Natural Wine Class

I recently had the pleasure of attending a class on natural wines by a certified advanced sommelier.  The class was offered at Urban Kitchen, a cooking school in South Pasadena, CA. They provided their cool industrial-style kitchen as the venue, as well as a beautiful spread of heavy hors d’oevres to accompany the wines we tasted.

Urban Kitchen served up several lovely dishes including prosciutto, cheese and asparagus toasts, butternut squash filled cheese gougères, and several delicious incarnations of pimento cheese spread with bread.

The seminar was led by sommelier Melissa Gisler Mondanlou, founder of “Rock Juice.” Her company was established to offer those of us who desire to eat healthy foods the ability to enjoy those foods with wines that are produced in the most organic, sustainable and natural methods available. She travels the world to find small family owned vineyards that produce small-batch artisanal wines of high quality and brings them to the public through her wine club.

Melissa told us that the conventional wines we are accustomed to drinking contain far more than grape juice and can include a myriad of different chemicals and additives that are not shown on the label. Due to various loopholes in the law, wine makers are not required to disclose anything other than sulfur as an additive. While most of us are aware of the potential negative health ramifications of food additives, herbicides and pesticides, we tend to be unaware that the wine we drink can be tainted with the same ingredients we might steer clear of in our foods. Melissa explained that these additives are often used to make up for deficiencies in the fruit or farming practices that could otherwise make the wine unpalatable. Producers of natural wines seek to find varietals that are well-suited to the terrior so that chemicals are unnecessary.

All of the wines were quite reasonably priced, especially when considering the labor intensive production methods involved.
This pétillant-naturel wine is made from the Cayuga grape, a cold climate varietal. It undergoes one fermentation inside the bottle and has no added yeast or sugar.  Because it is unfiltered, there is a bit of cloudiness at bottom of the glass.

We tasted 5 different wines ranging from a pétillant-naturel, a sparkling kombucha-like wine from Maine, to a light-bodied Beaujolais-like red blend from the Loire Valley in France. I found all of the wines we tasted to be rustic and earthy in character with great minerality. Many of them are produced by using a method of extraction called carbonic maceration. This method simply uses the weight of the grapes and gravity to extract the juice. Few tanins are thus extracted, resulting in a lighter wine which allows the true flavors of the grape to shine.

All of these wines were lower in alcohol than conventionally produced wines and were light-bodied with a slightly acidic flavor profile. None of the wines contained a significant amount of sulfur. Anecdotally I would like to mention that my friend, who normally cannot drink wine without her eyes tearing up, commented at the end of the tasting that she hadn’t needed her tissues once! She attributed this to the lack of sulfur or other additives in the wine. Whatever the reason, we enjoyed these unusual wines and will definitely be keeping an eye out for natural wines in the future.

If you’d like more information on natural wines or their wine club, you can check out the Rock Juice website at  For more information on Urban Kitchen, go to

Perfectly prepared pavlova meringues were served for dessert.


Disclosure: I have received no compensation for this post by either Urban Kitchen or Rock Juice Inc.  I simply enjoyed the experience and wanted to share what I learned with my readers.


Placemat Pillow DIY

I am always looking for quick and easy ways to update my home. By keeping major pieces of upholstery neutral, pillows can be the catalyst for a whole new look.  I have found that a simple change of pillow covers is an easy way to embrace trends, add color, and give rooms a fresh look.

I noticed some time ago that many placemats were roughly the same size as a lumbar style pillow.  I realized that by opening up one seam on a lined placemat, a pillow form could be inserted and the seam re-stitched, resulting in a lovely custom-made pillow.

I found this placemat on clearance at Target for a mere $3.88.  I loved the subtle herringbone pattern and the elaborate crewelwork embroidery.  The colors just happened to fit perfectly with my current living room color scheme. Importantly, it was lined with a backing that separated from the front which made it possible to open up a seam and insert a pillow form. Naturally I snatched it up!

After considerable research, I’ve found that Crate and Barrel has the best variety of pillow forms at terrific prices. I got my 12″ X 18″ feather/down pillow insert for only $9.99.  They have the same size down-alternative pillow for just $9.00.

Here’s what you’ll need for this project:

  • Lined placemat
  • Pillow form
  • Seam ripper
  • Pins
  • Sewing needle
  • Thread
  • Scissors

First measure your placemat.  Mine measured 14″ X 20″ so I decided to find a form that was slightly smaller than those dimensions because I prefer a soft mold-able pillow.  If you prefer a firmer pillow, just use a larger pillow insert.  I ended up purchasing a 12″ X 18″ form which allows for easy sewing as well as possible shrinkage of fabric when the placemat is eventually washed.

Using a seam ripper, remove any top stitching first.

In most cases, the placemat will have a row of top stitching around the entire edge of the pillow.  You’ll first need to remove that in order to get to the seam inside.  Once you have removed the top stitching, firmly pull the fabric apart at the seam and use your seam ripper to find a stitch that you can cut.  Once you have the first stitch or two opened, it becomes easy to cut the other stitches and open up the seam.

After you have removed the top stitching, pull the fabric apart at the seam and begin opening up the inner seam.

After you have opened the seam enough to fit the pillow inside, insert your pillow.  Line up the front and back sides of the placemat opening and secure the edges together with pins.  Then use a blind stitch to hand sew the two sides back together. This will hold the opening together securely and the stitches will be “invisible” from the outside of the pillow.   (If you’re not sure how to do a blind stitch, here is a great tutorial.

