The SFPFS Blog

Tasting SIG May 2015

By Sophia Markoulakis

Sometimes the most mundane topic spurs the most discussion, which is what happened at our recent tasting SIG. The topic—Vegetable Broth—has the means to solicit a collective yawn by many, but when discussing vegetarianism, substitutions for chicken broth, and the integrity of our most trusted brands, you have the makings for an interesting evening.

We went in to this knowing that the broth would have to be heated to accurately assess and compare, and member Nancy Kux not only procured our assortment, but also brought samples in unmarked Mason jars that were kept warm in a water bath.

The tasting was an eye opener for the seven of us that gathered, all confessing that we seldom used vegetable broth, either because of unfortunate past experiences or lack of brand awareness. We all acknowledged that we have our favorite shelf-stable chicken broth brand, and we were curious to see if those trusted brands delivered on a vegetarian option.

Most of us agreed that we opted for water in place of broth when cooking vegetarian, enhancing the flavors of a dish by using ingredients like tomato sauce, mushrooms, and other umami-like substitutions.

As we slurped our unidentifiable broths, it was clear which ones were flavored with certain vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, celery, herbs). It was also eye-opening to learn what went in to the brands we tasted (starch, yeast, sugar, chemical preservatives).

In all we tasted seven broths, which are ranked below, from the group’s number one favorite starting the list. All were purchased at Molly Stone’s; price and sodium amounts listed below.

1. Aneto, Spain, $8. 674 mg (Notes: rich, not too salty, herbal, well balanced)
2. Swanson, $3.49. 800 mg (Notes: sweet, carrot, tomato, salt)
3. Imagine, $3.99. 520 mg (Notes: chicken, fatty, pepper, bland)
4. O Organic, $2.49 570 mg (Notes: salty, tin-like, no fragrance, many ingredients)

The last three brands each received one vote.
5. Trader Joe’s, $2.39. 330 mg (Notes: watery, tart, flat, salt)
6. Emeril’s, $4.59. 570 mg (Notes: stuffing, cloudy, unappealing)
7. Pacific, $4.89. 540 mg (Notes: sour, salty, spoiled potatoes, citrus)

I’m not sure if it was the subconscious reference to vegetarianism that inspired everyone to bring a vegetarian dish for our Vegetable Broth tasting SIG, or just a sign of the times—either way feasted on Indian-themed food like Prawn Pulau (prawns don’t count as meat, do they?), Bhei Puri (a Mumbai street food) green bean curry with rice and a couple Mediterranean-inspired dishes like grilled asparagus, grilled artichokes, and feta and tomato toast.


Wine SIG May 18, 2015

Thieves, dirty and rowdy, a couple of banshees and cheap sex
By John Wiest

Monday May 18, 2015, the Wine SIG gathered at the lovely home of Spring Kraeger in Corte Madera. Our assignment was to taste two flights of wines from new, smaller and some might say eccentric winemakers. Sean Timberlake curated the assembled wines from his personal and professional connections and international travels. (Ask him about his upcoming guided exploration of culinary Emilia-Romagna this autumn.)

Per the protocols established by new wine SIG leaders, Victoria Green and Toby Baird, all wines were tasted one at a time with in-depth back story provided by Sean. Our tasting panel patiently sipped and salivated in anticipation of some extraordinary appetizers, salads, mains and sweets.

Little did we know what lie ahead. As my brother in the 49th State says, there’s a reason a person moves to Alaska – and there’s a reason why people start their own wineries: they want to be different and want other people live and sip differently. And so the politics began.



Sean took great pains to identify unique wineries and winemakers that are starting their own family stories. Unlike scions of historic wine families or those who had significant funds to start up, all of these winemakers are coming into the process from unique and personal origins, often starting in their basements, garages or even dorm rooms. All are bootstrapping their way to success by lending their distinctive voice and winemaking to the market. To learn more about their stories, please refer to the final table for the full names of wineries and wines.

Now, the tasting.
Chardonnay, bah you bellow, it’s been “done before”, but wait until you taste the freshness of a no malolactic Sonoma Coast chardonnay (Les Voleurs, ”the thieves”) or the grapes also from Sonoma Coast and famed Heitz Vineyard (Banshee) for refreshing fruit and little oak to get in the way. Two winners.

Then came the quirky and quince-y Roussanne from Justice Grace Wines of Berkeley. Each of this winery’s progeny features a political / social justice theme in its title and label art. So, this is Solidarity with a rather uncharacteristic taste with grapes from the Sierra Foothills and seemingly wild yeast with a consequent wandering flavor profile. Bit of a head scratcher for nearly all tasters. I guess we’re not political at these meetings.

