Friday, December 25, 2009

A Meal to Remember: Christmas Tamales (de Guatemala)

Antigua, Guatemala
December 2006

I found while living in Honduras, very few things inspired two whole days of labor in such a hot lazy country. The tamale is one. Hondurans made my mouth water with the promise of the tamale, an apparently laborious tradition, reserved for the festive weeks leading up to Christmas and into the New Year. Questioning friends in La Ceiba only resulted in longing looks and a gurgling stomach; they were all too busy to cook, but promised me if I stopped by their homes on Christmas, I would be rewarded with the revered tamale. Sadly, Carter and I left for Guatemala before any pots were put on the stove. I was devastated - I might have to wait a whole year before experiencing Honduras’ most delicious culinary treat.

After crossing into Guatemala, we were easily distracted from our tamale woes. The rambling cobble stone streets of Antigua took us from one picturesque earthquake mangled ruin to another, spit us out into palm-shaded city plazas, which in turn lead us to explore various churches, a monastery built in the 1500’s, and endless hip boutiques. A deeper layer of charm and intrigue hides behind the brightly colored concrete walls lining the streets. Peer through a beautifully crafted wrought-iron door and find a spacious courtyard, sometimes the size of a city block, laid out in front of you. We were delighted to find that café culture has taken hold here; it felt so European after living in Honduras. Sitting in beautiful cafés carved into the Spanish ruins situated around tranquil fountains, enjoying delicious dark coffee and rich decadent black forest cake (Carter’s breakfast one day), I couldn’t help but daydream of my Spanish hacienda just outside of town, and my fabulous farm with happy delicious animals. I was in heaven.

In the evenings, a whole new life erupted. The central plaza was ablaze with Christmas lights and practically vibrating with reggaeton Christmas tunes. People gathered in the streets parading lanterns and statues. Groups of adults and kids carried statues of Mary and Joseph from house to house searching for lodging for the night. We slid alongside one merry entourage to ask where these plaster deities were being taken. Amidst the chaos of children high on sugar and the constant boombastic crackling of firecrackers, the basic premise of The Procession of Mary and Joseph was explained to us. Known as las posada, from December 15 until Christmas Eve the little parades fill the streets each night looking for someone to host Mary and Joseph until the next evening. When they find a family who will take them, a celebration ensues. And what do they eat to celebrate?!…. The Christmas Tamale! Oh joy! Merry Christmas to me! The tamale was being consumed all over Antigua.

The procession was growing as we went from house to house. I began to develop a bit of anxiety- if our numbers grew much more, would there be enough tamales for everyone, or more specifically, me? And then it happened: Huge carved double wooden doors were opened and the procession was welcomed into a modest family courtyard surrounded by an unassuming brightly painted coral wall. There they were, piled high, and steaming away in their tea green banana leaves: the two day tamale.

A roly-poly lady with a bright smile handed over the holiday delicacy. Steaming in my hands, I unwrapped my present, then using the banana leaf and my hand as a plate, I dug in to the delight of our host. It was perfect!! Over a twenty-four hour period, the hominy is boiled with cal or lime, husked, then boiled again and transformed from an indigestible dried, starchy kernel the size and shape of candy corn into creamy masa. Once completely puréed, a light airy consistency is achieved; so smooth, it is pudding-like. The masa is wrapped around tender braised pork, colored red by chilies and achiote. Then it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The banana leaves impart a subtle smoky, gamey flavor that is complimented by a traditional beverage of whole plumped-up dates and raisins, shredded carrot, plantain, pineapple, papaya, bits of orange and fresh shredded coconut swimming around in a sweet viscous liquid served warm on the side.

Crashing holiday traditions is fun!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

News Flash!

My Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark has been recognized by the Food52 community as a finalist for their Best Edible Present Recipe contest. I am soooooooo excited! Constant checking of this site has become a daily due diligence. See contests here. Check out the slide show of the making of the recipe here.

