Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple!

I am headed to NYC tonight to hang out with my brother and friends. I am also going to the wedding of my dear friend Hannah in the lovely New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

I am so excited to dine in New York. I keep thinking of all the possibilities!! Now that my brother is living in Chelsea, my old neighborhood, I must head to my favorite bakery, Billy's Bakery, for a cupcake. I am going to miss his old coffee place in SoHo, Once Upon a Tart, but I hope The Big Cup is still kicking it on 8th Ave. Murray's Bagels could suffice. Oh and maybe we'll go to some of my neighborhood old favorites, like The Half King or The Red Cat. But then again, I could go for some delicious sushi at Yama. And I am planning on heading out to Brooklyn to go the Blue Apron Foods in Park Slope. Or we could go to Williamsburg for dinner at one of my favorite places in the world, DOC. That would be heaven! Then Prune for a lovely brunch is a possibility too. So much eating, so little time. Good thing I will be doing a lot of walking!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

For a mere $150

You can throw away your pen and paper grocery list. "What?" You might be thinking. I had the same reaction when this week's email blast from Sur La Table promoted their lastest gadget, the SmartShopper Grocery List Organizer.

The SmartShopper Grocery List Organizer is a voice-activated electronic device. Apparently it uses voice recognition software which allows you to hold a button, say the item you need to buy next time you go to the grocery store, and then it stores the item in its memory. Furthermore, it alphabetizes, and groups items by where they’re found in the store. You press the print button and it spits out your grocery list and off you go for an optimized shopping trip.

I can see some problems with this over-priced mechanism. First of all, does it recognize multiple people's voices? In our house, more than one person puts things on the grocery list. Second, how does it accomodate for shopping at more than one store? I shop at many stores to get food and other products, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, farmers' markets, the local produce market, the local butcher, the Italian deli, and even Safeway. How does this machine plan to accomodate for all those shopping trips? Third, how does it know how your primary grocery store it set up to optimize for efficiency? Every store I have ever been in is a little different. Fourth, what if you can't find something at the store on that particular trip? Do you have to reenter the item into the machine?

I know, I know, don't knock it until you try it. But at $150, I can't even afford to try it! It seems to me to be more trouble than it is worth. I think, I will stick to a good, old-fashioned, pen and paper list.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What to do with leftover rice

I hate to waste anything. It kills me to throw out leftovers. I am always trying to figure out how to use up ingredients and leftovers creatively. I can't seem to make decent rice for just two people so we always have lots of rice leftover, often enough for several meals. After some brainstorming I decided to make these simple and delicious rice cakes. They are a take on the mashed potato patties that my mom used to make with left over mashies. The rice cakes a little healthier for you.

Rice Cakes
2 cups of leftover rice
2 eggs
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tbsp milk
1 tbsp olive oil

Whisk two eggs in a medium-sized bowl. Add the rice, bread crumbs, milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Using your hands mix ingredients together until well blended and the mixture starts to stick together. Scoop up a small ball of the rice mixture and form a patty about 2 1/2 inches wide by 1/2 inch tall. You should get about 5-6 rice cakes out of this recipe. Heat olive oil in a large skillet until hot. Add rice cakes and let cook for about 3 minutes on each side. Plate and serve.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can season the rice anyway you want. You can also add leftover, diced, cooked veggies to the rice mixture. Be creative!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rats in the kitchen

I finally went to see Ratatouille last night. I had been waiting to take my "Little Sister," JaiAnna, with me to see this movie because she loves going to the movies. I thought we should see this movie because we do a lot of cooking together. We stationed ourselves in the very last row of the movie theater (Jai's favorite viewing location) and settled in to view the movie.
I know that every adult foodie out there is raving about this movie and I have to agree with them. It really is as entertaining as they say. The animation is out of this world. It is so realistic. At lot of what has been said about this movie is that is geared more for adults, than for children. Watching this movie with a 10 year-old got me thinking about the positive messages embedded throughout the movie.
  • Anyone Can Cook!
  • Dare to be creative.
  • Even your toughest critics can be won over.
  • Food is meant to be enjoyed, not shoveled into your mouth as fast as you can.
  • Be tolerate toward things that are different (like rats).
  • Teamwork can lead to great things.
  • Stealing from others is wrong.
  • Families and friends should help each other out.
  • Wash your hands before handling food.
All these themes and more are found in this movie. Not just good lessons for children, but great reminders for adults too.
On our way to drop Jai off at her house, she entertained me by recapping all the scenes in the movie and commenting on the characters. She also kept repeating the title of the movie. Apparently the word, "ratatouille" is fun to say again and again and again. It sort of is, I guess, but I control myself.
Having nearly finished the book, Heat, by Bill Buford, I can't help but think that some of the script in Ratatouille was influenced by that book.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A summer menu for dinner in foggy San Francisco

