identify the lingering round notes of cardamom that haunted my mouth.

I would drink Crispin cider again. I would even like to try some of the other varieties they offer like the sake style or the Belgian Trappist inspired cider. And they’ve apparently got Fox Barrel Cider, a line made from pears. But when I want a good bottle of cider, I’ll still reach for Cidre Bouche.

Honey Crisp, 22 oz.
6.5% ABV


Carménère, Cremaschi Vineyards, 2010

One of the perks of going to Fresh Market is the ladies at their wine tasting tables. If you go in the evening, they’ve been at it a while and are quite, um, cheerful from handing out samples. I’m absolutely positive these girls don’t have a little sip of the wine here and there throughout the day. They must be just naturally cheerful and talkative at the end of a day-long shift on their feet.

Dinner guests stopped at Fresh Market on the way over, and the lady giving out samples of wine actually talked so profusely, they were late to arrive at our place. Which is fine because in my opinion, the stated time of a dinner party or gathering is merely a suggestion. They eventually arrived bearing a bottle of carménère by Cremaschi Vineyards, a Chilean wine.

Carménère is a dark red varietal that originated in France but is now virtually extinct in its homeland. It was one of the original ‘six red grapes of Bordeaux‘, which sounds like the name of a good children’s song. A tremendous (vineyard) plague in the mid 1800s pretty much wiped the carménère vines out of existence. Once the growers had recovered from the loss, they couldn’t find many healthy vines, and were hesitant to commit to such a temperamental plant.

It was purely by accident that the carménère vines were preserved, having been taken to Chile and confused with the merlot varietal. Once they got it sorted out, they found that the carménère grapes thrived in Chile, and produced a remarkable wine. And because Chile isn’t wall-to-wall vineyards, the chance of another plague devastating this fragile grape is minimized. (There is also a small presence of this grape in California, Australia, and New Zealand, and a growing interest in France again.)

Carménère wine tends to have noticeably softer tanins, which gives it a lovely velvet mouth-feel and a creaminess that is remarkable. We sure remarked upon it a few times while quickly draining the bottle and smacking out lips appreciatively. This wine also had smoky, dry grass, peppery notes typical of a Chilean wine, but on top of this was a very distinct honey flavor that supported the creamy texture well. There were a few hints of dark fruits, and a touch of a dark chocolate, but major notes of honey and earth remind me of what I wish mead tasted like.

It is on the sweet side, so it makes a delicious after dinner wine. It’s best served with foods that have distinct but subdued flavors like many traditional Chilean ingredients: corn, beans, peppers, potatoes, rice, and chocolate. Although it is a typical trick at wine tastings to have people eat chocolate while drinking to improve the taste of a mediocre wine, the carménère wine actually makes a wonderful pairing with a dark chocolate.

As for Cremaschi Vineyards, I couldn’t find a whole lot of info about them. With the globe riddled with vineyards, Google can only help me so much. And buying at a big box store further muddies the origin once a big import/export company gets their mittens on it (usually a small vineyard will focus on landing a big exporter rather than creating their own website to draw interest). Cremaschi Vineyards exports seven varieties of wine, and has been growing grapes for over a century. Apparently Cremaschi is a common name in Chile, and there are several other vineyards that use the name in some way, so it can probably get confusing.

We’re quite interested in trying another bottle of carménère. I’ve not been particularly interested in Chilean wine in general because they tend to be overly peppery and earthy for my taste, but this was nice for a once-in-a-while treat. And I’d love to get my hands on an Australian and a Californian bottle. Purely for research purposes of course. It’s amazing how a grape can make its way to a different part of the world and take on a new life.

On a side note, I have to wonder about the secret lives of the wine tasting women. How do you get that job? And why? Is it a great dating tool? How many people try to give you their phone numbers? How many other propositions do you get? Just how drunk do you get? And do you do this every day? Do you have giant bottles of aspirin and cases of coconut water at home to combat the perpetual hangovers? How do you manage this on a daily basis without seeming to know all that much about wine?

Cremaschi Vineyards
Carménère, 2010


The Girls Love Sailor Jerry

Sailor Jerry

I could make pirate jokes at this point, but I like to think I’m a little more creative than that. (Okay, so we do have Pirate Nights where we drink Piraat and make horrible puns and painfully tacky jokes, but that’s different. That’s drinking.) I’m not even going to make a joke about drinking Sailor Jerry all night and waking up to feel like you’ve been carousing with burly sea men.

Save it for Pirate Night.

But I have found the ladies do love Sailor Jerry. Even the ones that claim they don’t care for the hard stuff (heehee).

