Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Comfort By Coconuts

I remember the land of smiles as this new piece of the world that I connected with for the first time when I was 24. Instantly stunned and aware from the moment I arrived. As if I had just woken up to something more intriguing then the dream I had just left. Enchanted by sweet and spice, a world of new before me.
I vividly recall witnessing fresh coconut milk being made in the market one day in Bangkok. My feet stopped moving suddenly as I caught this display of lustrous, creamy milk. It was as intoxicatingly alluring as that of beautifully drawn bathtub (you know, like that porcelain, claw foot tub with bubbles and rose petals.) In fact, I'm sure the ancient Kings and queens of Asia bathed in hand pressed coconut milk all the time. I would...

The young man, barely in his 30's, quickly passed the fresh coconut meat through the shredder, and then with soft moves, placed the coconut shreds into a large bowl. 2 more large bowls of equal size lay beside them. Fresh, cold water flowed from a pitcher onto the shreds. He massaged them quickly, and the water turned bright white. The same process was continued as the shreds were pulled out by handfuls and squeezed, ringing them out like old laundry, and placed in the next bowl, and then the next. The result was incredible, 3 variations of fresh coconut milk -the cream, the milk, and the water. The best you've ever tried, so rich and sweet.

I had forgotten all about that coconut milk that stopped me in my tracks that day. Like an old sunburn, it had faded away to nothing, not even the mark or tan was left behind that Thailand once made upon my flesh. Just the memory that I had been there before and that its land felt familiar. That was until I showed up again. Instantly, the thick scent in the air of dried fish, frying oil, rotting trash and human body odor, all came rushing in like a drug to my senses. Ah, Bangkok! Pathways on sidewalks too small to walk trough, and street food venders begging for your attention. A place where cold, sweet mango and warm, sticky rice find balance on your plate together, and where chiles, garlic and basil have never danced so harmoniously in your mouth. Thailand is the gateway into the intoxicating and stimulating palate of Southeast Asia.

New food and ingredient inspirations flood in with an urgency to be known….

-Soft-boiled eggs wrapped in a spicy fish paste, fried and served in with cold cucumbers and fried basil leaves.

-Thinly shaved banana blossoms, laced with peanut dressing and strips of ginger and basil.

-Fried rice balls smashed and mixed with baby lettuce, cilantro, ginger, thai chiles, lime juice and the liquid gold of fish sauce. Crispy, spicy and fresh!

In search for a new take on Thai food, and that moment which stands out like the "cream of the coconut" I head out of Bangkok. Escaping the crowds and avoiding the "gringo trail" as much as possible by heading north. Finding comfort in fried bananas and doughnuts with black sesame seeds as the bus rides grew longer and hotter. Hunkering down in Soppong, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. A new Thailand was budding up through the concrete cities I wandered through.

No matter how crowded and touristic Thailand continues to grow with it's western visitors, and no matter how many unfortunate times I was offered HEINZ chile sauce alongside my flavorless pad thai ::sigh:: It still remains a standing rule of traveling that once you scratch a little bit deeper beneath the surface, or at least drive your motorbike an hour outside the center…. you'll discover all that brings you here to begin with. The true cultural wonder and the intrigue of this exotic land of red earth and sweet bananas is still here. A place where they really do smile before you, they really do still create dishes with a fiery spice, and they really do make coconut milk by hand. 

Love from Asia,

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

M & M

Mallorca & Morocco, March 2013

 Captivated by food, smells, colors, tradition, culture and it's people, Morocco has always allured me. I arrived 3 years ago for the first time. I have returned twice a year ever since. A new avenue, flavor, artisan and spice blend are introduced to me each time I revisit. Last time it was red tassels and Aragan-rose oil, this time it's saffron yellow shoes and handcrafted belt buckles from Essouirra. Enchanted by it's mystic and unknown I simply can't get enough of what lays beneath the surface of this country. 

While walking through the Medina, we were welcomed into a rug shop, and not for rugs, but for lunch. Seated upon thick layers of woven rugs, we were served warm kefta, and bread from a beautiful woman in red. Ripping off chunks of bread, we use it as a natural set of tongs to grad a steaming and perfectly seasoned kefta from the center of a blue platter. We listen to stories of the old medina as silver trays of cucumber and mint salad are passed around. A picnic within a rug shop. 
We sit back, sipping mint tea and dusting the breadcrumbs off our laps. Breathing in Morocco.

Ras al Hanout. Moroccan spice mixture

Cilantro and Mint

Orange blossoms sold of pages of pop magazines

Mallorca Spain.
Introduced purely by chance 6 years ago. I was set up to intern at a restaurant with an American-French chef and his Spanish wife. The internship was a disaster as the chef had slipped into a darkened existence as he watched his restaurant dream slip away. His only sense of entertainment was to torture his new intern and make it impossible for her to love this industry of food and the foreign home to her now. But he was too late, not only did I fall deeply for the magnificent island in the Balearic seas, but somehow it began to take care of me as well.