Dirty and Rowdy, founded by two independent minded couples, started in San Luis Obispo and has found a new home in Napa. There, they’ve chosen alternative styles, which in this case, a 2014 Semillon, unadorned by artifice: more than 90% organic grapes, no new oak and surprisingly, 14 days on the skins. Take a look and you’ll see a slightly cloudy, of course, unfiltered, wine with a 180 turn from sweet semillon to a grapefruit forward palate. Our tasters puzzled.

Going back to Chardonnay, (yes, our tasters are very flexible, yogis of wine tasting), we discovered a SLO Down wine, “Broken Dreams”, blending grapes from Napa, Sonoma and Lodi. To understand and appreciate the winemakers’ irreverence, visit their website. The wine, with a “guidance counselor told you so” Monkey on the label, it doesn’t quite deliver on its swagger – but offers plenty of citrus. Not a typical California chardonnay with or without oak.

After a brief pause, the thieves, aka Les Voleurs, returned with a quite pleasant Pinot Noir, 82% from Sonoma Coast grapes. This wine had a very light nose, crisp berry fruit (cold-soaked grapes at harvest) with a pleasant but noticeable tannic kick.

Another Sonoma Coast Pinot, this from Banshee, had more straightforward strawberry overtones and a tinge of tannin for a well-balanced wine.

Ratcheting it up a notch in flavor, the Shoe Shine Petite Sirah from Justice Grace, named for its extremely dark inky color, delivered flavor aplenty – as it also promises to deliver hope to the working poor. To gain recognition, this wine is capped with a cloth wrapper, hand applied. Shoe Shine was a tasting favorite, for the flavor, presumably.


And while you might expect a Mourvedre to have a Rhone-like palate, the Dirty and Rowdy 2014 offering is 100% Mourvedre with a very tight nose. While finished in a 100% sugar cane “cork”, the flavor profile hints at pear or currant, but stops well short of its promise. Some tasters note that it has many voices, but they never sing together.

Finally, well almost finally, what you’ve been waiting for, the sex part. Even better is sex and chocolate, or Sexual Chocolate, a blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah and petit verdot which present a lavish fruit forward finish. Sexual Chocolate, produced by SLO Down Wines was a standout, and at $40, while not cheap, is a quite reasonable liquid liaison.

So, which wines would our tasters buy? Our top three were in fact four, with two ties.

Tasting Results – May 2015 – Notable Very Independent Winemakers (To enlarge, click on table.)


A delicious repast followed. Regrettably only a few were captured visually.




April 27, 2015 Book SIG

Note: Book SIG Co-coordinators Mary Margaret Sinnema and Linda Carucci will be passing on the leadership torch to Pam Elder and Frankie Whitman, starting with the coordination of the next Book SIG meeting on Monday, July 20, locations TBA. If you would like to host a regional Book SIG meeting, please contact or The book selection for July will be announced soon on the SFPFS Facebook page.

On Monday evening, April 27, three groups of SFPFS members met concurrently in Oakland, Belmont, and San Francisco to discuss the vast writings of MFK Fisher. Each group was fortunate to welcome a special guest who had known Mary Frances, the prolific and prickly author who passed away at 83 at her home in Glen Ellen, CA in 1992.

Antonia Allegra was the guest presenter at Linda Carucci’s home in Oakland. Jeannette Ferrary, who wrote a book about her friendship with Mary Frances, opened her Belmont home to host the South Bay group. And retired editor of Sunset magazine Jerry DiVecchio discussed her longtime friendship with Mary Frances at the San Francisco gathering. With thanks to Dianne Jacob, Erica Peters, and Mary Margaret Sinnema, respectively, here are the reports of each gathering. For a poignant and insightful Youtube video of Mary Frances, click on the link in Erica’s report.

Toni Allegra

Toni Allegra

Jerry DiVecchio

Jerry DiVecchio

SFPFS Book SIG, East Bay
Report prepared by Dianne Jacob and Linda Carucci

Linda Carucci hosted the East Bay gathering of the Book SIG, featuring guest speaker Antonia (Toni) Allegra. Our members brought wine and dishes to share: Grilled sirloin steak with MFKF’s steak sauce (Pam Elder); Provencal chicken with farro pasta (Frankie Whitman, inspired by Fisher’s memoir about Provence); wine and chicharrones (Linda), the latter paying homage to a story by MFKF about the first cooked food consumed by humans in China. There was also chicken with rosemary and butter (Lili Rollins); two asparagus sides (Victoria Greene and Dianne Jacob); Potato Gratin Dauphinoise (Jolee Hoyt), fresh-picked salad with MFKF’s caper vinaigrette (Alison Negrin); strawberry-rhubarb tart (Suzy Farnworth); and almond shortbread (Jennie Schacht).

