Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Napa Chronicles: Day 3 - First Full Day in Napa

Ok...time to finish up these Napa vacation posts before I forget what all we did!

For our first full day in Napa, we booked an all-day wine tour through Platypus Tours. I was in charge of booking this portion of the trip, and those who know me know I enjoy planning things and working out the logistics but that I also get really consumed with making sure everything is perfect so that everyone has the best time possible. So imagine my nervousness over what I took to be an apathetic, minimally responsive tour guide. Let's just say he wasn't the best at answering emails, and when our trip was only days away and we still hadn't finalized the itinerary, I really started to worry. As it turned out, my worries were totally misplaced and our tour guide Mark ended up being the most awesome person to complement our group. He was probably a few years younger than most of our parents, and he was a true California dude from his casual Hawaiian shirt and sandals combo to his tour bus named Elroy. He was weird and quirky and funny and tolerated our silliness and inappropriateness with plenty of his own. We. Loved. Him. Plus, he totally looks like Bill Murray!

 Our bus, Elroy. 

Mark, the best tour guide (and Bill Murray look-alike) EVER

Partying it up in Elroy

Anyway, that morning Mark picked us up and we started the day with a tour of the Schramsberg winery and caves. The place was beautiful and the tour was so interesting. The wines were great for what they were - which is sparkling wine. I am just not a sparkling wine/champagne person unless it's mixed with orange juice and served with brunch. But I do have to admit, these were the most smooth, sippable fizzy wines I've ever had!

 Girls at Schramsberg

 These beautiful dusty bottles age in the caves for years before making their way into the bellies of happy wine enthusiasts! 

 This cave probably has some reaaaaaalllly happy bats. 

 Our romantic cave wine tasting 

After trying at LEAST 5 Schramsberg wines (not bad for 10:00 a.m.), we were off to soak up the wine with some lunch (and more wine...obviously). Our lunch stop was the small family-owned winery Benessere in St. Helena and it was hands down one of everyone's top 3 favorites of the entire trip. The road coming up to the winery was absolutely gorgeous. We had the entire place to ourselves, and our sweet tour guide even personalized the tasting menus for us. We toured the grounds complete with the family's unassuming and cozy home (with the most amazing porch EVER) and got to see the beautiful vines up close and personal. Afterwards, we gathered around a couple picnic tables for a fresh, yummy lunch Mark brought for us. And then there was the wine...oh, the wine!!! It was amazing. Not found in stores, very small quantity releases. The Old Vine Zinfandel rocked our socks off (and we bought some to take home). It's probably the only winery where we may actually consider joining the club.

The road to paradise...aka Benessere

 Benessere grounds...just gorgeous! 

 I'd never leave this porch. 

 Some serious deliciousness comes from these vines.

Benessere welcomed us like family. 

 We never wanted to leave Benessere!  

After that we were full and happy and possibly a tiiiiiiny bit silly. Bless Mark's heart. We commandeered his radio and blasted questionable rap music en route to the next location. Bad white-people chair-dancing occurred. Mark even got in on the action, doing his safe-driving version of the Dougie from behind the wheel. Before we knew it, we were pulling up at our next winery stop - Frog's Leap. This was a much larger place with expansive grounds that were open for wandering. The wines were served from a bar set-up on the grounds, which was kind of fun because we could go at our own pace and explore while drinking the wine. The wines were pretty good, but nothing incredibly special...especially when compared with Benessere! We were so glad this was a stop on our tour - it gave us some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful California weather.
The yummy Frog's Leap selections

Ahhh, California sunshine

  Lane & Josh enjoying a cigar on the romantic loveseat. 

I...have no idea what's going on here. Ha! 

After tasting several (4...5...6?? who knows) of the offerings at Frog's Leap, we piled back in Elroy and headed to our last stop of the day - Kathryn Hall. We got seated at a prime table on the cool, shady patio and settled in for a 10-wine tasting. Ohhhhh yeah...we did. Ten wines at the end of approximately 6 straight hours of wine tasting. Go big or go home...am I right?! Hall was heavy on the reds, Cabs in particular, which made all of us red-lovers very happy. And thank the good Lord for Mark who yet again proved he was perfect for our group by busting out a huge tray of delicious cheeses and crackers. It was the perfect way to top off our first day in Napa.

The beautiful ivy-covered tasting room at Hall

 Bring on the 10-wine tasting! 

Everyone was feeling very lovey at Hall...peace, love, and wine, baby!  

After making our purchases at Hall, we headed back to the hotel to nap for a short while before dinner. Steven and I doubted our ability to sleep it off and then rally for dinner, so we wandered around the grounds until time to catch a cab to Cole's Chophouse.

