Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Philadelphia Eating Frenzy - Second Stop: Buddakan

Buddakan, another restaurant in the STARR Restaurant group (Pod, Alma de Cuba) has a wonderfully dramatic ambiance.  I grow increasingly appreciative of  Stephen Starr’s talent as we try more of his restaurants and look forward to trying as many as possible of his 27 of so locations in Philly, NYC, Atlantic City and Florida.  Buddakan must be one of his most successful undertakings as he has opened Buddakans in NYC and Atlantic City.

Tuna Tartare Spring Rolls, Kobe Beef Satay, Edamame Ravioli, Black Cod and Wasabi Mashed Potatoes are some of the dishes we shared.  The “Dip Sum” Doughnuts were a sinfully delicious dessert.

I suppose we could try out NYC's Buddakan for lunch tomorrow.  Train travel in this north-east corridor of the U.S. is astounding.  We could walk to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, also known as Penn Station, and get to NYC in 1 1/2 hours max.  Arriving at New York City's Penn Station we would take a cab or an easy walk to the Meat Packing District and Buddakan.  Then back to NYC's  Penn Station and return to Philly by late afternoon in time for another great dinner in Philadelphia.

All of these Penn Station names cause confusion for me.  Because the Pennsylvania Railroad company was the owner of the DC to Boston line, there are many northeast cities with a "Penn Station",  including New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  The Philadelphia station, completed in 1933,  is quite beautiful inside and worth visiting even without a train trip.  (The opening scenes of the movie "Witness" were filmed in the station.)

New York's original Penn Station is no longer.... The original structure (1910-1963) was, according to my husband, and from all the pictures I have seen and articles I have read, a breathtaking and monumental entrance to New York City.  Today there is still much angst over the demolition of the terminal building.  Where there was once a beaux arts masterpiece and an architectural jewel, there is now a boring office complex and the Madison Square Garden arena.  Penn Station is now completely underground.   On the positive side, the controversy that resulted from this tragedy prompted immediate conservation efforts and probably saved NYC's Grand Central Terminal from demolition.

The history of New York's Penn Station is a compelling story -  from its beginnings (check out this interesting NPR All Things Considered episode), to its heyday and eventually demise:

So we do not make the train trip to New York this time - we must leave for home this afternoon.  And alas, now I would be too depressed on arrival into New York's Penn Station.  So we instead opt for brunch at Farmicia; and try to pare down, just a tiny bit,  my son's food expectations with a simple but delicious goat herb omelet, breakfast quesadilla,  and bagels with lox and eggs.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Philadelphia Eating Frenzy - First Stop: Pod

Visiting our son at college has turned into an eating frenzy.  He is tired of college food already and so when he hears we will be in town his stomach starts growling and he starts prowling the Philadelphia restaurant and foodie sites.

This visit we were able to get in three great spots in 36 hours.  Hopefully this will tide him over for a month or so…

Pod is right in the heart of "University City" and consequently attracts a young crowd.  During the dinner hour it is quite loud and very busy, just perfect for its clientele of graduate students, young teachers and perhaps the occasional undergrad group out for a special night.   The very hip (I am so dating myself with this language) décor reminds me a bit of the Jetsen’s TV cartoon show;  but in a good way - I loved that show.  The ultra modern, red, u-shaped, couch-like,  plastic looking seating "furniture" (I’m exhausted even describing the lounge) where we waited for a table would have been very uncomfortable but it was not, and it provided a perfect area where you could be a bit separate with your own group but still feel part of the larger crowd.  

We started with Miso soup and Sushi, moved on to Kobe Beef Skewers, a Cauliflower Robata and Shrimp Pad Thai.  All were good and artfully presented.   The chocolate bread pudding for dessert was excellent!  I am sure we will be back many times over the next few years.

Pod is part of STARR Restaurants, which has restaurants not only in Philadelphia, but also in New York City, Atlantic City and Florida.   We have not purposefully chosen only STARR restaurants in Philly but every one we have tried to date has been excellent (see my 9/9/11 post, Alma de Cuba).    Our next meal just happens to also be at another STARR restaurant…

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Austin City Limits

As I am heading towards the Austin City Limits theatre for their 11:00 am tour, I do a double take as I pass a life size cow sculpture outside the Three Forks Steakhouse.  Well, what an appropriate addition – a cow outside a steak house - interesting and eye-catching.  Although I think I’m glad it was not on site when we ate here last year - too much of a connection with the real thing perhaps for me.   

I wander on and there is another cow sculpture – this time with a football motif.  Well this is University of Texas territory.

But then I pass “Flowerida Cow”.  What is going on??

But I need to get to the theatre in time for the tour so I decide to come back later to check out the “Texas Moosicians” cow strategically placed at the entrance to the ACL theatre.

Every weekday there is a free tour at 11:00 am of this very cool recording studio/theater.  I have not yet been able to attend one of the tapings or concerts but I at least want to see what all the hype is about.   I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this.   Everything is black:  the seats, the walls, and the stage.  There are bars, which you don’t really notice at first as they too are done all in black, right on the stage floor and on each of the 3 tiers of seats.    Apparently no expense was spared on this extremely high tech and state of the art theatre.   And because of its intimacy, all seats should be good.