Having my book club ladies over so often, I’d gotten tired of having wine all the time, so I switched over to girly mixed drinks for a while when we had people over at the house. A half-bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum had been lurking behind the Bombay Sapphire and some odd Mexican liqueur that arrived as a gift. I suspect several of you have the same thing–a few odd bottles of assorted beverages in a cupboard or cabinet that you keep forgetting you have.

So I pull out the bottle of rum with the tattoo pin up girl on the front and try to decide if this is one of those bottles of liquor that have been handed around and regifted because it’s just plain nasty. I love rum, but Sailor Jerry looks to cute to be good. The story has a glossy Disney-esque spin put on it–the rum is actually named after a real guy, Norman Collins, who did tattoos for sailors in the Pacific for decades. Which is why the bottles have the classic old WWII pin up girl art on them. (Once you finish off the bottle, you’ll notice there’s one on the front of the label, and another lady on the inside of the front label.)

Sailor Jerry, inside bottleThe brand actually popped up as a clothing company that honored the art that Sailor Jerry created with his tattoos. Maybe it’s odd for clothing and rum to go hand in hand, but I suppose someone decided to give it a try. Come to think of it, a lot of rappers or ‘TV celebrities’ have their own line of anything they can stick their label on, so anything goes.

Rum has a long history, usually tied to the West Indies and sailors. Being made from sugar cane, it would be plentiful in the area, and being distilled, it would travel well at sea for great lengths of time. But early rum, like early humanoids, was pretty rough, and sailors often added spices like cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg in it to make it taste less like pickled Neanderthals.

Like any other type of alcohol, there is a wide range of qualities, styles, flavors, and variations of rums. Sailor Jerry is a nice middle-of-the-road quality and it’s spiced so it tastes of cinnamon and vanilla with maybe a hint of nutmeg. This is not a sipping rum, and you probably wouldn’t get a lot of people willing to do straight shots of it. It tends to hit your mouth with abundant flavors, like your grandmother’s purse, when you’re expecting something simpler. It’s great to mix with things though. But what to mix it with?

I have a circle of friends that don’t drink (I know, what?), so I borrowed a favorite of theirs and added Sailor Jerry. Toss 1 or 2 cups of frozen berries in a blender, top off with limeade (we swear by Simply brand), and blend until it’s a party going on in there. Pour in your desired amount of Sailor Jerry (I usually eyeball it based on the people drinking, but somewhere at 1/2 cup or so), and some fresh mint leaves. Very gently pulse the blender a few times to get the rum swirling around and the mint leaves thrashed but not minced into bits. Pour into a pitcher and top off with half again that amount of ginger ale.

There’s usually one girl that says “I can barely taste it–make it stronger next time”, and she’s usually the one in a half hour asking for some water because the room got a little swirly. Not that I’m suggesting in any way to purposefully get people drunk. But for guests who aren’t comfortable with a beer or a glass of scotch, try something fun like this. (And you can make it without rum for those guests not drinking so they don’t feel singled out.)

So now I know that Sailor Jerry is a staple on our liquor bar for impromptu gatherings and other events where beer and wine just isn’t going to cut it. It’s smoother and tastier than some of those cheap brands, and the next day you won’t feel like you went overboard and were given the kiss of life by the ship’s parrot. At least the rum won’t make you feel like that. I surely don’t know what else you get up to in your spare time at parties.

Sailor Jerry
$15-18, 750 mL


Not Very Garlic & Ginger

Garlic & Ginger

I hate walking out of a restaurant and feeling incomplete. As if something is missing. Like the ‘yum’.

It all started out well enough. Several friends had discovered Garlic & Ginger and said it needed to be tried. We were invited out finally, and prior to heading over there, we looked up the menu online. The website was out-of-the-box generic, but at least it didn’t look like a child had designed it in 1998. And the menu was also in Korean. So these were possibly good signs.

We had somewhat high hopes for the place even though it was located in a storefront in a Publix shopping center at the end of Archer Road, past the Land of Chain Restaurants. There were hand lettered signs in the window announcing the place was now open seven days a week. There were only three tables full on a Tuesday night at 8:00. Still nothing terrible.

The first little alarm bell went off when we cracked open the menu. Almost nothing on the drinks menu. And… flip … no, flip… back up, um, what’s Korean for ‘vegetarian’? Even after asking the waiter, there were a total of three things on the skimpy menu that didn’t include beef, pork, sea food, or similar. Not a tragedy, I know. But in Gainesville, it’s rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t have at least some obvious vegetarian options. Even these were somewhat sketchy.

Our tablemates had the huge ‘Seafood Paradise Special’ platter which arrived in a sizzling cast iron skillet. I ordered the Tofu Jab-Chae, sweet potato noodles with veggies and tofu. And The Man had the Tofu Dolsot Bibimbap, a hot pot with rice, veggies and an egg (and posibly some meat products clinging to the egg from something left on the fryer). Oh, and the green tea which was as fresh and tasty as Kool-aid.

