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Posts Tagged ‘Travels’

Maille Mustard

Michael and I were on vacation last week in Europe, visiting friends in Paris, France and Mons, Belgium.  There was lots of good eating that happened, most commonly involving pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants), delicious cheeses, Belgian waffles, and Belgian beer.

I wanted to share one highlight with you from our few days in Paris.  We found the Maille store off the Champs d’Elysee, which is a French brand of mustard you can find in your local grocery store here in the US.  This store sold the most amazing and diverse selection of mustard I have ever seen – in fact, more flavors of mustard that I would have imagined existed!  For example: Dried Apricot and Curry, Parmesan and Basil, Dried Tomato and Piment d’Espelette (a pepper spice similar to paprika from what I can tell), Pesto and Roquefort, Figue and Coriander, and Mango and Thai Spices.  We were totally overwhelmed and couldn’t pick just one, so we got a box of small samplers.  These should make for some yummy sandwiches in our future!

One other really cool thing about the store was that they sold empty crock jars which you could have filled with FRESH mustard from a tap right in the store!  AND you can bring your jar back for cheap refills.  If I lived in Paris (oh, if only!) I can tell you with absolute certainty that would be the only mustard we’d eat.

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Afghan Hospitality

I recently spent two weeks in Kabul, Afghanistan, working with our dedicated team on wrapping up this year and planning next year’s work.  Despite the sad situation of the country and the pressures and disappointments of the recent election, I had a wonderful time.  The Afghan people, every single one I met, were warm, welcoming and gracious.   It was a privilege to step into their life for a few days and come alongside them in their ardent desire to make things better in the future for their children. 

I was overwhelmed by their generosity, which came from all corners.  Despite the fact that it was Ramazan and everyone was fasting from food and drink during daylight hours, they all wanted to make sure I had water, tea and coffee.  When I mentioned how gorgeous the grapes hanging from arbors around our office were, a giant plate of them appeared.

A highlight of the trip was dinner with Dr. Stanekzai, our Team Leader, and his wonderful family.  His wife prepared a FEAST of Afghan food for us, and it was absolutely delicious.  We had the traditional Afghan dish, Quabuli Pilau, which the cook at our house had also made for me – rice with carrots and raisins.  It sounds unusual but it is very good!  We also had a delicious vegetable soup, goat kabobs (you may remember I adore goat), beef, garlicky potatoes, spinach, salad, and my favorites whose name I don’t remember – fried savory pancake-type breads, one stuffed with pumpkin and one stuffed with chives.  And to have on the side, wonderful fresh yogurt which I particularly liked for dunking the savory fried pancakes!

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Look at this amazing spread!!!  And this does not include dessert which offered several heaping plates of fruit (grapes, bananas, melon) and candies.

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Me with the fabulous chef:

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I really loved the Quabuli Pilau dish so much, I wanted to make sure I got the recipe to bring home and recreate.  I love flavorful rice sides to go along with stewed meats and grilled veggies.  The cinnamon-y flavor of this rice, with the sweet cooked carrots, plump raisins and rich almonds was a perfect combination.  I asked our cook how to make it one morning, and he said he would write down the recipe for me.

There are two things I love about the following recipe.  One, is that the English is adorably imperfect, and reading it reminds me of how our cook loved that I loved this, and how eager he was to write it down for me to make at home, despite the fact that he couldn’t speak English very well.  The wording shows his kind heart.  Two, I am sure this recipe previously existed only in his head and I can see in his writing it down the similarity to how I write recipes.  When cooking familiar foods, it’s usually your intuition that guides you to a bit of this, and a bit of that, tasting and adjusting.  I have several things I routinely make that I’m hard pressed to record in a precise recipe.  The first time I attempt the written recipe, I think it usually reads something like this one – ‘oh, cook it for 5 minutes or so’.  I always have to go back through it one or two times to adjust temps, times, etc based on what I actually do, and not just how I think I’m doing it in my head!