This music “venue” (this is a unique place - it is hard to call it a theater or a recording studio) hosts 60 to 100 concerts a year plus it is the home of the PBS series Austin City Limits, the longest running music series in American History.   Tapings are done ahead of time:  one of my favorite groups, Cold Play, was taped a few months ago for this year’s New Year’s Eve show.  Tickets for the tapings are quite difficult to get, concerts are much easier.    But at the very least  I highly recommend the tour!   Austin City Limits at the Moody Theatre (the official name of this site) is just one more indication that Austin has pretty valid rights to holding the title of music capital of the world. 

(I find out later that Cow Parade Austin is hosting 74 individually painted cows in and around Austin.  They will be auctioned off for charity on Nov. 13th at the ACL theatre. These cow auctions have been done in many cities for charity.  It is an interesting concept for some special "cow related" places.   

Monday, October 24, 2011

Eataly, New York City

When my daughter kept texting me about this neat Italian market I should visit, I was a bit surprised at what I thought was her continued misspelling. My spell check continues to go crazy.  Eataly is a very large 36,000 square foot building – totally open inside -  with different restaurant “areas” specializing in pasta and pizza, fish, desserts, and vegetables. Everything is homemade of course from fresh local ingredients using traditional Italian techniques. And there are tons of Italian and some local food items to buy and take home.  Olive oils, risottos (so many kinds…), vinegars, canned beans, dried pastas, fresh pastas, cheeses, wines, beers, coffees, cookbooks, and on and on.

This is a very, very cool market.  If I lived in the area I would come here often to either pick up some great ingredients to cook at home or to have lunch, dinner, coffee, or to have an aperitif while watching mozzarella being made.  As an out-of -towner I would and will come for lunch and pick up some Italian food gifts for friends and for myself.  Located at 23rd and Fifth Avenue, right across from Madison Square Park, this whole area has gone from seedy (in the 1990’s) to very appealing and a destination point.  Madison Square Park itself has undergone a total transformation and has an intriguing history.  New York is continuing to surprise me with the revival of so many areas.  First the Meatpacking District and now, just a day later, the Madison Square Park District.

It was good I had a focus for lunch because this could be an over-whelming place.  So, continuing on my quest to find the perfect pasta with tomato sauce, I headed to the pasta area. The lines were a bit long so I opted for a seat at the bar since I was a single and ordered a Spaghetti al Pomodoro.    Italian wines by the glass were plentiful and my very handsome Italian waiter and I decided on one and then he brought Italian bread tied up so cutely in parchment paper, and olive oil for dipping of course. 

Another woman was soon seated next to me.   From Los Angeles, she was a distributor of Italian cheese and was checking out the market.  She proceeded to order a Pizza Margherita plus the Pasta Pomodoro.  Goodness…   And she did eat pretty much everything!  Perhaps she is also a runner.  I would run in order to eat that much but my knees just wouldn’t take it.   Well, I do love to watch other people enjoy their food.   We had a great discussion about Italian food and cheese and enjoyed critiquing the food.  I thought my Pasta Pomodoro was very good.  The freshly made pasta was perfectly al dente and just the right texture.  But I would like to see last night’s sauce from Scarpetta with today’s pasta…

You would think pasta with tomato sauce is the newest delicacy.  While we were still eating and conversing a woman who was just leaving noticed that we were having the Pasta Pomodoro and stopped and said that she had also had the pasta and was wondering,  “Did we think it was a bit salty”?   I can see that I could enlist some others on my quest.  There are obviously others that understand my obsession.

Tonight:  Back to the Meatpacking District for dinner on this trip’s last night in New York.  Pastis at the corner of 9th Ave. and 12th St. has great atmosphere.  It is a quintessential French bistro with very typical French bistro food.  I have to say though that the food flavor doesn’t quite have that “je ne sais quoi”?  Sometimes you just have to have sourdough bread in San Francisco, bistro food in France and steamed crabs on the Eastern Shore.  I think it must be the water.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meatpacking District – Day 2

Today I want to see what the latest evolution has brought to the Meatpacking District – from slaughterhouses to sex shops to fashion central – gracious! The place must be experiencing some identity issues.   So I put on walking shoes and head back across town through the increasingly busy and increasingly young Murray Hill District, stroll through Times Square, as usual gawking at the spectacular billboards (where is the Calvin Klein underwear model ad that is always here?) skirt the Garment District wishing I knew someone in the know, pass through historic but still a bit run down Chelsea and then finally arrive at 14th and Washington Street in the midst of what I try to envision as a former bustling commercial meatpacking area.  Things are quite calm and quiet - actually kind of nice after the bustle of Midtown.  What I am not seeing is what one travel site describes as:  “West 14th Street, the Meatpacking District’s main artery, has turned into a Rodeo Drive of sorts.”  Uh, I don’t think so.   Instead envision warehouses and old buildings with first floors converted to a series of stylish small boutiques and restaurants.  The new,  hip Standard Hotel is a bit of a landmark and while I’m sure the hotel is a great addition to the area, the building itself reminds me of a 1950’s badly done low-rise office building in a suburban strip mall.  Perhaps it is just too hip for me.    However the attached restaurant – the Standard Grill - looks very appealing and I will definitely return at some point for lunch or dinner.

