Porta Bella, Carmel

This past Friday night I went out to dinner at Porta Bella in Carmel with my friend Father Dominic and our deacon friend John. We sat in their quaint, heated back patio that is painted Tuscan clay red and has plants creeping on the walls. One of the co-owners of the restaurant, Faisal, who is also a friend of Father Dominic’s joined us.

One thing I always do when I go out to eat—after looking over the menu and picking one or two things that sound good—is ask the waitress what her favorite item on the menu is. The response is one of two things: without skipping a beat she tells me her favorite item or she says, “that’s a tough one!” and lists a few items she likes or are popular among diners. If what she recommends lines up with what I was looking at, I definitely know what I’m ordering. If not, well it depends on if it was her favorite item in which case I’ll consider ordering it. This time I had the luxury of asking one of the restaurant owners. One of his three favorites, the Lamb Ossobuco, was one of the items I was considering so I knew I’d be having that for dinner.

But of course, it was Friday night and Father Dominic and John, like myself, are epicures so we started with soup and appetizers. I had the roasted corn and crab bisque and it was spectacular: rich, warm, and creamy on a cold rainy night. I appreciate a slow meal and this was just that. We talked and caught up on life and for those of us who were not already friends, we got to know each other a little more. Next, we shared the skewered grilled jumbo prawns served with a lemon aioli, the lobster ravioli, and the beef tenderloin carpaccio. I love beef carpaccio—a raw dish of thinly sliced meat typically served with lemon, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and truffle oil. Porta Bella’s also adds arugula and capers and they’re perfect accompaniments to the raw meat. Interestingly enough, the dish was invented in 1950 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice for countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he heard that her doctors had recommended she eat raw meat. The name—carpaccio—comes from the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio whose work is characterized by red and white tones, reminiscent of raw meat.

The main course, the Lamb Ossobuco, was served with a potato gratin and vegetables while the lamb itself was cooked with red wine and white raisins. The meat was spectacularly tender and the flavors were perfect. We enjoyed a local cabernet with the meal and it was the perfect complement.

As the evening and meal went on, more people joined or replaced others and our table was buzzing with people and lively conversation; as the plates were cleared, a backgammon board appeared and a game was started. You see Faisal comes from a big family and network of restaurateurs in Carmel and as some got off work they would come to check out Porta Bella…seeing the owner seated for a change inspired people to come chat, pull up a chair, and join us. And even more so after learning that we had a priest at the table.

The discussion grew philosophical and Father Dominic was questioned on issues of morality which he answered in stride…as a Catholic priest, this is what he does for a living. It became a regular occurrence for someone seated at the table to apologize to him after saying something off-colored. Which brings me back to my initial point, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I don’t believe that we ought to alter our behavior or our self in the presence of a Catholic priest or anyone for that matter. Sure, there is discretion and professional behavior but who we are ought to be who we are always. I find the idea of behavior-altering more troublesome than the off-colored comment, in other words, I appreciate integrity of the self. If I say something and feel I must apologize for it, maybe I oughtn’t have said it. Don’t get me wrong, I have said my fair share of things that I shouldn’t have said and will probably do so many times over in my life but, in an effort to grow and constantly improve myself I like to remind myself that how I do anything is how I do everything, to be intentional with each little thing because the culmination of all of those little things is me and my character. So here’s to being true to oneself when nobody is looking or even in the highest profile of company.

roasted corn and crab bisque
skewered grilled jumbo prawns with lemon aioli

Chocolate Stout Cake for a friend’s birthday

This past weekend was my dear friend Shandy’s birthday. The week prior she had asked me if I would make her birthday cake. It has become a tradition that I make this chocolate stout cake for a couple friends’ birthdays, including Shandy, and she swears it’s her favorite cake in the world. A week later her husband also sent me a text asking if I would make her favorite cake. What an honor because I simply have to follow a recipe and it can mean so much to a friend.

I first discovered this recipe in Gourmet magazine when I was in college. I was captivated by the photo of the big slice of chocolate cake sitting alongside a chilly glass of stout. Being in college and just beginning my relationship with beer—my relationship with chocolate has been lifelong—my curiosity was piqued. I was living in Del Mar at the time and working at a gourmet chocolate shop where we carried—and paired to chocolate—several beers by the local Stone Brewery. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore and expand my understand of chocolate and beer pairings. I lived in what my roommate and I called the beach shack, it was one block from the beach, we never locked the door and the house always seemed to be buzzing with people, the only two constants being my roommate Diana and myself. Our other semi-permanent roommate Kate was a Biochemistry post-doc at UCSD and we transformed the back of the house into a crash pad for post-docs, surfers, friends, etc. I often cooked big pots of curry or baked something and left it out for whoever was around to eat. I made this cake regularly and we always had beer in the fridge to go along. It seemed to be the perfect post-surf or post-run snack for us twenty-somethings who could never get enough to eat and always had room for a cold beer.

