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Drink to that!

Beer rules at lunch; cocktails and wine dominate at dinner. So says the newest survey by consumer research firm the NPD Group, which has tracked Americans' drinking habits when they eat out.

Of the 54,000 consumers surveyed between October 2004 and September 2005, 55 percent of their "drinking" lunches included beer. And while designer cocktails may be all the rage, beer was also the drink of choice at happy hour - 58 percent chose it, compared with 34 percent who drank cocktails.

Among the survey's other findings:

• Ordering an alcoholic drink not only upped the cost of our restaurant tabs, it also seemingly lowered our resolve to count calories. Desserts were ordered more often when someone had wine with the meal.

• Nearly 40 percent of drinking-age Americans include alcohol with dinner when they eat out over the weekend. During the week, that figure dips to 34 percent.

• The most popular day to have a drink? No surprise: Saturday.

Wine of the week

2003 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($48)

This splurge is worthwhile for admirers of classic Napa Valley cabernet. Joseph Phelps has been producing great cabernet for three decades, and this one is excellent. It's an ideal combination of youthful accessibility and long-term aging potential. The texture is velvety, and the flavors are typical Napa (black cherry, black currant, chocolate, herbs), but with a bit more nuance and roundness than most of its peers.

Enjoy one bottle now, put another away for 10 to 15 years, and it'll be $100 well spent. Serve with standing rib roast, rack of lamb.

Pasta pointers

At a recent pasta-cooking demonstration, Giada de Laurentiis shared insights that carry a certain authority. After all, she's the author of a cookbook, Everyday Italian (Potter, 2005, $30), and she's the host of the TV show of the same name on the Food Network.

Two basic tips among comments on cooking pasta: Drain pasta but don't rinse or add oil (unless you're making salad) or the sauce won't stick. And pasta water has flavor and starch, so reserve 1/2 cup of it to use in your sauce.

De Laurentiis advises but she's not dogmatic. In making pasta, she said, "There's no one way. My way is not the only way. Take what you want from my book and my advice - then find your own way."

You can look it up

• The federal government's food safety Web site (www.foodsafety.gov) provides consumer news, information and advice on food safety practices and issues.

• For information on food product dating, see the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service fact sheet at www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets; click on Food Labeling.

• For information on Girl Scout cookies, including ingredients and nutritional value of each type, visit the Web sites of Little Brownie Bakers at www.littlebrowniebakers.com/cookies/nutrition/nutrition.html and ABC/Interbake Foods at www.girlscoutcookiesabc.com/default.asp.

Tomato tip

Storing tomatoes in the refrigerator is a foodie taboo, but - according to a recent poll - 77 percent of Americans do it anyway. The Florida Tomato Committee, which surveyed 600 grocery store consumers, reminds readers that too-cold tomatoes (stored below 55 degrees) get mealy and have less flavor. For a "Guide to Tastier Tomatoes" and recipes, go to www.floridatomatoes.org.

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