There are however some nice boutiques, the Chelsea Market is worth a trip to the area on its own merits, and there are great restaurants.

Everyone in the area is very pleased and proud of the newly opened High Line; a mile long elevated linear park straddling parts of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District – from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street.  The original High Line was built (opening in 1934) to elevate railroad tracks above ground to improve safety on the streets.  Hitherto, with freight trains on the same roadway with horse, motor and pedestrian traffic, 10th Avenue was known as Death Avenue and men on horses would ride in front of trains waving red flags. With the elevated tracks, freight cars were able to connect directly to factories and warehouses and trains would roll right inside these buildings.   By the 1960’s, as rail shipments saw large declines due to interstate trucking, the high line was used less and less and finally was abandoned.   In the late 1990’s efforts started to preserve the High Line and renovate the elevated area as a public open space – really quite an imaginative use!  It does spruce up the area and provides a great place to view the Hudson River.  And there are street vendors, sidewalk artists and the occasional musician trying to make a buck or two.   But I think I have had my fill of the Meatpacking District for at least the afternoon. We will be back tonight for another dinner in the area but until then, off to Eataly to work on my pasta quest.   (to be continued…)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Meatpacking District, New York City

I do remember never daring to venture into the Meatpacking District when living in NYC in the early 80’s and after a bit of research into the area after my recent visit, things are coming back to me…    In the early 1900’s, the area was home to slaughterhouses and packing plants but by the 1980’s, it had become a center for drug dealing, prostitution, sex clubs etc. etc.  Oh dear.  Well, you can imagine my reticence when my daughter said I really should spend some time in this area – “there is the new Diane von Furstenberg headquarters and boutique, the Chelsea Market, a big new Apple store, several boutique hotels and many of the newest “in” restaurants including:  Pastis, Buddakan, Spice Market, Scarpetta, and the Standard Grill.”  What a turnaround.  The area is I guess now quite fashionable; more boring perhaps but at least visitable.

We started with dinner at Scarpetta.  I love this restaurant.  It is small, intimate, busy, but a bit loud.  The food is excellent.  Appetizers we enjoyed were:  a tuna susci – raw tuna with marinated vegetables, beautifully presented; a roasted beet salad; and a braised short ribs of beef appetizer with faro risotto.  The white wine we ordered was an Italian Falanghina 2009 by Taburno – very crisp and flavorful, similar to a Pinot Grigio but more interesting.  For a main course I thought this would be a great place to start my new quest:  the search for the best of one of my all time favorite dishes - pasta with tomato sauce.   It was an auspicious start - Scarpetta has a good one – labeled simply “spaghetti with tomato and basil”.  There is Parmesan cheese incorporated in the sauce, which made for a great flavor.   The only negative was that the homemade pasta was a bit too gummy for my taste.  But tomorrow is another day and hopefully another pasta.  (to be continued...)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dogmersfield Park, England

We are staying in the countryside about 40 miles outside of London at the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, in the village of Dogmersfield.  When we arrive, we take an afternoon four mile stroll through the grounds and surrounding countryside:  cross the meadow, skirt the keeper’s cottage, continue along the cow and separate bull enclosures (don’t bother the bull!), past the pigsty (quite neat and tidy I must say), a short crossing through a bit of forest, coming out by the canal complete with swans, pass under a charming stone bridge, then another, then another, hop over the wooden fence to continue on the path back to the meadow leading to the Manor.   I do love the English countryside.  I could live here…

We see the Manor in the distance – still nary a person in sight.    The geese are plentiful however.  Oh my, they must be eating everything in sight.  I must ask the woodsmen to be a bit more alert.  As we return to the Manor through the last vestiges of the crisp September afternoon sun, I am hoping the staff has been diligent while we were out.    There is always so much to be done:  the silver polishing, the beating of the comforters, the hearths to be laid.  And of course we have guests coming for dinner tonight…

All right – well just for a moment I forgot myself.  I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the start of the second series of Downton Abbey – but sadly not until January 2012 in the U.S.

I know that most of these old estates have incredible history.  Dogmersfield Park is no exception. On the travel route between the coastal port of Southampton and London, this estate is where the future first wife of Henry VIII met her future husbands.  Catherine of Aragon was on the way from France to London and met Henry VII’s sons, Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne, and Prince Henry, his younger brother, at Dogmersfield. Arthur married Catherine but then died at the age of 15.  At Henry VII’s death, young Henry was proclaimed King and he then married his brother’s widow.   This was allowable in the Catholic religion but Henry later used this as a rationale for divorcing his long time queen and thus was spawned the great HBO series “The Tudors”! 

