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……