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

BBQd oysters to celebrate life

“What will survive of us is love.”

–Philip Larkin

Hello from Mill Valley, a small town in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I came up for my California grandma’s Celebration of Life; she passed away in October. She had a great run in this world and loved to party. So naturally a huge party was the best way to celebrate her. Her daughter—my aunt—arranged for 20 lbs. of See’s chocolate arranged on beautiful platters and spread all over her house, over 40 bottles of sparkling wine, the mixings for vodka tonic—her drink of choice along with sparkling wine, and the party was also catered so people could have some food alongside their drinks. There were over 200 people present and I guess that is the love that survived Marlene as the epigraph above says.

One father and son pair made BBQ’d oysters. It’s their family’s tradition and it was a perfectly wonderful way to honor Marlene. I hovered around the BBQ—having never BBQ’d oysters I wanted to learn how. They explained. You put the oysters on the hot grill unopened. As they heat they will begin to pop open slightly. That’s when you use the oyster shucker to open them entirely. The oyster has a deep bowl looking shell and a flat one. It is growing a “foot” onto the flat shell and you want to slice that off (oyster meat off flat shell) and put it in the bowl-like shell. At this point you add a dollop of BBQ sauce or garlic butter and let it grill a few more minutes until it’s ready to eat. I noticed the guys were adding vodka…maybe that’s where oyster shots come from?

When events like this happen in our life it’s important to allow ourselves time to explore what we’re feeling. Losing a person we love—while it is not easy—is bound to happen. Everybody deals with grief differently and I’m no psychology expert but I’ll share my two cents. Of course, I cried and on occasion find myself brushing my teeth and thinking of a great story I want to tell Marlene only to realize I can’t pick up the phone and call her. Alfred Lord Tennyson said “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have never loved at all.” And I wholeheartedly embody that. This is what I get for loving someone and how beautiful and amazing is that?

I leave you with the ending of the poem “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver:

To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

So love people and spend time with them. Tell them you love them and shower them with gifts, even if it’s just a flower you pick on the side of the road, like my mom says. And when it’s time to let go, know to let go because what survives the mortal body is love.

Now go call up someone you love—your friend, neighbor, etc. and make them some BBQ sauce for your favorite meat…even oysters!

Vodka BBQ Sauce

  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed
  • 1 1/4 c. ketchup
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 c. vodka

Toast cumin in small skillet over medium heat until it turns dark in color and begins to smoke, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add ginger and garlic; sauté until very fragrant, 3-4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients (ketchup, soy sauce, sugar, and toasted cumin) and bring to a boil, whisking gently to blend. Reduce heat to very low, add the vodka,  and simmer for about a minute, whisking constantly and carefully.

This BBQ sauce can be served on BBQ’d oysters or roasted vegetables, your favorite cut of meat, etc. Enjoy!

Taxi ride in Santiago

He was a talker. Busy. Anxious to please. He saw me lift my sleeve up and pull it back down, he didn’t know I was checking on my eczema. He thought I was cold. He turned his head around quickly and saw I was wearing a turtle neck. He didn’t know it was a turtleneck tank top. “Are you cold?” he implored.

“No.”

“I can turn the air off.” he asked.

“No no, I like it.”

“Oh ok. Yes. Good. Because it’s really hot down there.” (By down there be meant in the city.)

“I am Alfonso. Anything you need I’m at your service.”

“Thank you, Alfonso.”

It was quiet again and that made him unstill.

“Do you have a sore throat?” he asked, looking at me through the rear view mirror and touching his throat.

“No.”

“Oh. I thought. You were—“

“No no I’m fine.”

Again, quiet. But he wanted to talk.

“Are you here on vacation? Work?” He asked.

“Work.”

“Are you Central American? You have an accent like you could be…Guatemalan, Colombian…”

“No I’m North American,”

“North American! And you learned Spanish?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m Alfonso, did I already tell you that? What is your name?”

“Sally.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sally. Anything you need you just tell me. Any questions, anything.”

