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Eat Wright (November 11, 2003)


Two of the 20th century's most interesting and talented people were Mary and Russel Wright, prominent and successful designers who in the 1950s pioneered the fusion of modern design and informal living. They did everything from furniture, flatware and glasses to rugs, lamps and even jukeboxes – all aimed at an easier and more informal way of living. Best known for their tabletop designs, the Wrights' American Modern was the best selling dinnerware in American history and is still popular and very collectible today.

And guess who first suggested the Great Room?

Fine, but why, you are asking, are the Wrights being featured in our Gourmet column?

Russel Wright was widowed and suddenly a single father in 1952. Faced with a parade of housekeepers who had little or no skill in organizing daily menus, Wright became tired of having meatloaf and spaghetti with meatballs for dinner several nights a week. Tapping into his love of all kinds of food and recipes gathered on travels or from friends, plus his almost obsessive organizational skills, Russel created a menu cookbook that anyone could use to create interesting, balanced and fuss-free meals.

Being Russel Wright, he included in the typewritten menus instructions about which china, linens and flatware to use for each menu and whether it was to be served in the Manhattan apartment or at Dragon Rock, their country home.

If you remember the '50s at all, you'll remember how very revolutionary this concept was for the times.

It's all been put together into a delightful, readable and very useful pair of books, Russel Wright's Menu Cookbook: A Guide to Easier Entertaining, by daughter Ann Wright, and the original Guide to Easier Living by Mary and Russel Wright.

Classics stay good, and both these books prove the point. Martha Stewart, in her foreword, comments that when she finally read the books in 2001 she realized that "the Wrights wrote and thought and taught very much as I do today. Just like them, I and everyone I work with am dedicated to bringing the best ideas, the best recipes, the best design and the best sensibilities and 'newness' to everyday living, without sacrificing history, traditions, beauty and family."

She goes on to say that the information is as timely today as it was when originally compiled more than 50 years ago. We agree, and simply cannot stop browsing through the two books for their originality and still-terrific ideas and plans.

Thank you Martha, and thank you Ann Wright for publishing these gems.

Go on, see who really started it all way back when.

On today's menu:

Download these recipes in printable form as an Adobe Acrobat PDF (85 KB)


From the Chinese New Year Menu
Chrysanthemum Duckling

We were so pleased to see Russel Wright's Menu Cookbook dedicated to Margaret Spader. Home Economist Spader was a magazine editor and food writer and one of the first to teach authentic Chinese cooking in delightfully informal classes in her NYC apartment kitchen. Ann Wright says, "Spader was my father's best friend in the kitchen and the inspiration behind our family's Menu Cookbook. Margaret taught us both how to cook and organize ourselves in the kitchen. Without her friendship and advice, this book would not exist."

We were lucky to know Margaret Spader as well, and still use her recipes today. You'll love this duck dish as we do.

Serves 8

  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 2 (5-pound) ducks, quartered
  • ¼ cup peanut oil
  • 1 large green pepper cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces (same size as pineapple chunks)
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
  • 2 tsp sherry
  • 2 tsp finely minced garlic
  • ¾ cup pineapple juice
  • ½ tsp mustard seed
  • Pepper to taste
  • 3 cups fresh pineapple, cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks (same size as green pepper chunks)
  • 40 snow peas
  • ½ cup finely chopped scallions
  • 1 large chrysanthemum flower
  1. Bring chicken broth to a boil and add the duck quarters.
  2. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes. Turn off the flame and leave the duck in the broth for 15 minutes. Remove the pieces and cool. Set the broth in a cool place so that the fat will come to the top.
  3. Remove the fat and bone from the duck (leave the skin on), keeping the meat in 2-inch pieces.
  4. Heat the oil in a skillet; brown the cut pieces on all sides. Put the pieces in a shallow pan and keep warm until serving time. They should be crisp on the outside when added to the sauce.
  5. Sauté the pieces of pepper very lightly. These should also be crisp and not soft. Set aside.
  6. Mix cornstarch, soy sauce, ginger, sherry and garlic together in a bowl. Set aside.
  7. Add pineapple juice, broth, sherry mixture and mustard seeds to the skillet; bring to a boil, adding soy sauce (instead of salt) and pepper to taste. If more thickening is needed, add 1 to 2 Tbsp more of cornstarch to the sauce.
  8. Just before serving, add the pineapple chunks, snow peas and green pepper; bring to a boil. Sprinkle in chopped scallions. Do not overcook.
  9. Place the chrysanthemum in a bowl adjacent to the duck; at the table or just before serving, break off petals and scatter over the duck.

