Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas with Barbie

Our gifts were never wrapped. We’d run out in flannel pajamas to an always somewhat tilted Christmas tree – gifts on the left were mine, the right my sister’s. A lineup of Barbies always headed the front row with uniform boxes of flaxen blonds and brunettes, their plastic frames our crack addiction at the time. We needed them all -Day to Night Barbie, the Rockers (Barbie’s band mates) and the coveted international Barbies (looking back, Oriental Barbie probably wasn’t Matel’s most politically correct model.) We were like kids in a toy store (who needs candy stores!) and it never crossed my mind that “Santa” didn’t have money for wrapping paper.

It’s funny the perceptions you have as a kid. For some reason I thought we had a real tree, even though I saw it put down in the basement every year and it had a thick, green, metallic pole running through the center. I guess I was a little dense, but there was magic at Christmas. Who was I to judge if this tree could live in pieces, in a box, in the basement?…alright, I was dense.

But it was one of my favorite times of year. I thrived on the fact that my family was different. We didn’t have turkey like everyone else. We made homemade raviolis through a family assembly line in my grandparents’ basement, where even I was given simple jobs like forking the corners shut or scooping filling, but it made me feel important.

My grandfather, Pop, was from the same school of thinking as “The Little Red Hen.” If you wanted to enjoy the spoils, you better join in on the work. The first time my aunt went to my grandparents' house when she was dating my uncle, they finished dinner and Pop asked, “Did you eat here?” She nodded. “Then you can help clean up.” It sounds gruff, but in actuality it was an invitation to be part of the group. And for some reason, it was always fun washing the dishes and making raviolis, but mostly because we were all doing it together.

This year I’d be trying out my family’s pasta recipe for the first time, since my husband and I were celebrating Christmas at our home in San Diego instead of heading back east. The plan was to make manicotti (like an Italian burrito stuffed with ricotta), along with meatballs, sausage and garlic bread. I wasn’t sure if I was up to making the braciole (pounded flank steak, rolled up with garlic, parsley and parmesan) and was definitely going to save the cannolis for next year (without a Fry Daddy, making the shells is a torturous process.) One recipe at a time I guess, and this year pasta and sauce would be the focus. But even as I tried to master these lessons, I was already missing the teachers who taught me their tricks.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Boston (bactracking) - La Morra

La Morra memories
My first visit to Boston had us celebrating Christmas Eve at La Morra over five courses, family style in preparation, with the air of an Italian matriarch insisting, “MANGE, MANGE!” Exposed brick glowed with mortared teeth above our table, upstairs in a dining room that had the discreet elegance of a fine garment- never ostentatious, but with subtle detailing that silently spoke volumes of its quality.

We selected from the bounty that was to be our feast. Our indecisive clamoring was silenced by the arrival of delicate greens in citrus vinaigrette that immediately lulled us into appreciation of what was about to ensue, decisions became easy and everything faded to black (truffles.)

Appetizer Course: Truffle oil glossed my lips and I felt the sun on my tongue. Mushroom bruschetta gave the billowy fluff of bread while retaining its crunch under a layer of sautéed mushrooms so rich, they made my eyes heavy. Fresh mussels popped with tender bursts of flesh and sea, but floated in a bland, white wine broth that suffered from an acute case of seasoning sickness.

Pasta course: The pasta course lived out the lesson of a favorite fairytale. The artichoke risotto with shrimp was too hard. The gnocchi with bolognese was too soft. But, the squash ravioli finished with cream, sage and pine nuts, was just right (more than just right- perfect). This “goldy” was a lock and a tale that would need no exaggeration in future folklore.

Third Course: A crunchy saltlick of skin surrounded the roast duck and tender apples added to its holiday decadence. Not to be shown up by another fowl, Tom Turkey made his entrance, but without much impact. Sliced turkey with sausage stuffing was moist, but lost among its flashier co-stars, namely the sliced sirloin with gorgonzola butter, cooked perfectly pink and heightened by its pungent lacquer.

Side dishes: The sautéed spinach and sage roasted potatoes were satisfactory, but ho-hum. Brussels sprouts were tender, but all of the alcohol hadn’t been cooked out, while the yams won by simply working well with other autumnal offerings (duck and turkey).

