Archive for October 2010

Chanterelle Cappuccino

October 30, 2010

Now is the moment, so seize it!  Chanterelles are everywhere, and this is a fabulous way to use them.  You’ll definitely astound your guests with this treat.  I’m not going to say there’s no effort involved, but it’s oh so worth it.

This cappuccino was part of a French dinner party I did the other night.

One of my favorite moments is a party waiting to happen.  That moment when all the prep is done, in this case three days’ worth, the table awaits the guests, and there’s a minute to take a deep breath. In this case I breathed that breath twenty whole minutes before our friends arrived, which is a record for me. I’m usually doing something right until the last 5 minutes, when I hurriedly dress and swat at my hair. Fortunately, I know that no one comes over to look at me, they have eyes only for the food, and that’s just the way I like it.

This meal began with a pretty little starter of peppers and shallots, layered with minted goat cheese,

and finished with David Lebovitz’ s wonderful Pear and Almond Tart. You should make this tart soon and often, and be sure to make your own poached pears according to his recipe.

In between there were beef cheeks and vegetables and cheese, but for me, the real star was the chanterelle cappuccino. I don’t have a picture of this, so you’ll just have to trust me.  Get out your prettiest coffee cups and serve this as a starter for a classic autumn meal. Personally, I’m making it again tomorrow, while the chanterelles are at their peak.  It’s really fabulous.

Cappuccino of Chanterelles *

10 oz chanterelle caps, after stems are removed
5 oz heavy cream
2 large shallots, diced
3 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
2 T duck fat, or neutral oil
a small pinch of cinnamon
1 cup of unsweetened cream, whipped
a pinch of unsweetened cocoa powder

Remove stems form the chanterelles, saving them for making stock if you like.  Brush and wipe the mushrooms carefully with a mushroom brush or a paper towel, removing all traces of dirt and pine needles.

Chop up the chanterelles a bit and sauté them with the shallots in the duck fat (and it’s really worth seeking out some duck fat for this recipe). When all is tender, add the chicken broth, the cinnamon, pepper, salt if your broth is unsalted, and the 5 oz of cream, reduce heat to very low, and simmer the soup for 10 minutes.

Let the soup cool a bit, then purée it with an immersion blender or in the food processor until it’s very smooth.  Then comes the only hard part. You need to rub the soup through a chinois or a very fine sieve so that none of the chunks get into the soup. You will have a lot of solids left, but keep pressing them as long as you can stand to, because the texture will get more velvety if you get a little bit of the sieved solids into the broth. Save the solids for another use (I tossed an egg and a T of coconut flour into them and fried up some tasty little pancakes with mine).  It’s fine to do this the day before and just reheat your soup when you’re ready to serve it.

At serving time, whip a cup of heavy cream to soft peaks.  Pour the barely warm soup into small coffee cups, top each cup with a cloud of whipped cream, and sprinkle on a tiny bit of cocoa powder.  Stand by to be delighted.

* lightly adapted from this recipe.

Autumn Rain, Wings

October 27, 2010

We came home from our travels and stepped right into autumn, all at once, going from sweltering to shivering in a mere matter of hours.  The fact that it’s been raining into the bargain has really underscored how our life has changed: we’re no longer looking forward to our Panama Canal trip, we have to put away our breezy white shirts and dig out the polar fleece socks, and I feel an urgent need to start cooking cool weather dishes in an attempt to warm up the kitchen without turning on the heat.

These Moroccan-inflected chicken wings will warm up any occasion with their haunting flavors of North Africa.  They’re versatile enough to offer to football watchers, if you have a football watcher with sophisticated tastes, but they’re elegant enough to serve anytime that eating with your fingers is on the agenda.  Make more that you’ll think you’ll need as they’re pretty addictive, and they reheat just fine.  And I can almost promise you, one bite and the sun will shine again, at least on your plate.

Casbah Wings

1 package chicken wings, parts of 1 dozen wings
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, 4 ounces
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon packed saffron threads, crumbled
1 tablespoon harissa
2 teaspoons honey

I like to buy Smart Chicken wings, which are organic, and come with the two meaty parts of the wing already separated.

