Food & Wine

How to set up a home bar

My husband and I recently moved into a new house, primarily selected because of the amazing bar in the mancave. Life goals, right? We plan to entertain a lot so I really wanted to have a bar setup that looked more Hollywood than fraternity house. So I Googled, and pinned, and vision boarded, and envied all kinds of stories on how to set up a home bar. For me it’s as much about decorating as it is imbibing. This photo is my amazing friend interior decorator friend, Decorator Girl.

So there are really four different aspects to consider when you set up a home bar: spirits, glasses, mixers, and ice. 

Spirits for your home bar

There are some pretty basic spirits you’ll want to include – vodka, rum (light and dark), gin, tequila, and whiskey (rye and/or bourbon). I tend to buy top shelf brands – not necessarily the most expensive but I go for the shelves that are eye level. It seems like there are so many flavored spirits these days but IMHO, they’re gimmicky. And way too sweet. If I want a citrus vodka, I make my own by adding citrus peels to vodka and letting it set for a couple of hours. Caveat: the only one I’ve not been able to replicate is coconut rum (one of my favorites for Malibu bay breezes). If your budget and space allows, you can branch out from this a bit and include other spirits like Scotch and mezcal (the hubby’s favorite and I do love the smokiness in a spicy margarita).

Mixers to set up a home bar

Next, you’ll need some mixers. We generally have club soda, tonic water, soda, juices (like cranberry for cosmos or bay breezes) and ginger beer on hand. I recommend buying the small individual bottles rather than large ones. If you just add a splash of mixers here and there, they’ll go flat before you can use up the bottle. 

I’ll call these “enhancers” but they’re really part of the mixer family. We keep several flavored bitters, simple syrup (or you can make it yourself), liqueurs like Triple sec or Grand Marnier to float on your margarita, and you’ll definitely need some fresh lemons and limes. Of course, in my home we’re Old Fashioned drinkers so we keep oranges too.

Glasses for your home bar

I’ve got to admit, we have more bar glasses than any respectable home should have. But we’ve accumulated them over the years – we still have bar glasses we got for our wedding 30 years ago! So if you want to start with just the basics, I would suggest:
– wine glasses – red wine glasses and white wine glasses. If you want to impress, opt for Prosecco and Pinot glasses too.
– cocktail glasses – Basically there are highball and lowball glasses. For the sake of the dishwasher, these are my go to glasses. But you have to throw in a couple of martini glasses too. Of course, you can add mule mugs, margarita glasses, and other specialty beverageware.

Ice for your home bar

I’m a bit of an ice snob. I don’t like typical ice cubes that water down my drink. My husband and I had a professional ice machine in our last home, you know the kind like hotels that have holes in the center. Now, you can find some of the silicon ice trays in various shapes and sizes at Target. If you really want to get fancy, you can add flavors (any fruit or herb) to your ice cubes that slowly melt into your cocktail. I ordered these Corkcicle® whiskey wedges for my Old Fashioned habit.

Other bar accessories to impress

You’ll want to have some garnishes on hand like lemon and lime wedges, cherries (splurge on the Luxardo), and olives to top off your cocktails. I also like to have few different fun napkin designs to fit my mood or my guests, and you can really dress up your bar with some colorful straws and swizzle sticks. And finally, I always recommend a hip little cocktail book to keep on your bar for those indecisive guests or those “whatever” evenings.

Cheers!

Quick and healthy dinner ideas

Every. Single. Night. Am I right? Who feels like cooking these days? I’ve been in a bit of a culinary funk because I have absolutely no dinner inspiration. So we usually end up gravitating to our old standby, pasta. But even I’m kind of tiring of that. So I’ve been trying to come up with some quick and healthy dinner ideas for 2 that fit our lifestyle. No thinking required. Fast. And yummy.

Now that we’re empty nesters, I find that meal planning for just the two of us is much harder than planning for an entire family dinner. I was very focused on the meat & 3s when my kids were home, to fill them up with healthy food, but now that it’s just the two of us, I want something much simpler. I tend to gravitate to bowls these days. And one-pot meals. 