A word of warning, this cake is heavy so it is not for the faint of eater or heart. Also, the original recipe suggested you eat it alongside a stout beer. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will become the favorite of someone in your life’s.

Chocolate Stout Cake

  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/4 cup + 3 tbsp. sugar (for 2 separate things)
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 14 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup stout, I use Boatswain chocolate stout from Trader Joes
  • 2/3 cup freshly brewed strong coffee, cooled to room temperature

Frosting

  • 1 lb bittersweet chocolate, I use Trader Joe’s 70% pound plus chocolate
  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp instant espresso powder, optional

Heat oven to 350˚F. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate.

Butter two round nine-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper, butter and flour the parchment paper. Set aside. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a standup mixer beat the butter and 1 1/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy and pale yellow, about two minutes. Add yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add lukewarm chocolate and mix until well-incorporated. Next add the coffee and stout and mix until incorporated. Beat in flour mixture in two additions until it is just incorporated.

Using clean, dry beaters, in a separate bowl beat the egg whites and remaining three tablespoons of sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold one-third of the whites into the cake to lighten it. Then fold the remaining egg whites in in two additions. Pour batter distributing evenly in the two cake pans and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 20 minutes, then invert on a cooling rack, remove the parchment paper and cool completely before frosting.

For frosting:

Chop the chocolate and place in a medium, heatproof bowl. Set aside. In a saucepan over low heat, heat the whipping cream with the instant espresso, if you so choose. Bring the cream to a simmer stirring occasionally. Once it’s reached a simmer, pour it over the chocolate and let it sit for two minutes then whisk until all of the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Chill until slightly thickened and spreadable, stirring occasionally, about two hours. But not much longer because otherwise you can’t spread it.

I use all of the frosting to stuff and frost the cake. Serve with coffee or stout or a coffee stout and enjoy!

Red’s Donuts, Monterey

As you ramble on through life, Brother,
Whatever be your goal,
Keep your eye upon the doughnut,
And not upon the hole.

–Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin 

Walking into Red’s Donuts on Alvarado Street is like taking a stroll down memory lane. The donut shop that has stood in the same spot since March 15, 1950 looks like it hasn’t changed one bit, perhaps added a few decorations to the walls and updated the cash register. That’s it. The shop was started by Herman O’Donnell in 1950 as Angel Food Doughnuts and changed names to Red’s in 1957 as that was Herman’s nickname on account of his red hair.

The idea to write about them was inspired last week when I was volunteering at the AT&T Pro-Am. The Pro-Am gets donuts for their volunteers from Red’s and has for years. This year the Pro-Am got 200 dozen donuts…that’s a lot of donuts! Actually, one of my most avid-readers and a professional donut enthusiast himself had recommended I write about Red’s a few weeks back and it finally all came together.

After indulging in several donuts at the Pro-Am — chocolate old fashioneds are my favorite — I decided to visit the shop on Alvarado Street. I had never been inside despite growing up here and now living here as an adult for the past seven years. The place was happy and vibrant with clown paintings on the walls, photos of former president’s, and the family-owners and almost every stool at the counterwas filled. I waited to be attended to and asked Evelyn, a seasoned Red’s employee of 26 years and counting, if I could ask her a few questions. She was busy, it was before 9 am on a weekday, but she said she would make time for me.

I found a stool and ordered a donut and a cup of coffee. There is something wonderful about coffee and donuts. And chocolate old fashioned donuts…what an invention of pure magic. When business quieted down a bit Evelyn and Ollie—who has been there for six months—both answered my questions. While we were talking, George, a regular, came in and said hi to everyone. They knew his order and in between chatting with me, got it for him without his having to ask. A young musician, Steve, who just moved back to the area from LA told me he has eaten donuts all over the country and nothing compares to Red’s. The customers chimed in the impromptu interview. Stacey told me she had been bringing her daughter to Red’s since she was small enough to sit on the counter. “Now she can’t come because she’s in high school,” she laughed a guilty laugh.