I felt like a Roman as I clenched a duck thigh one hand and stabbed a slice of steak with the other. The extravagance was a bit overwhelming and I could have been happy with just a fraction of the items (bruschetta, ravioli, steak.) But, then again, odds pay off. We had gotten a taste of everything and my belly felt as round as Santa’s.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Castaway- Maui, Kaanapali

Here on Gilligan’s Isle
The Castaway was only a short walk from our beach cabana. Sun-soaked and still a little damp from the salty waves, we seated ourselves outside for a few Kona Ales and a fresh fish sandwich. Today it was mahi - straight out of the ocean and onto your plate. The filet was thin, but its tenderness made up for its lack of physical presence.

Though it came with onion, tomato and lettuce, none were necessary and I even thought about getting rid of the bun - this fish could stand on its own. And who doesn’t love a good french fry to round out the meal? Ahhh, it was pure contentment just to sit here and gaze out at the water before we took our next swim.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

El Dorado condo - Maui, Kaanapali

We got Maui'd
If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Maui is the Disneyland that never closes. Tourists are woven into every inch of the island’s fiber, visible as a loud Hawaiian shirt in this seemingly foreign land, where native languages still write the road signs and shake each town’s hand. Waves of island music blur the lines of reggae while reciting a rendition of “Islands in the stream” by Dolly and Kenny, followed by a new hit song from the #1 singing sensation that’s never been heard of on the mainland. This is where wide-eyed youth gamble their faith on tropical paradise, but rarely win, and where honeymooners come to celebrate. After nine years, Bubba and I had bitten the bullet and gotten married...we were here to honeymoon.

El Dorado
We decided to rent a condo in Kaanapali since we were going to be there for a full week and couldn’t afford that many meals out. Who wants to pay $50 for bacon and eggs every morning? Plus, the luxury of waking up and having breakfast in your pajamas or happy hour on the lanai was enough to make the decision for us.

We were upgraded to a suite- sweet! It was really just their one bedroom instead of a studio, but the granite countertops, plasma TVs and Ipod hookup (yes, Bubba was forced into “Dance Party USA”) made us pleased as (Hawaiian) punch. And for nights when we spilled some “punch”, we had a washer and dryer, while our bathing suits could air dry on our lanai equipped with a dining table, two lounge chairs and drop shades for privacy.

Grocery shopping was done at Safeway in Lahaina (10 minutes away) and the Star Market was right around the corner (a little pricier), making the $200 we dropped for a week’s supply of food well worth it.

El Dorado’s beach cabana quickly became our “Copa” and was ranked our favorite, daytime party spot (key the music… “They fell in love.”) A quick walk from the condo (or a swift ride in the chauffeured golf cart when we felt lazy), Copa was fully equipped with refrigerator, chaises, beach loungers and even books in case you forgot to bring one.

Black Rock (prime snorkeling) was right around the bend and we ventured out one morning to find ourselves swimming with a sea turtle! It was pretty hard to resist taking a ride on his shell, but the experience of floating next to him was more than enough. With my ears full of underwater silence and steady sounds of snorkeled breath, a bottle of euphoria was dumped over my head. Maui peaked the senses on a primal level that found divinity in the everyday. It was the best type of intoxication and now I knew why the tourists didn’t leave...they were addicts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Butter - NYC, East Village

Like Butter
Our first dinner as husband and wife deserved to be memorable, so after months of research, Butter, in the East Village, won our vote for a few reasons:
1. Executive chef/owner, Alex Gurnashelli - a laid back brunette that wasn’t afraid to use fat, but still balanced her indulgence with subtlety.
2. The Birch Room - the lower floor of the restaurant, Lincoln-logged with birch trees across ceiling and walls, brought the ultimate “Brear Rabbit rose-patch” vibe - secretive, dark and romantic.
3. The name said it all…my most favorite ingredient.

I had mentioned we were newlyweds when I made the reservation, so even though the Birch Room was closed that night (boo hiss) we were lavished with a spacious, corner booth beneath glowing branches of birch trees, whose movie-screen size pricked the same senses as a stained glass depiction in a cathedral.

Cocktails: My hubby (Bubba) went for a high-end Scotch (Macallan 15 yr), while I sipped a specialty, the Grape Crush (vodka, simple syrup, seltzer, muddled grapes.) But my crush soon turned to regret after the first super, sugary sip. The syrup overwhelmed every swallow and I think the grapes could have brought enough sweetness on their own.

Five course tasting menu ($90) - paired with wine ($130.)

How could we resist? We wanted to milk Butter for all it was worth and though most restaurants set a separate tasting menu for the evening or season, here they asked which items we didn’t want off the regular menu and went from there. Though it was billed as five courses, every interval presented each of us with a different dish, so we were actually able to nibble on 10 tastings.

