Saturday, December 29, 2007


I am a total girl when it comes to cocktails. The prettier and tastier, the better. Props to my friend Siddhi, who took me to this nice new joint in the Union Square area.

It's called Cantina and you should hit it up when you're next looking for a cool drinks place to impress your friends. Small and subtly located on Sutter near Mason, you can walk right by the pretty wood and wrought iron door if you don't know what you're looking for. You'll get credit for having 'local' knowledge and knowing that such a place exists.

Inside, Cantina is skinny and long, only has a few seats but is dimly lit with spicy decor - funky fabrics, interesting paintings (you might not ever hang them in your house, but at least they have a home here; but luckily its an art gallery so the pieces change), and a bar to make any Latin liquor connoisseur swoon. They've got more types of cachaca, pisco and tequila than I've seen outside of Brazil, Peru or Mexico! And did I forget to mention that lots of the pretty people hang here? Make sure to dress casual-Mission.

But I digress. This is a drinks joint, or a 'bebidas bistro' to borrow their own term, after all, and boy do they do those well. Duggan McDonnell, expert mixologist, has worked some might fine magic on this drinks list. And it, like the art, changes. The drinks are one of a kind, don't even dare trying to order your standard gin and tonic here. All seem to be served in a simple, tall high ball glass with a sliver of cucumber, ginger or pineapple. And it's all made fresh at the bar, none of this from-concentrate crap.

My personal favorite is one that I bummed from Siddhi, the Laughing Buddha - a scrumptious mix of ginger, ginger beer, serrano pepper (yeah that's right) and alcoholic goodness. It's not too sweet, a crime often committed by alco-pop makers. I ordered one of the daily specials, a pisco punch - after spending minutes agonizing whether to get that or a blackberry cabernet caiperinha. I made a good choice, my drink had some ginger, orange and pineapple juice to drown out pisco's often heavy, burning taste.

But I'm definitely trying the blackberry thing next time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

In Support of a Fellow Foodie

I love comparing my food preferences with those of my friends. Generally, I'm in it for selfish reasons, to prove that my critical tastebuds are better than theirs, or at least as discerning. Just kidding. I'm hardly a Type-A perfectionist. My disastrous Gingerbread house, which would make a pre schooler's art project look good, can attest to that.

Anyway, Vaughn Tan, a fellow SF foodie, H-bomb alumn and wood shop extraordinaire, has created a map of good eats in SF. I want to share it because I agree with a number of his selections. For those of you visiting the city or looking for new restos to try, may this serve as a useful edible guide to San Francisco:

Vaughn's the only person I know who got academic credit for "researching" and writing about fabulous Japanese food. Check out more of his musings at

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Great Gingerbread Disaster

I had a major culinary catastrophe recently. I blog about it because it was my greatest baking failure to date. Right up there with the time my dog ate half of a homemade pineapple cake.

But in seriousness, my sister and I took on the daunting project of building a gingerbread house this Christmas. I decided we should bake the whole thing from scratch – none of this graham cracker nonsense. I searched the net but the recipes I came up with weren’t very helpful. They were targetted more at veteran gingerbread makers looking to add an extra story or fine details like gingerbread crown molding to perfect structures. Few provided basic instructions for beginners like us, who would’ve been happy with a clapboard shack so long as we could pile tons of candy goodness onto it.

Our house was doomed from the beginning. The gingerbread planks to our humble home distorted in shape as they baked. One piece nearly burned. They tasted ok – not very sweet, but that was OK given the amount of extra sugar we loaded on in the form of frosting and candy. The pieces hardly fit together, and our frosting was more like white sludge than a firm glue to hold the pieces together.

Luckily, we somehow managed to have a crumbling structure to put candy onto by morning. Our Christmas miracle! And boy did we load that thing up with all kinds of chocolates and teeth-rotting edibles – almond M&Ms (love them!), twizzlers on the roof, Hershey’s Kissables, candy cane pieces. And these funky little peppermint malt balls – though I think we ate as many as we used on the house.

But our baked abode did not last. Within minutes of putting the last candy touches on it, the roof gradually caved and then the walls imploded. A perfect Florida gingerbread house, perhaps – post-hurricane.

I will not accept pastry defeat. Anyone out there have suggestions for how to do better next time?? Stronger gingerbread? Better icing? Tips for making the template?

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Unconventional Thanksgiving? Sweet Potato Tamales. . .

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It combines my three favorite ingredients – cooking, eating and family. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s also one of the least conducive occasions for experimenting. You don’t want to disappoint your guests with a charred, under-seasoned or all-out failed dish. It’s an occasion to let your tried and true blue-ribbon recipes shine – the perfect pecan pie, creamy mashed potatoes and delectable turkeys get their moment.

But sometimes tried and true gets boring. Years of eating the same dishes – mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with either marshmallows or maple syrup, too-tart cranberry sauce, turkey which is rarely evenly cooked, green bean casserole with too much canned mushroom soup, give or take a pumpkin pie or two – can leave the taste buds craving something different.

Mind you, not everyone needs adventure in their Thanksgiving menu. I’ll admit, there’s real value and skill in consistency. This entry isn’t for those tradition-bound eaters. It’s for those of you, who like me, are looking for something a little different to grace your tables – at least for next year!

In search of something more interesting, I tried a few new recipes on my Thanksgiving table this year. And the results were exciting. I’m sharing my favorite here – it's Bobby Flay-inspired, and it’s a real fusion dish suited to the part of Florida where I'm from, where Mexican and southern influences run together – just as they do in these sweet potato tamales.