“Thank you, Alfonso.”

He picked up his cell phone and spoke to it, giving it the address of my hotel. The female machinated voice started to give him directions in Spanish. He updated me: “24 km. Or 22 minutes. We will arrive at your hotel at 11:24.”

“Thank you.”

Alfonso proceeded to give me a demographic and geographic report of his country. I nodded along. After several minutes of talking he asked if I had ever been to Chile. I told him I had. And he laughed out loud, “so you already know all of this?”

“I don’t remember all the details, please continue.”

He told me about all the provinces in the country and the neighborhoods in Santiago. He told me the area I was staying in was very safe and I had nothing to worry about.

“There are places that really respect health. To include that you can’t smoke outside. Wait. Do you smoke?” He quickly turned around thinking he may have offended me.

“No.”

“Good.” He sounded relieved, “Then you won’t have any problem. Because there are neighborhoods that you can’t smoke and if you do you’ll be fined.”

He went on, “You’ll be safe. For example. If someone says to you, “what a beauty!” We call that a cat call and you can’t do that. You can file a complaint. You are safe here. But it won’t happen so don’t worry.”

He asked me what I thought of Chilean people and after I had given my opinion he shared his opinion of his country and I loved that. He was proud.

We pulled up at a stop light and he pointed his finger out of the passenger side window, “you’re American! That’s your embassy.”

There was a sky-rise with a window cleaner halfway up.

See the window washer on the right about halfway up? And sorry for the white van…it pulled up just as I was snapping the photo!

Alfonso told me how different he thought Donald Trump and Bill Clinton were. How he thought that the quality of life in Chile was excellent. How their economy is doing really well right now and they have a lot of immigrants.

When we pulled up at the hotel he said, “It’s been a pleasure. May I give you my card? If you want a ride back to the airport when you’re leaving I’m happy to take you.”

He handed me the card and explained what each phone number meant. I tucked it in my purse and got out of the car. He jumped out after me. He was disappointed that the bell boy at the hotel had already gotten my one piece of luggage.

As I walked away he called after me, “Enjoy Chile!”

Raclette

“The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us after their departure.”

–Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving. And maybe you’re expecting me to write about Thanksgiving but I’m not. I’m writing about raclette, a Swiss dish consisting of primarily boiled potatoes, cured meats—prosciutto, salami, mortadella, etc.— and, pickles.  But it is so much more a process, an event, than simply a dish. Friday after Thanksgiving, I had the joy of experiencing it again.

Raclette has been mentioned in medieval writings as early as 1291; apparently Swiss-German monks enjoyed this rich dish in the cold winters of the Alps. It is believed to originate in the regions of Valais in Switzerland and Savoie and Haute-Savoie in France; all in the Alps. The raclette cheese itself is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese and made in rounds of 6 kg (a little over 13 lbs.). Traditionally, the round of cheese was cut in half and placed by the hearth or fire and once the exposed layer of cheese melted, it was scraped over one’s dish of potatoes, meat, and pickles. The dish is called Bratchäs, Swiss-German for roasted cheese. The French word for the dish, raclette, comes from the French verb racler which means to scrape, as you can imagine scraping the melted cheese onto your potatoes and meat.

After Thanksgiving, I drove to my brother and sister-in-law’s house with my mom. Some friends met us there, too and Friday night we prepared and feasted on a raclette.

The beauty of raclette—other than the obvious fact that melted cheese is one of the most beautiful phenomena in the gastronomic world—is that it’s a process. Each diner has their own small tray for melting the raclette cheese by the heating oven in the center of the table.  You have to wait for the cheese to melt and once it has melted, you assemble your food. The potato…cut nicely or smashed with the back of your fork; the meat laid out, multiple cuts of meat or all mortadella; and the melted cheese drizzled on top. And then you can’t just devour your food, you savor it, a few bites of raclette and a sip of wine, and then it’s your turn to participate in the conversation while your next round of cheese melts to your liking. Before you know it, hours have gone by in contented bliss, your belly is full, and life is good.

