Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Grocery Store Tourism

This may seem a bit strange, but one of my very favorite overseas travel activities isn't visiting the museums or galleries (though they're very nice, of course)... it's touring local grocery stores and food shops.

I like to see how the average person lives. In Italy, for example, your average shopper has access to powerful traceability and sourcing information.

Behold! Egg coding!

Italian Egg Coding

The eggshells come with printed sets of numbers. The packaging includes the key to translating the numbers.

What do you find in that code? Everything about where that egg came from, including the state, province, municipality and farm where it was produced, the breed of the chicken and of course, the date on which the hen produced the egg.

Pretty cool, no? One glance at the eggshell, and you know just where it came from, what kind of chicken made it and how fresh it is.

Similarly, when I visited both Italy and France, I noticed that the produce is all labeled with the country and/or region of origin... even at the farmers' markets.

Farmers' market labeling

The second reason I enjoy checking out other peoples' groceries: they have things we don't.

While looking in rural France (Les Eyzies) for food that would work well on the grill, we were delighted to find an upgrade on the traditional canned campsite "pork 'n beans" duo. This canned duck confit and lentils heated up just fine on the grill and made couple of très magnifique dinners.

The same shop also had shelf-stable jars of duck rillettes (essentially a fatty duck spread), which tasted amazing when spread across a fresh baguette.

Can of Lentils & Duck Confit

And finally, there's the joy of discovering cool packaging logos and graphic design. You'll find some of my recent favorites, below:

Goat's Milk Yogurt
An adorable goat's milk yogurt label from Trento, Italy

Devilish Rotisserie Chicken Bag
A devilish rotisserie chicken bag from Toulouse, France

Devilish Rotisserie Chicken Bag
A charming nut sack from Berlin, Germany

Corleggy Cheese Label
A lovely little cheese label from Belturbet, Ireland

I know I can't be alone in my tendency toward grocery store tourism. Anyone have foreign food discoveries to report? Let me know in the comments or link me over to your adventures.

Miss Ginsu

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Two words

Two words that embody what's awesome about flying Air France:

"Champagne Apéritif"

Champagne Aperitif

Ahhhhhh. Chanoine Brut Grande Reserve. The fennel crackers weren't half bad, either.

Actually, I love flying Air France for a number of these little niceties. The texture of the blankets and pillowcases. The fact that (even in the standard economy-class seats) they give me a little travel packet with a moist towelette, earplugs, headphones and an eyeshade.

And I love the menus. Actually, I'll share the menu here. Isn't it lovable?

In-Flight Menu

Here are the offerings within:

Choice of Beverages: beer (Heineken), mineral water, juices, soft drinks, white wine (Vin de Pays d'Oc Chardonnay 2008 La Baume) or red wine (Vin de Pays d'Oc Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 La Baume)

* Surimi, carrot and zucchini salad with ratatouille bread

Choice of Main Course
* Chicken with spiced coconut sauce, basmati rice and fried onions
* Four-cheese tortellini with Neapolitan sauce and Italian cheese

* Butter, demi-baguettes, Camembert wedge, gingerbread-fig tart, fruit smoothie, coffee and tea

Don't forget the after-dinner brandy digestif and the pre-landing snack pack (mineral water, butter cookies, drinkable yogurt).

Nowadays, I usually pack my own picnics on flights. Boiled eggs, summer sausage, apples, grapes, cheese, carrot sticks, raw almonds, a bite or two of chocolate...

I realize cost-cutting is important and all, but flying used to be part of the fun of the travel adventure. I miss those days. Thankfully, Air France still manages to hold on to a few of the humanizing details that make a multi-hour flight bearable.

More from the adventures in Northern Italy and Southern France on the way. Meanwhile, I'd be happy to hear any in-flight food survival tactics, so if you've got one, throw it in the comments.

Miss Ginsu

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FoodLink Roundup: 09.15.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was on the beach in Barcelona (lucky pastry!) Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post a guess in the comments.

The full english: a Flickr set
A bold call for the big breakfast. In color!

Burglar wakes men with spice rub, sausage attack
Clearly a foodie.

Corn Syrup Manufacturers Getting A Little Nervous
The High-Fructose Corn Syrup lobby fights back! Take that, wary American public!

Make Sure the TSA Doesn't Grab Your Snacks
Do remember to pack snacks, but beware of peanut butter portions larger than 3oz...

heita3: vegetable musician
Play (music) with your food! It's the ultimate in biodegradability...

New food links — and a new postcard from Cupcake — every Monday morning on missginsu.com

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On Swordfish Heads & Side Trips

Invariably, travels take people to some big destination city. After all, that's where the airports are, and said destination city is probably chock-full of wealth and wonders, museums and mausoleums.

But there's something infinitely charming and memorable about the little side trips on the way to and from those destination cities.

Is the delight of the small locale wrapped up in its lack of options? Are they winsome because big cities offer predictable experiences and guidebook-ready hot spots, while little villages and tiny towns pop up into your world with no expectations at all? Is the charming side trip completely the product of surprise?

That's probably a big part of it. It's probably also why one person's charming side trip is another person's boring little town in the middle of nowhere.

I don't think one can will or recreate serendipitous travel magic. That said, I will highlight the beguiling little spots I happen across. Maybe you, too, will discover wonder in these tiny map-specks.

One very satisfied chicken
Chicken graffiti in Anzio, Italy.

In Anzio, Italy, just a short train ride from Rome, we arrived hungry. A wander down to the beach led us to the Mare Nostrum Taberna, attractive because it was:
1. Open for lunch.
2. Near the beach.
3. Apparently a seafood restaurant.

Although there were no other customers in sight, when the proprietor told us they had their own dedicated fishing boat that brought back the ocean-fresh seafood he served in the restaurant, we were sold.

Fritto Misto
Ocean-fresh fritto misto di mare

The pasta and bread were forgettable, but all was forgiven when the Fritto Misto di Mare* arrived. Large plates of assorted fresh sea life, dipped in an angel-light batter and fried until crisp and steaming. Even the lemon wedges were fresh, sweet and fragrant, like peak-season Meyer lemons.

Midway through our munching, the proprietor came from the kitchen with the head of a swordfish plunked onto a plate.

Swordfish Head
A swordfish head the proprietor brought out from the kitchen

He proceeded to tell us (in Italian) all about the migratory path of the swordfish, even going so far as to draw a map.

The migratory path of the swordfish
"They follow the same route every time," he said. "So we know just where to find them."

Minutes later, the chef scurried out of the kitchen to reclaim his precious head.

Unfortunately, Anzio does observe the siesta with great enthusiasm, so most of the shops were closed all afternoon. The beach, thankfully, was not.

mmm... gelato

Nor was the artisanal gelateria on the town square, from whence as we walked back to the train station, we scored some of the best gelato we ate during our Roman holiday.

In sum, Anzio, Italy's treasures turned out to be:
1. Ultra-fresh seafood
2. A lazy, lounge-y beach
3. A cute harbor full of boats
4. Really tasty gelato

Worth a meander? Yes. All hail the side trip!

Ciao for now!

* If you happen across a bunch of supremely fresh and tasty-looking little fishes, squids, shrimps and things, you can do your own version of this dish without too much trouble. All you'll need is a deep pot of hot (375°F frying oil), and a seasoned flour coating in which to roll the fish, etc., some lemon wedges and some paper towels on which to drain the crisp-fried results. Sprinkle the hot fish with kosher salt and serve with a dry white wine. Bliss!

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When Agritourism Attacks!

In Italy, where agritourism has been nurtured by government subsidies for decades, business is booming. Who goes to the Italian countryside anymore without participating in a farmstay? C'mon! All the cool kids are doing it.

In case you're new to the concept, it goes like this: a farmstay or agritourism vacation entails traveling to a farm, eating there and (often) staying at (or near) the farmhouse, as you would at a bed & breakfast.

Orchard-picked plums at the farmstay

There's generally participation of some kind in the regional rural lifestyle... Picking fruit in the orchards or vineyards. Observing or helping with food and/or wine-making processes. Currying the ponies. Milking the sheep and making cheese. Feeding the chickens. Stuff like that.

Farmstay in Sora, Italy

And on the off-chance you've managed to miss the press recently, agritourism may have grown up in Italy, but it's not just for European farmers anymore.