Serve over warm jasmine rice.

Accompanying wine? Tony recommends...
A an off-dry Riesling (Spãtlese from the Rheingau), or an Alsace dry Muscat or a Viognier.


Margaret Spader's Chinese Spiced Walnuts

We first made these 30 years ago, and do a couple of batches every year. Perfect for holiday gift giving, they'll keep, tightly covered, for 1 to 2 months in the refrigerator. Warning... hide them well!

Makes 4½ cups

  • 6 cups water
  • 4 cups walnut halves
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp hot pepper flakes
  • 2 cups salad oil (approximately)
  • Kosher salt to taste
  1. Bring water to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, add the walnuts, and reheat to boiling; cook 1 to 2 minutes. Drain in a colander or large sieve, rinse under hot running water, and shake the colander to drain well.
  2. Turn the walnuts into a bowl, add the sugar and pepper flakes, and toss to coat the nuts.
  3. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or electric skillet, heat the oil to 350°F. (The oil should be about 1 inch deep.) Add about half the walnuts; stirring occasionally, fry until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the walnuts with a slotted spoon. Drain on a cloth towel (do not use a paper towel, as the hot nuts have a tendency to stick), or place the nuts in a sieve over a deep bowl so the oil will drain off.
  4. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Toss gently to keep the nuts from sticking toothier.
  5. Fry the remaining walnuts. Tightly covered, these nuts will keep for 1 to 2 month in the refrigerator.

Accompanying wine? Tony recommends...
10-year-old Tawny port or an Amontillado Sherry.


From the Comfort Food Dinner Menu
Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Hazelnuts

No matter what you think of this winter vegetable, it's taken to gourmet heights with the addition of hazelnuts. Perfect for the holiday bird or any deep winter meal... you'll even have seconds! Oh, OK, well, you'll love the first serving!

Serves 6

  • 1½ pounds brussels spouts, trimmed and cut into halves lengthwise
  • 5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • ¾ tsp chopped fresh thyme
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped, toasted blanched hazelnuts
  • Hazelnut oil to taste
  1. Cook the brussels sprouts in boiling salted water until half-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, then toss with the butter, thyme, salt and pepper. Put into a shallow baking dish or sheet pan lined with parchment.
  2. Bake at 450°F for 20 minutes, until browned and tender. Add hazelnuts and drizzle with hazelnut oil just before serving.

Accompanying wine? Tony recommends...
A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a white Burgundy (Pouilly-Fuissé).


From the Christmas Buffet
Lemon Pudding

Ann Wright says that the small family eagerly anticipated Christmas and all the festivities. The buffet included Chicken Fricassee with Egg Dumplings and Peas, Braised Fennel, Avocado and Grapefruit salad, and this lovely Lemon Pudding, which can be made one day in advance.

Happy holidays!

  • 1 heaping Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 large egg yolks, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp melted unsalted butter
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 3 egg whites, stiffly beaten
  1. Mix flour with sugar. Add milk and stir.
  2. Stir in egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt.
  3. Fold in egg whites.
  4. Place in buttered baking dish (2-quart capacity) and set in a shallow pan of hot water.
  5. Bake 30 to 40 minutes in a 350°F preheated oven.
  6. Serve either hot or cold.

Accompanying wine? Tony recommends...
An Ontario Riesling Icewine or Asti Spumante.


We wish to thank Raincoast Books, Vancouver, and Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Layton, Utah, for permission to publish material and photographs from Russel Wright's Menu Cookbook: A Guide to Easier Entertaining, by Ann Wright and Mindy Heiferling. Photography by Beatriz Da Costa and James Demarest. Text ©2003 by Ann Wright and Mindy Heiferling, photographs ©2003 by Beatriz Da Costa and James Demarest (except for walnuts photo).

Guide to Easier Living by Mary and Russel Wright. Edited by Suzanne Gibbs Taylor. Text and illustrations ©2003 by Russel Wright Studios.


Happily tested by Helen Hatton and Ron Morris.

Download these recipes in printable form as an Adobe Acrobat PDF (85 KB)




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