Break out of that cooking funk with these quick and healthy dinner ideas

1. Order from a CSA – This is the best way to get fresh veggies in season. No matter where you live, chances are there’s a CSA near you that will delivery farm fresh boxes to your home. I’ve found that veggies are higher quality than what I get in my grocery store and I do like getting a mix of products and sometimes a few surprises. Once I got a whole stalk of Brussels sprouts (honestly, I didn’t even know they grew that way). Recently, my weekly basket included patty pan squash which I had never made before. So it was something new for us to try. if you’re looking for a CSA, find one that includes recipes in their delivery. No thinking required.

What is a CSA? 

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The concept has been around forever and has its roots in farm stands – you know those rickety wood shacks on the side of the country roads where your grandmother used to stop to buy her produce. But CSAs have come a long way. They’re a great way to support local farmers and buy locally-grown, seasonal food. Farmers often sell “shares” in their farm, which can be in the form of a subscription box. You can generally select the quantity of produce you want and even choose the actual veggies for your specific box. 

2. Meal delivery plans – I’ve tried most of the companies out there and I’m rarely disappointed. All of the shopping and planning is done for you. All you have to do is prep and chop and generally, you’ll have a really great meal in 30 minutes. And because I know you’ll ask, my two favorites are Purple Carrot (vegan) and Martha & Marley Spoon. I’ve tried almost all of them and these two consistently have the best tasting meals.

3. Grocery store pre-packs – Grocery stores are starting to compete with the meal delivery companies by creating their own version of pre-packaging meal ingredients. My local store has prepped meals for both the slow cooker and for the oven. You can usually find these in the fresh meat section of your store. 

4. Food magazines – I might be a bit of magazine hoarder. I tend to pick one up every time I’m in the checkout lane at the grocery store. And I’m forever turning down or tearing out pages with dishes I want to make. It’s a great way to get inspiration especially when the seasonal magazines come out.

5. Apps – Let technology inspire you. Be honest. You’re picking up your phone and scrolling several times a day. At traffic lights. While waiting in line. When boredom strikes. Even when you’re on that conference call. I’ve downloaded a few healthy eating apps and it’s kind of like a roulette wheel. I just pick one app and scroll until a meal pops up that grabs my interest. The best apps will automatically create a shopping list for you once you select a menu. Two of my favorite foodie apps are the Food Network and Nom Nom Paleo

keep my fridge and pantry stocked with a few items that let me throw together quick happy hour appetizers.

We moved into a new neighborhood which means a lot of impromptu happy hours as we meet new friends. And I mean, the empty nest lifestyle is all about having fun and being flexible, am I right? I happen to live near the beach so making quick trips to the grocery store is a nightmare. I hit beach traffic, the store can be crowded with Millennials buying their White Claw and Doritos. So I try to plan ahead and keep my fridge and pantry stocked with a few items that let me throw together quick happy hour appetizers.

The truth is, I’m not the best at planning ahead. I used to be, but I believe I’ve had too many tabs open in my brain for too long now so my attention to detail and my consummate hostess skills have gone out the window. Yes, I’m often that friend that shows up at a party empty-handed (note to self: get better at this!).

Here’s what I keep stocked for quick happy hour appetizers:

1. Jarred or fresh olives – I’d add cornichon and any pickled veggies to this list. They’re great to put in a delicate little glass dish an added to a charcuterie tray.

2. Dried sausage – These cured meats will keep forever in your refrigerator. I buy the ones that are unsliced as I feel they retain their taste much longer.

3. Crackers – Duh. But not just any crackers. I keep an array of delicate crackers you’d use to impress people with, although I have been known to throw a few Ritz or saltines on a plate. These are my favorite at the moment.

4. Dried fruit – These products have come a long way. Fresh fruit doesn’t keep long in the Florida heat (even in the fridge) so I buy the dried fruits now. Everything from dried mango (with chili pepper – yum) to apples to banana chips. Even at happy hour, you feel like you’re eating healthy. Ish.

