Friday, December 31, 2004
New Year's Eve seems like the right time for a wrap up of the year in food. This past year saw lots of bad food news. There were mad cow scares, Martha Stewart eating prison food, fast food health scandals (including the death of McDonald's CEO) the death of Julia Child and all around low-carb craziness.
On the upside the restaurant scene in San Francisco seems to be coming back to life with the opening of some new high profile restaurants, such as Michael Mina. The other trend seemed to be towards lounge/nightclub restaurants like Lime, Frisson and Levende to name just a few. The trend towards "small-plates" has generally meant more creative menus and more choices at the dinner table.
The interest in local produce, farmers markets and organic food continued to grow this year. There was a huge resurgence in artisan chocolate, including those with untraditional flavorings such as curry or ginger and ultra traditional flavorings such as chili.
So what will the trends be for next year? As far as restaurants go, the Nuevo Latino movement may continue to build momentum. More regionally specific restaurants will also be in vogue (like A16). I think we'll see exotic ingredients such as pomegranates, unusual citrus fruits like bergamot and yuzu, and Middle Eastern spices and spice mixes (such as dukkah and ras el hanout) gaining in popularity. I also predict that we have barely scratched the surface of the cutting edge cuisine where dishes are deconstructed or ingredients are pushed to their limit (a la Ferran Adria of El Bulli).
For all my readers I predict a happy, and delicious new year!
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
On Christmas day I went to see the Golden Globe nominated film Sideways. I'm not a movie critic so forgive me, but it was perhaps the first wine movie I've ever seen so I think it's worth blogging about. The movie is ostensibly the story of two friends (played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church) who are off on a wine country getaway before one of them gets married.
But getaway is the last thing they do. The buddies confront each other, their past and their failures--often in the company of two strong women (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). The writer-director team of Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne also worked on Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt and Election so it should come as no surprise at how well they manage to balance slapstick humor, dark comedy, and drama. Everyone has known someone like the happy-go-lucky "Jack" who manages to end up always smelling like a rose despite his at times despicable behavior. We also identify with Miles who after two years has still not gotten over his divorce.
So what does the movie have to do with wine, other than the setting? A lot actually. While one character is a wine snob and the other an ignoramus, both their reactions to wine and to the effect of drinking it are universal. More importantly the metaphor of wine as a living thing that is handcrafted and that reaches its peak or prime before deteriorating, weaves it's way through the film. If nothing else, go see this movie to get a taste of what passion is all about--passion for wine, passion for life and passion for love.
Monday, December 27, 2004
While after Christmas sales may beckon others, I am avoiding the lousy weather, venturing out no farther than the kitchen. What I've learned in my kitchen is that necessity truly is the mother of invention. So perhaps is laziness. Using what you have on hand to cook forces you to be more creative and inventive. Rather than going through the motions and relying on tried-and-true recipes, you move out of your comfort zone and take risks.
When I got home from vacation I tried to restock the fridge and pantry but forgot to buy milk. Amazing how many recipes use milk, even making pancakes from a mix requires milk. This is what I mean about laziness. Sure I could have gone to the store this morning, but it's been raining nonstop...
What I did have on hand was orange juice. After searching but not quite finding a milk-free pancake recipe that met my liking I developed this recipe which turned out amazingly well. These pancakes are especially good topped with Lyle's Golden Syrup.
Orange Spice Walnut Pancakes
serves 2 (double the recipe for 4)
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup orange juice
2 Tablespoons melted butter, cooled
1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl. In another bowl beat the egg, add the rest of the wet ingredients. Combine the two bowls, mixing just to combine and stir in the walnuts. Scoop onto a hot buttered griddle with a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Cook over medium heat until bubbles form, then flip. Keep pancakes warm in the oven while the rest are cooking.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
Today is December 25th, Christmas day, a day Jews celebrate by going out to eat Chinese food and by going to see movies. After all, what else is there to do? Christmas dominates our culture and on this day most everything is closed and most everyone is celebrating with their families.
While I was in Mexico the celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe overshadowed preparations for Christmas for most of our stay. But as our trip was drawing to a close, the Mexican colors of red, white and green seemed to be everywhere. Even in doughnuts.
I will be heading out soon for Chinese food and plan to see the movie Sideways. Since this movie is being described as a "wine movie", I''ll probably post about it soon. In the meantime, for those of you celebrating Christmas, I wish you a very joyous one.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
The pleasure derived from a warm fresh French or French cruller doughnut is almost beyond description. It's a very different kind of doughnut than say an old-fashioned. It is light and crispy and almost eggy in the center. While many doughnuts are made from yeast based batter, the cruller is made from pate a choux (pronounced: pat-a-shoo). A doughnut seems like a very decadent indulgent thing, yet according to Dunkin' Donuts a cruller will only set you back 150 calories.
