How to Prevent a Holiday Party Nightmare

Candle Holders from Pottery Barn

Five things you can do RIGHT NOW to prepare for any holiday gathering – for the rest of the year!

The whole group was coming to my party. I was so happy that I found myself literally grinning from ear to ear every time the doorbell rang. People were in such a great mood and everyone was engaged in conversation. The atmosphere in the room was lively, people were laughing, it couldn’t have been better. But then, to my horror, I realized that I wasn’t ready. Worse than that – nothing was ready!

I had no drinks to serve.

My dining room was a mess.

None of the food was ready.

I was in a complete panic. Then I suddenly realized something else that stopped me cold in my tracks. I was still in my swimsuit and I reeked of sun tan lotion! And, even worse than that, I had an inflatable swim ring around my waist? Whaaaaaat? Seriously? I don’t even sit out in the sun much less use suntan lotion or an inflatable swim ring!

That’s when I woke up and sat bolt upright in bed.  It was all a horribly bad dream. I laughed. Of course. If you’ve ever wondered what a nightmare looks like to a home entertainment expert, this would be it. I’d been so busy this summer. I’d been up north, back east and in between. With that kind of schedule, who has time to think about the holidays?

But now, I am. In fact, part of this blog was written right after that silly dream – well, let’s call it what it was – a nightmare, okay? Now, this is my warning to all my fellow home entertainers – the time to prepare is NOW.  The holidays are literally, right around the corner. As a friend of mine is fond of saying: The trick to preparation is getting prepared now.

There are FIVE simple things you can do – today – to get your home prepared for the holidays.

ONE: Start with easy-to-do accent changes: change out the couch throws for heavy knit ones and add a few accent pillows that say, “here come the holidays” like this pillow and this one from Crate and Barrel. You don’t have to start with the ‘jingle bells’ thing just yet, but nice warm colors will help set the mood just right.

TWO: Think about the “welcome beverage” you will be serving at your parties.  Bring everything into the seasonal spirit with sparkling wines; Gruet and Schramsberg are always favorites in my home! And don’t forget the pomegranate seeds. Then stock up on beautiful reds, like these bottles from Long Meadow Ranch or Davis Estates. Speaking of bottles, don’t forget to put your favorite vodka (Chopin anyone?) in the freezer.

THREE: Remember your candles. My summer setting is always ‘white and bright.’ It’s time now to change up to softer colors to match the couch throws and pillows. Keep those simple candles (for fall white or ivory) but change out the holders to pewter, silver or soft gold.  The softer color of metals create a softer light – like these from World Market or Pottery Barn.

FOUR: If you have a mantel or fireplace, change décor but keep it light and simple. If you have centerpieces or runners for your coffee table and dining table – it’s time for a change. Think “autumn leaves.” Like this basket setting from Pottery Barn.

FIVE: Maybe this is on the top of everyone’s mind, but the music list is always good to figure out long before the guests arrive. Time to put away Elvis and bring back Frank. Well, maybe it’s the opposite for some folks, but you get the idea.

Want to go the distance? I even change out some of my framed pictures – ones of my family and friends on easel backs and some on the walls. Store away the pictures of beach parties and put up the ones of camping trips in autumn and ski trips to the alps. You’d be surprised how this simple switch will change the “feel” in your home.

The point of this exercise – don’t wait until the week or days before the first holiday party. Start now and set the canvas. You can add the finishing touches later. Besides, you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about before your guests arrive. Everything you do now will look like you really took time to plan things out. Taking these steps now will also help you enjoy your party that much more and you won’t be waking up from a nightmare like I did!

Have fun!

The Reset Diet

Fran's Reset Diet

A diet that helps you think about more than just your weight.

Truth be told, I’m not a good “diet” person. I’m no good at constantly saying “no” to something I want to eat.  Who is? What I mean by “diet” is any kind of program that’s designed specifically to help you lose weight.  Most of them are fads that doctors and nutritionists tell me don’t do any good anyway because they usually involve completely removing items from your daily intake and never allowing them back – even on “cheat days”.  And, then when you try to do that you eventually quit the “diet” and regain everything you might have lost by abstinence.  But, there are useful ideas that are not necessarily “dieting” but are just good ideas that can help your overall health.

For instance, drinking plenty of plain water is always a good idea, especially on hot days.  This is a tough one for me (I’m not a good water drinker) but it’s important to put effort into this one. Eating lots of fruits is also a good idea, and they taste good. I work out, I stay active, and I eat reasonably healthy (and balanced) full meals with a few “slips” now and then – it’s moderation for me and it’s always worked reasonably well.

