The Perfect Pairing

Recently I sat in on a food and wine pairing seminar led by a brilliant chef in the area, Chef Jeffrey Scott. He started the talk with the topic, “What makes a good pairing?”. This is not a cut and dried answer. There is a lot of information out there that state generalities about what goes with what, whites go with fish and meats go with red. I can assure you that wine pairing is not that simple. The beauty in food and wine pairing is in the details, the subtle nuances, and marrying flavors. The first thing that really stood out to me was the common rule of pairing a big and bold dish with an equally big and forward wine, like pasta with an arrabbiata sauce and a spicy and robust zinfandel. Actually a common thing I’ve heard is, “You want something that can stand up to such a big wine.” This to me never made perfect sense; why on earth would we try to marry competing flavors? You’re setting them up for failure if you’re putting them in a fighting pit- like, who will come out triumphant? The wine or the food? Wine and food should be in balance and harmony, not competition.

How do we harmonize and balance flavors and nuances between wine and dishes? This is where a little bit of history and geography can really help. The first pairing that Chef Scott brought out for us was savory light profiterole with a lightly cured salmon, fennel marmalade, and goat cheese mousse that was paired with our 2014 Dianthus Rosé. While the dish and wine were great together, I really understood why when he talked to us a little bit about terroir and land. In Provence, they are known world wide for their exceptional rosé. When Chef Scott was thinking about what to pair with this dish, he thought about the region of Provence. Right then, I was taken to a place where I could see the beautiful French chateaus with a cool ocean breeze, fields of lavender, and light herbage. When pairing a wine that is so expressive of terroir and land, why not take elements from the same land to create a dish. Makes perfect sense. You take a rosé that has beautiful elements of the southern Rhone and nuances of garrigue, complimenting the lightly cured salmon and fennel marmalade.

Wine pairing by region? I wish I could say it was that easy, but I think it’s the first step in understanding pairings. Understand the climate, terroir, and dishes. After delving into the geography, you must then really understand the wine. Aside from knowing where it’s from, you must know the ins and outs of the bottle. How old or young is the wine? What is it like when you first open it? How do those notes and nuances change upon opening? All of this must be taken into consideration when creating a dish that complements or showcases the wine. Chef Scott’s next dish was a pan seared diver sea scallop atop a parsnip puree, watercress, and vanilla bean oil served with our 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. This was a unique case in which the first bite and sip married very well, but as the dish and wine progressed, the wine changed in a less pleasant manner. The aftertaste was no longer bright, but acidic and overwhelmed the flavors of the dish. It was decided that we would try the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and see if the age and subtle brightness would be a better pairing… And it was. This was a great example of understanding how something that may work well at first, can change drastically; whether that change is positive or negative.

My mind works in a very logical way; to me, it makes sense that you know the terroir from which a wine hails, and that you know how a bottle of wine starts and finishes, in order to create the perfect pairing. But what about incorporating the wine into the dish that is not the obvious glass adjacent to the plate? The final pairing that Chef Scott presented us with was a cast iron leg of lamb over truffled potato gratin with our 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel. Very simply prepared local leg of lamb that was simply seasoned before skillet contact. The truffle potato gratin made sense, as Mourvedre is known to exhibit nuances of truffle after about ten years in the bottle. For me, visually, I thought it was beautiful, but missing a certain element, a jus of sorts. I am so used to seeing steak frites with sauce bordelaise, so for me to see this perfectly cooked piece of meat with not a speck of sauce was a little confusing. I understood as soon as I took a bite and followed with a sip. It was as if the wine was the sauce, finishing the dish. That missing element I was searching for was found in the wine.