The French cruller is a doughnut that has a long history in the Northeast where it was traditionally made in a braided rather than round shape. Why it's called a French cruller I cannot say for sure. Cruller comes from the Dutch word krulle, meaning "twisted cake." Perhaps the French part refers to the French type of dough it's made from? If you know for sure, please feel free to enlighten me.
As with all other doughnuts it's really nothing special when cold, but it you can get your hands on a hot one...My pick for where to find a good one is Bob's Donuts on Polk street. They make most of their doughnuts from scratch, rather than mixes, and are routinely rated among the best in the City. Just a few blocks from my house I rarely have one, because they make their doughnuts at night and you have to pass by at just the proper moment to get it right. Just to be on the safe side, you can give them a call to see when the doughnuts are fresh.
Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop
1621 Polk St (between Clay and Sacramento streets)
Open 24 hours a day but go between 10 pm and midnight or don't bother
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Today was our last day in Mexico, tomorrow we return home. The trip has been wonderful and while I did not take many photos,I have many mental snapshots of delicious moments:
Swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean ocean under the Maya ruins at Tulum
Savoring the most divine Mexican chocolate ice cream, bitter and lush
Catching sight of brilliant green, blue and red parrots flying through the jungle at Laguna Bacalar
Chilling down with an almost daily lime paleta (popsicle) in the sweltering Yucatan heat
Hearing the romantic songs of a Merida trio at the Park Hidalgo
Swooning over mole chicken enchiladas wrapped in delicate thin corn tortillas
Spotting a cotamundi scampering down the street in Chemuyil
I hope you have gotten a good taste of Mexico vicariously through the posts of the past three weeks.
The beautiful photos in the posts have come from the hotels we stayed at and the Mexican Tourism Board. The photos I did take will be featured in posts when I return.
Sunday, December 19, 2004
It is possible to visit Mexico and not experience Mexico. It is easy to find comfortable lodgings, lush jungles, beautiful beaches, familiar food--all at the prices you would expect to pay at home. However, if you make the effort you can also find the real Mexico.
Between Cancun and Tulum the coast is dotted with resorts and resort communities. If you venture to the West of the highway you can find outposts, tiny villages and towns. Like mistakenly stepping into the service entrance of a grand hotel, the streets are populated with the people who service the big resorts. Most of the people come from somewhere else, few are local.
Yesterday we ventured into Chemuyil, a tiny village just three miles from where we are staying in Akumal. The streets were filled with children on a Saturday, playing and laughing. There were a couple of mini-supers, the ubiquitous grocery stores, and a small outdoor market where women were buying fresh produce. Music was playing and the town was relaxed and bucolic.
For lunch we found a seafood restaurant, La Palapa run by Chucho. We had succulent ceviche tostadas, lightly breaded shrimp tacos and a Maya fish entree that was cooked with spices in a banana leaf. Perhaps most unusual was an appetizer of ground up pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and cilantro, served with chips, gratis. One of our best meals yet, the food was fresh, flavorful and unique.
For dinner we could not help but return to try another spot recommended by Chucho, Loncheria El Parque, right up the block from the local park, not surprisingly. All six tables were outside and the menu featured all antojitos, or the snack type food that is so popular in Mexico. We had tacos al pastor, cheese and chicken empanadas and salbutes with carne asada. Scrumptious! And completely different from other version of the same items we have had elsewhere in the Yucatan. With sodas for everyone, the bill came to $10--not each, but for the whole table.
Walking through the streets in the cool of the evening watching people set up a wedding cake and fill up the street with chairs, this was Mexico, not for the benefit of the tourists, but for it´s own sake. With tourism encrouching everywhere, it surely will not be the same in a few years, but for last night it sure was wonderful.
Friday, December 17, 2004
After four days at an all inclusive resort we are now staying at the Villa Savasana, nestled between the Caribbean ocean and the fresh water Yalku lagoon. Villa sounds rather grand, it is really just a three bedroom one and a half bath house. The picture above is of the villa. Unfortunately the weather has turned grey and we have not been swimming or snorkeling which is what this location is perfect for doing.
Staying in a house means we are able to cook, especially breakfasts and some dinners. Eggs are a very popular breakfast item in Mexico and are served all kinds of ways--rancheros, Mexicanos, Veracruzana, with ham, bacon, potatoes, you name it. At the resort everyone had their eggs cooked to order which was nice since people tend to be fussy about their eggs. I like mine softly scrambled or poached. Fried eggs get too rubbery for me.
Since tortillas are the best bread around, I am making my version of huevos rancheros for breakfast. I partially poach the eggs in salsa and do it all in one pan to save on clean up!
