Friday, July 25, 2014

Things I Miss...

     Honestly, I do not miss much about living in the States.  But I would not be telling the truth if I said that there was nothing I missed.  Right now...I miss air-conditioning.  I miss walking inside and getting that blast of cold air.  I miss cranking the temp down just before I go to bed so that I can sleep with my heavy duvet.  Right now, I am in a battle with my house.  In the early morning, I race to open windows to allow the cool air into the house.  By 10:00 a.m., I am racing around again but this time closing windows in hopes of trapping the cool air inside.  By bedtime, I am cursing that it is still 79 degrees Fahrenheit in my bedroom...who can sleep in temps that warm?   We have fans blowing 24-7.  I have taken to sleeping on the floor on the first floor because it is the coolest room in the house.  All of this because the temps have been about 80 degrees Fahrenheit for the last two weeks.  
     I can hear you now.  "She is complaining because it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit! That isn't hot!  She is getting older...maybe she's going through the change."  Well, when you have no circulation system in your house, anything over 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside can make it uncomfortable inside.  So there....I miss AC.  
Zucchini Trio:  Zucchini Blossom Quesadilla, Zucchini Fritters and Zucchini and Carrot Salad with Chickpeas and Spicy Peanut Dressing

     Yes, I stumped Dear Husband with a zucchini dish.  For Sunday lunch, I served him a trio of zucchini delicacies (my word, not his):  Zucchini blossom quesadillas, Zucchini Fritters and a Zucchini Salad with Chick Peas and a spicy peanut dressing.  Since then, I have been zucchini silent even though Dear Husband asks daily what zucchini inspired menu will appear for dinner.  I think he is just goading me.  Oh...just a slight break for now.  Currently, I have seven growing in the garden and by the time we return home from vacation, we will not only be in zucchini heaven (or h___) but also cucumber heaven!  I found a bunch growing this week while I was harvesting the remaining carrots.  
     With the higher temperatures, I have been trying to keep out of the kitchen as much as possible.  However, I have had this urge to cook.  Take a look at this salad...a friend of mine sent me a packet of nasturiums and they finally bloomed!  Did you know that you can eat the flowers and they are super tasty!  I started off with this salad...

     And then continued by adding a super grilled chicken with a cantaloupe salsa.  The chicken was a great recipe and I loved the technique.  Crush two cloves of garlic into a saucepan and add some olive oil.  Heat gently and let the garlic infuse the oil.  Take some chicken breasts and pound to flatten them.  Season with salt and pepper.  Brush some of the garlic oil on the chicken and place on a grill.  When placing on a grill, put the thickest part towards the hottest part of the grill.  Continue basting every few minutes and turning until the chicken has finished cooking.  Let it rest and place on your salad.  For the cantaloupe salsa, combine cantaloupe with red onion, jalapeño (seeded), cilantro and  a bit of lime juice.  


     Lastly, I made (on another morning), sweet potato chips.  Dear Daughter, now home from her trip to the States, suggested that I make these in the morning as it would be too hot in the kitchen around dinner time.  I did and they turned out pretty good.  Although,  I did have to place them in the oven for just a few moments to crisp them back up again, which kinda defeated the purpose of cooking them in the morning.  These were pretty easy and although they were cooked in oil, I have to believe that they are still better than supermarket brands.

     First, thinly, thinly slice one sweet potato.  If you have a mandolin, use that.  I do not (hint, hint). So, I painstakingly sliced the potato as thinly as I could it get it.  That is key.   In a pan, add vegetable oil (about 1 inch).  When sizzling, drop in a few slices of potato at a time.  You do not want to crowd the pan.   Swirl them around carefully and turn over so that they cook evenly.  It good about three to four minutes a batch but you have to watch them closely.  The sugars in the sweet potatoes will begin the caramelize quickly so you do not want them too brown.  Take out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.  Once drained, I moved them to another baking sheet to cool and added a bit of salt. I continued until they were all cooked.  Pretty tasty...