Red’s has another location in Seaside where they make the donuts. The Red’s donut operation is 24/7; they begin making the donuts at 4pm and work all night for the deliveries. Evelyn estimated that they deliver to 35-40 establishments on the peninsula and make about 500 dozen donuts a day. She told me the recipe is the original recipe, “nothing has changed.” The Seaside location, being open all night, gets their clientele at all hours of the morning, some coming in off the graveyard shift at 4am.

Red’s serves 33 different kinds of donuts and rolls and 11 special donuts (certain days only), and of course, a fresh pot of coffee is always on. They even serve milk for those who prefer their donuts with a cold cup of milk. Simple, delicious pleasure. Specials Monday and Tuesday on boxes of a dozen. With one location in Seaside and one on Alvarado Street in Monterey.

Evelyn knows most of her customers by name and has their orders committed to memory. She is friendly and personable and that’s what makes Red’s unique with a genuine hometown feeling. She told me that she had moved to the area in 1964 when her father was sent to Fort Ord. “He was a drill sergeant,” she smiled, “with the Smokey the Bear hat and the whole nine yards.”

On my way out, an older gentleman came in. I heard him say to Evelyn, “I’m changing it up today.”

Without skipping a beat, she told him, “You can’t do that, Ken,” and they both erupted in laughter. We live in such an amazing community that such a wonderful donut shop exists. I could get philosophical about donuts and donut holes but I’ll spare you. Just find your way down to Red’s and have a donut, I won’t think less of you if you order anything other than chocolate old fashioned but do be sure to chat with Evelyn. She is the prototypical diner waitress and I mean that in the best way possible, she never stops working, she is always smiling, friendly, has an excellent memory, and always has an ear to bend for a customer.

A thing of beauty
Don’t you feel at home?

Cornbread and Yuengling Beer

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

–Henry David Thoreau

On my last night in Norfolk, I went to happy hour for dinner. I ordered a Yuengling on tap and cornbread from the appetizer menu and sat with a book at a high-top table. The part of town we were staying was a college town so the bar was empty when I first arrived at 6:30.

Yuengling is an American beer proudly claiming to be the oldest operating brewery in the US, established in 1829. If you’ve ever lived on the east coast, maybe you’ve had it. You can only find it as far west as Louisiana and Arkansas (in the south), Indiana and all of the states east of those three, except Michigan. I am no beer expert but I love their beer and try to have it when I’m back east. Their traditional lager—which is what was on tap and happy hour at Mojo Bones—is great. It is their flagship beer and an amber lager in the pre-prohibition style. The founder of the brewery David Gottlieb Jüngling anglicized his name to Yuengling when he immigrated from Germany and started the Eagle Brewery in Pottsville, PA in 1929. In 1973, the company changed its name to D.G. Yuengling and Son when Frederick joined David in running the brewery.

There’s something so refreshing about an icy cold beer after a long day of work. There are many ways to let out a sigh of relief after the tenseness of being “on” and, if you have neurotic perfectionist tendencies like myself, the stress of wanting everything to go right and the warm flush that rushes over your body when things start to go awry. So, on this particular day, that was long and rife with navigating interpersonal relationships, I was ready for a cold beer, a good book, solitude, and several deep breaths to relax. The first sip really is something of magic.

And cornbread. I love cornbread. Especially the kind with whole grain corn kernels floating in the bread and baked in a skillet, the edges crisping and caramelizing just so. It’s an added bonus for my taste buds when the cornbread is drizzled with honey, as this one was. I enjoyed bites of warm cornbread in between sips of cold beer and read a book and miraculously, the stress of the day washed away.

As I was leaving the college kids began to trickle in. While waiting for my bill I overheard that it was one guy’s 21st birthday and many of his friends were joining him to celebrate. I remembered my own college days and birthdays surrounded by friends and I couldn’t help but feel overcome with joy and nostalgia. I wanted to tell the kids to enjoy it—revel in the time where days consist of attending lectures, studying, celebrating your friends’ birthdays, and lots of sleep. But I didn’t. I watched from a distance with a smile on my face. I paid my bill and walked home to my hotel thinking of all my friends from college and those I’ve lost touch with. When we’re in the moment we don’t think life is ever going to be different in the future so I urge you—and myself—to enjoy each moment as we are in it. Tomorrow everything could change, your best friend could move away, you change jobs, you could lose a loved one, life as you know it, so cherish each moment just as it is.

Handsome Biscuit, Norfolk, VA

Virginia is for lovers.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”  

–Bernard Shaw

Greetings from Norfolk, Virginia home to the world’s largest naval base. Landing in the Norfolk airport always makes me think of a life-size game of battleship with all the ships parked in the dock. It is quiet the sight. 