Huevos alla Amy
2 corn tortillas
2 Tablespoons salsa (not fresh chopped tomatoes and onions but roasted or jar salsa)
1 Tablespoon oil
cilantro, grated cheese, sliced avocado
Heat a griddle or large non-stick pan and add the oil. When the oil is warm, place the tortillas without overlapping (or overlapping only slightly)Heat for about 30 seconds then spoon a tablespoon on salsa on top of each tortilla. Continue cooking for about a minute or until the salsa is warm. Break the eggs on top of the salsa topped tortillas and cook as desired. You can add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cover the pan to speed the cooking of the eggs. Top with optional garnishes. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Oops! I jumped the gun, there was something about blogging in the Merc but it was not the piece I was expecting (see last post). I will keep you posted....for now back to Mexico...
While Mexico has many ruins and precious artifacts of ancient civilizations, the museums are often old and musty. Two exceptional museums, modern and enlightening, were the Maya museum in Chetumal and the city museum in the fort at the castle of Laguna Bacalar.
The Maya museum in Chetumal explores the life of the Maya people as opposed to the history alone. It is organized by the three worlds--earth, the celestial world and the underground--and attempts to take you into the life of the Maya. There was little information about cooking, except to show some cooking vessels and also it was explained that cooking took place indoors.
The museum in the fort was filled with children when we were there and why not? After all it was all about pirates! It told the history of the Laguna Bacalar region and the Maya as well as the Spanish and the pirates, privateers and bucaneers. I can now explain the difference between those last three groups, though I will spare you the details.
One of the more interesting elements of the museum in the fort was the history of the Spanish coming to Mexico and the first mestizo or mixed race people. Mexico is a blending of the native Maya and the Spanish. You can see the fusion not just in the faces of the people but also in their food. So many ingredients came from the new world, tomatoes, chocolate, corn, to name a few but many of the cooking techniques are very Spanish, expecially the use of rice which is served with so many meals in Mexico.
In scrutinizing menu items it is often a challenge to try to identify the origin of a recipe, thinking about Spanish cooking and new world ingredients. It has inspired me to learn about and cook more Mexican food when I come home.
Monday, December 13, 2004
I am breaking with tradition here. I am staying at a resort and it is just too hard to get access to the internet, so I am blogging ahead of time. Just pretend it is Monday, ok? I will be back on schedule next week.
I was recently interviewed by a journalist from the San Jose Mercury News. So expect to find an interesting piece on blogging in the Merc on Monday. My apologies as I do not have the link for it yet but poke around and you should find it.
Sunday, December 12, 2004
Did you ever eat in a restaurant that was not really a restaurant? On this trip we have eaten at taquerias, restaurants, cafes, cocina economica places, and loncherias. We also ate at Mimi´s which was something else entirely.
Mimi is from Mexico City one of the worlds largest cities. It is congested and polluted and vibrant and alive. But Mimi was not healthy and her doctor told her to move to the country. She found a spot she liked very much at Laguna Bacalar. The lake is also known as the lake of seven colors. Imagine a large shallow lake surrounded by wildlife, especially tropical birds. The lake ranges from turquoise to opal to grey to navy blue--all at the same time. It is peaceful and beautiful.
After three years Mimi's health was much improved. She and her husband made plans to return to Mexico City, but then they did not go. They stayed. It was just too nice at Laguna Bacalar to leave. So Mimi decided that she would open a restaurant but it seemed no one is willing to sell or even rent to her near the main square where there is no other restaurant around.
Driving the costera or coast line of the lake you will find houses that have signs indicating Mexican meals or Comidas. If you ring the bell at Mimi's house, she will invite you to her terrace to one of three tables and serve you a homemade meal. When we were there the menu was asado de res or a rich and chile infused beef stew, served with it was rice and black beans and fresh carrots. An appetizer of nachos was served and for dessert an unusual and divine almond flan. Everything was terrific and a terrific break from restaurant food. She charged us less than $10 a piece. I hope she gets to open a real restaurant soon, I would love to try it. But in the meantime I enjoyed a home cooked meal and the company of a gracious hostess in the midst of all the restaurant meals.
Friday, December 10, 2004
I used to think I knew what tacos were. Back in the old days they were bright yellow crunchy crisp pre-formed shells made of corn filled with ground beef, some spices shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato and a shred of cheddar. That was all I knew.
Soft tacos are usually what we know think of as authentic. They are soft corn tortillas with a spoonful of chopped meat or chicken or seafood, sometimes organ meats--tongue, brain, etc. A taco might have a little chopped cilantro or onion on it but not much else. Well, not here in Mexico.