If you haven’t visited the website Food52 yet, you most definitely should. It is a cookbook project- that you can help write. Each week they announce two contests. Home cooks have a week to submit recipes. Two finalists are chosen, and then the voting goes to the public. (AhhUmmm... that's you.) The winner gets published in the cookbook! In the meantime, they are creating a dynamic and creative web resource for original recipes by home cooks and food bloggers. It is a food-lovers treasure trove!

Warning: Clear your calendar for the next couple months, because if you are anything like me, or just like to eat and think about food you will become completely obsessed with Food52.

Move Over Martha! Recipes for Two Holiday Treats

Tis' the season to gorge yourself on sweets and high-calorie cakes. Save the skinny jeans and the commendable promises of a healthy new regime for January 1. Everyone will be too schnockered on high-octane punch at the holiday party to notice that you are hiding your holiday heft with a sparkly new moo-moo-- so indulge!

I offer you two recipes to help get you in the holiday spirit. Tie a bow around them and buy your co-worker's silence about your clichéd bad behavior at the holiday-hiccup or, in my case, give the goodies to your neighbors in hopes that they will start picking up their dog's shit from my front "yard".

My Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark is a tasty treat to spice up any fiesta or light up a lucky recipient's tired holiday palate. I often make this easy dessert when I have friends coming for dinner who love wine. I know that we will sit at the table well after the meal is over and continue talking and drinking for hours. I serve this on one plate and put it in the middle of the table. It is a casual dessert, so easy to make and great with a good Cabernet. I first wrapped this up for an edible gift a few years ago while conceiving of a delectable present that would not be tossed aside amongst the mountains of cloying Christmas sugar. With so many sweets being passed out, this subtle spicy and salty chocolate makes for a nice surprise. Use good chocolate when making this; it will make all of the difference. And, of course, feel free to substitute your favorite nuts and fruits.

Not a chocolate person? (Really! Do those people actually exist?). The second recipe I am gifting you, my dear readers, is Sniff's and I's Grandma's Caramels. I grew up on these caramels. From the moment I had two front teeth that met in the middle, I was chomping down on their wonderfully buttery taste. Grandma made sheets and sheets of them every Christmas to give away to family and friends and the wrap, twist, warp, twist, EAT, wrap, unwrap, EAT would go on for hours. I am slightly reluctant to publish this recipe, because if any of you are in the mood for mass production, these caramels will definitely make you very very rich.

The recipe itself is nothing short of brilliant. If you have ever tried to make caramel sauce, you may be familiar with deflating terms such as "crystallization" or "seizing", neither of these are a good thing when combining sugar and water. This caramel recipe eliminates any possibility of that dreaded moment when the whole bubbling sugary pot goes to Whoville. Honestly, try it. It is almost impossible to not end up with a perfectly gooey, mouth-watering caramel.

I made second batch of these caramels and added 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 2 teaspoons ground green cardamom. If you are feeling like adding a little zip to a classic, go for it. You will not be disappointed.


Makes about 3 gifts

1 large ancho chili
1 whole star anise
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
3 cloves
2" cinnamon stick
2/3 cup pistachios
2/3 cup cashews, very lightly crushed
12 oz dark bittersweet chocolate, cut into very small pieces
1/2 cup dried cherries
Kosher salt, or sea salt