20 dried corn husks
1 1/2 cups canned corn kernels
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head garlic, cloves removed and roasted
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening or margarine
1 1/2 cups masa or yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon honey
2 medium sweet potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons maple syrup

1. About 2 hours before you plan to form the tamales, soak husks warm water for 2 hours, until softened.

2. Roast the sweet potatoes at 375F for about 1 hour or until soft, then peel and mash

3. Puree the corn, onion, roasted garlic, and stock in a blender. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and cut in the butter and shortening.

4. Mix in the masa, honey, and salt and pepper coarsely, until there are no visible lumps of fat.

5. Fold in the sweet potato puree, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, allspice, and maple syrup.

6. Remove the cornhusks from the water and set aside the 20 biggest husks. Pat dry. Tear the remaining husks into 1-inch wide strips to be used for tying.

7. Form the tamales: lay 2 husks flat with the tapered ends facing out and the broad bases overlapping by 2-3 inches. Place about 1/3 cup of masa mixture in the center. Bring the long sides up over the masa, slightly overlapping, and pat down to close. It’s OK if the masa spills a bit from the seams. Tie each end of the bundle with a strip of cornhusk, folding the short ends in towards the middle and centering the filling when you tie. The tamale should look like a little tied packet.

8. Arrange the tamales in a single layer on a steaming rack, cover with a lid or tightly with foil, and steam over boiling water for 45 minutes. To serve, allow to cool slightly and serve with salted pecan butter.

(Pecan butter - grind 1/4 cup of pecans and blend with 1 stick of softened butter, and salt to taste - yummy!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Taste of Home: Vik's Chaat Corner

I've found a little taste of home in the East Bay. It's called Vik's Chaat Corner in Berkeley and it's awesome. Tucked into an unassuming warehouse near the corner of 4th and Allston Way, this restaurant dishes up Indian street foods reminiscent of Bombay's Chowpatty. You should go. Soon.

It was a great place to quench my cravings for real Indian fast food - from papri chaat to dhokla and chole batura - even good old South Indian specialties like masala dosa were on offer! Vik's isn't a well kept secret either - it was packed the Sunday that I went with family with college kids, Berkeley residents and, of course, Indians. The latter audience is a living testament to the quality of the place!

The eatery is totally casual and laid back. In real Indian style, you can wait in line at a register surrounded by super hot stoves and men rushing around to make your food, yelling in Hindi (and Spanish), all the while staring at a display of mouth-watering Indian mithai.

For those of you who feel especially inspired by your eating experience, you can also step next door into Vik's Distributors, the neighboring Indian store, to pick up ingredients and try recreating the Vik's experience at home.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Do Right with Bi-Rite

I’ve been in San Francisco long enough now to have sampled some of the city’s finest food offerings. There are many to choose from, but the one worthy of my first SF entry is hands-down the amazing ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery. Their cold concoctions evoke delicious childhood memories of monkey bars, birthday parties and light-up sneakers. . . Well, maybe not the sneakers.

Bi-Rite has been around for over 50 years. The small, locally-owned joint makes batches of artisanal ice cream in unusual but scrumptious flavors. They've nailed the basics - the ice cream is light, airy and not too sweet. In fact, the flavors are the creamery's biggest highlight! The combinations are not predictable, but they sing on your tongue and usually pair two seemingly mis-matched ingredients which complement each other well. The creamery offers up to 49 such flavors – I tried to sample them all and failed, but here’re some of the highlights: salted caramel, balsamic vinegar and strawberry, honey and lavender. The Mint Chip is great too.

Bi-Rite’s salted caramel deserves a special shout out. The salty-sweet combination is incredible. It’s like caramel popcorn without the annoying bits that get stuck in between your teeth!

A double scoop will set you back $4. The portion sizes are just right, and come with cute wooden spoons to boot. If you’re feeling like a real cacophony of flavor, go for one of their many sundaes. The banana split comes with caramelized bananas! Otherwise, for the lactose intolerant (or diet-abiding people who foolishly venture past), the creamery has popsicles in refreshing flavors like pineapple mint.

Bi-Rite is a quintessentially SF place – quirky, exceptional . . . and a bit of green mixed in. After you order your cold or baked goodies, you can walk just across the street and enjoy them in beautiful Dolores park! (If you have time, be sure to check out Bi-Rite Market just down the street for unique, hard-to-find gourmet food items)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Beaches, Pink Flamingos - and Key Lime Pie

I made a lot of key lime pie this summer in Florida. It’s one of my favorite parts of going home. My neighbor has this prolific citrus grove in her backyard, and her key lime tree usually has plenty of little yellow-green gems begging to be mix with condensed milk and turned into a delicious tart pie. It’s such a quintessentially Floridian thing, I can’t say no.

Before I share my tried and true recipe for key lime pie, it’s worth mentioning that key limes really are different from the standard Persian limes that you see in grocery stores. They taste and look different. They’re a lot smaller – about the size of a ping pong ball. When they’re ripe, the skin thins and they turn a bright yellow color. It’s got more zing too – more acidic and a touch of bitterness, and a more floral bouquet than the normal grocery store lime.

Key limes are named after the Florida Keys, where they grow well and are the signature ingredient in our state’s best dessert. The limes themselves are said to have immigrated to Florida from Malaysia or somewhere else far east, transported by Spanish ships. Key lime pie is from Key West, which helps explain the other unusual ingredient in the recipe – condensed milk. The recipe originates at some point in the 19th century, when shipping families in Key West had to substitute canned condensed milk, since few people had ice boxes to keep fresh milk. originated in

Aficionados will argue incessantly about the proper or best way to make key lime pie. Graham cracker or pastry crust? Sour cream or crème fraiche? Meringue or whipped cream topping? Cooked or uncooked filling? I’m taking my own stand. Here’s my favorite key lime pie recipe. . .