Bread: Peppercorn scones – a course in themselves.

Amuse bouche:
Crispy risotto balls with grated parmesan - petite bites of deep-fried, carb-loaded heaven.

First course:
Brown sugar glazed pork belly – tales of the underbelly were true…and delicious. This was tastiest tummy I’d ever eaten (most times extremely fatty), for this little piggy was thick with meat, its bottom layer of fat never interfering with the integrity of the pork’s tender morsels, except to flavor. Grilled zucchini was delicate and sautéed just long enough to form a captain-sized, caramelized crunch (favorite dish #1.)

Seared foie gras over watermelon – the seared indulgence of liver was only matched by the clean wash of melon. Balsamic reduction wrapped the two in a syrupy ribbon that tied it all together.

Second course:
Pasta with lamb sausage – cavatappi (extra twisty elbow macaroni) was inspired with its potent, yellow tomato sauce- thin and garlicy. My only complaint was the lack of sausage and the pieces I did manage to dig out were overcooked. This sheepish star was muted enough for me to miss and there was an undeniable silence of the lamb (sausage.)

Pizza with heirloom and sundried tomatoes – what a concept…pizza made from pie crust! I don’t know if that’s exactly what Gurnashelli had done, but there was a flakiness and crumble that reminded me of dessert, in the best possible way. Heirloom and sundried tomatoes made for a superior “filling” and the oozing mozzarella acted as a snowy blanket to tuck it all in.

Third course:
Halibut with bacon and diced Yukon potatoes - was topped with champagne grape vinaigrette, but even with the extra “juice” it was dry and a bit overdone. This didn’t excite me the same as the others and though I wouldn’t call this fish a flop, it didn’t hook me either.

Skate stuffed with fontina, spinach and mushrooms - this skate started on thin ice and was almost 86ed from our menu (Bubba not being a big fish fan), but its flawless success was no fluke. With texture mimicking a crab-cake, it shredded in thick clumps for balanced bites of fish and filling.

Fourth course:
Lamb chop with eggplant puree - I don’t know what they put in that eggplant puree, but it was all I could do to not lick my plate. The meat formed a crisp crust of seasonings with savory depth that came in like a lamb and went out like a lion –ferociously flavorful. The garnish of fried squash blossom was the final accessory, propped as a playful feather in its cap (favorite #2.)

Sliced duck breast with cherry compote - over escarole was just ducky! The cherry compote added its tangy zing without overpowering the tender fowl and escarole added an earthy element that kept this bird grounded.

Fifth course:
Baked blueberries - with cinnamon, pastry wedge and buttermilk ice cream was like a deconstructed pie. Each component blended into one bite of 4th of July.

Raspberry jelly beignets – these really should have been called doughnuts, because they would have dwarfed any other beignet, but we weren’t complaining. The dipping well of crème anglaise was like liquid crème brulee - who knew beignets liked to swim? Everyone in the pool!

Amuse bouche fin: Dark chocolate truffle – the best ending to any story

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blue Water Grill- Manhattan, Union Square

My Blue Heaven
The passion fruit cosmopolitan made me passionate…about drinking more of them. This cocky cocktail had been on my mind since I had first laid hands on it's orange-you-glad-to-see-me hue three years before. Never had I seen it replicated and it didn’t hesitate to win me over upon my return.

But Blue Water’s polished interior with dazzling, red-shaded chandeliers and pristine tabletops was nothing compared to the people-watching haven taking place outside. This thin stretch of space was elevated enough for a bird’s eye view, while still connecting to the man on the streets, making for my favorite pastime - watching the world go by.

We decided to go with sushi, though I was sad to leave behind my old standby, the shrimp/Maine lobster "BLT" with lime vinagriette, but just as their cocktail had kept me awestruck, their Monster roll left its Sasquatch-sized imprint on my mind (and palate.)

Best sushi roll I ever tasted - the Monster roll
Not being the most adventurous sushi sampler, I wanted something along the lines of a spicy tuna roll, but instead found a hybrid that exceeded my expectations. The entire roll of seaweed, rice and finely sliced ahi was mummified in a tempura shell with its spicy mayo demurely swirled on the side. The fish was untouched by the batter and remained delicate, but the crunch of tempura added that final element like lightning to Frankenstein's monster (roll.) It’s alive!

My hungry hubby went for the Phad Thai roll with shrimp, ahi, spicy mayo, peanuts…it was a bit of a mish-mash and a little too much sauce atop. Good in theory, but in the end, it was bye-bye phad thai.