Friday, December 24, 2010

The spice of life; hold the spice

A survey done by revealed that U.S. travelers are not that adventurous when it comes to eating local cuisine while they're traveling.

The survey found that almost two-thirds of travelers make it a point to try the local cuisine when traveling. Only six percent surveyed said they would not stray off the beaten path, and would only eat cuisine that they were familiar with. Of those polled, 13 percent were not even willing to try any local cuisine at all. Twenty-nine percent had chosen a destination because of its cuisine, and 18 percent prefer to eat at an American fast food chain instead of a local restaurant.

So almost two-thirds of travelers try local cuisine, but then you have to deduct those who chose the destination specifically for its cuisine. That's why they're there. That leaves about only about a third of travelers who think it's a good idea to eat locally.

American fast food? Cuisine that you're familiar with, like marinara sauce? Food is one of the few real pleasures that you get in travel that doesn't need to be translated for you. If you're avoiding surprises, then you're kind of missing the point of leaving your neighborhood.

Trying to eat familiar dishes while you're away is a triple problem. The first is that you're missing out on the cultural experience of travel. The second is that a burger made in another country isn't anything like the burger you're getting at home. The bread is different. The meat is different. The other ingredients (like bread crumbs or who knows what else) are different. Even the fast food places have different menus than they do in America (McCroque, anyone?) And the third problem is that what you think is Chinese food isn't what they serve in Greece or Croatia as Chinese food. And, by the way, neither of them is anything like the food that people actually eat in China. If you want to try Chinese food overseas, go to Beijing.

I admit that I'm more adventurous in, say, France, like the above shellfish starter that included something called bigomeaux (translated to "winkle" or "periwinkle") than I'd be in, say, Syria (where I once had a terrible burger and a fabulous milkshake). But eating real Turkish ice cream (the one I tried was flavored with some kind of tree sap), which has an odd malted flavor, helps you understand your childhood Turkish Taffy candy. After all, one of the joys of travel is that you come back with a better understanding of yourself.

So put down that pizza and try the dish that everyone is eating around you. Even if it's tripe.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Mess 'a Mezzes

I had occasion to be in Lebanon about a month ago, and hoped to gorge myself on eastern Med cuisine, which is delivered in fine form in Beirut. Alas, I was sick for the entire duration of my visit, and my meals were infrequent and small.

At least, I was able to enjoy one of the best elements of Lebanese cuisine, the mezze plate. This is an assortment of small bites, and the hot version boasts an array of veggies, cheeses or minced meats.

The triangular turnover is fatayer, a spinach pie, and the curved bundle is sambousek. The little cigars have the odd name of rkak, and the croquette at center is kibbeh, which is traditionally in this torpedo shape and fried to a delectable brownness.

There are restaurants in town that specialize in mezzes, and there's no doubt that even a healthy appetite can make a great meal out of these treats.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Always a good time for a scone

Britain has just become the fattest country in Europe. I don't have any scientific data to support this connection, but it's an understandable consequence of the fabulous scone.

Here is the "fruit" version, meaning that there are raisins inside, as opposed to the plain version at left. The right time for a scone is apparently any time that you are not eating a meal: after breakfast or instead of breakfast, in the afternoon, or at "tea", which can be timed to occur any time that you're not sleeping.

These delicious breads would probably be fine on their own, but nobody eats them this way. Instead, they're slathered with clotted cream (which tastes much better than it sounds) and jam. The more health-conscious of its fans eschew the cream and opt for butter instead.

Accompanied by any permutation of fat and sugar, the scone is best accompanied by a nice pot of tea.

Monday, August 30, 2010

For us or a Guinness

It just doesn't seem right to leave Ireland without a nod to the national brew, Guinness. This ruby-colored beverage has been around since the mid-18th century, and is the best-selling alcoholic drink in Ireland, where alcoholic drinks aren't an unusual sight.

For the record, in this region, Guinness (or any beer) is always served in a glass etched with the name of the brew. This probably means that bars must devote half of their indoor space to storing glasses from each one of their suppliers.

