Sunday, August 31, 2008

Restaurant review and much, much more...

OK.........I've got my images now....I am posting this from the parking lot of a motel in Albuquerque. I've only got dial-up at home, and it seems to not remember me. I forgot to bring my cable which would allow me to upload my photos, so you'll have to wait for them until I get home. But in the meantime......

This is the beginning of my favorite season in New Mexico. We are in the midst of our monsoon season, and fall is approaching. The skies dominate now, and the aspens in the high mountains will soon be blazing gold. Sunlight drenches the landscape every day, and the sides of the roads are lined with wild sunflowers.

Clouds gather – huge, billowy clouds, reminding me of the Joanie Mitchell line “These are the clouds of Michelangelo…”

You can see storms in the distance – well defined areas of rain, with sunlight on either side of the storm – and if you’re lucky, you can catch some lightening flashes. Sometimes in the evening, when the sky is turning all sorts of colors, the rain turns pink. No, I’m not hallucinating. I saw it this evening on my drive back from Taos. Pink rain, off to the north of the road as I was driving south.

I drove to Taos the back way – through the village of Chimayo north of Santa Fe. I was thinking I’d stop at Rancho de Chimayo for lunch, but to my shock it was closed due to a fire they had had. This is the first time I’ve ever seen that restaurant closed. The building was obviously still standing, so the fire must have done some internal damage.

So I pushed on, figuring that I’d have to wait until Taos to get something to eat. I was hungry, but there are only small villages between Chimayo and Taos. I figured that the most I’d see would be a Dairy Queen. The road snaked upwards through the mountains, past the villages of Truchas (where they filmed “The Millagro Beanfield War”), and Las Trampas and Pe┼łasco. It was in this last town that I spotted a building on the side of the road that made me slam on my brakes. I read the sign: Sugar Nymphs Bistro. I flipped a U and drove up. I wanted more than dessert, but the “Bistro” part gave me hope.

Serendipity is one of the rewards of travel. I walked into a charming old building which had obviously been someone’s home at one point. Now it houses the bistro as well as a theater. Yep. A theater! In Pe┼łasco, of all places! You’ve got to understand – this is a village that time seems to have forgotten. There isn’t a gas station here. I don’t recall seeing a general store. (Forget supermarket. Those are for cities.) In fact, I don’t recall what else might be in this village other than perhaps a tire repair place. All other automotive needs seem to be taken care of in the front yard.

But here was a bistro, whose lunch special today was local vegetable stew served with grilled chicken sausage. All the veggies were locally grown. The salads were all organic, and the foccacia was house made. Salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers – all served in a cheerful atmosphere. There’s even a request printed on the menu “Please step outside to use your cell phone.”

My grilled summer veggie sandwich came with a choice of soup or salad, and some tortilla chips. I chose the salad with sesame ginger vinaigrette, and asked them to add some green chile to the sandwich. Sorry, but I was too hungry to photograph!!! Afterwards, I checked out the theater. It was too dark inside to photograph (even with flash!), but the room outside the theater had enough charm all it’s own.The trip had much, much more to it, including a drive to Acoma pueblo....perched high atop a huge rock...If you look very closely, you'll see the buildings on the right hand side, on top of that outcropping. Now you know why Acoma is called "Sky City".

Perhaps these photos will give you an idea why I tell people that going to New Mexico is going as far outside the United States as I can get without needing a passport. The landscape, the people, the food....all distinctive, and to me, all spectacular. It's no wonder they call it "The Land of Enchantment".



Saturday, August 23, 2008

Food Blogger Partaaay

Right now I'm stoked on Vietnamese coffee, phenomenal food and new friends. I just came back from a food blogger party thrown by Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple. I didn't bring a camera. Hey! They said there'd be plenty to drink, so why bother? In my world, alcohol and photography don't really go together - everything just gets blurry. But I DID bring my appetite, as instructed. Good thing, too, because the food was awesome! Do you think I can remember everything I ate? HAH! I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast this morning, and that was before the champagne and wine.

Good thing they served Vietnamese coffee!!