There are of course many historic properties in England offering accommodations and many I'm sure more charming and intimate than this.  However, even though this is a large hotel and is a bit skewed towards the corporate clientele, the Four Seasons has done a great job of maintaining the sense of the “old manor” even though the current building is essentially a very well done renovation of the Elizabethan style house originally built on the site in 1728.  For leisure activities there is of course hiking, and skeet shooting which I highly recommend - wellington boots and waterproof mackintoshes provided!  The service and food at the hotel is top drawer.   The estate is close to Windsor Castle and to the village of Chawton, where the home of Jane Austen is open to visitors and where she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.   Unfortunately I was too busy skeet shooting and having tea and scones in the library and imagining myself as the lady of the manor and so did not get to Chawton…

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Truffle Season In London

London seems to have the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy.  And it just happens to be black truffle season in London.  I really don’t know much about truffles but now I know there is a season for them, and that the white truffle season begins a bit later than black truffle season, and that black truffles are fabulously expensive and white even more so.

We had dinner with London friends at the lovely Eleven Park Walk in Chelsea and tried their special truffle menu. Pasta with truffles, carpaccio with truffles, risotto with truffles – everything with generous amounts of fresh black truffle shaved over the dish tableside and all absolutely delicious.  A 2006 Brunello di Montalcino paired perfectly with the unique aroma and taste of the truffle.

It is easy to understand why Americans love England.  It is such a civilized place.  Very few high-rise buildings in central London to mar the historic charm, taxis with very pleasant gentleman drivers and practically large enough to stand in, and we can mostly understand the language!

Our hotel in London was the charming Cadogan hotel in the heart of Knightsbridge - a lovely, small, old world hotel with a great location in a residential neighborhood and only a short walk to major sights.  We stayed in the Lillie Langtry suite.  Lillie Langtry, a mistress for some time of the future king of England, Edward VII, sold her flat at 21 Pont St. to the Cadogan hotel owners and then she proceeded to live in her old bedroom, which was then part of the hotel.   There is also an Oscar Wilde Suite – room 118.  Wilde was staying in this room when he was arrested in 1895 for some activities thought unsavory in that time period.  (The arrest was the subject of the poet laureate John Betjeman’s poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.)

Eleven Park Walk
11 Park Walk, Chelsea, London

Cadogan London
75 Sloane Street
Knightsbridge, London

Friday, September 23, 2011

Austin, Texas

I have visited Austin about 10 times over the past 3 years and I’m still a bit befuddled on how to describe this 4th largest city in Texas:  scrappy, unpretentious, small town, up-scale, scruffy, hip, university town, music town, high tech town.  Nothing and everything seems to fit.

I do feel that the gutsy decision to do a major revitalization of downtown Austin has turned out remarkably well.   I haven’t been back for about a year and was pleasantly surprised on my recent visit to see that the 2nd Street renovations have been pretty much completed.  A new “W” hotel – (wow – I haven’t seen the rooms but its bars, restaurants, sitting areas, fireplace lounge, etc. etc. are very cool and cosmopolitan like all W hotels but still in keeping with the hip Texas western vibe), the new music studio and theatre for Austin City Limits (home of the long running PBS series by the same name) and numerous luxury high-rise residences, trendy restaurants and boutique shops are complete and open for business.  

Downtown Austin fortunately still continues to feel like a small town even though it is: home to the University of Texas (50,000 students in Austin alone), the self-described “music capital of the world” (and it’s 6th Street is probably the coolest place for checking out live whatever is the current music trend), the capital of this the 2nd most populous state in the country, the site of the now famous annual South by Southwest music, film and high tech festival (you might remember hearing about the “start-up buses”–heading from major cities to SXSW), and the site of the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (and it’s a big one – I have been in town when this is going on – beautiful motorcycles and very!...!  interesting people).

Growing up in the era of Dallas, the oil boom, and John Wayne movies, I have always been a bit in awe of Texas and its history but even more so after visiting the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which I highly recommend, and even more in awe after touring the State Capital.   It is an impressive building.  It is the largest (of course - this is Texas), state capital in the country, and while not larger square footage wise, it is a smidgen taller than the US capital in DC.   The guide on my tour seemed to indicate that this was done to make a not so subtle statement about states’ rights.

Texas is a big state and has a big history.   Settlers from the US and from Mexico carved out a life in this inhospitable territory and became first and foremost Texans.  Wanting independence from Mexico, Texans organized to win their independence, and after many bloody battles (the Alamo one of the most famous), the Republic of Texas was declared in 1836 and was an independent nation until it chose to join the United States in 1845.  I must say I understand the little bit of arrogance and streak of independence that continues to permeate the Texas mystique.  I think it has earned the right.