Preheat oven to 375°. Use convection if you have it, the wings will be crispier. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the wing pieces on the foil, skin side up. Sprinkle the wings with salt and bake for 25 minutes.

While the wings are baking make the sauce. Melt the butter in a bowl in the microwave, or in a very small saucepan. Stir in the spices, harissa, and honey.

After 25 minutes, remove the baking sheet from the oven and brush the wings with half of the sauce. Return to oven for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes remove baking sheet from the oven and turn the wing pieces over, using tongs. Brush the remaining sauce on the wings and return to the oven for another 20 minutes.

Serve with napkins or finger bowls!

Oh, Savannah!

October 24, 2010

I never thought I’d say this about any city in the South, but I think I’m in love with Savannah.  Or maybe it’s just the moss.

The old part of Savannah is dripping with Spanish moss, which now officially replaces cooked beans as my “most difficult to photograph” subject.  In fact, walking or driving around the 21 central squares of the old town, each a little oasis surrounded by beautiful old houses, it’s hard to make any progress at all, the shutterbug instinct replacing any desire to arrive at a given destination.

The vegetation is lush and exotic everywhere you look,

and the streets are lined with huge old trees, giving everything a dappled appearance.

Some streets are made of brick, or like this one, of old ballast stones from Savannah’s shipping past. Some are made of tabby, an ancient building material that combines sand and crushed oyster shells.  There were lots of fine old buildings around every corner, and I wanted them all.

There were symbols of Savannah’s traditional commitment to the arts

and to hospitality.

I’m not sure how pineapples came to be a symbol of hospitality, but that tradition is alive and well in Savannah, as are the famous gas lights.

And speaking of hospitality, when we went up to a rooftop bar overlooking the river and its deep sea port

we shared a table with a young couple, because the charming spot was quite full.  We chatted, refreshed ourselves after a hot day of sightseeing, and they picked up the check for our drinks on the way out, not something that happens every day.

On our way out of town we stopped by the famed Bonaventure cemetery, undoubtedly the loveliest I’ve ever seen.

These four little graves speak to the hardships of early Savannah life; each child died before the age of two.

From here we were off to a quick family visit in Atlanta, then back to the Pacific North West, where Beppo, Zazou, and cool weather awaited us.  It’s been quite a journey, one I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, and I thank you for joining us.

A Florida Virgin No More

October 22, 2010

On the last morning of our cruise we awoke to this lovely sight, my first view of Florida.  I’d always imagined that I’d remain a Florida virgin forever, since nothing I’d ever heard about it appealed to me, but here I was, and it looked a lot like…..Mexico.  However, that proved to be but a temporary illusion, and once off the ship and out on the highway my Florida antipathy returned full force.

We drove back and forth across the state, visiting Shel’s old friends in St. Petersburg, then Rockledge, a tiny spot near Cocoa, and delightful as it was to see those dear people, Florida itself didn’t speak to me at all.  It’s flatter than the Canadian prairie and twice as hot, with low, scrubby vegetation for endless miles. When we did arrive in towns everything was new, plastic- looking, with boring low-profile houses spread out all over the flat landscape, and nothing much appealed to me.  We did have a wonderful Cuban lunch at a little place in St. Petersburg called La Teresita, which I recommend to anyone who loves home-style Cuban food at incredibly low prices.  All in all, though, I was looking forward to ending our Florida sojourn, until the moment we arrived in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is beautiful. St. Augustine is old.  I had no idea. Previously unbeknownst to me, it’s considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America, and still shows the traces of Spanish colonial architecture.

This is the garden of the Oldest Remaining House, the Gonzalex-Alvarez house, built around 1727, which, for America, is downright ancient.

The old part of town is full of shady courtyards, old stones, inviting porches, and I was ready to move there, until I remembered that I was dripping with sweat while walking around well before noon on an October morning.  I don’t even like to imagine the place in mid-summer.