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
½ cup vanilla wafer crumbs
¾ cup brown sugar
4 tbspn butter, melted
2 (14oz) cans condensed milk
1 cup key lime juice
2 whole eggs
3/4 cup sour cream
¼ cup whipped cream
2 tbspn powdered sugar
1 tbspn key lime zest


1. Preheat oven to 375F

2. Mix the crumbs, brown sugar and butter together in a medium bowl until well blended and moist. In a lightly greased 9” pie pan, press the crumb mixture in, distributed evenly along the bottom and up the sides, to form the crust.

3. Bake crust in the oven about 20 minutes, until browned. Remove and let cool.

4. Decrease oven temperature to 325F. In a large bowl, combine the condensed milk, lime juice and eggs. Whisk until well-blended and pour into cooled pie shell.

5. Bake 15 minutes in oven. Remove and let chill in fridge for 2 hours.

6. Once chilled, in a separate medium bowl, mix powdered sugar, whipped cream and sour cream. Use to top pie. Sprinkle with lime zest (and optionally a sprig of mint) to garnish. Serve cold.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Expateries" - a (Delicious) Traveling Phenomenon

In my travels to various countries, I’ve encountered one ubiquitous feature in just about each place I’ve visited: the expat-run gourmet eatery. On the one hand, these establishments stick out like sore thumbs – imagine an amazing gelateria on a remote Kenyan beach. On the other, they also channel their strangely cosmopolitan environs – remote towns often chalk-full of international visitors. For all the assumed contradiction between the local and global, however, these kitchens often manage to fuse the best of both realms.

While the category encompasses a wide variety of restaurants, cafés, bakeries, etc., these expat eateries tend to share a few traits. For one, their offerings usually meld elements of two countries. Indeed, the owners are often aspiring and adventurous cooks from other countries who have made a new home in distant lands. A green chili-white chocolate-vodka cheesecake that I had in Mumbai’s Theobroma dessert café (run by sisters Tina and Kainaz) comes to mind, for example. Yum!

Second, their décor and ambiance offer a little taste of home and respite for the travel weary or home sick. They can channel aesthetics that seem to appeal to citizens of the world. At Yacout in Marrakech, for instance, I remember recalling flashbacks to The Park lounge in New York, with its indoor trees and chic fairy lights. As a result, they often stand apart from typical restaurants – just like their food.

More often than not, they rely on imports – imported food items, wines, and recipes. Even décor is inspired or borrowed entirely from far away places. In a sense, their offerings are real fusion food – melding local ingredients with foreign recipes or techniques, which are sometimes acquired with real effort. In Zanzibar’s Stone Town, for example, Amore Mio (see photo above) is a real labor of love run by an Italian family that moved to the East African island and set up a bonafide gelateria – with an imported gelato maker! In pursuit of such eclectic visions, great pains can be taken. In Santo Domingo, for example, the owners of Hotel Ataranzana bed and breakfast (
Bernhard and Suzanne) imported their own cheeses and salamis from Europe for the delicious daily breakfast service!

But the most recent ‘expatterie’ experience I’ve had, which really inspired this whole entry, was a chic-comfy Peruvian joint called Cicciolina in the heart of Cusco. Its owned by, as you probably guessed, an Italian replanted into the Inca heartland. The café-resaurant- tapas bar serves delicious food to the hike-weary, fresh from its imported gourmet oven, stellar tapas with a local twist, and great cocktails. In fact, the owners have also gone into the wine importing business, opening a distributor called Baquito, that supplies other area restaurants with imported South American and European bottles.

The décor in Cicciolina deserves special praise. The restaurant is on the second floor of an old colonial building, with a gorgeous bar bedecked in red flowers and hanging ornaments, and black or espresso tables, mirrors – very chic. Someone’s clearly put a lot of effort and love into the place. Perched from one of those corner high tables, I enjoyed a whole range of offerings – the Pisco sours are excellent, and the bartenders offer an informative intro to various types of the grape-based liquor.

I was so enamored with Cicciolina’s foods that we ate there three times in our three days in Cusco. I can strongly recommend their brunch foods – I had a great poached egg-asparagus and brown bread open sandwich. Not sure what they put in the balsalmic sauce, but it had a nice special sweetness to it. And the evening tapas are wonderful – showcasing typical Peruvian flavors in a classic Spanish form. Savory mushroom bruschetta and a roasted red pepper bite come to mind. What a delicious postcolonial concept!

Friday, August 24, 2007

El Sabor de Ceviche

I ventured to Peru at the beginning of August. The journey was primarily to see the country’s famed Incan ruins, and to observe economic conditions – but I certainly harbored culinary ambitions as well.

As most of you have likely heard, however, a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake rocked southern Peru
just a few days after I returned, on August 15. It doesn’t feel right writing about fanciful food experiences in a country where so many are without access to emergency healthcare, supplies or shelter. Not to mention, more than half of Peruvians live in poverty. So let me first encourage you to help the cause, keep monitoring news reports from the region, and donate or volunteer as you can. A few websites to help Peruvian victims -



CRIMSON SOLIDARITY (started by friends of mine)

How can anyone write about the highlights of Peruvian cuisine without mentioning ceviche (unless, of course, you’re a vegetarian)? I’ve been in love with the dish since I first tried an interpretation of it, with trout and lots of lime and peppers, in Nicaragua in 2002. Two months later I was surprised to see another version – but this time in the thick of New York’s high dining scene, with scallops and grouper and blood orange marinade, at the then-called Bouley Bakery.