My dish was ho-hum, and somewhat difficult to eat the long, sticky noodles with my metal chopsticks. I eventually mastered the knack of rolling the noodles around without elbowing The Man in the head. The Man was terminally underwhelmed by his dish, which even doused with copious amounts of Korean BBQ sauce. Our table mates had a few complaints about their dish being different than they normally got.

I like to think the kitchen was having an off night. I can only hope. Because our one time experience left me feeling like a mediocre Korean restaurant got bought out by a college student fresh out of the UF with a marketing degree and zero interest in food. The only thing going for it was they obviously used fresh veggies and tons of mushrooms. Not a lot of garlic or ginger from what we could tell.

It was a sulky ride home after, with both of us pouting about the experience and our determination to not repeat it. We were full, but there was very little flavor in the whole meal. In our opinion, Garlic & Ginger didn’t live up to its name.

Garlic & Ginger
5847 SW 75th St
Gainesvile, FL 32608


No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off, 2011

No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-offAs with most epic battles, it all started with two guys kicking dirt on each other. Somehow I got stuck in the middle, and innocent (okay, not so innocent) bystander.

I posted a link to a macaroni and cheese recipe to a friend on Google+ (the geeky version of Facebook). There was a bit of debate regarding the need for bacon, and amazement that Paula Deen’s recipe didn’t include mayonnaise (everything else she makes does). The Man got involved, being a back seat driver to my online conversation, and offering the opinion that his version was the best ever, end of story. That was the equivalent of a woman asking her friend to hold her purse and her earrings. The gloves were off.

Seeking further advice on the topic, I switched to Facebook and invited my foodie friends to weigh in on mac & cheese. I was surprised that everyone seemed to have the opinion that their mac & cheese was better than anyone else’s, and IT WAS ON!

Apparently there are very strong feelings about a dish that is basically noodles and cheese and a few other things. Screw politics and religion. Bring up mac & cheese among foodies and you’re going to have an argument on your hands. I suppose it’s because this is one of the most popular comfort foods in the US.

There are variations of macaroni and cheese around the world, including Switzerland (Älplermagronen, which includes potatoes), and the Caribbean (called macaroni pie). Even the French have a version, although they tend towards a traditional mornay sauce rather than our wacky cracky American cheesiness. And as always, the Italians take credit for inventing the whole concept.

Even among our friends, there was a vocal disagreement about what ‘real’ mac & cheese was. What shape pasta? What types of cheese? How many extra ingredients could go in before it was no longer mac & cheese? So many people were in on the pasta scuffle, we had to formalize the date and time, and fortunately friends at Loosey’s arranged for us to use the bar for neutral ground. The date was set for October 9th. A month of trash-talking, spying, comparing cheeses, and testing recipes gave way to the No-Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off.

Seventeen versions of macaroni and cheese arrived to fight it out. There were a few ‘classic’ styles, but the rest were an amazing variety of flavors and ingredients, proving it’s not just cheese and noodles. Once the judges had waded through them all and gone into a back room to deliberate (and possibly throw up from that much mac & cheese), they arrived at winners for the veggie category and the carnivore category. And the best-in-show overall crown went to a version that incorporated lobster bisque into the cheesiness.

Of course the feeding frenzy after the judges were done was just as much fun. Competitors and bystanders devoured the entries, sharing foodie notes, drinking beer, and slowly clogging their arteries in a convivial atmosphere. Eventually everyone had to sit down or go home for a nap. That’s a lot of carbs and dairy.

The casserole dishes were barely being scraped clean when conversation turned to the next cook-off. The what? Yep, the general populace wanted another food fight. Sometime around the holidays. So stay tuned to see what the next competition is about. I’m thinking pie. I like pie.

Many thanks to Loosey’s for becoming our Mac & Cheese Thunderdome. 🙂


San Sebastian Winery, St. Augustine

San Sebastian Winery, St. AugustineLet’s face it. Most Florida wines are not good. Before you get your fur all fluffed up, I do drink Florida wines. I’m not a snob. But the simple truth is that Florida is not ideal for growing good grapes, which is kind of essential for wine. Florida is hot, soggy, wet, flat, swampy, … you get where I’m going. Good grapes need, well, the opposite.

So Florida growers have relied heavily on the good old favorite, the muscadine. Which is not high on the list of designer grapes. If the muscadine were shoes, you would find them at Target next to the Isaac Mizrahi clearance rack. These would not be the shoes that make women purr and groan when they try them on in the store.

