Anyone ever feel like your vacations don’t last long enough?

I do.

This is how I made my vacation last into the weekend (at least on my plate).

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That octopus dish I had at the shore was preying on my mind, haunting me with memories of lemony deliciousness. I was combing the web for recipes and techniques for cooking octopus, thinking about how to recreate a similar dish at home. The octopus info was quite frankly, a little daunting. Then Saturday morning, I noticed a new seafood vendor at the Uptown Hoboken Farmers Market. He had lovely fresh calamari from Long Island, and I thought “hey, they’re both Cephalopods, I can cook calamari!” and grabbed a pound. Cooked with lemon butter, a shaved fennel and parsley salad tumbled on top, and juicy fried lemon on the side and I’m right back, salty breeze in my hair, sand between my toes.

What I ended up with was more a reminder than a faithful recreation of the octopus dish. That’s the point- re-entering real life is inevitable but the reminder of a fun relaxing trip can make even a mundane workweek in the kitchen feel more celebratory.

What’s a memory of a great trip or a great meal you can tug out and use to make your daily grind a little more like a day at the beach?

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Celebrating sisters

I just got back to New Jersey last night from a fabulous weekend trip to Atlanta and points south for some pre-wedding celebrations with my sisters. Grace is getting married next week! I flew down Wednesday and Grace picked me up at the airport. The four of  us piled into Joy’s car, turned the air-conditioner on High and drove south through Alabama to a cottage on the Gulf coast.

It’s high summer in the South and produce stands are burgeoning along the highways. I find it nearly impossible to ignore a hand-lettered sign on the roadside offering watermelons or corn (picked today!) or peaches, but add “hot-boiled peanuts” to the signs and it’s like the car drives itself off onto the dirt verge and stops in front of the stand of its own volition. We got a watermelon, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of boiled peanuts, and a half sack of peaches. The gentleman who sold them to us said that the only problem was we’d wish we’d bought a whole sack. He had photos on the stand of the project his produce was funding – corrugated metal homes in Guatemala. When he asked is we were going to the beach, we said yes, to celebrate our sister’s upcoming wedding, and he said to Grace, “Well, I’ll give you some of my wife’s peach cake for a wedding present.” Moist yellow cake with nuggets of tangy Alabama peaches; pretty sweet wedding gift if you ask me! The cake and peanuts were fallen upon like a swarm of locusts.

The next couple of days went by too fast, sitting on the dock at night watching the lightning out over the Gulf and shooting stars overhead and talking, catching up on our lives, floating around in the blissfully warm buoyant Gulf water, getting a little sunburned, eating watermelon on the dock and spitting the seeds into the water, laughing, watching the fish and porpoises and shrimp boats and barges on the Intercoastal Waterway.  When the beach got a little too hot, we went shopping and found a sophisticated blue dress for Michal, who looked incredibly beautiful and also impossibly grown-up in it. We cooked together in the evenings, grilling corn and steaks which we ate with blue cheese butter and juicy wedges of  tomato, and made ceviche, fresh and cold with chunks of mango and avocado on crisp tostadas after that hot day at the beach.

Friday evening, we headed back through a couple of rainstorms which left the air feeling as if it had already been breathed. This humidity is taking some getting used to. I felt like I was submerged in water, even when I wasn’t. After the rain, the air had that soft, fragrant quality that I think of as so evocative of the South I grew up in. I think back, thinking about  the girls when they were my “little” sisters, and am so happy to have had this time to spend with the truly lovely women they have all become. I’m looking forward to this weekend, the wedding, spending more time with my family, grabbing a few more of these great, fun moments as they whip by.

Bay Ceviche

6 white fish filets, minced

or

1 pound bay scallops, quartered

1 tomato, diced

1 avocado, diced

1/2 large red onion, minced small

1 jalapeno pepper, minced small

1 mango, diced

about 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

juice of 3-4 limes

Goya Bitter Orange seasoning to taste

or a splash of orange juice and salt to taste

Mix everything together in a glass bowl once everything is cut up and prepped. Toss to saturate with the lime juice. I lightly dusted the top of the bowl with the seasoning, mixed it in, and then tasted and added a little more just before serving. After everything is mixed, allow it to sit for at least 1/2 hour until the seafood looks white and opaque- which means it is “cooked”. Serve on crisp tostadas with a splash of Tapatio sauce.

The other wine country

Livermore Valley

To say that California has a bit of a split personality is like saying that we have a “little fault line” running down our middle. Californians are Botoxed celebrities and middle-aged hippie activists, surfer dudes and ski bunnies, cosmopolitan urbanites and dry land farmers. It’s an afternoon’s drive from skiing to the beach, and from foggy redwood forests to sere deserts dotted with cholla cacti. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to find that California wine country has as diverse a range of personality as the rest of the state.


