Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: A Memorable Meal, Ceviche de Ostra

Nothing makes a meal more memorable than spending it wondering if each bite will be your last. Is this the sweet salty kiss of death? Carter and I had watched the oyster ceviche cart cruise up and down the beach in Canoa, Ecuador for two days wondering if sucking down unrefrigerated raw oysters in the hot sun was a good idea. After we observed several repeat customers and next-day survivors of the delica-sea, we decided a two day trip to the nearest passable medical facility was worth the risk. Some compare eating raw oysters to a game of Russian roulette; I compare it to sex.

Ceviche de ostra as we experienced them were booty-licious. The oyster shells were the size of a woman’s hand. Javier used a hammer to bust them open, then he cut the oyster into small pieces, never removing the creature from its shell, squeezed the juice from half a lime, added a small spoonful of diced tomatoes and red onion, a bit of jalapeno, then a sprinkling of dried and fried corn kernels. Using the shell as a bowl, he mixed it up and handed it over to two scared, salivating gringos. Briny, limey, crunchy, slimy, raw and dangerous-- we were hooked.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Epicurean Pilgrimage Series: Wilton's

So some of you may have read a post I wrote a while ago about Trishna restaurant in Mumbai and its signature oh-my-gah-totally-sick-and-wrong butter-garlic-pepper crab. Need I say more? So, Trishna is one of ten restaurants featured in New York Times journalist R.W. Apple Jr.'s "Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket", an article he penned shortly before his death in 2005. About this list, Apple writes, "Please note, this is neither an enumeration of my favorites (though some of those are included) nor a ranking of the world's best. Rather than reciting a long list of two- and three-star gastronomic temples, I have chosen purlieus both grand and small, better to reflect my own eating habits... I have arbitrarily restricted my choices to one per country, for much the same reason. I would expect no one else to choose the same 10, but on the other hand, I would be astonished if many of my nominations disappointed."

Trishna was the only restaurant on his illustrious list that we had had the pleasure of patronizing - until last week.  Eager to check a few more off the list, I booked a table for 5, i.e. three adults and two under two at Wilton's in London. Lunch at Wilton's may be included in a list more aptly titled, "Meals the Same Price as a Plane Ticket." Such establishments generally aren't fond of children; but the person on the other end of the line when I called to make a reservation didn't show any signs of fear (the way he should have) and simply asked if we would be needing high chairs. Indeed we would! How convenient that you have them! I said. "Oh no, WE don't have them. But I can borrow them if you need them."

Amalia loved drinking sparkling water out of a fancy glass. She also loved tipping it just so, just to that point where you can either save it or let it flow, which made mama get all flushed in the face as she rushed to stop the waterfall. She also loved the dinner rolls. "Mo" bread, PEEEEEEEEES!!! Yes, shh, ok, honey, more bread, here, as much as you want, just shhhhh. MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! PPPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSS!!!! And then suddenly, as if she understood the situation perfectly, she bursts into song: LALALALALALALALLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! Every time one of the 831 waiters, water pourers, lamb carvers, or other attendants walked by they bent to pick up a shred of paper, a crumb, a toothpick, a spoon - whatever she could get her hands on and skillfully project downwards before I could stop her.

Zia arrived styled out. Ingo, however, needed a little assistance. "Do you need a jacket, sir?" they asked at the door. "No," he replied, "I'm already wearing one" referring to his leather jacket. "Sir, we have a jacket policy here. I would guess you're a 42?" Hence, the handsome blazer with the flashy gold buttons. Right, the jacket policy. Riiiiigggghhhht. Forgot about that. (Read: shit, the bill is going to be huuuuuuggge.)

I am not sure if these oysters really were THE BEST I HAVE EVER HAD or if I just REEEAAALLLYYY wanted them to be the best I've ever had because Mr. Apple swooned over them. In any case, judgement cloudy or spot on, they were GOOOOOOOD. I would venture to say AHHMAZING. They were the perfect size i.e. had they been ANY bigger, they would have been too big. I am a fan of just a little squeeze of lemon and letting the briny water they come in speak for itself. And these ones said, "AHOY MATE" - it was like standing on the shore and letting a big wave hit you in the face. MMMMMMM these were fresh and salty and sa-weet.