Guinness is known for the foamy, indestructible head that inspires drinkers to liken it to a milk shake. This sounds very romantic until you discover that it's the presence of nitrogen (yum) that gives the head its tiny bubbles. Furthermore, part of the process involves the introduction of isinglass taken from fish bladders (double yum), which might or might not be present in the final beverage. This prompts objections from vegetarians, who no doubt would otherwise rally 'round this "meal in a glass."

In its favor, Guinness contains antioxidents and provides the same heart benefits as a low-dose aspirin. But that's not the reason to drink it. It's just a party in a glass.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thanks, Manx

The Isle of Man is a hub of kipper production, producing thousands in the village of Peel. The Manx word for the dish is skeddan jiarg, which translates to "red herring" (of course, that's irrelevant, isn't it?) Kippers are generally eaten in the morning, or at tea, though you could make a meal out of them, and I did, as shown below.

They're served with bread, and when they make up a whole meal, potatoes are often served alongside, to make a dish called "spuds and herrin."

The kippering process isn't complicated; they're soaked in a brine for a while, and then they're hung on racks over a smoking pile of wood chips. They're grilled before you eat them. And the oil oozing out of them is part of the fun.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Slow food fast in Belfast

Here's a great idea for cities that want to promote their restaurants. Belfast held its second Taste and Music Fest, a smorgasbord of food and sounds. Here's how it worked. The festival went on for five days in a city park, just a large field, really, with a soundstage set up at one end and plastic tables and chairs covering the grass. Along one side were more than a dozen booths from local restaurants.

You pay to get in, and then you buy bags of tokens, which you can exchange for food. Each dish cost a handful of tokens, in the £3-4 range, or hovering just under $5. The restaurants and caterers at the booths provided a small menu, maybe one starter, one main, and one sweet (notice that we are separated by a common language again). This gave the restaurants the opportunity to innovate with dishes like:

  • Salt 'n' chilli squid with spicy mayo and napa sauce from the Mourne Seafood Bar
  • Kettyle Irish beef and Guinness from Deli on the Green
  • Roast belly of pork, smoked apple, watercress and shallot salad from James Street South
  • Kangaroo burger with a grain mustard mayo and dressed salad leaves from Australian restaurant Uluru
  • Pavlova with summer berries, raspberry coulis and vanilla cream from Mango Catering and Events

The bands that played all afternoon were similarly diverse: jazz, rock, and swing, and a tent alongside was converted into a kitchen, complete with overhead mirrors, for chefs from Belfast's finest eateries to demonstrate what they do best. I watched a demonstration by Dean Coppard of Uluru, which culminated in tastes of both dishes -- kangaroo (which tastes like venison to me), and crocodile (tasted like chicken, of course, albeit a surly one.)

Chef Coppard gave advice to us that works well for travel. He said, "Don't be put off by fine restaurants. Sometimes they aren't that much more money than the place you normally go. Look for specials and fixed menus, and you can have a great meal for not much more than you'd pay for an ordinary one."

A bounty of wee drams

I don't drink much. Because of that, it isn't hard to get me tipsy. And I don't know all that much about booze, or wine, or beer.

But I'm sure that for many foodies, it's important to explore not only the cuisine, but the accompanying beverages that the culture has on offer. For one thing, we're sometimes on vacation when we travel, and drinking adds to the festivities. When we're traveling on business, drinking adds a celebration to a normally onerous workweek.

A person can't really visit Scotland's Highlands without noticing the many small distilleries of single-malt Scotch. Though spirits are no doubt less popular now than decades ago, these whiskies still hold an exalted stature with most of us, even me.

In some ways, the small, local distilleries are like the micro-breweries that multiply as fast as yeast. But note that these distilleries are often the only business in tiny towns against a backdrop of sheep-dotted moors, in wet, chilly summers and colder, darker winters. So I wonder if it's less like fashionable micro-brew and more like moonshine, a tough-life survival strategy.

If you were so inclined, you could design a whole vacation around touring various distilleries, and many people do. Some of the tours charge about what you'd pay for the dram they give you at the end of the tour. Some tours are free, as they're sure to sell some souvenirs -- a bottle or two of the premium aged stuff, or drunken truffles or cake, or a tee shirt or keychain.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I didn't know squat

One of the adventures available to the self-catering traveler is to buy seafood right from the fisherman. We were in Jura, and happened upon a fishing boat as he was unloading his catch. I'd thought that he'd caught langoustines, but he told me that they were actually a crustacean called squat lobsters.