Antonia brought a bowl of clementines to pay tribute to the writing in Borderland from “Serve it Forth,” an evocative story that takes place in a Strasbourg hotel room during WWII, in which she describes her distinctive manner of savoring the glories of a simple tangerine. After painstakingly peeling the fruit, she’d place the segments on the radiator until their membranes dried out just so. And then, just before popping them into her—or her husband Al’s—mouth, she’d tuck them into a drift of snow outside the windowsill.

As we all feasted at a long dining room table, watching the sun go down and the fog roll in over San Francisco, we savored tangerines (sans radiator or snow) and had a lively discussion about MFKF’s books and rather prickly personality.

Toni said she met “Mary Frances” in the last five years of her life and often visited her in her home in Glen Ellen. Fisher died in 1992. Toni brought various books by the author, a sexy photograph of her by Man Ray (as well as a photo taken much later in her life), her walking stick, and a framed letter that Fisher had typed to her. Toni remembered Fisher as a strong personality and feminist, who wrote for a living and never thought of herself as a food writer. Fisher was born a good writer, Toni believes, and kept retelling her story in many memoirs. She was also capable of writing straight cookbooks, such as “The Cooking of France,” which she wrote for Time-Life Books. She decided to call herself by her initials instead of her first name because she wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and thought it would be easier if she was perceived to be a man. Her bookshelf contained many books by Elizabeth David, which may have accounted for her narrative recipe style. Several in our group felt rather uninspired after reading the simplistic recipes contained in the various Fisher works that we read.

Once installed in Glen Ellen, Fisher drank Glen Ellen White, the “local juice,” as she called it, often putting aside the fine wines brought by friends and guests who seemed to arrive frequently in a pilgrimage to her house. Among these were SIG participants Alison Negrin and Pam Elder. Fisher was very proud of her distinctive, art-filled bathroom, and sometimes took—or directed—her guests into it, where she enjoyed visiting with them. Both Toni and Pam noted that Fisher was remarkable for her ability to speak in fully formed paragraphs, in a matter-of-fact manner.

Toni read aloud the moving introduction in “Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets,” as well as passages from Borderland from “Serve it Forth.”

At the end of the discussion, participants suggested books to read for our next gathering which is scheduled to take place on Monday, July 20. Among the suggested books were:

Fried Green Tomatoes by Fanny Flagg
The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jabar
Best Food Writing of 2014
Orange Blossoms & Rosewater (a Lebanese cookbook/memoir) by Maureen Abood

There was some consensus that even though our Book SIG does not read cookbooks as a general rule, after having delved into the canon of work—and the life—of MFK Fisher, it would be a welcome shift for our summertime gathering to read the newly released Abood cookbook and have each participant prepare a recipe from the book for our potluck discussion. Keep your eye on the SFPFS Facebook page to find out which book we’ll read next.

SFPFS Book SIG, South Bay
Report prepared by Erica Peters

We had a great discussion at this SIG gathering, thanks to our generous host and friend of MFK Fisher, Jeannette Ferrary. Our group was split between people who knew a lot about MFK Fisher and enjoyed sharing their favorite aspects of her writing, and other people who hadn’t known much about her before, and felt that they learned to appreciate her writing.

Early on one person ventured that Fisher seemed a bit of a curmudgeon, and Jeannette cheerfully agreed that the author could be quite irascible, especially towards anyone who treated her as “just a food writer” rather than a “real writer.” People then shared from what they had read, from The Gastronomical Me, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, An Alphabet for Gourmets, the collection, A Stew or a Story, and her annotation of Brillat-Savarin, as well as the authors Joan Reardon, Luke Barr, and our own Jeannette Ferrary, writing about Fisher.

There was not much overlap in what we had chosen to read, but we all got a sense of her distinctive approach and how she used a sensual, earthy style to explore the quirky side of life and love. At many stages we stopped to read each other our favorite snippets of her writing, and then while we ate dinner, we watched an excerpt from an entrancing documentary called “M.F.K. Fisher: Writer With a Bite” — it’s available on Youtube at Perhaps the highlight of our evening was when Jeannette quoted Fisher painting a vivid word-picture of an impossibly ghastly bouillabaisse tureen Fisher had somehow purchased in Provence one Christmas, and then we actually got to admire the tureen itself, a gift to Jeannette from Fisher’s family after the author’s death.