Cold cuts and cheese

 

Perfection

One thing my French friend, Franck, noted about Thanksgiving that he has observed now being in the US for 11 years is that it is essentially the most important meal of the year for Americans. People fly or drive or hours to be with their families and share this huge meal. But what he doesn’t understand is the fact that people spend hours, maybe even days, preparing the meal but is it devoured in 30-45 minutes. He compared this to French meals where meals are eaten at a much slower pace. You take your first course, tell stories, jokes, catch up, and then clear the plates, and prepare the second course. Then a third, and so on.  There isn’t a demanding expectation that everything be served at once and hot. Yes, food is served hot but it can be heated in between courses, by the host with help from a guest or two.

I am guilty of this, as well. I find myself eating quickly as though mealtimes are timed events. They are not. Especially on a day like Thanksgiving. We have the day off (most of us) to be with our families and maybe watch a movie, play games, talk, joke, or simply be. So why not linger around the table a bit longer. Help the host prepare the meal and savor each bite, each course, and the meal in its entirety, at a casual pace.

I wish lovely meals with family and friends for everyone this holiday. I hope that we all take the time to enjoy our meal, the company, and the process that is the pleasure of the table. Here’s to the start of the holiday season!

Flavors of Pacific Grove

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

–Oscar Wilde

This past Saturday I attended the Flavors of Pacific Grove, an annual event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. This year it was held at the Pacific Grove Golf Course Club House and featured over a dozen chefs from local restaurants plus several wineries, breweries, and my favorite root beer maker, Sparky’s. I took my college roommate who was visiting me from Los Angeles and we met some friends, my mom, my brother, and my sister-in-law. We made sure to get there as close to doors opening as possible but it was already packed!

I grabbed a glass of wine and a plastic plate that had a holder for my wine glass; which made eating and carrying my wine glass very efficient. It was a bit overwhelming at first, there was food and people all around me and I didn’t know where to begin, but I managed. I started with a glass of Chardonnay from the Trader Joe’s booth. It was pretty cool to see Trader Joe’s join in the small-town festivities. Next and in no order, I grabbed the salmon dish being served by Asilomar. It was a piece of smoked salmon over a potato latke with some wonderful pickled garnish. I ran into so many people I knew from around town and found myself regularly excusing myself from the conversation to make sure I didn’t miss out on the food.

Pizza My Heart was serving a salmon pizza and a vegetarian pizza, both amazing. Fandango’s featured paella with generous amounts of shrimp and sausage. Thamin Saleh from Jeninni—a restaurant that I cannot believe I haven’t written about yet in my column because it’s one of my favorites in the area—was serving a butternut squash bisque topped with a pomegranate relish that was perfectly combined. Monarch Pub was generously pouring beers from a tap. Vivolo’s was sampling their delicious clam chowder. Serving from the kitchen counter was AquaTerra and they had an herbed gnocchi with lamb. Yum! In the other room—you see there were two rooms, the large dining room and a smaller room—I started and thought I would make my way clockwise around the room. You know, systematically so as to not miss anything. There was a fried chicken bite. Endive bites with a fresh cheese from Poppy Hall, Pacific Grove’s newest restaurant. Pulled pork sandwiches with cole slaw being served by The Bridge Culinary; an affiliate of The Bridge Restoration Ministry a non-profit that focuses on helping people get a second chance at life and whose mission is to provide these people with vocational training to include a culinary program. How cool! These guys were so fun, the food was fantastic and I have to admit, several in my party went back for seconds.

Pulled pork sliders from The Bridge catering

 

Smoked salmon with potato latkes from Asilomar

Sparky’s served up their famous root beer…I just wished they would have had vanilla ice cream to make a float. Maybe next year! Canterbury Woods’s smoked duck was phenomenal. Another stop we frequented.

All in all, it was a great event that left us all very full and very happy. I love this small town.  Everyone in my group found several bites they absolutely loved, and we all look forward to next year.