There were spring rolls - lots and lots of spring rolls, which we wrapped in lettuce with mint and basil and dipped in a variety of sauces. I think I could have stopped there. Except for the fact that I didn't. No WAY was I going to miss out on the creamy cucumber salad, the corn salad, the pear salad, the Vietnamese pork sliders, grilled prawns with "secret" sauce, or the build-your-own "flat breads". (Diane, honey, I think those are called mini pizzas. Just not a la Dominoes!)

And then after stuffing ourselves silly, they brought out the grilled fish! She wasn't kidding when she said to bring an appetite! I should have brought a couple of friends, too!!!

But please don't think that Todd and Diane were so uncivilized as to not serve us dessert! Puh-leez! Have you ever eaten jack fruit? I've only seen it growing in Vietnam, but hadn't tasted it fresh before. You have to oil your hands first, because the inside has some very sticky white resin in it. You plow through that, pop out the big seeds and then dig in with your hands, extracting the fruit. Diane told us it wasn't completely ripe, but you could have fooled me. Apparently, if it's riper it pairs well with blue cheese. I can see that it would, but I hardly felt deprived. After all, she DID serve us a cheese plate with fresh lychees and fresh longan fruit.

Now, all of this was phenomenal in and of itself, but it leaves out the other crucial elements of this party. One was the setting, and the other was the people. Todd and Diane's garden is the kind you just want to hang out in. Like, forever. And there are comfy chairs strategically placed in various areas to allow just that. And while you're hanging out, you'll notice that you're surrounded by a garden designed to feed your senses, as well as your appetite. Somewhere on their site they have a video they made of their garden. Check it out. You'll love it!

So then we get to the best part: the people. First of all, Diane told us that her friends told her that she was nuts having a group of total strangers come to her house. Well, she obviously knows a thing or two about how to screen people. We may never have met before, but the mix of people worked beautifully. It's such a treat to meet people who you feel you sort of know because you've been reading their blogs. And there were people I had never heard of before, but enjoyed them so much I'll be adding their names to my blogroll soon. This was a group dedicated to enjoying themselves - with food and drink and laughter.

So if you're looking for some cool food blogs to check out, here's a list. Some you may have heard of, some might be new to you. I hope I haven't left anyone out. If I have, blame it on the champagne....

spicysaltysweet.com
wanderingchopsticks
sushiday.com
foodwoolf
julieskitchen
mattbites
burntlumpia
wrightfood
tastespotting

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tomato Heaven

I used to garden. Back in New Mexico we had a huge garden. We grew corn and beans and squash and chili (of course), grapes, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, onions, garlic, tons of herbs, and, of course, tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. My husband would start them from seed in the greenhouse and they'd be vigorous plants by the time the last frost had passed and we were able to plant them outdoors. By the time of the fall frost, we'd have picked and eaten many beautiful tomatoes, but we always had tons more on the vine. Some would ripen when we pulled the plants and let them hang indoors, and some would stay green. That's the way it is when you garden at 7,000'. Growing season is barely 4 months long. You learn the art of making green tomato chutney, fried green tomatoes, and green tomato and chile sauce.

Here in San Diego, we have perfect weather and a long growing season, but unfortunately my yard also has lots of shade. I mean, lots of shade! I have a small patch in the front which gets sunlight for a few hours during the summer months, but that's it. I've tried growing tomatoes here in the past, but they don't like it. Which saddens me more than I can say, because to me, there is absolutely nothing more heavenly than a ripe tomato picked off the vine.
I wrote about my father's tomatoes in an earlier post, and those memories come back every summer when fresh, vine ripened tomatoes are available in the farmer's markets. I find myself hauling back arm loads of them, and when I get home I look at the cat and realize that she will not be helping me out here. I must figure out how to deal with them by myself. But tomatoes are one of those fruits which have so many possibilities that I never worry.

When searching for the perfect tomato recipe, I turn to the Mediterranean. I mean, that area of the world can make tomatoes, garlic and bread into a seemingly endless variety of food. You sit down to eat something scrumptious, and then your realize that it's another version of tomatoes garlic and onion. DUH!