The fisherman was yanking them in half, tossing the recognizable head and claws back into the sea, and keeping the rolled-up tails in a large bucket. Like all things British (think "tatties and neeps"), they're often called squatties by the locals, although I generally don't like to get too friendly with my food.

We tossed the tails in a pot of boiling water (much more fun than listening to live lobsters click and scream), and waited for the water to boil again. Peeling and deveining them was an easy operation, because you can tug on the tail gently and the vein comes out as well.

Squat lobsters are often passed off as langoustines, but they're actually more closely related to hermit crabs.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rushing through a cuisine? Opt for a two-fer

It's always fun to see a regional dish interpreted by a local chef. So I enjoyed seeing "bubble and squeak" (a stew traditionally made of Sunday roast leftovers) in Shetland, made with lamb instead of beef, and fish and chips made with haggis instead of haddock.

International foods are widely interpreted into Scottish Gaelic as well. In Oban, we visited an Italian restaurant with an all-seafood menu, and more fish in the kitchen than live in the entire Adriatic Sea. And my starter (don't call it an appetizer) at a waterfront bistro nearby was Indian pakora, made with haggis.

Truth to tell, pakora is mostly spices and fried batter, so the haggis taste was relegated to the background. But all of this chef experimentation makes for lots of variety on menus. Though I've been in this same area for about five or six weeks, the cuisine continues to surprise and enchant me.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Scalloped scallops

When you travel, you're often surprised by the look of familiar food. In western Scotland, you often find diver scallops on the menu. They're tender and sometimes surprisingly large. But the most striking attribute for me is the "wee orange bit" (as described by my server), which as near as I can tell, is the muscle that connects the animal to its shell.

At home, that muscle is a tough membrane that we remove before cooking them. On these Scottish scallops, it's a delicate balloon that folds up in your mouth. Of course, it's one of those foods that makes you figure that the first guy to take a bite when he discovered it must have been pretty hungry.

In defense of pub grub

The pub is to the UK what the diner is in America, a place for home-cooked food without pretension. But the UK pub scene is undergoing a bit of a transformation with the emergence of what they call "gastropubs." Now no pub appears to be so presumptuous as yet to call itself a gastropub, but we've already visited lots of places that go well beyond shepherd's pie and bangers and mash. There are often salads, even.

Here's an example, from Tobermory on the island of Mull. Because so much of Scotland is on the sea, fish and shellfish are often prominent in the local cuisine. This salad cost in the range of a lunch salad in the US, and it's just covered with crabmeat. In the center is a puddle of prawn (shrimp) salad, and guarding the whole dish are a pair of stern-looking langoustines. Pub grub, indeed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Delighted in Inverness

It's still too soon to draw conclusions about the whole of mainland Scotland, or for that matter, the whole of Inverness. But so far, lunch has been an absolute pleasure.

Many places in town offer a 2-course lunch most days, and the sweet spot for price is from £5.95 (about $9.00) to £10 ($15 for two courses.) When we travel, it's common for us to have a big lunch: we're already out, it's often half the price of dinner, and you never get starved for dinner, so you can be a little healthier about it. These two-course lunches let the restaurant show off great dishes using local ingredients, and they allow me to taste twice as much of the local cuisine than I might have otherwise. The photo is of my first course at Cafe1 (on the high side at £9.50), billed as "chicken, leek and mushroom terrine, wrapped in Parma ham with a saffron dressing." Our first lunch, at the Mustard Seed for £5.95, was equally satisfying.

I could get used to this.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Word about Haggis

It's Scotland, so haggis is on the list of experiences to have. For some time, I erroneously believed that haggis was just for tourists, but that is entirely untrue. Haggis is as common to cuisine in these parts as sausage is anywhere else.

I've tried it twice now, and I think that both times it was in its very usual appearance. The first was in a "mixed grill" in Orkney, with egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, and tomato. The haggis there was offered in a slice next to the slice of black pudding.