The most amazing thing we saw in all of Florida was the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. This isn’t it. The museum is currently housed in a nondescript box of a building, but will be moving to a beautifully surrealist space at the beginning of 2011. I’d almost go back to St. Pete just to see the expanded exhibit in its new home.  We were both blown away by the beauty of what we saw there, having known very little about Dali or his work, apart from the famous melting clock.  I’m here to say that I’m a total convert, he painted some incredibly beautiful stuff, and if you’re ever in St. Petersburg, don’t miss the museum.  It should be a national treasure.

We only spent one day in each of these Florida towns, so I may well have missed the best bits.  But what I didn’t miss, couldn’t miss, saw everywhere, were horrifying billboards, many for anti-abortion groups, and the worst of them all, one that said “vote out all the liberals and progressives this November.”  Now, all of Shel’s Florida-dwelling old friends are themselves liberals and progressives, so I invariably asked them how they survived in such a desperately conservative environment. It turns out that one is moving to Mexico, two are hoping to move to Germany, and one says he just ignores it.

That’s the kind of thing that I just can’t ignore, Dali or no, Cuban food or no. And so I very much doubt that I’ll be returning to Florida, but I’m glad to have seen part of it, for what it is and what it isn’t. And now, on to a place I’ve always wanted to see, the famously beautiful city of Savannah.

Cartagena, City Of Contrasts

October 15, 2010

I have to admit, I never thought I’d find myself in Cartagena.  In fact, I rather hoped I wouldn’t, since all we hear about Colombia is drug wars and violence, with a little side note of coffee thrown in.  What we saw in a single day was such a study in contrasts that I’m tempted to let the photos speak for themselves,

but I don’t know exactly what they’d say to you.  I know that I don’t want to go back to Cartagena, but I’m glad to have been there for a few hours. Where to begin?

Some people live like this.  Rather a lot of people, I imagine.  Some may have it much worse, but our guide wouldn’t take us there.

Some people live like this, mostly rich foreigners, according to our guide.

There are bars on all the windows, no matter how decorative they are. We didn’t get to see where the very rich Colombians live, but then again, I don’t think we really wanted to be in that neighborhood.

The Church clearly has scads of money.

This altar is all gold, which made me squeamish in the same way that the Hermitage in St. Petersburg did, when I saw old ladies begging just outside the door.

The Social Security building was not far

from a huge and elaborate bank building, which has its own sort of appropriateness.

Before there were banks people worshipped the Golden Goat.

Now they work,

many doing things especially for tourists.

There were lots of ladies dressed like this, and you could pay to take their picture,

plus hundreds, if not thousands, of these guys.  I was safely in a van, because if I’d been walking they would have been blocking my every step, trying to sell me some cheap purses, fans, drawings, bracelets “real silver, lady” or other tourist gewgaws that it’s hard to imagine anyone buying.

I’m crossing my fingers that these school kids grow up to have more options.

There were quiet refuges for us in Cartagena

although we had to pay to enter them.

I didn’t love Cartagena, in any measure, but I’m glad to have seen it for one short day. And just as glad to flee towards Florida.

A World United

October 12, 2010

Breakfast in the Pacific, dinner in the Caribbean.  In our jet set world anyone can do it.  Time was, however, when the journey we made in a day took many months, until about 25,000 people died hacking and digging their way through the isthmus of Panama to make the Panama Canal the waterway that united the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, making both commerce and tourism ever so much more feasible and miles less dangerous.

We awoke just after dawn to this view of Panama City.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this New York-esque skyline sure wasn’t it.

Just offshore was a marine parking lot full of ships waiting their turn to go through the canal.  Evidently cruise ships pay huge sums for a priority passage and for the privilege of going through in the daylight.  The passage takes most of the day, and we were glued to the decks.  It’s an amazing experience. About 15,000 ships a year make this crossing, but we felt really special to be doing it ourselves.

This is what we looked like pulling up to the entrance of the canal. Actually, this is our sister ship Millenium, who was following us through, but the ships are identically enormous, both being Panamax, as large as a ship can be and still fit into the locks of the Panama Canal.