I look forward to getting home and following these directions to recreate the wonderful Quabuli Pilau of Kabul.  I’ll tweak this to American measurements, and figure out how best to add the cinnamon and other spices that our cook used but didn’t include in the recipe.  I imagine that this will be the perfect rice side dish to some good Middle Eastern meatballs, perhaps even trying the meatballs with pine nuts from my new Molly Wizenburg cookbook (see the review here).  In fact, that sounds like a plan – as soon as I’m back home in my cozy kitchen, I think that will be the first dinner I’ll make!  Stay tuned for the retooled recipe and a report out on the meatballs…

Quabuli Pilau

  1. In one kilo rice put 1 liter water.  Cook 10 minut rice in water after that clean.
  2. That rice put in part [pot] and add 150g butter.  Cook 5 minut.
  3. First boiled 100 gr almond in water – 5 minut
  4. Cooked 300 gr caroot in oil 5 minut
  5. Cooked 200 gr risone [raisins].  mixed with almond, caroot and risone all of these cooked in 5 minut.  Add on rice after cooked.

Kabuli Pillau

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It’s difficult to summarize our wine experience in Argentina.  This was really one of the main reasons we chose Argentina…we try to plan our vacations around good wine areas, since they usually come with good food and good views.  And we both liked the Malbecs we’d tried, which is the big Argentinian wine.  So when we looked into Argentina, we were thrilled to discover that the area around Mendoza, in the western part of the country, at the base of the Andes, is not only drop-your-jaw breathtaking but also one of the greatest natural wine-growing regions in the world.  We couldn’t wait to get there to see it and learn about it and taste it!

We were not disappointed.  I had been so afraid that we wouldn’t be able to see the mountains because it had been overcast the first few days we’d been in Argentina.  But the bad weather that had blown in blew back out the night before our first wine day, and we woke to cool temps with blue, clear skies and the first snow fall of the season on the peaks of the Andes.  This was the impossibly gorgeous view from the first vineyard we visited – instant confirmation that it was going to be even more beautiful than we’d expected!

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We did two full days of vineyard tours – the first in the Lujan de Cujo, which is the valley closest to Mendoza, and the second in the Uco Valley, which is a newer area, further from Mendoza and closer to the mountains.  We learned all about what makes the region such a perfect spot for grapes – high elevations with strong sun, which produces thicker skins with more flavor and more sugars inside the grapes.  There is very little rain, and the nights are cool, which grapes love.  The land itself is rich with minerals from the volcanic soils.  There are few bugs and few plant diseases so virtually all the wines are organic, even if not certified.  It’s basically grape nirvana.

The most famous Argentinian wine is the Malbec, which is actually a french grape that never grew too well in France.  But the Malbec grapes LOVES Argentina, and reaches its full potential in that climate.  Malbecs are strong and smooth – with some of the richness and depth of Cabernet, but more of the bold fruits of Merlot.  Everyone grows some Malbec, but it’s not the only wine in Mendoza.  The other unique Argentinian grape is the Torrontes – a wonderfully crisp yet fruity white.  The Torrontes grape is, I belive, only grown in Argentina, and some people think it’s primed to become the next big thing from Argentina, like the Malbec.  I absolutely loved the Torrontes – I’m not the biggest Chardonnay fan, because it’s too rich and buttery for me usually, and I prefer the crisper whites like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.  Torrontes hits somewhere in the middle – dry and crisp but very fruity.  It’s closest to a Viognier, but slightly more dry.  So the Malbecs and the Torrontes were the big stars, but we also tasted quite a few really wonderful Cabernets, Merlot, Sauvignon Blancs and dessert wines.

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We were so impressed with the access we were given at the vineyards – we saw seemingly all parts of the wine process at these places!  We tasted wines from the casks that were only 5 days old (and tasted terrible, but still it was interesting!) and a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc from a cask that was nearly done, just not yet clarified, so it looked like pineapple juice.  At one place there was not an open bottle of a wine we wanted to taste, so the winemaker just popped the cork on a cask and siphoned some out for us!  During one visit, Michael and I each got to make our own blend from 3 different bottle samples, which was a lot of fun.  Seeing and hearing about the whole process, from stemming to macerating to the various stages in the casks, to bottling and labeling – it was fascinating!