This was also my first taste of black pudding, also called blood pudding, which is equally an equally accurate description of its appearance and content. The haggis had a similar taste to Philadelphia's scrapple, except it was somehow drier, probably due to its grainy consistency. It's made from similar ingredients and simmered for hours in a sheep's stomach (yum!), and it contains oatmeal (which explains its graininess.)

Today I tried haggis again, this time in one of its more native surroundings. It was served in a pile on a plate, and accompanied by a mixture of potato and turnip called "clapshot." Clapshot is an Orkney dish, so it originated not very far from this northern mainland town Wick.

Though I'm presumably in a place where English is the native language, mashed potatoes are never called "mashed potatoes"; they're almost always called "tatties." Turnips are never called "turnips", even though everybody knows that's what they're called to everyone but them. In polite company, such as the supermarket, they're called "Swedes". On menus, they're "neeps". So you'll often see a dish served with "tatties and neeps", which sounds like it's on the menu at Hooters.

Here's the luncheonette version of haggis with a mountain of clapshot and a sprinkling of peas. I couldn't finish it because of its huge size. But I'd order it again. Just not tomorrow.

And for more on the luncheonette that served this, one of the lunches available was macaroni and cheese. Alongside it you have your choice: baked potato or chips (fries). At least my peas are green.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Too many choices; what to eat first. Not complaining in the Shetlands.

We've just arrived in the Shetland Islands well in the north of Scotland. It's our first stop in the UK, our first stop in Scotland, but Shetland cuisine has its own identity, so it made sense to stay as local as possible. Guidebooks helped me know what to look for when scouting out restaurants.

The posted menu at Monty's Bistro in Lerwick made us hungry mid-morning, and we rushed inside as soon as it opened officially at noon. It resides in a 130-year-old building nestled behind the main intersection of town, with a bar on the first floor and a restaurant on the second. The room sports the original stone walls and wooden floor, with friendly servers and fetching blackboard specials.

This lunch plate at Monty's Bistro sells for £7.50 and is billed as "Grilled undyed smoked haddock fishcake." It's served with an herb-dressed green grape and cucumber salad, and drizzled with a sweet mustard sauce. Smoked haddock on its own is a typical Shetlands dish, and the cake's body was subsidized by gobs of mashed potato, which provided a pleasant dilution to the smoky and oily attributes of the haddock.

Apparently undyed fish is a local point of pride; I've seen it lauded in several brochures for the Shetlands. I never realized before that smoked fish was dyed; I was never even sure that it was dead.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Truthiness: Challenge your consumption assumptions

Brilliant social observer Stephen Colbert coined the term "Truthiness" to describe concepts that have the ring of validity without the substance. I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm not in Kansas anymore (actually, I've never been in Kansas) and my general guidelines about finding food don't necessarily apply overseas.

Here's one example. I'm in Norway, which is a very expensive place to eat. Today, a Sunday, we selected the local Chinese restaurant for lunch. On the one hand, this is very wise, because many establishments are closed on Sundays, and immigrant-owned restaurants are often open whenever they might draw a customer. On the other hand, though, I've had to revise my expectation that ethnic food is comparatively inexpensive, as it is in the US. In America, you can get a giant plate of Mexican, Indian, or Chinese food for a relatively low price. It's been my experience in Europe that ethnic food is priced about the same as a similar local plate.

Here's my Sunday "special chop suey" plate, at $22.50. (Note, too, that the name of the restaurant is written in Chinese and English, but not Norwegian. The menu was in Norwegian and English.) This price is about what I'd pay in Norway for a pan-fried filet of fish with some boiled potatoes. During the week, the special lunch for $14.50 at this Chinese eatery includes a dish like this and a cup of soup. Similarly, the "dagens" daily plate here in town would cost somewhere in the same neighborhood. This is what I've found all over Europe, that ethnic food is an alternative to the local cuisine, but not a particularly cheap one.

So we eat at ethnic places overseas for the experience, and not for the price.

Apparently, my belief that ethnic food is cheap has "toothiness", rather than teeth.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Off to a rocky start

When you're on a short vacation, you're most likely in a hotel, or staying with friends, and the one chore you don't have to do is cook for yourself. We're staying overseas for about five months, starting in Sweden, living in our own quarters, and eating every meal out isn't an option. Even I could get sick of travel food if I had to eat every meal out for that long a time.