Now and then though, it’s good to reassess what you’re actually putting in your body. For instance, a girlfriend of mine has a “diet” that she calls her “reset.” It’s something that she does once per year for one month – only 30 days – sometimes it’s just before the holidays (like now) and sometimes it’s just after all those holiday parties. It’s not a lot to do, I’ve tried it, and it really works. The best part is that it’s a diet that I think everyone can get into.

The whole concept is based on moderation – so lose the idea of some strict schedule where you live like a monk for a month (remember, this is me we’re talking about). Think of this as an opportunity to ‘detox’ away from some bad habits that have formed over the year. You know how it gets – too much of this or that, and you feel fat and tired! Through the moderation of the “Reset Diet,” I think we regain understanding what moderation actually means. My testimony is the big gain I got in the end: a big difference in my energy levels, clearer skin, and I lost that bloat I always complain about.

Rule One for the Reset Diet is banishing all alcoholic drinks for five days of every week for a full month. If I know that I have something planned that I want to have a glass of wine or drink at then that is one of my two “free” days. And since this diet is all about moderation, your ‘no alcohol’ days do not have to be consecutive. But I recommend that you try to put several days in a row together – it just has a better effect if you can.

Rule Two is to put yourself into a mindset of questioning everything that you eat. Do your best to ask yourself if whatever the meal you are planning is your healthiest choice. For instance, instead of trying to fill myself for every meal, I go for ‘leaner’ meals. Don’t starve, but don’t stuff yourself either. During this diet, I also cut back on snacks – especially stuff that comes out of a bag or a box. Fresh fruits are good, though. Always.

Rule Three may be the easiest of all. Take a short walk after every meal, or one longer walk after lunch or dinner. If you’re already doing the 10,000 steps per day thing, good. Just keep with the program. If not, maybe this is the time to start with 2,000 steps? Just sayin.

We can all do something for one month! The goal is to reset our bodies, not change everything about us. It’s a “diet” that may actually change other parts of your life, but the best part is that you get two “free” days per week.  I can do anything if I know that I only have to do it for 5 days out of 7 and it’s my choice which 5!  It’s an easy “reset” before or after the holidays.  I’m on it!

What about those Meal Kit Delivery Services?

From Plated - a meal kit

Review of the top 5 meal kits – for pleasure, convenience, and flavor!

A friend of mine goes on frequent camping trips with her family. There’s one thing that she does before every trip – no matter if it’s a short weekend trip to the desert or a week-long stay out in the forest – she plans every meal, right down to the last 1-½ cup of flour and ¾ teaspoon of baking soda (pancakes, if anyone is counting). The day before the trip, she bags and boxes all the ingredients that she’ll need and even adds instructions.

“I make it so easy that even my youngest son can cook a meal,” she says. The most important part: it’s quick. She has four kids and a hungry partner – so maybe that’s what you do in that situation. Besides, who wants to bring measuring cups and spoons on a camping trip?

I wonder if that was the inspiration behind the meal kit? Everyone is so busy now, and the first thing that goes out the window when time is short is cooking dinner. But you and the family have to eat so what’s the alternative? Fast food, again? Seriously?

meal kits logo listEnter the various Meal Kit Delivery Services that have popped up. There are so many options in national brands now. Personally, I think it’s a great convenience if you want to cook and haven’t had the experience to feel comfortable in the kitchen. Even if you have expertise in the kitchen, the kits save you lots of time – no more going to the store, buying everything you need for the recipe and then measuring out all the items. It all comes in the kit – pre-measured, ready for you to cook.

My only note of caution – read the subscription rules carefully. Some are longer and more complicated than others. You can’t just call the day before an expected delivery and cancel a meal. That sort of thing.

A few of the top trending meal kits are: Terra’s Kitchen, Peach Dish, HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Plated. Your real choice is how much you actually want to spend time prepping and cooking the meal – or would you rather have most of the ingredients come pre-made.  I’ve placed them in order of their convenience value. All of these kits produce high-quality meals.

Total Time Convenience: Terra’s Kitchen is very easy for people who are really pressed for time and/or want total convenience. These meals have the least amount of preparation time needed because things come pre-chopped, sauces already made, et cetera.

Cooking Ease: Here’s my ‘middle’ tier for easy meal prep that requires a few more steps than Terra’s Kitchen but not as many as others. If you don’t mind chopping some veggies, Peach Dish and HelloFresh will give you some cooking ease and very nice meal. All the ingredients are carefully measured out. The instructions are very clear.