Sweet Potato Chips
     I have been planning several trips this week.  Dear Daughter and I are taking an overnighter to Venice.  Hopefully by this trip, she will have stopped staying up until 2am and sleeping until 10am!  We will continue the Italy theme with a trip to Rome for Labor Day and I just booked what looks to be an incredible food tour of one of the neighborhoods.  For now, it is nearly 10am - so time to wake Sleeping Beauty!  Ciao!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Spain: Seville - Food, Food, Food and Maybe a Monument or Two

Quiet Street - Seville

     At precisely 9:38 p.m. last Friday night, I died and went to culinary heaven.  On Saturday, it happened again around 1:15 p.m. and again at 8:45 p.m.  This continued, twice a day, until lunch was completed on Tuesday.  I have found that I base the success of the trip primarily on my dining experiences.  I need to connect to the location and the culture and I find that if I do so,  there has been some WOW factor in the food.  We are happy if it is just one meal and we will remember it for years to come.  Two meals?   We are ecstatic.  However, what happens if nearly every meal is incredible?  Well, then you spend your non-eating hours planning how you can live in this wonderful place.  That is exactly what happened in Seville, Spain.
     See, you go to Paris and remember the Eiffel Tower or a particular painting at the Louvre.  I go to Paris and remember the French restaurant where they had individual toasters at the table so you could toast your bread before you heaped a large piece of foie gras on the top.  You go to Prague and remember the Charles Bridge; I go to Prague and remember having my first taste of Prague ham in a small restaurant next door to the American Embassy.  You go to Venice and remember strolling along the canals.  I go to Venice and remember the quaint restaurant right near the Rialto Bridge that had air conditioning and where I had my first proper Italian meal.  I could go on and on...and on.  Sure, I think back fondly and remember the views from the western tip of France.  But, I also remember the grilled lobster drenched in warm cream.  Even with the sour memory of our last trip to Burgundy, I still smile when I think that it was on this trip that we discovered Epoisses cheese.
     Seville may have become my favorite European city.  It has such a unique vibe.  In the mornings, you find lots of activity...people out exercising or shopping or heading to work.  Lunch doesn't begin until 1pm and could last an hour or two.  By 4pm, no one is on the streets - nor will they be until 8pm or so when everything comes back to life until well past 11pm.  Perhaps, it is the heat of the summer that drives everyone to take a daily siesta.  In our four days there, we definitely adopted the Andalusian way of life.

Real Alcazar

Plaza de Espana - Built for the World Expo

A view of the Cathedral from the Alcazar

     The food...let's discuss TAPAS.  No one really knows the origins of Tapas, or small plates.  It is derived from the Spanish word, "taper", which means "to cover".  There are lots of legends surrounding the origins but here is one plausible one.  One of the kings was concerned with the amount of alcohol his subjects were drinking and as a result, the loss of productivity.  So, he decreed that bars had to serve little plates of food with each drink and the little plate fit like a lid on the top of the drink.  The plate covered the wine...hence, TAPAS.
     Tapas are huge in Seville.  While in its simplest form, it could be a small plate of cheese or chorizo, we also sampled more complex and the most imaginative cooking that we have seen in years.  We stumbled across this quite accidentally.  As we travel through Europe and wanting to learn as much as we can in a short amount of time, we have begun to hire guides to take us on private walking tours.  When researching possible tours of Seville, I came across an advertisement for a Tapas Walking Tour.  What could be and history?
     We met our guide, Shawn, outside the cathedral of Seville at 1pm on Saturday.  (Let me digress...the cathedral is spectacular!  It is one of the largest in Europe and currently houses the remains of Christopher Columbus...really cool.)  Anyway, Shawn is Canadian and moved to Seville twenty years ago.  She is wild about the Andalusian culture and its food.  Throughout the afternoon, she floored us with her tidbits of information, her selections of food and her passion.  She goes the extra mile...even providing us with a list of recommended restaurants and responding throughout the weekend to my impromptu text messages asking for more information.  Without a doubt, taking this tour was a highlight of the trip and enabled us to continue having an experience long after the tour was over.

Now those are some legs!

Jamon Iberico de Bellota with Sherry

     Let me tell you about the food and show you some pictures.  Some of the places we visited were quite old and belonging to generations of the same family.  At our first place, sitting next to huge old wine barrels, we sampled chorizo made from wild boar, a carpaccio of salt cod and ham.  Not just any jamon but Jamon Iberico de Bellota.  This melts in your mouth like butter.  The ham comes from black pigs, which have been allowed to free range for several years - they feast on acorns and the result is quite unique and flavorful.  As a result, we had jamon at nearly every meal and I loaded up my backpack with vacuum sealed packages of it to take home.

Pork Cheeks...delicious

     Another Andalusian traditional tapa is pork cheeks.  These are served in a deep rich sauce with a few slices of roasted potatoes.  Pringas are small sandwiches served almost like a panini with a tender meat filling inside.  Other places that we visited were more modern and the cooking was more adventurers.  I "oohed and aahed" after tasting a small langoustine burger that was bursting with flavor.  Hands down, our favorite place was a small restaurant called La Azotea.  We liked it so much that we had two meals there and I could have dined there every day.  The husband is Spanish and his wife is American and they have three restaurants around Seville.  If you want tapas, then you sit at the bar.  The menu card is small but they always have five to six additional specials that you could have as dinner or as smaller tapas portions.  The idea is that your order one tapa per person to begin with and if you are a couple, then share the two.  While you are eating, look around and see what others are getting and perhaps, you will want to order something else.  At each place, we tended to get four items and spent about ninety minutes.  I love the fact that after sampling several items we were satiated, we were never stuffed.