SFPFS Book SIG, San Francisco
Report prepared by Mary Margaret Sinnema

Gathered for the San Francisco location of the April Book Club SIG, were Jen Nurse, Chris Bonomo (host), Susan Patton-Fox, Lorraine Witte, Linda Anusasananan, Kathy Lassen-Hahne, Rene Matthew, Mary Margaret Sinnema and our esteemed guest Jerry Di Vecchio, friend of MFK Fisher’s.

In Chris’s beautiful home, we feasted and discussed the life of MFK Fisher and her writing. Much of our discussion was about her life and career – thanks to Jerry’s generosity of sharing several personal stories, which were so enlightening and encouraging to us all to read more of her work.

Some highlights of our discussion included the following:

• She was a writer of the senses, and included rich imagery which could put you right there in the moment.
• She was a complicated woman – competitive, flirtatious, acidic, quiet, intriguing, forthright and proper.
• She loved to misdirect in her writing.
• She was a beautiful woman.
• She was hard on herself as a writer, but was naturally gifted from the beginning.
• She had a difficult relationship with her mother and her daughter.
• She wrote to make a living, and if she were working today, would likely partake in blogging, because she was relevant and hard working.

We all enjoyed MFK Fisher’s humor and discussed her notions of a perfect dinner party, the ideal kitchen, and a good meal. We were impressed by the volume and breadth of her writing, and how today it sounds as contemporary as it did then. Interestingly, she was not an exceptional cook, but knew good food, and appreciated the simplicity of good food. A 1990 Bill Moyers interview with her was recommended, wherein “The celebrated essayist and memoirist speaks frankly about growing old, the aesthetics of eating, and living well.” (available on Amazon)

(photo of Jerry DiVecchio in 5/25 email from Mm re SF)
(photos from Linda of East Bay SIG, 5/26 email)

Wine SIG March 2015

By Penni Wisner

On a March evening at host Frankie Whitman’s house, the Wine SIG explored Pinot Noir wines from Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It was our inaugural meeting under the new team of Victoria Green and Toby Baird.

Toby, our wine guide for the evening’s tasting, had prepared a comprehensive “white paper” on the varietal as well as detailed tasting sheets on each of the wines. Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape that typically yields light colored and highly perfumed wines. The Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy, especially those from the top vineyards of the Cote D’Or, are considered some of the very best in the world and also the most expensive. Thus the hunt—by vineyard owners, winemakers, and consumers alike—for sites in other parts of the world that might reliably produce delicious wines at a more reasonable cost. And still taste like Burgundy. A tall order and Toby described many of the characteristics of the grape that make it so challenging to grow and vinify.
Many years ago, a winemaker described Pinot Noir approximately thus: If Pinot Noir were a person, it would have a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. Toby told us that more than 200 clones of Pinot Noir exist vs. about 12 for Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir grows best in cooler winegrowing regions such as Sonoma’s Russian River area, but it is also very frost sensitive. The vine produces tight clusters that, especially in Burgundy where it often rains and/or is humid during harvest, can rot. The grapes always need careful sorting at the winery.

Once safely in a fermenter, the problems only continue. Partly due to the 18 amino acids contained in Pinot Noir grapes, the wines can ferment too rapidly, “boiling” up and out of their fermenters. Since the skins are thin, color extraction can be difficult. If the fermentation gets out of control, the wine might have less color and less aroma, too. Another complex choice vintners must make is the type, amount, and length of oak aging. The group was interested to note that usually, for the wines tasted at least, the amount of new barrels was often limited to 30% or less.

Despite the riches of wine shop choices, Toby simplified his shopping and purchased all the wines—six Pinot Noirs, one Pinot Gris, and one Chardonnay—from Whole Foods. The two whites acted as aperitifs, sure, but also as introductions to the wine regions we would explore later. Both whites prefer cool climates and rose to prominence in Burgundy. Pinot Gris is now the principal white grape and wine of Oregon, home to the wine we tasted, the 2013Adelsheim from Willamette Valley ($19.99). It was a lovely wine, crisp and floral.
The L’Oliveto 2013 Barrel Fermented Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($19.99) surprised the group. For many of us, “barrel fermentation” in Chardonnay can connote overly rich, buttery wines. Yet the L’Oliveto showed itself as complex in flavor with fruit and flintiness with a long finish balanced with good acidity.

