Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I left my heart in San Francisco...or maybe Sonoma...


My friend, Lindsay, invited me to Sonoma where we stayed with her aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I knew that it would be an experience full of fun, excitement, beautiful scenery, learning, and great cuisine.
Deep into the nation's official "Wine Country", we explored multiple vineyards in Sonoma as well as Napa Valley. Here we are pictured at Gloria Ferrer overlooking the 95 acres of vineyards on the property. It was an incredible view of the countryside, and I already miss the smell that fresh air fragrant with the scents of olives and grapes!!
It was an education visiting the different wineries, as there are so many different fermenting processes, types of grapes, flavors, aromas, styles...etc. It was so very interesting! I have never been greatly interested in wine, but learning more about it and realizing the complexity of it all really gave me a high appreciation for the beverage.

"Taylor's Refresher" is a staple establishment in the Napa Valley area. There are only two locations of this quaint eatery. The ordering takes place at a walk-up counter off of a huge wall menu that includes burgers, salads, sandwiches, and milkshakes. I had the freshest California Cobb salad I have ever eaten along with deliciously crispy chili-sprinkled sweet potato fries.

Another picture at Gloria Ferrer. This is a sparkling wine vineyard. Technically, only sparkling wines from a certain district of France can be called "Champagne".
Here I am enjoying some herb focaccia bread, an apple, and fresh gruyere cheese from the famous Dean & Deluca market in Napa Valley.

Okay, okay, so I am usually not a fan of Mexican food. But when in California...on Cinco de Mayo...among a large Hispanic population...there is only one thing to do. (Or eat.)
I dined at MAYA with Lindsay and her family on May 5th, and it was a wonderful meal. The food was lighter and fresher than the usual Mexican fare in Tennessee and other parts of the country. It was not all smothered in white and brown goop, and there were a lot of vegetables involved!
I enjoyed a pulled chicken taco salad with fresh guacamole and pico de gallo.

A chic, upscale restaurant in the CLIFT HOTEL downtown San Francisco.
Also the location where I enjoyed one of the best meals I have ever had in my life!! Yes, most definitely one of the top three!!
Asia De Cuba is super trendy, and the ambiance definitely plays a role in the overall experience.
-Crispy tofu with asparagus, pear-mango sauce, mango-cucumber-jicima salad
-Cuban BBQ chicken, mango salsa, coconut sticky rice in banana leaf
-Plantain fried rice with avocado
The delicious flavors EXPLODE in your mouth, and the mixture of textures and tastes creates a culinary pleasure unlike any I have ever experienced. I am actually still craving that tofu...

Imagine: Waking up, getting on your bike, riding on country roads through vineyards and olive trees...the sun is shining and your hair is blowing in the crisp deadlines, no appointments...The perfect morning.
But then, to make it even better, you ride into Sonoma Square where there is an adorable European patisserie called "Basque Boulangerie".
This was reality for Lindsay and me during our stay in Sonoma. The homemade oatmeal, fresh fruit, and freshly baked country sourdough bread with butter was quite a start to our morning. We sat in the park of the square and enjoyed the rose gardens while enjoying our breakfast. Ahhhhhhh!!!

B.R. COHN was one of my favorite winery stops. This unique establishment is located in Sonoma Valley and showcases wines and olive oils. We participated in our first olive oil tasting here...pictured are some of the many olive oils and vinegars that B.R. COHN produces and offers for sale.
I tasted a balsamic vinegar that has been aged 25 years!! It was absolutely delicious - mellow and sweet. I could totally pour it over ice cream as a syrup!
I purchased a bottle of an olive oil (made from B.R. COHN olives) that was mixed with balsamic vinegar and infused with herbs. Perfect for bread dipping!

On the flight home, (which was a bit sad), I ate a delicious, juicy orange that I had packed for the trip. It was from Lindsay's aunt and uncle's orange trees behind their house! How nice would that be! My last little taste of California...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spice up your life...In THAILAND!!

Well, I just spent the past month frolicking about Thailand with a side trip to China!! It was an absolutely incredible trip...there are so many fun stories, cultural exposures, lasting memories, and new experiences that were gained on this trip. So much more than just the food made a lasting impression on my life. But attempting to explain all of this would require a novel. Therefore, I will simply write about some highlights from the cuisine of the "Land of Smiles".