After the pairing, I found myself at this interesting place. I learned so much behind the logistics and strategy of pairing food and wine, but is that all there is to it? The truth is, no. It’s much bigger than that. There are so many other factors that can affect a pairing, or a meal in general, like where you are, who you’re with, what kind of mood you’re in. Heck, I’ve learned enough about biodynamic farming and the lunar cycle that I am sure that can affect an experience, as well. The whole experience is very personal, and in some cases, it is exactly what you make it to be. On this evening, I was surrounded by fellow Tablas Creek Vineyard employees and a renowned Chef- wine enthusiasts and foodies. This is what it’s all about, and exactly what I moved here to experience. The wine and food together were magnificent, however the overall experience made it a perfect pairing.

I’ve attached a couple of photos I took (hastily, with my iPhone!) Next time I will bring proper equipment!

The menu and topics covered for the wine and food pairing.

The menu and topics covered for the wine and food pairing.

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First course; cured salmon profiteroles with Tablas Creek 2014 Dianthus rose.

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Diver scallop and 2012 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (Was so excited about the 2005 pairing I didn’t have a chance to get a photo!)

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Cast Iron Leg of Lamb and truffle potato gratin with 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel.

Acquiring the Freshest Bounty

My mother’s garden is eclectic, sporadic, but most importantly, it is alive. Every year, maybe not on purpose, she changes the shape and theme of her garden. I will never forget the day when the entire backyard was overturned, and mounds of dirt awaited seeds, as she was in the midst of creating a full on fruit and vegetable garden. Although maybe not the best idea (nor the most economical one, either), she has always had both interest and enthusiasm for gardening and managing plant life. And then there is me. Since I can remember, I have never been able to keep a plant. One of my earliest plant memories is back to either the first or second grade. Our science project was to plant a seed and take care of it, so that it grew into a legitimate plant. I went through the motions, made the perfect hole for the seed, covered it gently with soil, watered it with the class schedule, and gave it adequate sunlight. Nothing. Not even a sprout to indicate something was happening below the surface. I distinctly remember looking down the row of paper dixie cups and seeing little sprouts of life, only to look at my own to only hold four to six ounces of dirt in its purest form. Disappointment did not stop there. Fast forward about twenty years, and needless to say, not much has changed. I’ve got to hand it to myself, I’m horribly consistent. This past summer I decided it would be fun to start an herb garden. It just seems so right to have an herb garden on hand, clipping as i go, taking just what I needed to make a particular dish. After a “quick” trip to Home Depot (let’s face it, it’s never a quick trip), I found myself with terra-cotta pots, soil, basil, chives, and rosemary. It was a beautifully sunny day, so planting was enjoyable. I was enthusiastic with the prospects of growing my own herbs. I was so hopeful, watering them regularly, rotating the pots around so that each plant received equal amounts of sunshine (c’mon, photosynthesis!), and of course, just paying attention to them. Well… you can only imagine what happened next. Yes, no surprises here, they all DIED. Chives were the first to go. The thin and fibrous stems started to yellow at the tips, and it wasn’t long until they started to slump over. I gave up on the notion of cutting fresh chives over a bubbling soup, or folded into a light frittata. Goodbye chives, over to the dark and hidden corner of the kitchen you go. Next was the basil. Now, not that I wasn’t completely responsible for the passing of the chives, but I know I could have been better about the basil. Ask any gardener what the first cardinal rule of taking care of basil is. Cut. The. Flowers. Or at least practice preventative care, by trimming the middle to encourage growth out to the sides (The things I should have known. Yikes). No, I did not cut the flowers, I instead thought that they looked nice and left them, eventually, the basil took a turn for the worst, and over to the corner with the basil it went. This corner later became known as the “dying corner”. It’s a place where plants that are on their very last leg are brought to, well, die. Finally, slowly but surely, the rosemary joined the clan of the deceased plants. Stop right there- I know what you’re thinking… HOW did she manage to kill rosemary? I encourage everyone to google “rosemary plant care”. The first link states, “Rosemary plant care is easy.” Another states that, “Rosemary is the easiest plant to grow.”. I’ve got to hand it to the poor plant, it outlasted the chives and the basil, which is an accomplishment. I was able to use a few stems for cooking. However, eventually, it started to crisp up. The woody needles dried up and could disintegrate into dust upon contact. No, to the dying corner it went. After the herb fatalities, I decided that it would be best for me to take a break from the gardening world. I would have to be extremely standard, and buy my herbs from the grocery store, along with all other vegetables and fruits that some very skilled gardener or farmer was able to nurture and produce. I am fortunate to have some very talented and capable individuals in my life that provide me with some of their amazing harvest. I have two wonderful friends, Rick and Susan,  that have a beautiful home and an incredible garden full of anything under the sun. I was fortunate enough to take a walk around the property with them, wire basket and nippers in hand. We collected Asian pears from one of four pear trees. Susan and I watched as Rick reached up to tug pears loose, and place them in the basket. We walked to the arbor, where northern kiwi vines enwrapped the wood. To the naked eye they are larger than a grape. The skin is slightly thicker than that of a grape, but is edible and not fuzzy at all like the kiwis were normally find at the grocery store. Taste, they are not as acidic as a common kiwi, and in fact, the texture is smoother. Walking down to the garden, I found myself surrounded by anything and everything. Susan cut some beautiful kale and lettuce. I had some ground cherries which are far from your standard cherry. Firmer and smaller, they look like a small cherry tomato, yellow in color. The taste was smooth and elegant, not at all like a juicy grocery store cherry. Not overly sweet, I found that I just wanted to keep eating more. We proceeded through the garden only to come upon hearty artichokes, sprouted up from the ground, sitting atop thick stems screaming, “snip me, braise me, and eat me for dinner!”. Needless to say Susan cut a few hearts and placed them in the wire basket of produce. Last but not least, the brussels sprouts. I loved how the little globular entities clung tightly to the stem, in a decorative fashion. It almost reminded me of the delicate Croquembouche, with all the delicate cream puffs in a circular order. The stem of the brussels sprouts was so hearty that Rick had to pull out the oversized clippers to cut through the stem successfully. Like I said, I am so thankful to have such amazing people in my life. Unlike my gardening skills, I successfully nurture and cultivate friendships and relationships with those around me. With my incompetence with gardening comes my strength in the kitchen. As we speak I am thinking about the pear tart tatin I will make… I know I can’t be good at everything, but I do hope there comes a point in my life where I give gardening another shot, and maybe, something will come of it. IMG_4165 IMG_4166 My bounty from my dear friends (drooling permitted)