  1. To make the spice mix, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Place first 5 ingredients on a baking sheet and place in oven. Toast until fragrant or about 10 min.
  2. Remove stems and majority of seeds from the anchos. Place all spices in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and pulverize. You may need to grind spices in batches.
  3. Toast the nuts by placing them on the baking sheet and put in the oven. Check after 10 minutes. When done, remove from oven and let cool.
  4. Place ¾ of the chocolate in a bowl and slowly melt the chocolate, either in the microwave checking and stirring it every 25 seconds or over a double broiler on the stovetop.
  5. When all of the chocolate is melted, take it off of the heat and add in the remaining chocolate, stir until it is completely melted.
  6. Add one to two teaspoons of the spice mix. Add one at a time and taste; add more if you want it to be spicier. I like a subtle spice flavor, it keeps those eating it wondering what the secret spice could be.
  7. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat. Spread out the nuts and cherries, reserving a few of the nuts to decorate the top.
  8. Sprinkle salt over the nuts and cherries.
  9. Pour the chocolate onto the pan, covering the nuts and cherries in an even layer. Add remaining nuts to the top of chocolate and press them into the chocolate.
  10. Put in fridge and allow to cool for 45 min. Break into pieces and keep in a sealed container in the fridge.


2 pounds light brown sugar
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
16 oz light Karo corn syrup
1 pound butter (minus 1 slice)

Special Equipment: candy thermometer, wax paper

Makes about 200 1" x 1" squares
  1. Combine all ingredients, except vanilla, in a pot over medium heat. Stir often.
  2. Bring to 248 degrees. This will take about 15 minutes. Large frothy bubbles will start to appear. NOTE: adjust temperature if you are not at sea level.
  3. Stir in vanilla and turn out onto a very well buttered sheet pan or a sheet pan lined with a silpat.
  4. Let cool for at least 4 hours on the counter top. Then measure and cut into 1" x 1" squares. Cut wax paper and start wrapping and twisting!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Amalia's first encounter with Santa

I know I said in my post from yesterday that Henry and Amalia loved the Romanian Santas at the glühwein stand in the Rathausmarkt Weihnachtsmarkt in Hamburg. Perhaps I should clarify: they loved dancing when the Santas played "Jingle Bells" - at a safe distance. They did not love sitting on Santa's lap for what mama thought would be a cute photo.

One day she'll laugh at this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If I had to name one reason to love Germany...

It would be WEIHNACHTSMARKTS i.e. Christmas markets.

And glühwein i.e. hot mulled wine. Consumed outside when it's cold.

Under bright lights and pyramids of life-size nativity scenes and candles.

In the main square of a well-preserved German town like Lüneburg.

Musically accompanied by my favorite Roma Santa band. Did you know that Santa hails from Romania originally? These are his peeps. Representing my favorite glühwein stand. We come here so often that when we walk up, they stop playing and yell, "Hey! Harry! Maya!" Henry and Amalia love them.

Right down the way from the Südtiroler stand...two reasons to reconsider your stance on eating meat or your religious beliefs...

The famous northern German specialty grünkohl mit pinkel - green cabbage with sausage.

And goulash mit semmelknödel - goulash with dumplings. Is there anything better when you are standing outside in the cold at Christmas time?

Yes at times like these, I looooooooove Germany.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Chichicastenango Guatemala

Chichicastenango is 90 miles northwest of Guatemala City and is a market-lovers paradise. Uhhh... that would be me: Professional Mercadodora. On Thursdays and Sundays, this tiny town fills up with a massive collection of mazes and stalls overflowing with Mayan food, clothing and crafts.

As luck would have it, the day we swept through for last minute Christmas shopping four years ago was their Dia del Patron, or Saint Thomas's Day- held every year on December 21st. This means the deities were on the march, taken out for their one day in the sun, strutting their feathers and grandeur. A procession of saints and believers in traditional garb with the added fanfare of headdresses, bells, masks, banners and songs clogged the narrow streets. The popular theme of firecrackers and chaos was in full effect. The merry-makers lite cans full of gun powder strapped to flimsy bamboo sticks in the middle of a dense crowd and detonated the explosive package- no chance of that backfiring! So dangerous. So awesome.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Big Night Out

Guadalajara, Mexico

6:15pm Woo-hoo! We are free! After a quick good-bye to our life-saving babysitter, and a brief, “here’s what to do when...,” Carter and I run skipping and leaping out of our house. Did we remember to give her our cell-phone numbers? Ha! Who cares! We’re out!