Cooking in my own kitchen while I'm away from home isn't a challenge, but sometimes grocery shopping can be. All of the slight or sharp differences in cuisines are reflected clearly in the supermarket. Meat is cut differently, so your cooking instincts might not work. Some foods are emphasized; others are hard to find. I spent weeks looking for mustard in Italy once. Maybe Italians just don't use it. For this reason, it's often fun to wander through a foreign supermarket, just to see what's important to people in the kitchen, even if I have no intention of cooking anything.

I'm in Sweden, a place that's very familiar to me, a place with large supermarkets, a place with people who speak perfect English even if all the signage is understandable only to the chef on Sesame Street. Normally this isn't a problem for me. Today it was.

We had our first big trip to fill the refrigerator and to set me up to make some recipes in advance of needing to eat them. My first official act when I arrive in a kitchen is to make scones. Today I decided to make four batches, 32 of them. We'll have lots of visitors this season and scones are what my guests wake up to.

I was out of salt. Table salt was out of the question; I use kosher salt exclusively for cooking. I have no idea what Swedes would call kosher salt, though I'm sure I've bought it in the past. The market had two sorts of salt, as far as I could tell, fine table salt and salt with grains larger than kosher salt but well smaller than the salt you'd grind in a grinder. Normally, I'd stop someone in the aisle and ask about it. In Sweden, if they can't answer my question, it's because they don't cook. It's never because they don't speak English. But I didn't bother doing the research. I bought the larger-grained salt.

Scones are baked goods, and they need a little salt to work. I was sure that either the food processor would break up the salt, or the 400-degree oven would melt the grains, just as it would with kosher salt. I was wrong. My husband tasted a scone (his official role in sconemaking) and said, unaware of my ingredient swap, "Gee, there's a large piece of salt in this one." Indeed, he later told me that the whole scone had a sort of salty bite to it. Thirty-two scones, none of which passes the quality control test. My husband promised to eat one every day until they are gone (the way you might eat a Hershey's kiss even if it included a little taste of salt.) I'll hold off on cooking anything else until I fix the salt situation.

Taking travel with a grain of salt isn't as fun as it sounds.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The travel season begins

Here's a conundrum. Eating is one of the most-anticipated joys of travel for me (yes, I suppose you might say I look forward to it with relish.) So why is it that the best vacations begin with long journeys that afford the most unsatisfying eating?

On long flights, I worry that there won't be enough to eat, so I stash some snacks in the carryon bag. We worry that the first meal won't happen soon enough, so we eat something unsatisfying yet fattening in the airport (we'd arrived with an hour to spare, of course.) On each leg of travel, we both eat everything the airline provides: the spongy roll, the banquet meal, overcooked and underheated, the dessert that we'd pass up if it were available under any other circumstance. We're stuffed, yet unfulfilled.

An hour later, we're bored and a little peckish. We eat some of the stashed chocolate. Later, we eat more of it. Now we're guilt-ridden, and not in the good brimming-with-cheesecake way. The time changes as we arrive in Europe. The airline feeds me breakfast at my body's midnight. We eat a second, equally unhealthy and empty-calorie-laden breakfast on the connecting flight to our destination. Had there been an airport layover, we'd no doubt have stopped for coffee and who knows what else, for a total of three breakfasts. So two breakfasts isn't even a record. We arrive in Gothenburg, Sweden just in time for lunch.

From now until October, I'll be reporting on food and travel experiences from Sweden, to Norway, to the United Kingdom. It'll be up from here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Marching Orders: Really Simple Reconnaissance

Let's say that you're planning a trip somewhere., You buy your guidebooks and read the two pages that describe the eating culture at your destination. You leaf through the restaurant recommendations. Sometimes there's a list of annual festivals, and one of them might happen at the place you are during the time you're there.

But nobody knows what's going on better than the local newspaper, and you can often subscribe to an RSS feed for the foodie news. I discovered an event in Fort Lauderdale (admittedly, the place that I actually live) by watching the feed for the Sun-Sentinel, my local paper. The event popped up in my BlackBerry when I was leaving town, but I signed up and downloaded my tickets using borrowed wi-fi in FLL airport. By the time I reached my destination, the event was sold out.

