And so it begins


On a vacation trip with the Hubbz¬†3-4 years ago, we found out about this little eatery in Bocas¬†del Toro, Panama, it is called Guari¬†Guari. We had a phenomenal 5 or 6 course¬†meal prepared by a husband and wife team and served al fresco, in an area that was not much more than their private patio. The ‘restaurant’ seats¬†10¬†people ¬†each night and, as long as you don’t have special dietary requirements, you’re dazzled by the chef’s whim and exquisite palate.


I’ve longed dreamed of having a little place, maybe a B&B with a restaurant offering¬†limited seating and serving¬†dinners for our guests and maybe have a table or two open for locals. I have to admit that Guari¬†Guari¬†certainly stayed in the back of my mind until recently, when I began my Secreto¬†dinner series. You can come here to get a peek at what I’ve been doing over the past few months, together with a few shots–taken when I remembered to leave the kitchen and grab the dang camera! I will also offer recipes for some of the dishes I’m preparing, I mean, this is a food blog, after all!

My very first menu and the beginning of the Hubbz and my homegrown adventure.

Welcome Cocktail and Appetizer:  Cava cocktail and Pasteis de Pollo (Pastry empanadas filled with chicken  / Wine pairing: Spanish sparkling wine cocktail)

1st Course:¬†¬† Sancocho¬†Paname√Īo (A traditional Panamanian chicken soup with root vegetables and rice / Wine pairing: Kung Fu Girl Riesling)

2nd Course:   Filet of Grouper al Ajillo with Saffron-A-Roni and Chayote Gratin / Wine pairing: Felino Malbec

3rd Course:  Leg of Lamb in Star Anise Mole with a Potato and Leek Hash / Wine pairing: Chateux-Croix Mouton Bordeaux

Dessert:    Passion Fruit Napoleon (Phyllo sheets topped with a passion fruit curd and pistachio brittle) / Wine pairing: Urban Uco Torrontes

Secreto 1 collage


For the Passion Fruit Napoleon, which was a major hit, I baked phyllo sheets brushed with butter and with a sprinkle of sugar until golden and assembled them with passion fruit curd and topped it with candied pistachios and strawberries. Simply delicious!

Cookingly yours,



Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: An 8+8+8 interpretation

As a Foodbuzz  featured publisher, I was given the opportunity to prepare and document a meal. The concept was to have friends over to enjoy dishes from the various US regions and pair them with US wines.

24 = 8 Foodies + 8 US regions + 8 Pairings

Food and wine pairing has always been fascinating, and daunting¬†to me. I’m not sure how someone develops their senses to the extent necessary to accurately pair a dish with¬† wine that enhances it. That was my goal. Hang out with food and wine loving friends, and experience how wine and food play off each other.

First, divide the US into regions:

  1. New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware
  2. Mid-West: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Oklahoma
  3. West: Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana
  4. Deep South: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Maryland
  5. Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico and Texas
  6. Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington and Alaska
  7. California
  8. The Islands: Puerto Rico and Hawaii

After research, the menu went a little something like this.  

Next, to figure out the wines for these meals. The tricky part, but quite rewarding. The internet is your friend. And mine. I took full advantage of this technological advance. There are 2 sites I found especially helpful. The first one helped get in the right wine range. That is, I typed the general type of food and it gave me suggestions for the best wine pair. Wine Review Online  provided choices for specific dishes/recipes as well as by ingredient. The members of the site then offer up reviews of some of their favorites bottles.

Once I knew what type of wine or grape varietal I should be aiming for, I was ready for specific bottles. I wanted all the wine selections to be under the $24 price point, preferably under $20. Good Wine Under $20 was just the right spot for me. I am SO glad I found this site. It is comprehensive and easy to follow and the blog owner provides you with clear reviews about the various wines. Just what I needed.


Menu in hand and with my pairing recommendations, this is how the evening played out. Our guests¬†began arriving around 6:30. I printed out the menus and in the back of the card I provided¬†space for each guests’ comments–their thoughts¬†on the dish and how the wine enhanced it, would they ever like to try it again, etc.

