Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Wilderness Paradise in Alaska

The harbor in Petersburg, Alaska looks right out of a postcard or a movie. It's that quaint.

We were headed on a seven night fishing cruise aboard a 54" boat around Baranof Island - north of Ketchikan and south of Juneau - in the area commonly known as the Inside Passage where many cruise ships pass on their way to Glacier Bay.



The next morning we awoke to rain and a socked-in sky with minimal visibility.  We dropped crab pots and took the dinghy across a tidal flat and up a river to a wide area across from a hunting lodge. We saw our first bear of the trip - a black bear that didn't look too happy to see us. Back on board upon seeing this rainbow we were sure the rain would end very soon.

A picture perfect sunset in Hamilton Bay. We enjoyed the view before dinner and settling in for the evening. Dinner was a delicious mix of shrimp and crabs we caught in the pots. 

    Our home away from home in the wilderness. 

The rest of the trip brought blue skies and mild temperatures - perfect fishing weather!

This is not a prehistoric creature it is a Lingcod, a fish common to these waters that grows to incredible lengths. We caught several (over 5 feet) that were too big to keep due to restrictions.

 It has a mild white flesh and takes on the flavor of the seasonings. This day we enjoyed it beer battered and fried. Yum!

We fished numerous bays and rivers - Red Bluff Bay, Red Fish Bay, Sandy Bay, and Whale Bay and hiked through a forest littered with bear scat up to a mountain lake dammed up by fallen logs. Here we caught a coho that we enjoyed as sashimi later that evening.

Throughout the trip we encountered nature in it's splendor - from a near 100 pound halibut that did not want to be caught to a grizzly feeding at the shore and catching fish at a waterfall as they tried to swim upstream.

 Note the bear that is fishing at the top of the photo.         

If you ever have a chance to visit Alaska go and be sure to spend plenty of time outdoors enjoying the scenery. You will be amazed by the abundance of nature and the sheer beauty.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good Cheap Butt

That was one of the signs at 12 Bones in Asheville, NC.  It certainly catches your attention but not as much as the primal smell of meat smoking over wood and the long line of folks waiting in the scorching mid-day sun to order their lunch.  We were recently in North Carolina visiting friends and family and enjoyed several very nice meals.

Somehow we had gotten onto the Obama food train - one night we had dinner at The Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Park and then the next day after doing the zip-line tour at Navitat (we highly recommend it) we headed over to 12 Bones, where the Obamas had eaten lunch in April.

But there's no line jumping here - no matter who you are. Everyone waits patiently while misters spraying a fine cloud of water give a slight cooling effect.  Review the menu carefully - it's hard to make a choice but make sure you decide what you want before you head to the register to speed up service!

One of our choices was a classic plate of ribs with baked beans, smoked potato salad and corn bread. Honey Garlic Sauce was on the menu that day and it was a perfect sweet and slightly zesty complement to the smoky pork. The ribs were good but a bit too charred - almost crispy at the edges like cracklins.

The smoked potato slad was very different and good but those sides choices were way too filling a mix and the owner of this plate was feeling weighted down after its conclusion.

A more ingenious combo included sides of pulled pork ($1.50), chopped brisket ($1.75), collard greens ($1.50) and "3 Bones" ($4.50) - although they actually served 4!

This mixed plate allowed a tasting of the three most classic barbecue meats without getting bogged down with the heavy cornbread and starchy sides. At $9.25 for the whole plate of four items it seemed like a very good deal versus the 12 bones for $18.

We don't eat collard greens too often but when one tastes a good preparation you just know it - and these were amazing. The collards were cut into nice manageable bite-size pieces, not those long unmanageable strips that you find in many traditional preparations.
Take a good look at the picture. These collards were studded with smoked ham (from ham hocks) to the tune of about 1/3 of the mix. Along with some onions and maybe a tad of garlic and butter it was a very tasty dish. When the greens were gone we drank down the liquid - also know as pot liquor.

The pulled pork was soft, moist and smoky. Never having experienced Carolina vinegar sauce we were very impressed that the lore lived up to it's billing. Eaten with the sticky barbecue sauces offered that day the pulled pork was good but the sauces masked its porcine flavor. When eaten with the spicy vinegar "splash" the pork stood out and the vinegar and spice punched up its flavor without taking over - a much better combination of flavors and one we will always offer when serving pulled pork.

A few other stops included The Tupelo Honey Cafe, drinks on the terrace at The Grove Park Inn, lunch at the Hob Nob in Brevard and a very tasty hamburger and fries at Poppie's Gourmet Farmer's Market during one of the Saturday night garden concerts. 