I’m here for work…another work trip you might be thinking but fortunately this time I had the weekend in between to rest a little—read, eat my way through Norfolk—before starting work again on Monday. When you’re away on work-travel over a weekend the weekend seems to have more time than back home because you don’t have to trouble yourself with laundry, cleaning, running errands, etc. So, on Saturday morning I found my way to a coffee shop and enjoyed a latte while I did some reading and writing until I was ready for lunch. A few years ago, I had eaten at Handsome Biscuit—a local biscuit joint—and remembered it being delicious so I hopped into a Lyft (similar to Uber) and went to Handsome Biscuit.

I walked into the small shack painted the orange of a traffic cone. I stared at the chalkboard menu where everything revolved around a biscuit: biscuit with PB&J, biscuit with a fried egg, biscuit with fried chicken. “How can I help you?” asked the young guy behind the counter. He wore a trucker hat over his red hair. His beard was orange and Merlot colored.

“What should I order?”

“You’re not from here,” he told me.

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he laughed at his cleverness, “just kidding. Welcome to the south. We eat fried chicken and biscuits.”

He gave me a quick rundown of the menu and suggested the Stevie, a sweet potato biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, homemade pickles, whole grain mustard, and wildflower honey. I added a side of apple coleslaw and a homemade apple and ginger soda. I wrote in my journal on the wobbly table until my food arrived at which point I put away my journal. Most of my journals have food and drink stains on them but this was a serious two-handed operation. I rolled my sleeves up and grabbed a pile of napkins. I took a bite of the coleslaw, it was excellent: creamy, tangy, and crunchy. Next, I had a bite of the fried chicken. There was probably twice as much fried chicken than biscuit which is a beautiful thing. And how to they get the chicken so crunchy? I love to cook but I’ve never made fried chicken. I don’t think I ever will, either. It’s one of those things I eat so rarely that I’ll leave it to the experts. It was delicious. Hot, tender chicken with a strong coat of fried crust. The honey, pickles, and mustard were just the right accompaniments to the fried chicken. Seriously it was perfect.

After I had finished my meal I got up to wash my hands…you’ve got to love a place with a red toilet. As I walked back to my seat to drink my soda and contemplate my meal, the young guy looked at me and said, “Congratulations! You cleared your plate.”

I get these types of comments often and it just cracks me up. The other night my boss and I went to an Italian place for dinner, after our first and second courses—that were excellent I will add—we both ordered a different cake for dessert, she wanted the almond cake, I chose the lemon-mascarpone. The host, who had told us his favorite dessert, walked by and said, “wow, you ordered one each!?” I don’t know why it’s surprising to people that I love food so much and indulge in it. As the epigraph says, food is the sincerest of loves.

Speaking of love, you might be wondering where “Virginia is for lovers” comes from and as it turns out it’s nothing more than a very successful ad campaign developed in the 1960s that has stuck. And since there’s good fried chicken here, I take that as Virginia is for food lovers. Well my friends, I hope I’ve left you with a craving for fried chicken and if that is the case I highly recommend the fried chicken at La Balena in Carmel. People are often surprised when I say that my favorite fried chicken is from an Italian restaurant in Carmel but there’s fried chicken in every culture. Don’t quote me on that, I don’t know about every culture but The South most certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on fried chicken although they do a really good job at it.

The Stevie, cole slaw, and homemade apple-ginger soda

Bern’s Steakhouse–Tampa, FL

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

–Anthony Bourdain

I am here to dispel the myth that work-travel is paid vacation. I often hear from people how great it must be that I get to travel so much (it is, but bear with me). In their mind they have painted a luxurious picture of me lounging in spas getting massages, leisurely visiting museums, and dining at the best locales the city du jour has to offer.

Let me repaint that picture for you based on my most recent work trip to Tampa. My flight was at 6:05am out of Monterey this past Sunday. I woke up at 3:13am despite having set my alarm for 4:24am. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I gave in and got up to cook all the leftover food I had in the refrigerator to take with me. This actually turned out to be a great inclination later on the plane. I left for the airport a little before 5:00am, parked in long term parking, and rolled my bags to the airport check-in counter. I flew to Phoenix where I had a quick cup of coffee before boarding my next flight. If you have ever flown through the Phoenix airport you’ll know that the terminals are quite far apart. While I always welcome a walk, especially when I have planned sitting all day long, what I’m trying to acknowledge is if you have a tight connection, a long walk may increase your stress levels…which may or may not be elevated due to a poor night’s sleep. I made it to Tampa and by the time I had collected my luggage, found a ride, and made it to the hotel, it was 5:00pm. I had intended to go for a walk but it was pouring rain and so settled in and prepared for my next day’s work. Monday we worked all day and, at the insistence of my colleague, we went to a late dinner—not my style—at the place to go in Tampa, Bern’s Steakhouse. We got to the restaurant at 8:00pm.

