Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fun in the Sun and Great Bargains South of Cancun in Playa del Carmen

To see more photographs of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, please go to the Travel Gallery I posted on the New York Daily News web site.

If you're tired of being rained on or snowed in and you're spending way too much time watching reruns of CSI, now's a good time to think about a vacation someplace sunny and warm.

With Spring Break coming up, if you're researching a Mexican vacation, you have a lot of choices.

Mexico is still recovering from the swine flu scare. As Peter Greenberg reported last year, the fears were overblown and smart travelers should get down to Mexico and take advantage of the great deals offered by resorts. The good news is that with the number of visitors not yet back to pre-scare levels, you can still find great bargains.

THE MAYAN RIVIERA

Easily accessible, the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula has white sand beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles. Located far away from the U.S.-Mexican border, the area has escaped the drug-related violence that has plagued some parts of Mexico. With mild weather between December and May, the peninsula is an attractive destination for tourists who want a taste of Mexico and a good dose of sun and fun.

The Mexican government has been doing its part to lure travelers back to the area. For instance, at the Cancun airport, the government has launched a Tax Back program. If you're shopping at designer stories, you'll pay a VAT (Value Added Tax). Bring your receipts to the airport and you'll be reimbursed for the tax if you spent between $90.00 - $225.00.

While travel to the area is increasing, you'll still find discounts as much as 30% on hotel rates. Resorts compete for customers with offers of free massages, romantic dinners, golfing, snorkeling, and sailing. Wine-paired meals at Chef's Tables, increasingly popular in U.S. restaurants, are also being offered at upscale resorts.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Close to the International Airport, Cancun and Cozumel are popular destinations, although some travelers complain that the area has become over-developed. An alternative is to stay an hour and a half south in Playa del Carmen.

Still relatively small, the town has a sleepy fishing village feeling, albeit one with a gated community of luxury resorts and a Walmart nearby.

In Playa del Carmen, it's easy to arrange for rentals and go scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and paragliding in the crystal clear turquoise water of the Caribbean. Although not officially sanctioned, some beaches nearby allow topless sunbathing. Whether you're fully clothed or not, you'll want to liberally apply sun block to avoid coming home with a lobster-tan.

After weeks of bad weather at home, I happily spent a long weekend at the Five Star, adult-only, all-inclusive, Royal Hideaway Playacar (1-800/999-9182). I appreciated the resort's creature comforts: a poolside bar and restaurant, an infinity pool that looked out over the newly restored white sand beach, 24- hour concierge service, and the basket of fresh fruit in my room that was replenished daily.

ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS

Many resorts in the area offer all-inclusive packages. Like being on a cruise, you won't have to check your wallet every time you look at a menu or think about ordering a cocktail.
A word of warning, though, it's best if you understand what is included in "all-inclusive".

Are there limits on food and beverage consumption? Is everything served in the restaurants included? Doing online research is advisable so you can hear what other travelers have to say about the quality of your resort's restaurants.

At the Royal Hideaway Playacar, all-inclusive means that everything is included. The only exceptions are the specialty wine list and eating at the Chef's Table.

During the day, Spices serves a breakfast buffet with a view of the Caribbean. At lunch Spices and the pool side, open air restaurant, The Deck, have Mexican-themed menus.

In the evening, the resort's culinary skills are on full display. The Japanese food at Azia is very good, especially the fresh-tasting sushi. The space used by the Deck during the day undergoes a Cinderella transformation at night, reappearing as the elegant Grill, serving a Mediterranean menu. Among the many dishes on the menu, the grilled octopus salad with potatoes and parsley is authentically prepared, appropriately so, since the award winning Executive Chef, Raul Vaquerizo, is Spanish.

During our stay we had tastings at the upscale Las Ventanas and the Chef's Table. The exquisitely prepared, wine paired meals are worthy of fine restaurants in Paris, London, New York, or Madrid. An appetizer of scallops with Mole and Coconut Foam shared the plate with a delicate piece of grilled Foie Gras and a velvety creamed Corn Soup. A single ravioli with braised lamb inside luxuriated in a pool of tomato essence.