If you've hesitated going south because you were afraid all you'd find was greasy fried chicken and biscuits and gravy - don't worry, there's plenty of good food to be found in the Asheville area!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Savory Oats


Recently we had a culinary awakening - oatmeal beyond the breakfast table. Having a late breakfast we realized we need some protein so we salted our oats more than usual and topped them with over-easy fried eggs. We placed the eggs (with still runny yolks) and slightly browned butter from the skillet over the cooked oats and dug in. It was an amazingly good combination. The richness of the yolk and drops of golden browned butter were a nice contrast to the fat free and slightly chunky old fashioned oats.

A few weeks later contemplating a fast oats and eggs dinner a new thought occurred. Why does no one eat oats at dinner they way they do polenta? What if the oats were flavored with chicken broth instead of plain water? And if a little butter or grated parmesan were added could we have a dish much like a risotto but ready in only 5 minutes? Oh yes - it's possible and it tastes great while being better for you all at the same time!

It must be one of those food paradigms that will take a celebrity chef to break before we see savory oat recipes making it onto the scene as a legitimate side dish.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kauai - Bubba Burger or Duane's Ono Char Burger?

When you are on vacation you tend to eat a lot of those things you generally wouldn't eat on a regular basis or at home. So goes the quest for a good burger - we never do this at home but on Kauai lack of reasonably priced cuisine forced this into our meal repertoire.

One of the two spots we tried was Bubba Burger which has at least two locations on Kauai - one in Kapa'a and another in Hanalei near Princeville on the north shore of the island where we were staying. The travel book Kauai Revealed couldn't have described the service any more accurately. Move slowly to make it appear you are busier than you are and to create the appearance of popularity.  People will then come in droves to see what is drawing the crowds.

In all fairness the burgers were good - but of course they would never have been worth that same price back on the mainland. Over $5 for a single patty (maybe 1/6 of pound raw weight) and over $6 for a double with few additions - cheese, pineapple and bacon were all extra. A small dish of fries was $4.50 and although tasty quite steep a price to pay for fries poured unceremoniously out of a freezer bag into the fryer basket.

A kalua pork sandwich with sweet chili sauce was amazingly tender and flavorful and a better deal than the burgers for the amount of meat served.

South of Kilauea Lighhouse heading toward Kapa'a is Duane's Ono Char Burger. We'd read about it's legendary burgers in the travel books so we had to go. Upon arrival the place looks very quaint. A word of warning - Duane's is literally on the side of the highway. One errant turn by a driver and you could have a car land on top of you and your burger at the picnic tables.

The menu gives one hope that the burgers will be tasty with choices including different types of cheese, avocado, mushrooms and several sauces.

The burgers were cut in half and nicely wrapped - the Local Girl had teriyaki sauce (a bit too much), Swiss cheese and a pineapple slice - all in all tasty components but they really overpowered the single beef patty.  The Nui-Nui or double beef patty burger was much more satisfying as far as beef flavor was concerned. Fries were much hotter and flavorful than at Bubba Burger and a convenience store next door that sold beer satisfied our craving for a libation.

Unfortunately the incessant buzzing of very hungry flies at the outdoor tables proved to be so annoying that only the colorful chickens and roosters running around the grounds helped to distract us from the insect onslaught.  Bottom line - skip Duane's and cook yourself a burger on your resort's BBQ grill. If you don't have that option then Bubba Burger is a much tastier choice.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Delectable Beef Ribs in Paradise

Surfers at Honolua Bay

It's been said that swimming and playing in the surf makes you very hungry. Seems that was definitely so with dinner on a recent trip to the Ka'anapali Coast in Maui. Although we enjoyed fresh sushi almost everyday at lunch or as an appetizer before dinner, eventually our Midwestern roots and a craving for beef began to gnaw at us.

We rarely see beef ribs at home and were quite surprised to find them at the local Safeway for under $2/lb. Two racks came in the bag - 14 ribs total - enough for two nights dinner for two. That was a much better deal than going out to eat and spending $38 for a single pork chop in Lahaina.

Two of thirty gas grills at the resort

We were staying at The Westin Ocean Resort Villas and they had quite a few gas grills by the pools for use by the guests. We brought down some libations to keep us cool, fired up a grill and proceeded to get to a know a few of our fellow vacationers.

Since beef ribs are pretty fatty and the controls on the gas feed were not easily adjustable the ribs charred up pretty quickly with the flames from the melting fat. We moved them to one side of the grill and turned the heat off under the ribs in order to completely cook them through.

After about 45 minutes of playing with the gas controls the final result was delicious with only a light dusting of salt and pepper for seasoning. Some grilled asparagus rounded out the meal.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Handmade Rustic Wheat Bread

During a recent family get together an accomplished baker in the family offered a  bread baking class. Here is a simple picture of the delicious fruits of their labor. Suffice it to say we had every intention of capturing photos showing slices of bread slathered in butter. The only problem was that we could never manage a shot of the tasty morsels as they were buttered and consumed faster than we could pull out the camera.