Bern’s is an institution Tampa, it has been in the same location since 1953, growing with time. It was opened by Bern & Gert Laxer initially as a luncheonette. Today, it has eight dining rooms, is dim-lit—bad for taking photos, sorry—has red velvet walls and gaudy renaissance looking artwork scattered around the place. In addition to the dining rooms, there’s a bar and lounge area, a separate dessert room upstairs (more on that in a moment), a huge kitchen that offers tours, and a huge wine cellar. We didn’t have a reservation so we got in line to put our name down with the hostess. The people in front of us were doing the same thing and after they finished one said to the other, “Where’s Harry?” I couldn’t help myself so I responded, “He’s with Sally.” Harry and his friends got a kick out of it and invited my colleague and I to join them in the lounge while we awaited our table.

Eventually we were seated and I was told to order steak, “this is no time to think about dieting,” chided my colleague. The steak came with French onion soup, a house salad, grilled vegetables from the garden, and a fully-loaded baked potato. The page on the menu for steak was a full sheet—legal-sized—arranged in a table with the rows telling you the cuts of steak and columns explaining the two thicknesses of cuts of each steak, its weight, how many people it serves, and the price. On the following page was another table describing to you how you should order your steak depending on how you like it cooked, according to its thickness, and the cut of meat. I ordered the 7 oz. châteaubriand, rare warm—as opposed to rare cold where the meat on the inside would still be cold. A châteaubriand is a thick cut of tenderloin. I couldn’t finish it or the baked potato. The soup and salad would have made for a lovely meal all alone but not at Bern’s.

After our meal my colleague insisted we take a tour of the kitchen and it was spectacular. We saw cuts of meats with specific instructions on receipt paper tooth-picked to them, sprouted greens for salad garnish, and the “onion ring” station where we were told that Bern’s goes through about 300-500 pounds of onions a night.

The wine cellar was unbelievable: cold, dark, damp, and expansive. We were told that it is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of wine. At any one time there are 100,000 bottles in the cellar…and another 500,000 bottles across the street at their storehouse. The oldest wine by the glass is a Madeira from 1900 and the oldest wine by the bottle is an 1845 vintage Bordeaux.

Next we hiked up the stairs to the dessert room where all the booths are made out of the wood of whiskey casks. In each booth is a land-line telephone where you can direct dial the pianist to request a song. He’s playing somewhere in the dessert room—I never saw him. We ordered a couple desserts to share: a baked Alaska that they flambéed at our table and the King Midas (carrot cake, chocolate ice cream, and fudge sauce). It was an exquisite and excellent experience and totally worth it.

By the time I got back to my hotel room it was after 11:00pm and I needed to pack for our 5:00am departure to the airport for the 6:15am flight to return home the following day, Tuesday. While work-travel is most certainly not a paid vacation it is thrilling if you love what you do, like I do. There is (usually) time to try a great restaurant at the expense of sleep and most of the time it’s worth it, like Bern’s was. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, travel isn’t always pretty or comfortable but in travel you are changed and hopefully leave something good behind. I’d like to think I left something good behind in Tampa or with you all, by sharing my experience and urging you to seek similar, positive experiences in any way you can.

Poor lighting, steak, vegetables, and super thin onion rings
That’s a lot of meat
More meat
Micro-greens, grown in the kitchen for salad garnish
Some of the wine in the 100,000 bottle cellar

Jeninni, Pacific Grove

Sorry to have left you in the dark last week but I’m back…and loving the rain. We may be in the midst of a storm but, to borrow from Mary Poppins Returns:

Though the lamps are turning down
Please don’t feel blue
For in this part of [Pacific Grove] town
The light shines through
Don’t believe the things you’ve read
You never know what’s up ahead
Underneath the lovely [Pacific Grove] sky

If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend you do. And it’s playing at our very own Lighthouse Theatre. (Note, I am not in any way affiliated nor do I gain profit from recommending either the movie or the theatre.)