And it’s a tight fit, at that.  At 150 feet into the first of the Miraflores locks, with another 900 feet to go, Shel easily reaches out from the deck of the ship to touch the side of the canal.

We locked through next to the container ship Endurance.  Here you can see the four locomotives that will pull her through, and keep her centered in the lock passage.  There are another four on her port side, and we were similarly harnessed to our own set of eight locomotives.

Even though we were so far from home, she was loaded with containers bearing names that we can see every day on the Seattle waterfront, making the world seem smaller than ever.

The crew doesn’t have a lot to do during the canal transit.  A pilot comes on board every ship and stays for the duration of the transit.  The Panama Canal is the only waterway in the world where someone other than the ship’s captain is in control of the ship.  Local pilots come aboard in most major ports, but in an advisory capacity.  Here, the Panama pilot is the master of the ship, although we were told that normally he doesn’t actually put his hands on the wheel.

While the pilot is providing the brains, the locomotives provide the brawn, chugging sturdily along, guiding the giant ships through the tight passage.

It’s a slow process, and there’s time for a sailor to eat his breakfast while waiting to release the cables attaching the ship to the locomotives.

Even the locomotive crew has time to take it easy.

For all the high tech aspects of the transit, if the canal crew needs to get down to the water, they do it the old-fashioned way.

The Canal provides employment to about 10,000 Panamanians, who can take their breaks sheltered from the almost constant rains during half the year.  Of course, it’s thanks to Panama’s torrential rainfall that there’s enough water to flush the ships through day after day,

and it does make for an incredibly lush green beauty in the region.

But it’s because of those rains that the Canal is a perpetual work in progress. Dredging is a constant operation, and sodden hillsides slide into the ship channel.

The land on either side of the canal is terraced to dizzying heights,

giving you a good idea of what back-breaking labor was involved to dig it all out in the early 20th century.

And now there’s a new earth-moving project, as a third set of locks is added to the canal to accommodate even bigger ships.  About a third of the world’s commercial shipping fleet is larger than Panamax, and so a new channel must be dug for them.

We never learned why, but the new locks will abandon the tough and clean locomotives,

and the biggest ships will be helped through entirely by tug boats.

At the end of the day the last of the Gatun locks opened before us.  On the right you can see a grandstand holding a lot of people who had gotten off the ship to watch it pass the final set of locks, but we had no intention of abandoning ship.

Once through, the busy port city of Colon came into view

followed by the gateway to the Caribbean, which  would soon open into the Atlantic. Pretty unimposing, isn’t it?  You’d think there would be a sign, like Hurray, You Made It, or Is this a Miracle of Engineering, or What? But no, we just slipped quietly through, raised a glass to the guys whose lives were lost so that we might pass easily from ocean to ocean, and another to the vision and perseverance that divided a country to unite a world.

And then we headed to Cartagena.

Crocodiles In Paradise

October 7, 2010

Sorry, that was just a teaser.  First I’ll show you the paradise that is Costa Rica, then I’ll reward you with crocodiles.  Welcome to one day on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, a country that you must visit if you’re a nature lover.  Must!

We started our day with a ride above the forest canopy, followed, after a gentle descent, by a walk through the forest floor.

Waterfalls were everywhere, courtesy of the month of flooding that Costa Rica has just experienced.

I couldn’t keep track of all the species we saw, but these are bats hiding under a huge leaf

and these look a lot like breakfast. Then there were

and a serpentarium showing some of the most interesting of Costa Rica’s 137 species of snakes, at least 22 of them poisonous.  I was understanding why so many foreigners emigrate to Costa Rica, where life is good and there’s a 96% literacy rate, right up until the serpentarium.  Snakes are not my thing at all, and I was very glad not to see any in the wild.

And then we went out on the Taracoles River, where the bird life was entrancing. This beautiful caracara bird was my all-day favorite

but the little dance performed by this roseate spoonbill and a woodstork was also really special.  And there were

and not forgetting

iguanas, which look a lot like baby crocodiles.  I know you’re getting impatient for the crocodiles, but first, let’s look at the mangrove

with its fantastical aerial root system

and the red and blue crabs hiding in every nook and cranny.