Ceviche was coming “into fashion” on the haute-cuisine stage at that point. The dish immigrated from its Peruvian home, where it was already migrating to other parts of the region (like Nica), all the way to New York. I loved it because, whether at a simple café in Central America or a fancy joint in the Big Apple, it is a great summer dish, light and refreshing, melding two of the season’s best flavors – fresh fish and fruit.

So what is it exactly? Ceviche (sometimes called cebiche) is a dish of raw fish marinated, or “cooked,” in citrus juice. It was originally eaten by the Inca. In Peru, the dish’s home, that citrus juice is typically from Peruvian limes. It’s traditionally marinated in chilies as well, and accompanied by boiled sweet potato, fresh boiled maize and thinly sliced sweet red onions to balance the heat and acidity. The fish is often a white sea fish (given Peru’s massive Pacific coastline), sea bass or grouper. But there are certainly variants on the theme – in northern regions of Peru, you can find more exotic seafoods used such as white and black conch.

The “secret” of ceviche, though, is that the fish are not actually raw. They’re not quite “cooked,” either, since that term implies the use of heat. Rather, the acidity of the citrus juice chemically denatures proteins in the fish used for ceviche. The process renders the meat an opaque color, which can give it the appearance of having been cooked. But the texture of the meat remains raw, almost like sashimi.

There are two important tricks to preparing ceviche. Both involve maintaining a fine balance in the fish, so as to avoid undercooking it without overcooking. One is in the cut of the fish. Select the freshest fish you can find, and make sure that you slice it into thin, bit-size pieces. This increases the surface area that’s exposed to the citrus juices, allowing them to work best. The second trick is to not over-marinade your fish – too much exposure to the citrus can give it a tough, leathery texture. Your seafood will determine length of exposure. Generally, a flakier fillet, like flounder or snapper, or tender shellfish like scallops may only need to marinate for about 15 minutes. Denser fish, such as mahi mahi, can take closer to 50 minutes or an hour to “cook.”

Remember though, citrus juice cannot kill bacteria in the same way that heat can. So it’s very important to pick fresh fish, free of bacteria and parasites, to prepare this dish. Where this is not possible, some advise picking deep-frozen fin fish, which has been at -4F for at least a week.

And now, without further ado, a recipe for basic ceviche –

2 lbs of fresh red snapper fillets (no bones), cut into thin ½ inch pieces
½ cup of fresh squeezed lime juice
½ cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ red onion, very finely diced
1 cup of fresh peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes
1 serrano or other hot chili, seeded and finely diced
1 sweet potato, boiled until soft, peeled and cut into big slices
1 ear of boiled sweet corn, kernels removed
2 teaspoons of salt
dash of ground oregano
sprinkle of cayenne pepper

1. In a casserole dish, preferably ceramic, place the fish, onion, tomatoes, chili, salt, oregano and cayenne pepper.
2. Cover with lime and lemon juice.
3. Let mixture sit covered in the refrigerator for an hour, then stir, making sure more of the fish gets exposed to the acidic lime and lemon juices.
4. Let sit for two more hours, giving time for the flavors to blend.
5. Serve accompanied with boiled, peeled sweet potato and corn, garnish with red onions.

You can use shrimp or scallops, or another flaky white fish instead of the snapper. You can also add key lime juice or grapefruit juice (freshly squeezes, no sugar added) instead of regular lime juice to add additional flavor.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chef Pankhurst Shares a Recipe

With my rave review of Savoy Cabbage, you can imagine how excited I was when Peter Pankhurst, the restaurant's head chef, agreed to share a recipe. I had a delightful amuse bouche at his restaurant during my visit in early July, a light sweet corn mini-pancake, topped with smoked salmon and a creme fraiche sauce.

Many thanks to Chef Pankhurst for sharing the recipe, which I'm including in this post - and I hope you try it for yourselves! This light, pretty finger food would be perfect for a cocktail party or appetizer. It's easy to make if you can handle making pancakes, offers a classic flavor combination, and looks so elegant!

1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup corn meal or polenta
1 tablespoon baking powder
100ml cream
75ml milk
3 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ear sweetcorn, boiled till tender and kernels removed
Smoked salmon, thinly sliced
Crème fraiche
Chive tips, to garnish

1. Mix together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the wet ingredients. Mix with a whisk to make a batter somewhat thicker than normal pancake batter. If too thick add more milk. Fold the sweetcorn kernels into the batter just before using.

2. To cook, drop teaspoonfuls of batter into a lightly greased frying pan. Flip cakes after approximately 45 seconds andcook on the opposite side for about 25 seconds.

3. Taste 5 or 6 cakes to see if they are OK. This can be difficult, so taste as many more as you need to ensure top quality. If necessary, start over, but try to save some for your guests.

4. Garnish with thinly sliced smoked salmon and top with crème fraiche. Garnish with chive tips.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cape Town Culinary Highlights

Cape Town is a city full of wonderful eateries. I’ll admit, I was pretty sick of crackers and peanut butter by the time we reached there too. That certainly helped cast the pretty seaside city as a culinary Mecca! Its repertoire is diverse, ranging from cozy cafés to touristy “African fare” joints and posh fusion restaurants. The city has an up-and-coming dining out scene that even critics in established foodie cities are noticing. So, as Melissa planned our travel along the Garden Route, I plotted an (equally important?) culinary itinerary to sample Cape Town’s many offerings during our four days in town.