Adventure and Experience: Blue Apron and Plated are for people who want a little more adventure in their cooking experience. The recipes are a bit more complicated and might require learning some new cooking skills but, the results show it.  You’ll be creating dishes you never thought you’d ever be able to make in your own kitchen.

The great thing about all of the kits: someone else is doing the shopping and the planning. You will learn about dishes you might not otherwise make. And, you might enjoy them so much you may keep some of the recipes and try them later on your own.

But the best thing? You’ll be spending time with your family and friends in the kitchen and at the table, creating memories over a meal that you cooked!  And, really, those memories are what it’s all about.

Enjoy!

The Delicate Etiquette of the Last drop of Wine

Wine Etiquette

Some customs just make the whole art of entertaining that much more fun!

When I was very young, my parents were pretty serious about teaching customs and manners to me and my siblings. We learned how to be polite and show respect by using salutations like “Mr. xxx” and “Mrs. xxx” when addressing our elders. I was taught to say “please” and “thank you.”  When I was in Junior and Senior High School some of my friends’ parents would tell me to use their first names when addressing them – I couldn’t – it just seemed wrong.

Unfortunately, many customs and manners have long since drifted away. And maybe it’s okay that some of them have gone the way of other old things. But to be honest, I miss some of them. Around my neighborhood, people still open doors for each other and say, “Good morning” even if they don’t know someone. But get on the freeway, and it’s a whole other world – such language – some of it not even verbal.  I have to admit that when I’m behind the wheel I can have a whole conversation with the driver in front of me – and they don’t even know it!

But, there are some customs I will always follow.  When I’m setting my table for guests, I put utensils, plates, and glasses in their proper places and I use cloth napkins and napkin rings. Why do I do that?  I want to show my guests that I put a lot of thought in preparing my home to receive them. It’s my way of welcoming them and making them feel that they are truly special. Manners and etiquette are all part of sophisticated living: paying attention to the details.  When you go that “extra mile” in preparation, it makes the evening feel that much more complete.

Knowing and following traditions and manners wherever you are can be a lot of fun. A friend of mine who lives in Osaka, Japan took me out to a Japanese restaurant a while back in Los Angeles. We had wine (not sake), but she said that “Japanese rules” still applied. I asked what she meant by that and she answered that we could not pour wine for ourselves. “We pour for each other,” she said, “it shows respect for our friends and the friendship we share.”  Well, you don’t have to be Japanese to understand that concept. Right?

Here’s another one. In western culture, a sign of respect and kindness to your friends and guests is to always serve them first.  And, when serving wine, women should be served first, and the “server” always last.  Never empty the bottle into your own glass – that’s just bad manners – unless, of course, you’re by yourself! If you’re in Italy, it’s considered bad luck to serve the last drop of wine in a bottle to a single woman.  No kidding.  Friends there told me that it’s a very common belief that you never give the last drop to a single woman or she’ll never marry!

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., take a minute to look up what the drinking traditions are for wherever you’re traveling.  Because, in some cultures (Korea, Russia, etc.), if you sit down to an evening of drinking – you are in for a very long, very intoxicating night.  But, if you’re in France, getting drunk is not the focus of the evening but rather it’s something to be savored slowly, for the wine to be appreciated, gently.  Wait until everyone has been served and then raise your glass and toast to everyone’s health by saying “Santé.”

Wherever you find yourself, whether in your own home and you’re entertaining or you’re traveling, take that extra minute to follow some traditions and manners – it will make the experience that much more grand.  I promise.

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?

My best recipe for Beer Steamed Clams

Fran Berger - beer steamed clams

Want to try cooking Clams? Try my “beer steamers” – so easy to do.

A bowl of bear steamed clamsI know a lot of my friends are intimidated by the thought of cooking clams. It’s true that you have to be a little careful with them, but in all honesty, they’re actually one of the easiest things to cook and the reward is high. Clams are really fabulous as appetizers or as part of the main course.

Clams are harvested from all sorts of locales – each type has its own distinctive characteristic and flavor. They grow in both fresh and salt water, and range in all types of shapes and sizes.  Clams are a terrific source of lean protein with just a 3-ounce serving providing 22 grams of protein and only 126 calories with less than 2 grams of total fat. Served fresh, clams are also nutritious – tons of Vitamin A, B and C not to mention iron and magnesium.

Nothing surpasses (for simplicity and ease) steaming clams with a good bottle of beer. I love to serve up a whole pot of “beer steamers” for my guests- serve it with grilled corn on the cob and of course a great salad.

