Friday, December 28, 2012

A Grammar Checklist

As 2012 draws to a close, you're bound to read all sorts of top-ten lists. I will leave you with Grammarly's Top Ten Grammar Peeves. There are no celebrities on this list, but it's still good, so be sure to give it a read. Feel free to add your own grammar peeves in the comments section.

Happy New Year, everyone!

UPDATE: Sorry, the original article is no longer available.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wine’tastic Mile Is Baltimore’s Latest Attraction

The Wine'tastic Mile sign was unveiled 12/12/12.

Many cities are known for a street that has become a tourist attraction: Broadway in New York, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Champs-Elysées in Paris. When Derrick Vaughn thought about all the fine restaurants along Baltimore’s Pratt Street, the road that runs along the Inner Harbor, he decided to take on the project of marketing the area as a wining and dining destination, giving both visitors and locals another reason to visit the downtown area of Charm City.

In June of this year, Vaughn launched the Wine’tastic Mile to promote the 1.3-mile stretch of Pratt Street from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Harbor East with a wine walk and the approval of the City of Baltimore. The organization’s activities include setting up events, such as wine tastings and food and wine pairings at participating sites for individuals and groups.

Vaughn, who has extensive experience in fine food and wine, has a vested interest in making the Wine’tastic Mile a hit. He owns and operates the charming and popular Corner Bistro and Wine Bar in Ridgely’s Delight, where the Wine’tastic Mile begins. 

Based on his success with the restaurant, things are looking good for Downtown Baltimore diners and wine lovers. I’m looking forward to swirling down Pratt Street.

Friday, December 14, 2012

There’s More to Coffee than Meets the Eye … and the Taste Buds

The Jimmy Kimmel Show recently ran a taste test to compare Starbucks’ new product that costs $7 per cup to a standard brew. There was no general consensus as to which was the higher quality cup, although most testers chose one or the other as the finer selection. One blue collar type admitted that he couldn’t tell the difference. The guy was actually right. Both samples were the same bean, and it wasn’t the fancy Starbucks variety.

Sampling the new coffee flavors. 
So why are we paying so much for coffee if there seems to be no difference? Is it the branding, or is there really a difference in coffee beans? To find out, I headed over to the Sidewalk Espresso Bar, the new coffee shop in my neighborhood, for a coffee cupping. That’s the term the pros use when referring to a formal way of evaluating coffee without a filter.  

Ronnie, an expert at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Md., which supplies Sidewalk, educated us on the finer points of coffee. He explained that there are differences in coffee beans depending on where they are grown. Farm altitude, harvest time and weather conditions are some of the factors that influence the taste. Ronnie noted that all specialty coffees are picked by hand.

As a specialty roaster, Ceremony wants customers to have the finest possible experience with every cup, just as a connoisseur feels about his wine. The buyers acquire an eight-month supply of the best beans available because they lose their superior flavor if used after that point. The experts at Ceremony roast a small supply of each bean three ways, choosing the best profile to process the rest for sale.

The cupping process
Just like wine tasting, there is a method for tasting coffee. The entire process should take no longer than 15 minutes. Following are the highlights:

Step 1: Place the ground coffee in the cup, sniff it and evaluate the aroma. Is it roasty, fruity, floral, etc.?
Step 2: Pour the hot water into the cup. It should be about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When the coffee has settled, put your head close to the cup, use a spoon to break the crust that has formed on top and push the spoon away, inhaling the aroma of the coffee.
Step 3: Scoop the remaining grounds from the top of the cup.
Step 4: Taste the coffee by taking a spoonful at a time from the top of the cup and slurp away so that the coffee covers your tongue.     

Tips for killer coffee
If you’re not a coffee connoisseur, and you just want your morning java jolt, Ronnie offers these tips to help make it tastier:
  • Use a clean cup.
  • Drink coffee when it’s freshly brewed, before the aromatics escape into the room.
  • While water should be 200 degrees for pouring, wait a few minutes for it to cool off. If it’s too hot, you won’t be able to taste the full flavor. Scalding your tongue isn’t fun either.
  • Use filtered water, not tap or distilled. Since 99.6 percent of the drink is water, using the proper type makes a huge difference.
  • The type of filter you use affects the taste of the coffee. Paper filters provide more flavor and less body. A French press offers more body and less flavor.

I don’t know too many people who would be willing to pay $7 for a cup of coffee, but after the cupping, one taster said he’ll never buy generic again. I’ll drink to that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sweet Holiday Treat: The Union Square Cookie Tour

Like every large city, my town of Baltimore has its holiday traditions: the lighting of the Washington Monument, the Mayor’s Parade, the Santa House and the nationally acclaimed Miracle on 34th Street. This Sunday, December 9, the community of Union Square will hold its 27th annual Holiday Cookie Tour at which guests will tour about 20 homes throughout the neighborhood, receiving a homemade cookie at each house.

Scene from the Cookie Tour
Walking through this southwest Baltimore neighborhood, which is on the National Registration of Historic Places and was once home to H.L. Mencken, is a special experience on any day. The Victorian streetscape is comprised of huge houses in Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate architecture. During the tour, visitors have the opportunity to enjoy the true creativity of homeowners, which is exemplified inside the houses. With styles ranging from traditional Victorian to ultra modern, all of them look like they are straight out of a magazine. That makes each house a must-see, even for those who aren’t in it for the cookies.

If the stunning architecture isn’t enough, meeting the friendly folks of Union Square is a treat in itself. All the hosts are happy to welcome guests and answer questions about the history of their houses, the renovations and the neighborhood in general.   

The Cookie Tour is a major event in Union Square. Participating homeowners spend months making repairs and updates to their homes, and they bake enough cookies to serve each of their 500 guests. All of the proceeds from the tour go to the community association, which plans neighborhood beautification projects, including the recently restored fountain and community Christmas tree in the park.   

A lot of work goes into making the Cookie Tour a successful event that both the neighborhood and visitors are happy to continue, from recruiting volunteers to open their homes to printing the guidebooks to promoting the event to setting up the ticket office. Surprisingly, Chairperson Fran Rahl says that he and his committee of only about a half dozen handled it all after only one meeting.

Tickets for the Union Square are $20 per person and are available for cash or check at 1401 Hollins Street, beginning at 11:30 on the day of the tour. They are also available online at a discounted rate until Saturday. If you buy online, bring your receipt to 1401 Hollins to pick up your guidebook, which includes a map of the houses on the tour and serves as your ticket.

This event is a win-win situation. Not only do you get to spend the afternoon getting into the Christmas spirit, but you can get a pile of delicious homemade cookies without setting foot in the kitchen. Count me in.