6:30pm Giddy as a virgin at the senior prom we launch into our evening full-steam ahead by hitting a martini bar/Argentinean steakhouse before our sushi dinner. As we walk towards a table we realize we are in great danger of being surrounded by families who are finishing up a late lunch. I am not about to spend my get-out-of-jail-free card oogling at other people’s babies. (Check the time, that’s right, I said LUNCH. In Mexico the big meal of the day is called comida and starts at around 2pm). We quickly veer towards the bar and take a stool. Perfect.

7:30pm The uber hip sushi restaurant we had carefully chosen for our Big Night Out had everything going for it: big buzz about town, a sleek modern interior, psychedelic jelly fish floating in a tank by the door, swanky highly-stylized leather lounge chairs perfect for sipping sake cocktails, chill down-tempo beats sealing the scene. So why were we the only people in the restaurant?

We knew why. It cannot be blamed on the new trend towards penny-pinching. We were tragically unhip. You see, in Mexico, it takes more than just picking the talked-about spot, you really CANNOT expect to dine among the living until the sweet hour of 10pm. This is siesta culture. The life we were trying to dip into did not start until much later, and those who live it were napping.

9:00pm Full on sushi, we leave the still-empty restaurant and try to find a happening place to have a drink before we meet up with friends, who are mostly likely throwing matches all over their floor and sticking things in their outlets…. because they don’t have kids and they can. We are still pretty amped up with the naughty feeling of getting away with something, but as we roam the oddly quiet streets the momentum begins to fade.

Really?! Is it possible that at, and now it is 9:30pm on a Saturday, a city of seven million can actually feel empty? There isn’t even the pre-party hustle of a liquor run, a last-minute dash to the bodega, or a … N-O-T-H-I-N-G. The city is eerily quiet. We walk to a couple bars we know will have lines out the front at 1am, and I swear they are mopping the floors in anticipation of the merry-makers. I am starting to feel like I am trying to make something of nothing. The lack of distraction is allowing the grim reality of the sad truth to sink in: the baby-sitter will not be there in the morning. You see, it is the thought I always have in the back of my head, but if everything is going well on a Big Night Out I can lethally push it to the back of my mind and wait to deal with it at 7am, when Oscar wakes up.

10:00pm The debate to call it a night or soldier-on has landed us at the bar where our friend’s band will be playing later that evening. We order a shot and make a couple calls, fruitlessly reminding people that we are on babysitter-time. As usual, they are on Mexican-time.

11:30pm People are trickling in fresh-faced and excited for the night to start. They have the same right out of the gates tear-on that was trying to find a venue in me FIVE hours ago. A second-wind looks to be hours away. I am thinking I will save my late-night babysitter points and cab it home. Oscar has five hours of sleep on me at this point, and sometimes, at 7am, I think he is rubbing it in.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Berlin Secret Restaurant Series: Cantina

Berlin, Germany

Before I continue with the "secret restaurant" series, I have been asked to explain what makes a "secret restaurant" "secret". Right. Good question. As I mentioned, it is indeed perplexing to be classified as secret when you have been written up in the NYT. There are perhaps different categories of secret and the two which I am posting in this series fall under the category of real restaurant (i.e. professional kitchen and professionals chefs) in a location that was not originally intended as a restaurant- in the two examples in this series that location is a club. Cookies Cream is above the Cookies club and Cantina is in the backroom of the bar Tausend. There are other secret restaurants in Berlin that are located in residences, in someone's living room where the chef is an amateur and so is the kitchen. There is no bill for dinner but rather a suggested donation as these establishments are not licensed to serve food or alcohol. Unfortunately, I have not yet made it to one of the home-spun secret restaurants but intend to as soon as possible. In the meantime, I submit for your perusal the second in the series and my personal favorite...

Catina. In Tausend. Found at the bottom of the steps up to the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn, opposite side of the river from the Reichstag. Go around the corner from the main entrance. Around the back. Ring the bell. Enter the kitchen. And then behold....