Buy your clams fresh at your local market. In California, we usually get a type called Manila clams – they’re smaller and very sweet. They are also the ones that won’t have any sand in them so you don’t have to worry about the grit.  If you buy a different type of clam ask your fish monger how to clean out the sand before cooking.  Buy clams the day you need them if at all possible.  But, you can also buy clams online. Keep live clams on ice in your refrigerator for one but never more than two days. When you’re ready to cook your clams, sort them for freshness and wash the shells thoroughly in cool water. You don’t have to scrub hard, you just want to get rid of the bits of sand and sea life that you don’t want in the cooking pot!

Now, how about that recipe?

  • Sort the clams for freshness. Throw away any that are even partially open or are cracked or missing pieces of shell.
  • Pour enough beer (a full-flavored beer like a stout) to cover the bottom of a large fry pan or kettle that has a tight-fitting lid. Preferably a glass lid.
  • Turn on the heat and bring beer to a boil.
  • Add the cleaned clams to the pan/kettle. Remember that you’re steaming clams, so make sure that none of them are fully submerged in the beer.
  • Close the lid and bring back up to a boil. If you have Manila clams, cook for 3 minutes or just until they begin to open; 5 minutes if your clams are a larger variety. Be careful not to overcook as they will become very chewy.
  • Watch your pan/kettle closely during the cooking – a glass lid helps with this part – because you want to take them off the heat as soon as they start to open. Also, note that during the steaming process, clams will release their own water as they cook so be sure that your pan is large enough to accommodate any extra liquid. You don’t want that water to overflow and create a big mess.
  • Remove the pan/kettle and place the steamed (and opened) clams in a bowl. They’re ready to serve!

While it is true that clams are easy enough to cook, there are some very important rules that that you need to know:

Rule 1: Cook only clams that have shells that are tightly closed. Don’t cook clams that have broken or cracked shells – and never, never, ever cook ones that look or smell dead. You want your clams as fresh as the market can deliver.

Rule 2: Watch your clams closely during the steaming. The smaller Manila clams will cook within about 3 minutes of cooking: they open up and that’s when they’re done! Larger clams may need more time, up to 5 minutes of steaming.  Once they start to open be sure to remove the pan from the heat.

Rule 3: Discard any clams that do not open up with the rest of them. Cooking longer will not “make” them open – you don’t want to eat them if they don’t open with the group….Trust me.

Once you get over your hesitation and steam your own clams, here’s Rule 4: Have plenty of lemons and melted butter on hand for eating!  Enjoy!!!

Etiquette for Tipping

tipping etiquette

Yes, there is such thing as proper manners for tipping!

A friend told me a story about going out to a nice restaurant with a small group of eight people who were traveling together in Hawaii. It was one of those boutique restaurants that literally dot Lahaina on the island of Maui. There was lots of ambiance, great food, and – according to my friend – really excellent service.

My friend said that they had such a great time largely due to their server who had terrific suggestions from a menu that was filled with dishes that were a little unfamiliar. After a wonderful dinner they got their bill, paid it, and left.

Out in the parking lot, my friend suddenly realized that they forgot to include a tip. A few of her friends struck an, “Oh well” attitude and were ready just to leave. But my friend – being the kind of person she is – demanded that everyone contribute for a “nice” tip which everyone agreed the server certainly earned. She collected from everyone, went back inside and handed it to the server herself.

She looked at me and said, “How on Earth could I let that sit on my conscious?”

Not everyone is as militant about tips as we are. We all know people who would have been perfectly fine with “getting away” with not tipping the server.

Our attitude about tipping might be because my friend and I both have long professional experiences as restaurateurs. I owned restaurants for 20+ years and can tell you – with absolute certainty – that your server depends on his/her tips. The very nature of the restaurant business is a cooperative one. The server is the frontline ambassador in any restaurant, doing whatever is necessary to ensure that you have a great time.  Moreover, servers’ actual paychecks are very tiny (most of which goes to taxes) and they use their tips to pay their bills. It’s a big chunk of what they take home.

Some states have laws where tips are calculated as part of the server’s minimum wage.  California, where I live, isn’t one of them.  But, no matter which state you’re in, tipping etiquette stays the same. Think only of how the server has helped make your meal entertaining and enjoyable. That being said, the amount of tip you offer should definitely depend on the service received.

The only thing that’s missing for you to figure out is what’s the proper amount to tip. On that note, it’ll be easier to pare this down to a few simple points.

If you’re at a coffee/fast food spot (what we in the business call “quick service”) where you stand in line and take your own beverage/food to a table or out the door – tip about a $1 for the counter person.