The mangrove fruit splits as soon as it drops, and begins to root and flower, which is how the mangrove spreads itself far and wide.

And now, for the crocodiles.  The mud was everywhere, and hid many things, including the well-camouflaged crocs.

Here’s a small fellow, perhaps only 4 feet long.  They sleep with their mouths open, as a way of cooling off.  But the real thing, fearsome as can be, capable of taking a full-sized bull, or a human, right off the bank (or even out of a boat) and finishing it off with ease, looks like this.

You’re right, we were really close.  This guy, nicknamed Osama bin Laden by the guides in the area, was 15-18 feet long and weighed easily 1200 pounds, likely more.

Our guide pulled the boat right up alongside the sleeping behemoth, and was ready to reverse at the slightest hint of motion, but crocodiles are reportedly faster than any human reaction.  I sneaked up for a couple of close-ups, then retreated hurriedly to the other side of the boat, just in case.  I was bound and determined to live to see another day, the day we’ve been waiting for: the transit of the Panama Canal.  See you there.

Hill Country Oaxaca

October 5, 2010

We docked in Huatulco, a town that’s been emptied of its natural inhabitants to make way for a cruise terminal.  The people who lived there were relocated by the government to a hill town called Santa Maria Huatulco, so that’s where we headed.

When we arrived a kids’ bike race was just about to start.
and the streets were lined with spectators
market vendors
and grocery shoppers.
It’s a prosperous-looking town with tidy houses,
inviting shops,
and a lovely City Hall
with a shady courtyard
and a muraled staircase.
The pretty church also displayed a nice sense of humor
with donkeys indoors
and with this sign that reads approximately “My sons and daughters, to talk with me you don’t need a cellphone.  Please turn it off.  Signed, God.”
Actually, this might have been more serious than it would appear, since everywhere we saw kids texting and talking on their phones, just like kids everywhere.
But all is not modern in Santa Maria Huatulco
as these ladies washing clothes in the Huatulco River demonstrate.
Driving much higher into the hills, we came to a tiny town called Pluma Hidalgo.  The recent torrential rains in the region had washed out substantial chunks of the road, leaving it only wide enough for one car in some places.
The difference in prosperity was immediately evident, as these typical houses show.
Pluma Hidalgo has no large stores, only street vendors, but we were there to buy only one thing: coffee.
Here, in this tiny shop
was roasted and served
the very best coffee I have ever tasted, a coffee so sweet that it was hard to believe that it contained no sugar.  Although our suitcases were already filled to capacity, we managed to find room for a kilo of their extraordinary beans, inched our way carefully back down the steep and sagging roads, and headed for Costa Rica.
By the way, please excuse any and all eccentricities in font and spacing.  I’m posting from the ship, and every time the seas get rough at all our relationship with the satellite gets complicated, and blogging weirdness ensues.

Edible Acapulco

October 3, 2010
Leaving behind the peace and poverty of the countryside, we headed into modern-day Acapulco, a hive of activity and soaring condo buildings, planning to have a leisurely visit to the city’s largest marketplace followed by a drive through the old part of town.
But no. As soon as we approached the center of town we were caught in a colossal traffic jam,
actually the worst one I have ever seen.  If we moved more than a mile in one hour I’d be astounded. It did, however, give us more than ample time to observe many of Acapulco’s over 4000 VW Beetle taxis,
as well as what was to me the sorry sight of myriad American standards like McDonalds, Walmart, and Costco. So much for Mexican independence.
Finally we arrived at the market
where we were the only gringos in sight.  In fact, there didn’t seem to be any customers either, which I attribute to the fact that we were there at an odd mid-afternoon hour. It’s a vast foodie playground
with all sorts of prepared foods for a complete meal if you wish,
although they are sitting out unrefrigerated, for the strong of stomach.
On the fresh food side, there was everything you could ask for, including melons, papayas,
fresh chickens,
fish, including huachinango, or red snapper, which seems to be the most popular local fish,
and fresh meats, here displayed next to our guide Manolo.  As you see, none of the poultry or meat is refrigerated either.
There were household sundries,
staples like chiles, beans, and posole,
buckets of different types of prepared mole, which I was dying to try to smuggle home,
as well as chiles and piloncillo for those planning to make their own mole at home.
We saw huge and fragrant bundles of dried herbs for tea,
and there was a section of lovely fresh flowers
in fancy and festive arrangements.
There was even a small area with supplies for the Day of the Dead, a day to honor your ancestors.
All in all it was a delightful step back in time, even though time ran out for us to see the old part of the city,
and all too soon we were sailing away from Acapulco and on our way to Huatulco.  This business of having only one day in a place is frustrating and tantalizing, but definitely better than not seeing it at all. After spending such a long time in one town in France that we were on a first name basis with the butcher and the baker, it’s quite a shock to just mill around briefly like a
typical tourist, but that too is an experience, and we’re having it.