The Miso Cod with pickled ginger. Oh. My. God. Our mustached, soft-spoken and very patient waiter recommended this. About three times. Before I finally said, 'I think we'll try the miso cod.' He smiled approvingly. The meat slipped off the fish like catching a greased watermelon. It was like this fish had been brined in vasoline. The texture was firm, the fish fatty and the miso was subtle and delicious. I still dream about this.

The ceviche. Oh. My. God. A white fish and squid marinated in lime, tossed with red onion and topped with red chillies and coriander. Corn and sweet potato on the side. I wanted to rub my face in the plate. I may have - but have you ever gotten red chilli in your eye? Not fun. I abstained. But this was every bit as good as the amazing ceviche we ate in Lima, Peru, where ceviche was born and raised. And maybe better - because we were in Berlin, rather than the cerviche capital of the world. But we would not have been blamed for mistaking Cantina for a cevicheria in Lima.

Seared tuna with foie gras served over wild herb risotto. Perfection on a plate. I can't even talk about it. Lick the screen. Go ahead, lick it. You know you want to.

Beef skewers. Topped with red onion, cilantro and chillies. Oh. My. God.

The creme brulé. Very good.

I would say more but I think these pictures speak for themselves. And if they don't let me say it for them, "Deeeeeeeeellllllisssssshhhhhuuuuouuuuus!!!!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: The Day after Thanksgiving

Hamburg, Germany

Do not fear. This is not a wild manimal raised by wolves in the dark heart of the forest who has crawled up through the sewers, infiltrated the old bunker in our backyard and burrowed his way into our kitchen to gnaw on a leftover turkey drumstick. No. This is my dear friend Richard, flown in especially from Rome where he was in the fourth month of his bicycle journey from Lisbon to Amman (check out his blog), to celebrate Thanksgiving with us.

With the table set for 30, two 13 pound turkeys and enough mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, corn bread, pecan pie and sooooo much more, for a small army - or at least a motley crew of mercenaries - we had our hands full of leftovers by the time the last guests left around 3 a.m. And so what do you do with a mean hangover, more empty beer bottles, plastic cups, dirty dishes and post-fesitivity general merry-making mess than you can possibly wrap your warbled little head around? You tuck into leftovers, open a beer and gossip about the revelations shared during "dankbarzeit" (thankful time), the famous German TV actress who made an unexpected appearance, the couple caught making out on the front porch and whether or not that port wine cranberry sauce is what did us all in.

Full post to follow. In the meantime, happy post-Thanksgiving official start of the holiday season!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Berlin Secret Restaurant Series: Cookies Cream

Berlin, Germany

So by now you may have heard of the secret restaurant trend in Europe – Berlin, London (watch this space for what may become one in Hamburg). This article in the NYT documents the author’s experience in a few of the better-known secrets (as someone put it, "how 'secret' can they be if they are in the New York Times?’ Point well taken.). With only 36 hours on a quick trip to Berlin at the end of October, I decided that this was the place to start.

I had first heard about Cookies Cream from my friend Eva who was invited to a dinner there for the premier of Tilda Swinton’s film, Julia, at the 2007 Berlinale film festival. She raved about the amazing vegetarian food served in this strange back-alley hidden restaurant, and about Tilda’s hot young lover. Anyway, I was intrigued – was it something that was set up especially for the evening, a one-time deal catered by the Westin Grand, the hotel whose dumpsters you have to walk past to get up the back staircase? Turns out, no. In fact, when I spoke to my neighbors, Berlin transplants in Hamburg, about my „secret“ dinners, they were rather unimpressed that Cookies Cream was considered a secret.

We had an 8 o’clock reservation. Everything about the place said clandestine, from the obscure entrance, to the very unfinished look of the bathroom, to the open kitchen.

Walk past the Westin Grand main entrance and take a right into the first alleyway.