Sponsored by local downtown restaurant Himmarshee Bar & Grille and the newspaper, drinks were two-for-one and free hors d'oeuvres paraded out like we'd crashed a great wedding. Executive chef Chris Miracolo sent out Island Spiced Shrimp & Yucca Bobos (the staff kept saying "Want some more bobos?" just because it was so much fun), Wild Mushroom Risotto Cakes, Petite Lump Crab Cakes, Bloody Mary Braised Short Rib Tostadas, and Duck and Sweet Potato Empanadas.

These foods were pass-around, but somehow they managed to get a condiment or sauce on every one of them. The "bobos" (like a hush puppy, really) were served with "drunken" mango relish, the risotto cakes with cambozola fondue, the crab cakes with pickled habanera tartar and quite a kick, the tostada with lemon-scented micro salad and horseradish aioli (all that on a tortilla chip!) and the empanadas with port-apple compote. Some of these bites were presented on a fat stick. A bobo Tootsie-Roll pop. Quite the yummy interlude.
There were some door prizes, which somehow got away from us, but we met a terrific neighbor (and fellow foodie) that we hope to see again, and Sun-Sentinel writer John Tanasychuk wandered through the crowd and made us all feel like we'd met a celebrity.

So I'll be spending some time today finding the local newspapers and feeds for each of the places I'll be visiting soon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's still travel if you're in your home town

We're visiting family in the Philadelphia area. While I was touring the farmer's market in LA, I couldn't help but think about Reading Terminal Market in my home town. I hadn't done more than rush through for decades now. Today, on a foray to Center City (what downtown is called in Philadelphia), I slowed down to smell the pretzels.

This downtown marketplace is right in the train station at Reading Terminal. The Reading Railroad is long gone, the suburban train lines now managed entirely by SEPTA. The station itself has been renamed Market Street East, to be helpful, as it's located on the east side of Market Street. But it's Reading Terminal to most of us who grew up here. So I'm a touring foodie in my own birthplace.

On the site of the outdoor markets dating back to the days of William Penn, the original market opened in 1892. The trains could deliver the goods to merchants, and homeowners could have their orders placed on the passenger trains heading out of town for pickup near their homes.

The space is enormous, all things considered. Since the two downtown rail lines were connected some years ago, Reading Terminal Market has risen in prestige and attendance. A large area has been outfitted with tables and chairs, so that you don't have to eat your cheesesteak standing up. Two of the 80 vendors can trace their history back to a century ago. And the Pennsylvania Dutch are well-represented, something you don't see in markets in any other big city. Men in straw hats and women in sheer bonnets work the booths, selling Amish delights such as shoo-fly pie and homemade jams.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Farmers' Market and 3rd Street Tasting Tour

The Farmers Market and 3rd Street Tasting Tour takes you through the bustle of the old open-air market in LA. Mention this market to locals and they get sentimental. On our 3+ hour visit, we ate our way through the market while learning about Frank Sinatra's pizza parlor and the buried secret recipe for caviar cheese. We ate the equivalent of a large meal, albeit somewhat inside out, beginning with a donut and ending with sushi, with French macaroons and candy and grilled meat sandwiched in the middle.

There are dozens of vendors, though oddly few farmers anymore. One of these vendors sold homemade sausages in combinations like "duck, elk and wild boar", "alligator andouille", and "artichoke garlic". A spice shop offered an explosion of hot sauces, whose fiery names bordered on obscenities. I won't repeat them.

Here's one vendor explaining the origin of his sausage mix. Hint: it doesn't sell pork when you remind us that pigs are cute.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saturday Farmer's Market in Santa Monica

It isn't hard to find a farmer's market in Southern California, and we strolled through one on Saturday morning. This market focused on organic foods, which meant that they were sort of expensive, considering the lack of middlemen in the distribution process. Some of the stands were covered with mosquito netting, proof, it appeared, of no insecticides in the growing process.