A fan of locally-owned cafés with lots of character, I found plenty of places to enjoy a cup of coffee or light foods in CT. Mr. Pickwick’s Deli on Long Street was one of my favorites. The joint turns into a chill bar in the evenings too, where you can enjoy a nice glass of South African wine and read about upcoming concerts and art events. Afro Café, on the antique-covered Church Street, offers amazing salads (see picture). I can practically still taste one that Melissa ordered, which had warmed goats cheese, beets, mint and rocket with seeds.

Frieda’s Café, on Bree Street, dishes up heart and stomach-warming comfort foods with a new twist. The décor inside was also memorable – like a modern cafeteria, the café has an open central seating area replete with long tables, but garnished with the decorative charms of a comfy home. Check out the Mustard Seed just across the street for great sandwiches too!

But the dining experience I remember most was our last night in town, when we treated ourselves to dinner at the Savoy Cabbage Restaurant & Champagne Bar. A “New South African” restaurant, it’s one of CT’s most celebrated – and for good reason. I’m joining its throngs of international fans. Elegant without overwhelming, the restaurant’s exposed brick contrasts with modern glass and metal fixtures, and bespeaks a casual-chic that’s also conveyed in the menu options. The ambiance is polished but laid back enough to enjoy meals with friends and family without frills or excessive formality. The Savoy Cabbage's L-shaped dining room is split into two levels with a slight view of the kitchens. That’s where the restaurant’s cooking staff works its magic, capturing the flavors of seasonal South African ingredients in masterfully melded dishes.

Take my favorite starter, for instance, a tomato tart with a practically perfect crust. Simple, but well executed and full of flavor. Some dishes incorporate unexpected flavor combinations. We tried one starter of chicken liver pate coupled with stewed plums and artisanal bread which was unusual but delicious. Chef Peter Pankhurst even managed to make tripe appetizing! My friend Paul braved a main course of tripe cooked in a smoky, tangy flavored tomato sauce that has made him a dedicated fan of this difficult-to-make-appetizing cut of meat. I was very pleased with my choice as well, a filet of yellowfish prepared with a light herb sauce, potatoes and sugar snap peas. The restaurant’s wine list was equally stellar – I enjoyed a glass of Lourensford Sauvignon Blanc 2004 with my meal, a nice complement to the light fish, and which was perhaps the best SB I’ve had in recent memory.

From décor to food and drink pairings, owner Caroline Bagley and her team have done a great job. After traveling across the globe to the southern tip of Africa, I found a dining experience to rival some of my favorites in New York, San Francisco and Boston alike. If you make it there before I manage a return visit, enjoy a meal (or two) there for me!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pinotage: Dis goed! [It's Good!]

After a long, gradual trip across the country from Durban, we were anxious to get to Cape Town. But not too anxious to rush through wine country! Even in comparison to the dramatic Garden Route cliffs and beaches we had just visited, the idyllic peaks and valleys of Stellenbosch and Paarl were stunning. Vineyards were nestled into the scenery, garnished with simple, white Cape Dutch manor houses. I tried to take some pictures, but we actually ended up in Stellenbosch on a rainy day

Showers didn’t keep me from the tasting glasses, though! I was traveling with my friend Melissa, and we managed to see 4 or 5 of the major wine estates in Stellenbosch in one day despite inclement weather. We tried to select estates for the variety of their offerings – to get the best of South African whites, reds, dessert wines and ports. I’m not well versed in South African wines but this was a great introduction.

For one, the country’s port selection converted me from a dedicated noble wine follower into a fan of sweet fortifieds as well. We found an Allesverloren port (2003 vintage) that I would happily trade a glass of braccheto in for after a nice meal. The wine has a sweet, woody bouquet with creamy chocolate and plum/raisin flavors – with a lingering fruity aftertaste. I’m going to try it out in some dessert recipes too! Allesverloren is actually in Riebeeck West, but if you’re in the Stellenbosch area, you can find some of their ports for sale in the Die Bergkelder (one of the region’s largest producers) cellars, as we did.

I'm far from an enologist or wine connoisseur, but this trip still turned me into an avid evangelist for South Africa’s signature, up-and-coming varietal, Pinotage. The grape is a vinifera hybrid of Hermitage (aka Cinsault) and the finicky Pinot Noir. It was developed right in wine country, at Stellenbosch University in 1925. The grape still comprises less than 10% of total grape wine acreage in SA, and it tends to be received with controversy – some love it, most don’t. But Pinotage is on the rise as more local winemakers and critics are touting its potential, particularly well-aged wines. The locally popular Cape Blend wines that abound in South Africa require Pinotage (30-70%) as a component.

Anyway, history and context aside, I found Pinotage to be an intriguing wine. Its taste varies considerably even between neighboring Stellenbosch estates. What I found to stay constant between vintages and estates, though, was a deep red wine with smoky and earthy flavors, mineral undertones, and sometimes notes of tropical fruits. Sound unusal? It was. Not quite as full bodied as a Shiraz, but not as heavy as a Cab Sauv.

I’ll be honest that it took me some time to find a Pinotage I was happy with. I knew it was uniquely South African before I landed in Johannesburg, but I struggled to find one that didn’t make my mouth pucker or overpower my meal with its aftertaste. We spent an evening at WineSense in Cape Town sipping over half a dozen varieties of Pinotage.

