Monday, April 26, 2010

Ecuadorian Experience

I have a brief opportunity to capture an Ecuadorian dining experience before we lose contact with civilization tomorrow. I read that the Andean culture is famous for soups and that locros de papa is one of the favorites. So I ordered it for lunch today. I'm not sure what all the ingredients were, but I know it had potatoes, a strangely textured cheese and avocado. Potatoes originated in the Andes and the International Potato Center has identified over 4,000 varieties found in the Andes. I'm pretty sure whatever kind was in this soup was different from what we usually eat due to the texture. I believe the spices in the soup were cumin, achiote chili and cilantro, based on the taste and the one English language recipe I could find on line. It was very filling and enjoyable.

The other discovery of the day was aji. Apparently every Latin American country and even individual restaurants have their own version of the hot sauce. The two I tried today were bright yellow and medium hot. Very good on the chicken kabobs we had at the end of our city tour of Quito. I hope I'll have other interesting tasting experiences to report before the trip is ended.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

That night in Brazil

This photo is a couple of years old, but it is a reminder of one of my top 10 dining experiences of all times. In the fall of 2007, we went to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil to volunteer for a week with Cross-Cultural Solutions. We spent a week working in an orphanage helping with the children in any way that was needed. It was a rewarding experience, but physically and emotionally draining.

At the end of the week, we took a catamaran trip two hours off the coast to the island of Morro de Sao Paulo. It was like being transported back to the 19th century. There were no roads or cars, only footpaths. Our pousada was a half hour walk from the dock, passing through the villages and along the beach.

About 6:30 in the evening we went out for dinner. We later learned this is very early for the island. Hardly anyone was out and around. Everything was deserted. The restaurants were just beginning to set up their tables and chairs in the sand along the beach. As we strolled the path, the proprietors accosted us with descriptions of their wonderful cuisine to entice us to join them.

We settled on a place where the host, in a mixture of English and Portuguese, described what sounded like a pretty good deal. An appetizer of chicken with pineapple and coconut milk, with a main course of grilled Argentinian steak, broiled shrimp and a variety of vegetables, along with free caipirinhas. A caipirinha is a very refreshing drink made of sugar, cachaca (sugar cane liquor) and lime juice. And if you think I look a little snockered in the photo, a good Brazilian caipirinha is VERY strong. I only had one and I had a difficult time finding our table after going to the restroom. And we were the only ones in the restaurant. Good thing there was no driving on this island.

The dinner was divine and cost only $50 for two when converted to American money. We left around 10pm and other diners were just starting to arrive. As we walked back to our pousada, vendors were setting up stands along the way where they would make the drink of your choice. We heard later there was serious partying well into the early morning hours. But not for us. We were soon asleep in the hammock on our balcony, with the full moon shimmering over the ocean. Brazilian guitar music drifted up from the terrace below.
Photo by Cindy Stavropoulous

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No Cooking

There won't be much cooking around here for a while. Today, with only a few hours notice, the countertop guys came and ripped out much of the kitchen. Now there's no water, sink or stove. They have been amazing at trying to work with my upcoming travel and treatment schedule so that I won't have to be without a kitchen any longer than necessary. This way it will only be a few days. It sure will be nice to have a fresh face on a tired kitchen.

As far as the upcoming trip, I have no idea what we'll be eating. Eight days of the trip will be spent on a 105 foot sailboat in the Galapagos Islands. Larry thinks it will be camping food. The brochure says they will serve us gourmet Ecuadorian cuisine. Who knows what that is! We recently watched the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations trip to Ecuador and much of what he ate, I would prefer to avoid. Guinea pig is a common main course for special occasions in both Ecuador and Peru. Roasted whole, brown and crispy (fur removed), with those little eyes and ears intact. Tony insisted it was quite tasty. I wonder if there will be a cage of little guinea pigs somewhere below deck. I'll be sure to let you know.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anticipation

I've been waiting a long time for today. My friend Bina always brings a delicious Indian dish of peas and potatoes when we have a potluck at work. I've asked her many times for the recipe and she always replies that she doesn't have a recipe, that she'll have to write it down sometime when she makes it. I am persistent and I keep asking since my attempts at Indian cuisine are usually not quite right. Today when I arrived at work there was a surprise on my desk. It was dinner for tonight. Not only did Bina make the peas and potatoes for me, but there was also dal and naan. And she gave me the long awaited recipe!

