Three lovely libations for Valentine’s Day

ferrari-perle-millesimato-magnum-1185804-s238Valentine’s Day is great for the restaurant business.

Beg. borrow or steal a reservation, wait at the bar and finally descend on your table and hope your romantic evening out won’t be sidetracked by an overpressed wait staff and kitchen.

Why not spend a romantic evening at home?

Find a great card and a thoughtful gift for your sweetheart. Set a lovely table and light the candles. Put on wonderful music. And let the magic begin.

Here are three lovely libations to spark romance:
Build a wood fire and put a bottle of bubbly on ice. Ferrari Perle 2008 is celebratory, with that yeasty pop race car drivers and accomplished hosts expect from this superb producer of sparkling wines from Trento in northern Italy.  It’s creamy, with crisp apple and subtle notes of almond. (SRP: $38)

pinotnoir-B3-2_largeOn to dinner! Loveblock Pinot Noir is a gorgeous red with purple hues from a small vineyard in New Zealand appropriately named Someone’s Darling and brought to us by Terlato Wines. It’s complex, so open the bottle early and let it breathe. Expect perfumed violet, intense dark fruit, and an herbaceous oaky waft layered with savory mushroom and sweet strawberry notes. I suggest pouring this pleasing potable with duck. (SRP: $37)

Select_BottleIt’s a romantic evening. Back to the fireplace. Put another log on the fire, dear, and Indulge in Laphroaig Select Scotch Whisky, with the exquisite peaty notes of Scotland and “the beautiful hollow by the broad bay,” the literal translation of the label. (SRP: $44.99)

Hopefully, you already have set out nice glasses and comfy pillows.

Expect a long, dry finish with spice. Add a heartfelt hug from your sweetheart.


Tastes of Tuscany at Brio

Brio is not your typical chain restaurant. It’s a destination for Tuscan-style fare and a great place for sharing, with seasonal small plates, grilled dishes and chef’s specialties.

We were invited to sample a tasting menu at the Brio location at Christiana Mall, which includes a bustling dining room, friendly bar and outdoor seating in fine weather.

IMG_1288Our server is warm and knowledgeable, a pro who can help diners make decisions and pair wines with their meals.

For starters, we tuck into velvety fresh Burrata cheese, drizzled with olive oil. We spread the cheese on crusty grilled slices of ciabatta baguette with tangy roasted tomato compote. We sip two wines: Conundrum, a round, pleasantly acidic white blend from California; and 19 Crimes, a fruity Australian red blend.

There are a lot of beans in Tuscan cuisine and a lot of beans on Brio’s menu. We sample a small plate of white bean dip with parmesan pizza bread. Pureed cannellini beans are topped with a salad that keeps the dish from being too starchy: artichokes, Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula and feta.

IMG_1289-2Our favorite course of the evening is the 16-ounce bone-in espresso rubbed rib eye served to us by general manager Michael Collins. The cut is juicy, tender and flavorful, presented with savory sides: Sicilian cauliflower oven roasted with capers, pepperoncini and pine nuts, and creamed spinach and kale with toasted bread crumbs. The perfect pairing: Decoy by Duckhorn, a robust Cabernet.

Typically, this would be plenty of food for us. But we still have more dishes to mangia through.

We sample two chef’s specials, reminding one another that we need to save room for dessert. Prosciutto wrapped pork tenderloin is pan seared and served on a bed of cannellini beans and rendered pancetta. It’s homey and delicious, fragrant with fresh rosemary and grape tomatoes.

IMG_1291Balsamic braised beef short rib is quintessential comfort food. It’s paired with oven-roasted carrots that remind me of my grandmother and butter-basted wild mushrooms, an unexpected treat.

Such a sumptuous repast calls for a decadent dessert and our hosts do not disappoint. Flourless chocolate torte is already lush and indulgent. The chef puts it over the top with chopped Marcona almonds and super smooth olive oil gelato.



Tarting up the Christmas tree, with help from Fairfax Hardware

You wouldn’t know it to look at it but my Christmas tree is old and fake.

It was passed along to me years ago by my good friend Brenda, who was upgrading to a fancy shmancy pre-lit tree and was looking for a new home for her perfectly fine, impeccably maintained artificial tree.

img_1714-copyFor years, I had stuck by real trees, like pine sap on your best sweater. But I experienced a gradual awakening. Fake trees don’t shed much. No worries about recycling them after the holiday. And if you put lots and lots of blingy objects on the tree who will know the difference?

Thus began my new tradition: tarting up the Christmas tree.

I load my tannenbaum with decorations I have been collecting for years, through the stages of my life.