There's plenty of folks now betting on U.S. agritourism being big business for rural America.

Evening table setting at the farmstay

And why not? Thanks to renewed interest in food sourcing and a little press from some writer named Michael Pollan, some farmers are already cashing in.

Since I grew up on a tiny Midwestern farm, I suppose I still find the concept of paying (and in some cases, paying dearly) for participation in agritourism to be kind of a bummer. To my mind, it's a bit like paying for content on the internet.
"What? I have to pay for this? But the internet is free, isn't it?"

Realizing I sound like great-grandpa as I say this (type this?), when I was a youngster, farm chores were part of the deal. You didn't pay to do them. If anything, one's weekend spending money was based on completing those tasks.

A curious fellow in Sora, Italy

I understand why it all needs to be monetized. Like Big Daddy Kane says, "Farmin' ain't easy." But it still makes me a little sad if I'm only welcome to visit the countryside if I arrive with a fat wallet.

That said, I do live in the city now, I am starved for contact with the sources of my food, and I was very excited by the prospect of visiting a farm in Italy, breathing fresh mountain air, picking my way through an orchard and conversing with goats. And... I'm perfectly willing to pay for all those benefits.

Rooster water spigot at the farmstay

I'd just offer this advice to city slickers like myself who might be eyeing fertile fields: as more farms transform into tourist businesses, it's going to be increasingly more important to view them as businesses.

Different farms are going to offer different benefits, and like any commercial enterprise, some will suit you better than others, so do your research. Read reviews online before you go. Make sure you know what you'll give and what you'll get.

I have no doubt that the majority of agritourism farmers are truly lovely, generous hosts, but there will be those who simply want to milk you like they milk their cows. Caveat emptor applies as much to wholesome-looking farmhouses as it does to hotels, motels and B&Bs.

Yours in wanderlust,

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Seeking Out the Heavenly Slice

We came, we saw, we ate pizza.

That's how you roll in Rome. Carb-heavy. Pasta with every meal. Pizza on every corner. But if you're lucky, you'll find slices that are worth the trip and the caloric load.

Not far from The Beehive, where we stayed, we discovered a good neighborhood pizzeria on Via Merulana. (I was a bit tired at the time, but I believe the place in question was Cecchini Vincenzo E C (SNC), Via Merulana 203.)

Offering indoor and outdoor seating, the traditionally light Italian beers (including a local brew on draught) and a variety of by-the-slice options which made a tasty introduction to a commonplace local pizza style; unlike crisp Neapolitan pizzas, Roman slices are thicker and more like topping-covered foccacia.

Hearty slices and beers at the Via Merulana pizzeria
Pizza with tuna and spinach at the back, sun-ripe tomatoes in the foreground

Via Merulana pizzeria ingredient pig
Shouldn't every pizzeria have an ingredient pig?

Via Merulana pizzeria upskirt
The Via Merulana pizza gets the trademark "upskirt" treatment, a la Adam Kuban's pizza blog, Slice

I spent a jetlag-y second day at Vatican City, a place that requires its visitors to pay their 12 Euro admission and move through the place with quiet, efficient fluidity. A perfect alignment, actually, since exhausted tourists are mostly only capable of bumping along like mute cattle.

The art at Vatican City? Stunning. Slices at the Vatican City pizzeria? Eh, not so much.

The Vatican slices are bready and limp. The cheese is bland. This pizza may somehow be blessed by virtue of its proximity to the Pope, but it's desperation food, not manna from heaven.

Angel Meets Farmer at the Vatican
Angel meets farmer on the gorgeous Vatican ceilings

Harried staff at the Vatican pizzeria
Harried staff at the Vatican pizzeria

A heavenly pie?
A heavenly pie? Maybe not.

To find the a slice that could properly be deemed "heavenly," you'll need to go farther afield. You'll need to walk the streets of Rome's student neighborhood in San Lorenzo.

As superb as they are, the slices at Come Manna del Cielo don't get a lot of press. Do a Google search, and you'll find the place gets almost no press at all. That's probably because you'll find none of the standard tourist attractions in San Lorenzo. It's a bit run down as a neighborhood, and the old man who runs Manna creates his art within a spare, closet-sized stand.

And for what may just be the tastiest slice in all of Rome, you'll likely have no wait at all. You'll probably even score one of the three plastic chairs out on the curb.

Come Manna dal Cielo
Come Manna dal Cielo (Like Manna from Heaven)... And it really is

Manna Upskirt
A Manna slice gets the upskirt shot.

Zucchini & red pepper paste alongside covered slices of broccoli pesto with sweet sausage
Zucchini & red pepper paste alongside covered slices of broccoli pesto with sweet sausage

If you go, you'll find that the public's loss is your gain. Made with the most basic ingredients, this crust is perhaps the lightest, finest cracker I've ever experienced.

Toppings range from standards of the highest quality (buffalo mozzarella, artisanal provolone) to innovative delights (whitefish & orange; zucchini & pepper paste; broccoli pesto & sweet sausage; anchovy & squash blossom).

Fellow customers will take you aside and whisper that what you've found is no ordinary pizza. This place is special. This man is an artist. These simple slices are infused with a divinity that can only be bestowed by one of pure heart and generous intent.

Like bedazzled pilgrims, we hungrily returned for heaven-sent slices each day for the rest of the trip. I wish my fellow Roman travelers similar good fortune.

Cecchini Vincenzo E C (SNC)
Via Merulana 203
Rome, Italy

Vatican City pizzeria
Musei Vaticani
Rome, Italy

Come Manna dal Cielo
Via del Latini 68/70
Rome, Italy
(Tel: 06-44362242)

Meanwhile, if you missed the previous Italy entries, you'll find the Quick Bites Rome rundown here and the joys of Italian cheese-making here.

Ciao for now!

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Italian Pecorino Cheese: A How-To Video

In my short career in video blogging, I've run through making fresh paneer cheese, watching the Salvatore Ricotta folks stuff cheese into cannoli and now, my latest clip documents the making of uber-traditional pecorino in the Italian countryside.

I'm afraid you'll start to believe I'm a bit cheese-obsessed. I assure you, the theme is entirely coincidental. I swear the next video will be about something other than cheese.

Meanwhile, I have to say, this is really my favorite clip yet, featuring some truly charming Italian sheep and goats I met in the mountains of Abruzzo while on a farm stay near Sora, Italy. They were excellent actors, all. Very cooperative.

Abruzzo, Italy

A very charming goat

Sheep stomach

You'll notice that, in making the cheese, the shepherd uses nothing more than milk in a big, black cauldron, a stick(!), some sheep's stomach and coarse salt. That's it. There's a campfire on hand for making ricotta, which is a byproduct of his pecorino processing.

Aside from the shepherd's snazzy threads, there's very little here that's any different from the way people have been making cheese for thousands of years.

Looks easy, no? But before you go and get yourself a herd of your own, know this: the shepherd and his wife get up before dawn every day to do this. Weekends. Holidays. Every day. There's no vacation from a herd of sheep and goats.

Meanwhile, I secreted a wheel of this very cheese back to the states in my luggage and am going to ask Anne Saxelby to nestle it in her cave to age for a bit. We'll see how it tastes after it's had a few months to rest.

Cheers, ya'll!

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Quick Bites: Rome

Buongiorno! Welcome to Molto MissGinsu week. (After all, why should Mario have all the fun?)

Molto MissGinsu!

Arriving back in the states after a recent quest to the Italian regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, I realized there was just far too much in the way of tasty sites and flavors to sequester the lot into just one post.

So for this week, a special multi-part Italy feature splashes across missginsu.com like a paper sack filled with sun-ripe tomatoes.

Tomorrow we visit the goats and sheep in the mountains, but today we'll check out a few of the varied glories of Rome.

Emperor Constantine's Toes
Emperor Constantine's toes at the Roman Capitoline Museums

Hail, Scooter!
Hail, Scooter!

Vine-on tomatoes
Vine-on tomatoes from the market. So sweet! So rich!

A ripening pomegranate
A pomegranate ripens in a random park.

Market-fresh melons
Market-fresh cantaloupe at the Mercato Esquilino.

The Big View

In Rome, the ever-present tourist season reaches its teeming height in the summertime. I honestly can't imagine why. I hit town on the first of July because J had a conference to attend, but given the choice, I think most any other month would've been preferable.