We managed to pull ourselves into order and away from the hors d’oeuvres and began on the “meat” of the evening: tasting the Pinot Noirs. The first, the 2013 Bench Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($21.99) Toby provided maps of the viticultural regions, one of which showed the Sonoma Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area), extending over 100 miles from the county border with Mendocino down to the edge of San Pablo Bay. The grapes for the Bench was sourced primarily from the southern most reaches of the region, near the bay. The wine displayed so many of the maddening and delightful complexities of the grape: it was very pale in color and yet intense, lovely fruit and floral aromas. In the mouth we found flavors of red summer fruits and perhaps a little cola balanced with fresh acidity. While it did not place in the group’s top three, it was a very close fourth with many of us agreeing that this would go wonderfully with many dishes because of that acidity.

The second wine tasted was the 2013 Hook & Ladder Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The vineyard was originally planted in 1973 on the cool western Sonoma County plains where the fog and wind come over and through the Petaluma Gap to the west. In it we tasted some of the barnyard or “funk” we often associate with red Burgundy as well as juicy black cherry and spicy black pepper flavors. It had a rich, cherry red color and finished with oaky tannins. These, for the group, threw the wine out of balance and argued for more bottle age before drinking.

The 2012 WALT Blue Jay Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was the most expensive wine ($40) and our #2 wine of the evening. Anderson Valley, too, is a cool growing region (as well as picturesque) in southern Mendocino County that stretches from north of Navarro to south of Boonville. The information sheet on this wine, sourced from vineyards growing at both ends of the valley, told of a high-risk/high-reward style of winemaking: the use of native, wild yeasts (no commercial yeasts are added to cause fermentation) and the choice to leave the wine unfined and unfiltered. In the glass, the winemaker’s choices resulted in a wine with a rich ruby color and aromas and flavors of cherry jam, cinnamon, vanilla, and herbs with a good balance of acidity and tannins in the lingering flavors. We talked of it as a contemplative wine to drink and appreciate on its own. But not only that, we wanted to have it with cheese such as Epoisse (also a Burgundy native), or with white beans with greens, or roast duck, or cassoulet. Why not?!

The 2013 99 West Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (($18.99) was the most controversial of the wines we tasted. Its bright cherry color held all the way to the edge and the aroma was bright with Dr. Pepper notes for richness. The structure in the mouth was very tight with tannins hitting mid-palate and building through the finish where acidity also became apparent. This led to a question: Was it just too young and would settle down and show more of itself with bottle age? Or would the tannins always overpower the fruit?

The 2013 Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley ($25.99) was our #1 wine and a surprise, in a very good way. Ponzi is one of the oldest wine names in Oregon. Having started small, the winery production is now large, with 12,000 cases alone of this one wine. The wine itself was quite pale in color but the perfumed aroma of soft, warm, red fruits, orange blossom, and herbs leaped out of the glass. In the mouth, the wine tasted fresh and vibrant with just the right amount of tannin and acidity extending the finish. We hankered after roast salmon to partner the wine.

The last wine of the tasting was also our third favorite, the 2013 Purple Hands Pinot Noir also from Willamette Valley and provided by member Jennie Schacht at the advantageous price of $25.99. The color was rich and in the mouth the flavors were of ripe black fruits plus tobacco and leather. Interestingly, this was the lowest alcohol of all the wines, 12.5%. It was fermented with native yeasts in open-top tanks and used just 10% new oak barrels and 90% older barrels for aging.

Finally! It was time for our potluck supper and more fun discussions. As often happens when the wine and food are good, the conversations rattled along well into the evening. Big, big thanks to Toby Baird, Frankie Whitman, and Victoria Green and to all who gathered around the table to create a memorable evening.

Food Photography SIG March 26, 2015

By Shveta Berry

Members of the Food Photography SIG gathered at the home of Jennie Schacht on the evening of March 26. The topic for the evening was drawing inspiration from beautiful food photography and how to re-create key visual elements. Members brought photo examples to emulate from cookbooks, blogs, and websites. Finer points of discussion included lighting–both natural and artificial, styling, and perspective.

The group discussed a few technical issues, including correcting color, both with the camera, and in post production using tools such as Lightroom and Aperture. (As some members of the group did not know how to do this, or even that it was possible to do in post production, this could be a good topic for a future meeting.) Rosemary Mark suggesting using an Eye-fi card to wirelessly transfer images to other devices.

Also discussed were online tools for learning more about photography, such as CreativeLive ( And Jeannette Ferrary shared this interesting article, which she brought to the meeting:

The group enjoyed a potluck dinner that ended, quite deliciously, with Rene Mathew’s miniature crèmes brûlée. The mini custards were the favorite photographic subject for the evening, as evidenced on the SFPFS Facebook page.

