If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen my frequent work for the olive oil company Lucini Italia. It’s been one of the most rewarding partnerships of my professional career, one based on mutual respect, support, and a darn strong love of olive oil.

Meaning “little glimmering light”, Lucini is the impassioned project of a husband-and-wife team who visited Tuscany several years ago, fell in love with the food, and lamented the lack of high quality extra virgin olive oils here in the United States. So they set about building a brand that would reflect the purity and quality of their beloved Tuscan oils, featuring first-pressed oils harvested early in the growing season to capture the peak of freshness. Although Lucini’s Premium Select Extra Virgin Oil from Tuscany is still their flagship product, the company (now owned by California Olive Ranch) wanted to create another extra virgin olive oil that would reflect the same quality standards, but would be priced for everyday use.

Entre Cielos Resort & Spa

The South American high desert region of Mendoza, popular for it’s famous wine export, Malbec, might seem like an odd choice for an American-based, Italian-inspired olive oil company to set up shop. But as we – Lucini’s brand ambassadors – have learned over the past few months, the soil and temperature conditions in Mendoza are ideal for growing Mediterranean crops such as olives, wine, nuts and citrus. Furthermore, Italian farming expats have been moving to Argentina for generations, and with them, have brought the skills and techniques to develop a bright green and peppery Argentinian extra virgin olive oil that rivals the finest Tuscan product.

After developing recipes for Lucini over the past few months, the company was eager to fly several of us lucky bums down to Argentina to see the olive oil-making process in person. We would visit two of their producers – the Perez family farm – which still uses an Old World hand-harvesting technique that produces a higher yield, but is a more labor-intensive (and costly!) process. And a second producer – Olivaterra – based in San Juan in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, which processes olives at the other end of the spectrum: large-scale and machinery-intensive, relying on the latest and greatest in olive oil processing capabilities (hello drones!)

The Perez Family Farm

Both experiences were fun and educational, with sights and sounds that were worlds apart, yet accomplished the same goal: a high-quality Tuscan-style extra virgin olive oil, as useful for cooking as it is for finishing.

But our Lucini hosts wanted us to experience much more than olive oil. Argentina is rich in culture and we were encouraged to soak it all in – the sun, the food, the people. After all, tourists don’t visit Tuscany simply to experience its lush olive oil tradition. Our Argentine itinerary was packed with visits to various wineries, restaurants (Francis Mallman’s 1884 Restaurant was a dream for those like to cook with fire), and the loveliest B&B tucked into the mountains. There, we rode horses, feasted on charcuterie, and I tackled two full plates of meltingly tender lamb shanks for dessert. Followed of course by our real dessert – flan – drizzled, as to be expected, with Dulce de leche.

El Enemigo Winery

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I’d by lying if I said that I knew anything about Hawaii before my third visit just a few weeks ago. I’d been to The Big Island twice, spent some time sequestered away at two pristine resorts, clinking celebratory glasses of champagne as I toasted two separate friends’ and family weddings.

But Maui was a new island for me, certainly one that I’d been excited to visit. I’d heard the stories of long-ago spring break vacations, Maui being the destination of choice for my West Coast family. But through the open nature of Instagram and the world wide web, new stories emerged from friends who actually grew up there. I heard of the tide and the flora, the wild beauty, the technicolor sunsets. It seemed so lush, so vivid, and who doesn’t dream of having a coffee plantation in her backyard.

Montage Kapalua Bay Resort

When invited to visit the newly-revamped Montage Kapalua Bay Resort in Maui, I jumped at the chance. The itinerary was filled to the Hawaiian gills with adventures both at the resort and beyond, letting us explore the island’s varied microclimates, from Kapalua Bay to Upcountry Maui, giving us a true sense for Mother Maui herself.