When it came time for dessert at Las Ventanas, we were treated to a plate of cheeses paired with fruit: Camembert/Strawberries, Goat Cheese/Grapes and Almonds, Aged Parmesan/Kiwi, and Blue Cheese/Green Apple and Honey. But that wasn't all. There was a serving of home made ice creams, sherbets, and macaroons.

Extravagance is the name of the game at the Chef's Table. Ginger ice cream encapsulated in a crispy tempura casing sat in a sweet green tea creme, topped with a black sesame crisp. The piece de resistance, however, was a sculpture made of chocolates, marshmallows, honey lollipops, and gummies made of passion fruit and vanilla.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

With so many creature comforts at the resort, I was tempted to do nothing more strenuous than relax on a poolside chaise lounge and turn the pages of a good novel while sipping a Pina Colada. But I didn't come all this way just to see hotel grounds.

One fact to understand about the Mayan Riviera is that the area was largely undeveloped before the Mexican government turned Cancun into a tourist destination. Before that there were only a few, scattered fishing villages that stretched south to Tulum.

The peninsula is still experiencing growing pains. Demands on the electrical grid can cause resorts to cut back on air conditioning and brown-outs are not unknown.

Since the area is devoted entirely to tourism, there are very few local farms. Which means the produce, tropical fruit, and even the seafood served at the hotels and in the restaurants is likely to come from other parts of Mexico, the United States, or as far away as Japan.

Culturally, with the exception of the local Mayans, everyone else is from somewhere else in Mexico. That means if you want to immerse yourself in indigenous culture, you are better off visiting other areas in Mexico. If you want to experience the richness of Mexican cuisine, you'll be happier in Mexico City, Veracruz, or even Los Angeles.

You can track down local treats, if you look carefully enough.

We stumbled across Juana Marcela Perez Hernandez' Artesanias de Chiapas (Calle 10 entre avenidas 1 y 5), a small store--more of an open air stall really--packed with handmade artifacts from her home state of Chiapas. She sells purses, articles of clothing, wallets, and wall hangings, but what caught our eye was the army of hand woven animals and people that spilled onto the side walk. You can haggle over price, but Juana sticks to her guns and in this case you pay for what you get. I love the three figures I brought home.

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and Benito Juarez, a block from the beach, you'll find half a dozen taco carts serving freshly made tortillas filled with aromatic meats like pork steamed in banana leaves, marinated chicken, and fried fish with pickled onions. Here you'll line up with locals who know that there is no better way to start the day than standing next to a taco cart, balancing a hot-off-the-grill taco in one hand and an ice cold drink in the other.

Because walking around makes you hungry, you might also want to stop at one of the many bars and open air restaurants along Fifth Avenue or Avenue Juarez. At El Sarape Grill (Ave. Juarez and 20th Street), you can enjoy a Mexican beer and snack on a shrimp cocktail served with crackers or feast on platters of grilled meats with bowls of refried beans and guacamole.

If you want to drink like a native, ask for a Michelada, a Chelada, an Ojo Rojo, or, if you're brave enough, a Vampire. They all start with a light beer like Sol, but like a geometric progression, they quickly multiple the flavors by adding lime juice, beef stock, tomato juice, and vodka.

While there are plenty of sweets to tempt you, the best in my opinion are the ice cream bars called paletas. Made with fresh fruit or vegetables, they are distant cousins to the American popsickle. Some are made with milk, others just with fruit, sugar, and water. They are all delicious. You may not find a cucumber or avocado paleta to your taste, but you'll certainly enjoy one made from fresh coconut, vanilla, strawberry, pineapple, or watermelon. To really understand the meaning of sweet-heat, have a paleta made with mango and chili pepper.