There’s Baby’s First Christmas ball–and Rebecca’s Christmas mouse, made by the baby herself six years later. Many are handmade, traded years ago at the annual neighborhood ornament exchange on Garfield Avenue in Palmyra, N.J., my home town. There are official White House ornaments, including one I brought back from my stint at USA Today. (I predict the official Trump ornament will be a 14k gold wall–and Mexico will pay for it.)

img_1715My current fave is a miniature replica of an old-fashioned typewriter, a gift from my friend Ellen, with whom I have shared many fond conversations on the merits of Chicago Style versus AP Style.

For the first time I can remember, my tree is illuminated by big, colorful bulbs harkening back to the days of my childhood. (You can buy them at BJs.) I’ve also added vintage garlands reminiscent of a feather boa from my glamorous grandmother’s tree, which I found when my sister Roni and I were cleaning out closets after our mother died.

img_1716Mom was fond of tinsel, arranging it strand by strand on our tree. I take my own approach,  tossing sparkling clusters of silvery icicles with great expectations. When the tinsel gets to the state of the cobwebs on Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, I know I’ve got it right.

After the holiday, as I dismantle the tree, I follow Mom’s example, removing the tinsel to use next year. But each season yields less glitter as time and kittens take their toll.

This year, I did not have enough tinsel to tart up the tree! I also was out of ornament hooks!

I squandered precious time scouring Walgreen’s before heading to Fairfax Hardware, my go-to destination for whatever ails my house. As always, the people who work there were courteous, helpful and gosh-darn nice.

Do you have tinsel? And ornament hooks?

Of course, here you are. Happy holidays!

At Christmas, and always, a great hardware store is truly a gift.




ThinkFun games for the holidays

The family that plays together stays together.

Take it from me, who grew up watching my mom and Auntie Barb play Chinese checkers on the beach at the Jersey shore. Then we would head back to the house and play Yahtzee. And then pinochle.

This year, I enjoyed a rousing round of Scrabble at Thanksgiving. Getting in the game is a good thing!

Here are three games from ThinkFun designed to get your gray cells firing and your family together. That includes yoga poses. These are challenges that reward players for thinking and acting together, not just participation.

cluem-1521-hiresspillStrategic Thinking + Stimulating Play = Perfect 4 Tweens, $12.99
Clue Master  – Your goal: Help Tippy the dog return to his dog house! Young players use deductive reasoning to place Tippy’s chew bones, tennis balls, and food bowls in the correct order to unlock the secret door and send Tippy home. The more you play, the more deductive tricks and strategies you’ll learn as you reason logically from the clues you’re given! (Ages 8+)

yogaspinner-1842-hiresspillActive Minds and Bodies + Multiple Players = Great Stocking Stuffer, $14.99
Yoga Spinner – Simultaneously stimulate and calm the mind while encouraging teamwork and physical activity. Yoga Spinner players give the spinner a whirl, choose the corresponding card, and perform the pose pictured to win the pose card. To win the game, players need to collect a card from each of the four categories of yoga poses. Yoga Spinner was recently the recipient of an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award and a National Parenting Product Award (NAPPA)  (Ages 5+)

balan-1140-hiresspillVisual Math + Balance Board = Best Educational Gift Under $20, $17.99
Balance Beans – Balance Beans is a logic game and math game all in one. Use the Challenge Card to arrange the Red Beans. then carefully place the blue, yellow, or orange Beans on the Seesaw to keep it from teetering. When you balance the Seesaw, you are actually balancing an equation! This bean-filled logic game is a fun way to introduce young learners to elementary algebra. Balance Beans was recently named an ASTRA Award winner. (Ages 5+)

A red and a white to uncork for the holidays

Our annual feast-a-thon is upon us, that sumptuous seasonal slice that dawns on Thanksgiving and waddles off into the sunset on New Year’s Day.

mkmbrown2There is no better way to usher in the holidays than with food-friendly wines. On my recommended list are a red and a white from Terlato Wines, the four-generation winemakers who have amassed a global portfolio of more than 70 brands in more than a dozen countries. Terlato provided wines for us to sample, including these two standouts from California in the $20-plus range.

Markham Merlot, born and raised in the Napa Valley, fills the glass with a jammy pop of dark ruby color scented with vanilla and dark chocolate, with lively notes of cherry. Its pillow-soft, laid-back tannins make it a great pout for entertaining small, intimate groups enjoying roasted veggies and sausages fragrant with herbs.

hanna-sauvignon-blanc-russian-river-valley-usa-10206617HANNA Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley is a match for crisp, fresh salads or a counterpoint to spicy dishes. It’s a bright yellow tinged with grass green, a zippy sip of pleasantly acid nectarine and peach with notes of hay and ginger.

Cheers to the holidays!





Free bird: Acme or ShopRite?

Every year as Thanksgiving approaches I ponder an important question regarding which turkey is best for the feast: fresh, frozen or free?