Apple writes that the oysters "come from West Mersea, on an island off the Essex coast, from beds that are harvested exclusively from rowboats, lest oil or gasoline pollute the waters. They are opened by London's best oysterman, Patrick Flaherty, a 40-year veteran when I last checked. None of the briny juices escape. No nasty bits of shell creep in."

I found the aforementioned Patrick Flaherty, or "Uncle Pat" as one of the departing diners called him, at the bar and he showed me Mr. Apple's "usual" table. Uncle Pat has been at Wilton's since 1963 and insisted it was a "family restaurant" and that our kids were very well behaved compared to some of the brats who come in. I said, "Yeah but that one is still sleeping. Let's talk after he wakes up."

Uncle Pat said that Apple came in twice a year and always had a big appetite and a load of charm. He said that Apple's consistently good reviews brought in a number of diners like us who mentioned the article.

The Dover Sole. As Apple says, "But whole Dover sole is the overwhelming choice of English connoisseurs: brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, turned quickly on the grill so that the grill bars burn a dark lattice pattern into the fish, then cooked under the intense heat of the broiler for roughly 12 to 15 minutes. Perfectly simple, simply perfect and entirely sufficient. This is the porterhouse steak of fish. No sauce is needed, partly because cooking the fish whole (“on the bone”) helps to keep it moist." It was excellent. I licked my fingers. In spite of myself.

Henry did wake up eventually - most fortunately AFTER we had finished the meal and were midway through dessert. And that's when Wilton's called for reinforcements. They sent in THREE NANNIES as a counter-offensive for any kind of attack Henry might have in store. See them standing there in the background? Don't let the cute striped smocks and tidy aprons fool you. They look Mary Poppins enough but these ladies were FIERCE I tell you. And they swooped in with a stealth swiftness and enviable accuracy any time one of these two even thought about hurling something toward the rest of the dining room. The two upper-middle aged gentlemen at the table across from us, one of whom resembled Richard Branson, I swear, were less than amused to be seated across from us. They were still pleasant enough and kept their passive-aggressive comments to a minimum ("Since when has Wilton's become a NURSURY?).
Behold Ingo's chocolate mousse with mint ice cream. It was divine. Amalia thought so too and dove in with her hands. Fine dining, indeed. I went with the cheese plate and the cheese plate when too fast to photograph it apparently. The pralines in the background were also pretty sick.

As we packed ourselves up, much to the relief of the staff and the gentlemen across from us, Amalia turned and gave Richard Branson her sweetest smile and a wave. "Bye-bye", she cooed. "Bye-bye", said Richard Branson as he returned the gesture. "And never come back!" It sounds horrendously rude but it was playfully intoned (although dead-serious, we presume).

Overall, it was a lovely meal and I would recommend Wilton's to anyone who has just won the lottery. The food was delicious, the atmosphere extremely elegant and the overly-capable staff was extremely tolerant, kind and helpful - ESPECIALLY with the kids which earns them big points in my book. A place like this could have copped some serious attitude - but they were delightful. Their clientele on the other hand - well that is beyond their control I suppose.

After we treated ourselves to lunch, we took our well-behaved bundles out for a treat we thought they would enjoy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Memorable Meal: Lunch with the Khmer Rouge

Khieu's home. Just to the left of this sign, the Thai border.

Our lunch together was purely unintentional. Vichet, the head of a local human rights organization, offered to show me around the remote northwestern Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey. He proposed that we visit a few of his projects and then meet “some old Khmer Rouge guy”.

However, after spending a few minutes in this man’s presence I quickly realized that he was not just another “Khmer Rouge guy”. This was Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. Khieu (last names are used first) is currently standing trial in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the long awaited international war crimes tribunal. He is charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, torture and genocide.