The girls are coming over for dinner tomorrow night. It the first time the entire "Core Team" has been together for dinner since May. We are one man (or woman, rather) down as Mazy has officially made here move to Chicago. We miss you already!

So I promised the girls I would post the menu for them on the blog. Here it goes:
Drinks: Minted Vodka Limeade and lots of red wine, of course!
Appetizers: An Italian surprise - need your help taste testing a new product
Entree and Sides:
Roasted Rack of Lamb with Red Wine and Rosemary Pan Sauce (Don't worry, Hall, I am making you something else.)
Red Potatoes Tossed in Fresh Pesto
Cucumber, Tomato, and Chickpea Salad
Dessert: Choice of Homemade Strawberry-Sour Cream Ice Cream or Chocolate Ice Cream with Toasted Pingolis (or both!)

Should be pretty easy. I can get pesto for the potatoes ready in the morning along with the ice cream base for the chocolate ice cream. I can toast the pingolis for both the ice cream and the pesto at the same time. I made the strawberry-sour cream ice cream this past weekend. I will also chop up the cucumbers and tomatoes in the morning for easy assembly later in the day.

The limeade can be prepared a few hours in advance of the guests' arrival. After the limeade is prepared, I can put the ice cream base in the ice cream freezer and let it churn.

Then all I really have to make right before dinner is the lamb and its sauce. This part will be the biggest challenge, but I think I am up for it. I have never made lamb before. Oh and boil the potatoes. Toss a few things together and serve. I hope it is actually as easy as I am making it seem.

Much of the inspiration for this menu comes from the fresh fruits and veggies I picked up at the
Alemany Farmer's Market this past weekend. I thought about how I could incorporate the tomatoes, fresh basil, limes, strawberries, and cucumbers I bought into a delicious meal.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Typical Nicaraguan food

Nicaraguan food is a great example of dishes made with locally grown (and free range) ingredients. The staples are gallo pinto (rice and beans made with leftovers from the previous dinner), tropical fruits, meats, and seafood in the coastal towns. Their speciality is nacatamales, which is corn dough with vegetables and pork, chicken, or beef wrapped in banana leaves. They are popular on the weekends. Rondon, meaning "to cook" is a stew of yucca, chayote and other vegetables with meat added. Eskimo brand ice cream, with its selection of tropical flavors is available from a push cart on every street corner, but it is of poor quality and melts so fast you are left with ice cream soup.

In Leon, I had one of the most interesting meals of my trip. I ordered Indio Viejo off a menu that boasted that the dish was a Nicaraguan specialty. It was a stew made of onions, garlic, sweet red and green peppers, tomatoes and chicken all suspended in a corn tortilla broth mixture. After some Internet research, I found that the corn tortilla broth is made by putting some tortillas into water and then grinding them until they form dough. The meat is shredded and then fried with the aforementioned vegetables, the dough, and orange juice. Finally, you add broth. It tasted heavenly. I am going to try and recreate this dish at home.

We made a point to visit the Cental Market in Leon because we were there on a Saturday. Here is a picture I took there. There were many women selling these corn, milk, and cheese breads at the ends of the stalls. They had an interesting texture and were very dense.