My friends have taken such good care of me recently in so many ways. I could certainly have cooked dinner tonight, but I'm really glad I didn't need to. I've only been back at work a few days and I'm still not used to the routine. I'm really tired by the time I get home. So to have a ready-made dinner is a luxury. The peas and potatoes had the perfect blend of ginger, curry, cumin and coriander and she says the recipe can be adapted to any combination of vegetables. I can't wait to try it myself and see if I can duplicate Bina's culinary magic.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Weekend Pleasures

It was a beautiful Sunday morning at the farmer's market. The sun was bright, the day much warmer than you would think from the temperature on the thermometer. The market was crowded as always, even though there are fewer vendors this time of year before the summer fruits and vegetables fill the stalls. I am anxiously awaiting the season of stone fruits, local corn and heirloom tomatoes. But we always find some tasty treasures. We came home today with fennel, pea sprouts, mandarins, kiwis, broccolini and our favorite Top Nosh turnovers.

Even better than produce from the farmer's market are vegetables from the backyard garden. Last night we dined at the home of our friends Sue and Bret. We had seared scallops on a bed of basil noodles in a saffron mustard sauce with vegetables. The peas and the cauliflower both came fresh from their garden. Usually I find cauliflower to be pretty tasteless, but this had a very straight-from-the-garden taste. As I've mentioned before, I'm not very adventurous with seafood at home. I've never cooked scallops, so Sue coached me through the process and let me try it. They didn't sear quite perfectly, but were cooked nicely.

We have a long history of more than 25 years of culinary explorations with Bret and Sue. Some good, some not. Early in our friendship, we went on a three day backpacking trip to Big Basin. I was determined to create a gourmet meal from dried ingredients. I knew we would be tired and hungry after hiking all day, so I planned to serve a first course of soup while the hearty main course cooked. The recipe called for tomato powder which I was unable to locate. I found tomato flakes that I thought would be a good substitute. Here, I'm about to publicly disclose one of my most disastrous culinary episodes ever: boiling water with little red flakes floating on top. That's what we got. The reaction was, "You expect us to eat THAT?" Fortunately, the chicken and dumplings were delicious and the soup was forgiven (but not forgotten). The tomato soup disaster, along with a pregnant Sue and considerable rain, made that weekend one to remember.

Last night's dinner was concluded with a decadent bread pudding with whipped cream and fresh blackberries. I ate entirely too much. It was a lovely evening. Good food, good friends. Enough said.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Donut Paradise

Today is a donut day. I try not to consume them very often, but after three days back at work, I am exhausted and Larry sensed I need a treat. So breakfast is donuts and a big glass of milk to counter the sugar. Of course, a cup of coffe as well. BTW, I did not eat all those donuts in the photo.

I was raised on donuts. Mostly those miniature white powdery ones in the box at the grocery store. Not so appealing now. Must be a childhood association - I have a lot of bad food memories. Now Dunkin' Donuts is the gold standard. When I was in college, I worked a full-time second shift job at a nursing home. Every night after work we stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for three donuts and a glass of milk to reward ourselves for surviving the night. I gained twenty pounds in three months. It is no doubt, an addiction. Recently I met someone who lives in Rhode Island with a similar problem. There are seven Dunkin' Donuts within walking distance of his office. Two in his building. This could be heaven or this could be hell......

For a while, I worked at a small device company where I was the only Regulatory person on staff. Often as many as three teams would need me for a meeting at the same time. One sharp young engineer discovered my addiction. He would come by my office with the big pink box and wave it under my nose saying, "I've got the donuts..." and he knew his team would get my attention. They kept a good secret and the others never did figure it out.

Have you seen the TV show Donut Paradise? I think it is on the Food Network. A fun show about distinctive donut shops across the country. On a trip to LA, we decided to try out Randy's Donuts from the show. It is a local icon near LAX. We got in line on Sunday morning (no sign of Hank Moody) and selected 16 different kinds of donuts and gallon of milk for a taste test with Matt and Elyse. Overall, I was disappointed. I'm a donut purist. No frosting, sprinkles or peanuts on top for me. No jelly or cream or anything gooey on the inside. Just give me a cake donut that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside - buttermilk, for example. Or DD makes a great blueberry cake. Or a glazed donut that is not too sweet with a fluffy, melt-in-your mouth interior. Alas, we have no Dunkin Donuts here. That's probably a good thing. But we've found a passable substitute in the Donut Wheel. It has served us well for over 20 years.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Vegetarian TGIF

Today was a vegetarian day. I keep reading about no meat on Mondays, but that never seems to work out for me. So I guess no meat one day might be as good as no meat on Monday. I recently went to look for something on the Smithsonian website and noticed they had a food blog. That day's post was about chickpeas. Now chickpeas have never been on my list of favorite foods, but neither are they on my list of most deaded (like brussel sprouts). The post was pretty interesting and the author went on and on about the merits of this particular recipe for a chickpea stew and how nutritious and delicious it was. She had eaten it twice that week already.