Seated on a turquoise leather sofa, he wore a striped button-up pajama top and a bright plaid sarong. His spiky, white hair juxtaposed the dark sunspots that dotted his worn skin and his eyes were clouded with age. While his movement was slow and laborious, his wit was quick and his charm effortless.

Vichet had been to Khieu’s home once before at the behest of Khieu’s daughter, one of Vichet’s employees. His attendance however was not social, but personal. Following the murder of his parents under Pol Pot's regime, young Vichet spent ten years in a refugee camp. He accepted the invitation but only to ask the unanswered questions that plagued him since childhood. How could this man have been part of the ruthless murder of 1.7 million of his own people?

Unintentionally disarmed by Khieu’s hospitality however, Vichet never asked. Today, he hoped that I, a foreigner, might be able to obtain some of the answers he sought.

Suddenly, lunch was announced. Two large mats were spread out on the floor. Khieu’s wife and daughters came up and down the stairs, each time bringing bowls of food: pots of raw meat, bowls of eggs, plates heaped with noodles, strainers filled with green vegetables—cabbage and morning glory, mushrooms and chilies. The two older girls set two clay pots filled with smoldering coals on the mats, and on top of each they placed a bowl with an elevated island in the center. Strips of meat were placed on the raised perforated metal, while the moat around it was filled with broth, vegetables, then handfuls of noodles, and raw eggs, all left to simmer.

We took a seat on the floor. Khieu’s wife sat next to him and orchestrated this “soup fondue.” He turned to me and said, “This is why I married her.” She had been a cook for the Khmer Rouge.

Over lunch, Khieu claimed he was merely a symbolic head of state with no real knowledge of the killings taking place in the countryside. For Vichet and the countless Cambodians who seek the truth in order to heal, the current tribunal may finally force Khieu and his co-conspirators to admit their culpability in one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAwayUK May travel writing contest. We would love to hear your thoughts on the post in the comment section or on our Facebook page.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Memorable Meal: Yangtze River Harmony

Sidewalk chef in Wuhan, China

Loud sucking and gulping, juicy wet slurping and sharp burping stopped me dead in my tracks and had me reconsidering my first meal aboard the passenger boat. The jarring buzz of bodily functions bounced around a steady stream of sing-song Chinese conversation. I stood in the doorway scanning the dining room, the only thing vaguely familiar were the plates of brown gelatinous Chinese food I had come to fear. Hyperaware of my status as the only foreigner aboard, and overwhelmed by uncertainty, I retreated to my cabin.

Taking inventory of the edible contents in my backpack, I knew I would not be able to avoid the dining room for the full five day trip up the Yangtze River. Before boarding the boat that would float me past scenic views of the Three Gorges, I made a last minute dash for provisions. Running through the narrow side streets of Wuhan, I hunted and gathered snacks from street vendors and sidewalk chefs. The hastily amassed bounty resulted in three packets of chili-laced peanuts, a paper bag of salty roasted chestnuts, two moon-shaped slices of cantaloupe threaded onto skewers and three roasted sweet potatoes, crispy charred skins bubbling with caramelized sugars.

This would not do. Propelled by hunger, I reluctantly shuffled back to the dining room. I searched the crowded room for an empty chair and a friendly face. From the far back corner, a man with an eager smile waved me over to his table, followed by a nod to the waiter, signaling to bring another bowl of what he was eating.

Seven businessmen in their forties sat around a wooden table with bowls of soup and shot glasses in front of them. From one large bottle my host, a physicist named Wen, poured baijiu, a triple distilled rice wine that will burn the taste buds off of any sailor’s tongue. Goofy grins stretched across their high rosy cheekbones- an indication that they had been at it since leaving port.

Between guzzling firewater and hawking goopy loogies onto the floor they were chatting and slurping soup. I couldn’t stop thinking how noisy everything was. Gastronomic pleasure was expressed through a rhythmic code of gross sounds. I studied my dinner companions’ method closely to learn the music: 1) Raise the bowl to your mouth. 2) Form lips into a sort of sucking machine. 3) Coax the hot broth and minced tofu from bowl to belly while making a loud noise that resembles a malfunctioning vacuum. Oh, I could definitely get into this.