In Granada our meals were varied. In this city they cater to the money bearing gringoes and the restaurants are accomodating as such. Not ideal when you want to try local foods. However, we did stumble upon a place, Dona Conchi's, that dished up some large postions of typical foods. The dish I had was sea bass with a garlic and parsley sauce paired with two jumbo shrimps and sides of rice and french fries. The sangria was excellent and the garden dining was que romantico! The following evening we ate a late dinner at the American-style BBQ joint because we experienced, yet another, city-wide power outage. This non-memorable restaurant had a generator which meant we did not have to go to bed hungry. And after a long day of sightseeing: pottery making, arts and crafts market visiting, Spanish fort turned prison viewing, volcano hiking, bat cave exploring, and lava watching, we were HUNGRY!
On Isla de Ometepe, we ate all our meals at the hotel where we were staying. There were not many places to dine as we were miles from the small town center where the ferry dropped us off. The food wasn't the best, but it was edible. I finally caved in and ordered pasta for dinner the evening after our seriously challenging hike up, and down, Volcano Maderas. On the hike we saw banana trees, cocoa beans, and unripe coffee beans. I have never sweat so much in my life! This picture is taken at the crest of the volcano. We then climbed down into the crater for lunch where soggy sandwiches never tasted so good. Then out of the crater and back down the volcano through the rainforest, being careful not to slip in the extremely muddy stream beds, to return home absolutely covered in mud.
Here is a little more information on traditional Nicaraguan food. And like everywhere else in Central America, rice, beans, eggs, and fresh fruits are the staples in everyday diets.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Charles vs. Willy Wonka

Charles Chocolates is yet another Bay Area breed of gourmet chocolates. The packaging is what initially caught my eye. The bar comes in a thin, cardboard box that is a warm brown color. On a recent visit to a new confection shop in town, The Candy Store, I finally picked up one of these enticing bars of chocolate.

Charles Chocolate bars have very interesting flavors, including: Hazelnut/Candied Orange Peel, Mocha Java, Bittersweet Carmelized Rice Krispie Bar, Milk Chocolate Carmelized Rice Krispie Bar, and a Ginger Bar. I like the pairings, complementary and a little different, but not to wild. I chose the Bittersweet Carmelized Rice Krispie Bar thinking would be grown-up version of my favortive chocolate bar as a child, the Nestle Crunch.

Opening the package is a multi-step process. First, you must open the box and slide out the dense bar wrapped in foil. Then, you carefully unwrap the bar and break off a piece of chocolate. By the time I got to the actual chocolate bar, I was expecting to see a golden ticket!

The chocolate is extremely smooth and rich. The carmelized krispies add a nice crunch and bit of texture. The rich taste of the chocolate lingers in your mouth for quite a while. The bar is broken up into 24 squares, so with a little self control, this bar can last quite a while.

Chocolates from Charles Chocolates would make a nice gift for a chocolate loving friend or serve as a nice little indulgence for yourself. It might just bring a little magic to your life!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Batch 1: French Vanilla Ice Cream

I started the week off by making my first batch of ice cream using my new ice cream equipment. The process went pretty well, for a first timer. The final product got Mike's seal of approval. He has been faithfully having a bowl of the stuff every night, so it cannot be that bad. Actually, it is pretty good. It is the real deal with real vanilla. None of that low fat, no sugar, whipped air, tastes like chemicals, ice cream.
I decided to start with vanilla ice cream. The basics, right? Don't get over ambitious, like I often do when I am cooking. So I chose the very first recipe in the book. Note, I don't read the introduction to the book, "The Basics." I think I knew it all because I read the short column on "Quick Tips to Making Homemade Ice Cream" in the SF Chronicle. Had I read the first chapter of the book (I did so yesterday), I could have saved myself from using 20 extra bowls and could have actually been prepared for each of the recipe's steps. I was standing at the stove, with the recipe book in one hand and "stirring constantly" with the other, wondering how I could make an ice bath with no hands. I definitely could have made it easier on myself by choosing the second recipe in the book, the Philadelphia-style Vanilla Ice Cream, which has no eggs and all you do is blend all the ingredients, chill, and then dump into the freezer bowl in the machine. But that would be too easy.

One of the instructions in "The Basics" was to read the entire recipe first. I usually ignore that advice and this was no exception. Maybe if I had read the entire recipe first, I would have realized that a French Vanilla Ice Cream requires making a custard. The whole thing took quite a bit of time - letting the mixture stew for 30 minutes, then making the actual custard, cooling the custard in an ice bath, letting the mixture cool overnight, and then 25 minutes in the ice cream maker the next morning. Nothing strenuous, but the entire process does take time. Surprisingly enough, I made the custard perfectly and the entire custard went through the strainer, no problems, which means I didn't cook the eggs too much or too fast. Wahoo! The other thing I will do differently next time will be to pour the custard (or other base) into the freezer bowl with the machine assembled and turned on so that none of the custard gets frozen to the sides of the freezer bowl.