These days the weather has been hot and humid, so my thoughts turn to things which don't have to be cooked. I will fix my chai in the morning, but I'm really not loving the idea of turning on the oven for any reason. So when I came across this recipe for an Andalusian style gazpacho, I knew I had found my solution. So simple, but sooooo much better than any other gazpacho I've ever made. In the past, I've always thought of gazpacho as a kind of a salad in a bowl. Cucumbers and onions were always in there. I didn't realize that you could make it without these ingredients until I found this version, which highlights the tomatoes and the olive oil. For best results, try to use mostly fresh tomatoes, and preferably the low acid kind which are sweeter. If you must add to that, it will be fine - especially if you can swing it so that at least 50% of your tomatoes are fresh. The quality of this soup is totally dependent upon the quality of your tomatoes and olive oil. Use the best stuff you can find. You won't be disappointed - I promise!
Gazpacho "El Faro"

The classic Andalusian gazpacho is found all over the region with surprisingly few variations, except for the addition of cucumber and onion — ingredients that have fallen out of favor with chefs who prefer to allow the pure taste of the tomatoes, Sherry vinegar, and olive oil to shine through. In this version, cumin lends an intriguing, subtle flavor.

Active time: 30 min Start to finish: 3 1/2 hr

Servings: Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients:

1 (2-inch-long) piece baguette, crust discarded
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar (preferably "reserva"), or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
2 1/2 lb ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
1/2 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Andalusian hojiblanca)

Garnish: finely chopped red and green bell peppers

Preparation:

Soak bread in 1/2 cup water 1 minute, then squeeze dry, discarding soaking water.

Mash garlic to a paste with salt using a mortar and pestle (or mince and mash with a large knife). Blend garlic paste, bread, 2 tablespoons vinegar, sugar, cumin, and half of tomatoes in a food processor until tomatoes are very finely chopped. Add remaining tomatoes with motor running and, when very finely chopped, gradually add oil in a slow stream, blending until as smooth as possible, about 1 minute.

Force soup through a sieve into a bowl, pressing firmly on solids. Discard solids.

Transfer to a glass container and chill, covered, until cold, about 3 hours. Season with salt and vinegar before serving.

Kitchen note:
• Gazpacho can be chilled up to 2 days.
• I had leftover cucumbers, so I used them as a garnish. Avocados would be a terrific garnish as well.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cucumber Season

It's cucumber season, and after eating chicken and mutton, mutton and chicken, chicken and then some mutton, cucumbers are a gift from the gods! India and Kashmir are not really a foodie's destination. We had some good meals, but overall, I'd say I get better Indian food here in San Diego than we got in India. Strange, I know, but true. One of the exceptions was when we stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir.(It was hot and humid - I tried keeping the lens wiped clean, but the moisture kept coming back - sorry!) Every day, Hilal, who managed the houseboat and was our "host", asked us what we wanted to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every night, our choices were chicken or mutton, but at least he also offered veggies. The meals were home cooked, awesome, and eaten in the dining room.
After our breakfast, and before our guide showed up, we would often be told that "the tailor is here", or "if you need to change money, there is someone here". We'd go into the living room, and there would be someone who would fix our clothes, make us clothes, do the laundry, or change money for us. All in the comfort of the living room! (I can't remember ever having the bank show up in my living room before!)
But returning home meant returning to fresh vegetables, and lots of them. It also meant eating more salads. The markets were filled with cucumbers and their cool green beckoned me like a siren's song. I found myself buying them by the armload! But I'm only one person, and my cat doesn't particularly care for cucumbers. So when I found this recipe (and wonderful story!) on Katie's Thyme For Cooking I knew I had found the solution to my cucumber dilemma.

But then there's always another cucumber. And another. And oh - what's that in the back of the drawer? Another one? So when I found myself over at Bread & Cie the other day, I saw a new sandwich on their menu: Cucumber on fig and anise bread. They made it with an herbed cream cheese. I had neufchatel in the fridge, and thyme and mint growing right outside. I didn't have fig and anise bread, but I did have a fig spread and a multigrain bread. I was in! I slathered my home made herbed neufchatel on one side, the fig spread on the other and laid in the cukes. How simple is that? The play of the fig against the cukes and herbs worked well. I just might play around with this idea in a salad. Stay tuned....