Finally, an announcement: Our new SFPFS Food Photography SIG liaisons are Shveta Berry and Alison Negrin . Thanks to Alison and Shveta for your leadership!

Tasting Coffees from the Best New Devices

With at least six machines, our Members and guest had plenty of coffee to taste on Tuesday, August 5, 2014 at Williams Sonoma – Union Square. We quickly realized that the technology of great tasting coffee has dramatically changed.
Our host, Glen MacDonald, Manager for this store recruited Emily Wann from Breville and several store coffee associates, Monica and Carlos for the tasting. In addition, they provided plenty of fresh sparkling water, mini plain butter scones and palate refreshing Citrus quick bread.

New Coffee Devices - August 2014

Penni Wisner with Glen MacDonald, Williams-Sonoma Carlos and Jeff Clinton

Representing perfection in conventional drip technology, Technivorm Moccamaster Grand Coffee (and its cousin, single-serve version) are handmade brewers with unique copper core water heating elements for highly precise and ideal 200F temperature. While producing a delightful cup, the Technivorm revealed the nature of the Illy medium roast beans chosen as our standard for this comparison. Many tasters found this coffee a bit bitter to their palates: a faithful expression by the machine of the bitter flavor favored by Italian-targeting Illy.

Next we had two super automated espresso machines, the Oracle from Breville, an impressive stainless device looking right at home in a café; and the Miele CM500, a powerful espresso processor and milk steamer in a large but sleekly designed black cabinet. Both have automated and adjustable grinding, brewing and steaming. Glen MacDonald explained that these brew utilizing steam at about 12-15 bars of pressure – considered ideal for a slow steady and creamy extraction. With the Illy coffee, many tasters found these brews more bitter than they typically drink. So, while not perfect for all palates, these high end machines – faithfully capture the essence of those beans as intended by the roaster.

Coffee Devices - August 2014

Joan Cavanaugh and Alison McQuade Greg & Sophia Markoulakis and Gypsy Achong

The balance of the brewers, Nespresso Vertuo, Nespresso-Delonghi Latissima Pro and Starbucks Verismo 600 utilize the same core Nespresso technology. It’s based on using coffee pods, containing real coffee, not concentrate, and expressing the coffee out of the pods with high 19 bar pressure. That results in fast and efficient brewing. For this tasting, these machines did not use the Illy coffee, but coffee from Nespresso – with anywhere from a dozen to 20 varieties and from Starbucks with at least a half a dozen roasts. So, if you choose this Nespresso technology, you will need to appreciate the European or Starbucks roast agenda. If you like a Peet’s, Blue Bottle or something else, you’re out of luck.

But with these pods, smaller espresso ‘shots’ and larger American cups, you get coffee quickly – in only a minute or two from a dead-cold start to repeat brews in seconds…and merely pop in the next pod as the other gets dropped into a recycling bin. Yes, recycling. While there is some concern about creating more landfill, in fact, the pods can be returned by mail, to the store or via other coffee services. Pretty darn easy. For any of you considering a machine for an office staffed with colleagues who are not frequently fastidious, this is a slick “no muss” solution.

Coffee Devices - August 2014

Sleek new Vertuo

New Coffee Devices - August 2014

Emily Wann with Breville Oracle at Williams-Sonoma

Looking at each model, the Vertuo is the lastest, a most curvaceous addition to your “counter candy”. It also features a separate matching milk warmer-frother. The Latissima Pro is a cute cube-like structure with a detachable milk bottle with steamer top. This is an ingenious way for you to make a single fresh latte, with real milk, and return the bottle to your refrigerator – saving milk, storing it safely and keeping your counter clean. The Latissima also has a hot water spout attachment, neatly stored, for tea or Americano drinkers.

Finally, the Starbucks Verismo is a straight up sleek espresso and coffee brewer. To make a latte or hot milk, you need to use their own pre-portioned pods. Unlike the other Nespresso machines, here you get to use Starbucks more American roast style.

So, how did our Members score the machines?

Taste & Convenience Ruled – Our top selection (6 “favorites”) is the Nespresso DeLonghi Latissima Pro ($599). It does it all and with a minimum of cleanup and with many flavor options.

Close Second (5 votes) – The luxury automated espresso machine, Oracle from Breville ($1,999), grinds fresh beans for each cup. It’s fully adjustable with moderate pressure for that thick super flavor-saturated crema.

Tied at Third (2 and 2) – If you like drip, the Technivorm ($279) is your choice. If you want that fresh espresso, a modern design and full roast perfection, Miele CM5000 ($1,299) is a good call.