Simply put, Rome in July is hot and crowded. Think Times Square in July with fewer LEDs and better architecture.

But it's really true what they say... there's something special about the light in Italy.

Buttery mornings. Toasty yellow afternoons. Peachy-pinks every evening.

For the traveler, Rome is expensive, chaotic and occasionally frustrating (transit strike, anyone?), but it's also beautiful, multilayered and quite often, delightful.

While in the city, we stayed at The Beehive, a conveniently located spot that offers friendly, affordable lodging as well as a vegetarian cafe with really tasty cappuccinos, yoga classes, wifi, a quiet garden for reading and Ingmar, the very purr-y resident cat.

The 'hive is situated close to the centrally located Termini Station, a hub for trains, trams, the city's two subway lines and enough shops that you might mistake the place for a shopping mall.

The Bites

From Termini, it's just a short walk to Nuovo Mercato Esquilino (Via Principe Amadeo between the Termini and Piazza Vittorio metro stations) a well-stocked covered market that vends cheap threads in one building, and in the other, all manner of inexpensive fish, veggies, antipasti, cheese, meats, fruits and grocery dry goods. It's great option for fresh fruits or for self-catering, if you happen to have a kitchen on hand. (Go in the morning. They close in the afternoons.)

There's good (and not-so good) eats across the city, of course, but our very favorite Roman meals consisted of:

* The luscious multi-course flavor bonanza at Il Posto Accanto... After, You Sing at Via del Boschetto 36/a. Vegetables are kings here, but they also serve excellent pasta and a meltingly luscious steak with mushrooms.

* The good, simple fare and gorgeous wines at Via Cavour 313, at 313 Via Cavor (naturally). Made with love and located conveniently just 'round the corner from the Colosseum.

* The light, cracker-crisp, artisanal, by-the-slice delights at Come Manna dal Cielo... Like Manna from Heaven at Via del Latini 68/70 (Tel: 06-44362242) in Rome's hip student neighborhood, San Lorenzo. (We stopped here on three separate occasions, so I'll swoon over this spot yet again in my upcoming Roman pizza post.)

* And just down the way, Da Franco ar Vicoletto, San Lorenzo's very no-nonsense, prix-fixe, working-class seafood resto at Via dei Falisci 1/b. They'll offer you clams and mussels in butter sauce, whole fish on platters, the house white wine (ideal with fish!) and dozens of boisterous Italian families enjoying dinner together.

The Takeaway

A lot of the beauty of Italian food is based in its good, locally available ingredients. While there, I couldn't help but notice that many of the vegetable sides were simply (deliciously) done up with a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a squeeze of fresh lemon.

So the takeaway for this trip is a supremely simple recipe for Romi-inspired sautéed zucchini (which happens to be in season at the markets right now)... but gosh, you could use this easy, tasty olive oil/lemon juice trick to accent just about any green vegetable, whether sautéed, roasted, grilled, broiled or boiled.

Just use good, fresh olive oil with good, fresh veggies and maybe add an herb like chopped parsley, mint or basil. Molto fast, molto easy, molto mouthwatering.
Zucchini Di'Lazio

1 tsp olive oil for cooking (+ a little extra for drizzling)
1/2 clove olive oil, minced (optional)
1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 fresh lemon
A few fresh basil leaves/flowers (optional, to garnish)

1. Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and add the garlic, if using. Cook for 1 minute before adding the zucchini or squash.

2. Sauté for 5-8 minutes, stirring up the slices frequently to prevent over-coloring.

3. Add salt and pepper to taste before transferring to a serving plate. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a garnish of basil leaves/flowers, if using. Serve immediately.

And, of course, I took a bunch of lovely photos (mostly food, of course) that reside here in the full Italy photoset at Flickr.

Ciao for now!

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FoodLink Roundup: 06.30.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was located out in San Francisco's über-tasty Ferry Market. Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post a guess in the comments.

Best North American food festivals
Can't make it to Buñol, Spain for La Tomatina? Check for a food fest closer to home.

10 Tips for Homemade Ice Cream Success
Some solid advice for making sure you have success with your homemade ice cream.

Choux City
Oh, tasty little pastry, choux have stolen my heart.

"A powwow won't function without frybread."

Pollinator Partnership
Awareness of and research for colony collapse disorder. Save the bees!

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FoodLink Roundup: 06.02.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was located in old-timey Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post a guess in the comments.

Gummi Bear Anatomy
File under: Things you never really wanted to see...

Swansong to tube boozing
What? Heavy drinking leads to bad behavior? I'm astounded!

Slow Travel
For the tourist who prefers a dreamy pace...

A Tease for the Taste Buds
Perception-bending fruit worthy of a Philip K. Dick story.

One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal
So much waste! Pretty disturbing.

Soup Noodles in Manhattan's Chinatown
There's so many noodle shops in Manhattan's Chinatown, but how many are worth a stop?

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All-American Road Trips: Denver

Rocky Mountains, Colorado

The Big View

Flanked by mountains and ringed with highways, it's easy to get lost in Denver's strip malls, chain restaurants and outer-ring developments, but once you find your way to Colfax Avenue, you're on the road to dining with the locals.

I was suffering from a dreadful cold on the trip, so we didn't get out to the bars at all, but there were a couple of spots that came highly recommended by my buddy Alex (a former Denverite):

My Brother's Bar: "A classy spot with fantastic burgers (try a JCB burger)."

The Cruise Room: "If you're staying right downtown this is a good bet for cocktails, though the crowd can be a bit obnoxious on the weekend."

The Bites

Jack Daniels Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Just blocks from the Botanical Garden, Liks Ice Cream is a friendly neighborhood joint that features homemade ice creams and sorbets alongside umbrella-shaded outdoor seating. If you're not up for ice cream, the iced coffees and chai seem like a good bet. I had the Jack Daniel's Chocolate Chip, which tastes lightly alcoholic and quite creamy... very much like an iced Bailey's.

Though it's not exactly a cafe, I'm a book junkie, so the Tattered Cover gets a happy mention. Good coffee, tasty-looking pastries and, of course, books! They have several locations, but why not go to the historic LoDo locale? It's huge, comfy, welcoming and chock-full of high-quality staff picks to help you snag a winner or two among the hundreds of selections on the shelves.

Pete's Kitchen

Serving 24 hours daily in a slightly seedy stretch of Colfax Ave, Pete's Kitchen is a classic greasy spoon. My friend Alex recommended it for the chicken-fried steak. The "how ya doin' hon?" staff all seem sweet and genial, if harried. Pete's has been an institution since 1942, so you're here as much for the history as for the gyros platter with fries.

Side Dishes at Domo

If you don't make a reservation, you're going to endure a long wait at Domo's country-style Japanese restaurant. But the lobby is large, the decor is warm and engaging, and you can spend a few minutes walking through the various rooms and gardens. I didn't get a good sense of their fish craftsmanship, but their Wankosushi(TM) combo helps to offer sushi newbies an easy way to navigate various classics by offering a pick-three (or pick-five) small-plate option that arrives with miso soup and an array of kitchen-selected side dishes. It's filling, fun and approachable.

Tacos Platter

El Taco De Mexico strikes me as the kind of place that once featured great food at fantastic prices, but now that it's been listed in a few national publications, they've raised the rates a bit. That said, it's still a good lunch spot. The neighborhood seems like one that's recently been reclaimed by a handful of small, arty businesses, so it's nice for a little post-taco stroll. Order in Spanish or English. The staff is fluent in both. You'll sit with the locals, sip horchata and chew your burrito or tacos in a busy, but tidy, diner booth.

The Takeaway

Denver, Denver everywhere, but I never once saw a Denver Sandwich. The classic Denver Sandwich is essentially a western-style omelette on bread. If you're going low-carb, just skip the bread and eat the omelette. This would also be nice with a slice of cheddar or a spicy pepper jack melted across it. Mmmm...