A food aside:  I suppose beef has fed the growth of this bigger than life state.  Austin is known for its beef barbecue and there are plenty of barbecue restaurants and dives and hangouts at which to gorge oneself.   But this town also fosters top-notch Mexican food and I did find the second best fish tacos I’ve ever had right downtown in Austin.   First place still has to go to Firewood Pizza in Murphy, California.   But Cantina Laredo on 3rd St. in Austin has “Tacos de Pescado”, made with mahi mahi, queso fresco, marinated vegetables and a chipotle aioli, served with fresh homemade tortillas.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Run Don’t Walk for Basil

There is a short time in the summer where basil is plentiful and inexpensive and it is now.  I may be preaching to the choir here but I cannot recommend too highly having pesto in the freezer to use throughout the year. I am never without it:
  • for emergency crostini
  • to make the easy and delicious salmon baked in parchment you can find in my August 14th blog
  • to add a small spoonful to bean or minestrone soups - adds great flavor and looks lovely
  • to spread on bread and top with a tomato slice for the kids when they come home from school
  • to put under the skin of a bone-in chicken breast before baking
  • and of course for spaghetti with pesto (pesto pasta in a lovely bowl, surround with in-season tomato wedges).
I just bought 3 good leafy bunches and made a batch of pesto for the freezer.  You probably already have your own recipe.  Mine is 4 cups of basil leaves, 6 cloves of garlic, olive oil to make a smooth paste, ½ cup pine nuts, and ½ cup grated Parmesan.   I use the Cuisinart to blend and then mound large spoonfuls on a cookie sheet and then freeze.  When frozen, I like to wrap each one in parchment (twist the ends like a candy wrapper).  This is totally not necessary as they will keep well all together in a zip lock bag but it just appeals to me to grab one wrapped in paper – and no messy fingers!

(Freshly made and frozen is so much better than the expensive jars of pesto found in grocery gourmet aisles.  But I must confess that I tried Costco’s Kirkland brand a few months ago and thought it was excellent. It came in a huge jar so I proceeded to freeze small portions in an ice cube tray because it was a bit runnier than my homemade pesto.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

New York City – La Bonne Soupe to the Rescue

It is pouring rain and the US Open matches have been cancelled for the evening.  Drat!  I have ventured out two times this morning and have gotten completely soaked each time – especially my shoes.  I now understand why my daughter insists that rain boots are such a necessity here.  My third time out I don’t want to venture too far but it’s past lunchtime and I’m famished.  Fortunately our hotel is almost around the corner from our old standby - La Bonne Soupe at 48 W. 55th.  The waiter who seats me does not look askance at my wet shoes and dripping clothes, sweet man.  We have been coming to this restaurant for the last 25 years and the menu has stayed pretty much the same.   The restaurant did undergo a renovation in 2009 and I feel consequently has lost some of its worn wood, creaky stair, timeless charm but the bright new bistro look is I suppose a nice change.

We typically order the fondue and salad with a carafe of the house wine – an inexpensive, casual, fun dinner or lunch.  But what I think really keeps us coming back is the salad dressing.   We love this dressing!  20 years ago we asked the cook for the recipe and fortunately one of our party spoke Spanish as the chef couldn’t speak English (yes wacky...).  He proceeded to give us his recipe but it was for gallons of the dressing - 4 cups of Dijon mustard, 8 gallons of oil, etc. etc.  Well, we pared his recipe down and came up with something we could use (thank you Bill!).  This is basically a vinaigrette recipe but the special ingredient is a smidgen of chicken broth which gives the dressing a bit more body, flavor and creaminess.

A few years ago the restaurant came out with its own cookbook which I would not highly recommend especially since I will give you the ingredients for our version of this tasty salad dressing.

La Bonne Soupe Vinaigrette
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1/3 cup good white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil (not olive oil!)
  • Salt & freshly ground pepper

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gazpacho in Philadelphia

Smoked Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho:  Heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, red onions, scallions, garlic, salt, parsley – all smoked for 20 minutes or so.  Olive oil, sherry vinegar, tomato juice, jalapeno, touch of sugar.  Puree in blender.   Garnish:  dried sweet corn, avocado slices, thinly sliced radish, pea shoots.  Serve in cold bowl (cold drink, cold glass; cold soup, cold bowl…)

Tomato season has finally arrived in California but apparently it has been in full swing on the East Coast for some time now.   We had dinner in the lively and lovely Rittenhouse square area, home to some great restaurants, boutiques and the lovely historic square.  Our restaurant was the Alma de Cuba restaurant.   The food was superb:  Black bean soup (with rice croquettas and a drizzle of crema fresca on top served in an appealing oblong bowl), smoked heirloom tomato gazpacho, a remarkable creamy coconut quinoa main course with chayote squash and an unforgettable chocolate dessert crepe with streusel crumbles.

Most memorable was the gazpacho – it was excellent.  I love gazpacho, order it wherever I find it, and feel I am a bit of an aficionado on the subject of this fresh, light, tomato based soup.  I asked for the ingredients from our very competent and gracious server who proceeded to write them down for me but only after double-checking with the chef to make sure she had included everything in that evening’s soup.  She also told me about the video that was made featuring the chef preparing his signature gazpacho:  "Chef Alfonso's gazpacho".  The ingredients for the soup are “cold smoked”.  I really don’t know if I will take the time to cold smoke my ingredients.   It is probably best that one doesn’t perfectly replicate all the wonderful dishes at restaurants.  The memories of those meals are sometimes best left on their own.   But I will indeed make my version of this gazpacho with these ingredients and garnishes and most especially I will remember to chill the bowls…

I have many gazpacho recipes in my files but I’d like to share one that think is simple and excellent.  It happens to be from the South Beach Diet Cookbook – one of my all time favorite cookbooks. 