Imagine if you will a crunchy crust, sweet creamery butter and a soft, yet hearty interior texture - a piece of bread no mortal can resist!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Piquillo Peppers with Chorizo and Goat Cheese

There was a very tasty photo on the Food Porn Daily site of Chorizo, Chevre and Herb Stuffed Piquillo Peppers. The picture is below and the link to their website with an even larger close up can be found at:

Being a fan of all three main ingredients we decided to make our own version of these. They were delicious and will become a part of our appetizer collection. A few important notes to keep in mind if you make our recipe:
  • Piquillo peppers are small, sweet red peppers with an almost heart-like shape. They are typically roasted and sold in jars or flat tins and imported from Spain.
  • Until a few months ago piquillo peppers were somewhat hard to find on retail shelves. Our web source was: They are now available at Trader Joe's in jars. 
  • Do not confuse piquillo peppers with peppadew peppers which are sweet and tart - those are very different peppers! Peppadews can be a bit overpowering and I would not recommend their use in this recipe.
  • Make sure to use a dry-cured Spanish style chorizo. The fat in Mexican style chorizo is too liquid and the filling will ooze out in an unappetizing manner. Also the flavor of the pimentón (smoked paprika) used in Spanish dry-cured chorizo is important in this recipe.
  • Do not overmix the filling. Just crumble the goat cheese and lightly mix with the other ingredients. You do not want a paste where you lose all the character of the individual ingredients.
  • Use fresh thyme leaves if at all possible. It makes a great flavor pairing with goat cheese, olive oil and black pepper.
  • Do not use a spoon to fill the peppers - fingers are the best utensils to grab some of the filling and drop it into the peppers. A spoon just smears the filling, is hard to get off the spoon and makes more of a mess.
  • Fill the peppers only 3/4 to 7/8 of the way. The filling will spill out during heating if they are too full.
  • Let the peppers rest after heating. When too hot the flavors are muted. Serving at room temperature works well.
Piquillo Peppers with Chorizo and Goat Cheese

3 oz Spanish dry-cured chorizo
3 oz goat cheese
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper
8 roasted, jarred piquillo peppers

1. Cut 1/8" thick slices of chorizo into small dice. Add crumbled goat cheese, thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper and mix very lightly just to combine - do not make a paste!

2. Remove piquillos from liquid reserving liquid. Stuff peppers with approximately 1 tablespoon of chorizo mixture - do not fill each pepper completely.

3. Place stuffed peppers on foil lined sheet pan and pour pepper liquid over them. Refrigerate up to two hours if not ready to heat.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake peppers until heated through - 10 minutes if just stuffed or 15 minutes if they were refrigerated. Allow to cool at least 5 minutes or bring to room temperature before serving.

Servings: 4 as an appetizer
Yield: 8 peppers, 2 per serving
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Ready in: 25 minutes

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Taqueria La Vaquita - Durham, North Carolina

If you are searching for some tasty tacos when in Durham make your way over to Taqueria La Vaquita at 2700 Chapel Hill Rd. Don't worry about missing the place, once you are within a block you won't be able to miss the painted cow statue sporting a straw hat that is on the roof of the building. With only a few picnic benches for communal dining and no indoor seating, the large overhang offers some welcome shade from the sun.

Order at the left hand window and when it's ready they'll serve your order out of the right hand window - just like the old-style ice cream stands.

They offer a very broad menu including tacos, tortas, huaraches and burritos. All can be ordered a la carte or as a dinner with beans and rice. Having returned from Mexico and many delicious tacos only a week earlier, we were pleasantly surprised by the authenticity and delicious flavors found this far north of the Rio Grande.

On the right side of the plate is an Al Pastor taco. It was almost as tasty as those in Mexico with chile rubbed meat, onions and chopped cilantro but was missing the requisite piece of sweet pineapple typically served with Al Pastor in Mexico. On the left side a carnitas taco held soft and moist shredded pork with just lightly crisped ends. At the top of the plate a taco with stewed nopales and chicharon (fried pork rind) left us wondering why they had left out the flavor - perhaps it is too subtle a flavor for gringos to appreciate.

Grilled steak tacos had a good beefy flavor with tender pieces of meat. The red sauce was quite hot with a good balanced flavor. A green sauce was flavorful yet much milder and nicely accented the flavor of the tacos.

A freshly made guacamole had a light whipped texture and bright green color - a refreshing change from the typically heavy and dull versions offered at many locations.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Romantic Meal with a Sunset Backdrop

There are many places to eat in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Mexico in the Pacific state of Guerrero. However if you are looking for a romantic dinner, a setting sun backdrop, excellent service and a menu that could place you in almost any major city in the world, then you might want to head to Villa de la Selva.