5. Nuts – Always the simplest ingredient to put in a pretty bowl and offer your guests. But go for the more exotic flavors.

6. Phyllo dough – If you want to show your last-minute guests that you’re a real Martha Stewart in the kitchen, wrap some cooked asparagus in phyllo dough from the freezer and baked them til the crust gets crispy. You can also cut the dough into tiny circles and press them into a mini muffin pan and make a pastry cup to hold other bite size ingredients.

7. Cream puffs – This is my all-time best kept secret. I keep these mini cream puffs in my freezer for those late night guests (sometimes happy hour does that). To make them look really pretty and special, I put them in a glass bowl and dribble blueberries over them and put dollops of spray whipped cream on them. The presentation always looks like more work than it is but best of all, they’re light and yummy.

Yep, that’s a Christmas mug in the picture below. In May. And it’s filled with bacon grease…a little trick I learned from my early childhood. And one reinforced from my dip into the Paleo diet waters. I’ll just say, IT FLAVORS EVERYTHING! So I thought it was the perfect way to start off this post. If you don’t know the glories of cast iron cooking, bacon grease in a coffee mug, or the finer revelries of Southern cooking, this post will probably be lost on you.

So…the bacon grease. I just remember there always being a cup of it next to my grandmother’s stove. I mean, bacon and eggs were a morning staple so it was in ample supply. And a spoonful of this artery-clogging goodness made its way into many dishes, from cornbread to casseroles. It adds just the right amount of smokiness and fat to every dish. And so, I’m returning to those roots and I’m shocked to say, my cup runneth over (that means I make too much bacon). And I add a spoonful of it into just about everything.

So on to cast iron. I inherited (or maybe I just stole it from my mother’s kitchen) my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. And it’s become the one pan I cook everything in. It’s enjoyed decades (I’m guessing roughly 70 years) of seasoning. For you non-Southerners, THIS is why you don’t ever wash a cast iron pan. The pan holds onto (in a good way) all of the flavors of its past, imparting a tiny bit of them into every dish you prepare in it. Using soap and water washes away all those bits of flavor and all of those memories. I think it’s akin to painting over your family photos. No matter how embarrassing, let those crusty bits shine! I just give mine a good old scrubbing with water (some dishes require a bit harsher scrub) and finish it off with a drop of oil to keep it fresh and seasoned for my next use.

In my minimalistic ‘don’t be a hoarder and hold on to random shit’ days, I may or may not have thrown out my great grandmother’s cast iron dutch oven. I knew it was valuable, and remember “claiming” it among my mother’s kitchen goods, but it was old, and rusty, and unkempt. There was a grossness factor to it but had I taken the time to scrub it down, I’m quite sure I would have found immense value in it. Regrets and lessons learned.

If you’ve never taken a stroll through a Southerner’s pantry, I encourage you to plan a trip. You’ll be amazed and awe-inspired with plenty of “what is this?” and “what the heck is this used for?”. 

It wasn’t long before my mom’s recent illness that we were reorganizing her pantry (at 78 years old, she had held onto most of her kitchen gadgets over the years including a syrup dispenser she used at Howard Johnson’s with my dad on their honeymoon, I digress…) and I came across a wood router-type contraption that looked like it belonged in my husband’s toolbox rather than the kitchen. So I Marie Kondo’d it. No joy for me. Days later, my mom asked me where I put her creamed corn shucker (so that’s what that was!). Apparently it brought her great joy. Another family heirloom that in my desire to not appear on Hoarders one day, I tossed.

My kitchen today is a mix of the old and the new. My grandmother never served anything in its original container; even jelly at breakfast was in a beautiful glass dish. The older I get, the more I seem to be returning to my roots in the kitchen. I’ve been toying with trying my hand at canning and preserving veggies and I know my mother had some weird devices sterilize jars. As everyone seems to be downsizing and minimalizing these days, it’s important to think about the joy something could bring you in the future. What I wouldn’t give to have that cast iron dutch oven back today. And my mom’s creamed corn shucker thingamajiggy.