Tacos Dorado are more like taquitos, filled with a barbequed chicken, rolled up and fried crisp. They are topped with shredded iceberg and crema and sliced of tomato and onion, maybe some crumbled queso. Tacos Arracheras are even more unlike traditional soft tacos. A flour tortilla is filled with melted cheese, a dab of refried beans, chopped marinated and grilled beef filet, and so much guacamole it oozes out the sides. Like a Philly cheesesteak it is an indulgence not to be taken lightly!
Here on the lake at Bacalar the views are spectacular and the hammock endlessly beckons you to rest, nap, and dream of the next meal.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
We are deep in the heart of the jungle now. Or so it seems. We are staying at the Chicanna Ecovillage which is located just steps from the Chicanna Maya ruins in the Calakmul Biosphere Preserve.
The meals here all seem to include platanos or a type of fried bananas. Served with rice, refried beans, as a garnish, even with eggs. Platanos are like bananas but starchier and only eaten cooked. They often have a carmelized surface and tangy flavor I suspect comes from lime juice. We have grown quite fond of platanos.
Meals are very heavy and focused on meat. The chicken actually tastes like chicken unlike the bland excuse for chicken we get at home. The best meals are actually snacks, called antojitos. In the Yucatan and here in the state of Campeche the antojitos are sopes, empanadas, panuchos and salbutes. All of them are some form of fried dough and topped or filled with cheese or meat and salsa and or crema and or avocado. They are usually crispy and light and mouth-wateringly good. In a cocina economica they sell for about 60 cents each and two are pleny for a light meal. Going on 8 days and we are still not tired of Mexican food! Though the closest town is so tiny there are no ice cream shops and no stores with freezers. There are plenty of shoe stores however...
Monday, December 06, 2004
Campechanos are foodies. That is what my guide book seems to indicate anyway. I would agree.
Campeche is farther south than Merida and right on the sea. Not surprisingly the seafood is excellent. Shrimp tostadas, seafood cocktails, and some more unusual offerings. One specialty of Campeche is pan de cazon, layers of chopped cooked shark between tortillas and smothered in a spicy tomato sauce then baked. Another specialty is arroz con pulpo, a dish similar to arroz con pollo only with chunks of tender octopus in place of the chicken. The rice here is delicately seasoned and studded with onions and peppers.
I cannot resist checking out the markets in each town or city we visit. Each vendor carefully arranges their produce for maximum effect. Here in Campeche, the fresh fruit and vegetable stands also sell conserved fruits in syrup. The jars are everywhere but way too large to carry home. Also candy with honey is a local ubiquitous treat found in markets, pharmacies, etc.
Like in Merida, in Campeche ice cream and popsicles are available all the time as ice cream stores are open from dawn to I-do-not-know-when. It is just so damned hot all the time...
Saturday, December 04, 2004
Merida is just as beautiful as I remember it. A very romantic city with Moorish details to the architecture and Spanish colonial influences everywhere.
Lunch is the main meal in the Yucatan. Many of the best restaurants are closed for dinner. You can have a taco for 30 cents or go crazy in an elegant upscale fine dining institution and spend $10, if you really try hard. We had lunch our first day at Gran Almendros. This mainstay of Yucatecan cuisine claims to have invented poc-chuc, a very popular dish in this region. Pork cutlets are marinated in achiote and bitter orange juice, then grilled and served with a picked onion relish and more bitter orange. They also served cochinita pibil, another dish with sour, bitter orange juice, but this time a shredded pork. The meals are often heavy and well-spiced but light on vegetables.
Fortunately fresh fruit is everywhere including juices and frozen popsicles called paletas. The Mexicans may not be experts at dessert, but they sure grow wonderful fruit all year round to enjoy. Many fruits are not commonly available at home, such as mamey but they are exotic and enticing to gringos on vacation...
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Yesterday we went to Cancun for dinner. Well, actually our flight to Merida did not leave until this morning so we spent the night in Ciudad Cancun. The hotel was right across the street from Sanborns Cafe.
Sanborns which started out as a pharmacy I believe, is now a huge retail holding company. The original Sanborns had an adjoining restaurant and is located in a elegant building in Mexico City. It is famous for having invented Enchiladas Suizas and in my opinion they make the best chilaquiles anywhere. I have eaten at Sanborns in 2 locations in Mexico City and now in Cancun.
Chilaquiles is a dish made up of yesterdays tortillas. They are fried and kind of stewed with a red or green sauce, and often some chicken or beans. They are topped with cheese and a dab of crema. I do not know what the American equivelant is--it is not quite hash or bread pudding, but it is so rich and creamy and delicious it is irrestistable. So is Mexico.
Today we are in the white city, Merida. The capital of Yucatan, it is a major shopping hub and the central market is a labyrinth of alleys and passageways to explore and get lost in. Most unusual were packets of spices and dried herbs that I truly could not recognize. I may have to buy some just to investiage further...