Style Snacks ... Wine Tasting

Do you ever have trouble picking out the perfect wine to accompany your meal? With more and more people becoming budget-conscience, BYOB restaurants have gained in popularity. But without the sommelier to steer you in the right direction, how do you choose the vino perfetto?

Lately I've been wanting to host an at-home wine tasting; it's a pressure-free way to taste a lot of different wines, and it doubles as a reason to get together with friends, which I will never pass up. A wine tasting is a unique event: not quite a dinner party - not yet a cocktail hour, so ... how do you plan one? I've got you covered.

Your first step to putting on a successful wine tasting is to decide what type of tasting you want to have. Since everyone loves hors d'oeuvres and no one wants an apartment full of too-tipsy guests, I recommend offering snacks. Serving foods that can be prepared ahead of time will allow you to spend the maximum amount of time with your guests, and stay stress-free so you can enjoy the tasting along with your friends. I'll be serving something like this:

Photo: Stephen Hamilton, Courtesy of Schumann & Co.

Since there are so many different choices when it comes to wine, it's best to stick to one category when hosting a tasting, such as Spanish Reds, Sweet Whites, or Dessert Wines. It's perfectly acceptable to ask each guest to bring a favorite bottle to the tasting, just make sure to specify which type on the invitation. Here are some of my personal, budget-friendly favorites:

The SHOW Cabernet Sauvignon
Relax Riesling
Mark West Pinot Noir
Always the hostess, some inspiration for your decor:

If you want to know more about how to host an amazing wine-tasting event, click here, where you can read further about how many guests to invite, what to offer during the tasting, and even download a wine tasting grid to pass out to all of your guests.

5 Ways ... Gourmet Grilling

Eating gourmet food may be one of the most over-looked indulgences of our time - you have art and entertainment intertwined with decadence and flavor. What more can anyone ask for from a meal? Eating gourmet is great ... just not when you can't tell what you're eating. Some dishes can seem so over-the-top fancy that it's hard to concentrate on the flavor.

Well, luckily, for those of us who like to know what we're eating, there has been a resurgence of back-to-basics chefs cooking up one of America's most simple, yet scrumptious dishes: the burger! While the basic burger can be dull and lifeless, there are plenty of ways to add gourmet flavor and visual interest.

Recommended by Stephen, check out Gemini Bistro at 2075 N. Lincoln Ave. - order the Gemini Burger topped with a fried egg. Read about Stephen's experience at Gemini Bistro on The Restaurant Project.

Photo: Stephen Hamilton

For the daring home chef, here are 5 gourmet burgers that you could make at home:

1. Moroccan Spiced Lamb Burgers with Beet, Red Onion, and Orange Salsa:

Photo: Brian Leatart

2. Porcini-Gorgonzola Burgers with Veal Demi-Glace:

Photo: Brian Leatart

3. Bulgar Veggie Burgers with Lime Mayonnaise:

Photo: Romulo Yanes

4. Buffalo Burger with Pickled Onions and Smoky Red Pepper Sauce:

Photo: Romulo Yanes

5. Okay, so this one's not a burger ... but who can eat a burger without french fries? Two options...
French Fries with Three Dips:

Photo: Paul Brissman

In the Kitchen with Stephen

Stephen was featured on Blog Talk Radio today; he was interviewed by Jon Wool, President/Owner of boutique catering company, Finesse Cuisine. Some of the highlights of the interview include Stephen's take on:

Breaking into Food Photography
His Experience as a Judge on Top Chef Masters
Successful Food Photography
The Most Important Ingredient of a Shoot
The Benefits of a Daylight Studio
The Fruition of The Restaurant Project
The New Trend in Restaurant Dining

The interview airs Thursday, January 14th - listen to Stephen's portion of the interview, or catch the full interview, also featuring radio personality Stuart Rosenberg, here.