Presumably the Westin Grand's garbage. You are in the right place. Keep going.

Ah, chandelier-lit dumpsters. So romantic. Pass underneath the chandelier and up the stairs to the right. The Cookies Cream placard is there on the wall. Ring the bell, someone will buzz you in.

Up the backstairs to the dining room...and you enter into a large divide space. The open kitchen is to the left and the dining area is to the right. White brick walls, white tablecloths, a large painting of square pastels with the word "fick" (f*ck) printed square in the center. The ceilings were high and lofty, the place was unfinished and polished at the same time. The details were purposefully makeshift - the sink in the bathroom designed to give the impression that the water would spill onto the floor, the seemingly random hole in the countertop were printed receipts sprouted. Somewhat contrived, but went with the theme.

The menu was vegetarian, not vegan, and looked ambitious. We opted for the 3-gang / three course and the "house" drink, a rubarb vodka cocktail. Again, dining companions are for sharing and so my fellow diner Lowri and I passed the plates between us.

Above, the Tete de Moine on a spinach tartlet, smoked topinambursalad with black nuts, sauce cumberland.

The Tete de Moine is a velvety swath of cheese swiveled off a large round mold. It sat atop a palak-like creamy spinach on what I can only describe as a cracker and next to a smoky sauerkraut (the topinambursalad – I am still not sure what this is). The black nut shaving was very earthy, like a ground nut but not as bitter, and the cumberland sauce was a sweet preserve. All together complementary, the smoothness and sharpenss of the cheese, creamy spinach and rough and smoky kraut worked well together.

But we really liked the stuffed brioche.

Presenting the stuffed brioche with quail egg, truffled foam of potatoes, red wine shallot.

The egg was silky and the potato foam hinted at celery, very faintly. The carmelized shallots were rich and sweet and tangy and the brioche wore them well.

As for the mains, we were tempted by the pine nut potato roll with beetroot carpaccio, marsalla lack, horseradish, coloured beetroot cooked in sea salt and the puree and grilled hokkaido pumpkin with gnocchi of chive, gelly of balsamico, red wine sauce and wild herbs. However, we settled on the parmesan dumplings with cilantro carrots and Amalifi lemon sauce and the tomato tandoori risotto with backed praline of goat cheese, chickweed and tomato fumet.

The tomato tandoori risotto defined fusion. You expected something a little more... Italian. But the spices were Indian, tumeric, cardamom, and the heat of the chillies. The goat cheese praline was an unexpected twist and lent the missing creaminess to the rice. A winner.

The parmesan dumpling with cilantro carrots and Amalifi lemon sauce. Dumplings in my book are the ultimate comfort food. What could be better and more threatening to south beachers than a big ball of warm dough. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. The parmesan made it salty, savory, and the rest of it did't make that much of an impression because I was so overfocused on the dumpling itself, with a nutty pesto like mixture on top. It was perfect.

Dessert, parfait of haselnuts, fruit salad. The salad was light, cleansing and the parfait surprisingly was too, even though it was richer. An appropriate ending to a meal whose main course was cheesy dough balls.

Overall a lovely evening, an inspired meat-free menu and intrigue.

Next stop: Tausend's backroom Cantina... I am still dreaming about it. O. Ma. Gah.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Sunday Market, Mexico

Yes, you are looking at a box full of live baby chicks and ducks. The less fortunate have had their downy feathers dyed to match a bag of Skittles, and if that wasn’t enough animal cruelty to endure in their first few days of life, they are being forced to show their holiday spirit or patriotism with either a Santa cap or a Mexico baseball hat glued to their heads. This is not the work of photoshop, this is the work of a cracked-out elf after too much eggnog.