Coffee Devices - August 2014

Taste Still Rules Ratings…with convenience a requirement

On a further note, at the end of the tasting, our host replaced the Illy beans in the Oracle and Miele machines. As a regular Peet’s drinker, I was so happy to get that familiar roast with every bit of flavor from each bean – and creamy. So, I believe that there might be some alternative results if all the machines had been brewing one set of (Peet’s) beans. And that too is one of the important decisions you must make if you elect the new super convenient Nespresso systems. You have to love their European-roast beans.

– John Wiest

June Cooking SIG: “Smoke it, Grill it & BBQ it”

by Gayle Massey

The art of the grill at June 2014 Cooking SIG

The art of the grill at June 2014 Cooking SIG

I attended my first Cooking SIG on June 12th. I walked into Carl Drosky’s home to a lively and already buzzing group enjoying an array of delectable appetizers. My Cowboy Caviar paled next to the fabulous stuffed olives, Pimento dip and fresh guacamole. Note to self; raise the bar.

The theme of this particular meeting was “Smoke it, Grill it & BBQ it” and that is exactly what we experienced. Carl’s day had started well before we arrived. After hearing about what everyone prepared and some good socializing time, we headed out to the backyard where Carl had a large BBQ with a chicken beautifully roasting on a rotisserie, a smaller BBQ awaiting the veggies still to be cut and a large smoker that was holding a large rack of ribs. He shared how he had prepared the chicken and ribs that wil l have me heading out to purchase a rotisserie attachment to my own bbq and added a smoker to my wish list.

To add to the delicious roasted and smoked meat, we all headed back into the house to make three sauces: BBQ, Classic Chimichurri and a Soprano Sauce (with anchovies, capers, garlic and olive oil). With Carl doing the heavy lifting of preparing our main courses, we enjoyed a fun prep time and very interactive class.

To add to the delicious roasted and smoked meat, we all headed back into the house to make three sauces: BBQ, Classic Chimichurri and a Soprano Sauce (with anchovies, capers, garlic and olive oil). With Carl doing the heavy lifting of preparing our main courses, we enjoyed a fun prep time and very interactive class.

And then, the best part ~ feasting on the main courses of rotisserie chicken, smoked ribs, grilled veggies along with the trio of sauces. And to further compliment the meal, the most creative salads and side dishes; Potato Lemon Salad and Watermelon Salad and Sauerkraut to name a few. And the cornbread ~ fabulous!

My plate overflowed and most of us needed a second trip to taste everything. The extra special ingredient that made everything even better; catching up with a wonderful group of people.

We ended with dessert, a Raspberry and Almond Frangipane Tart enjoyed around Carl’s fire pit in the backyard; a wonderful way to end the perfect evening.

June 2014 Cooking SIG led by Carl Drosky

June Tasting SIG: Mango Chutney Madness

by John Wiest

Always, the hardest part is getting started. Tasting SIG leaders Micki Weinberg and Sophia Markoulakis had done all the legwork in pre-shopping and selecting the most interesting Mango Chutneys in the Bay Area for this Tuesday evening June 10 event . Their criteria for inclusion were twofold: the chutneys had to be primarily comprised of Mango and that they must be available in retail stores.

Tasting SIG event June 2014

Mango Chutney savory and sweet

Thanks to host, Micki Weinberg

Delicious dining following Mango Chutney tasting SIG June 2014

With nine chutneys chosen, the SFPFS Tasting SIG set about with its usual relish, or I mean chutney. In fact, we were delighted to have a special guest and new Member, Lawrence Dass, Founder of Akka’s Handcrafted Foods. His mango chutney, one of nearly a dozen of his firm’s relishes, sauces and chutneys, earned a high ranking among the range tasted anonymously. He explained that chutney comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to lick’ and ultimately from Hindi to connote ‘seasoning’ or a condiment.

There are a huge variety of chutneys, with their common denominator that they are typically made of fruit or vegetable with vinegar, citrus, tamarind, or lemon juice added as natural preservatives, or possibly fermented in the presence of salt to create acid. Thus, we discovered that while most of us know chutneys as sweet, authentic chutneys have quite a range of sweet, salty, a bit sour (acid) and even musty-smoky.

All tasters completed the tasting in one fixed sequence, yet, what we found was that no two tasters had the same preference, no matter the order. However two of the favored products were tasted first: one that was very mango-y and balanced salty-sweet, based on a mango paste with a ginger finish; the other a bit non-traditional chutney with sweet peppers, raisins, hot chile (chili) and good bits of fruit.