My kids are hungry. But they can’t afford to eat. This was happening long before the current economic crisis. My daughter, a long-time vegan, is a budding microbiologist who desperately wants to eat healthy but…college bills. She makes her own nut milks and cosmetics because she wants to be clean and sustainable. But have you seen the price of clean ingredients? (Just switch out the french fries for broccoli at any restaurant and you’ll see the upcharge.)  My son, an Olympic weight lifter, needs to consume a lot of calories to fuel his sport. But he chose to live in New York City so buying food on his budget is more challenging than paying his rent (and you can only eat those massive Chipotle bowls so many days a week). Throw in the busy-ness of their career-upstart lives and it’s almost impossible for them to eat in this modern world. As a resourceful mom, I’ve spent countless hours researching meal delivery services and so-called online healthy markets but they’re simply not affordable for Millennials. 

Many in this generation are eschewing our processed, fast food culture but we’re not giving them many (affordable) alternatives. Both of my kids love to cook but planning and prepping ahead just didn’t make their gene pool (just ask the slowcooker I gave my daughter for Christmas last year – that is still in the box). I researched all the popular meal delivery services, like vegan favorite Purple Carrot (which I once gave my daughter as a gift and got addicted to myself). In my quest to eat healthier, I’m actually trying it again – I can throw in chicken slices or shrimp for my meat eater husband. But at roughly $12 a serving, it’s not doable on a mommy-funds-my-college-lifestyle budget.

And then there’s my growing boy who at 25 eats like 5 teenagers. So I researched meals for athletes and sure, they’re out there, just not in the quantity and price range he needs. I looked at the traditional companies like Blue Apron and Home Chef but he’d need two servings per meal just for himself. Again, not feasible. All I wanted were affordable, easy-to-prepare meals for my kids.

If I lived closer to them, I’d gladly prepare their meals. I mean, I did this for my ailing dog for three years. Solutions lie in a deeper understanding of the problem (and its implications on our future health as a society) but also in a return to simplicity – habits like shopping at farmer’s markets and good old-fashioned food prep. But those require a paradigm shift. Food deserts are a serious problem but I would submit there’s another type of food desert happening in this generation. They want to eat healthy but those with non-traditional diets just can’t afford to. 

Wine tasting in Italy is fun

Last fall, I convinced my husband that he really needed to experience all of the beauty that Umbria, the lush, scenic region that borders Tuscany,  had to offer — including the picturesque rolling vineyards and incredible wine tasting experiences. I had traveled throughout the region when we lived in Italy, but he had never seen the true Italian countryside. So we set off to tour a few wineries in the region and received the VIP treatment. As we all know, Italians are passionate — they are passionate about love, food,  fashion, and, yes, wine.  Here are some of the best wine tastings in Italy, specifically in Umbria.

Cantina Roccafiore, Todi

I promised my husband that wine tasting in Italy would be a truly memorable experience. Our tour began at Roccafiore in Todi (a charming hilltop town in Umbria), where the winery’s commitment to sustainability is evident, as the parking area overlooks a field of organic vineyards and dozens of solar panels. Roccafiore, which launched in 2000, is a real blend of technology and traditions. The company goes to great pains to maintain the traditions of Italian vinology but employ some of the latest technology (especially where sustainability is involved) to produce great wines.

Read more:  Where to Find Organic Wine in Italy

Our hostess, Laura, was studying to be a sommelier so her detailed knowledge of the wine-making process was a highlight. We were fortunate to be at Roccafiore in mid-September as grapes were being harvested — all by hand. We tasted the Grechetto and Moscato grapes fresh off the vine and watched as the workers poured barrels of grapes into the presser to extract the juice. We then moved to the main production facility underground, another Roccafiore tradition of maintaining original winemaking standards. As the grapes are processed through the pressing machine, the juice falls directly into tanks below ground, using gravity to move the musts and skins from the upper floor to the lower floor — again, part of Roccafiore’s commitment to maintaining the traditions and best practices of wine production. Laura walked us through a labyrinth of underground rooms as she explained in great detail the different storage and fermentation processes (practicing for her sommelier exam, I’m sure).

