Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Everywhere, Ideas


I’m not what grown-ups would call an adventurous traveler.  Running around Boston with my grandson, Darwin, I realized that I am just as adventurous as a two-year-old.  When I’m traveling, I like riding on public transportation, looking at people and making up stories about them, browsing in grocery stores and hardware stores, checking out post offices and churches, walking on city streets, watching traffic lights, eavesdropping.  And of course I like eating adventurous food, by which I mean all food.  For me, food is the adventure that never ends.

Here are a few food and cooking ideas from the current trip to Boston and New York:

grainy beef like flank steak cut into pieces half an inch thick by two inches wide by four inches long, bites achieved by grasping both ends with chopsticks, squeezing, and popping the whole thing in your mouth, great texture (thank you, Wu Liang Le)

Italian sausage with mustard (thank you, Harvard Square T guy)

just plain asparagus, lightly cooked, to eat with your fingers as a separate course (thank you, Margaret)

medium-grain rice flavored with garlic, butter … and what else? (thank you, Muqueca)

milk-braised chicken with cardamom and cinnamon and other yummy spices (thank you, Jamie, thank you, Margaret) — gotta compare this one with the similar chicken in Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking — what would happen if you braised a chicken in cream (less likely to separate)?

nearly raw broccoli raab (a.k.a. rapini) shredded very fine and served with red pepper flakes and grating cheese (thank you, Mario)

polenta cooked just a little looser than I usually cook it, delicious (thank you, Margaret)

try putting the stand mixer up a little higher to improve hand-eye coordination in adding ingredients (thank you, Margaret, thank you, J)

vinegar and slightly hot (Anaheim?) peppers in the vinegar version of that Chinese potato and pepper dish I’ve been working on for years now (thank you, Wang’s)

a whisper of fishy flavor underlying lightly cooked fennel in my continuing struggle to make cooked fennel taste fennelly (thanks again, Mario)

Ideas are everywhere.

[We’re staying at the apartment of a friend of a friend, and I’m in love with the place.  Every surface is arranged as a beautiful little tchotchke landscape (see the toilet top, above), the furniture is funky-chic and comfortable, the main room is gracious and airy.  Only one minus: The owner does not cook.  At all.  So no possibility of whipping something up in the kitchen.]


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Last Night in China


Here I am in China with my dear friend Tess, the non-cook, sufficiently un-jet-lagged to start cooking. She had read about our cookbook of the month for January, Ina Garten’s Back to Basics, and she thought it sounded so appealing that she asked me to bring her a copy. Yea, Tess! You can do this!

The first recipe we decided to work on was Ina’s Dinner Spanakopitas (pp. 149-151), triangles of phyllo dough encasing a glorious mixture of spinach, onion and spice flavorings, and feta cheese.

Our first task was to find all the ingredients, always fun in a new environment. Tess had a package of phyllo and a package of frozen spinach already on hand, but we needed to find feta. As China becomes more and more open, expat shops have more and more foods and ingredients on hand, but of course the expats are not all Americans, and the Americans are not all cooks. We walked to the closest shop and scored big right off the bat, one of those pretty little jars with spiced feta cubes in olive oil.

But then — it’s always interesting shopping for food in a foreign country — we couldn’t find scallions. Tess says she’s never seen any scallions here, neither in expat nor in Chinese shops. We both think of scallions as an echte Chinese vegetable. Scallions and bean sprouts and soy sauce — those three ingredients defined Chinese cooking for us in our Midwestern girlhoods. No scallions? How can this be? We did find an elongated member of the onion family, but it was tough and sinewy, not light and fresh like scallions at home. No harm done. For the recipe we were supposed to chop it up, so the texture didn’t matter, and the taste was fine.

Back home in Tess’s apartment, we didn’t do what we should have done, written out the amounts for the filling with half quantities. Instead we worked directly from the cookbook, remembering to divide each by half. We didn’t forget to halve anything, but why make extra mental work for yourself? I like to list the ingredients first, then the amounts:

olive oil, 2 Tablespoons

chopped yellow onion, 1/2 cup

chopped scallions, 2


A moment’s effort in writing down the new amounts — it’s a stitch in time.

Google translated the oven temperature from F to C (Tess hadn’t known that Google will do that).

Ina’s description of how to fold up the triangles around the filling was hard to understand in the abstract. Luckily Tess and I were both Girl Scouts in our youth, so when we had the dough open before us we could see exactly what she meant by telling us to “roll the phyllo up diagonally as in folding a flag”:


Sadly, the phyllo had suffered from some rough treatment (probably freezing and thawing and refreezing), so we weren’t able to make the neat little packages we wanted, but with a new package of phyllo we should be golden. We also felt that we should chop the spinach small next time; the whole spinach leaves were too heavy, and another egg in the filling might have helped lighten it too. But our best discovery was dipping the spanakopitas in tamarind sauce we had left over from an Indian meal; my guess is that it was made from tamarinds and five-spice powder. An American interpretation of a Greek dish made with Iberian spinach and dipped in sauce from the Subcontinent, all in China.

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Last week Mark and I met up in Puerto Rico with Margaret and J and our grandson, Darwin, who’s two years old and the apple of all eyes.  The warmth and the sunshine and the beach and the swimming pool were all wonderful, but for me the highlight of the condo we rented was the kitchen.

Most rentals have kitchens stocked with hilarious weirdnesses — a cocktail shaker missing its strainer, a frying pan caked thick with burnt goo, several turkey-size aluminum pans, a grapefruit knife, a lone third-cup measure, three chopsticks, an oversize pancake turner.