The next ice cream recipes I want to try are: Tiramisu, Roasted Banana, Strawberry-Sour Cream, and maybe Basil. I also want to try some of the sorbet and granita recipes! Sugar overload, here I come!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Obsession with Top Chef

I love the TV Show Top Chef, on Bravo. Just love, love, love it. It is sophisticated reality TV with a tolerable amount of drama. I really admire how these competing chefs think so quickly on their feet and how fast they cook (with the exception of Howie, who is always stressed about time)! What they manage to create in the 30 minute Quickfire Challenges is incredible. It is a competition of brains, creativity, raw talent, and a little brawn. Season 3, Miami, has not let me down. It is just as good, if not better than, the first two seasons. The competitions are more difficult and the contestants come from some highly-regarded restaurants and from very entrepreneurial backgrounds. Competition is fierce, which makes for good television.

Season 3 is underway and the contestants are thinning from the original 15. I really admire how honest and fair the judges are about how they make their choice to eliminate someone. The judges are Queer Eye's culinary expert, Ted Allen, show host, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, celebrated culinary figure and co-founder of Craft Restaurants, and Gail Simmons of Food & Wine. Their decisions are based on each chef's response to each specific challenge, not on their performance to date. So on Top Chef, when a chef wows and even wins a challenge one week, they might be kicked off the next. The guest judge is also always a very interesting and admirable person from the world of food. This season, not surprisingly, represents a variety of celebrated chefs from Miami. Personally, I would be shaking in my socks if Anthony Bourdain was going to be judging something I made. Thanks to excellent video editing, I can hardly ever guess who is going to be asked to "pack their knives and go home." Did I mention this is the best reality TV show ever?

This season my favorite chef is Tre. Tre is self-taught (so cool!) and his style is refined and simple. I admire his consistency cooking and plating very nice dishes which meet the challenge. I think that while he has been riding in the middle (not winning or losing much) he is going to excel as more and more chefs are eliminated. He has the versatility and ability to execute under pressure that the other chefs lack. My least favorite chef is Hung. Hung is the drama factor this season (much like Marcel was in Season 2). He is pompous, rude, hyper, and does not accept any criticism. He is not courteous in the kitchen. He makes terrible messes running around like a mad man and nearly cut someone with his knife on last night's episode. But, he'll be around for a while. Between the drama that he adds to the show and the fact that he is, as much as I hate to admit it, an excellent chef. Mike's favorite chef is CJ. I think that is because, like Mike, he is very tall and has a great sense of humor.

Best yet, this season Bravo is putting some of the recipes on the Top Chef website. You can make some of the successful creations at home without the pressure of the clock.

So watch, Wednesdays at 10pm ET/9pm CT. The show repeats immediately afterwards at 11 ET/10pm CT. There are lots of reruns if you want to catch up on missed episodes.

My husband just started working for a start-up that makes awesome widgets. Here is the very cool widget that they made for Top Chef. You can check out some of the judges' blogs to get their insights on the show.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Who knew Moroccan food could be so incredibly good?

For a long time I have been wanting to go the restaurant, Aziza, in the Richmond District of San Francisco. A while back the SF Chronicle did a huge review on the place and I was sold. I wanted to go the restaurant that "modernized Moraccan cuisine."

Upon return from my Central American trip, Mike took me on a romantic date to Aziza. Oh my good lord, was the food out of this world! It was so so so delicious. For an appetizer we shared the wild mushrooms in phylo. They just melted in your mouth. The earthy flavors of the shitake and oyster mushrooms combined with the creamy manouri cheese and flaky phylo were sublime. Then for my entree I ordered the yellowfin tuna, seared rare (and caught on a longline, not in a net) with a fennel seed crust and a roasted tahini, tunisian salad, and eggplant stack in the middle of the dish. The tuna was perfectly cooked (or not as rare tuna is supposed to be). The compliments to the fish were just as they were meant to be, delightful compliments. My mouth waters just thinking about that dish. Mike had the couscous aziza with grilled chicken, prawns, spicy lamb sausage, and stewed lamb. Each protein was cooked and seasoned perfectly. The coucous and vegetable medley were quite tasty piled on a fork with a piece of meat. For dessert we ordered the pistachio cake which was served with bruléed champagne sabayon and moscato d'asti poached dried apricots on the side. A perfect ending to a perfect meal. There were so many non-chocolate desserts that I desired as well! That never happens as I am not too crazy about chocolate.
The ambiance at Aziza is warm and inviting. Elegant, but not pretentious. Its decoration is tastefully Moroccan-themed. Vibrant colors fill each room. Each table has privacy. The volume of the restaurant is low and intimate. It is a good place for both large and small parties. The service is friendly and helpful. They are attentive, but do not disturb your privacy. As a special touch, they offer you a splash of rosewater after your meal to refresh you.
One more thing worth mentioning. The Drinks Menu, I venture to say, is the best and most creative I have seen in San Francisco. This lengthy list of cocktails is very well considered. The combinations are incredibly tasty. The waitstaff also does a nice job recommending parings with the entrees. Sometime I would just like to go to Aziza for cocktails and appetizers.
Their tasting menu is reasonable. I believe it is about $50 for five courses and when the waitress told us what was on the tasting menu it seemed more like seven courses.
It is also a Slow Foods recognized restaurant which always wins stars in my book. They use organic and local ingredients and cook their foods with love and you can tell. Aziza is an exceptional restaurant that is worth a visit by anyone who enjoys international cuisines.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A bolognese to warm your soul