This¬†was a pretty informal bunch, as they arrived¬†we discussed whether to eat the dishes in the ‘proper order’ (salads, seafood, dark meats) or if they just wanted to enjoy the dishes randomly. We agreed on¬†a random approach, none of us seemed terribly concerned with following the¬†white then¬†reds rule. Additionally, most of us have a preference for red wines. In any case, off to the first course we went.


First up, She Crab Soup: a specialty from the South Carolina low country and the signature dish of Charleston. This soup starts off with a crab stock, cooked onions, celery and rice to arrive at the final product. The addition of sherry and mace gave this soup a deep flavor that proved to be highly satisfying with our guests.

Pairing:¬†Grant & Amy chose a bottle of¬†2008¬†Laird Sauvignon Blanc.¬†On their comment card they mentioned the soup was great and light with a great nutty taste which paired perfectly with the oaky finish of the wine. Complimenting its smooth body and melon undertones’.


We then moved on to California cuisine with a¬† Fig and Grape Salad with Pancetta Crostini. This was a salad by Alice Waters, one of the chefs who’s had¬†great impact on California’s cuisine. The salad combines arugula, figs, grapes and a balsamic vinegar reduction together with crostinis– bread sticks¬†of focaccia–wrapped in pancetta. The suggestion from my local wine specialist was for a Riesling.

Pairing: I selected a Riesling by Loredona in Monterey County. I found that this wine really balanced the peppery arugula with the sweetness of the figs and balsamic reduction. White wines aren’t my first preference, but this Riesling was not too sweet, while still being refreshing and slightly tart.


For the New England area, we served a Salt Cod & Clam Stew. The base included cannellini beans, leeks, salt cod and clams. One of the suggestions was to pair it with a Pinot Grigio. Jay and Angie brought us a bottle of DaVinci Pinot Grigio. Apple and citrus flavors helped to tone down the saltiness inherent to the cod.


For the Midwest¬†we took a stab at White Castle burgers and saluted the corn growers in the area. This course was an open-face White Castle inspired burger–served on a corn fritter and topped with caramelized onions. The wine recommended was a Petite Shiraz.


Pairing:¬†GWU20 suggested a bottle of 2008 The Crusher Petite Shiraz¬†and OMG! This is a beautiful wine! We were first struck by the color; the deepest purple I’ve ever seen in a wine. This is immediately followed by the herby and fruity¬†aromas emanating from the glass. Someone commented on how the wine complimented the sweetness of the onions and peppery notes in the burger. This is a bottle that will always be on our shelf.

For the Southwest we had Lamb Chops with Pepper Chutney and Calabacitas. Mildly gamey, tender meat that comes alive with a sweet and spicy chutney that brought your mouth to life. The wine suggested was Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pairing: We selected a bottle of Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon. This is definitely a budget bottle, but it tamed the heat of the chutney while bring out the sweetness and peppery notes of the dish. For a bottle under $10, it was a nice compliment.


The islands: Hawaii & Puerto Rico. Kalua Pig and Plantains-I¬†made a last minute¬†change and included both, green and ripe plantains. This was the sleeper dish. Nothing about it was supposed to be exceptional, and yet, it was. The pork is rudimentary seasoned with Hawaiian salts and slow cooked wrapped in banana leaves. There’s no smoke and mirrors here, it was straight forward meat preparation. Meat+salt+garlic+wrapping (leaves)+ slow cooking.

Pairing: Hook & Ladder The Tillerman. This is a nice Cabernet blend with a  rich medium body. Not too boisterous to overpower the simplicity of the pork, but not shy enough to be ignored.

The Pacific Northwest was well represented by salmon. A pan seared Salmon Beer Blanc over Melted Leeks turned out to be a beautifuly simple dish. The salmon drippings were deglazed with a bit of shallots and red ale. And the leeks were cooked down in olive oil leaving a creamy oniony puree. The wine recommendation was a Pinot Noir.

Pairing: Toad Hollow Erik’s The Red.¬†An awesome blend of about 18 varietals makes it an awesome house red. It was smooth and herby, which contrasted wonderfully with the leeks and oiliness of the salmon.

The Western United States brought us up close and personal with meat and potatoes. The last minute substitution of filets instead of roast and potato gallette instead of chips was quite well received. The wine recommendation was Zinfandel.