So I followed her link to another blog, The Wednesday Chef, where she had obtained the recipe. There were multitudes of positive reviews of the recipe. The spices were mostly Indian, and we do love Indian food, so I printed the recipe and decided to give it a try. It was easy to make, but not quite as authentic as I would have liked. If you decide to try it, I would suggest more Thai pepper and some cumin. I served it over brown basmati rice and with a side of Trader Joe's frozen naan. Not as good as authentic, fresh-from-the-clay oven naan, but it will do in a pinch.

When I moved to California, I had never even tasted anything Indian. At first, every time I tried it, my digestive tract rebelled. This was about 20 years ago. Our friend Venkat, who is from Southern India, decided to teach me how to eat Indian food. He was a superb teacher, gradually introducing me to the flavors and acclimating me to the unfamiliar spices. Now I'm a convert and we dine at our favorite Indian restaurant once or twice a month.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Soup

Soup is love. Actually, all kinds of food can represent love, but this particular soup is love incarnate. When I got home this afternoon from my first day back at work, I was mentally and physically exhausted. All I could think about was a nap, not what we would have for dinner. But there was a message on the answering machine from my dear friend Elsie. She had made soup - vegetable soup - and she wanted to share. She didn't even know I was going back to work today, but somehow she knew I needed soup. After a nap I called her and replied I would be delighted to be the recipient of soup. And it was really good. Even if it hadn't been, I know I am loved.

I am very grateful for all the ways so many people cared for me during my recovery. Phone calls, cards and notes, flowers, emails, visits, prayers and food. Walks to help recover my strength, offers of whatever I needed. That's what friends do.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Celebrate

My first rose of the spring bloomed today. Just in time for a little celebration. After six weeks of post-surgical recovery I am finally allowed to return to work tomorrow. I'm surprised to be so pleased to get back to the grind. But not so long ago it seemed like I would never feel well enough. This much progress is a little victory.

Since it is mid-week, the celebration is modest. But enough to warrant opening a bottle of that wonderful Thomas Fogarty SCM Estate Chardonnay to go with the salmon with lemon buerre blanc sauce on a bed of sauted greens. Even though I was raised a southerner, I have never eaten cooked greens. No spinach, collards, kale, mustard or chard. Ick. But when I started taking the food and wine pairing series at PCI, I decided I would at least try whatever we cooked in class. I have made some suprising discoveries. I like cooked greens if done well. This salmon recipe was on the menu in the fall class and it has become one of our favorites. It calls for chard, mustard, collards and kale or any combination thereof. When making it for just the two of us I usually select just one green. The dark shiny green of the leaves with the contrasting red or gold stems and veins of  chard always looks so appealing in the morning sun at the farmer's market, it usually ends up in this dish. I've asked chef Charlie Vollmar for permission to include his recipe and if he agrees, I'll publish it soon.

A saude! (That's Portuguese for To health!)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Return to Winter

What has happened to spring? It sprang a leak. We’re having the hardest rains of the winter, only it isn’t winter. We headed into the Santa Cruz Mountains this afternoon in the midst of the storm. It was 41 degrees and heavy rain blowing horizontally. We eased carefully along the winding road through rivers of water and passed some small mudslides, and drove through the dense fog on the peaks to make our way to the annual Thomas Fogarty Winery Pinot tasting party. If not for the blazing patches of wildflowers, daffodils and tulips along the roadside, it seemed like the middle of a deep January winter. We were soaked by the time we dashed the brief distance from the car. But once inside, the crackling fire in the fireplace and the rich red pinot noir warmed the body and the soul. The cold cruel weather was forgotten.

There are some significant advantages to joining a wine club reasonably close to home. Events like the pinot tasting party are free for club members at TFW. We had the opportunity to taste some really excellent limited release pinot noirs that won’t show up on the standard tasting menu and are not within our wine budget. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll show up in a future club shipment. We did purchase a couple of bottles of the more reasonably priced Rapley Trail Estate Pinot Noir. I also picked up a couple of bottles of one of my favorite chardonnays, the 2006 Santa Cruz Mountain Estate Chardonnay.