WineSense, by the way, is a place I absolutely, hands-down recommend to any wine fan – connoisseur, amateur or casual drinker alike. It’s a wine bar with a neat concept. Customers buy debit cards, top them up, and get tasting-size, half-glass, or full glass measures of wine dispensed from state-of-the-art machine kiosks. You get to run your own personal tasting! I tried a Simonsig RedHill Pinotage (2004) there which definitely satisfied (although if I had a bottle I’d age it a bit longer). I still remember the wine’s red berry flavors. If you're interested in more on Pinotage, Kanonkop is another major Pinotage producer in the region, and with Simonsig, its Pinotage wines regularly win international and national competitions (but we didn't make it out there).

But what I was really pleased with was a Pinotage (2005) I tried at Middlevlei estate. I didn’t find it as “big” as the Simonsig, but it was a nice, medium-bodied wine, not overpowering with its black berry flavors, with a nice hint of oak and smoke. Something to be had with a nice, spiced red meat dish (from the braai, perhaps?). And a few sips into the glass, there was something about the wine’s flavor that still played with my taste buds – exactly what I like in a glass of wine, a bit of mystery and adventure with an unfamiliar varietal!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chakalaka: The Coolest-Named Soup I've Ever Had

To escape the cold and rainy summer weather in England, I left for sunny and warm(ish) winter weather in South Africa in mid-June. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in the way of South African food and culinary experiences, but we found a pretty mixed bag – some interesting seasonal ingredients, geographically concentrated fine dining, a versatile collection of wine and spirits, and “native”, if not terribly unique or healthy, cuisine.

That said, peanut butter, banana and crackers were staples in the more remote and poor parts of the country that I traveled through. Our trip into Lesotho, where some 43% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, was a lesson in subsistence eating. Even grocery stores in Maseru, the kingdom’s capital, were short stocked with limited food options. In rural Malealea valley, where we stayed (see photo), the abundant and immense vistas almost compensated for meager dining. For most Basotho, fresh pears, oranges and bananas imported in from South Africa are luxuries in this winter season. Food is practical and hearty – simple, filling and drawing on limited available ingredients.

Soups and stews are aplenty at this chilly time of year, and one recipe that piqued my interest was Chakalaka, a spicy and tangy soup that’s almost thick enough to be a stew. It’s satisfying with a distinctive taste. That said, as Brian McCune blogged from Cape Town, there’s no definitive definition or recipe for the dish – Chakalakas across the country can be quite different! What’s constant is that it’s generally vegetarian, and has some combination of spices, peppers, tomatoes and onion.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to pry recipe secrets from the women who made it for us when we spent a night at Malealea Lodge in Lesotho. But I’m pretty sure the key is in the mix of spices, and in slow-cooking the stew. I tried recreating it when I got home this week by modifying a recipe I found online. Limited success. Something’s still missing. . . for the more “shortcut inclined” among us (permissible in the pursuit of authentic flavor, I say), Knorr makes Chakalaka instant flavor packets that you can order online. It’s pretty good, and tastes more like what I remember having in Southern Africa - it’s also got thickening agents for the soup’s trademark stew-like consistency.

Here’s the homemade recipe I tried – if you can think of additional modifications, please share them!

1.5 oz canola oil
2 ½ tbspn chopped fresh ginger
2 tbspn chopped fresh garlic
1 tbspn chopped chili peppers
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped green peppers
½ cup chopped red peppers
3 tbspn curry leaves
1 or 1.5 tbspn curry powder
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups baked beans (in tomato sauce)
½ or 1 tbspn fresh cilantro
3 cups water


  1. Heat oil in a soup pan and lightly fry ginger, garlic, chillis and onions.
  2. Add curry leaves and powder.
  3. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Add peppers and carrots and cook for 10 minutes. Add baked beans and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often.
  5. Add 3 cups water, allow to come to boil and then reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and add coriander. Check seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with bread, pap (maize meal), or thick soured milk (if you want the real thing) - hot or cold.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A New Take on the Open Faced Sandwich: Pa Amb Oli

Lunch in Mallorca was always a sunny, pleasant affair usually involving nice glasses of wine. . . a topic I'll hopefully cover soon before jumping into South African culinary adventures (hint: what's coming next!). . . but I digress.

Mallorcans are big on
pa amb oli, a local specialty eaten as part of a light lunch or for breakfast. In the island's trademark style, the dish is simple, showcases local products, and has a hearty farming origin. Balearic farmers apparently eat it as a staple, using rustic leftover breads and sliced meats and cheeses.

The dish is basically an open faced sandwich, where ripe tomatoes and rich cheeses and cured meats are the highlight upon a hearty slice of whole grain bread. It's easy to make and be creative with too. One restaurantwe visited in Palma de Mallorca's up and coming Portixol neighborhood, ENCO, did a wonderful new take that involved local pickled peppers and tomato paste instead of the traditional sliced tomatoes.

I've included a version of the recipe below. It doesn't take longer than 10 minutes to throw together, so long as you've made the paste ahead of time. But don't skimp on the toppings - it's worth investing in great Spanish cheeses and cured meats from your local specialty deli if possible, to try and recapture some of the dish's local flavor!

A loaf of dark rye bread (ideally a rustic loaf of farmer’s bread)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced in half
1 cup tomato paste (see recipe below)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
¼ lb of soft white cheese, Manchego, Maó, Malorquin or Mahón recommended

¼ lb of Serrano ham

Pickled peppers (optional)

Pitted, red Spanish olives (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF

2. Slice the loaf thickly into ¾ or 1 inch slices

3. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 5 minutes, or until golden and crisp.