90de03d299f49b637bab83ef14e66fd7For my money, give me a free bird (and a round of Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s Free Bird, the rock anthem blaring on my 1969 Impala Super Sport when a West Virginia state trooper clocked me driving 92 mph. He gave me a break and wrote me up for driving 5 miles over the speed limit. After all, it was my 20th birthday).

Regarding the turkey, my only decision is which promotional offer is the better choice.

This year, ShopRite is ponying up a house-brand turkey weighing up to 21 pounds with cumulative purchases of $400 through Nov. 24. Acme will hand over a Jennie-O bird with a weight of up to 22 pounds with a one-time purchase of $100. (Update: the offer ended Nov. 18).

ShopRite’s offer kicked off in October, so I figured I had plenty of time to rack up the required tab. But I soon realized that I was going to fall short thanks to ShopRite’s great seasonal promotions and my personal zeal for clipping coupons.

So this Thanksgiving, Acme wins out with its more accessible price point. I’ll stock up on holiday fare, toss in coffee and other non-perishables, check out for $100 and change and bag a bird for our holiday repast. I’m always grateful for a great deal.


Brews at the Barn. Important update


Hiking on the Delaware Greenways trails is a favorite pastime, surpassed only by enjoying a brewski after a tramp in the woods.

unknown-1You can raise a glass to support the nonprofit group at Brews at the Barn on Oct. 15 at Historic Penn Farm in New Castle. Supporters will enjoy seasonal fare, paired with beers from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

Delaware Greenways wind through through some of the most beautiful scenery in the First State. The trails are highly accessible–one runs through my neighborhood–which makes it easy to engage in an active lifestyle. I’m a member and I hope you will become one, too.

At Historic Penn Farm, Delaware Greenways encourages heathy eating through such programs as a Farm to School partnership with the Colonial School District, where students learn to grow and prepare nutritious food. There’s also a seasonal farm stand.

Brews at the Barn is a great opportunity to view the 300-year-old farm, a rare crescent of agriculture in a mostly developed stretch of New Castle County. So c’mon down. Tickets are $45 for nonmembers and $40 for members. The pouring starts at 6:30 p.m.

Pyxis Piano Quartet at Market Street Music

This Saturday, Pyxis Piano Quartet again takes the stage at Market Street Music, a soulful, grassroots organization dedicated to bringing the classics to inner city Wilmington.

17692The sparkling chamber ensemble features Luigi Mazzocchi on violin, Amy Leonard on viola, Jie Jin on cello and Hiroko Yamasaki on piano. It’s a great program featuring the music of Mozart, Strauss, and Kernis. Afterward, meet the musicians, up close and personal.

The music starts at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at Market Street Music’s home venue, First and Central Presbyterian Church at 1101 N. Market Street in Wilmington. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door and $15 for students age 15 and up. Younger students are admitted free.

Ultra repair, leave-in conditioner

Mother Nature gives us hair. Then Mother Nature throws sun and humidity at us, turning our crowning glory into brittle frizz.

yhst-88462588038071_2438_2005129030Enter Giovanni Eco Chic Cosmetics, the maker of 2chic Ultra Repair Leave-In Conditioning & Styling Elixir. It’s infused with blackberry, coconut milk, antioxidants and other ingredients that smooth away frizz and restore hair’s natural elasticity.

I put a review sample of Giovanni to the test on a recent weekend when I shampooed after a morning hike–and only an hour and a half before heading to an outdoor music festival. With no time to fuss with my tresses, I worked the conditioner through my hair before blasting it with the blower dryer.

Giovanni performed as promised. No frizz. My hair felt smooth, supple and strong, ready to take on Mother Nature. 2chic Ultra Repair is part of a line of shampoos, conditioners and hair masks formulated to revive and restore hair. You can find them at lots of retailers, including Ulta, Target and Whole Foods. Expect to pay about $9 for a four-ounce bottle of ultra repair.

Si, to Albarino. The other white wine

There are lots of white wines that deserve our attention beyond Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

thumb_1109_news_bigWhen it comes to pairing a white with seafood, I’m raising a glass to Lagar de Cervera Albarino 2014, produced by Lagar de Fornelos in the Rias Baixas region of Spain. (SRP: $17.95)

Albarino is pale yellow with green hues, a visual preview to a taste that is fresh, clean and slightly tangy. Lagar de Cervera is fragrant with notes of apple, apricot, pear and pineapple. The grapes for this complex and well-balanced white are grown in a region where the soil is rich with granite, reflected in its strong, flinty finish.

What you don’t get are some of the notes we have come to associate with other whites: the oak of domestic Chards, the citrus of Pinot Gris, the herbaceous quality of Sauv Blanc.

This is a white with both clarity and oomph, a pleasant partner with grilled shrimp or squid, seared scallops, steamed mussels or paella. It’s also a happy choice with fresh cheeses, especially creamy burrata. The next time you are shopping for whites, give an Albarino a try.