Denver Sandwiches (Serves 2)

4 eggs
2 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp butter, melted
Dash of salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup ham, diced
1 green onion, sliced thin
1/4 cup green pepper, diced
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 slices good-quality bread

1. Beat the eggs, milk, melted butter, salt and pepper together until blended. Add the ham, green onion and green pepper.
2. In a heavy frying pan or skillet over a medium flame, heat the olive oil.
3. Pour the egg mixture into the pan, creating an even layer.
4. Cook about 3-5 minutes, lifting the edges to allow excess egg run underneath.
5. Run a spatula around the edges of the pan to loosen the eggs. Turn the omelette carefully, and cook another minute or two on the other side. Slide onto a plate and cut in half.
6. Toast and butter the bread, using half of the omelette for each sandwich.

Tattered Cover Book Store
1628 16th St

Liks Ice Cream
Liks Ice Cream Parlor on Urbanspoon
2039 E 13th Ave

Domo on Urbanspoon
1365 Osage St
(Just off W Colfax Ave)

Pete's Kitchen
Pete's Kitchen on Urbanspoon
1962 E Colfax Ave

El Taco de Mexico
El Taco de Mexico on Urbanspoon
714 Santa Fe Dr


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A Guide to the Guides

I find that as marketers and advertisers become increasingly more savvy, it becomes increasingly more difficult to parse the difference between the authentic rave and the shill.

On a recent trip to Baltimore, mom and auntie and I stopped at a Maryland tourism center conveniently set up in one of the roadside rest stops along the turnpike. The brochures, of course, were legion. And you have to expect that in that environment, 97% of the material is going to be marketing and maybe 3% is going to be made up of legitimately helpful advice and maps.

I picked up a couple of the guides relating to food (you're surprised, right?) and found that one was great, and the other was utter garbage recycling.

In comparing these two food guides, I was able to come up a few helpful questions that I believe will be useful for me (and, hopefully for you) on the future forays into unknown lands.

How to tell if the guidebook in your hands offers genuinely good dining advice or just a bunch of advertorial content.

1. Who wrote it?
The Dish guide (seen above), was written by the editors of Baltimore magazine. They're putting their names on it. The Maryland Dining Guide (also above) was written by "Media Two" in conjunction with the Maryland Restaurant Association and the State of Maryland.

While magazine editors might actually give you the real dish in the Dish be assured the Maryland Restaurant Association isn't going to risk ticking off any of its members. You know darn well that Dining Guide will feature glowing praise for every Applebee's in the state.

2. What's the advertising to information ratio?
Is the guidebook in your hands chockablock with ads? Are there more ads per square inch than restaurant listings? If your guidebook seems more like an adbook, you can probably assume they're far more interested in cashing in than in helping you out.

3. How many coupons does the guide feature?
This is not to say that coupons are necessarily the mark of the beast for a given restaurant. They're simply a strong warning sign. If the food's great and it's reasonably priced, people will go there. Great local places generally don't need big ads and coupons to bring the mouths in the door.

4. Are there images and reviews of restaurants and cafes, or just listings?

If the guidebook's intent is to list every eatery in town, they're not offering guidance. They're offering a phone book.

5. If there are reviews, do they use the words, "scrumptious," "delectable" or "succulent" a lot?
A word like "scrumptious" is rarely used by a professional reviewer because it's an empty word. It means delicious. But what does "delicious" really mean? It's vague.

The phrase, "The pancakes at Joe's are scrumptious" has nothing on "Cookie Joe serves up flapjacks the way his Grandpappy Joe did: thick, airy and stacked up high on the plate." The second phrase tells you more about those pancakes than a simple, soulless synonym for "delicious" would.

Along the same lines, a shill is never going to have a bad word to say about a restaurant. It's a sign of quality if the reviews give some credit to the bad along with the good.


In sum, determining what's advertorial content is tricky. It's meant to be tricky. They want your money.

If you're really interested in eating well on the road, you might consider skipping the tourism center altogether and hitting the regional forum messageboards at chowhound.


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Quick Bites: Barcelona

A friend of mine recently journeyed to Barcelona. Having loved the place so much when I went, I was somehow certain she would encounter wonders on every corner.

Sadly, she returned with an appreciation for the architecture and the climate, but little love for the food.

Though aghast, I blame myself. I didn't offer up any advice at all on the favorite spots I'd visited... and it's so easy to go astray when a traveler doesn't know the territory.

In an effort to help friends and random readers avoid similar fates, I'm starting up a new series: Quick Bites. Each edition will feature a few city highlights, a few beautiful photographs, and a recipe inspired by the locale. By no means an exhaustive list (these are nibbles, after all) my hope is that web travelers and world travelers can both encounter something enjoyable.

In this first edition: Barcelona, Spain

Contemplative Bull
Shall I go to the beach, or visit Sagrada Familia?

The Big View

The art! The beach! The sunshine! The wine! The cheese! Oh, lovely Barcelona! We were lucky enough to be in an apartment, so I was able to take full advantage of the enormous Boqueria market (see below).

I'd made up my mind beforehand to try every paella I could get my hands on. I now believe that was a mistake. The paellas were fine, but even the best seemed to pale in comparison to the very simplest dishes we ate... the tapas (locally referred to as pintxos, in the Basque tongue), the fresh-squeezed orange juice, the rich hit of a cortado (an espresso with a splash of hot milk), the toasty delight of double-baked brioche and the creamy wonder of cheese gelatos.

The Bites

Cabra in the Cave
Cabra in the cheese cave

As you stroll through the Gothic Quarter, walk into this tidy cheese shop, gawk at the tasty cheese cave and speak with the friendly cheese mongress, a charming Scot, who vends wonderful local cheeses, delightful small plates and flights of her delicious, inventive cheese gelatos (formatgelats).

Formatgeria La Seu
Carrer Dagueria 16
Tel: 93 412 65 48)

Fried Chilies
Simple, tasty fried chili tapas.

Supremely simple tapas in a no-nonsense old-school wine tavern. They're all about the basics here. Glasses of wine with ungarnished platters of cheese, sausage, serrano, pa amb tomaquet (tomato-rubbed bread) and tasty classics like the fried chilies pictured above. I found the place to be a refreshing oasis of homeyness in an overdeveloped 'hood.

La Bodegueta
Rambla de Catalunya 100

Twice-Baked Brioche
Twice-baked brioche

I've already covered this bakery more exhaustively in a previous post, but for the moment I'll just say... yum. And there's more than one location, so you can go twice in a day without looking like a swine.

Forn de Pa Mistral
Ronda Sant Antoni 96
(or Torres i Amat 7)
Tel/Fax: 93.302.41.39

The Boqueria Mercado
Roasted vegetable salad at the Boqueria

On visiting Barcelona, I'm sure every food writer is required by law to mention the Mercat de la Boqueria. There's good reason for the hype. The place has been around since time immemorial, forever featuring great food and lots of it. I think I went there every day... Sometimes twice a day. Fresh tapas at this counter, gorgeous local fruit over there, fascinating mushrooms or nuts or cured meats or fresh fish or... or... or... I'm still thinking about this delicious roasted vegetable and hummus salad I got at a little shop right next to the back entrance. Go exploring there and uncover your own new favorite thing.

Mercat de la Boqueria
Plaça de la Boqueria,
Tel: 93.318.25.84

Thick Chocolate at Origen 99.9
Pudding-like chocolate at Origen 99.9%

The ultimate in of-the-moment travel, Origen 99.9% sources its ingredients and recipes locally, basing its cuisine in Catalan classics. Going heavy on lunch (and lighter on dinner) in Barcelona makes this town a better bargain, and Origen 99.9% provides a delicious (and satisfying) three-course prix fixe to get you through siesta and into tapas-time. Don't miss their in-house food magazine and the line of ready-made delights they sell.

Origen 99.9%
Several Locations
Tel: 932 411 600
Fax: 932 411 786

Cortado and Fresh Orange Juice
Barcelona addictions: the cortado and fresh-squeezed local orange juice

This isn't a place recommendation, per se, but a couple of directives.

The cortado (espresso and a splash of hot milk) is a wonderful drink, so if you're into coffee, order one. They're ubiquitous and addictively drinkable.

Also: If you ever come across (and you will... they're everywhere) a Zummo or Frucasol machine — crazy contraptions that squeeze oranges into wonder juice, order juice immediately. Fresh-squeezed Spanish oranges are so lively and delicious you'll never be happy with a carton of Tropicana again.