Without the pesky buffer of Halloween and Thanksgiving, Christmas starts very early in Mexico. Like, September early. Mexicans love Christmas and they do it well. Heck, they spend a quarter of the year decking the halls. So with Thanksgiving practically out of the way, nothing says Merry Christmas like a baby chick dipped in the acid Kool-Aid.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Mosel: teil Zwei/Part two

Look! There are gnomes in the vines! Or maybe those were just the grape pickers. It was hard to say for sure as we spent all day Saturday - of our wine country getaway weekend - cruising the Mosel.

First stop, Bernkastel Kues, a short 10 minute drive downriver from our base in Müllheim, a sweet medevil town on the river enclosed by vineyards. What you don't see in this photo are the tourist buses parked in the bottom left hand corner. There were no hidden gems in the Mosel.. at least that we discovered. The towns worth visiting, i.e. picturesque in setting, beautifully restored architecture, cobbled pedestrian areas and vineyards offering tastings and local specialties, were worth a visit for these reasons. And were no secret.

The stops in between, where the roads were too narrow for parking buses, were empty. I don't know if its a chicken-or-egg question but we stopped in a few of these towns in my quest for the
real Mosel, the off-the-beaten-path Mosel, the "Hey Hans, where do you buy your lederhosen?" Mosel. But alas, we did not find it. At least not in the random villages that we picked. The aging slate houses advertising tastings were locked up, the backroads led us to Brunhilda's unterhosen hanging out on the laundry line, and Brunhilda and her neighbor's all wore the same expression that nearly audibly wondered, "What the hell are they doing here?"

Burg Eltz, a dreamy medevil fort in the middle of noooowhere. A brisk hike into the valley and gravity coupled with
federweisser made for a slow haul back up the hill.

This photo illustrates two things: that grape pickers in the Mosel valley must have an extremely nuanced sense of balance and that my husband has poor taste in winter hats.

This is Beilstein - a little village that we found by chance when we pulled over to look at the map and realized we were sitting in front of a car ferry dock. We drove on and wound up here... and I will just let the Mosel Tourism website do the talking (this is the site's English translation, presumably taken from babblesfish or some other online word-for-word translation service):

"The fascinating nice small town hatchet stone lies with one of the most impressive Moselle loops, at the exit of a narrow brook valley, embedded between vineyards and Moselle valley; not free of charge it is called the Sleeping Beauty of the Moselle.

Worth seeing in this romantic Moselle place appear the picturesque market with the unique tenth house and the former parish church Saint Christopherus, the cloister stair which leads to the Carmelite's cloister with the black Madonna, the showpiece of the baroque minster.

Also the knight's hall and many homely half-timbered houses, lanes and corners are visits-worth. Already with the first stroll one understands that hatchet stone often enough served as a romantic film scenery."

And let that be a lesson to anyone considering using free online translation services.

On the aforementioned cloister stair...

Climbing flights of cloister stairs should always be followed by tasting flights of wine. We ducked into this cavern where groups of tasters were taking their task very seriously. The owner informed us that if we did a tasting, we were obligated to buy at least one bottle of one of the wines. We opted for a simple federweisser instead, no strings attached.

A little wary and none the federweisser (ha!), we headed back to the hotel for dinner at the Culinarium R Restaurant, saving the best for last. There were four different four - five course menus and it was understood that we would not be getting the same one. The advantage of having a dining companion in my opinion is not only avoiding the pitying glances of other diners, it is a free pass to taste different menus. They all looked amazing: however, the vegetarian option sounded a little mundane next to its meaty opponents. The fish menu, while tempting, was still slightly lackluster when compared to the "Menü Cluinarium R" and the "Menü Decouvert" - Ingo opted for the former, I choose the latter. And the competition was ON.

Ingo's Tortchen von Gänseleber und Spanferkelbäckchen eingelegt Quitten und Winterpostelein

How do I explain this - it was like a cake - like baumkuchen for those of you who know the German Christmas treat - but replace the chocolate with goose liver and pork cheek - accompanied by quince preserve and field greens. The cake was going to float off the plate but the goose liver gave it gravity. The greens were fresh and the quince cleansing. A winner.