My husband, always keen to have a copy of my itinerary when I travel in case of emergency, asked me to forward my information to him at work. The file somehow became ensnared in his company’s firewall, requiring tech team intervention. In order to make sure that the information was legitimate, Rodney had to answer a set of questions regarding the material in question. “Is your wife going on a wellness trip?” Yes. “Will your wife be doing yoga?” Yes. “Lomi Lomi massage?” Yes. “Snorkeling.” Check. Although pure conjecture, I can imagine that in synchronized fashion, both Rodney and the chief firewall engineer were savoring frighteningly poor career choices.

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For those of you who know my past history with food and cooking, you’ll know of my late-ish start at the ripe old age of 25. Before cooking, there was canned soup, preferably Chunky beef stew. And before that, I survived on falafel sandwiches from the deli, cheeseburgers, Harvey’s poutine because, yes, I’m Canadian, and that’s how we roll with fast food in high school.

But in my 20s, things magically changed. I picked up a chef’s knife for the first time and learned to wield my way through pounds of onions, mountains of garlic, and bushels of tomatoes.

My first few meals felt like a Herculean accomplishment. I’ll never forget the first Pad Thai that I made at my Dad’s house, mounded on a platter, decorated with cilantro and quartered limes. The creamy soup that I couldn’t wait to serve my first ever dinner guests. The mortification over missing the directions to take the soup off the heat before adding the dairy…rendering my velvet beast into a curdled nightmare, more reminiscent of Chinese egg drop soup than anything vaguely Italian-ish.

And I will never, ever forget that first risotto, my first real accomplishment in the kitchen. The smell of the white wine hitting the pan to deglaze the sweet onions. The homemade stock, ladled into the pan one loving spoonful at a time. Making risotto always transported me into my grandmother’s kitchen. Such a cliché admission these days, the reminiscing about kitchens that once were. The domain of family matriarchs whose immigrant kitchens spawned earnest food from the homeland.

But it’s truth, plain and simple. My Nana ran that oregano-infused kitchen with an iron fist. And she loved risotto. Her house smelled like risotto. And though she never got to see me cook, or learn of my passion for food, I always feel as though I’m channeling her spirit when I stand at the stove and stir. And stir. I sip wine and I stir.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the feedfeed and Austerity Wines. Austerity had co-hosted an event in New York in the spring of ’17 and I’d remember getting pleasantly buzzed off of their velvety Cabarnet and a spicy Pinot Noir. This year I was game to try their wines again and was amped to start off the evening with sangria featuring their bright and tropical fruit-forward Chardonnay.

The dinner was effortlessly chic, cooked by chef Michael Chernow of Seamore’s restaurants in New York City. Winemaker Steven DeCosta spoke to us about Austerity’s production process and growing conditions for all of those lip-smacking grapes. Austerity’s Chardonnay comes from Monterey County’s Salinas Valley with its cool winds and warm midday sun, ideal growing conditions we learned. And as I teetered home after clinking glasses with some of my favorite NY cooks ), I started to brainstorm ideas for eating and pairing these jewels of the California wine country.

Starting with their Chardonnay- a bright and mineral flavor, perfectly paired with any spring meal. I confess that Chardonnay isn’t always my first choice when it comes to white wine – I find that an overly oaky taste is too much for my palate and tend to stick to grassier numbers – new world Sauvignon Blancs or a dry Pinot Gris. But I can enthusiastically get behind Austerity’s Chardonnay, smooth and buttery and with only a light oak flavor since much of the fermentation process happens in steel casks. It’s so enjoyable as a crisp drinking wine, that I almost considered not cooking with it and saving it for our Greenwood Lake sunset viewing sessions.

Almost.

Risotto was on my mind, as per usual. And just a splash of Chardonnay goes a long way to infuse the rice with a fruit-forward flavor, leaving the rest for me and my stirring/drinking habit.