Tying at the next level were two quite different products: Akka’s quite yellow, lots of mango pieces with a real cumin seed kick; and Deep (of India) Mango & Green Chili a soft almost eggplant textured, curry influenced pickle.

The evening’s top pick might surprise: a market leader, Major Greys (Cross & Blackwell, produced by Smuckers). This almost mango jam had complex layers of mango intensity with lemon-lime high notes and, as later revealed, aromatically pumped with plump cardamom pods.

Tasters envisioned using Mango Chutneys on many foods: often with a cream cheese or sour cream to spread on breads (we enjoyed Indian naans), topped on meats at table service or in a savory fashion to enhance vegetables. Each chutney evoked different accents, and not so much pairings.

Finally, as pictured in our Facebook page, after the formal tasting Members rewarded each other with a variety salad, fermented delights, chilled Mango soup and finished with several sweets.

Mango Chutney Tasting Results (click on table for clearer image)


Sassy Salsa SIG recap by Rodger Helwig



1093797_599659063390763_184341601_oLast eve at Micki Weinberg’s we tasted nine fresh tomato salsas from stores around the Bay Area, followed by a prodigious potluck.

The winners:
Coming in at #1 and a real bargain, Trader Joe’s Fresh-Packed Mild Salsa, 24 oz. for $2.99

#2 Whole Foods “Made Right Here” Mild Salsa, 16 oz. at $4.99

#3 Casa Sanchez Mild Salsa Roja, 15 oz., $4.99, at Safeway and other area stores.


Not Just a Bitter Face -SFPFS Wine SIG Tastes Bitters and Vermouths (and more)


by Rita Held

When the information given at a tasting results in action (rather than the good intentions being pushed to the back of the mental kitchen cabinet), you know you’ve been to a good tasting. And so it was on a Monday night at Rosemary Mark’s house in Walnut Creek when Pam Elder led the group of 10 though a tasting of 12 different bitters, 9 different vermouths, plus assorted aperitifs such as Lillet and digestifs including Cynar.

Several attendees had previously tasted Cynar and had-to be nice about it-not liked it at all. Imagine the chagrin and surprise when Cynar turns out to be not bad at all. In fact, it tastes sort of good! Bitter sure, but if consumed in the proper context, say after a heavy dinner, it would do a good job of perking up the palate and settling the tummy.

But that is jumping to the end of the story. First came the tasting of those 12 “cocktail” bitters, those that are meant to be used a few drops at a time in cocktails. All are unique infusions of aromatic ingredients including roots, barks, seeds, spices, herbs, and flowers. We experienced how the resurgent interest in cocktails has created a renewed interest in bitters, too, including new blends as well as recreations of older brands and styles.

To taste bitters, we first sniffed each sample to determine the predominant flavor: clove, cardamom, citrus peel, or anise. Then we added a small splash of sparkling water to open up the aroma and allow actual tasting of the samples. No surprise-all were bitter. But surprise-some were without alcohol and all were very interesting.

Then followed a discussion of how to use them, for instance in cocktails such as the Fee Brothers Orange in a champagne cocktail or the Bitter Truth celery bitters with its notes of lovage in a gimlet as well as in a Bloody Mary.

But those aforementioned “actions”? Attendee Rita Heald, who develops recipes for Angostura, told us that she mixes bitters into ketchup and keeps a supply in the ‘fridge. When tested at home later, some of us immediately did the same. And are now thinking about the upcoming crab season and bitters in the cocktail sauce, and bitters in tomato soup, tomato sauce. Not to mention (but we will because they were all great ideas) bitters in a honey-mint vinaigrette, an Indian-inspired chicken dish, a fabulous rice, and a dark chocolate sauce that on it’s own revealed it’s hint of bitters but once on the ice cream brought the sweet vanilla and the rich sauce into one heady combination.

And the good intentions? Invest in better quality vermouths (wines infused with botanicals), keep them in the refrigerator, and drink them as aperitifs, not just as workhorse cooking ingredients (at which, truth be told, they excel.) We tasted four “dry” or “white” vermouths including Martini and Noilly Pratt, and 5 “sweet” or “red” vermouths including the above brands, Punt é Mes, Antica Carpano (already a favorite among many in the group), and Quady’s Vya based on black muscat grapes. Plus we all, after tasting Underberg bitters ourselves, to adopt Frankie Whitman’s advice and include individual bottles of Underberg bitters to our Thanksgiving menus to prevent any potential digestive upsets and subsequent self-recriminations. Kudos to Pam Elder for leading such a stimulating, fun, and educational seminar.