Pairing: The beef was marinated in vodka, salt and garlic, then seared wrapped in bacon. A side of potatoes and chives rounded up the plate. An Old Vine Zinfandel by Bogle proved to be the right wine, providing a nice spicy finish to the almost creamy, delicate texture of the filets.


Then there was dessert. Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard with Pinion Brittle. Creamy, cold, coupled with a¬†nutty and slightly bitter brittle. This was served with Trentadue¬†Chocolate Amore. It’s a merlot based, chocolate flavored dessert wine. I heard no complaints.

Lessons Learned

  1. An evening with 8 meal courses is VERY ambitious. I don’t think they’ve invented stretchy enough pants yet. However, when you hang out with friends who love eating and drinking as much as you do, anything is possible.
  2. Wine and food are like an old married couple: they don’t always like each other, but they just make each other better. All that’s required is a willigness to discover each other’s secrets.
  3. Food & Wine Pairing doesn’t have to be rocket science. Google is your ally and so is the quirky person that answers your wine questions at the store. If you don’t know, just ask.
  4. It’s always about what works for you. Don’t bog yourself down with rules. Taste foods and then have some wine, you may find that it brings out something unexpected.
  5. Wisdom comes from experience. Play with your food and wine, experience and experiment, then document for future generations.

Thanks again to Foodbuzz for the opportunity to throw down with wine and food and to share this with friends and all of you. The various recipes will be posted throughout this week, you really don’t want to miss them. There were a lot of very surprising treats.

Cookingly yours,

Chef School – Lesson 7

Throwing a Dinner or Cocktail Party

I have a big dinner coming up this weekend. I am 1 of 24 featured publishers selected by Foodbuzz to give readers an inside look at a dinner. My concept is to highlight foods by region–US regions and couple those with US wines. Sounded like a swell idea, I’ve always been interested in determining how to pair foods and wine. There’s been a great deal of research involved, now that it’s done, I will share with you how I go about organizing similar events.

Here are the prep steps, as I see them:

  1. Select theme
  2. Set the  menu
  3. Guest list & Invitations
  4. Date & Time 
  5. Venue & Decor
  6. Shopping lists
  7. Prep work
  8. D-Day set up
  9. Putting it all together
  10. Enjoy your labour of love

First things first – Themes and Menus

The¬†first 3¬†¬†steps are interchangeable, but they should be the first things you take into consideration when planning your soiree. Depending on the type of event, say something informal like¬†a cocktail or Superbowl party, you can decide on menu items at any time because, most likely, you’ll have nibbles that will conform to most guests needs. If, on the other hand, you’re planning a more intimate dinner, then you need to make sure all guests will be comfortable with the planned menu.

The last is the scenario I’m faced with this time. I have a clear concept in mind, sorta, so my guest list was limited to friends who enjoyed food–old and new,¬† basic and exotic–as well as wine. I had to be deliberate about those I¬†invited, particularly since it was limited to 6 guests. When you know who will attend and you know their eating preferences, you’ll have an easy enough time determining the menu.

Guest List & Invitations

Who do you want to spend time with? What is the reason for your dinner party? Are you celebrating something or someone? These are some the questions to consider when you’re in the planning stages. Also keep in mind the size of your venue, make sure your guests will be comfortable.

Invitations:¬†this is entirely up to you and, to some extent, how formal the event is. I wouldn’t send evites¬†for a wedding reception or a 25th wedding anniversary. But evites are my favorite modus operandi. They’re easy, it allows me to know without a doubt who has received it, makes your guests’ lives simpler by simply hitting a quick reply button and there are so many designs available and it is environmentally friendly.

If you will be mailing paper invitations, choose a design that mimics your decor concept. Make sure you have the full names and correct addresses of your guests. Include an RSVP by date and mode (call you, send a card back, smoke signals). If you’re including an RSVP card, make sure you provide them with the stamp and have the cards addressed to you.

Time & Date

The date for this event was predetermined for me: February 27th. Since this will be an elaborate 8-course meal (yeah, I have NO clue what I was thinking about), I set the start time to 6:30pm. I’m assuming each course will take about 30 minutes from presentation to discussion. Keep your fingers crossed for me, will ya?