The Takeaway

I ate Pan Tomaquet (Pa amb Tomaquet in Catalan) daily while I visited Barcelona. The tomatoes were luscious, good olive oil was plentiful, the bread was nearly always decent and the resulting dish was a simple delight. I wouldn't attempt it without garden-fresh tomatoes, good bread and good olive oil. The most simple dishes invariably require the best ingredients.

Pa Amb Tomaquet
Pa Amb Tomaquet Tomato-Rubbed Bread (Serves 2-3)

1 baguette, cut into 5"-6" portions and halved (toasted, if you wish)
1-2 large, ripe, in-season tomatoes, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Rub cut-side of tomato across top of baguette.
2. Drizzle with olive oil.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Serve with glasses of rioja and some nice Spanish olives or anchovies.


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FoodLink Roundup: 03.17.08

Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake turned up in Muir Woods, CA. Where in the world is cupcake this week? Got it nailed down? Post in the comments...

Guinness good for you... officially!
Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, Guinness gets the backing of some scientific research. Sláinte!

Roundup Bonus: Check out the glowing ad copy in this old-school Guinness advert.

Can the World Afford A Middle Class?
Consequences of the global consumption boom? We all pay more for bread, milk and chocolate.

Restaurants Feel the Bite
The stay-at-home mom trend hits the restaurant industry.

More Than Salad
This looks to be a great travel resource for veggies on the wing.

Jack: an occasional restaurant
A fellow NYC food blogger opens an "occasional restaurant" in the totally cool Brooklyn Lyceum.

How the World is Eating...
As food costs rise, some families share how they're dealing with dinner.

10 New York classics
The Guardian fires back after New York Magazine issues its latest list of food & drink favorites.

Red Hook Vendors Get 6-Year Permit
Hooray! Soccer tacos for everyone! Or at least, everyone in Brookyn...

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The Cookies of the Dead

Much as I love Halloween, I think the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is far cooler.

A couple of hundred years ago, Halloween held a solid position in the autumn calendar as a religious event. These days, I'd bet a lot of people don't even realize that the "Eve of All Hallows" is supposed to be followed by All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on the 2nd.

Similarly, the Day of the Dead (sometimes called the Día de los Fieles Difuntos) is observed in Mexico from November 1-2. Annual rituals involve activities like cleaning and decorating loved ones' graves and building altars or small shrines that include supremely amusing little skeleton figurines made from paper mache, photos of deceased relatives, crosses, orange marigolds, candles, liquor and food, such as the pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Dia de los Muertos Altar

While our modern Halloween has lightened its dark roots in favor of overflowing candy buckets for the little ones and sexy cop, nurse, shepherdess, fairy, zombie, etc. costumes for the adults, the Day of the Dead really can't help but remain conscious of the tenuous barrier between life and death. It's right there in the name. More than that, it's rooted in a culture that's apparently more strongly linked to remembrance than candy and costume. And because remembrance is such a personal process, the Day of the Dead necessarily demonstrates a more handmade and individual texture.

Dia de los Muertos Parade

A while back, I visited Tulum and Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán Peninsula during the Día de los Muertos celebrations. Different towns have different celebrations, of course, but Playa del Carmen went all out with an elaborate parade sponsored by the local culture center. It was a stunning carnival of fire and fireworks, undead musicians and jugglers, whirling dancers, springing acrobats and skeletons (both tall and tiny).

Dia de los Muertos Children

Homespun, heart-filled and gorgeous, that celebration was rich with reminders of death, and it made me love life all the more.

You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I found an Alice Medrich recipe for Day of the Dead Cookies in her excellent Chocolate Holidays cookbook. A whole stack of chocolate-vanilla skulls. The accompanying photo was both cute and creepy. I was instantly sold.

When I actually baked them, I discovered that this cookie is little complicated to make and it has about a 50% success rate. By that I mean: Only about half of the cookies are recognizable as skulls. I was initially a little crushed, but then I reconsidered. Even the rejects were delicious and the skulls that work are pretty cute.

Here's my recommendation: Make the cookies and separate them into two piles. Label the rejects, "Chocolate-Vanilla Crinkle Cookies." They're crispy, tasty and excellent with a cup of coffee. Take them to work and give them to your hungry coworkers. The other pile with the more successful skulls are your "Day of the Dead Cookies," and they're cute and crispy and tasty (and also good with coffee). Revel in the fact that they're delicious and imperfectly homemade, much like the Día de los Muertos itself.

Dia de los Muertos Cookies
Spooky, scary or just plain dumb. A gang of tasty skull cookies.

Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies
from Chocolate Holidays by Alice Medrich
(Makes about 3 dozen. About half of them will look like skulls.)

Vanilla Dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Chocolate Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process or natural
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar, lump free
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Baking sheets lined with parchment paper

1. To make the vanilla dough, mix the flour, baking powder and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Set aside.

3. To make the chocolate dough, in a medium bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Set aside.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar with the back of a spoon or an electric mixer until smooth and creamy but not fluffy (less than 1 1/2 minutes with an electric mixer). Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log the same length as the vanilla log. If the dough is too soft and sticky to handle, place it in the freezer to firm up.

5. To shape the skulls, reshape each log of dough so that it is skull-shaped rather than round: Make one side of the skull narrow for the chin and jaw and leave the other side wide for the cranium. Wrap and refrigerate the chocolate dough. Form features in the vanilla dough, using the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes for eyes through the entire length of the log. Form the nose with a skewer, poking two holes for nostrils. Form the mouth by inserting a narrow table knife and wiggling it back and forth gently to lengthen and widen the opening. Don't try for perfection: irregular holes make the best and weirdest skulls. Wrap and refrigerate the vanilla dough. Chill both doughs at least two hours, preferably overnight.

6. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the chocolate dough into 1/8-inch slices and place them at least 1 1/2 inches apart on the lined baking sheets. Cut the vanilla dough into 1/8-inch slices and place 1 slice on top of each chocolate slice. Bake until pale golden at the edges, 12 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking. Slide parchment liners directly from the baking sheets to the rack with a metal pancake turner, waiting 1 to 2 minutes if necessary to let the cookies form up before moving them. Cool cookies completely before stacking or storing. Cookies keep at least 1 week in an airtight container.

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Food Quote Friday: Pyotr Kropoptkin

"If you want to know the people of a nation, I am sure you can judge a great deal
more about them from their cooking and eating traditions than you can from the words
and actions of their public officials."

-Pyotr Kropoptkin in Mutual Aid

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Deck the halls with... groceries

I'm sticking around New York this year for the holidays, but I thought I'd post this series I took a couple of years ago at the South Dakota state capitol building.

They go all out there with the decorated trees. Local schools, boy scout troops, philanthropic organizations and fraternal clubs rally their resources to put up a pine and adorn it with homespun ornamentation. If you're thinking, "Gosh, that sounds ever-so Norman Rockwell," you're on the right track.

Here's a quick virtual tour via photo essay that, of course, can't really hint at the pine-resin breeze or compare with the twinkling splendor of the genuine article.

In keeping with my personal obsession, I've focused on the food-related aspects.

Here's hoping you get some time off for feasting and festing. Enjoy your holidays!

SD State Capitol Display
The overview from the balcony

Marshmallow Man
Do you know the marshmallow man?

Wooden spoon cat
Apparently, wooden spoons were meant to be cats. This explains why they turn out to be such crappy utensils for eating.

Walnuts and fishing lures
We go together like walnuts and fishing lures, baby.

Dried apples on raffia
Dried apples + raffia = rustic holiday cheer

Santa on a stick
Santa on a stick!

Find heaps of food photos at my flicker page: flickr.com/photos/missginsu

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A sweet moment in airport security

Okay... raise your tiny fist if you've had something taken from you at the airport gate.

Yeah, me too. My water bottles, tweezers and little red Swiss Army Knives have all made it into the TSA refuse pile.

Fellow foodies returning from far-flung feasts (the recent AAA estimate put this year's holiday travel number at 37.2 million Americans traveling 50 or more miles from home) should appreciate this delicious moment relayed from the rim of the shiny silver TSA arch.

Forwarded-From: Ted
Subject: Sweet moment in airport security

Last week I went through security at Newark. I had just put my carry-on, pocket stuff, laptop and shoes on the belt and was standing in stocking feet waiting to go through the metal detection arch. A dozen people were in line for the arch ahead of me.