You can also sew the opening together by top stitching on a sewing machine, but if you do, you’ll need to be able to sew a straight line very close to the edge, which can be a little tricky.  This is why I prefer hand stitching. If you do choose to top stitch on a sewing machine, I’d encourage you not to overstuff the placemat as it will be difficult to keep the edges together as you machine sew.

This is an extremely simple project that even novice sewers can do.  Keep an eye out for inexpensive placemats that you can convert into pillows throughout the year.  It is easy to undo the seam and pop the pillow form into another placemat, which allows you to change up your decor as the seasons change.






Ladies’ Spring Brunch

To kick off spring, I thought it would be fun to gather some of my girlfriends together for a spring brunch. Given our dependably beautiful weather here in southern California, it seemed appropriate to move the celebration out of the house and into the backyard.

The first thing I did was develop a color palette. Inspired by a set of vintage chartreuse placemats from my collection, I decided to use this color as my foundation. For contrast, I used bright fuschia cloth napkins and sprinkled in other happy spring colors. For example, I couldn’t resist a pair of whimsical carrot candles in bright orange!

A bowl of cucumber lime tequila punch got the party started.

I set up an appetizer table topped with baskets of petunias, roses and primroses. To add more texture, I added some fun white paper flowers. My punch bowl was filled with a refreshing cucumber lime tequila cocktail that carried the green color theme to the appetizer table. (Of course, I made a non-alcoholic version for my friends who abstain.)

To get the party started,  I offered colorful Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut ginger dipping sauce, goat cheese and walnut encrusted grape truffles, and individual granola fruit yogurt parfaits.

Guests were invited to take their egg placecard holders home with them.

About two weeks ahead of the party, I made placecard holders by using real egg shells as tiny planters. The egg carton was cut into individual holders and each egg was planted with assorted lettuce and herb seeds.  I printed each person’s name on card stock and made little “flags” by gluing them to a toothpick which was inserted in each plant. A menu was placed on each plate and the egg placecard holder was set on top.

Generous doses of white were added to keep the table from getting too busy. I used a white damask tablecloth as a base and placed the chartreuse placemats on top. The table was set with white plates and the fuschia colored napkins were folded into a cute bunny shape. I spray painted an old urn with more white and fashioned a few fallen branches into an “egg tree” for my centerpiece. A nest of pink Easter grass and more eggs were added to the base of the urn, along with a wicker rabbit sporting a pink and green plaid bow. I wanted the brunch to be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach! I found a beautiful floral watercolor printable download that I used to create menus for each place setting. The dishes on the menu were inspired by the colors and bounty of spring. 

The Peruvian Eggs Benedict is a creation I came up with years ago based on my love of the Peruvian yellow pepper called aji amarillo.  It is a take on the Peruvian appetizer Papas a la Huancaina.  I’ll share the recipe on a separate blog at another time but here’s a picture to give you an idea of what it looks like.

Peruvian Eggs Benedict has a slice of crispy prosciutto, an over easy egg, and a slice of avocado on toast topped with Huancaina sauce and an olive.

The grand finale was a Robin’s Egg Coconut Cake decorated to look like a speckled robin’s egg, complete with a phyllo dough “nest” and malted eggs. It wasn’t difficult to make and I thought it would be a memorable way to end the event. Here’s the recipe.

I changed up the recipe slightly by substituting half of the shortening with coconut oil and adding a teaspoon coconut extract to the icing. I also brushed each layer with simple syrup to add moisture.

Each guest took home a small parting gift as a reminder of our time together.  I love EOS lip balm and recently discovered that there are interesting ways to use them as party favors. I printed out this free download onto card stock and cut out a circle into which I inserted the EOS lip balm. To make it a bit more festive, I put some paper shreds in the bottom of a clear cellophane bag, placed the card with lip balm inside, and tied it up with a raffia ribbon. A basket filled with the favors was passed around at the end of the brunch and each guest could take their pick of assorted flavors.  Here’s the link for the printable with instructions.

It was so much fun to put this brunch together for this special group of ladies.  I knew I had invited a sophisticated group who would appreciate all the details and special touches. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Not only did we have delightful weather, but our neighbor’s tree just happened to be in full bloom providing a beautiful backdrop!
My thanks to everyone who helped out with serving and the refilling of coffee cups.


Flower Herb Butter

Here’s an extremely easy and beautiful way to elevate the butter dish at your next dinner.

You’ll need:

  • One stick of good quality butter
  • Assorted chopped herbs and edible flowers (In case you’re wondering what flowers are edible, here’s a list:
  • Coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper, red pepper flakes
  • Flat serving platter
When the butter itself is the main event, it is important to use a good quality butter. I prefer a grass fed butter which has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is more nutrient dense than butter from grain fed cows.

Let the butter come to room temperature.  Spread the butter in a thin even layer over your serving platter.  Sprinkle the flowers and herbs on top.  You’re done!

I used rose, pansy, and primrose petals, mint, red pepper flakes, coarse salt, and freshly ground black pepper, but you can use any combination of flowers and herbs that you like. Most flowers have a very mild flavor, if any, so don’t worry about them overwhelming the flavor of the butter.  A sprinkling of lemon, lime or orange zest would also be a great addition.

I found this wooden serving platter with a slate insert. I thought the dark slate added a nice color contrast to the butter.
Wouldn’t this make a colorful statement at your Easter dinner?