It seems like forever ago that I learned the ways of the Spanish and walked the streets of Mallorca as a newcomer. Friendships on the island have sustained years of barely frequenting the Spanish soil, but my mind and heart remained connected from afar. 

I am currently researching an opportunity to bring me back to the island yearly in the culinary world. My former "boss" from the failing French restaurant however, had to close his doors many years ago and move from the island.
While my lessons from Mallorca have been bitter and sweet, the karma has been even sweeter.

Sopresada- A spiced and cured Mallorcan delicacy 


Friday, May 3, 2013

Little Ears

Orecchiette- which means "little ears"

The 28th year is said to be the Saturn Return. When that shift from your years of countless re-invention, exploration, transformation take a turn, and something brings you "home" again. Maybe home translates to the weary traveler as a place, or a feeling, maybe even a quality or trait that re-surfaces itself in your life. For me it literally brought me home. Eucalyptus in the air, in the land wild sage and avocados- Central California. 

So, once the siren of my 28th year sounded her song, I made it home in time for my birthday. Uniting first with my tribe of lady chefs and coming together to determine what new task on our ever growing list of creations to try.

"Ash, Orecchiette!!" 
Kim proclaimed with girl-like excitement. A creative task we had yet to embark on within our 9 years of cooking side by side. Convincing Peggy was easy, as she would be the one to give us the personal tales from watching the process on the streets of Puglia herself.

The day began with our fists united with in a vigorous kneading for 20 minutes on the white marble counter top. A strong task to ensure strong dough, our muscles feel it as our mound of raw orecchiette begins to smooth out and ready itself for rest.

The process is simple. Using a bench scrapper to slice off wedges of dough, then roll between your palms and the cutting board. The dough remains smooth and firm, in no way clinging to your fingertips when touched. An almost silky tactility that soothes the spirit as therapy through creation.

 Roll, slice into 1" squares and then quickly pull the dough across a wood cutting board with the back of a butter knife. The true Nonnas of Puglia would jump to their feet with disapproval if they witnessed our first attempts at Orecchiette- "NO! Non cosi!!!" they would proclaim. As dough was smashed, torn, or pulled too thick or too thin. But eventually we got our groove on, and little ears appeared one by one.

We set our pasta out in the garden, inside a clean beehive screen and covered with a linen sheet.
The destiny of our oriecchiette was to be happily united with kale, braised lamb with jus, and fresh chili breadcrumbs. 

Orecchiette drying in the March sun of CA

Table set, awaiting guests. 

Chèvre and beets unite!
A Birthday Menu

Cocktails- 28 Roses (gin, grapefruit & rose geranium) Thyme Sip (bourbon, meyer lemon, & thyme)

Hors d'ouvré - Fava bean and preserved lemon dip with crudite. Beet and chèvre spread with crostini and radish.

Pizzas- Radicchio, mozzarella and amaretti. Melted leeks, sausage and burrata.

Mains- Orecchiette with lamb jus, kale and chili breadcrumbs. Wood-fire oven broccolini. Salad of garlicky kale and roasted chickpeas.

Dessert- Choice of salted caramel or lemon curd ice cream. 
Coffee or verbena mint tea.

Bellies were full and sore from laughter. Our glasses remained filled with central California's best in red wine. Some still found space for another scoop to top off the evening, while a question was posed...

In this house and around this table for as long as I can remember, a question has been posed for all to answer. It's a beautiful tradition that brings everyones attention back to the center and gives each individual a chance to tell a story of personal importance. 
The question (posed by Howard, Kim's sweet husband)--

"What was a lesson or experience that you could not learn from anyone else, and only on your own?"

A wave of vulnerability and joyful emotion came over everyone as they told there stories of that lesson or experience that invited a shift and a transformation. We listened tenderly with open hearts as the smell of lamb from the wood fire oven continued to linger over the table. One of my favorite aging moments yet, the year of the saturn, and the night of rose geranium-scented cocktail surrounded by my favorite beings. A magical start to my 28th year.

28 Roses Cocktail on March 1st, 2013

:: 28 Roses Cocktail ::

5 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
1 1/2 oz Gin (Preferably Plymouth)
1/2 oz Fresh Meyer Lemon Juice
2 oz Rose Geranium Simple Syrup (recipe follows)

Add all the ingredients to a shaker with ice, shake and serve in a tumbler.

Rose Geranium Simple Syrup:
1 c White Sugar
1 c Water
4 or 5 Rose Geranium Leaves

Heat the sugar and water together until the sugar is completely dissolved without boiling. Add the Rose Geranium once you've turned off the heat and steep the leaves for 10 minutes. Or less. It can get strong quickly, so check the progress and taste as you go along.