I looked down. There was a bin full of discarded bottles. Most, but not all, were plastic.

I espied a long, thin bottle of dark fluid. "Tawny Port," it said, "20 years old." Unopened.

I picked it up. Nobody cared.

I opened the plastic. Nobody cared.

I uncorked it. Nobody cared.

I took a fine, heady draught of very very nice port.

Other passengers were curious but declined to share it with me.

Regretfully I put it back in the bin and strode through the arch, feeling for once that I had not been violated, but elevated, by the Security Experience.

Cheers, T

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Sea and Crumpets

J, a mouth on the move between Seattle and San Jose this week, reports in from the field (or dock, as it were) on a subject dear to my stomach: quality brekkie.

First good brekkie of the trip today. There's a place at Pike
called The Little Crumpet Shop that rocks unconditionally.

$1.50 for a mug of unlimited refills of freshly brewed loose leaf
tea, $3 for a bowl of groats(!) with honey, milk and currants. Mmm.

My insides are so happy. They had the usual little sign about not
bringing outside food into the place, but they wrote in special
permission to bring fresh fruit from the market. Aw.

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Missives from Miss Molly: Last call at Montali

caprese garnish
"caprese garnish" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

dami, eva e minty carrot sorbet
"dami, eva e minty carrot sorbet" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

fichi ripieni con crema gorgonzola
"fichi ripieni con crema gorgonzola" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

In this final letter from her ever-exciting post in beautiful Umbria, Italy, Miss Molly and her motley kitchen crew once again push out plate after plate of beautiful vegetarian cuisine despite a tearful screaming match, a wild boar on the loose, a motorcycle accident and much public drunkenness.
Ciao Regazzi!

Well, my summer in Italy is coming to an end. It was pretty eventful week last week. Just wait... it's a good one.

Sandra yelled at Judit, and if you can recall, Judit shakes like a leaf. The poor thing started crying, and Alberto came in and yelled at both of them. Unfortunately, I was the only other person in the kitchen and knee-deep in polishing glasses, so I couldn't really put them down and walk away. I didn't quite know what to do.

Sandra yelled back at him. She was always a bitch to Judit and had it in for her from the beginning, but no one knows exactly why. I mean, Judit is this cute girl from Hungary who is on a scholarship to go to school in Italy. She's at Montali to earn some money over the summer to continue improving herself and education. Sure, she hasn't done the best job in the world, but the girl puts in one helluva effort. What more could you possibly ask from someone?

Anyway, Sandra and Judit share a room, so we took Judit to the castle and had her stay with us. Sandra took off in the middle of the night. So I guess she's not part of my restaurant dream team anymore.

A few days later, Sandra came back, I guess to get her paycheck or something, and told Chef that Judit was having an affair with boss! Can you believe that? Remember I wrote about that a while back? First she had the balls to come back and ask for money, and then she said something like that. Any respect I had for her and her hard work went down the drain at that point.

A few nights later, Jaro took the Honda 600 home, but he couldn't get it started right away, so we said that when we dropped everyone off back at the castle, we would turn around and go back to Montali if he hadn't arrived yet. We saw the light coming up the road, so Josh and I waited for him. Jaro pulled up and started stumbling around and told us he had fallen off the bike when a wild boar jumped out in front of him.

I didn't believe him. We joke around like that... but then I saw the blood (See the photos here. Don't worry—they aren't gory). We helped him up the walk and when we got into the light, the blood was only from a couple of scrapes... not too bad. Then we realized how drunk he was. He didn't go to work the next day because of some internal bruises, but nothing serious. Chef and Alberto are babying him, and he's soaking up every last drop of it. It makes me want to barf.

Janko doesn't like Sara because he says he acts like she is in kindergarten. In the kitchen, she has the attention span of the kindergartner, but Eva (who has the day off with her) says she seems totally competent outside of work and doesn't know why she's like that inside the kitchen. Sara drove to the store yesterday and when I walked in the house, I noticed a 22oz bottle of beer she had finished on the counter before she left. Is the whole world drunk and I'm the only one who's sober?

We had a really good night last night. Really smooth, good-looking food and no stress. I am really going to miss this place. I enjoy working here very much, and it's too bad that it took me so long to adjust. Now that it's over, I feel like all my complaints have been are trivial. To use a cliché: hindsight is always 20/20.

It's so beautiful and peaceful out here, and not having internet access regularly is not as bad as seemed at first. The boss and chef are fun people who love life and I'm totally in love with their son, Damiano. He's one cool kid.

My hair cut went great. It was difficult to tell them what I wanted, but we got it accomplished. If I could, I would fly here every four months just to have Marco do my hair again. The town of Tavernelle is lucky to have him.

I'd like to close my last travelogue by saying a few nice things about the people I'm ending this adventure with:

Janko: A great great cook with a great sense of humor. He taught me how to just work and not to bitch about it because it's not that big of a deal. I learned this just by watching him.

Eva: so classy and intelligent. I never know what she is thinking, but in a good way. When someone starts acting stupid, she is the last one to roll her eyes. She's great fun to be with and I think she is going to go far in life.

Jaro: Also great fun and funny. I think his Mr. Bean voice makes everything funnier than it actually is, especially when he sings.

Judit: She's always scared as hell but does it anyway. I will miss her very much and I wish her well in her studies. Bravo to her for working at it.

Josh: Always willing to listen and think about it... An admirable quality.

Chef: Her passion for life is contagious. She's a happy person and works her ass off. She always listens and genuinely cares about other people, and this 50-year-old woman has more stamina than I do. I'm lucky to have worked for her for this short amount of time.

Boss: No matter how "stressful" his job is, it's been great fun to get into verbal sparring matches with him. When all is said and done, he has created a pretty special place here at country house Montali.

And last but not least, Sara: A free spirit who always wants to please. She's been nice to everyone, and harbors no hard feelings. Bravo to her, as well.

Thank you all for listening to my rants and raves, my highs and lows and reading my most personal thoughts. This has become an immense experience for me, and much more personal than I ever anticipated. And yes, everyone was right: I don't want to leave.

See you in America soon!

With deepest gratitude,
Miss Molly

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Missives from Miss Molly: 20 Questions & Limoncello

their view of the parade
"bitter greens with caramelized cippolini vinaigrette and fresh figs" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"gelato in Tavernelle" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"i love this place" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

Miss Molly, a cook I worked with at Tabla in New York, sends along one of the last few postcards she'll write from her summer-long post at the ever-so-upscale Umbrian restaurant and inn, Montali.

This note finds our dear Molly winning at Alberto's homegrown Quizbowl, reveling in kitchen-slave solidarity and falling in love with the world.

Okay, only one or two more left. Work has steadily slowed, which is nice. As of the past few days, the only special diets we've had is the kosher family (the koshies) which like I said before wasn't so bad to do, because we can make everyone's meal kosher, but they left today.

Anyway, so we come back from siesta on Tuesday and right away Alberto starts undermining the chef in front of everyone and immediately afterward starts asking me stupid questions like what the capitol of Iceland is. Our relationship is more or less built on sassing each other and his wanting to see how far I’ll go with the patriarch of the Montali kingdom, and usually it's fun, but it also usually does not come out of left field. So when I answered, he acted all shocked that a stupid American would actually know such a thing, and then he starts asking me exactly what they taught us in school history-wise, and I haven't been in school in 9 years, so in that moment all I could remember was Mr. Alderson’s American history class when I was a junior in high school. I told him I didn't really remember. He can be a real pompous jerk sometimes.

Too bad for him that I couldn't care less about what he and his nationalist ass think about me and my mouth and brain. Plus, I didn't have to pay someone money for three years to be my spiritual leader to learn the same things I’ve learned spiritually by working in a kitchen for three and half years.

So later that evening I’m plating this dish, putting sauce around the ring molded rice to be exact, and Alberto starts freaking out at me to not get sauce on the rice. He kept trying to tell me this way to do it and I didn't understand what he was exactly trying to say and for him to show me how he wants it done so I can follow is movements.

He said I didn't understand because I wasn't listening. I finished fine, and his anger only affected me because it was on top of other girl problems I started having about three hours before. Plus, I’m not one to totally freak out. It’s just annoying. And he is the boss, and I do work for him... I just sucked it up like a good cook should do.