Walking around town, casual is the word of the day. Wear flip flops, shorts and t-shirts wherever you want. Although the brief rain showers make carrying a light-weight raincoat or small umbrella a good idea, the locals just take cover in a doorway and wait for the rain to stop. At night, there are plenty of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue where you can eat, stop to listen to music, have a drink, and hang out with friends.

ECO-PARKS AND ARCHEOLOGICAL SITES

Several eco-parks are within easy driving distance of Playa del Carmen. Xcaret Park appeals to kids and adults with an elaborate menu of water slides, artistic performances, and ecological displays that include a swim in an underground river and snorkeling in a lagoon. At Xcaret, contact with nature and Mexican culture is safely controlled as it is farther south at the smaller Xel-ha. While it's farther away, if you want a more authentic experience with the local flora, visit Sian Ka'an Biosphere.

If you are on the Mayan Riviera, a visit to an archaeological site is essential.

Tulum is closest to Playa del Carmen, about an hour and a half south. Even centuries later, the ancient city's outline is easy to see. Master mathematicians and astronomers, the Mayans laid out their temples and houses with precision. When you visit, join up with a tour group or hire a private guide to hear the history of this wonderful site. If you have the time, visit the much larger Mayan temple complex of Chichen Itza, three hours inland. In either case, bring a light-weight raincoat in case it rains.

To read other travel posts, please go to:

Rio in the Summer
The Houston Food Scene
Farmers' Markets
Chef Albert Roux's Newest Restaurant Opens in Texas
Saudi Arabia's Neighbor to the East, Doha, Qatar
Briefly in Seattle
A Photo Gallery of Rhode Island
How Rhode Island Has Changed
Rhode Island Travel Gallery, New York Daily News
Renting a Villa with Friends in Sonoma
Sparks, Nevada for the Nugget's Rib Cook-Off, 2009
Who Judges at a Rib Cook-Off? Me!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Putting Romaine Lettuce's Feet to the Fire

Going out to eat has many pleasures, not the least of which is learning a new trick to add to your own repertoire at home.

Last year, we had dinner at the charming Barbrix (242 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake 90027, 323/662-2442) where we discovered chermoula sauce. Easy to make, I promptly put it to use in my own kitchen flavoring fish, chicken, and vegetables.

Recently at Il Fornaio, during the Lazio Regionale, we had Lattuga Romana alla Griglia or lightly grilled hearts of romaine topped with shaved pecorino pepato and Il Fornaio's creamy house dressing. The rest of the menu was terrific, but the real stand out was the deceptively simple grilled hearts of romaine.

The dish is easy to make at home. So easy, in fact, you can serve it on the spur of the moment because it takes barely fifteen minutes to prepare.

Grilled Hearts of Romaine

If you can buy your romaine from a farmers' market, all the better to ensure freshness. At the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market we buy ours from Gloria's Fruits and Vegetables. At the Sunday Palisades Market, John of Sweredoski Farms sells large, well-formed lettuces.

Romaine will keep fresh in the refrigerator for a week or more when wrapped in a damp cloth kitchen towel and placed in a plastic bag.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

2 large romaine lettuces
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 slices pecornio pepato or pecorino Romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Peal off the 4-5 outer leaves of each romaine and discard. With a sharp paring knife, cut off the end of the stem so it's even with the remaining leaves. Wash the inside of the leaves to remove grit, being careful to leave them attached to the stem. Shake off excess water.

Using a sharp knife, cut each romaine the long way. Then cut each half again so one romaine makes 4 sections that look like long watermelon slices.

Heat a bbq grill or preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Pour the olive oil on a flat plate and season with sea salt and pepper. Dredge all sides of each romaine section in the seasoned olive oil and place on the grill for 3-4 minutes or put on an aluminum lined roasting pan and place in the oven. Turn over and continue cooking another 3-4 minutes or until the top edges of the cut side of the romaine are browned.