South Beach Diet Gazpacho:
  • 2 1/2 cups tomato or vegetable juice
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded, finely chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cucumber
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine everything in a glass or stainless steel bowl.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  Serve cold.  

Serves 5
117 calories per serving.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to Basics - Pasta Fagioli

After a last evening in Asia dining on Peking Duck (yes that is the unfortunate creature in the picture) carved at the table with its head right there by my elbow, some sort of crustacean I couldn't pronounce even after repeated questioning, a pickled pig's ear, a whole bass with the head and other things still attached, nary a vegetable in sight, we are home and jet lagged and ready for a simple dinner, preferably with no strange animal or fish body parts included.  So I immediately go for my tried and true pasta fagioli recipe.  (Click here to check pronunciation for pasta fagioli.)

I have made this pasta soup any number of times and it always hits the spot.  It is easy, fast and flavorful and I usually have everything I need in the refrigerator, pantry and garden.  The fresh rosemary, parsley and sage are very important!

Pasta Fagioli
Serves 4 to 6


2 cups cannellini beans
3 oz. diced pancetta
1/4 pd. any small pasta (if you use spaghetti break up in small pieces)
1 stalk celery, 1 small carrot, 1 small onion, 4 cloves garlic, all finely chopped
3 fresh sage leaves, a few sprigs of rosemary and parsley, all finely chopped
4 1/2 cups water
Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
  1. Heat olive oil and saute garlic, onion, carrot, celery and pancetta for 5 minutes.
  2. Add sage and rosemary and parsley and saute 1 minute.
  3. Add beans and cook a few minutes.  Mash 1/4 of the beans with back of large fork or potato masher, add cup of water.
  4. Add pasta and stir 1 minute.
  5. Add remaining water and boil 15  minutes allowing water to reduce to thick consistency.
  6. Let rest 10 minutes and serve with Parmesan and drizzle of oil.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

All Too Brief Stop in Phuket

Phuket, Thailand

We love Thai food.  One of our go-to take out places is the excellent Amarin on Castro St. in Mountain View, Ca.   Our typical order is the hot and sour soup  (but hold the mushrooms), yellow curry chicken and steamed rice.  The soup is a must when anyone in the family is feeling under the weather.

While we were flying to Thailand both of our children, pretty much at the same time,  had this grand revelation:  “Oh my gosh Thailand – Thai food is in Thailand!”  I do sometimes wonder about them....

I can’t concentrate too much on the food here – the ocean breezes and pounding surf, the gorgeous Thai architecture, the tropical foliage and, since we are here during the rainy season, the turbulent weather with multiple downpours and storms during the day divert my attention at this lovely Tresara resort.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Get me out of this traffic!

Bangalore (Bengaluru), India

I just don’t understand how anyone can handle this traffic and the seemingly constant horn honking.  It is exhausting traveling in this city and in all of the other cities I’ve visited in India! After just a few hours seeing the sights, I so look forward to getting back to our oasis in the middle of this busy busy city.  And so tonight we dine at the Leela Hotel’s Jamavar restaurant.  Excellent service and food. 

The chicken seekh kebab appetizer is memorable.  I was wondering how in the world they could make this chicken kebab so moist and flavorful.  I mean it does have the name kebab so I thought these were individual pieces of chicken that must have been marinated some special way.  On further research I found out that seekh kebabs are not actual pieces of meat but instead are made by mincing chicken or lamb (including lots of the meat’s fat and sometimes adding more), combining this mixture with spices and then shaping the mixture over a flat metal skewer.

This was only my second time visiting India.   Understanding and appreciating this country must be an on-going process so I will need to have more travel time here.   In the meantime:  I continue to be fascinated and a bit appalled by the rigid caste system.   I think I’ve learned to appreciate the strong tie with your food encouraged by the tradition of eating with the hands  (although I’ve only tried it at one dinner – it was a real eye opener).   I am unfortunately getting more immune to the large number of stray dogs living off of scraps on the streets.   I still love seeing the sacred cows walking down the middle of roads or lying in doorways.  I am often shocked at the dichotomy of the beautifully colored saris on women walking along dirty streets.  I know ghee (clarified butter) is added to almost all foods but I try to forget this as I enjoy the cuisine.  And I still find the traffic almost personally debilitating.

I will need a bit of a break before I return…

Monday, August 22, 2011

24 Hours in Dubai

Dubai, UAE

Today it is about NOT eating.  To add to our experience of being in Dubai, we are going to experience fasting for Ramadan and not eat or drink until this evening’s sunset.   But it is about 107 degrees out during the day and we have been walking in the spice and gold souqs (the local trading markets).  And so my son, daughter and I do finally break down and drink some water, but only when back in the taxi since one has to be careful to not eat or drink in public during the day.  My husband shows us all up and sticks to the plan and doesn’t even have water.

After a morning of seeing the sights, which is a bit challenging in this heat, we end up at the hotel pool and drift in and out of slumber for the next four hours.  The pool attendants keep coming by offering ice-cold towels and seem to be checking on everyone to make sure no one gets heat stroke.

We are becoming more and more excited about breaking our fast this evening. As sunset gets closer we are also becoming more and more cranky.  But we are quite proud of ourselves for holding out for these 12 hours. 