This past Friday night I served up the bolognese sauce that I had made earlier in the week while Mike was out-of-town on a business trip. This hearty sauce served on top of perfectly cooked mini penne was delicious. Perfect for a chilly San Francisco summer evening. (Where is the sun? Enough of this oppressive fog!) We had a bottle Chianti with our meal and the wine enhanced the flavors of the tomato-based sauce.

I am just crazy for Italian food. The more authentic, the better. So when I received a recipe for bolognese at my bridal shower from an old friend who has spent a lot of time in Italy, I was absolutely thrilled.

The typical bolognese sauce is a thick, full-bodied meat sauce that contains ground beef (and sometimes pork), pancetta, tomatoes, onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and can be enhanced with wine, milk or cream and seasonings.

Here is the special recipe that was shared with me.

Ragu alla Bolognese
Serves 8-10
Cooking time is minimum of 2 1/2 hours
(A special thanks to Judy Alexander for sharing the wonderful recipe with me!)

1 lb ground beef (I like the lean 90/10 kind and buy the best quality.)
1/3 lb prosciutto
1 whole onion, finely diced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
2 stalks celery with leaves, finely diced
1 small can of tomato paste
1, 8oz can beef broth
2, 8oz (or 1, 16oz) can of crushed tomatoes
1 /4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, optional
1/2 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp fresh, chopped basil

In an 8 quart stockpot, crumble the ground beef and brown it over medium heat. When it is nearly brown add the chopped prosciutto. Cook until all the meat is browned. Add diced onion, celery, and carrots. Pepper to taste. When the onion is clear, add the tomato paste and beef broth. Reduce heat to medium. Mix until the paste and broth are well-combined in the pot. Allow broth mixture to heat for 2-3 in minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and oregano and mix until combined. Here is where you can add the Parmesan cheese for a little something special. Turn the stove burner to very low heat and allow the sauce to simmer for at least two hours. A sign that it is cooking well - a layer of bright red oil will rise to the surface. Stir occasionally. After approximately two hours, the sauce should be ready. However, it was advised that the longer the sauce simmers, the better it will taste. I let mine simmer about three hours and took the lid of the pot on and off to keep it from losing too much moisture. Five to ten minutes before serving, add basil. Then, salt to taste. Serve with tagliatelle, penne, or any other pasta with a lot of surface area.

This sauce also freezes and reheats well. Be sure to add the basil and salt when you reheat for optimal flavor.

For dessert I made this lovely Almond Cake. It is a recipe by Giada Laurentis (I love her!) and it was delightful. Light and sweet with a nice texture from the corn meal. In addition to garnishing with powdered sugar, I added some toasted, sliced almonds. In a perfect world, I would have served it with olive oil ice cream.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I scream, you scream

We all scream for ice cream! I finally did it. I went to Sur La Table and bought an ice cream maker and David Lebowitz's book, The Perfect Scoop. I could not resist all the rage in the food world about homemade ice cream and this cookbook so I had to join in the fun. So next week, I begin making ice cream!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bikram yoga and mexican food

Sounds like a terrible combination, right? Both activities turned out to be far better than expected.