When we arrived at the castle after work and Jaro handed over the keys, he gave my hand a squeeze and i just remembered how good it felt to have the human contact that I so often isolate myself from, and it was his way of saying it was okay. And I was okay, before that, but it was still just nice.

Uuummmmm what else? I was better with Sarah this week. She still gets annoying. She's one of those people who take one sip of alcohol and her whole personality changes. Mostly I feel bad for her. I’m learning to be tolerant, of her and other things that annoy me. I don't want to be one of those people. The boss seems to think she is really passionate about cooking and to quote him exactly, "since she's Italian, she already had a really good palette. Italians can tell with their mouth all the technical aspects of cooking."

This made me realize I need to travel around Italy a lot more and meet new Italians because I do not want to go back to America with this tainted version of Italy as my last impression.

Josh is his same gloomy self. Too proud and a bad attitude. Someday he'll have his ass handed to him and he'll learn. Maybe he's just been at Montali too long. On a positive note, he has some pretty decent music which he so graciously put on my computer. Also, when I’m not put off by his constant know-it-all cynicism, he can be insightful.

Ester started spreading rumors that boss was having an affair with Judit. A few people believed them for about a week, and when she said something after that about Eva, we knew she was lying. About once a week, Eva comes over to me and Sarah's apartment after work and we sip Limoncello and maybe a few Coronas. It’s pretty fun and we do the stereotypical girlie thing like talk about the drama that surrounds the 10-person team at Montali. It gives me a sense of sisterhood, something I only really feel when I go see my girls out in California. I need to be more open to that when I get back to New York.

At night, I sit by my window because I can watch the people walk by around the castle. I usually let the breeze cool me off after 15 hours in a hot kitchen and listen to music or watch the Golden Girls. And I always get that familiar overwhelming feeling of love. Like I love Eva and Jaro and even Josh and Sarah and Janko. They are fun to work with and we have a good time and I feel lucky to have that in my life.

I am lucky to feel sad that I probably won't ever see these people again after two weeks because that means they have touched my life in some sort of special way. And the chef tells me weekly that she is going to miss me a lot and how she is going to open a nice bottle of wine on my last night. And Josh and Jaro and Eva say we are going out to party on my last night. And I feel celebrated and loved and happy and sad and thankful... The last time I can distinctly remember feeling this way was when I was 14 and my mom threw me a surprise birthday party at "Hungry Burger." It just feels so good... and I didn't even have to pay a spiritual advisor who will eventually leave his body to learn all this!

On a lighter note, I just wanted to note that I’ve never felt such beautiful clean rain in my life before, and to document that all last week we had a thunder storm pass through almost everyday for about two hours followed by beautiful sunsets and clean, clear skies. The other thing I wanted to note, was the color of the eggs we have here. They are so bright orange; Like if they were a Crayola, they would be red-orange. I am posting a picture of one of the yolks, but I don't think it shows the true intensity of the color.

Okay, I think that's all for now folks. I’m getting my hair done next Thursday.... just cut and a few highlights, but it's by someone that doesn't speak English and I don't speak Italian, so we'll see how it ends up. Stay tuned!

Love, Molly

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Missives from Miss Molly: A taste of traditional Tuscany

their view of the parade
"their view of the parade" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"man and ox" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

bigne con crema di funghi
"bigne con crema di funghi" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

Drawing near the end of Miss Molly's cooking adventures at the highly improbable —but ever-so-upscale—Montali (a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria, Italy), we watch our young heroine dine on Tuscan traditions, discover that co-worker Sara is a closet drunk and ponder the takeaways from this summer of sweat and searing stoves.

Ciao regazzi,

I know it's been a few weeks since I wrote last. I can't remember too well where left off. I’ll start by saying we are in a really, really busy week. Not only is the hotel full, but we have reservations from outsiders every night as well.

And to top it off, we have five to six people with special diets, like one is strictly kosher, meaning we had to buy separate plates, pots and pans and knives and utensils etc. Which isn't so bad, but we also have one who can't eat onions, and one who is allergic to eggs and alcohol. It gets confusing as we have to make four separate dishes that are the same but with restrictions.

It’s time-consuming and we only have five burners on the stove. So far, so good, though. We just have to repeat to our chef and to ourselves exactly what we are making over and over and over again.

I just repeat my usual mantra of "This will make me a better cook. This will make me a better cook." I’ve said that to myself for so long now, I can see an improvement in stressful situations.

Last Sunday, there were only two people on the book, so the chef gave everyone a half day. We split the day into shifts, and Eva, Josh and I took the morning. We went to Citta' della Pieve, and they were having some celebration of some medieval thing and were doing so by having a parade. After that, we drove to Toscana and had a "traditional Tuscan meal".

It was a nice day and even nicer to hang with my coworkers on a social level. Thank god we got the morning shift, because if I had to spend the day with Sara, I would have died.

I know, I know... I liked her a lot at first, but everything went downhill when I heard her straight-out lie to the chef to cover her ass. If there is anything I can't stand, it's someone who lies.

That was a while ago when we realized Sara drinks a little too much. She went out one night, drank way too much, told the chef she only had one beer and didn't know why she felt so bad and she got sent home. And then she broke a glass, didn't sweep, and blamed it on Judit the next day when chef lectured us about leaving shards of glass on the marble countertop. Plus, she gets wasted drunk at work. But I digress.

Eva, Josh and I had a really nice time and I’m glad I got to hang out with them. I’m really going to miss Montali when I leave. It’s hard work, but I like working for the chef and think she and Alberto have done a really cool thing. I’m glad I took this opportunity and really, really hope to do something like this again in the future.

I’m trying to figure out what exactly it is that I am taking away with me, but haven't come near a conclusion. I suspect that will happen in retrospect.

I also feel like when I return to New York, I will be starting all over again there, too. At first that scared the hell out of me, but now I am looking quite forward to it. Some people will be there, some won't. And like everything else in my life, the only constant is me and my family.

Ciao for now,

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Forbidden Fruit: The Mangosteen

The mangosteen, unadulterated.

Press gently on the tough shell to break open the fruit.

The tender mangosteen alongside its plentiful packaging.

When I spotted mangosteens in the Barcelona Boqueria, I was shocked... shocked! I'd heard all about the mangosteen from Asia-exploring friends (mangosteens favor a tropical climate) and the raves of David Karp, Gourmet magazine's fruit detective.

Residents of the United States are not allowed to enjoy them, you see (though some of us apparently love them enough to sneak in a box every now and then.) As mentioned in a comment a few posts back, this particular fruit is said to keep company with a dangerous fruit fly.

Even simply purchasing them at the market carried the cachet of illicit behavior. Why, think of the fit they'd throw at customs if they found me concealing dangerous fruit. (Come to think of it, that might be my next band: Concealing Dangerous Fruit.)

Well, purchase I did, and consume I did. But first, there was the task of getting the darn things open. The shells are tough and leathery. The edible pulp is tender and easily bruised. My research indicated that the brightly colored skins stain fabrics permanently. Cut them? Nope. Smash them? Nope. Press a thumb in to puncture and then tear open the fibrous shell.

The flavor of mangosteens reminded me of strawberry-flavored lychees. Sweet, a bit tart, with that additional vanilla note that whispers "tropical."

Tasty, sure. Worth Mission Impossible espionage maneuvers to acquire them? Not really. The flat of fragrant local strawberries waiting in the next stall were so much less fuss and far more heavenly.

Still, there's something undeniably sexy about momentarily savoring a flavor that's held just slightly beyond reach.

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Film v. Digital... the tradeoff for convenience

I take a lot of photos, and as anyone who eats with me can attest, 80 percent of those photos are food shots done with my stealthy little Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital Elph.

I love it because it's about as small and heavy as a deck of cards, which makes it fantastic for quick little things like this:

Lunch at Iposa in Barcelona.

(BTW: The salmon was fair, the pork was very nice and the lunch menu price was simply super: 6 EU for an entrée, beverage and coffee. Plus, it's around the corner from the Boqueria. I score it at two spoons out of five.)