4. Remove from the oven and immediately rub 1 side of each slice with a cut side of the garlic.

5. Spread about 2 tbspn of tomato paste (see below) or more if desired, onto one side of each bread slice.

6. Drizzle olive oil over the tomato paste and sprinkle with sea salt.

7. Top with 1 or 2 slices of cheese and ham, as desired. Place back in cooling oven for 1-2 minutes to warm slightly.

8. Remove from oven. Garnish each pa amb oli slice with peppers and/or olives and serve immediately, while bread is still warm and crisp.

Tomato Paste
6 large thin-skinned tomatoes, perfectly ripe (tomato enthusiasts, Heirlooms work well in this recipe)
1 teaspoons salt or to taste
extra virgin olive oil
1 tspn. crushed chillis
½ tspn ground paprika
¼ tspn oregano

1. After rinsing tomatoes, score a cross on the bottom of each fruit using a sharp knife. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water (for less than a minute), then drop into a bowl of ice cold water.

2. After this the tomato peel should almost fall off. Pull the peels off the tomatoes and discard. Cut the core out and remove all the seeds, discard these as well. Chop the remaining flesh into small pieces.

3. Place pieces in a medium sauce pot. Add salt to taste, as well as crushed chillis and ground paprika. Simmer over a low heat for around 1 hour, stirring often to prevent tomatoes from burning.

4. Remove from the heat and press through a fine sieve into a smaller sauce pot. Discard flesh from sieve. Add oregano to remaining mixture.

6. Continue to cook mixture very slowly until the paste holds its shape without running on a spoon, approximately 2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally to prevent any sticking.

7. Remove and cool. Store in a sealed jar in fridge until ready to use.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Start Your Day the Mallorcan Way: Ensaimadas

The travel guides we took with us to Mallorca insisted we try ensaimadas, a local specialty for breakfast. I’ll be honest, some of the descriptions left something to be desired – “a larded swirl pastry” served full of cream for breakfast? I prefer to start my day lardless; my heart hurt just reading the description! But on our first morning, delicious buttery wafts lured us into the local patisseria where we were staying in Palma de Mallorca. There, in the display case, were dozens of perfectly golden, puffed pastries curled delightfully on their side. They looked too delicious to pass up. . .

Ensaimadas are the traditional breakfast fare of Mallorca. By some accounts, written mention of the pastry dates back to the 17th century! The use of lard in ensaimadas ties them to the island’s farming heritage, since they’re usually made with homemade pork lard in Mallorcan kitchens. It’s also historic – the pastry’s name comes from the Arabic word for pork lard, saim. Making ensaimadas is practically an artform - a Regulatory Council actually certifies certain bakers around the island for making "ideal" versions of this Mallorcan delicacy!

Sarah and I actually found ensaimadas to be great, light starts to the day – not as heavy or unhealthy as their lard-based recipe suggests. They’re like a cross between a croissant and sweet bread, puffy with a slightly crisped outside, but melt-in-your-mouth sweet and soft on the inside. They were a nice local replacement for my morning croissant and bagel – and perfect with a strong cup of coffee.

The pastry uses simple ingredients - strong flour, water, sugar, eggs, and lard. The trick to making perfect ensaimadas, though, is in the kneading and rising stages of the recipe. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any master pastry chefs work their manual magic, but I did my best to collect some tips from local bakers. A variant is served with thick cream in the middle, but I’ll stick to plain ensaimadas (my favorite) to keep things simple. And, for the more health conscious among us, I’ve also substituted butter for the traditional lard. If you have any advice or modifications to what I suggest in the recipe below, please share them!

4 tspn dry yeast
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar
1 tspn salt
4 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 eggs
2 tbspn olive oil
1 ½ cup butter, for coating
sugar for dusting
½ cup grated edam cheese (optional, for topping)

1. Warm milk slightly in microwave. Dissolve yeast in the warmed milk and set aside.

2. Combine sugar and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add the flour and warm milk mixture, interchanging each. Blend thoroughly. If using an electric mixer, mixture should just separate from sides of bowl.

3. Break and beat eggs together lightly in a separate boil. Mix in olive oil. Add egg and oil mixture to flour mixture, mix well, and knead until soft and well-blended.

4. Cover with a damp cheese cloth or paper towels and leave to rise in a warm place (just above room temperature) for about an hour, until dough doubles in volume.

5. Remove cloth, knead the dough again. Dust a clean, flat counter surface with flour to prevent dough from sticking. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough as thin as possible over a floured surface (1/4 inch thickness). Brush the entire surface of the dough with softened butter. Be generous!

6. Start rolling the dough, bit by bit, from one side all the way to the other, as though you were rolling up a sheet of paper – fairly tightly. When the dough has been rolled up, allow it to rest, covered again, for 1 hour.

7. Remove cloth and coil the risen dough loosely horizontally, making a snail shell shape. Transfer the coil to a greased baking sheet.

8. Cover one final time with an extremely large inverted bowl, large enough to ensure that the dough will not stick to the bowl's surface when it rises. Allow the dough to rise for 3-4 hours.

9. Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Uncover and bake the dough coil for around 45 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown. Brush the surface with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar. Add cheese if desired.

10. To serve, cool slightly till warm and cut into cake-like slices. Serve with a great cup of coffee!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

El Sabor de Mallorca. . .

I just got back from a great trip to Mallorca, Spain with my friend Sarah. We needed to escape the clouds and cold that were somehow still afflicting Oxford in early June so we decided to rent a car and drive around in another country. Couldn’t have picked a better place – there was lots of sun, beaches and great food on this largest of the Balearic islands! My rusty Spanish was put to good use as we navigated Mallorca’s winding roads along the northwest coast, with nothing on our agenda besides a search for interesting seasonal ingredients and creative cooking with an authentic touch.