I spent the last few weekends exploring some of the close- by lesser known wine regions: the East Bay’s Livermore Valley, Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra foothills, and the Delta’s Lodi region. These are not private chef and art collections and $20 wine tasting wine regions like their better known cousins to my north; these are dirt-under-the-fingernails and pick-up truck wine regions where you may be the only group in the winery, talking to the winemaker or his wife about why they love their jobs and what they are excited about sharing with visitors. Wineries and tasting rooms may be cool and elegant, or it may be in an old barn or cellar with tools on peg boards on the wall and folding tables holding a line of bottles for tasting. The grapes that thrive in each specific area are unique because of the weather, the soil, the elevation, even the direction that the valley lies. I was excited to try some wines that I was unfamiliar with: Alvarelhao and Verdelhos in Livermore, the Rhone varietals of Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre in Amador, and the Albarino from Lodi, as well as the more familiar Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Tempernillo grapes. And I came home with some bottles to try in a price range that made trying some new and different wine less of a risk.

Shenandoah Valley, Amador County

So, if you wake up one Saturday and you’re in the mood for some adventurous, low-key wine exploration and gorgeous scenery and instead find  yourself in a traffic jam behind a bunch of rental cars and stretch limos, take a side road out of there and take off for one of the other wine countries. I plan on spending a little more time looking for wineries on the back roads in the quiet corners and valleys this year.

Lodi, California

Jessie's Grove Winery, Lodi

Some wineries I particularly enjoyed were:
Thomas Coyne Winery
Bray Vineyards
Terre Rouge Wines
Harney Lane Winery

Bray Vineyards, Amador County

Road tripping

After griping about the weather, what could be nicer on a Saturday than a short road trip through the green and pearly-skied Sonoma County countryside.

What could be better? Maybe arriving in Bodega Bay conveniently around lunch time. And knowing that the best fried seafood you’ve had in a long time is (surprise!) right there in Bodega Bay! We’ve made the round trip before just for the calamari- it’s really swell.

If you drive up Highway 1 through town and look for the shop with the flags and kites on the shore side, pull into the parking lot just past it. The Boat House parking lot is reassuringly lined with piles of oyster shells and management has clearly been spending more money on the ingredients than the decor- it’s wood panelling and formica tables all the way. Order at the counter- everything that I’ve had is fresh and crisp, cooked perfectly, but I especially recommend the calamari, scallops and bbqed oysters. Grab a beer while you’re at the counter. A hoppy Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale compliments very well and find a sunny table. If they don’t bring cocktail sauce with your order, ask for it. It’s homemade and has a good not-too-sweet flavor.

It’s probably best not to talk for a while. There are better things to be doing with your mouth and fried seafood waits for no man. All it takes is a little perserverance and dedication and you’ll end up in the clean plate club.

The shop next door with all of the kites sells salt water taffy and retro candy like Pop Rocks and Boston baked beans. We got Zotz for the road.

We meandered back down Highway 1 through Valley Ford, Olema, and Point Reyes Station, stopped and watched the surfers in Bolinas for a minute. Is there anything like fried food and beautiful scenery to refresh the winter-weary soul?

Harold’s

Harold’s New York Deli, Edison, New Jersey- Scott and I ate here on a Friday night during a house- hunting trip to New Jersey. It’s next to a hotel near the business park where his new office is in Edison, right off the highway. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the only place to eat in Edison besides Dunkin’ Donuts and the only place I could almost reliably find from our hotel with out ending up on a divided highway in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour while the GPS indignantly and huffily re-calculates repeatedly. But I digress. The entrance hallway is flanked by the cashier’s booth on one side and a wall of glass fronted refrigerator cases on the other. The cases are full of cakes- layer and cheese on a scale that makes me feel Lilliputian. Seriously huge, the layer cakes are six layers tall in commercial sized cake pans and the cheesecakes are probably six inches deep by eighteen inches across. Scott took me past the hostess stand for a quick look at the pickle bar, a twelve foot buffet with sliced bread, rolls and pickles- sauerkraut, sour, half sour, kosher dill, health salad (oh the irony!) pickled tomatoes, hot cherry pickled peppers, hot garlic dill chips, and maybe a couple more that I can’t remember. We went back to the hostess and she threaded us through several dining rooms of hearty eaters to a long table near the back of the restaurant. The menu recommended sharing sandwiches between two people for a large or up to four people for the extra-large. We ordered a Reuben with pastrami, sized large comes with pickle bar and we order a couple of Dr. Brown sodas. Walking back through the restaurant to the pickle bar, the scale of the food on the tables I pass begins to really sink in- these are massive sandwiches! I see a sandwich with a half a head of iceberg lettuce perched on top, dwarfed by the huge pile of meat underneath. We get an assortment of pickles to try, and they are really good- the sauerkraut has that bitter tang of really fermented cabbage, the pickles are each distinctive in flavor and texture. I really like the tomato and the half sour.