Jiff's Feines von der Wachtel Terrine-geräucherte Brust -Essenz
Quail terrine, smoked breast - essence

I guess I am not a terrine fan - it's like an opaque jello, a firm and flavorless custard, dried Elmer's glue. Obviously it depends on the terrine but I find them slightly bland and the texture rather unappetizing. The smoked quail breast was sweet and smokey, the jus was subtle and the greens were laced with speck. I am afraid the first round of this meal went to Ingo's liver cake, however.

Jakobsmuscheln mit pikanten Brotchips, Kichererbsen und Felsenblümchen-Wildkräuterpesto
Scallops with spicy bread chips, chick peas and field flower-wild herb pesto

I love any and all scallops. Love. I love the texture, I love how they fall apart in your mouth, melt into little flakes of subtle fishy goodness. Aside from the scallops, the bread chips were a bit odd, I am not a fan of chickpeas unless they are mashed into hummus and the pesto was out of place here. Then again, I love scallops.

Geschäumtes Kartoffelsüppchen Kräutersaitlinge und Ochsenschwanzpraline
Foamy little potato soup, big meaty mushroom and ox tail praline

I was a bit skeptical of the potato soup but once again it was a light foamy frothy creamy bowl of comfort and the the meaty mushroom gave it texture and omigod that ox tail praline - a breaded and fried meatball mash was sooooo good, it reminded me of all the croquets we ate in Groningen after visiting one of the ahem coffee shops. It was so flavorful and sooooo delicious - I could have eaten a bowl full of the pralines. I won this one, sorry scallops.

Hirschkalbsrücken in Vakuum gegart würziges Burgunderkraut und Maronen-Brotsoufflé
Baby dear back in vacuum sealed herbed burgunderkraut and chestnut bread soufflé

I know deer are cute and I loved the movie Bambi as much as anyone but, ooooooh venison is sooooooooo good. This was a rather large piece of the little guy and the bread soufflé was like throwing a warm sweater on him. The vacuum sealed kraut was flighty and mysterious, experimental and strange in a good way that contrasted with the masculinity of this dish.

Ballottine vom Kalbsfilet mit Trüffel sautierter Spitzkohl und Steckrüben-Mousseline
Ballotine of veal with truffel sautéed sweetheart cabbage and rutabega mouse

I will be honest, I immediately honed in on this dish because I remember quizzing Smash about her studies at the California Culinary Academy and when I asked her about the most difficult thing that she can make she said rabbit ballotine and I remember thinking 'what the hell is ballottine?', sounded like guillotine - cannot be good for the poor bunny but I bet it's tasty. So, ballotine it was but not of rabbit, of veal. The meat was wrapped in "sweetheart cabbage", the dark green variety that has the texture of a crumpled piece of paper. I think I wept a few small tears when I tasted the the truffel sauce. The rutabaga mouse was a bit bland but that is ok because I poured truffel sauce all over it mwahahaha (insert evil laugh track here). Once again, I take this round of the menu showdown. No contest.

Pudding von Dörrobst Rotwein-Butter-Eis und Mandelsahne
Dried fruit pudding with red wine-butter ice cream and almond cream

It was a lovely fall dessert, the pudding was the variety that 'sticks to your ribs' as my mother would say. The warmth and weight of the pudding complimented the light cream and was cooled by the ice cream.

Unfortunately I have forgotten precisely what this gorgeously plated dessert consisted of exactly. It included a cannolli, a parfait pyramid, a pumpkin cream and a pumpkin ice cream which I took one bite of and promptly proceeded to dance indetectably in my chair.

At the end of the evening, the Decouvre had amassed the requisite number of points to win the competition but we still felt as though we had both done well.

Mosel, thank you for a lovely kid-free weekend (although the gnomes helped remind us of the children), for feeding us well and entertaining us thoroughly. We will be back!