On the other hand (you heard that coming, didn’t you), if you live in the area and are having a little road trip into St. Augustine to slum with the tourists and eat good food, your first stop on the way into town should be at the San Sebastian Winery. The people that run the wine tasting are usually fun (free wine tasting!). Weekdays and slow days, they have tastings in the main room, but Saturdays or other busy days, they open up the walk-through tour which is a slightly different experience.

San Sebastian is partnered with Lakeridge, which is further south outside of Orlando. Most of the grapes they use are grown in the area, a mix of muscadine and specially bred varietals meant to thrive in the South. The wine produced tends to be overly sweet and heavily flavored. Not something you would likely serve with dinner or to wine snob friends. With a few exceptions, they both produce basically the same wines just with different labels. You can get both locally. I’ve seen them in Ward’s and Publix, so it can’t be difficult to find a bottle.

I wouldn’t buy it locally but we have fun doing the tasting whenever we drive out to St. Auggie. And we usually buy a few bottles while we’re there. They offer a port, a cream sherry, and a few dryer whites that aren’t bad chilled and mixed in spritzers or mimosas. One of our friends enjoys the muscadine wine and there’s nothing wrong with that. Really. You drink what you like. That’s the whole point.

In fact, if you’re planning a wedding or other event that requires an affordable wine that’s not going to intimidate your guests, Lakeridge has festivals a few times a year where they offer huge deals on cases of wine. Yes, we’re guilty of getting a few cases after an afternoon of drinking sweet wine and washing it down with kettle corn and pretzels.

So on your next road trip to St. Augustine, stop by San Sebastian and acquaint yourself with Florida wine. They’re easy to find. Right next to the police station. I am not making this up.

San Sebastian Winery
157 King Street
St. Augustine, Florida 32084
Tours run every day, check for info.

Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards
19239 U.S. 27 North
Clermont, Florida 34715
Check their site for wine tastings and festivals.


Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale, Cigar City Brewing

Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale

Back in college I ran a cigar shop. This was the height of the cigar madness of the late ’90s and I think the most expensive cigar I sold went for $35 a piece. Not per box, but per cigar. How do you sell expensive cigars like that? You’re a female and you lounge around the shop smoking a double corona maduro (yes, that’s the big black kind of cigars).

So when The Man gave me a pint of beer to try and told me it was Cigar City Maduro, I had to resist the urge to undo a few buttons, fondle the pint glass, and offer to show him my humidor. There’s a vast difference between a maduro cigar and a maduro beer. I’m not so sure I could sell a $35 beer, even in my best push-up bra. But this is yummy beer.

Tampa and Ybor City is quite famous for cigar making back in the day. The whole area is still steeped in the musky scent of aged tobacco and Cuban ex-pats. What else would you want after a long day of rolling cigars in a non-air-conditioned warehouse? A tasty beer. Which would be why there have been breweries in Tampa just as long as the cigar warehouses.

Cigar City Brewing started up in the heart of the tobacco capital of Florida with the intention of making the best beer in the country from the best ingredients, etc., etc. I think it’s a copy-and-paste job that most microbreweries insert into their ‘About Us’ page on their website. Don’t let that hold you back. CCB makes a collection of tasty beers.

At The Top, The Man likes to get a pint of CCB’s Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale because it’s usually on tap, and it’s generally friendly to whatever we might have for dinner. As per its name, this oatmeal ale has a good quantity of oats in with the barley. ‘Maduro’ is translated to ‘mature’, which in cigars means the tobacco is aged long, mellowing the flavor and leaving it sweeter.

This dark, molasses-colored beer has lovely notes of cocoa, malt, hops, and roasted coffee. There are hints of smoke and nuttiness, and even moments of vanilla in the background. But even though there is a rich collection of flavors in a single pint glass, it’s never crowded or overbearing. It’s actually quite amicable and ready to make friends with many kinds of food.

It’s fairly easy to find Cigar City beers here in G’ville but they’re usually bottled. Jai Alai IPA and this Maduro are the two most popular. I really want to try the Espresso Brown Ale next. There are some places that have CCB beers on tap, such as The Top (and the Maduro goes great with the Tempeh Rueben with the tempeh substituted with seitan). The Maduro is totally different than my usual cider (shown above), one being fresh and crisp while the other is mellow and friendly.

Having a CCB Maduro isn’t quite as fun as leaning against my cigar counter, blowing smoke rings from a huge maduro cigar, making customers quiver uncertainly. But it’s just as tasty on a warm dusk night.

Cigar City Brewing
3924 W Spruce Street, Suite A
Tampa, Florida 33607

Tasting room:
813.348.6363, ext. 206
Sunday to Thursday | 11:00am-9:00pm
Friday & Saturday | 11:00am-12:00am