There are a couple of guys in our section who are apparently enjoying their first visit to Harold’s also and seem unable to believe their luck. One sits sideways to the table, facing the room as if watching for someone to come up and tell him he’s being punked, making asides to the room- I overhear   “well, you’re not getting ripped of paying $26 for a sandwich here!”

Our sandwich arrives, open-faced and roughly the size of a roast chicken, covered with melted cheese and accompanied by spicy mustard and Russian dressing on the side. When we dig in and start piling it onto our plates, it’s a layer of swiss (?) cheese, a pile of the great sauerkraut and a moist pink pile of pastrami on top of dressing and a slice of bread. It’s the best pastrami I have ever had- juicy and flavorful with just the right amount of fat throughout each slice. The peppery black layer on the outside is delicious. There is easily a pound and a half of meat on the plate. My cream soda and the pickles cut through some of the richness, but really, that’s a losing battle.  I wonder out loud if Scott’s vegan colleague breaks out in hives just driving past the restaurant.

Meanwhile, a couple of guys sit at the opposite end of our table- clearly local based on the accent. They order the “romany” steak which reminded me of the grocery list for King Solomon’s household when it arrived along with about a quart of mashed potatoes.  When I ask what it is and then laugh spontaneously at the absurdity of it all, they go into full swing. They remark how ridiculous it is- disgusting, really- as they dig in. Got any friends in the area, they say, call them and have them help us eat this. One says he’s going to take a baby aspirin as soon as the meal is over, the other says he’s got his doctor on speed dial and sets his cell phone on the table next to his plate. Their wives will no longer come here with them, they say, they’ll have stroke from all the salt in the pickles. It’s pure theatre and they play it to perfection. We made it through about half of our sandwich before calling it quits and turned down the offer of dessert, no thanks, no two-pound slice of cake for me tonight, thank you. A couple more groups come past us as we’re paying the cashier, and the stereotypical bleach-blond cotton candy haired, leopard clothed, perma-tanned, gold encrusted 65-year-old Jersey matron cackles past us saying ”everything here is king-soized!” Her compadres are outside finishing their cigarettes and gossiping.

Jet lag

I knew I was in trouble when my eyes slammed irrevocably open at 4 AM. There is no sheep counting or backwards counting from 100 with jet lag. I’m just awake and will be until I fall prey to narcoleptic–like somnolence at around 7 PM, crashing hard, dizzily trying to keep myself awake until something a little past a toddler’s bedtime.

This is the price I pay for my jet set life style. It’s not pretty, but it’s worth it and I try to make the best of it. I spent the dark pre dawn trying to decide what I’d cook for supper since I was past my limit for consecutive meals eaten out and have been looking forward to the comforting routine of my own kitchen.  I knew I would need something familiar that I could cook with half my brain tied behind my back, something savory, and since the weather has been raw and rainy, beef stew sounded perfect.

Beef stew is familiar and comforting, something I’ve made my whole life and refined as my taste and skills have improved. I’m able to move easily through the process, browning peppery pieces of beef chuck, adding garlic and shallots and then deglazing the pan with wine and tomatoes before putting it into a  low oven with a spoonful of harissa paste and a bay leaf.  About an hour before we eat, I’ll add the vegetables I’ve prepped- cubes of white turnips and creamy yellow potatoes, discs of carrot and snapped green beans.  Add biscuits or cornbread and it’s simple and satisfying, definitely a meal worth coming home for.

You can go anywhere

My mother, quoting her mother told me my whole childhood; “it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you have good manners you can go anywhere.” She was kind of a stickler about it, making us sit on our left hand if we were poking in our food too much, telling us not to lean over our plates like a puppy at a bowl. I even remember her making me stand up for the last part of a meal because I had tipped my chair one too many times. The caveat was that no matter what, making other people comfortable is the soul of good manners. So when I found myself at a table where the hosts used their hands to eat, I washed up, watched for technique, and dug in.

We were guests in the home of a colleague, a family from Calcutta who live in Hong Kong. Along with my husband, a Chinese colleague, another visitor from India and our host, I was the only woman seated for the meal. The lady of the house, her daughter and a house helper bustled around serving food onto our plates, filling glasses with drinks, bringing new plates and bowls and fussing over all of us.  The table was covered with chapattis, a curry made with chickpeas, a saag paneer or spinach with paneer cheese, a spicy shrimp dish that was redolent of mustard seeds, fried fish served with a spicy mustard, a mutton curry with a cinnamon, cumin and rosewater scented biriyani, cucumber raita, hot mango pickles, and a fruit chutney with dates and mangoes. “Using a fork to eat is like talking to your fiancé through an interpreter,” they told us.