My best friend is in town for a couple weeks and she is mildly obsessed with Bikram yoga. While I declined her offer to attend a class with her two days before my wedding, this time I accepted. Bikram yoga, for those of you who have the pleasure to never try it, is also called Hot Yoga. Basically, you do a series of 26 yoga positions over the course of an hour and a half in a room of 105 degrees and 50% humidity. If it sounds miserable, it is. They warn first-timers that you will feel nauseated and light-headed. They aren't kidding. I had to leave the room at one point because I thought I was going to throw up. But I can easily see how this practice can be addicting. You feel like a million bucks after all that sweating. Thirsty as heck though. Not sure I will be a convert, I like Vinyasa yoga better, but but I am glad I gave it a shot.

This not the point of this post though. After class, my friend and went to a new restaurant I have had my eye on in the Mission called, Regalito Rosticeria. It fills the void for a reasonably-priced, healthy, and fresh Mexican restaurant in the Mission. It is not fine-dining, but not a grubby taqueria either. Just what the neighborhood needs, if you ask me! The ambiance is vibrant but not too fancy. We were comfortable dining in our sweaty gym clothes. The menu is straightforward and simple. The menu offers just the right number of dishes, starters and sides. I had the chili rellenos stuffed with spinach and mushrooms which were spiced perfectly. My friend ordered the enchiladas verdes which were also very good. Very fresh and perhaps even lite, without the excess of cheese that is usually dumped all over enchiladas. There were plenty of other menu items I cannot wait to try. We left the restaurant quite satisfied.

They are aiming to do a nice take-out business too. A deal was advertised for Pollos Rostisados (Whole Chicken Meal), including rice, beans, salsa fresca, and tortillas for $21.95. Not a bad deal for a free range rotisserie chicken.

It is a great place for a yummy and fresh Mexican dinner on a weeknight (dine-in or take-out) or visit them for their weekend brunch. They got a good thing going at Regalito.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Honduran food primer

We started our culinary quest in Honduras. We arrived far too late in Antigua, Guatemala to sample any Guatemalan foods. It was a disappointment, but we were relieved to arrive on the same day we were originally scheduled to arrive, albeit eight hours later.

Our food consumption philosophy while traveling was to try any and all local foods whenever possible, short of going, uninvited, into a Central American home. We avoided, to the best of our ability, all the restaurants that catered to "gringos." This was sometimes difficult to do as most of the families eat their main meals at home and many times there were not many restaurants in the areas we visited that served local, traditional foods.

In Honduras, there were two food items that stood out as being particularly indigenous to Honduras. One was pan de coco or coconut bread which, to my disappointment, is really only a bun made with coconut milk. I think I was envisioning a coconut crumb cake or a banana bread-type item. It is a little sweeter and slightly more dense than a normal, white bun. We tasted pan de coco at a place called Thompson's Bakery along with their yummy sticky cinnamon rolls. Working in a hot bakery in Honduras has to be one tough job thanks to the extreme heat and humidity!

Everywhere we stopped on the buses for a potty break, we heard ladies yelling, "baleadas, baleadas," which are snack that they were selling through the bus windows. Baleadas are white flour tortillas folded in half and filled with refried beans, crumbly cheese, and crema (think runny sour cream.) Quite a heavy snack, if you ask me.

Breakfast in Honduras usually consisted of scrambled or fried eggs, refried black beans, rice, a piece of rubbery, tasteless cheese, a piece of ham that resembled Spam, and homemade corn tortillas. I loved it all but the ham and cheese. That was a breakfast made to stick to your ribs which was a good thing as we often did not get to eat again until dinner.

In Copan we ate dinner at a restaurant called Momo's. It was a bbq place for all practical purposes with pleasant outdoor seating. Though there was a one-eyed dog that came to visit us during our meal that made me loose my appetite for a few minutes. We all order various meat kebabs that were skewered with veggies and marinaded with a garlic, lemon, and oil. The meat was very tender and fresh. I ate up every last bite. (After I forgot about the dog.)
Once we got to Utila of The Bay Islands, we went in search of a place called Cross Creek which is where all the divers and locals supposedly hang out. We had some trouble finding it as we continued to walk further and further on a wooden path that seemed to led to nowhere. Some other guests came up behind us and told us that, "when you think you are lost, you are halfway there" and it was true! After a near 1/4 of a mile we stumbled upon a shack which houses the kitchen and a covered deck which has the tables. You order at the shack and have a choice between fish or a meat and one of three sauces. Very simple. I ordered the grilled fresh tuna fillet with the soy ginger sauce and it was amazing. The fish tasted like it had just come out of the ocean. But look all that food! I ate and ate and it looked like I didn't make a dent. The restaurant owner's wife was very concerned that I did not like my meal. I reassured her I did, very much!