All manners as I knew them went out the window and I dove face-first into my soup. I am not sure which I enjoyed more, the sour-spicy broth and soothing texture of the tofu, or this new way of experiencing my food. Mimicking a woman at the table next to us, I announced my happiness with one long, low, deep burp. Nobody gawked or raised a shocked eyebrow; I was part of the band.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Announcing the May "Memorable Meal" series

By now, some of you may have noticed that Smash and I have developed a fondness for a travel blog called Grantourismo. For the next year, "globetrotting travel writers Lara and Terry, with the support of HomeAway Holiday Rentals, swap hotel rooms for holiday homes and embark on a contemporary grand tour of sorts they’re calling Grantourismo. Their aim is to slow down, learn and do things, live like locals, and give something back to the places they visit, as they search for a more authentic and enriching way to travel." And we really like their style. (Subtext: How jealous are we!?!?!) 

In March, they initiated their Travel Writing Competition and asked travel writer/bloggers to submit short entries (500 words) on a particular topic (in March - a neighborhood; in April - travel by rail) with one evocative photo. We have entered (and won!) and have been excitedly speculating on what the coming topics might be. After reading about their escapades in Morocco, Spain and France we said, "They love food as much as we do. The next competition has GOT to be food themed." And lo, dear readers, we were right! May is "food and travel" month in the Grantourismo Travel Writing Competition and hellloooooooooooooooooo - that is what WE are all about !!!! So, in honor of this month's competition, Smashandsniff is initiating the "Memorable Meals" series - from now until the end of this month we will post a few anecdotes, epistles, memories etc of memorable meals and eating experiences on the road. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section here or on our Facebook page. Whether they make you salivate or gag, we'd love to know what you think. Thanks for reading and here's to May's contest!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My Subscription to AFAR

Ingo demonstrates going local with the women at the well in Dangeremou, Mauritania

I had first heard of AFAR magazine back in the fall of last year. A couple of different friends contacted me simultaneously - including Smash - with an email, subject heading: YOU'VE GOT TO CHECK THIS OUT. Nearly everyone sent simply a link with a quick note, WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THIS!?!? After checking out the website and finally getting my hands on a copy of the first issue of the magazine, I replied, "We did think of this. But now someone is actually doing it!"

It was bittersweet. How many times had WE sat in a tea house, by a temple, in the middle of a market, in the back of a pickup truck filled with 50 people, one ton of rice and seven goats - and discussed the same thing that AFAR founders Joe Diaz and Greg Sullivan did - experiential travel is not about a good deal on a fancy hotel or ticking sites of a "100 places to see before we die" list. It's about the journey and the journey is about the characters you meet along the way, the conversations and the unexpected encounters with people and events that cause you to think about things that you had pretty much taken for granted in an entirely different way.

A publication, a platform, a network of like-minded individuals who love spontaneous journeys, who strike up conversations with the old men in the café, who poke their noses into the hausfrau's kitchen, who opt for the local rickshaw rather than the new air-conditioned taxi, whose favorite souvenir is not a purchase but a memory.

And thus began my crush on AFAR Media and Magazine.  

So when I was informed that the prize for third place in the Grantourismo monthly travel writing competition for March was a one-year subscription to AFAR - with all due respect to the other prize-givers - I felt as though I had placed first.

Living in Germany, I tend to get my English-language magazine fix when I am traveling i.e. the newstand at an international airport. I have tried to do international subscriptions and given up - frustrated by the long wait or by never seeing some issues at all - somehow lost in the mail. So when the big manila envelope arrived last week I was like a kid on Christmas. I tore it open and then put it into my satchel - preferring to wait until I had at least 60 consecutive minutes of time to really dig into it.

Reasons I Love AFAR

The Features

Having recently traveled to Guadalajara to visit my own expert in Mexican soul food, i.e. Smash, I drooled over Lygia Navarro's descriptions of taquitos de chapulines and escamole. I mean, you know you're a good food writer when people drool over your descriptions of grasshopper tacos and white ant larvae.