Chapattis are a flat round bread that is used sort of like a spoon to scoop saucier foods into your mouth. It is flaky, a little crispy and chewy .The fish and shrimp were all peeled, dipped in sauce and eaten with the right hand, the left hand not being used to touch the food, only to serve yourself with the serving spoon. The biriyani and mutton curry were mixed together by hand on the plate and when it was sticky enough to hold the rice together but not saucy enough to drip, you pick up a clump on your four fingers, bring it to your mouth and flick it in with the thumb. I did my best to keep myself food free above the wrist, and by leaning over the plate, only dropped a little into my lap.

It was a delicious meal characteristically full of complex flavors and the taste was enhanced by the uniqueness of the experience. I think my mother or grandmother would have been proud of my eating with my hands. Showing respect, trying to adapt, and eating whatever is put before me with thanks is what they taught me and that is what has allowed me to go anywhere.

One is the loneliest number

The downside to trips like this is that I end up spending a lot of time alone. With the language difference, I can walk around for hours with out understanding anything that anyone around me is saying, none of the ambient noise of familiarity, until I feel like I exist in a bubble. Mealtime is when it really hits.

Eating is a pleasure that is doubled in the sharing. That moment of “Ah” when the day is over and you relax with someone over a meal is one of my favorite times in life.  Last night, I was beginning to feel the loneliness and knew that I needed a supper that would not only be comforting and delicious, but would also give me something to intrigue my mind in lieu of conversation. I did a little research and found a ramen restaurant in the Miramar Building nearby that was well reviewed and took off looking for solace in a bowl.

I was eventually seated at a single table on a little red stool. The table had been pulled apart from another table so it was sans condiments, but all of the food going by looked great and the waitress was friendly. I ordered an Asahi and a bowl of tonkotsu or pork bone ramen.  The broth was incredible- milky white, rich and buttery with intriguing flavors lurking under the surface. There was cabbage, scallion, thin slices of what looked like wood ear mushrooms and some gorgeous chunks of braised pork belly all atop a tangle of chewy ramen noodles.

There are worse places to be than alone with a warm delicious bowl of soup that is as rich and comforting as the best chicken noodle but is also exotic and unfamiliar enough to leave me wanting to know more. I sat silently and drank my Asahi and the smoky oolong tea from the tiny glass and mug, thinking about this opportunity that I have to be challenged and have my horizons expanded.  I don’t want to miss out on moments like this just because I’d rather not eat alone.

Well, hello there gorgeous!

This is one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous cha siu joints we walked past on our way to Mong Kok. Displayed is chicken, duck, goose, pigeon, and all sorts of tasty pork bits. I had just eaten a big round table full of dim sum when we happened on this particular place, but I think I have a date with destiny sometime this week.

Chungking Mansion

Have you ever seen one of those cars in a salvage yard that has been crushed into a little cube? Chungking Mansion is like a city that has been sent through the compacter and is now a condensed version of an entire city, but fits on one block of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.  An anthill of activity, it’s labyrinth of hallways houses 4,000 people and hundreds of shops, guest houses, import companies, restaurants and food stalls and everyone is there to hustle.

This is where we had supper last night. Third floor, block C , in the (unmarked) Delhi Club. I had read about it on openrice.com and was in the mood for adventure. Walking in felt like walking into someone’s basement that had been decorated with cheap tile and glass Christmas balls, but the smell! We sat and ordered a couple of Kingfishers and looked through the menu. One of the waiters came and asked if we knew how to order and I said no because I like to see how he would guide us. “Spicy or mild?” he said, “spicy”I replied and we were off on a series of questions like mutton vs chicken, masala vs vindaloo, plain vs garlic naan, meat vs veg samosas. Another waiter dropped off a couple of crisp fresh papadam which we smeared with cilantro- mint chutney. The chutney was fresh, cool and spicy at the same time. Veg samosas were next, very hot with the flakiest shell and an intensely spiced interior. My tongue had started to heat up to the point where all of my taste buds are paying attention to what comes next, my favorite heat level. We shared a mutton vindaloo with garlic naan. The vindaloo was intense- sweet, sinus clearing hot, and rich with chewy mutton and potatoes. We used the flaky naan to wipe up the sauce into our happy mouths. We finished with cardamom scented masala tea, a milk tea made with black tea steeped with a spice blend that is both exotic and soothing.

When we left, winding our way back down and out, it struck me that our meal had a similar vibe to the Mansion- intense and hot, a complex blend of flavors, spices, and textures, a little overwhelming, but deeply satisfying and completely unforgettable.