Remove from the oven. Place on a serving plate. Lay a thin slice of pecorino along the length of each piece of romaine. Everyone will need knives and forks. Serve warm.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On a Clear Blue Day You Can See Malibu Seafood

People who don't live in Southern California forget that in the winter, the temperatures can drop into the 40s and even the 30s at night.

That's mild compared with the weather experienced by our friends and relatives who live in other parts of the country.

But even here, a sunny day is appreciated all the more after several weeks of gloomy weather. The last couple of days were beautiful. Bright blue, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Just about everyone switched to shorts and t-shirts.

A perfect time to drive up the coast and have lunch at Malibu Seafood (25653 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, 310/456-3430, 310/456-6298, fax 310/456-8017), 1 1/2 miles north of Pepperdine University.

Even though the menu has a lot of variety, I always order the same thing, a very politically incorrect basket of fried fish with fat cut fries and tartar sauce. Michelle likes the ahi tuna burger or the grilled fish taco with a side of cole slaw. If you want to keep the calories down, there are salads and grilled fish and for anyone flush with cash, the Maine Lobster plate.

Besides the made-to-order food that reminds me of East Coast clam shacks, Malibu Seafood is also fun because the location is so beautiful.

Sitting on a rise above the Pacific Coast Highway, the open-air, covered dining areas look out over an expanse of bright blue water. What a treat to sit at the battered, wooden picnic tables, eating salty, crunchy fish, drinking iced tea with lemon wedges, feeling the cool breeze coming off the water, just taking it easy and enjoying hanging out with my wife.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Day

Since my wife has sworn off sugar, my Valentine's day options are limited. I used to bake her one of her favorite desserts--a chocolate banana walnut cake, bread pudding with chocolate and almonds, apple pie with crystallized ginger crust, or a raspberry custard--but not now.

Last year, the first year of Michelle's new regimen, I didn't know what to do so I ironed all her blouses. She liked that.

This year we decided our Valentine's Day treat would be a meal at our favorite restaurant. Last week we went to a tasting at the Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800) opposite the Santa Monica pier. This month's Regionale features the exceptional cuisine of Lazio, which includes Rome.

We enjoyed the meal so much, we're going back for Valentine's Day, the last day of the Regionale.

Romans must love pork, because cured pork was a featured ingredient in a soup, two pastas, and an entree. Guanciale (pork cheek) enhanced the flavors of the Cannellini Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagiolicon le Cotiche) and gave depth to the Spaghetti in SpicyTomato Sauce (Bucatini all'Amatriciana).

Pancetta in the Spinach Cannelloni (Cannelloni alla Crema) contributed a salty heartiness to the chicken and veal stuffing. In the Sauteed Veal (Saltimbocca alla Romana), prosciutto combined perfectly with the sage and wine reduction to compliment the thin slices of veal.

But Romans apparently do not live by meat alone. The vegetarian and seafood dishes were particularly satisfying, especially one dish, the Grilled Hearts of Romaine(Lattuga Romana alla Griglia). Once in a while we encounter a dish that surprises, even though the ingredients are totally familiar. That was definitely the case with the grilled romaine. Served warm and topped with Il Fornaio's creamy house dressing and a thin slice of softened pecorino pepato (whole peppercorns are imbeded in the cheese), the lightly caramelized romaine had more similarities to fennel than it did to the overly familiar lettuce we have in salads.

The Whole Wheat Ravioli (Mezzelune Integrali) was also unexpectedly good. Too many times we've tried to eat healthily and ordered a whole wheat pasta only to be disappointed with textures and flavors that resembled cardboard. Not so the ravioli filled with greens (Swiss chard and Spinach) and cheeses (ricotta and pecorino) and topped with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes.

Even though Michelle wouldn't have dessert, she indulged me and watched as I ate the Kahlua and Coffee Mouse (Crema al Caffe' e Sambuca). The dessert was presented with extra long spoons which struck me as an affectation, at least until I started eating and discovered that buried in the delicious mouse were precious treats. Cubes of sambuca-soaked sponge cake and coffee beans coated in dark chocolate were lying in wait to be discovered by the deep-diving, adventurous spoon-wielding-diner.