But more than making my stomach grumble, the article made my feet itch. Smash has always been more of the foodie in "smashandsniff" - having studied at the California Culinary Academy and worked in fine dining. But I learned to love food through travel. How much have I learned about a new culture, how many friendships solidified, while working together in the kitchen - often with a cook who spoke little to no English. My "host moms" in Mauritania critically observing as I tried in vain to slice the bean leaves as painstakingly thin as they did for my favorite dish, hakko, a mixture of greens, peanuts and spices served over millet; my landlady in Phnom Penh teaching me her family's recipe for amok, delicious fish in coconut sauce, chillies, khafir leaves and lemongrass wrapped in banana leaves while telling me about losing her husband and sons during the forced evacuation of the city under the Khmer Rouge in 1975; my good friend Horia, human rights activist, wife and mother,  making kabuli pilau in her Kabul kitchen as she told me about her flight from the 1980s civil war in Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan; Khatir, an Algerian Frenchman who used to work under legendary French chef Bernard Loiseau teaching me how to do a perfect confit de canard in his slaughterhouse in Hamburg while bemoaning what he considers a lack of passion in German kitchens.

Eating is a biological necessity and the preparation and sharing of food is a language that is spoken in every culture. Taking a sincere interest in another's proud culinary traditions, techniques and history breaks down most cultural or linguistic boundaries that exist and offers a window into much more than food. At smashandsniff we like to consider ourselves "foodthropologists" and Ms. Navarro's article proved that she does too. This piece, along with the other features, "The New Face of South Africa" by Chris Smith and "Chasing Shadows" by Jeff Greenwald were so rich in their story telling - in all three cases due primarily to the fascinating characters (especially Thami Nkosi in Jo'berg and the fascinating and, as the author puts it, "wacky" individuals who chase solar eclipses) in each of these articles - which is what I love most about AFAR magazine.

The Breakdown

Characters are again prominently featured in each of the opening sections, "See", "Connect" and "Go". I love how each of these sections is broken down: In "See", a quirky photo comparison of school lunches around the world in "Mix"; interesting and sometimes lesser known events in the "Calendar" and the detailed shorter articles in "Afar List/Where to Go Now". In the "Connect" section, an excellent profile of Bangkok resident Dtong and through him, his neighborhood; the writer assigned to a spontaneous and random destination - this time Susan Orlean went to Copenhagen in "Spin the Globe" (hey AFAR - ever thought about sending a BLOGGER on a sponaneous random journey? If so...); and the introduction to fascinating individuals living a global lifestyle in "Nomad" (coincidentally written by Sally McGrane who I know through mutual friends while we were both living San Francisco. Sally and I often compared notes on Germany - I was in love with a German and she was in love with the German capital. She waxed poetic about Berlin and was plotting her return - glad to see she made it). 

In "Go", the smashandsniff personal favorite is "Feast". "Caribbean Melting Pot" features Janera Sorel, a former classmate of mine from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Janera founded and runs, an organization that "curates global conversations" with the goal being to explore human stories behind world affairs through events that connect "gamechangers and influencers". And here she is in the AFAR "Feast" section, serving up keshi yana in her native Curacao. "Good Trips/Travel with a Purpose" is an excellent resource for travelers looking for volunteer opportunities with local and national organizations - a focus I imagine AFAR readers are especially keen on. In "Stay",  the article titled, "Yurt So Good" made me laugh out loud (you can imagine, living in Germany, what kind of cringe-worthy word plays I subject readers to - they are the "wurst" hahahaha) and also made me want to call Tseren Tours to ask for more information.

Thank you Grantourismo and HomeAwayUK for my subscription to AFAR. And thank you AFAR for doing what you do.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy Mother's Day Mom and a Peach Pie Recipe!