If you’re at a bar, some slightly different rules apply. The bartender depends on their tips just as much as a server does.  It is acceptable to leave two dollars per drink as a tip. If the bartender has been particularly great or you had him/her jumping around making complicated cocktails, then it is good to add a bit extra. The bartender always remembers a customer who tips well!

If you’re at a sit-down restaurant and the service was as good as you hoped, the tip should be about 20%. If the service wasn’t so great, you can take the tip down to 15% or even lower.  But remember, if you do have a service issue – let the manager know. It’s probably the only way they will know and trust me; the feedback (assuming the complaint is warranted) will be appreciated.

Tips are very easy to calculate. Just look for the total amount – before tax (don’t calculate your tip on the tax) – and move the decimal point to the left once. So, if the bill is “$120”, now you have “12.0.” That’s 10%. Double that for 20%, and you have $24.00 for a tip! Some people think that you don’t need to tip on the wine/alcohol you’ve consumed at your table – you do.  The server has taken your orders, brought your beverages and poured the wine – that’s called service.

One last note. You know that “birthday” dessert the server brought over? You should still tip on it as if you were paying for the special dessert. After all, your server still served the dish!

Rosé is a Rose by Any Other Name?

Rose Wine, with Gruet Brut Rose

There’s just so much more to your wine than just a name!

First, a little story. I was with a friend who is a real muscle car geek. This man knows every make, has details about every model, knows things about particular years that boggles the mind, and I think has either owned or ridden in just about every one of them.

That’s why I was a little amused when he almost got whiplash and craned his neck to watch what appeared to me an older blue car fly by going in the other direction.

“Oh, that’s such a sweet ride!” he exclaimed like a teenager.

“What was it?” I asked.

He had such a big grin. “A 1967 Camaro Rally Sport hardtop – with original black stripes!  In metallic blue.”

I’m always appreciative of other people’s passions. That’s how I get about wine.

What for one person is “just another rosé” – to me, is a whole world of detail.

There’s a difference between what is recognized as Old World Wine and what is New World. New World Wine comes from regions where winemaking and the Vitis vinifera grape was exported from Europe during the Age of Exploration (roughly 1500 through the very early 1800s). The Americas, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are New World – everywhere else – Old World.  Old World rosé tends to be bone-dry while New World can be almost sweet, fruitier.

Another thing about rosé that surprises most people is that it starts off white. Almost all red skinned grapes – like pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel – have white to “off green” flesh, and the squeezed juice is clear. So, what makes them red? The anthocyanin pigment in the dark skin of the grape. The red color or pinkness (and the flavor associated with the finished rosé) is determined by the amount of contact the clear juice has with the skin.

Cool, right?

There are basically four ways to make rosé wine:

  • First, there’s something called Bleeding or Saignée (usually the best quality rosés are made with this method)– the grapes are stacked in a tank and the weight of the grapes actually does the crushing. Some of the juice is “bled-off” into another tank after limited contact with the skins making this the palest in color of the rosés. The rest is kept in the tank for making red wines.
  • Pressing or pressé where red skinned grapes are pressed until the desired color is reached at which point the winemaker stops pressing.
  • Limited Maceration – which is the most common technique – leaves the juice in contact with the skins, seeds, and stems. Usually, this goes on for no more than two or three days until the juice is the color the winemaker wants at which point the juice (without all those seeds, stems and skin) is transferred to another tank to finish the fermentation.
  • Finally, there’s the Run Off method where the winemaker removes some of the juice of fermenting red wine and pours it into a separate tank. By doing this, the winemaker can make a red wine that’s a bit darker and more intense.

Rosé is typically drunk when it’s very young – 1-3 years old.  So, what’s the best rosé to serve for a dinner party? It all depends on what you’re serving – the drier the wine the easier it is to pair with salads, vegetables and grilled proteins.  The sweeter the rosé the better it would be with dessert or enjoying the sunset.  Rosé is an ideal wine to enjoy all year long but particularly in the summer/warmer months.

If you like a drier Old World rosé, then pick up a bottle of Miraval Rosé, from the Chateau Miraval in Provence, France. The nose (aroma) can be a bit sweet with strawberries and raspberry notes but because of the different grapes it’s blended with (Grenache, etc.) it is slightly acidic on the palate.  It would pair well with raw salmon, tuna (like a tartare or sushi) or something similar to a Niçoise Salad.