Though we weren't in a cooking mood, or even an eating mood, it was a visual feast. Carrots in kaleidoscope colors, fruits brimming from baskets, and here you can see arugula in bloom. Edible flowers indeed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Marching Orders, continued: Eat as though you're far from home, even when you're not

What does a traveling foodie do for a restaurant when visiting a place that's just like home? Here I am in LA for the weekend. One solution to the quandary of new food experiences is to find an ethnic eatery that's at least new to you.

Victims of odd flight schedules and time changes, we were starving when we finally got away from the airport in a rental car. We stopped at a Persian restaurant in a strip mall. The decor was ordinary, but the service was attentive, as it probably is in Persia/Iran today (at least I've found this to be true in Turkey and Syria). A lunch plate the size of dinner was under $10.

Check out how Tajrish Persian Kabob House presented our $4 soup appetizer.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Marching Orders

This is the place for tips that make the travel eating experience what it should be. For example, the rule "if it grows together, it goes together" especially applies when you've changed latitudes. If you're in New England, eat a salad that contains apples and cranberries. When you're in the Mediterranean and all around you are hedges of rosemary, make sure that some of it lands on your plate.

This isn't just a way to eat while you're on the road. Eat the way the local people do, and you'll feel as though you're one of them.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Duval Uncorked

The Saturday evening event was Duval Uncorked. Duval Street is the main walking-shopping-gallery-club-restaurant street in Key West, and this event opened it all up. Dozens of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops welcomed Festival participants with small plates and endless wine.

Don't be spooked; the gentleman above is a mannequin in the Banana Republic shop, not a decapitated local. There were three starting points along the Duval Street route, and you could be drunk before you get a fraction of the way through. We began after sunset at Mallory Square.

Restaurants gave out tastes from their own menus, maybe a little dish of ceviche or pasta, chicken salad with chutney, empanadas, bruschetta or nachos, and a shot-sized serving of wine, or microbrewery beer, or appletini. At first, it was a lot like attending a wedding that was moving along an escalator. Later, it felt like we were in an adult trick-or-treating universe. I'd go up to the door and say "uncorked". They'd send me to the back as though I'd uttered the password in a speakeasy. Then they'd be disappointed unless I ate and drank too much.

You'd go into a fussy gallery and look at the label of the wine they'd specially picked. Then you'd amble across the street to a club and have a blue jello shot with two transvestites who'd make Cher look plain. We went from tasting everything, to giving up on drinking (there were cross-streets and traffic involved), to eating only every other opportunity, to sneaking a peek instead of a taste and ducking in for ice cream and the end of eating. Even the ice cream shop was giving out shot-sized portions of wine-flavored sorbet.

By eight o'clock, the food orgy was over. But this is Key West. I suppose that this was the time for everyone to go out to eat and then get really drunk. Sunday morning will be quiet, I'm sure.

Coconut Bowling at Blue Heaven

You might think that a coconut is round. You'd change your mind if you tried to bowl with one.

The restaurant Blue Heaven sponsored a coconut bowling contest all afternoon. The idea is to roll a coconut down a dirt lane, to knock over a bunch of fake pineapples. I don't know how many frames were involved, but the winning score at the contest I saw was 17, so obviously it isn't so easy.

The bowling coconuts were painted brightly, which didn't help them slide, although maybe it was a little easier to watch them not slide. You can see the standing pineapple pins that are the destination of this coconut on the left. The pins on the right have been knocked down by another skilled coconut bowler. Alongside the festivities, a man with a machete was cutting coconuts and grilling them up.

The Art of Food Photography

Today's seminar (at the Grand CafĂ© on Duval Street) taught us about photographing food. The idea is that the photo should make your mouth water, even if it means covering dried-out meat with syrup to make it glow again, and securing delectables in just the right spot with silly-putty. Just because you want to eat your work doesn't mean you should go ahead and do it.

Photographing food isn't all that different from any still life, so there's probably a lot to learn from any photography textbook. Similarly, placing the food on plates and surrounding it to make it look great would also help with any food presentation, when you're serving food and not taking pictures of it. Except for the syrup and the silly-putty.

Someone who takes photos of food for a living might spend hours tweaking the light around the objects. Chrome utensils in the shot are pesky, because they reflect everything, including the photographer. I was surprised to learn that the best way to photograph food is to have the primary light source behind it, so as to create shadows in the front of the scene.