Growing up, Mother’s Day meant we were forced to indulge my mom in one of her favorite simple pleasures- eating outside. The weather is touch and go in mid-May in Chicago and many cold omelets were enjoyed on our barren patio, all of us wrapped in sweaters, bulky parkas, hats and scarves. Eating with mittens on was not unusual and I vividly remember snow melting at my feet several years in a row. More often than not, the chatter at the table was from my brother’s and my teeth clacking in protest to the very un-spring like breeze and NOT from titillating conversation. Once you become a mother, you start creating your own traditions. I am currently promoting a new and very enlightened holiday in our house— The Day after Mother’s Day Spa Day. And luckily, I won’t have to fight snot-cicles while sipping the traditional Mother’s Day mimosas.

I have a lot to raise my champagne glass to this Mother’s Day. I have the best mother in the world. She is my biggest supporter and fan; she is my best friend and, as I start my own family, she is my role model for the mother I want to be to my kids. She nurtured us with love, food and wisdom, and now I know from my own experience, often on a wing and a prayer.

I will be making peach pie this weekend in celebration of my mom, perhaps it will become a new Mother’s Day tradition in our house. As kids, we always called it Grandma’s Peach Pie, but after a bit of investigation, I found that it goes back to my (and Sniff’s) great-grandmother. All of the women before me were great cooks and elegant entertainers; it is in my blood. Growing up, my mom’s grandmother lived two houses down from them. When my grandmother would entertain, which was often, my Great-Grandma Denessen would make the desserts, and most often it was this peach pie that she carried across the lawn. It was everybody’s favorite. When my mom began entertaining, she did not have her mother as a neighbor and had to make the sweet endings herself.

My great-grandmother made this pie with canned peaches, as did my grandmother and mother. When I lived in northern California, I began stewing fresh ripe peaches for the filling. When they are in season, this is the way to go. However, I have never let the seasons get in the way of me and this pie!

Serves 6-8

5 extra-large egg whites
Pinch salt
1 cup sugar
1 ¼ cup coconut, toasted
½ cup almonds, toasted
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 28 oz. can peaches (or 4-5 peeled and stewed peaches)
½ pint whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
  1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Slice the peaches thinly and place them in a colander to drain. They should be very well drained before filling the crust.
  3. Beat the egg whites and salt on high until foamy; gradually add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form.  
  4. Carefully fold in 1 cup of the toasted coconut and all of the almonds. 
  5. With a spatula and a light hand, spread the meringue into a well buttered 10"” pie plate. Build the sides up high above the edge of pie plate. 
  6. Bake the crust for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and dry along the edge. 
  7. Let cool on counter top. 
  8. Whip the cream and vanilla. 
  9.  One or two hours before serving, fill pie crust with peaches and top with whipped cream leaving a rim of peaches exposed around crust.. Sprinkle remaining toasted coconut over whipped cream.
  10. Refrigerate until time to serve.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Mexican Beach Food

You knew I would not be able to resist making a comparison between Hamburg beach food and the tropical, still-shaking-the-salt-water-out-of-its-fins delights offered up and down the Mexican coastline, right? I mean the opportunity to rub poor Sniff's nose in a bit of paradise is hard to resist. May 1st is labor day here and May 5th, is uh, Cinco de Mayo. (The celebration of a battle fought and won against the French.) We spent our five day weekend on the beach in and around the charming little town of La Manzanilla eating German beach food in Opposite Land. Pictured above is one of my favorite playa snacks: camarones en agua chili (shrimp in chili water). Fresh raw shrimp are sliced in half lengthwise then laid to rest in a zippy pool of lime juice and pureed jalapenos. The acid from the lime juice cooks them slightly and the jalapenos create a delicious cooling sweat all over your body.

If ceviche is not your thing, people walk up and down the beach offering peeled mangoes cut into the shape of flowers, sweet juicy pineapple spears, and tender coconuts with long straws from which to slurp the rejuvenating coco water. Vendors tempt lazy beer drinkers with long skewers stuffed with chili coated grilled shrimp and the ring-a-ding of ice cream carts is heard up and down the beach. And of course there are those mouth puckering margaritas and refreshingly light Pacifico beers to wash it all down! Now, who wants a plate of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and sausage?