Salt Cod Fritters

Baby Squid served with Migas

Forgot to take a picture before tasting! Filo with leeks, shrimp and cheese plus  jamon...always jam on!

Salt Cod Carpaccio and a Pringa

Grilled Pork Tenderloin served atop Polenta

Langoustine Burger with a Quail Egg

     I have mentioned a few of the tapas that we tried, but here is a better listing:
  • Bacon wrapped dates served with a sweet sherry reduction
  • Shrimp salad (the salad consisting of crisp cabbage)
  • Salt cod fritters
  • Pork Cheeks
  • Filo triangles filled with shrimp, cheese and leeks
  • Grilled tuna
  • Salt cod with two sauces; a basil hummus and an almond cream
  • Bluefin Tuna served with a caramelized fig and a tomato cream
  • Burrata and Mozzarella salad served with basil gummy bears and a scoop of lemon sorbet
  • Salt Cod Carpaccio 
  • And always, always Jamon Iberico de Bellota
     This was one of our best trips and while we did spend a lot of time eating, we did see carve out several hours a day for traditional sightseeing.  The city is compact enough that we could walk to everything.  Each day, we concentrated on one cultural visit, lunch, general walking around and absorbing, a siesta and finally dinner and people watching.  Super cool trip!  

     Back at home, "Adios" to peas but "Hola" to zucchini!  Not quite sure what I am going to do with them all.  First night, we had zucchini carpaccio.  Last night, we had stuffed zucchini.  Dear Husband has indicated that he has had every zucchini dish every made - to include zucchini candy!  My current to find one that he hasn't had.  I will keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

France: Burgundy - A Lost Weekend…Maybe Not and Penne with Peas and Prosciutto

     "Why don't we go to Burgundy?"  Dear Husband knew the mention of a French town would get me interested.  We were planning a series of long weekend trips "sans enfant".  He went even further.  "We can get an apartment and do some wine tastings.  In the evenings, let's cook.  It has been a while since we've cooked together."  I was hooked.  A weekend alone with my husband, in one of my favorite areas of France…sampling wine and cooking.  How good can it get?
     We left at 5:00 a.m. after a fitful night of sleep.  Knowing that I have to get up early, I never sleep well the night before and it did not help that we were monitoring the phones for news of Dear Daughter's arrival in the States.  However, we were out the door by 5:30 and six hours later, we were at our first destination.  The Cassisium, a museum dedicated to all things cassis, is located in the wine town of Nuit St. George, just south of the capital of Burgundy, Dijon.  Cassis is black current and in Burgundy, they make all kinds of products.  We have mustard blended with cassis.  You can buy cassis ice cream in the grocery store.  In restaurants, a favorite aperitif is a kir--a blend of cassis and Aligote, a Burgundian white wine.  I have made seared duck breast with a cassis sauce.  But our mission was to buy Marc de Bourgogne, a digestif from the region.  We entered the Cassisum and went directly to the gift shop where we promptly told the sales girl that we wanted 12 bottles of Marc and 6 bottles of Creme de Cassis.  She didn't quite know what to do and after consulting a colleague, our order was boxed up along with an extra bottle of each given to us…gratis…for the purchase.  We were giddy upon leaving.
     It was lunchtime and our plan was to drive towards the village where our apartment was located and stop when we saw an interesting restaurant and have lunch.  Just south of Beaune, we passed signs for the village of Meursault.  "Are you ok?"  Dear Husband was teasing, I think.  Meursault is the village of my favorite chardonnay and the second purpose of this visit was to purchase a case or two.  It can be an incredible wine, named for the village where these vines grow and in the States, the cost can be prohibitive.  "Let's keep heading in the direction of our village."  After such an early morning, my stomach was giving the directions more than my heart.
Fabulous Burgundy Snails

     Two villages later, we came across a small restaurant with outdoor seating and it looked perfect.  As we walked through the sleepy town to the restaurant, we came across numerous small wine houses, many of the last names the same.  I could imagine generations of wine producers continuing to live in old family homes.  At the restaurant, we settled into chairs outside and ordered kirs while we investigated the menu.  Wanting escargots, another burgundian speciality, I ordered the three-course menu while Dear Husband settled on Beef Tartare.  Our host recommended a local white wine that was bold enough to stand up to the snails and the beef.  We washed off the stress of the drive and discussed our plans for the weekend.  Tomorrow, we would head to Beaune for an appointment to sample wine…only chardonnays.  Then on Saturday, we would head to Puligny Montrachet to visit Domaine Leflaive.  Two years ago, the vitner himself gave us a tour of his vineyards and bottling facility before we had a tasting lunch at his daughter's comfortable hotel.  We were skipping the outdoor activities and had a tasting lunch reserved for 12:30.  We were anxious to fill the trunk with a case or two of his whites.