Talking Tortoise

October 2, 2010

We spent only one day in Acapulco, but it seemed like two.  One day was all about the countryside and the sea tortoises, the other was about the new Acapulco and its ancient marketplace. Taking it nice and slow, as befits a story about tortoises,  let’s start by spending some time in the country.

With Manolo, a private guide, we drove far out into the countryside to visit a national sea tortoise refuge center.  Here, the beaches are patrolled, so that the tortoise eggs can be gathered almost as soon as they are laid.  They are brought to this sandy field, where they’re buried for most of the 45 days it takes them to incubate, each clutch of eggs being marked with its expected hatching date.  When they’re about to hatch they’re moved to a small enclosed pen, where the babies are safe from predators.

Groups of tourists, school children, and anyone interested in the preservation of the tortoises come to the refuge and pay a small sum for the privelege of holding the the baby tortoises gently and setting them free in the open ocean.

These are our own personal tortoises, ready to swim away from us as soon as we’d met.  We walked them to the surf line and watched the waves take them.  Only one tortoise in a hundred released at the refuge will survive to be 5 years old.  If they make it that long, they can live to be 130 years old.  I’ll be wondering about our tortoises for the rest of my life, and although the odds against them are so enormous I can’t help but hope.

The refuge is surrounded by coconut palms

and the building itself is thatched with coconut palapa, as are most of the structures in the area.

The visitors are protected by the omnipresent Mexican security forces, armed with AK-47s “not because it’s dangerous but just in case” Manolo told us. I’ve seen more machine guns than I can count in the past few days.

Leaving the tortoises to the mercies of the ocean, we headed even deeper into the countryside,just to see how people live in the rural part of the state of Guererro.  Snapping pictures as we drove past, we saw little shops,

a rural pharmacy,

and a collection of homes.  I’m ashamed to admit that I asked if this was a picnic area.  Some of the houses are so rudimentary that I couldn’t even recognize them as habitation. I kept looking for a school, but Manolo told us that there’s no compulsory education in Mexico.  Thinking about that, and about these houses, really made us wonder how Mexico can pull itself into the modern world.

We managed to convince Manolo to take us to a real Mexican restaurant for lunch, not one for gringos.  In this pretty open air spot,

surrounded by flowers and right on an estuary, you first choose your fish from a tub of fish in ice, and then they clean and grill it over wood for you.  Half of it was slathered in a garlic sauce, the other half in adobo.  It was some of the best fish we’ve ever eated, served with hand-pressed tortillas, sopes, frijoles, guacamole, and a couple of delicious salsas.  Manolo told us that he’d eaten there right after he met his wife, but had never been able to afford to go there again.  It’s a restaurant for rich Mexicans, tourists from Mexico City.  The people who live in those palapa-topped sheds right across the river could never eat there, since the bill for the three of us came to $60 with a tip. They had talked us into choosing a fish that was too big for the three of us, but I was glad that Manolo was able to take the leftovers home to his four kids, who are not likely to be eating there anytime soon.

While we ate we watched this man mending a net

and this egret doing some fishing of his own. Then we set out to see modern-day Acapulco, but I’ll let you digest all this for a bit before we go there.