While packing for Spain I glanced at my trusty (but dusty) old Pentax camera. It's a lovely SLR film version (the PZ-20, to be precise), and I wondered if my digital mania came at the cost of some image beauty. Should I even keep the old gray mare? I hadn't touched the poor thing in years... So to perform a test, I made the trek to B&H (which really is worth it just to see all the wonder that is B&H) for a new battery and some fresh rolls of Fuji film (my fave).

I took both along to Spain and used the digi for stealthy restaurant shots and the SLR for obviously touristy stuff. I just got back my 1-hour film developing, and you can see the head-to-head results here:

These are both images taken at Gaudi's fabulous (and as-of-yet unfinished) Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. The one on the left is film, the one on the right is digital. Click into each of them to get the larger versions.

Now, aside from a size difference and a difference in overall hue, look at the detail in the film version. The digital blows out in the lightest areas and doesn't pick up the delicate shapes of the shadows. Comparatively, the film version has such crisp lines and such touchable depth, it makes the digital version look flat and dull. The film version makes my stomach jump with its color and beautiful light handling. The digital one is merely... okay.

Of course I knew film was superior, but still: wow. I'm a bit shocked at the difference. I know all the digital benefits, of course... less fuss, less expense, fewer nasty chemicals in the processing, less looking like an idiot tourist or even worse, a theft target.

And yet, I also wonder how less tasty my food photos look. How much more lush tomato goodness would we see in this photo? How many moments are now captured as pale, digital index cards rather than vivid, tantalizingly rendered images?

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Barcelona, the Land of Luscious

Brekkie On The Terrace
Fresh strawberries and yogurt for breakfast

Wow! Mangosteens! Those aren't allowed in the U.S.! Now available in the US... irradiated, of course.

Bumpy, savory little garden tomatoes at the Boqueria

I believe that in my native tongue (Hedonistese? Hedonistish?), I will make "Barcelona" synonymous with succulent fresh fruit. I've just finished my week there, and have been consistently agog with the flavor power in the ubiquitous glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, the sweet perfume floating up off the flats of strawberries in the Market de Boqueria and the luscious tropical gush in the local peaches.

The oranges, of course, are well-known here. Valencia, just down the road, lends its name and reputation to them. In Barcelona, it seems every little cafe contains the same mesmorizing juice press: the Zummo.

Looking like a Rube Goldberg device for citrus, the push of a button drops oranges down a wire gutter to the waiting slicer, turns the halves to face the reamer, and presses out tangy-sweet rivulets of nectar into a pitcher or glass below. Ahhh... bliss. I want one, but it costs thousands of dollars and my kitchen is too tiny... even for the far-more diminutive Zummito. I'd have to choose between my beloved Kitchenaid mixer and the Zummito. It's too painful even to contemplate.

Barcelona's streets are filled with shops displaying tasty little pastries, but they're generally a bit too cloying for me. When we had the menu for lunch last week at the terribly tasty and satisfyingly sustainable cafe Origen 99.9%, J chose the seasonal fruit for dessert, and received one perfect golden apple presented on a napkin-covered plate.

We were a little shocked at first. Dessert is generally so dainty and fussy that the presentation of one single fruit seems like underachievement. But after our richly braised entrées, a large, crisp and honeyed local apple was actually quite welcome.

I forget, sometimes, how treasured fruit once was. The apple in particular has had a rich history full of status and prestige.

When mated slices of his perfect apple with my adorable glass pot of creamy yogurt, the flavors loved each other very much. It turned out to be so much more satisfying than the usual parade of saccharine-sweet pastries and brownies done up with sparklers for additional dining drama. I could picture thousands of years of happy diners enjoying the simple, fresh flavors of fresh fruit and tangy sheep's milk yogurt, and that, too, added satisfaction to the experience.

Fruit is the plant's demonstration of affection for us. (Well, that and the natural inclination to propagate more plants.) I'll need to wait a few weeks for the local berries to arrive and another month or so before the stone fruits. It's gustatory affection on pause.

Meanwhile, Barcelona, rich in fruit, echoes across the ocean with its sonorous song of sweetness. I can hear it now... Barcelona! Barcelona! Barcelona!

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May, and the crisper goes mad with spring fever


J left on Sunday for sunny Spain, and it's been cold and gray here in New York ever since. (Check the weather reports and you'll see this statement is not simply the skewed view of a pining girlfriend.)

While I labor in the industrial zone in Queens, he sends me notes that go like this:
I made a picture of today's picnic lunch for you, but my internet connection isn't good enough to upload it. The place where I bought the food was like the prepared food area of a Whole Foods, only better appointed and staffed by grown-ups. They had several counters, each with some sort of focus (breads, savories, pastries, chocolates). The items on sale were priced by the kilo, save some things that are typically sold in slices, such as tartas and quiches.

When I selected my veggie quiche, the quiche-lady wrapped it in butchers' paper, tied the parcel with a string, then handed me my food and a small placard on which she wrote the price in grease pencil over a space labeled with her counter's name (there was one slot for each section). When I was done, I took my parcels and the placard to the door where I was charged for everything at once, after which the clerk erased (i.e. wiped clean) the placard and placed it in a stack to be returned to the counters. The quiche, which I ate in the big park by the Prado, was excellent.


Ah, for a leisurely life of sunny picnics and charmingly wrapped quiches!

Meanwhile, back in Gotham, my crisper drawer is mad with spring fever. I brought home fresh spinach, strawberries and local grouper for a solo Friday night fish feast and discovered that every shallot bulb, garlic clove, onion, shallot and scallion in the bunch sprouted green tops and depleted the white bits I'd normally use in my sauté.

Sitting in the cool darkness of the refrigerator floor, how do they know it's springtime? They didn't do this to me two months ago. Suddenly, it's May, and all the aromatics in the household are suddenly inspired to burst into fresh sprays of chartreuse sprouts. I've been wishing for some space to garden, but this wasn't quite what I'd had in mind.

I was disoriented and dismayed until I remembered that green tops are just as yummy and useful as white bulbs. So then, marching on to dinner:

Montauk Grouper
with a quick brown butter sauce, sliced green shallots and fresh cilantro chiffonade

Spinach-Strawberry Salad
with toasted walnuts, Israeli feta and a balsamic vinaigrette

Three small chocolate-chip cookies*

Easy, quick, delicious, seasonally appropriate (except for the cookies, but when are cookies ever in season?), and a good use of my newly discovered refrigerator garden.

I won't join J. in the sunshine for another week, and every day until then is scheduled for darkness and rain. That said, as long as the market is full of fresh produce and my refrigerator remains rich in garlic and shallot sprouts, I can't help but feel the daily pulse of spring on my dinner plate.

*Cookie Tip for Single People: Next time you bake chocolate-chip cookies, make extra dough, chill it down, form the cold dough into fat discs the size of slightly squashed golf balls and keep 'em securely wrapped in your freezer. That way you can just take out two or three at a time. Bake frozen cookies in an oven preheated at 350°F for about 12 minutes. Presto! Fresh, hot cookies with no need to commit to a whole dozen.

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Wooden Rooster

hot clams

Lobsters, chickens and clams! Oh, my!

Born in the late 1800s in forges, foundries and rail-yards, Newark, New Jersey's Ironbound district is now lined with Portuguese and Brazilian salons, fish markets, pastry shops, churrascarias and sporting goods stores brimming with football gear.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we wandered, pointed, peered and purchased olive oil and dried salt cod for later experimentation.

Hungry and tired, we landed at Sagres Bar & Grill (44 Prospect St.), wooed by the promise of beer and sidewalk seating. Unfortunately, beer and sidewalk seating is about all the place has to offer. With a draught beer list mournfully lacking in charm, I settled on the Sam Adams.

We ordered a seafood soup, the clams in cilantro and garlic and the bacalao in peppers, potatoes and onions. The clams and soup were good, if salty. Sadly, the potatoes and onions turned out to be more interesting than the bacalao.

The kitchen's impulse to fling fresh herbs (parsley and cilantro) was a good move, but across the board, the cooks seemed to rely on a one-two punch of chicken stock and salt in place of more carefully nurtured flavor.

The comp breadbasket turned out to be the winner here, full of hearty, chewy slices that enjoyed a good dunk in the seasoned clam juices.

After further reflection and research, I think perhaps Forno's of Spain, Spanish Sangria or Fernandes might have been better choices. Any fellow travelers have good luck in the district? Leave a comment!

Bon appetit!

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