Another Old World rosé called Pive (Pea-vé) is from the JeanJean winery in the wilderness of the Camargue national park France and is organically farmed. This one tends to be a bit more aromatic – strawberry, raspberry fruit, some earth, spice and mineral characters but is bone dry and very fresh.  This would be great with BBQ and grilled meats as well as fish/shellfish.  It’s a really great summer picnic wine.

The Brut Rosé from Gruet is one of my favorite sparkling wines when I want something a bit sweeter.  It’s from the New World – New Mexico – with floral and berry aromas and flavors of cherry, raspberry and wild strawberry with a delicate acidity on the finish.  It goes well with a chilled salad!

I always recommend that you talk to your wine merchant and ask questions. Let them know the wines that you like to drink – and what you’re planning for a meal. It’ll help them pick the right rosé for you.

And don’t forget keep your rosé chilled and – if it’s a party – buy magnums!

How to tell if that fruit or veggie is actually organic!

Reading PLU Labels on Fruits and Veggies

A kitchen hack that makes it easy to tell the difference between organic and GMO produce.

I work very hard on keeping a balanced and healthy diet. The best way for me to do this is by reading labels. It’s a habit! I avoid foods with lots of preservatives and other chemical additives. I stick to things that taste good – but I stay away from things that I’ve decided are not helpful or that there’s even some question that they may not be healthy. That’s why I habitually look for a label. Most labels tell you everything you need to know.

Take GMOs, for example. A GMO is a genetically modified organism (plant, animal or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified).  Lots of people wonder whether GMOs are healthy or not. I don’t want to dive into that debate, it’s just something I avoid.  Even when I’m buying dairy products – I look for the non-GMO Project logo on the packaging.

Here’s a perfect example of that habit of mine. Every now and again, when my friends and I decide that we need to have an evening of cooking together we’ll all go shopping as a group.  It’s as if the party starts from when we get to the store! Here’s a little tip – if you want to know where to go to select the freshest food for your family, follow a foodie. Especially one that’s been in the restaurant business for half her adult life.

The first question was where to shop. I love Gelson’s on Century Park West off Santa Monica Boulevard; been going there for years. It’s a little busy sometimes – especially just before and after lunch but it’s always clean, well organized and well stocked.  We went at 3 pm – perfect for a group of friends to poke around for their groceries.

I had fun using lessons I learned from my trip to Italy to point out the differences and uses of penne and rigatoni pasta. Then we got to the produce section. I was looking at bananas when one of my friends heard me say, “Good, all nines.” From her expression, I knew she needed an explanation.

All fruits and vegetables have a PLU or product look up code assigned to them. Bananas are always 4011, bok choy is 4545 (great with soups), brussel sprouts are 4550 (love them when roasted!) and Large Cripps pink apples are 4130 (favorites for aromatic fruit salads). The codes are there because it makes it easier for everyone to track and inventory product. And, it’s the numbers that the cashier uses to punch in when you check out of the market.

The PLU codes are found on little labels stuck to each fruit or vegetable. Sometimes they’ll be on the box or bag for fruits that are usually purchased in bulk, like a bag of tangerines (4055). They’ll also be on the tag above the bin that contains the items.  Here’s the important point about PLUs. Most of them have 4-digit codes. These are conventionally grown. And most of these codes start with a 3 or 4.

Increasingly, you’ll find 5-digit PLU codes. And these are divided into two classes – ones that start with an “8” and ones that start with a “9.”  Many of the PLU codes at Gelson’s begin with a “9” – which means that the produce is USDA-certified organic!  So, if you come across a 94011 – it’s a banana, but it’s an organically grown banana!

The “8” means that the item is GMO (genetically modified).  Typically these “8”s are found on a known group of High Risk Crops, that include corn, zucchini, or crook neck squash and papaya among others.  I couldn’t find any “8”s at Gelson’s – or for that matter, in any of the stores around Beverly Hills, even on the summer corn.

So, it’s very easy to remember “I hate “8”s but “9” is FINE!

Summer Skin Lifestyle tip: Gently and Regularly Rain or Shine

Fran's Skincare Summer

It’s never too late to start taking care of your skin.

When we were little kids we never thought about skin health. I never wore sunblock (nobody ever thought about that). When we became teens, we were more worried about hanging out with friends on the sand and frying in the sun.  We used to mix baby oil with iodine and I would turn the most beautiful walnut brown color!  We all tried to get as dark as we could be thinking it was the healthy thing to do.