Kitty-corner from the Lighthouse Theatre is Jeninni Kitchen and Wine Bar. There’s a saying in Arabic that roughly translates to: “parents are taken for granted.” Which extends—in my understanding—to loved ones are taken for granted. We treat the people we love—such as our parents and dear friends—in a way we might not treat a colleague or a stranger. We reserve manners and social niceties to those more distant to us. And what a shame.

I have loved Jeninni Kitchen and Wine Bar in the Holman Building downtown since they opened in the fall of 2013 but I have not written about them. I have taken them for granted—in the form of not writing about them in my column—despite being one of my favorite places in Pacific Grove.

Jeninni serves foods that are inspired by Spanish and North African flavors: think cheese platters with fig compote and almonds, eggplant fries with a honey aioli, or chicken and merguez tagine with couscous. And, being a wine bar owned and run by an incredibly sophisticated sommelier—Thamin Saleh—you can imagine that the wine list is superb. Oh, and their cocktails are locally-inspired.

You might be wondering what the word Jeninni means. Well, Jenin is a Palestinian city in the Northern West Bank and Jeninni in Arabic means a man from Jenin. A man from Pacific Grove would be Pacific Grovi. You see? 

What I love most about Jeninni is its intimacy. You walk in and you feel welcome, whether you sit in the dining area or at the bar upstairs. The décor on the walls is simple, charming, and reminiscent of old home-cooking. Thamin does an excellent job of talking to all the diners, welcoming them, and answering all of their questions. And a really unique thing about Jeninni is that there are three sibling pairs working at Jeninni…two on the floor and one in the kitchen.

I went to Jeninni recently with a friend and let me tell you a little bit about the food we had. The eggplant fries are my favorite item on the menu. I love them and order them every time I go and every time I forget how well eggplant retains its heat and burn my tongue. It’s worth it but I always have to soothe my burnt tongue with another eggplant fry doused in aioli. The tagine is a couscous dish with chicken and lamb merguez, a spiced Moroccan sausage. The spices are unusual to the American palate but I find them familiar having grown up eating Syrian food and then living in Spain after college. They are not spicy in the burn-your-mouth-sense but in the way that they bring rich flavors to the dishes.

To go along with your intense but beautifully flavored food are their cocktails which are fun and low octane (“shims cocktails”) so you can have more than one. A shim is that little piece of wood you put under a table to stop it from wobbling. In a shim cocktail, stronger spirits like vodka and gin are replaced with less potent alternatives such as vermouth or herbal liquors. That way you won’t wobble after having one or two, either. Their Barrel Aged “Negroni” is one of my favorites and the The PG Spot is also delightful, with elderflower and rosemary, it is nice and refreshing.

Believe it or not we did not indulge on dessert this time but I love all of the desserts I have had there. Their cardamom affogato is my favorite. An affogato is a scoop of ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. The word affogato actually means “drowned” in Italian. What better than to drown your ice cream in coffee? My colleague Dustin and I thought it made perfect sense to have these for breakfast when we worked at a chocolate and gelato shop in college. Normally one adds milk or cream, sugar, and maybe a flavor—cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.—to their coffee so adding gelato (or ice cream) to coffee is like adding all of those things in one fell scoop…I mean swoop.

So mosey on down to the movies and be sure to hit Jeninni for happy hour before or for dinner after. Or, as I have been known to do…both.

Someone couldn’t wait for the eggplant fries…here comes a tongue burn
Eggplant fries, Brussels sprouts, and cocktails…oh my!
Chicken and lamb merguez tagine with couscous

Happy New Year with layered Syrian Orange Blossom Water Pudding

In my family we always eat white foods on New Year’s Day. This is a tradition carried on by my mom; it is how she was brought up in Damascus and it’s part of the existence she pieced together here in Pacific Grove for her family. White symbolizes newness or a clean, fresh start so you eat white foods on New Year’s Day, putting the old year behind you and focusing on the blank page that is the New Year. Growing up we had a spread of white dishes on New Year’s Day and this year was no different.

One of the dishes that my mom always makes—that really has no name—is a layered pudding. She uses Maria biscuits and two flavors—chocolate and orange blossom water—of mhalabeeyay (a milk pudding) with the white (orange blossom water) on top. Every year it’s a little different, depending on her creativity and what’s around the house. This year it was topped with shredded coconut and it was perfect.

Growing up we had mhalabeeyay when we had sore throats. Every culture has opinions and recommendations for remedies when one is sick. I have heard in the US that you shouldn’t have dairy when you have a sore throat, that dairy makes the phlegm in your throat worse but Syrians eat warm milk pudding, saying it will soothe a sore throat. When I lived in Spain my advisor insisted on a cold beer on tap—it had to be on tap—to soothe a sore throat so maybe there’s more than one theory to cold remedies?  