We now know that breaking the fast is a time of celebration and partying each evening.  We’ve seen large tents set up all over the city for this very purpose and our hotel has a special Ramadan Cafe where light meals, refreshments and “Hubbly Bubbly” or Shisha” (more about this later) is served from 8:00 pm to 2:00 am in the morning.    Apparently many Muslims will stay up quite late socializing and eating and then sleep until very late the next day.  This way they don’t have to be without sustenance for too many of their waking hours. 

By sunset we are famished and so head directly to Tagine, the Moroccan style restaurant at our hotel.  We need more than light snacks but hope to visit the Ramadan Cafe after dinner.  Our crankiness gradually subsides as we sample a pastilla and a soup to start, followed by a couscous, a chicken tagine and a lamb kabob dinner, all while lounging on colorful pillows around an intimate table. 

After dinner our children go ahead to the Ramadan Cafe – which now is hopping with locals and tourists.  When I join them, after my husband heads back to the room to do some work, they are already at a table smoking the Shisha and drinking Turkish coffee.   I too order a coffee, which, at least at the moment, is the best coffee I’ve ever had.  It is very syrupy and almost sweet.  I proceed to taste the appealing looking thick mixture in the bottom of the cup – not a good idea!   Apparently Turkish coffee is prepared by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans and serving it in a cup and drinking after the dregs settle.

Now the Shisha…  I suppose this is much like the hooka pipes back home which everyone seems to be quite into.   But these strange looking contraptions are looking quite authentic.  Everyone has by their chair this chimney like apparatus with long tubes and a smoking spout on the end.  I try my daughter’s, which is mango-flavored.  It is an interesting taste and experience – very mild, somewhat relaxing.  My son’s is a combination of favors and I find it a bit too strong.  Occasionally a shisha “attendant?” (I don’t know what else to call him…) comes by with his bucket of hot coals and adds fresh coals to the chimney looking thing.  He also takes off the smoking spout and sucks in huge gulps in order I suppose to get the pipe working well again.  Or he just wants to smoke too, in which case he has a serious case of nicotine addiction.

I really should have stopped with the coffee and a few puffs of the Shisha and I know I will regret this but I order a dessert and ask the waiter to choose something.  It is sweet rice like pudding, probably made with couscous, topped with pistachios and almonds and it is delicious!

As we head back to the room through the cooler 85-degree night, we are feeling overly sated and not feeling particularly as if we had sacrificed much on this fasting day. 

This is a good link to check out making Turkish coffee.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paris, we will miss you.

Paris, France

We are packing up to get ready for the upcoming sale of our Paris apt.  After 7 years, we will not miss the constant plumbing issues associated with a 300-year-old building and the testy neighbors who seem to get angry with us for anything.  But we will miss the bread; the light of the city in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, at night when the lights of the Eiffel tower start twinkling every hour; the cafes, the brasseries, the bistros; the cappuccinos, the cafés crèmes, the espressos; the beautiful window displays, the architecture, the bridges.  We will miss having a home base in this, the most beautiful city in the world.  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

An Island in the Middle of Paris

Paris, France

It’s August and hot.  We really shouldn’t be in Paris in August – but circumstances insist.  But we have found the perfect spot for dinner on this hot summer evening thanks to friends who are locals.  We cab it to the Bois de Boulogne, the Central Park of Paris (but more than twice as large as the New York City park), and even though the taxi driver doesn’t know the restaurant we are searching for, we finally find it.  Well we don’t find the restaurant exactly but find the path down to the landing where you take the cute little ferry about 50 yards across a small lake to Le Chalet des Iles.  It is early – 8:00 pm - but the sun has started to descend a bit making the evening not so sweltering.   And the park like setting of the Bois de Boulogne gives us the feeling of cool respite.  The restaurant’s lights are just starting to come on and we see diners already at the waterside tables as we pull up to the restaurant’s ferry dock.

We love it!  The food is just ok but the ambiance is perfect for this summer evening. 

Lac Inférieur du Bois de Boulogne

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birthday Dinner at Manresa

Los Gatos, CA.

I must say I was a bit disappointed with this surprisingly 2 Michelin star restaurant.  Half of the many tasting menu dishes were good and the other half just so-so.  I can’t really remember any of the dishes to be memorable or I would mention them.  The service was ok but seemed to be lacking passion and attentiveness.  To be fair however, we had just dined at Per Se in NYC about a month prior and had an incredible meal. The food was outstanding and the service spot on.  So poor Manresa – it just couldn’t hope to compete.  (But with such a hefty price tag we were hoping it would try!)

But it turned out to be a great evening  – mainly because I had brought a topic!  Those of you who know me well know that I do like to have prepared ahead of time a topic or topics to bring up to discuss at dinner.  This particular evening’s dinner was special because our son is getting ready to leave for college and I have wanted to make sure to continue to have these last days filled with good memories and good times.

I was quite busy all day and so didn’t have much time to think about a possible topic for the evening but soon before we left I thought about the idea of talking about Philadelphia - where my son will be going to school this fall.  But of course it had to be the right angle.  So right before rushing out the door I googled “facts about Philadelphia” and up came a list of “Philadelphia Firsts” from About.com.   So I quickly printed it out before heading out to dinner.