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The vineyard tours were a highlight, but we enjoyed many more wines out and about in the town of Mendoza – especially at the fantastic tasting room, Vines of Mendoza, which highlights smaller local growers.  There are several other vinocentric shops and restaurants in Mendoza, and some really wonderful restaurants that are serving these amazing wines.  It was probably a good thing for our credit card that we were limited to bringing back just a few bottles that we could carry in our backpacks.  The wine, and the views, blew us away and definitely made for one of the best trips of our lives!  We’d recommend Mendoza, Argentina to EVERYONE, on any budget, anytime.

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Coconut Milk

One of the wonderful things about being in Africa is the bounty of tropical fruits available on the side of the road or on the streets of the cities.  Whenever I’m traveling, there is always SOMETHING in season…

On this latest trip to Senegal, it was mango season and I enjoyed eating sweet, silky bright orange mangoes almost every day…these taste almost nothing like the stringy flavorless kind we get in the States.  They are heavenly.

On our way back into town from a field visit, we pulled over for our whole group to buy coconuts…we were all hot and tired and come to find out a few of our group are HUGE fans of coconut milk!  My adorable co-worker Indira apparently loves them – we have to remind her to eat usually, but she handed over the change for THREE of these coconuts!  The guy selling them would lop off the top with his machete and hand it over for you to drink the milk.  If you’ve ever had coconut milk, you know it’s not creamy, but more like a slightly sweet water.  Once people had finished, the coconut guy split the coconut open and cut out the meat.  I was too hot to eat (one of the FEW scenarios when I actually lose my appetite is extreme heat) but greatly enjoyed watching the coconut eating party on the side of the road!

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Indira and the coconut

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Eating Sea Urchins

You must think we’re no longer eating over at our house.  Actually, we’ve been eating really well the past few weeks – trying to use up all our veggies from our CSA box has given me many spurts of creativity!  I just haven’t blogged any of it because I so badly want to get to the Argentina stuff first.  I still have to tell you about the wines and since that was the major part of our trip it’s going to take forever and I just haven’t found the time to write it up.

And it’s not happening this week because I’m in Senegal, with an in-and-out internet connection and not a lot of spare time.  So to tide you over, because I don’t want to lose my faithful {few} readers, here’s a tidbit from today…

I ate a sea urchin.  I was actually making fun of it to my boss, saying how in the world could you eat THAT?!?!  Then he says, they’re good, you should try one!  And he would know because he lived on an island in the South Pacific for years and knows all about fish.  So I thought, why not.

The reason it was so scary was because this thing was still ALL prickles and totally freaky looking!  They had a box of LIVE black sea urchins on the table, and then they would split them open, revealing this orange-ish slime (which is actually the part you eat!) and then douse the slime with some lime and a vinegar-shallot sauce similar to what they put on raw oysters.  Then you use a spoon to scoop the whole thing up and then down the hatch it goes.

Despite looking complely freakish in every possible way, it wasn’t bad.  It tasted like the sea, and I liked the lime and the sauce.  But the texture was weird and the color and consistency of the orange slime was definitely not my favorite, so I’m not sure I’d try it again.  Put that down in the category of Weirdest Things I’ve Ever Eaten!

Here’s a picture I found on flickr so you can get a rough idea…

Sea Urchin

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Argentina – The Meat

It’s really terrible how long it’s taken me to get to these Argentina posts.  I think it’s because it’s just so daunting to sum up such a wonderful trip…especially on the broader topics.  Like, for example, the meat.

We knew from the outset that we’d be eating a lot of good, cheap meat on this trip.  Argentina is well-known for great beef, I guess because it’s such a big country that they have a lot of grazing land?  And of course it’s basically all grass-fed and all that.  And it’s CHEAP!  The first meal we had in Buenos Aires was at a parillo, a classic meat restaurant.  Michael ordered a T-bone and the thing really took up the entire plate – you can see from the picture below.  That is a FULL SIZE dinner plate!  And the steak cost around $12.