Imagine my surprise and delight at finding a pretty well stocked and conveniently laid out kitchen.  I had brought Yvonne Ortiz’s A Taste of Puerto Rico (Plume, 1997) with me to help identify curiosities in markets and grocery stores, which I always want to visit even when I have no chance of capitalizing on my discoveries, but having surveyed the kitchen I was determined to go further and cook some of our Puerto Rican meals myself.

pastelón de amarillos

My first dish was a pastelón de amarillos, which you could think of as a kind of lasagna clone with sliced roasted ripe plantains instead of sheets of pasta.

Grease the baking pan, lay down a layer of roasted ripe plantain slices, lay down a layer of cooked flavored meat, plantains, meat, plantains, sauce.  The meat was a mixture of chopped ham and ground beef flavored with tomatoes, olives, raisins, oregano, and pepper (no salt needed because Puerto Rican ham is ten times as salty as mainland ham) plus recaíto sauce.

Recaíto sauce consists of yellow onion, frying pepper, garlic, chiles, cilantro, and recao.

Recao!  I have been reading about recao and culantro, its other name, for years, but this was my first chance to cook with it.  It’s a spiky green leaf with a flavor much like cilantro’s, but with two important differences.

(a) It stores better than cilantro; you can leave it out on your kitchen counter — no water, no wrapping — and it will stay fresh for 2-3 days.

But (b) is even better.  Some people don’t just dislike cilantro, they can’t stand it; google “cilantro sensitivity” to find much muttering about whether disgust at cilantro is genetic.  Poor J is among the people who gag at the taste of cilantro.

We found, to our satisfaction and delight, that although recao tastes much like cilantro to Mark and Margaret and me, it doesn’t taste like cilantro to J — no gag reflex.  Hurrah!  Now all we have to do is find some recao seeds.


Flushed with victory, I returned to the grocery store to get ingredients for a big vegetable soup called sancocho.  Meatiness came from beef, more of that Puerto Rican ham, and chicken broth.  The vegetables were winter squash, taro, a mild, white-fleshed sweet potato, cassava, green plantains, something called apio that looked like a prickly chayote squash, and fresh corn cut across the cob into corn wheels.  Recaíto again for flavoring.  The resulting soup was mildly flavored with a rich, melting mouthfeel, quite delicious.  Everybody liked the corn wheels, but Darwin liked the corn wheels the most of everybody.

gandule & orzo salad

I love dried gandules — pigeon peas, the favorite bean of several Caribbean countries — but had never been able to buy fresh ones before this trip.  Much to my surprise, they take almost as long as the dried ones to cook, and I think I prefer the dried ones for taste, but any bean is a good bean for me, and Darwin agrees.  He and I relished this salad of gandules, orzo pasta, yellow bell pepper, and slivers of salad onion dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, black pepper, and recao.  Nobody else liked it as much as we did, so we just kept it for ourselves.  Sometimes Darwin shared his yellow peppers with me.

bacon & eggs w/sofrito

Fry some bacon.  When it has given out most of its fat, stir in Puerto Rican sofrito, a red sauce based on recaíto sauce.  Break one or two eggs per person into the nice mushy bacon and sofrito.  Put the lid on the pan and cook until the eggyolks are lightly veiled.  Serve with some nice bread or rolls.


Learned from a batida lady in the market: equal volumes of fruit and crushed ice, evaporated (not condensed) milk, coconut syrup, sugar if needed (a batida should be quite sweet), special flavoring.  Our first batida, a copy of hers, used strawberry as the fruit and cinnamon as the special flavoring — not a lot of cinnamon, just a tiny background note.  We then moved on to mango, also flavored with cinnamon, but we were there for only a week, so we didn’t feel we could stock up on special flavorings.  Come summer, I plan to make one from Yvonne Ortiz that uses papaya as the fruit and coffee as the special flavoring.  I feel as Margaret does, that I’ve never really gotten the point of papaya — maybe a papaya batida will enlighten me.

shopping notes

Goya makes recaíto sauce and sofrito sauce, and their headquarters is in Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rican grocery stores have frozen plantains in all possible states — green, yellow, baked, mashed, cut crossways, cut longways; they do not, however, carry fresh plantains — you have to go to the market for those.  Puerto Rican grocery stores have all the vegetables for sancocho already prepped, but then you don’t have the fun of peeling and cutting them yourself.

MB:  And may I just say that the sancocho was BY FAR the best food we ate on our entire vacation.  It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, and I can’t wait to make it now that we’re home!

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Last Week for M-C part 2


The second half of last week was a quick trip from New York up to Boston to celebrate my grandson’s 2nd birthday.  Again, many, many good meals.  The first night Margaret served us her amazing chili (I hope this first-night chili is becoming a tradition).  Last time I would have thought it couldn’t get any better, but this time she had added a touch of molasses, a touch of cider vinegar, and a hint of dried oregano.  Yup, better still.  For birthday cakes she made two carrot cakes, each ever so slightly different from the other, both of them using butter instead of oil.  I’ll not go back to making oil carrot cakes any time soon.

MB:  I’m huge into making comfort food (which you can tell by looking at anything that I cook or anything that I write about cooking).  I can’t imagine anything being more comforting and warming and delicious than chili after a night of traveling.  It used to be split-pea soup, but now it’s chili.  So no worries, I’m sure you’ll have it again.

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Last Week for M-C part 1


The first half of last week was a quick trip to New York, three days, four plays.  I made a pilgrimage to Kalustyan’s and another to Broadway Panhandler.  Many, many good meals.  The dish I came back wanting to make was wasabi shrimp: shrimp in a heavy wasabi-flavored breading served with coleslaw and cut lettuce.  Odd, piquant, and simple.

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