With so many wonderful dishes and several we wanted to try like the Roasted Salmon with Asparagus, Artichokes, and Capers (Salmone Ostia Antica) and the Risotto with Prawns and Monkfish (Risotto Antico Impero), we decided the best way to celebrate our love for each other was to come back to Il Fornaio and do it all again.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Throwing a (Birthday) Party on Super Bowl Sunday: Bacon Wrapped Shrimp, Carrot Salad, Caesar Salad, Ribs, Wings, and Chocolate Banana Cake

My birthday isn't on Super Bowl Sunday, but it's close enough that every year I double-down and celebrate my birthday and football on the same day.

I didn't much care about the sport until our youngest son, Michael, taught me to love all things football. From the time he was 3 years old, he watched Sports Center and would grill me about which QB was the best--I didn't have a clue. He's off at UC Davis now and all that's different now. These days, my favorite TV show--with the exception of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report--is Showtime's Inside the NFL.

We've invited a dozen friends to come by the house and watch the game. I don't want to get stuck in the kitchen, so everything we're serving will be made the day ahead.

Only the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp appetizer has to be grilled on the day so the bacon is crisp and the shrimps are juicy. Just before kick-off, we'll reheat the wings and ribs and we'll be ready to watch what promises to be a great match up.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp

You know the expression, "Bet you can't eat just one," well it applies to this appetizer. My son Franklin mastered this recipe when he was putting on feasts to entertain his college roommates. He taught me and I'm happy to pass it along to you.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimps (25-35 count/pound), washed, shelled, deveined
10-12 bacon strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
Toothpicks


Method

Heat the olive oil in a pan and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the finely chopped parsley, garlic, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Let cool. Spoon the seasoned olive oil over the shrimp. Toss well and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Organize an area on the counter so you can work assembly-line style.

Cut the strips of bacon into 3 equal pieces. Toss the shrimp again, then take one shrimp and lay it on the piece of bacon, rolling the bacon around the shrimp. Take a toothpick and push it through the bacon-shrimp-bacon to hold it together. Set aside and do the rest.

Using tongs, put the shrimp on a hot grill and close the hood. If you're using an oven, set it at 450 degrees and put the shrimp on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Turn every 2-3 minutes so they cook evenly and don't burn, about 10 minutes.

Serve on a platter with napkins.

Carrot Salad with Lemon-Soaked Raisins

A great accompaniment for the ribs and wings, the salad also goes well with deli meats like turkey breast or ham or grilled steaks, chicken, or sausage. The lemon-pepper soaked raisins and the roasted nuts bring some surprises to a familiar side dish.

Yield 6-8 servings

Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 large carrots, preferably farmers' market fresh, washed, peeled, ends trimmed off
1 scallion, optional, finely chopped
1 small bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, stems trimmed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Pinch of cayenne
Sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Method

Soak the raisins in lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight Grate the carrots in a large mixing bowl. Roughly chop the raisins, reserving the lemon juice not absorbed into the raisins.

Mix together the carrots, raisins, parsley, and scallions. Season with the cumin, cayenne, sea salt, and black pepper and toss. Add the lemon juice and mayonnaise. Mix well.

Variations

Use cilantro instead of Italian parsley

Add 2 tablespoons capers

Top with 2 tablespoons roasted chopped almonds

Caesar Salad

The dressing can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 days, then all you have to do before serving is tear up the lettuce, shake on some cheese, add the croutons and pour on the dressing. Perfect for a half-time snack.