Anyhow, my brother liked vanilla and I liked chocolate and my mom was very fair so she would make him vanilla and then gently stir in cacao powder into mine to suit both of our tastes. What I am saying is that this recipe is forgiving and my mom is amazing.

This is also the first dish I ever learned how to make. My mom would light the stovetop for me and I would stand on a stepstool. I learned from a young age how to dissolve cornstarch in water and add it delicately to sweetened warm milk—stirring constantly but gently enough to not splatter and get scolded—to create a pudding.

For New Year’s Day my mom makes this in a rectangular Pyrex. She puts a later of Maria biscuits then chocolate pudding then another layer of Maria biscuits then the orange blossom water, the “white” pudding layer on top. For a little bit of history, the Maria biscuit was created in London by the Peak Freans bakery in 1874 to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to the Duke of Edinburgh. Alternatively, you can use Graham crackers instead of Maria biscuits as my mom did many a time in our childhood.

Mhalabeeyay (Syrian milk pudding)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1-2 tbsp. sugar, to taste
  • 2 tbsp. cornstartch
  • 1/3 cup filtered water, at room temperature to dissolve the corntarch
  • 2 tsp. orange blossom water, you can find this at most grocery stores or at the International Market at 580 Lighthouse Ave. in Monterey

Directions:

In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the milk over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, dissolve the cornstarch in a cup, I use the measuring cup I used to measure the water because it is simpler that way and has a spout for pouring and doesn’t make a mess.

When the milk just begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and slowly add the cornstarch slurry, stirring constantly to prevent clumping. When all of the cornstarch has been incorporated. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange blossom water.

While still warm, pour into dessert dishes. Typically this dish is served with shredded coconut or nuts on top. It can be served warm or cold. If you have children with sore throats, warm is better. I hope you enjoy this treat from my childhood as much as we always do.

Bûche de Noël

I know it’s after Christmas but Christmas is not a day but a season so why not a recipe three days late? I wanted to share this for the recipe-clippers and recipe-savers out there; it is pretty involved but well worth it as my family testified to.

A brief history: a yule log or bûche de Noël (in French) is a traditional dessert served on and around Christmas in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Quebec, and several former French colonies, one of which—Syria—yours truly happens to be from. The word “yule” actually means a festival observed during the winter solstice by the Germanic and Nordic peoples. The tradition of the yule log predates Christianity and is believed to be about luck. During the yuletide season (between November and January), families were to go into the forest and pick a hearty tree to cut down. They were then to return with the most robust log they could find and burn it in deference to various deities in celebration of life and prosperity. One old European belief says that the log had to catch fire on the first attempt to light it, otherwise the family was doomed to bad luck that year.

The yule log, the cake, is composed of a genoise—an Italian sponge cake—iced, rolled to form a cylinder, and iced again on the outside with chocolate buttercream decorated in such a way so as to resemble a log.

For the genoise (sponge cake). This recipe came from my mom’s tattered and batter-stained cookbook. She transcribed it long before I existed and got it from her childhood neighbor and mom’s dear friend Tante Viva—Tante meaning auntie, another remnant of French colonialism in Levantine Arabic.

100 g. all-purpose flour, sifted

125 g. powdered sugar, sifted

4 egg yolks

6 egg whites

The juice of half a lemon

The rind of a half a lemon

1 tsp baking powder

Heat the oven to 400˚F. Line a swiss role pan with parchment paper, leave some parchment as overhang.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking powder, set aside. In a large bowl, beat the yolks, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon rind. The goal is to not have lumps, set aside. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add one spoon of the flour mixture to the egg yolk mix and fold slowly and gently enough to not form lumps. Add one spoon of egg whites and fold gently. You want to incorporate the egg whites into the yolk mixture but maintain the fluffiness and airiness of their texture. Repeat this until all of the flour and egg whites are fully incorporated.

Spread evenly onto the prepared swiss role pan. Bake for exactly 10 minutes. Until the top of the cake begins to have a golden tinge—almost like the texture and color of the perfectly roasted marshmallow. Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes. While cooling, dust a clean kitchen towel with powdered sugar and gently peel the cake onto the powdered sugar-dusted towel. Roll gently and set aside.