Style Snacks ... Garden Party

The past few days in Chicago have been a slightly warmer, but much sunnier version of the February we're accustomed to. Nothing gets me thinking spring more than a long sunny day, and when I think spring I think outdoor dining. I've been doing some daydreaming about what my first spring dinner party will look like - and I've found some style inspiration to get you cookin':

I'll be serving cool, refreshing cucumber water, and this:

Photo: Stephen Hamilton

5 Ways ... to Dress Your Dinner

So, as it turns out, home-cooked meals don't always look as beautiful as the picture that made your mouth water in Gourmet Magazine. As a firm believer of the idea that you first eat with your eyes, the way your food looks can be just as important as the way your food tastes. There are tons of simple tricks that can add the perfect finishing touch to your dinner, and make your friends think you got help from a pro. Here are a few of ours:

1. Add a Pop of Color:

Make your dishes look lavish by adding a pop of color. The main thing to remember with this one is that if you're going to add the splash of color into your food, rather than around it or atop, that the flavors need to be complimentary.
Our suggestions: citrus wedges, juicy cranberries, pickled veggies, & wasabi peas

Photo: Stephen Hamilton

2. The Art of Sauce:

Adding a sauce to a meal is a really great way to add flavor and color, but can sometimes take away from the look of your dish if it's applied too sloppily. One of the best ways to avoid a messy presentation is to place the sauce directly on the plate, rather than over the food. This technique adds an artistic quality to your food and at the same time avoids a potentially over sauced dish by allowing each diner to apply the sauce to their liking.

Photo: Romulo Yanes

3. Fruit Twists:

Although fruit twists are in no way an innovative food garnish, most people don't take the time to make them at home. This can work in your advantage by making guests feel pampered by something normally only provided at restaurants. Easy, beautiful, and inexpensive, adding a twist of lemon, lime, or orange to cocktails is a great way to add visual interest.

Photo: Christopher Griffen

4. Creative Ice Cubes:

Another fun way to add color and flavor to beverages is freezing fruit into your ice cubes. It looks super fancy considering how simple it is, and it serves a purpose: keeping your drink cold. Be sure to use something that would be complimentary to the beverage you're serving!
Our suggestions: blueberries, halved grapes, or pomegranate seeds

Photo: Jerry Errico

5. Chocolate Shavings:

We all know the most decadent part of any meal is the dessert course, and it should look the part. An easy and tasty way to add visual interest to desserts is by adding chocolate shavings. You can vary the texture and color by using different types of chocolate. This technique sounds tricky, but you can find an easy how-to here.

Photo: Kenji Toma

Photographer Crushes: Saverio Truglia

There is nothing more enjoyable than discovering something new; in this case the "something new" is artist Saverio Truglia. While his work is new to me, Truglia has been churning out inspired advertising and editorial photography for his eponymous company for 13 years and counting.

Known for creating scenes that are a "study of contradictions", Truglia's work provides shock value at its grandest. Often shooting images that demand a double take, Truglia's imagery is both issue conscious and laugh out loud hysterical. His work can be seen everywhere from covers of the Chicago Reader to Rolling Stone.

Some of my favorite Saverio Truglia images:

All images courtesy of

Photographer Crushes: Steven Meisel

Having a fashion background, it's only natural that my love of photography began with the work of legendary photographer Steven Meisel. Most notably known for shooting every cover of Vogue Italia since 1988, Meisel has also shot influential campaigns for Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton. Some of his more memorable works include his steamy and controversial work for Calvin Klein Jeans S/S 09, and his collaboration with long time friend Madonna for her coffee table book, Sex.

The reason I most love Meisel's work is for his ability to overly sexualize any situation, and to do so in ways that are innovative, captivating, and at times, trashy/slummy, which I think is great. I dare say he is solely responsible for desensitizing a few generations of Vogue readers. Meisel's work often has cultural and historical references; his ability to tell a story through a photograph is undeniable, and is in my opinion the reason he has been able to stay so relevant throughout his career.

Some of my favorites, and a sampling of the genius that is Steven Meisel:

State of Emergency, Vogue Italia September 2006; Photographer: Steven Meisel
State of Emergency, Vogue Italia September 2006; Photographer: Steven Meisel
Lanvin S/S 2009; Photography by Steven Meisel
Lanvin S/S 2009; Photography by Steven Meisel
Supermodels Enter Rehab, Vogue Italia July 2007; Photographer: Steven Meisel
Supermodels Enter Rehab, Vogue Italia July 2007; Photographer: Steven Meisel
Dsquared S/S 08; Photographer: Steven Meisel
Dsquared S/S 08; Photographer: Steven Meisel