This picture is a kind of Escher look (or Norman Rockwell?) at the seminar. It's a photo of someone taking a photo of food, and someone else (the festival photographer) taking a photo of the person taking photos of the food and participants in the seminar. Meanwhile, we're all taking photos of them.

I looked at the equipment being used by the festival photographer -- a huge zoom lens with a hood, a reflector, a diffuser, and more. Together it was like picking up a bowling ball. I particularly liked it when a participant asked a professional about how to set his pocket digital camera manually. The photographer's answer: "Don't ask me; I have no idea how to use those cameras."

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Secrets of a Champagne Brunch

This seminar took us through the preparation of a champagne brunch. Naturally, eggs benedict were a central part of the menu.

We realized right away that we shouldn't have eaten lunch. A buffet was set out for us on the deck at the Shor Restaurant at the Hyatt, including eggs benedict (with a lesson on preparation), crab benedict (with a  shorter lesson) and yellowtail snapper panini with aioli (with an eeny-beeny lesson.)

Mimosas and champagne flowed as well, and there was a dessert tray. The main lesson from the demonstration is that champagne is in all of the dishes, from the poaching water for the eggs to the Hollandaise, to the marinade for the shucked oysters.

The part of the cooking demo that you don't usually get was the ice carving, which took about half of the time alloted to the presentation. I was surprised to see that:
  • The person who does the carving that you'll see in a restaurant is quite often the chef or kitchen staff, not some ice carving specialist
  • They call the first part of the process, the part where you use a chainsaw, the "safety cuts". Ha.
  • It probably isn't as easy as it looks to carve a giant block of ice on a patio in 80-degree Key West sunshine.

A more sensible approach to conch

My better half made a wiser meal decision, still involving conch. His choice was a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, accompanied by conch chowder. The chowder was spicy and thick, though a gust of seaside wind blew the last several tablespoons overboard before he could finish. He filled the gap by sneaking a few bites of my conch nibbles.

At the Key West Food & Wine Festival

It's the first annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, and I arrived on the second day. I've already missed yesterday's events, but there's plenty to come.

There's a $100 pass that gives you access to many of the events and most of the seminars over the four-day period. We wanted to get here in time for a 1:00 seminar on Friday. First, we went to lunch, at Dante's.

Here's my operating philosophy about eating local food when traveling around. Unless you're living somewhere for a month, don't be on a diet. Key West is the Conch Republic. There aren't that many ways to prepare conch, and the one I picked is very decadent. It's called cracked conch (pronounced CONK, never con-ch), and I assume that the cracking has to do with breaking the shell. So I think of it as conked conch.

Conch is the perfect example of a food to let someone else prepare. I'm not too good at peeling away the skin and keeping the good part of the meat. By the time I get the animal from whole to peeled, it goes from the size of a banana to the size of a peanut.

Cracked conch reminds me that I could eat a rubber band if you battered it and then deep-fried it. In fact, it kind of tastes like a fried rubber band. Not fine cuisine. Fun cuisine.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few initial thoughts

Merging food and travel is a great pleasure, and I'd like to share some of my travel and eating philosophy.

There's a limit to how much I should eat (I'm not sure there's a limit to how much I could eat), so I focus on local specialties whenever I can. Unless there's a food emergency, I never, ever visit an American chain I already know in another country, or even another city I'm exploring in the US. I'm actually a big fan of chains, but I don't consider that "travel".

Lunch is a great way to leverage the experience and save some money in the process. In many places, the lunch menu and the dinner menu are the same, but lots of downtowns compete by offering lunch specials that are local, delicious, and really cheap, sometimes a fraction of their price a few hours later.

At any restaurant, I try to order food that takes a long time to make, or uses ingredients I don't use at home, or requires a lot of work that I wouldn't do in my own kitchen.

When I'm traveling abroad, I never order a meal that's billed as American (and that rule often means that I don't order burgers) because they're never what you hope they'll be. I also try not to ask the server to change anything to make the meal more familiar to me. They'll ruin it. It won't even be as good as the standard meal that they were planning to serve you.

There's more, but I'll get to it as it comes up.