This was my eighth time to visit Thailand. During every trip that I make, one of my favorite dishes there is a dessert, (imagine that!) However, it is not a typical sweet, totally unhealthy dessert. Warm sticky rice covered in coconut milk served with sweet, smooth mangoes. The combination results in a mellow, fresh, creamy treat! Above is a big bowl of sticky rice beside a pile of mangoes ready to be peeled and sliced. This was taken at a street market at night where you can find so many unique street foods.
I was in Thailand at the peak of mango season, so I ate this multiple times. Thai mangoes are of a completely different category than the mangoes we get in America from Mexico. There is no comparison to the soft, creamy, sweet flesh of a Thai mango!

This picture was also taken at a night "walking street" market. Take your pick of the various assortment of bugs!! I have tried these before on previous visits, and they are basically a crunchy, salty snack. However, my cousin told me it would be best not to eat them this time since they have had problems with people getting sick from pesticides the bugs have ingested.

DURIAN. This is a unique fruit for sure! Inside of that spiky outer shell, there are little morsels of a yellow, velvety fruit surrounding large seeds. What is so interesting about durian is its smell. The odor is so strong that this fruit is actually prohibited in many hotels and other public places!! There are signs up that have a picture of the durian with a red slash mark through it. (Like a "no smoking" sign.) The flavor is also extremely strong and remarkably unexplainable. Not bad...just not like anything else in this world.

These are the freshest prawns I have ever eaten! We actually picked them out while they were still swimming around before they were prepared on a wood-burning grill. Each of them was as big as a lobster, and the charred flavor of the delicate meat was delicious!
We enjoyed these at BUA restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dalat Tanin was the nearest fresh market that I frequented while in Chiang Mai. They sold everything edible...from frogs to fresh noodles, fruits to fermented pork, lotus seeds to pig feet, aromatic spices to fresh blocks of tofu, prepared rice dishes to black sticky rice... You can just imagine the sights and the SMELLS of the fresh market on a hot summer morning in Thailand!
These chickens were about as fresh as one could ask for.

This fish dish is a favorite of mine and my sister's. It is a deep fried Ruby fish served with a light sauce of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. My aunt, (who is a wonderful cook), prepared this for us on our last night in Chiang Mai. The two of us ate the entire fish!

It may seem like Dairy Queen is not a very cultural aspect of the cuisine of Thailand. And I actually have a rule of not eating "American" foods while in foreign countries. This way, I can have more opportunities to experience authentic dishes of the place I am visiting. I figure I am only there for a short period of time, so I should take full advantage of that.

However, when I saw "Green Tea Almond Blizzard" on the menu, I gave in. It was a delicious flavor combination that I sincerely think American DQ's should consider!
Another interesting detail is that my Blizzard is a "Large" size. The Thai "Large" is smaller than an American "Small". This illustrates our skewed portion sizes in the U.S.

My friend from high school, Spencer, now teaches English in Nagashima, Japan. When I found out about my trip to Asia, we planned a rendezvous in Thailand! He brought along his sweet girlfriend, Kyoko, who is from Tokyo. It was a wonderful four days with great friends!

Here we are in Pai, Thailand eating sticky rice. It comes to your table in the traditional bamboo containers so that it stays warm and sticky. And it MUST be eaten with your hands, of course!

"Pad See Eiuw" is one of my all-time favorite Thai dishes. It is composed of fresh, wide rice noodles...a green, leafy vegetable similar to collard greens...thick, sweet soy sauce ("see eiuw")...a meat (mine had shrimp)...egg...various vegetables...and lime juice has to be sprinkled on top along with white pepper in the Thai tradition.

At any fresh market, street corner, attraction in Thailand you can find fruits that are already cut up and packaged for your convenience. I love this about Thailand!!

L-R: Mango and Sticky Rice; green, sweet mango (a different type of mango than the yellow fruits); shumpoo (rose apple); and papaya

The package of spices, sugar, and salt with the green mango is a popular condiment to dip fresh fruit into. Thais love the mixture of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.

This traditional snack is very rare these days. We could only find them at one stall in Dalat Tanin fresh market. Next time I visit Thailand, who knows if they will still be available. I hate to see cultural aspects start slipping away like this as foreign countries become more "Western" and "Americanized".

This is basically a starch-cake made of glutinous rice flour. There is one filled with spinach...another comprised predominantly of spinach, garlic, and onions...and one with turnips and boiled peanuts. They are a quite tasty and uniquely sticky snack!

Mom and I enjoyed Sticky Rice and Mango ice cream sundaes at Swenson's.

Our family friend, Yoshie, just retired in Chiang Mai. She is a travel journalist from Tokyo, Japan. She prepared a lovely Japanese meal for us one afternoon. We had cucumber & fish salad, daikon radish & scallop salad, a rice dish with lotus & egg, boiled beef, and tea.