     Following our leisurely lunch, we resumed the drive to our apartment.  About ten minutes later, we entered a small village and off the main road, took a very steep and narrow road to our place.  I heard voices in the garden as I obtained the keys from the lock box.  I opened the gate and came across a middle-aged British couple.  She was lounging in the sun while he was under the canopy of their porch sipping a glass of wine and working on a crossword puzzle.  They looked disturbed at seeing us. We briefly introduced ourselves and asked them if they knew the location of our entrance.  "It's down past that gate but your entrance is around the other side.  You can use this entrance while you unpack." Then, they went back to their activities.
     I was a bit confused.  I knew that I had rented an apartment that was part of a larger house but I was under the impression that there was a shared garden space.  I didn't give it much more thought.  We unpacked and rested a bit before heading out in the late afternoon to investigate a nearby town and find a bakery.  When we arrived back at the house ninety minutes later, the British guy was watering the plants while preparing the barbecue.  It was a strange site watching a renter water the garden as if he owned the place.  "I say there," he started.  "It was fine for you to use this entrance to unload your things but this is our garden and you have your own entrance."  I felt anger boiling up from my stomach---and in a near explosion…I managed to calmly get out, "No, I believe you are incorrect.  This is a shared garden space.  The other entrance is on the main road and we do not feel safe using it.  We do not plan to be around much over the next few days but we would like to have our dinners out here and perhaps use the bikes that belong to the properties."
     This did not go over well.  We were told point blank that they had been coming there for years and loved it for its privacy.  Our property did NOT come with rights to the garden space nor the bicycles.  I raced down to our Hobbit House, as Dear Husband was now calling it and called up the property on the website.  Yes, it indicated that we had shared garden space. I marched back up, nearly tripping on the top stair and triumphantly showed him my IPAD (ignore that my hands were shaking).  "Oh well, it is clear as day.  You do have rights to this.  But how are we going to manage sharing the barbeque and bikes," he whined.  His wife came out and hearing this, rushed back inside and secured HER agreement which indicated that the apartment had NO garden.  We were back at square one.
     Except that we knew that at this point, there was no use in staying.  We tried numerous times to reach the booking company to no avail.  We finally found the owner (in England) and she indicated that the apartment normally wasn't rented out individually and she would refund our money.  We discussed trying to find another location for the remainder of our trip, but it just didn't seem worth the effort.  After another fitful night of sleep, we were driving away…back to Belgium at 6:30 in the morning.  Just before we hit the Belgian border, the booking company finally called us - offering us another property and asking us to turn around and come back.  Nope, we were going home.
     Exhausted and feeling almost jet lagged, we collapsed on the couch, watched movies and let the day pass by us.  The next morning, we could not remember dinner nor the movie but we were better rested. However, what were we going to do with two days.?  We thought about going to Paris.  We thought about visiting other locations in Belgium.  The thought of getting back in the car was not appealing.  After a long breakfast, we decided to visit a nearby town and see what their Saturday market was like.  While we were there, it was only a short drive to the duck farm to buy some foie gras.  The market was great and we walked away will all kinds of treats: peppers stuffed with feta, two different types of cheeses that were new to us, boudin blanc stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, and fresh farm eggs.  At the duck farm, I couldn't resist two legs of duck confit and a small slice of foie gras.

I wonder where the duck farm is???

     We had our own wine tastings over the next two days; sampling wines from our modest collection and trying new ones.  We dined on our purchases and made plans to meet friends in Brussels to see a World War I exhibit the next day.  It wasn't Burgundy but it was relaxing and we experienced a few new things.  In the meantime, we have been offered a free weekend in Burgundy and will be refunded all of our money - so perhaps at the end of the weekend, all was not lost.
     I harvested the remainder of the peas this weekend and made a pasta dish that we have not had in more than a decade.  I remember that when we used to make it, I picked out the peas before eating.  This time, I wiped the plate clean!

Penne with Prosciutto and Peas