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 I was not yet hungry for steak so I got some chicken and ordered something else that had been recommended to us – a proveleta.  Proveleta is basically a massive piece of deep fried cheese.  I was obviously game to try it, because, who wouldn’t be??  And I’m slightly embarassed to say I finished this whole thing off.  It was too delicious…a lovely golden crust, covered with herbs and olive oil.  There was some bread you could lay the slices on but frankly it was better plain.  YUM.  Proveletas were one of our favorite accompaniments to steak throughout the trip.

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 And one more picture – this is my filet mignon from our last meal – probably a 14 oz filet (it was HUGE) that cost about $7.  Unbeliveable.  The meat is not quite as tender as expensive aged beef cuts in the US, but the flavor is great and you sure can’t beat that price!

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 A traditional way to eat meat, if not in a parillo restaurant, is at an asado.  An asado is basically a barbeque, but Argentinians are passionate about their particular kind of asado.  As the host of our first asado said, there are x million people in Argentina, and x million definitions of an asado!

We were lucky to experience this tradition on a wildly windy night at our hostel in the Andes, near Uspallata.  We’d gone on a fabulous horse back ride earlier in the afternoon and were happily tired out.  A violent wind had blown in (starting during our ride – we were finding sand in bizarre places for days) and knocked out the power.  Our hostel owner had invited us and the one other guest to enjoy an asado with him and his friend that night.  Normally he’d have been cooking outside but becuase of the wind and dust, he planned to cook in the fireplace in the kitchen.  We gathered around the table, watching him get the fire to an intense slow heat, drinking wine and listening to classic Argentinan guitar on the ipod by candlelight.  Turns out that our host’s friend was an ardent socialist who had a lot of conspiracy theories to share 🙂 so it was a really entertaining group!  After smelling the meat cooking for a long time, we finally got to dig in to some incredible sausages, ribs and steak.  It was perfectly seasoned, we ate it only with bread.  There was also blood sausage which Michael and I politely tried and then politely declined.  It was a surreally fun night, and a darn good introduction to the tradition of asado.

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Argentina , you might be surprised to know, is almost as much of a cultural melting pot as the US.  Almost everyone in that country comes from some sort of European heritage, but a large proportion (around 40%) are from Italy!  So as you might think, they do some pretty darn good gelato and coffee in Argentina.  Had we been there in the summer, I think we would have done as we did in Rome as year in 100 degree heat, and eaten gelato twice a day just to keep moving.  However, we were there in what is their late fall, and the weather was somewhere between cool and cold for most of our trip.  So rather than making gelato stops, we drank a LOT of coffee!

Buenos Aires in particular has a European feel to the way the city works…it’s very dense, with lots of tall buildings, and lots of people walking on the streets.  And you definitely get the Euro vibe with the cafes on every corner!  So the minute you think you might like a nice hot cup of coffee, there pops up yet another cozy spot.  They do coffee so well at these little shops…first, you always get a little shot-sized glass of water with the coffee, which I liked, especially since we were doing a lot of walking.  Then, there’s the coffee itself, which is wonderful…lots of great espressos that were flavorful and strong.  The best, though, was the cafe con leche.  When you order a cafe con leche in Argentina, it’s not just coffee with cream or milk, it’s a latte, an espresso-based drink with yummy steamed milk.  Every single one I had was PERFECT.

Last but certainly not least are the treats that come along with the coffee.  Argentinians LOVE their pastries and candies and cookies.  All the places we stopped had case after case of every kind of sweet thing you can imagine.  We’d gotten a recommendation to try the alfajores, which seem to vary widely (I did a lot of market research) but in general are two sweet, crumbly cookies sandwiching some dulce de leche (which like a caramel-y condensed milk).  If you’ve got a big sweet tooth, you will seriously love these cookies!  The best ones I had were very crumbly from the sweet, almost shortbread, cookies and very oozy with the rich dulce de leche.  Alfajores were the perfect companion to our many cafe con leches!

 

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