Mallorcan food is closely tied to the island. The sea, sun, and sandy soils give rise to powerfully flavored local produce and sea foods. Olive trees cover the hillsides, their whimsical branches often forced into symmetric terraces – both the oils and fruits play big in local foods. Nestled between the mountains, citrus trees cluster into little groves with their branches literally dripping with lemons, loquats, or oranges. Balearic vineyards have begun, offering local wines that convey Mallorca’s sharp landscape and hearty environs at affordable prices. Local specialties like pa amb oli (rustic bread with olive oil, tomatoes and sliced meats or cheese) showcase these natural ingredients and use a simple, minimalist approach to flavors and spices.

But the island also has a large expat community, as a lot of Germans and Brits are moving to the island to buy up the rustic villas and beach homes. That’s having an interesting effect on the culinary options. As we traveled through major towns and smaller villages, it was hard to find purely Mallorcan cooking free from other influences. Quite a few of the visible restaurants cater to a tourist audience by offering up standards like grilled meats and fish or pastas infused with local ingredients and flavors.

So, this short trip provided a lot of taste bud-edifying experiences. I tried to recreate some of the flavors and experiences at home, although it’s hard to replace special ingredients like Mallorcan produce and home cooking. As demanding as the “research” was, I hope you can enjoy some of our finds in the ensuing posts. . .

Monday, June 4, 2007

II. Baked Lavender-Rosemary Chicken

2 2.5 lb. broiler-fryer chickens, cut up
Salt & pepper
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion (1 med.)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup water
1 packet chicken bouillon powder
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tspn. leaf rosemary, crumbled
1 tspn. dried lavender
2 tspn. grated lemon rind
3 tbspn. lemon juice

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in skillet and brown chicken on all sides; remove chicken to a shallow baking dish.

3. Using grease in skillet, cook onions and garlic until golden. Add water and bouillon. Cook, stirring, until bouillon and all brown drippings in pan are dissolved.

4. Add parsley, rosemary, lavender, lemon rind and lemon juice. Pour over chicken.

5. Cover and bake for 45 minutes or until chicken is tender.

I. Lavender Creme Brulee

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
1 – 1 1/2 tbspn dried lavender flowers, plus buds for garnish
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, plus
3 tbspn for sprinkling on top
2 tbspn honey

1. Butter 6 6-ounce crème brule or custard ramekins and set them inside a large, shallow baking dish.

2. In a large, heavy saucepan, add the cream and milk and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender stems steep for about 10 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor.

3. While the milk infuses, in a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks, the 1/2 cup sugar, and the honey until smooth. Whisk into the slightly cooled lavender-cream mixture. Temper this by pouring a bit of the egg mixture and blending well before adding the rest of the egg mixture.

4. Strain combined mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any lavender flowers and foam.

5. Divide the mixture evenly among ramekins and refrigerate for 3 hours.

6. Preheat oven to 325°F. Add enough hot water to the baking dish that holds the ramekins to reach 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking dish with foil and place in the oven.
7. Bake for 50 minutes or until set around the edges. Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

8. When you’re ready to serve, sprinkle the tops with a thin layer of sugar and caramelize with a small torch or under a broiler set on high. Hold the torch 4 to 5 inches from the sugar, maintaining a slow and even motion. Stop torching a touch early, as the sugar will continue to cook for a few seconds afterwards.

9. Refrigerate 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each crème brûleé with lavender blossoms.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Pretty, Purple and Palatable: Cooking with English Lavender

June 3, 2007
Oxford, UK

My inaugural post is on an auspicious ingredient, the flower of love and luck – lavender. Oxford, England is abloom with these fragrant buds this time of year, and while appreciating their elegant stems and dulcet smells in the University’s gardens, I was inspired to bring them into the kitchen. I didn’t have to wander too far from home to find this culinary inspiration! The flowers have a beautiful color, the plants smell great, and its in-season. English lavender, the type that grows around here, is apparently especially succulent and fragrant, and I’ve been experimenting with it in a few recipes.

I can hardly take credit for the idea. Most people may be familiar with lavender as it’s used in soaps, perfumes and potpourris. But it’s commonly used in cooking as well. As an herb, the plant has been in documented use for over 2,500 years. It’s closely related to rosemary, sage and thyme. In places like Provence , I've seen chefs use lavender in savory and sweet recipes alike for its soft, sweet flavor, which carries lemon or lime overtones.

Lavender buds are best used for cooking, particularly dried ones, which have a more concentrated flavor. But you can still cut stalks from your garden and use the healthiest, largest, most deeply colored fresh buds you see. But wash them well, then carefully dab dry between sheets of paper towels. The prescribed ratio is to use 1/3 as much dried lavender as you would fresh flowers. Take care not to overuse as a little goes a long way – too much can give dishes a bitter taste. If you want to make your own dried lavender to store, it’s best to harvest buds just when the flowers begin to open, when they contain the most essential oils.

Lavender sugar is another way of preserving the flowers’ flavor for future use. Just place 1-2 tbspn of ground, dried flowers into 1 cup of sugar, seal it tightly for a week or longer, and you’ll have lavender-infused sugar to use in baking or with beverages. If you want to use the flowers in savory dishes like the chicken dish listed here, it’s versatile – lavender compliments fennel, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage flavors. I also like using the flowers as a fragrant and elegant garnish for champagne, white sangria, cakes, fruit salads and sorbets.

I’ve experimented with a few easy recipes for using this dynamic garden plant, which I’m posting below. Please feel free to share more recipes or culinary uses for lavender. And I’d love feedback on these recipes too. . .