This SCM Estate Chardonnay is another one of the excellent wines we’ve discovered from tasting events at GC CafĂ©. Michael Martella, the TF winemaker, was pouring a selection of TF wines one evening soon after I took my first class in food and wine pairing at PCI in Campbell. At the first sip of this wine, my brain nearly exploded with possibilities. I could taste the grilled salmon that was meant to be eaten with it. The wine is a robust and buttery oaked chardonnay that is not for sipping, in my opinion, but belongs with great food. Larry wouldn’t let me buy any that night, insisting it was too expensive. We have since adjusted our wine price point and it has become one of our standards. We eat a lot of salmon. It also pairs really well with our favorite butternut squash risotto.

One Fish Two Fish...

I've been craving seafood lately, but I think what I really want is fried clams at Red Lobster. I am trying to eat healthy, so I decided we should have tuna filets for dinner last night. We are not very adventurous in cooking seafood at home and have never cooked tuna. I selected a recipe from a 2002 Bon Appetit magazine for Sicilian slow roasted tuna filets. I guess I should have looked up the reviews before, rather than after. It was a disaster. By the time the thermometer read 145 degrees as required by the recipe, the tuna was deathly dry and overcooked and so was the rest of the meal that had been waiting around on the tuna. The saving grace was the wine selection. To go with the tuna, I had chosen 2006 La Honda Winery (Redwood City) Oakville Merlot. This wine is fabulous and not too expensive ($19). Very rich and fruity. It also went really well with the brownie trimmings I had leftover from the three dozen I made for the Bill Wilson Center lunch on Friday. We finished off both the wine and the brownies to make up for the disastrous dinner. So much for healthy eating.

La Honda is actually my favorite winery. I discovered them a little over a year ago when the Thursday evening tastings at GC Cafe in Menlo Park were still $5 (before they became famous after a great review in the newspaper). I had never found a cabernet sauvignon I could enjoy. Usually the tannins in red wines give me a headache. But that fateful night at GC Cafe, Ken Wornick, one of the owners and the winemaker at La Honda, poured their 2002 cab that changed my life forever. I was in love. Since then I have been on a quest to find reds that I both could drink and love. There are precious few bottles of that 2002 cab left in the world and I know where most of them reside. Many are in my wine rack!

Wine and Cheese Pairing

Last Saturday I sampled the new wine and artisan cheese pairing at the Kendall Jackson Wine Center. I love food and I have recently begun to experiment with selecting a wine that properly complements good food. I'm no food expert, and I'm less than a novice at wine pairing, but I sure am having a great time. They told us at KJ that chef Tracey had spent several months working on the wine/cheese pairing. It was time well spent. Her pairings, along with a condiment for each were delightful.

I'll tease you with a photo of the treats. Notice that I've already finished off the first pairing. My favorite was the second from the left, the 2008 Jackson Hills Chardonnay paired with Redwood Hill Farm California Crottin, a sharp meaty goat cheese with a condiment of raisin fennel jam. Now, I don't like raisins, but this was really good. That red stuff in the far right condiment tray is beet mustard. Normally I would never eat something called that, because I don't like mustard. But it was actually mustard seed and paired beautifully with its cab and cheese. There is also a dessert pairing not shown here. The menu for the pairing can be found at http://www.kj.com/ under the Events tab.

You may associate Kendall Jackson only with inexpensive grocery store wine, but you would be wrong. They make excellent (and expensive) smaller production wines as well. We are quite fond of, and have several bottles of the Highland Estates Camelot Highlands Chardonnay ($30). This is the one that caused Larry to join the wine club. We also love the 2005 Highland Estates Trace Ridge Cab ($70), but alas, due to the price, we only enjoy this one at tastings or when it shows up in our wine club shipment. We've enjoyed their food and dessert pairings on previous visits and they always treated us like honored guests, even before we joined the wine club. If you're in the vicinity of Santa Rosa, stop by the Wine Center. I highly recommend the food pairing if only to taste the tea-brined pork belly slider on the food pairing menu. It is to die for! I know pork belly sounds nasty if you've never tried it, but we gave it a go in South Africa since it is one of their traditional specialties. What a delightful surprise. But South African cuisine will have to wait for another day.