Cole's is a classic steakhouse, which means big juicy cuts of meat, potatoes, and lots of savory goodness. We were all very happy with our meals and enjoyed the casual yet gourmet ambiance of Cole's. Upon sitting down, we noticed that the table directly behind us was B-list celebrity Judy Greer (the best friend in tons of chick flicks, and more recently the boob-flashing secretary on Arrested Development). Maaaybe, just maybe all the wine we'd had that day made us a little loopy, and this celebrity sighting started us down a path of unrivaled silliness. We tried to snap pictures of her between Lane and Lolly's shoulders, and Lolly decided she'd found a new bestie. She threatened, much to our embarrassment, to tweet and tag Judy Greer while we were all sitting there 10 feet from her. Luckily we persuaded her to at least wait until we left the restaurant. No doubt if Ms. Greer had been accompanied by a bodyguard, we would have been asked to leave the restaurant.

Don't let these dapper faces fool you, we were neither mature nor composed during this dinner! 

 Hey Judy Greer, why are you looking so oblivious to the presence of your new #bestie?!!

What a fun-filled and BUSY first day in Napa we had! And the very next day, we did it all over again with another all-day tour and tasting schedule. Spoiler alert: we found out that hangovers and high altitudes don't mix well, kept a lookout for a pantsless 65-yr old man, probably got black-listed at one of St. Helena's best restaurants, and met a gentleman whose pretentious attitude was only rivaled by the size of his skull belt buckle. Stay tuned for the final installation of the Napa chronicles! 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Quinoa Chicken Enchilada Casserole

I interrupt the regularly scheduled vacation posts to bring you a really yummy, healthy dinner. I've been trying to find recipes with quinoa lately since it's the latest health food fad. I always figured it would be dry and crunchy, but turns out if you cook it right, it is a great protein-rich base for recipes that normally call for something starchy like rice or pasta. Even though the recipe does have some sour cream and cheese in it, when you consider the proportions, you'll realize that it looks a lot more indulgent than it actually is!

Who knew eating healthy could look this yummy?! 

Let's just get started with the recipe. You'll need:

1 cup dry quinoa
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth for quinoa
2 breasts of chicken -shredded (I used the pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store)
1/2-3/4 cup cheese - pepper jack and sharp cheddar
2 large poblano peppers - roasted (method below)
1-2 jalapenos - diced
1 T butter
1/4 c sour cream
1 12 oz can tomatillos
2 cloves garlic - minced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth for enchilada sauce
2 T flour
1/2 can black beans
1 tsp cumin
cilantro - to taste

So here's how I make my quinoa - it turns out fluffy and delicious every time:
Take 1 cup dry quinoa and rinse thoroughly in a strainer with cold water. Then transfer into a bowl of ice water and let soak for 15 minutes. This is apparently an essential step so the quinoa isn't too crunchy and tough. Boil 3/4 c chicken broth and 3/4 cup water together in a medium pot. Stir in quinoa, return to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let simmer until liquid has soaked into quinoa. It should be soft and fluffy to the touch and will have absorbed the liquid when it's done.

I used the time the quinoa was cooking to prep some of the other ingredients.

To roast the poblanos:
Simply put them on a cookie sheet covered with foil, sprayed them lightly with cooking spray, and pop them onto the top shelf of the oven under the broiler for about 6 minutes on each side (I turned the peppers about 3 times each). The skin should appear blackened and bubbly. Once they are done under the broiler, transfer them to a bowl with a lid and let them sit covered for 15 minutes or longer. This "sweating" process will help the skin peel off more easily.

To make the enchilada sauce:
Melt the butter in a sauce pan, then sautee the jalapenos and garlic for a few minutes. Add the flour and stir until combined with the peppers and garlic. Add 1 cup of chicken broth and whisk well to combine. Add the 1/4 cup sour cream and continue to whisk until sauce begins to thicken a little.  Add the 1 tsp cumin and a little chopped cilantro to your liking. Take the sauce and put it in a blender with your canned tomatillos - now you have your enchilada sauce!

The quinoa should be done by now and the peppers should be roasted. Peel and chop the peppers, then combine in a bowl the quinoa, chopped roasted poblanos, 1/2 can black beans, the shredded chicken, and about 1/4 cup shredded cheese. Add about 1/2-3/4 cup enchilada sauce - just use your judgement on how much you think you'll need to sufficiently moisten the casserole. You don't want it to be runny, but you do want it to be wet. Transfer to a casserole dish, then top with the remaining cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes until cheese is bubbly, then broil for a couple minutes to crisp and brown the cheese on top.

I served the casserole with a dollop of fresh simple guacamole (mashed avocado, lime juice, and sea salt) and fresh salsa (I used the Pioneer Woman's recipe - found HERE).