While the cake cools, prepare the buttercream, recipe pieced together from multiple verifiable sources:

3 egg yolks (how convenient, you have 2 leftover from step 1)

1 egg

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1-2 tbsp. coffee extract or make a really strong coffee using 1 tbsp boiling water and half a tbsp instant coffee

In a standup mixture, beat the yolks and the egg until it has tripled in size. While it is beating away, prepare a syrup with the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed saucepan. You want the syrup to reach 225˚F, measure with a candy thermometer, and be patient because it may bubble over so you will want to do this over low heat and pay attention.

Once the syrup reaches 225˚, reduce the speed on the standup mixer, remove the syrup from the heat and add slowly and gently over the egg mixture. Once you’ve added all of the syrup beat for three more minutes.

Add the butter slowly, 1/4 stick at a time. You want the quarter stick to get at least half incorporated before adding the next quarter stick. Once all of the butter has been added, beat another ten minutes. Add the coffee extract, according to your preference.

Chocolate icing, from Paul Hollywood an English celebrity chef

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

200 g. powdered sugar, sifted

25 g. cacao, sifted

1 1/2 tbsp. milk

With a handheld mixer beat the butter until it’s soft. Sift sugar and cacao over the butter and mix well. Add the milk to soften the icing. Add it in increments because you may not use it all. Or you may need more, use your judgement, but you want it to be a somewhat stiff icing—soft enough to spread but stiff enough to hold the shape of “bark.”

To assemble the cake:

Spread buttercream over the sponge cake and even it out. I only used about half of the buttercream, the other half you can put on toast and enjoy post holidays but before the New Year’s resolution goes into effect. Gently roll it up and transfer to the platter on which you will be serving. Delicately spread the chocolate icing over the rolled cake. I say gently because you don’t want to tear the sponge cake. Some people use a fork to make the effect of a tree’s bark. You can dust powdered sugar over it to look like snow, or shave chocolate, and add decorations such as macaroon or marzipan mushrooms—the traditional bûche décor. I made my mushrooms (and ladybug) by dying marzipan and hand-shaping the figures. And lastly, enjoy!

My 2018 bûche de Noël, I took the photo from the side
so you could see the genois and buttercream
Voilà

Creamy Pumpkin Soup

One of my favorite things about winter is using up my fall porch decorations, my pumpkins and squash, to make tasty treats. This past fall I went to Apple Hill near Placerville (you can read the post about that here), I was attending a wedding, and I specifically picked out my pumpkins and squash with future consumption in mind. I picked them sturdy with no bruises or soft spots so they would last through the fall on my porch. This Saturday I cashed in on my decorations. I lounged around my house, reading and writing, even did some cleaning and tidying, while I roasting a pumpkin. I enjoyed the rain and Christmas music on the radio and the heat from the oven because, of course it took over an hour to cook the 10-pound pumpkin. As the pumpkin cooled, I wrapped Christmas gifts.

After I made the soup, I packed up a picnic basket with the soup, crème fraîche, and a loaf of French bread and walked two blocks down the street to my friend’s house to watch The National Lampoon’s Holiday Vacation, a classic American Christmas movie that I had never seen. It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday in December.

I hope you have been enjoying your Saturdays and every-days in December. Maybe you will find the opportunity to make this soup, it is a crowd pleaser and unique to the season. I have already made three batches of it to use up my 10 pounds of pumpkin meat and so my parents, co-workers, friends, and I have all been thoroughly enjoying this treat. You can make it spicier if you like by increasing the amount of cayenne pepper. I also prefer a thicker soup so I use 2 pounds of pumpkin to the 4 cups of broth but this also depends on your preference and the juiciness of your pumpkin.

Creamy Pumpkin Soup

4 tbsp. butter—if using salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the soup
1 white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper, more if you like spicy
Dash of salt
1.5-2 lb. fresh roasted pumpkin meat, or canned pumpkin, it comes in 15 oz cans
4 c. vegetable broth
1/2 c. whipping cream
Crème fraîche for garnish

In a heavy soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat until it begins to brown. Add the onions and sauté for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in the garlic, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and salt and cook for three minutes. Add the pumpkin and broth. Remove the pot from the stove top and blend with an immersion blender until the mixture is creamy and no chunks remain. Return to medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for twenty minutes. Turn off heat, add cream, stir to incorporate, cover and let sit for ten minutes.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and fresh bread for dipping. Enjoy with your favorite holiday movie and a glass of zinfandel or sauvignon blanc. It goes great with both red and white wine! Light a fire to really feel in the Christmas spirit.

Creamy pumpkin soup next to my next victim, the other porch decoration
slated for participation in the next stew