During our week in Beijing, China I witnessed some very interesting foods and eating habits! Here, I discovered scorpions squiggling around on skewers waiting to be grilled up for eating! They were in the same food stall as skewered seahorses, beetles, and starfish. Yum! :)

This was one of the most memorable, delicious things that I ate during my month in Asia! It was a dessert that is traditionally Chinese, although I had it in Bangkok.
Imagine a sticky, creamy ball made of taro and coconut milk. It was almost the consistency of a dense cheesecake. Then, the ball is rolled in toasted watermelon seeds! These are similar in taste to toasted pumpkin seeds. It is such a simple dessert yet complex in texture and flavor.

Also a dish on the "favorites" list. Curried crab. It is a whole, fresh crab stir-fried in a curry sauce with egg and green onion. Delicious and FUN to eat, too!

I ate so much of this fried rice!! The funny thing is that I despise fried rice in America. It is always hard, dark brown, and ridiculously salty. True Thai fried rice, on the other hand, is made with fresh "al dente" rice and is flavorful...not drenched in salt. The rice is fried up with scrambled egg, vegetables, soy sauce, and your meat of choice. Also, Thai fried rice MUST have three things: 1. Fresh lime juice squeezed on top...2. Cucumber slices on the side...3. A fried egg on top. It is curious, but it is THE MOST delicious combination of flavors! And, like they say, "When in Rome"...

"Pad Thai" has probably become the most recognizable and popular Thai dishes for Americans. It is made of stir-fried, thin, fresh rice noodles...chicken...shrimp...bean sprouts...scrambled onion...peanuts...
The sweeter flavor, crunchiness, and lack of hot spices probably make it more palatable for Western tastes.

I could not get enough of fresh, young coconuts! Served cold, you first crack the shell and drink the sweet coconut water from its natural container. Then, you can scoop out the delicate meat of the coconut and enjoy a snack. It is the neatest thing, and I probably had about 12 of these during my visit!

Julie and I with some of Thailand's bountiful fruits. Those tiny bananas are super adorable, and I love to eat the flesh off of the pit of the mango. When I was a toddler, my parents brought me to Thailand for the first time. One day, I was discovered hiding behind a refrigerator while eating off of a mango seed. I did not want anyone to take it away from me! Some things never change, I guess...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chocolate Gravy???

This post may come as a shock to some, an intrigue to others, or perhaps just seemingly unappetizing. The idea of chocolate gravy is a curious one that I would guess the majority of people in the world do not entertain. I must admit that I thought it was a crazy concept upon my first introduction. Then, I discovered that cocoa, flour, sugar, butter, and milk are the simple ingredients that comprise this decadent "breakfast" treat.
If you must see it to believe it, below is a picture from my latest experience of chocolate gravy and biscuits. Directions: tear your hot, homemade biscuit; place it into a shallow bowl; ladle enough warm, thick chocolate to drown the biscuit in rich sweetness; enjoy every mouthful of the buttery biscuit drenched in gooey cocoa. It may not be the "Breakfast of Champions", but it will certainly make your morning a happy one!

I always call this dish "Maw Maw's Chocolate and Biscuits" because of my best friend, Elizabeth. We have been great companions since freshman year of high school, and she is the first person who ever mentioned this southern breakfast food to me. Her grandmother, Maw Maw, is the beloved cook of the chocolate gravy. Every time I have eaten breakfast with Maw Maw, (which has been many times now), I have enjoyed her chocolate and biscuits. It is a decadent treat that I do not have the opportunity to eat often and that is always thoroughly enjoyed by all!
Maw Maw grew up on a farm in Tennessee on which her family grew their own wheat to make flour, ground corn for cornmeal, milked cows and churned butter, raised livestock, and worked their land in order to provide a means of living. Therefore, meals were hearty and heavy to provide energy for all the laborious work that had to be done. Breakfasts including chocolate gravy were a frequent occurence for her growing up. It seems so indulgent in a time when we have desk jobs and have to make time to "work out". Then, it was just a method of getting the calories necessary for daily activities on the farm.
This unique, delicious meal is so special to me mostly because Maw Maw and Elizabeth are so very special to my life! I have now shared the chocolate and biscuit experience with other wonderful friends and family throughout the years. This most recent breakfast was with Maw Maw, Elizabeth, and my sister as a farewell for my sister and me...we are traveling to Thailand next week for a month-long adventure! It was such an enjoyable morning that faded into afternoon much to quickly! I absolutely cherish the times I get to spend with people I love like these three women, so the fellowship just added to the sweetness!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Warmer weather calls for ice cream EVERYDAY!