The following evening we joined our other travel mates for a barbecue at the hotel where we were staying. Some of our new friends had gone deep sea fishing that day and we grilled up their "daily catch" of barracuda and tuna. People from around the world gathered in small kitchen with minimum utensils and prepared a feast of grilled potatoes with red onion and garlic, steamed carrots, zucchinis, and green peppers, all of which had to be cooked on the grill with the fish. It took a while to grill everything as the coals were damp, but the end result was really quite good. Pictured here are a few of my fellow cooks who were from Australia and Canada.
On our last night in Utila we tried to go to a restaurant called Tropical Sunset, but it was closed, without apparent reason, on Thursdays. Lots of places in Utila kept somewhat odd hours/days. We did run into the chef who was helpful in recommending another place to eat called La Pirrata. We splurged and ordered lobster tails because they were caught of the neighboring island of Roatan and they were only $15USD. They were pretty good, but a bit burnt. I must admit my palate isn't terribly discriminating when I am starving.

The next Central American installment will be about Nicaragua. Get excited!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Upscale gallo pinto

Dinner came together very well and very quickly. We doubled the number of dinner guests at the last minute so I sent Mike to the local butcher for some chicken breasts on which I put a chili powder dry rub on and he grilled to perfection. I also sliced and grilled zucchini and garnished them with queso fresco.

The Caribbean Rice and Beans with Spiced Coconut Gravy dish worked out beautifully but the recipe definitely needed tweeked to get the flavoring right. Below is my revised version of the recipe.

Caribbean Rice and Beans
(5-6 servings, takes 30 minutes to make)

1 small onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
2 tbsp canola oil
1 tbsp grated ginger
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups cooked, white rice (can be made ahead and chilled)
1 cup cooked black beans (1 can)
2/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups coconut milk (1 can)
1/4 cup hot sauce
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp allspice
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium high heat, saute onions and peppers in the canola oil for about five minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and ginger and saute for another minute or so. Incorporate the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. This will occur quickly and the remaining dish will be the consistency of risotto. Adjust the flavors to your liking. Cover and keep warm while you make the gravy.

Coconut Gravy
1 1/2 cups coconut milk (1 can)
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 cup water

In a 4 quart saucepan, bring the coconut milk to a gentle boil. Add curry, sugar, soy sauce, and lemon juice, and simmer for two minutes. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and water until there are no lumps. Add to coconut-curry mixture and whisk until the gravy thickens.

To serve, make a bed of the rice mixture, garnish with cilantro or avocado and pour the gravy on top.
In addition to the above menu, I put out the bottle of the infamous Lizano Salsa that I brought back from Costa Rica. Our dinner guests poured this cumin-flavored salsa liberally and it really tied the entire meal together.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

I am home!

Last week I returned home from my month-long trip with a couple girlfriends to Central America. We traveled from Guatemala through Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. I am quite glad to be back home with my honey and to cooking in my kitchen. One of my favorite parts of the trip was that I was quite inspired by the cuisines I sampled during my trip. I never imagined I liked rice and beans as much as I do. Central Americans use the foods readily avaliable to make simple, wholesome, delicious meals. Lucky for me, my wonderful travel companions were just as interested in dining on the local fare as I was. I took lots of notes and pictures about the things we ate and will be blogging about them in the near future. I ate copious amount of fresh, tropical fruits for breakfast every morning and could not get enough of the homemade corn tortillas that were served with every meal.

In the meantime, I am off to the kitchen to cook my first Costa Rican dish for some friends who are coming for dinner tonight. I found a recipe for Caribbean Rice and Beans with Spiced Coconut Gravy in the Tico Times the morning I left and have decided to give it a shot. If it fails, we are ordering Chinese, if not, I will post the recipe!

Check back on my blog frequently as I am now officially on the "pro-leisure circuit" for the summer as I look for a new job. I will cooking up a storm, reading lots of food books, and plan to try and test lots of new kitchen gear and products.
Below is a picture of the Central Market in Leon, Nicaragua. Many more pictures to follow!