During dinner I read off some of these “firsts” and this started a great two hours of conversation about stock exchanges, currency in the U.S. and coin collecting, world's fairs and computers (I learned about how the first computers' vacuum bulbs is where “ a computer bug” got this name - bugs landing on the vacuum bulbs and burning out the system).

Some Philly Firsts:
--The first stock exchange
--The first mint in the U.S.
–-The first world's fair
--The first computer -  ENIAC -  built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946

This was a great topic that I will use again for different places.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summertime 30 Minute Dinner Party

Los Altos Hills, CA

Summertime 30 Minute Dinner Party

“Can I invite my four associates who are in town this week to join us for dinner at home?  Or we can always take them downtown – whatever you would prefer…”  It’s a beautiful, August in California weather kind of evening and the back yard is at its best, so of course I say “sure!”.  But my husband had not given me much notice if any - I only have an hour or so.  So I head to the grocery thinking that I’ll do my tried and true:
Salmon in Parchment
A tad of pesto spread over the top of the salmon (from my homemade stash in the freezer), topped with some chopped tomatoes, 3 or 4 thin lemon slices, then wrapped up and baked for 20 minutes, or until just barely, but really almost not quite done inside.  I serve it on a nice platter but keep it in the parchment so the juices are saved.  A simple brown rice and a nice salad on the side and that’s all we need for dinner. 
But an appetizer for 5 men while I’m fixing dinner ….  Perhaps meat?  I remember our favorite fresh oyster restaurant in Paris (“Mon Dieu! You want what with your oysters Madame???”  I mean I hadn’t asked for cocktail sauce and crackers or anything like that – I had just asked for a bit of that shallot/vinegar mignonette sauce that I really love with oysters…”That is like pouring water in your wine!!!”) Ok so they are a bit arrogant about their food but they do have reason to be.   Well this restaurant (a tiny, casual neighborhood place) serves a great starter -
--a large platter of thinly sliced bresaola ham along with a pretty crock of cornichons, French bread and good salted butter.  Perfectly delicious and so simple.
Our local grocery does not have an Italian bresaola but they suggest a “Bresaola Bauden”, similar to the Italian bresaola but produced here in California. Sounds great to me – I think locally produced is the way to go and the real Italian bresaola I would prefer to appreciate in Europe.   
Dessert – berries and whipped cream with a bit of dark chocolate shaved on top.
(If you love oysters and Paris – Mercerie Mullot, 19 rue Brea, Paris, France  01 43 26 08 06.   In the 6th arrondissment near the Luxembourg Gardens. )

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The French know their paella too

Los Altos Hills, CA.                                               

The French know their paella too…

We were invited to dinner at some good friends’ house this past weekend..  They are French and we always look forward to dinner at their home. They both enjoy cooking and usually both share in dinner preparations.

We started with a simple tomato and mozzarella appetizer with a splash of quality olive oil.   (Tomato season is late this year due to the weather but they were able to find decent tomatoes).  They asked if we would like to try a rosé to start off the evening – the french rosés are really quite nice especially in the summertime.  Very light, very crisp.   

The main course was a paella.  We have had this dish at their home before and it is always delicious.  Paella is such a personal dish – everyone has his or her own way of making it and that is what makes it such a treat to have at someone’s home.  What set this evening’s dish apart I thought was the presentation.  The paella was served in a traditional paella type skillet and our friend had wisely not included too many “items” in the paella, just chicken (small drumsticks), mussels and shrimp.  The shrimp and mussels were attractively arranged on top of the rice and the mussels (in the shell) were standing up in the rice.  The husband mentioned that he thought this was better than nesting the seafood in the rice – he thought the seafood had less chance to get overcooked this way.  The wine was a keeper – a 2007 Vacqueyras Jean-Marie Arnoux  - a French Rhone wine - that they had bought from our local Draeger’s grocery for about $17 a bottle.   Draegers was sold out when I first went by to pick some up.  They say that it is flying off the shelves.  On a return trip they had restocked.

Pastry dishes are a specialty of the wife.  This particular evening she prepared a simple but delicious lemon tart, made with a friend’s Meyer lemons and with the kind of pastry you don’t want to waste a bite of.   

A delightful summer evening with good friends, great food and lovely wine.


Travel Size Mom

My children (now 18 and 22) endowed me with this affectionate nickname years ago.  I am rather petite and the shortest of our immediate family.  And so travel size containers…. travel size Mom!

Why this blog?  Bottom line:  my family said you have to just start!  Just one word please!   I have had such grandiose ideas on topics about which to write:  dinner topics to keep life interesting and stimulating for family and friends, what to have for dinner, current affairs, country reports for travelers, finance for teens and on and on and on.     I plan outlines, I research, I agonize over how to come up with the perfect layout for a blog or website….But I never seem to be able to actually execute.  Food and travel topics seem to be the one thread that I keep coming back to – it is the subject I seem to have the most passion for and get the most excited about.

So I promised my son and daughter that I would just start.   And we will just go from here……