Even in college, we didn’t care. Then one day, I got the message. I was on a friend’s sailboat to Catalina. And, in my typical youthful careless attitude, I wore a swimsuit and little else. I even turned down my friend’s offer for sunblock. “Sunblock??” I thought. “Heck, what a great time for tanning!”  You know, the reflection of all that sun off the water? Fabulous! Or so I thought.

By the time we arrived at Avalon harbor, I was as red as one of those lobsters they serve at The Palm restaurant. Exposed areas – especially my shoulders – were so red that they were purple! It was so painful that I’m wincing right now as I write these words.  I ended up in the emergency room that day with sun poisoning and for two weeks had to stay completely covered up to protect the blisters and what was left of my skin.

Any sunburn is a clear sign that your skin has sustained damage from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Doctors say that just getting a sunburn once every 2 years can triple your risk of melanoma (skin cancer). And here’s the thing – as you get older, the risk goes way up. Nobody needs that.  Even if you haven’t been in the sun in years, if you’ve ever been under a black light you will immediately see the damage that your skin has suffered – ears, knees, elbows, odd spots – nothing is safe.

I ALWAYS use sunscreen – 365 days a year – it’s part of my daily morning routine before I ever leave the house.  It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or cloudy those sneaky ultraviolet rays are still there– I use sunscreen with some of the highest SPF I can find and I can’t remember the last time I had a sunburn. Nowadays, I’m the one pushing my friends to use sunscreen.

You think that you’re protected by your car windows? Think again. Unless you have UV coatings on all your car windows, the same sunburn causing rays will hit you as though you were standing outside. Worse yet, the windows even magnify your exposure! No matter where you drive, remember to put extra sunscreen on your left cheek and left arm and hand.

I use Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid (SPF 70) or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch (SPF 85+) on my body and Thibiant Antioxidant Moisturizing Sunscreen (SPF 50+) from Thibiant Beverly Hills for my face. Can you tell I don’t mess around with the possibility of ever burning again?  Even if you use a tinted moisturizer with SPF or your makeup has SPF – it does not mean that you don’t need a separate sunscreen – YOU DO.  So, go ahead, layer it up and protect yourself as much as possible.

Sunscreen is only part of my daily routine; the rest (and equally important) is skin maintenance.  People are always complimenting me on my skin and asking what I do to keep it this way. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I use a very mild, very fine grain exfoliating facial scrub regularly – about 2 to 3 times a week.  Gently exfoliating (GENTLY) scrubs away tired, dead cells and speeds up the skin renewal process allowing fresh new cells to take the place of the old ones you’ve scrubbed away. It can help brighten and smooth your skin.

Find a scrub that has small round particles – like little beads – not jagged particles – the jagged ones can really irritate your skin.  If you’re unsure about the shape – rub a small amount on the back of your hand – you’ll be able to tell the difference right away.  Do not rub your face really hard with a scrub – that will only irritate your skin.  “Gently and regularly” is the rule for exfoliating.   Don’t forget to moisturize after you’ve cleaned your face.  Leaving it dry with no moisture will only encourage your oil glands to produce excess oils – not great for clear skin.  Then, once a quarter (if you can), get a professional spa facial for a really deep clean.

There you have it.  My simple and easy skin lifestyle routine.  It’s never too late to start. And, don’t forget your sunscreen!

 

Entertaining at home with Magnums

magnums as tabletop centerpiece

How to use Magnums as a centerpiece for your dinner table.

Entertaining at home presents a fun challenge for me because I’m always looking for a way to do something a bit more extraordinary than before. I find the small touches that make a big statement, something that adds sophistication and makes the event more memorable.

“Magnums” contain 1.5 liters of wine or champagne, or the equivalent of two regular 750ml bottles. Two bottles in one! When you use magnums of wine on the table you get to enjoy the party more because you don’t have to keep jumping up and opening wine bottles as often.  But, there’s more than just the convenience of having to open fewer bottles for your gathering.

No matter how you look at it, magnums create a great party atmosphere.  Whatever the size of your gathering – large or small – when you have magnums as part of your centerpiece, the extra-large bottles immediately become fabulous additions to the tabletop and great conversation starters.

I went to a party in San Diego where the host served a double magnum of Champagne, equivalent to two magnums or four standard 750ml bottles. Just to get the cork out was a tremendous feat but, it took two guys to tip the bottle carefully to serve all the guests. That was not only a constant topic of conversation, it was also so much fun and the source of a whole lot of laughter all night long!  It really added to the party atmosphere.