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In the planning of our spring break vacation this year, Costa Rica emerged as a possibility and I shot it down. We were eager to do something off the beaten path, something a little different from the warm weather destinations that have dominated our previous spring break jams – Jamaica, The Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic. We’ve spoiled ourselves with great vacations, no doubt, but I wanted to do more adventuring. Europe? Rodney said too cold. A Colorado ski vacation? (too cold again). A last-minute trip to New Zealand or Australia felt a tad ambitious, so I opened up my phone’s AirBnb app and started to dig.

Whether it was destiny or fate, or some other powers that be (Jackson, were you guiding this?), I kept landing on Costa Rica. My mum and step dad are people whom I’d describe as “repeat offenders”, visiting Costa Rica year after year, raving about the monkeys and the night walks and the poisonous Fer-de-lance they’d encountered in the jungle. And I had heard great things about the newly-renovated Four Seasons in Papagayo. Suddenly our trip was less about dreams and more about execution: Costa Rica it would be, with a Four Seasons visit on the front end and an AirBnB chaser.

Even though I was a late adopter, I’ve become a sucker for AirBnb. I’m never the first one to try a new platform (hello Instagram, 2013!), particularly when it involves borrowing someone’s home for a few days. But after a few independent stays where I could test out the process and see whether AirBnB is all that it’s cracked up to be, I felt comfortable enough dragging our three young kids down to a rental in a foreign country….two hours from the closest airport (Liberia) and a mile up a potholed dirt road. Costa Rica, it appeared, had some pretty cool properties, including one that I found built into a mountainside, not far from Tamarindo.

Four Seasons Resort, Papagayo, Costa Rica:

I’d read of AirBnB horror stories, the families who’d arrived in faraway locations only to find their island dreams dashed with shoddy villas and construction nightmares. But one of my (unfortunate and time-consuming) skills is that I’m a die-hard researcher. So you’d best believe that I read through every one of our intended home’s 80+ reviews to make sure that the vast majority of people had enjoyed a kick a$$ experience.

Our AirBnb only covered 6 nights (another non-pro tip: find the airBnBs that are usually completely booked), so we reserved the dates that we could, and filled the remainder with the Four Seasons in Papagayo. The hype is warranted, it’s a stunning resort with lush vegetation, giant iguanas, two separate beaches, great hikes, and howler monkeys whose (song? warble? bark?) greets you every morning, like clockwork, at daybreak.

“What’s that sound?” I asked Rodney on our first morning, convinced that someone from housekeeping was attempting to re-start a broken-down golf cart on the path directly above our house. Was it a bird? A dog? A machine? At breakfast we learned of the howlers, those sneaky little creatures whom we only witnessed in the flesh two days later when a furry family of 8 crept into the tree directly in front of our pad. There, they ate, climbed, and napped until it was time for us to leave.

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Hey, are you guys still there? Fantastic. Because it’s time to dish up part two on Antigua’s Jumby Bay Island, and it’s all about the food.

As in fresh-from-the-farm organic food. Plucked from the lady hen herself. Did I tell you that I’m now a chicken farmer? It’s all true. I learned how to enter a chicken coop without any of the residents escaping (harder than it seems) and cautiously step over forty or so chickens who like to greet their visitors like some kind of frenzied poultry paparazzi. It was all very zen, believe me. There was no screaming, no panicking, no running, no clinging to a ledge for dear life, no Hail Marys before plunging my bare arm beneath the feathered breast of a she-hen guarding her egg with a fierce case of stink eye. I may pick up the hobby this summer. Nothing beats fresh, still-warm chicken eggs. Nothing. And I’ll sacrifice life and limb to do it.

Fortunately Jumby Bay’s supremely talented kitchen and farming staff were there to help out with the remainder of our meals. Leaving that one joyous experiencing of plucking my own tomatoes, snipping some kale leaves, trimming herb flowers from the organic garden, and yes, even harvesting my own eggs…to an isolated incident of tomato salad-making for two. Forever encased in that memory box in my brain with the boldface letters A-N-T-I-G-U-A printed on the front. It’s a good set of memories.

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