When you’re determining the time for your event, you will consider what meal will be served, how much preparation needs to happen while the guests are already there and then give them enough time to not only eat, but enjoy the course served, compliment the hostess, beg for the recipe, blah, blah.

Venue & Decor

Where will this shindig take place? At your home or a friend’s? A restaurant? Park? Again, the theme and guests will determine¬†the where. For me, I was thorn. I knew it had to be near a kitchen and that I wanted it to be homey and cozy. I had thoughts about having it at a friend’s home, she has more room than I do. The reality is that I will be preparing quite¬†a bit of the courses on the spot and most of the side dishes will be made the day of. Transporting pots, dishes, pans through Houston seemed Nightmare on Elm Streetesque. So, home it is. Our home. Where I know all my nooks and crannies. Where I know where all the pots and spoons are. How hot the oven cooks. You know, home.

As for decor, flowers are always a must. Flowers and candles make any room look and feel especially special and that’s how I want my guests to feel. I have a couple of standard vases I love and I pick up a few blooms from my local grocer. I’m not a terribly inspired floral arranger, but floors look good without the wanting for much. One arrangement on the coffee table–a medium sized¬†one. A couple of loose blooms in the bathrooms. Some tealights¬†strewn about the room and votives¬†on the table. Keep your flowers in the same color palette and you’ll have settings to die for.

Shopping Lists

I like ’em. I don’t always pay attention to them, but when it’s time for a dinner party, I’m militant about it. That’s because of my super short attention span. If I don’t pull out my list as soon as I walk into the market and proceed to check things off as I find them, I will, inevitably, leave a few things behind.

So, once I have tweaked the menu, I write down the ingredients for the various recipes. I check my pantry for items I may already have and then i make my way through the aisles of stuff.

I also make a list of any serving dishes, silver, dinner, barware¬†that may be needed for the event. That way I¬† make sure I find what’s missing, whether I borrow, steal or buy it. Well, not steal. I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. Designate what entr√©e will be served in which dish/plate, and make a note of it. If you figure this out ahead of time D-Day will be a breeze.

Prep Work

The best part about a dinner party is getting to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. That is why I  do my very best to do as much of the heavy lifting ahead of time. Make sure you have sides that will reheat well, even entrees. Desserts too.

This is also a good time to get all your dishes cleaned and ready. Load up the dishwasher for a quick rinse and set everything to the side. If you’re using fresh flowers, get them ready the day before. That will give the arrangements time to chill out and get comfy and gorgeous.

D-Day – The Set Up

If your event is at home, do any last minute¬†cleaning and freshing up your home¬† may need. Make sure the ambient temperature is cooler than normal–you will be running the oven or stove and you’ll have more people in your home than you usually do.

Start cooling your¬†wine or beer¬†bottles at least 3 hours earlier. Decide if you’d like to play some music and have the playlist ready to go. Set the table, put¬†out the flowers and candles. Get the ambience going.

Also, take a moment to determine¬†the sequence in which you need to reheat, toss or prepare any of the dishes you’re serving. Hopefully you’ve prepared some items ahead of time, make yourself a note of what needs to hit the oven or boiling water when.

Putting it all together

Say you’re serving a green salad, angel hair pasta with meat sauce, bread sticks¬†and warm apple pie. You would make the meat sauce the day before (it will taste WAY better too) and chill it. Make your crust the day before as well. Then the day of, you begin to heat your meat sauce about 20 minutes before guests get there. At the same time you fill a pot with water and put it on the stove over medium low heat to get the water warmed up.¬†The oven goes on after your first guest arrives to bake/reheat the bread sticks. After everyone has said hello, toss your salad greens, throw the bread in the oven and bring up the temperature of the water. Enjoy half your salad, go in the kitchen and throw in the pasta and come back to the table finish that yummy salad.

See? It’s all about being ready and timing the sequence of events. While everyone is eating, you can bake that pie.

Enjoy your labour of love

Pour yourself a tall one, mingle and giggle and enjoy your friends. Stop by on Sunday when my official 24, 24, 24 post will be up.

Cookingly (and entertaingly) yours,