Our tasting of Roccafiore wines took place in the winery’s very modern and industrial commercial building, where they host special events from art exhibitions to winemaker dinners to weddings. Laura also has a culinary background so her knowledge of food/wine pairings was a great compliment to the tasting experience. My favorite wine was the Rosso Roccafiore, a 100% Sangiovese, but the FiorFior, a 100% Grechetto, was a close second. I could easily drink these every night of the week. Prova d’autore, a blend of 40% Sagrantino, 30% Montepulciano, and 30% Sangiovese, was intense, but definitely requires the appropriate food pairing to appreciate it the most. The winery’s luxury resort, Roccafiore Residence, and its famed FiorFior restaurant are located on a hill just a quick drive from the winery.

Read more: The Best Wine Tasting Experiences in Tuscany

Giorgio Lungarotti Winery, Torgiano

We had another tour scheduled for our wine tasting in Italy at Lungarotti, which was scheduled to begin at 10:30, and I was a bit concerned about getting in the mood for wine that early. But, the initial wine tour — which was led by the most gracious Grazia — took well over an hour but was so detailed and educational that I wanted more. (Grazia actually visited the winery with her school when she was only six years old and today, leads the company’s hospitality efforts). The tour led us through rooms full of casks, maceration tanks, and French barriques. With so many varietals of grapes being harvested – Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Colorino, and Syrah as red varietals with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio as the whites — organization is definitely key. The highlight of the tour was the visit to the winery’s safe, where vintages leading back to the winery’s opening in 1962, are stored. Some years, there were only four bottles remaining (a good year), and in other years, there were dozens of bottles in the bin. They’re stored, sold, and enjoyed for special occasions with some bottles commanding upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

Founded by Giorgio Lungarotti, the company is now led by his daughters Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini, while his wife Maria Grazia runs the foundation. We were quite fortunate to meet both Chiara and Teresa who are actively involved in the day-to-day activities at the winery and resort. After learning so many fine details of their wine production and the passion poured into making Lungarotti wines, I was excited to taste the wines.

We started with the Torre di Giano and Torre di Giano VIP. The VIP was my favorite of the whites, with 70% Trebbiano and 30% Grechetto. But the Aurente (derived from the Latin word for gold) intrigued me to the point that I’m still wanting another taste of it a week later. It’s a deep and rich gold wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto. It was definitely one of the most interesting wines I’ve tasted and I think I’ll be ordering more because I’m so curious to have it again.

Then, we moved on to the reds, the Rubesco, Rubesco Reserve (my favorite), and the Sagrantino (my husband’s favorite). We didn’t taste the San Giorgio (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo) but according to Grazia, this wine is drinkable for up to 50 years. (Note to self: taste this on your next visit!)

Read more: Your Guide to Wine Tasting in Tuscany and Umbria

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What to See and Do in Torgiano, Italy

We then ventured to my new favorite small, romantic town in Italy — and one I plan to revisit with more time — Torgiano. Here, Grazia treated us to lunch at Le Melograne, the restaurant at their five-star spa resort, Le Tre Vaselle, where the chef personally gave us his menu recommendations. Our time was limited so we missed a visit to the Wine and Olive Oil Museums, but they will definitely be on our next itinerary —  as will the resort’s spa, where guests from all over the world come for vinotherapy treatments.

We also took a short drive to Poggio alle Vigne, the country house set among the Lungarotti vineyards which is a popular destination wedding spot. Torgiano is a popular shopping destination for cashmere, so Lungarotti also arranges cashmere shopping tours as part of their packages. (Note to self: don’t miss the cashmere next time I go wine tasting in Italy…)

Read more: What to Know Before Visiting Umbria’s Baracchi Winery

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