Up the hill from the Las Brisas resort on the Ixtapa side of the area, Villa de la Selva has a three tiered dining area on a hillside overlooking the crashing waves. Views of the beach at Las Brisas, most of the Playa El Palmar beach and the point by the Ixtapa Marina frame your views on the right side as you look towards the water. Piped in music seems to come from the trees and if you arrive early you can take a well-maintained foot path to the rocky shore to see the waves up close.

The first dinner reservation is at 7 pm and from late spring through fall it can still be downright hot at that hour - so come at 7:15 pm or 7:30 pm if you prefer a little less sun after an entire day at the beach.

Unfortunately the wine list although extensive is outrageously priced. Forget paying 3 times retail for a bottle of wine - these are all 4 to 5 times or higher - hard to swallow no matter how much cash is burning a hole in your pocket. Stick with the mixed drinks - priced at about 110 Mex. pesos apiece they are a much better bargain and many are made with Havana Club rum from Cuba - currently unavailable in the US.

The starters or appetizers are your best bet. They have an extensive list of offerings that all sounded delicious. We highly recommend making a meal of two appetizers per person and sharing a dessert. The warm rosemary accented dinner rolls with butter were a nice change from totopes (tortilla chips) served elsewhere.

Caesar salads are prepared table-side in the classic fine dining tradition. It was tasty but for our liking it lacked garlic and was an oilier and less creamy version than those to which we are accustomed.

A duet of tostadas with seafood was very light and yet quite flavorful. Two perfectly crisp corn tortilla bases came in two treatments - one with soy, sesame and wasabi accented tuna, the other with a shrimp and avocado medley with flavored  red onion, bits of tomato, cilantro and a subtle chipotle aioli.

The main dishes we ordered were less successful and left us wishing we had ordered differently. The fish trio was very fresh but nothing special. It featured salmon with a green pepper and nut sauce, dorado with a red pepper chipotle sauce and tuna with a soy-ginger sauce. It came with crispy fried spinach leaves and corn (elote) dotted mashed potatoes - but the potatoes were heavy and dragged down the dish. Even though we had specifically requested the tuna be cooked very rare it was cooked to medium and became slightly dry.

The Villa de la Selva fish was a large piece of grilled dorado topped with shrimp and béarnaise sauce served on rice. The shrimp had a strong iodine flavor that overpowered, the béarnaise was slightly broken and the dorado was lost in the mix. Not bad but again nothing memorable.

Although we were split on how we felt about the food itself we agreed that the atmosphere and setting was spectacular. If we were to return we certainly would take a different approach to our menu choices.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Authentic Mexican Without Rick Bayless

We recently had the opportunity to spend some time on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The medium sized twin-town of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is an idyllic place to hang out for a while and enjoy the sun and surf. However one gets hungry and thirsty playing in the waves and reading books.

Eschewing the new Subway in the neighboring hotel and the long-standing Domino's Pizza across the street, we asked Jose, one of the security guards where we were staying where we could get some good tacos in the area without going into the main town of Zihua. He was about to end his shift so we took the micro-bus with him to his hometown of San Jose Ixtapa (a.k.a. Barrio Viejo) a few kilometers inland from the beach.

Jose's sister Juana and her husband own a little taqueria there named after the town. Located at the Y intersection of Avenida Los Tulipanes and Calle Principal, this tiny place with seating for just over 20 is a locals joint open from 6 pm to 2 am to help feed the workers returning home from the resort area. This is locals food - fresh, inexpensive and authentic - and Rick Bayless was nowhere in site although one could imagine him at just such a place.

Fresh bowls of salsa and a radish, tomato and onion salad were laid out before us - one salsa was fiery hot and smoky with little bits of charred peppers, the other a cilantro and onion, milder green sauce was perfectly balanced in its flavors.
Never before liking radishes we were stunned by the delicious contrast of flavors and textures between the firm radishes, zesty onions and sweet tomatoes. Only after developing a bead of sweat across the brow did we learn that Habanero peppers were used in the dish giving it a complex flavor while also being blazingly spicy. The cheese topped green chili chicken enchiladas were the best we've ever tasted - with a smooth and complex flavored chili sauce that was clearly homemade. 

A pork huarache (shown at right) included pork seasoned al-pastor, sauteed peppers and onions and some smooth green chili sauce. Creamy shredded cheese added the crowning note. This was a huarache that required a knife and fork - forget about eating a dry hand held version ever again - we are tainted now and no huarache will ever meet up to this one. If you ever head to Ixtapa you need to find this little gem of a taqueria.

Check out some shots of pork tacos, their hand-written menu board, Juana hand forming huarache and sope bases and her husband cooking on their flat top grill.