I recently took a trip to Gainesville, Florida with my boyfriend, Jordan. We escaped the 40 degree Tennessee weather to enjoy basking in the 80 degrees of sunshine in our destination. It was glorious! The vacation also provided some MUCH needed relaxation, quality time with friends, laughter, outdoor activity, and great meals. And honestly, I really did eat ice cream everyday...

ATHENA'S Greek restaurant in St. Augustine, FL. This gorgeous town was colonized by the Spanish and is the "oldest city" in the United States! The cobblestone streets, Spanish architecture, and the original fort give St. Augustine a unique feeling of going back in time.

At Athena's, Jordan and I enjoyed a lemon-chicken soup that had an interesting tartness contrasting with a light creaminess. Also, there were hard rolls with olive oil & oregano, big Greek salads with kalamata olives & feta, stuffed grape leaves, and I ordered the spinach & feta filo pie. All very delicious!

Our waitress at Athena's was just as authentic as the cuisine. With her olive skin, striking blue eyes, and interesting accent, we could see that she was the real deal. I loved how she said oregano "ory-ganno". Were we really in Greece?...

I have decided that this is my all-time favorite smoothie bar...sorry, KEVA Juice. They make a particular smoothie that I believe was made with me in mind. It has mango, banana, blueberries, almonds, and soy...some of my FAVORITE things! Also, some of the healthiest foods for you.
I am contemplating starting a franchise in Hendersonville. It would be nice to be able to enjoy the "Health Nut" smoothie more often than when I visit Gainesville. Or perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I will just enjoy them more when I have the opportunity.

This is what I consider to be the quintessential Gainesville establishment. Envision sitting outside at a mosaic table with a big umrella shading you from the Florida sun. There are random pieces of artwork surrounding you in the gardens in which your table is set. These are not your typical pieces of art - huge 10-foot sculptures comprised of baby dolls, kitchen utensils, and other random items all held together by cement. The sign to Satchel's is a wooden structure with flowers made of cans and windmills all spinning in the breeze. There is also an old VW van with two small tables inside that serve as seating for guests!

Besides being creative, ecclectic, and interesting, Satchel's also happens to produce some of the best pizza in the world! Probably the best I have ever tasted, but I have not tasted all that many pizzas in retrospect. We had a spread of slices: ricotta cheese & spinach, brocolli & roasted red peppers & garlic & artichokes, pepperoni & garlic. Each slice starts at a low $3 and you can add whatever toppings you desire - from tempeh to meatballs and vegan cheese to anchovies. The crispy crust is chock full of oregano and garlic which adds to the overall flavor of your pizza pie!

Upon our return to Hendersonville, we were welcomed home by a shocking 40 degrees outside and a party at a friend's house. He called the event the "Bacon Explosion" in honor of the two rolls of meat he had prepared for the occasion. Basically, he took spicy Italian sausage, filled the sausage with cheese, and wrapped the logs up in braided bacon before baking them. They were crispy, meaty, bubbling rolls of "exploding" carnivore treats.
This really sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen, but in all honesty, they were tasty! And I am not even the carnivorous type usually opting for vegetables or fruits. However, when put on a hot biscuit, a thin slice of the "Bacon Explosion" is quite savory. Much of the grease had escaped during the long baking process, and the concoction was delightfully spicy. It is not something I would care to eat much of, or possibly not care to eat ever again. I am glad that I tried it and that it gave a bunch of us a reason to get together. Food = Fellowship it seems!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Celebration = Food????

The past few weeks have been overwhelmingly celebratory...and I have LOVED every minute of it! I guess it all started with a fun tradition of Baking Day with my two best friends. Every year at Christmas time, we set aside one day to spend together, talk, bake, and then personally deliver the goods to our families. We even have matching embroidered aprons. Yea...we're pretty intense.

This year, however, Christmas got to be a bit busy so we had our official Baking Day for Valentine's Day. We baked homemade sugar cookies with almond extract. We even hand sifted the dry ingredients! Then, we decorated them with lots of LOVE!

Little did I know, that my wonderful friends and family had a SURPRISE BIRTHDAY PARTY planned for me! I thought we were delivering Valentine's cookies to my friend, Elizabeth's parents' house, but when a walked into their house, there were about 30 people yelling "Surprise"! It was completely unexpected, and really one of the best gifts I have EVER received! I absolutely LOVE the people in my life!

The Mediterranean menu that my sister and friends prepared for my SURPRISE PARTY. Greek chicken, pitas, hummus, olives, vegetables, cheeses, feta/cranberry/nut salad, artichoke dip, etc. Also, there was a Chef's Market fresh strawberry cake!!