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 garlic clove, skin off
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 anchovies
1 large egg, farmers' market fresh
1/4 teaspoon Worcester sauce
2 hearts of romaine or 1 large frisee, leaves washed
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2-3 drops Tabasco, optional
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, optional
1/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup croutons, homemade
Black pepper

Method

Use a wooden bowl if you have one. Sprinkle the sea salt on a wooden cutting board. Mash the garlic back and forth on the salt with the flat side of a chef's knife, then sweep the garlic-salt mash into the salad bowl.

Boil water in a small saucepan. Add the egg and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the egg, let cool, open, scoop out the yolk and white with a small spoon, and add to the salad bowl along with the Worcester sauce, optional Tabasco & Dijon, olive oil, and lemon juice.

Using a fork, mash the anchovies against the side of the salad bowl so they dissolve in the dressing. Mix well.

Tear the romaine leaves into pieces or chop up the frisee, add to the salad bowl, top with grated cheese, croutons, and season with pepper. Toss to coat the leaves.

Taste and adjust the flavors by adding more lemon juice or sea salt.

Variations

Add 1/2 pound grilled, shelled, deveined shrimp, whole or roughly chopped

Add 2 chicken breasts, skinless, grilled, thin sliced

Add 1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, roughly chopped

Brown Sugar Pork Ribs

The cooked ribs can be kept in the refrigerator covered 2-3 days or frozen in an air-tight freezer bag.

Yield 4 servings

Time Prep (20 minutes) Marinate (overnight) Cook (2 hours)

Ingredients

1 rack pork ribs
2-3 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Olive oil
Black pepper
6 ounces Italian tomato paste
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped

Method

Trim excess fat, the membrane, and flap from the ribs. Caprial Pence the owner-chef of Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Oregon and a fellow contributor to Eat Drink or Die shows how to prep the ribs with easy-to-follow photographs. Reserve the flap, trimmed of its membrane, to grill for tacos.

Spread a piece of plastic wrap on the counter 5” longer than the rack. Dust the meat side of the ribs with the cayenne.

Mix together the brown sugar and kosher salt. Spread half the dry mix on the plastic wrap. Lay the ribs on top, then cover with the rest of the dry mix. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap, seal, fold in half and place into a Ziploc or plastic bag. Refrigerate in a pan overnight.

In the morning remove the ribs. The dry mix will have transformed into a slurry. Very alchemical! In a sauce pan sauté the onions and garlic with olive oil until lightly browned, season with pepper. Remove the ribs from the plastic bag. Use a rubber spatula to remove most of the liquid from the ribs and plastic bag and transfer to the sauce pan. Add the tomato paste and simmer the sauce on a low flame for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavor if necessary.

Line a large baking tray with tin foil. Place a wire rack on top of the baking tray, then lay the ribs on the rack. The ribs can either be cooked in a 350 degree oven or on the “cold” side of a covered grill with the heat on high.

Whether on the grill or in the oven, cook the ribs 30 minutes on each side, then baste the ribs with the sauce and cook another 30 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from the oven, cut apart the individual ribs, and serve.

Kimchi Chicken Wings

The natural partnership of kimchi and brown sugar brings a sweet-heat to these finger lickin' good wings.

Yield 4 servings

Time Marinate overnight. Cook approximately 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, washed, pat dried
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup kimchi, finely chopped
1 tablespoon kimchi water from the bottle
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, washed, peeled, sliced thin
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Method

Dissolve the brown sugar in the kimchi water, olive oil, and soy sauce. Add the kimchi, onion slices, and chicken wings. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with tin foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on the tray and arrange the wings on the rack. Drizzle the wings with olive oil. Put into the oven and bake 30 minutes. Turn over with tongs. Bake another 30 minutes.

The wings should be tender and golden brown. If not, turn the wings over and continue baking another 10 minutes.

Check again and continue baking at 10 minute intervals, turning the wings each time, until they are done.

In a small saucepan on a low flame, reduce the marinade by a third. Reserve.

The wings should be eaten hot. Pour the heated, reduced marinade over the wings just before serving.

Serve with plenty of napkins and ice cold drinks.