There’s also a practical perspective for magnums. Winemakers prefer larger bottle size because wine ages more slowly and gracefully in larger format bottles than in standard bottles. There are several reasons for this.  One reason is that even though there is a greater volume of wine in the bottle, the amount of oxygen or “ullage” between the cork and the wine is the same as in a regular sized bottle. Corks are porous so tiny amounts of oxygen are let in (very, very slowly!) and that oxygen modifies the wine over time – aging the wine.  Too much oxygen will eventually damage the wine but if there is a lot more wine in the bottle and still the same ullage and cork size then there is less risk of damage to the wine over the same amount of time.  And, the bigger the bottle the more your wine is protected from other things that can damage it (larger bottles have thicker glass) – light, heat, changes in temperature and vibration from travel.

This is particularly true for Champagne where experts note that magnums help the wine retain a more youthful taste than when served from standard bottles. Also, due to the increased content volume, magnums tend to have slightly higher pressure which enhances the bubbles a bit – always a good thing in my opinion!

Either way, imagine one or two magnums sitting on your tabletop at your next party. You’ll enjoy the party with fewer interruptions to open more bottles and your guests will have a lot of fun passing the large bottles around the table to refill glasses. And think of all conversations that will start. But, the biggest benefit? You will be serving and enjoying wine that is closer to what the winemaker intended.

4 Great Reasons Why Beverly Hills is a “Local Exotic” Travel Destination

Broiled Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster - The Palm

Lucky you if you’re a LA Local: “Exotic” Beverly Hills’ is just a drive away!

I love to vacation in exotic places. But who says “exotic” has to be far faraway? I’ve been living in Beverly Hills for more than twenty years. I’ve owned restaurants here, raised a family, made all kinds of friends, and I’ve learned so many things. Like anywhere else though I suppose, it’s easy to take your own backyard for granted.

But I don’t like to take anything for granted. I’m constantly looking for places in my own neighborhood to eat and be entertained. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to do more exploring locally – even to places that are very well known to me and my friends. I’ve mapped out of a few favorite places around Beverly Hills that are so fun, I think they definitely qualify as part of the “local exotic” scene.

Let’s start at The Palm Beverly Hills. A fabulous landmark restaurant located on Canon Drive’s well-known “restaurant row.” This is the ‘rebuilt’ Palm – the old one was in West Hollywood for more than 40 years and had to move after their lease ran out. But what a rebuild – it’s beautiful!  I go with a girlfriend when either one of us gets the “urge” for lobster! Because I like my clams served without a lot of stuff to blur their sweet taste, I always call ahead to ask them to set aside at least a dozen to serve simply steamed with drawn butter to start. If I’m feeling a bit healthy we share a classic wedge salad with lettuce, crisp bacon, ranch dressing and the blue cheese on the side (blue cheese isn’t my favorite).  Then we get down to my favorite part of the meal – the”Broiled Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster.” Always order a 4-pound female lobster to share. Female lobster tails are larger than the male’s, and really, isn’t the tail the best part? Be sure to order the best creamed spinach you’ve ever tasted to enjoy with your lobster and you have the perfect meal! They’re open for lunch and dinner and I always suggest reservations.

How about brunch on Saturday or Sunday? I highly recommend The Blvd restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for their unlimited Champagne Bar.  They serve Perrier-Jouët Champagne – which is a really great bottle of bubbles – and also offer orange juice (for Mimosas) or peach (for Bellinis).  But I always say – why mess with a good thing- if the bubbles are that good you should enjoy them all by themselves. And, the great thing is that you really can’t go wrong with anything on the brunch menu. The dining room is a beautiful backdrop for a lazy afternoon – or request a table outside and do some serious people watching while enjoying your champagne.  Definitely make reservations if you want to go.

Want casual dining but with a flair for the refined? South Beverly Grill on South Beverly Drive fits the bill. It’s one of those places where you can really feel at home for lunch or dinner.  The food and service is consistently good!  They have one of the best cheeseburgers around, definitely order it with fries. If you’re over 21 sit at the bar and try to be in George’s section,  I think he’s one of the best bartender in Beverly Hills. No reservations for the bar, but if you want a table, I recommend reservations, especially for dinner.

Hopefully there’s a concert you want to see while on your vacation, and there’s no better venue than the world-famous Hollywood Bowl. My favorite thing to do during the summer is to make a plan with friends, get a box, bring a picnic for “al fresco” dining and listen to my favorite music.  They have something for everyone – special themed nights like “sing-a-longs” (this season one night was The Sound of Music) or the Los Angeles Philharmonic – Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, classical music, jazz and so much more.  It’s absolutely magical – food, music, a warm summer night and the stars.  Not sure it gets any better.

And now you know some of my personal favorites!