J. Alexander's is one of my favorites - the consistent quality and the wide variety offered on the menu without being too overwhelming.
This was a Birthday Lunch with my co-workers. J's famous mac 'n cheese, grilled zuccini, cauliflower/brocolli, and orzo & wild rice with berries and nuts.

Momma Sue comes through once again! Grilled asparagus sandwiches with Havarti cheese on Morrocan olive bread. I made the salad of baby spinach, strawberries, and homemade orange vinagrette.

Compliments of Whole Foods Grocery:
*Grilled Swordfish with capers and sundried tomatoes*
*Cous Cous with raisins & olives*
*Butternut squash risotto cakes*
*Broccoli rabe with fresh garlic*
*Pluots & blueberries*

Dinner to celebrate our TWO YEAR ANNIVERSARY
at MAD PLATTER in Germantown.
*I ordered roasted duck with gnocchi, butternut squash, chorizo, and honey reduction.*
*Jordan had grouper with P.E.I. mussels and andouille sausage.*
It was elegant, but really tasty. The flavors were perfectly complimented by one another - the sweetness of the honey with the creamy butternut squash and melt-in-your-mouth duck meat.

CELEBRATIONS continue...
BRIXX Wood-Fired Pizzas for Cori's 25th Birthday!
Thin Whole Wheat crust with peppers, onions, mushrooms, mozzerella, and broccoli.
There is no substitute for the flavor the wood burning oven gives these pizzas.

the perfect birthday cake for my friend, cori

Colorful SUNDAY BIRTHDAY LUNCH with the gang!
Jan's chicken fajitas
Grilled peppers and onions
Yellow rice
Homemade fresh guacamole

More than just the delicious things I have eaten throughout all of the celebrating, I love to look back on the memories made with the people I love. I am surrounded on a daily basis by amazing, talented, caring, hilarious, creative, sincere friends. (And that is just mentioning a few characteristics!) It is truly a blessing to have people in my life who care about me enough to take part in these events. These are the people who remind me each day of how lucky I am and how full of happiness my life is.

Also, we give each other an excuse to EAT! I love that the people around me generally appreciate meals together, like to try new foods, and understand the importance I place on what I eat. Thank you to all who helped make the past few weeks one big party!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Espana tiene mi corazon...

Tapas 101

Turkey "Cubans" - pulled turkey with roasted garlic & homemade pickles on grilled bread

"Pan con tomate" - bruschetta with mango, tomato, and basil

"Gambas a la Plancha" - grilled shrimp in a spicy red pepper sauce

"Gambas a la Plancha"...Chicken Samosas with Tamarind Sauce...Yuca Potato & Chorizo Croquetas (these potato & sausage fried balls were authentic!)

Plantain Fries with lemon aioli
Tapas, (n.): small plates of bites of food originating in Spain; usually accompanies any beverage purchase free of charge

During my semester of study abroad in Spain, I had the absolute pleasure of experiencing some of the most authentic, delicious national cuisine. It was a unique situation that not many people find themselves in. Since I was living in the country for four months I really had the time to delve into the true culinary world of Espana. Only by living in a country for an extended period of time can one get the slightest grasp on the culture, traditions, people, etc. Even then, there are mysteries yet to be uncovered. One more reason that the intrigue of travel continues to beckon...

Tapas bars were one of the pleasant surprises that I discovered. In Spain, bars are the normal venue for grabbing a quick lunch or afternoon tea, a meeting place for study groups or friends, or a watering hole for families with babies in tote. This is all to illustrate that a Spanish "bar" is nothing like an American bar. They are an integral part of Spain's culture as well as the social interaction among the natives. Bars are where one could grab coffee with a close friend, order a breakfast pastry and hot chocolate before class, or meet an executive for a job interview. It is also not atypical to see children running around the stools with an orange Fanta and baguette of bread. The Spanish bar is a social gathering place, a shelter in which the warmth of an espresso is offered from the biting winter cold, a safe haven that provides comfort, a lifesaver on a dehydrating hot summer day...The Spanish bar is one defining factor of SPAIN!!

So, this past Friday, I was excited to try a new tapas lounge in Nashville with some girlfriends of mine. This newest addition to Belmont Boulevard is called CHA CHAH. It took me back to my Spanish days...Granada, Sevilla, Segovia, Barcelona, Madrid... Some of the menu items were definitely fusion or adapted for American tastes, but there were a few that I felt were authentic...well, at least as authentic as I've had in the States. It was such a fun night, and of course, as you have seen, I have photos to share. Enjoy!