Variations

Add 1 tablespoon julienned garlic and 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley to the marinade
Just before serving, top with 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallion

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Now it's time for something sweet. The cake is best served warm, topped with powdered sugar and grated dark chocolate. Ice cream and whipped cream are good too.

Yield 8-10 servings

Time 90 minutes

Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.

Bake the walnuts on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. Let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan. It will only fill the pan half-way, which is good because the cake will rise.

Bake the cake in a 350 degree oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Eating Well Makes Good Sense

For those who think that going without meat, sugars, and processed foods means a bland, boring diet, think again. Buying local, seasonal, fresh produce and paying attention to what you eat pays off with big dividends.


The truth is, you'll save money and feel better. What's more, you won't be giving up convenience. Most of these dishes can be made in 30 minutes or less.



Salads


Arugula Salad with Avocado


Arugula Salad with Hazelnuts, Carrots, and Avocados


Arugula Salad with Persimmons and Pomegranate Seeds


Black Kale, Kabocha Squash, Cheddar Cheese and Almonds

Bulgar Salad with Celery



Carrot Salad with Lemon-Soaked Raisins


Chopped Parsley Salad



Cole Slaw with Capers


Couscous Salad with Grilled Vegetables


Egg Salad


Farmers' Market Fresh Chopped Vegetable Salad


Grilled Corn Salads


Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad


Grilled Vegetables


Parsley-Grilled Corn Salad


Potato Salad with Corn


Risotto with Summer Vegetables


Roasted Beet Salad


Salad-e Shirazi: Iranian Cucumbers, Cherry Tomatoes, and Onions


Spinach Salad


Tomato and Avocado Salad


Tomato, Avocado, Corn and Garlic Toast Salad


Wilted Spinach Salad

Soups, Snacks, Sauces, and Side Dishes


The Amazingly Versatile Blackened Pepper


Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sauteed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms


Braised Sprouted Broccoli

Cannelini Beans with Roasted Tomatoes and Spinach



Caramelized Vegetable Pasta

Chermoula Sauce for Salads, Side Dishes, and Entrees




An Easy Saute with Brussels Sprouts and Carrots


Grilled Artichokes


Grilled Corn on the Cob


Grilled Vegetables


Farmers' Market Fresh Vegetable Saute


Homemade Vegetable Soup

Kale Sauteed with Garlic and Farm Fresh Vegetables



Kimchi Ramen Soup


Kosher Pickles



Mushroom Soup


Potatoes, Mashed, for Breakfast


Quesadillas, Open Faced


Ramen Soup with Kimchi and Farmers' Market Fresh Vegetables


Roasted Brussels Sprouts


Roasted Garlic-Tomato Sauce


Roasted Tomatoes


Roasted Tomato Sauce


Salt Crusted Fingerling Potatoes


Salt Steamed Broccoli


Sauteed Beet Greens


Sauteed Kale with Vegetables


Steamed Artichokes


Summer Vegetable Risotto


Sweet Potatoes Grilled


Sweet Potato Inari Sushi


Tapenade the Frugal Cook's Secret Weapon


Tomato-Vegetable Soup


Tomatoes, Roasted, for Easy-to-Make Sauce


Tomatoes, Roasted Whole or Sliced


Vegetable Soup


Vegetable Soup for Cold Weather


Entrees


Brown Sugar Pork Ribs


Chicken Wings with Kimchi Glaze

Curry, Easy-to-Make

Ginger-Soy Sauce Poached Black Cod

Cioppino with Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic Toasts

Ginger-Soy Black Cod

Green Garlic and Clams

Grilled Shrimp

Grilled Shrimp with a Tex-Mex Dry Rub


Kimchi Chicken Wings

Low Cal Breaded Fish Fillets


Israeli Couscous with Vegetables

Italian Sausages and Roasted Tomatoes

Native American-Style Salmon

Pasta Alla Checca

Pasta with Roasted Corn and Garlic

Ribs, Brown Sugar Glaze

Risotto with Farmers' Market Fresh Squash Blossoms and Baby Zucchini

Roasted Cherry Tomato and Shiitake Mushroom Pasta

Salmon with a Garlic-Citrus Glaze

Sauteed Fish with Capers, Corn, and Tomatoes



Skewered Cherry Tomatoes

Tequila Glazed Shrimp

Tofu, Beet Greens, and Brown Rice

Tofu with Crispy Toppings


Desserts



Baked Cherries

Baked Plums

Custard

Fig Tart with Crystalized Ginger Crust and Roasted Almonds

Honey Poached Apples and Pears with Cinnamon, Vanilla, Raisins, and Peppercorns

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Store Shiitakes and a Mushroom Soup That's Perfect for Chilly Days

At most supermarkets, shiitakes aren't cheap so they have to be used sparingly. But at Asian markets, they're inexpensive. $3.99/pound at Mitsuwa in Santa Monica and $2.69/pound at SF Supermarket in Little Saigon. At those prices, it's reasonable to buy several pounds.

In general, shiitakes come in two forms: the slender stemmed variety and the ones which are fatter, with thicker stems and caps. Mitsuwa and SF Supermarket sell the fatter variety, which have a meater flavor.

With so many on hand, they can be used liberally in pastas and soups, grilled, and sautéed with garlic and shallots.

But how to store the ones not eaten those first couple of days?

Everyone knows that mushrooms should only be stored in the refrigerator in paper bags because kept in plastic they quickly go bad. Use a brown paper bag--not a white one, which is coated with wax so the moisture stays inside the bag--in combination with paper towels. The moisture that normally accumulates on the outside of the mushroom is absorbed by the layers of paper.

Kept in the refrigerator another week or two, the brown paper bag-paper towel combination acts as a dehydrator pefectly drying the mushrooms. This technique only works successfully with shiitakes.

If by chance any of the dried shiitakes develop mold, discard and keep the good ones. In my experience, more than 95% will dehydrate without harm.

To reconstitute dried shiitakes, put them in a heat proof bowl, pour in enough boiling water to cover, place a smaller bowl on top to keep the mushrooms submerged. Leave for 30 minutes until they soften.

Gently squeeze out the water but reserve the liquid for later use. Cut and discard the stems. At this point the mushroom caps can be cooked as if they were fresh.

Shiitake Mushroom Soup with Garlic

Shiitakes have a meaty, sweet flavor that is deliciously satisfying in this easy-to-make soup, perfect for a drizzly winter day.

Yield: Serves 4

Time: 45 minutes

Ingedients

2 cups shiitake mushrooms, fresh (stems and caps) or reconstituted (stems removed), washed, thin sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
4 shallots or 1 small yellow onion, peeled, findely chopped
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

In a large sauce pan, sauté the mushrooms, garlic, and shallots with the olive oil until lightly browned. Add the chicken stock and, if using reconstituted mushrooms, 1/2 cup of the soaking water. Simmer 30 minutes.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.

Variations

Substitute water for the chicken stock to make a vegetarian version, in which case simmer the mushrooms a bit longer and add 1 tablespoon of butter for flavor

Season with 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Add to the saute 4 cups spinach leaves, washed, stems removed, roughly chopped

Add to the saute and brown 2 Italian sausages, roughly chopped,

Add to the saute and brown 1 chicken breast, roughly chopped

Add to the saute 1 cup fresh, deveined shrimp, roughly chopped

Add to the soup 1/4 cup cream and 1 tablespoon butter

Add to the soup at the end 2 packages ramen noodles cooked first in boiling water for 10 minutes then divided equally among the 4 servings

Ready. Set. Go. "00" Flour Makes the Best Homemade Pasta

When I learned how to make pasta from scratch, I gave away all my boxes of dried pasta. Quality brands of spaghetti, linguini, fusilli, penn...