“What’s On the Menu?” From March 3rd, 2014

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Appetizer: Roasted Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce

I made this dish again because it works. It’s so simple, yet so packed with flavors and textures. The creamy roasted eggplant, tangy buttermilk sauce, and the slightly smoky and acidity of za’atar sprinkled on top- it’s the perfect way to pack a punch of flavor, but not overwhelm. As an appetizer I also served it with pita crisps, as suggested by Ottolenghi.

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Entree: Massaman Curry with Mango Salad and Lemongrass Scented Jasmine Rice

When faced with some food allergies early in the game, I had to change some things around. The recipe called for about 4 cans of coconut milk, and one of the guests had a severe coconut allergy. I read some articles online and saw that you could use almond milk in lieu. However, I knew that texturally, almond milk is lacking in the rich quality that coconut milk has, so I had to improvise a little. I used less milk than called for and reduced the heck out of it. It took a lot longer, but it worked. I also made curry paste from scratch. This was another time consuming step but given some of the allergies I was dealing with, it was important for me to know exactly what was in the curry. I couldn’t afford to send anyone to the hospital!!

My mango salad is one I’ve made a million times over. I love it- it’s so refreshing and light, with a perfect balance of spice and acidity. It’s not easy to find green mangoes, and if you do find them, they are nothing like the Asian green mangoes. Green mangoes at your regular grocery store are still slightly yellow-orange fleshed and sweet, even if they aren’t soft and ripe. The green mangoes from the Asian market are hard as a papaya. The flesh is white with a tinge of green. It is super sour and is very crunchy. I used the combination of the two to make my mango salad. The slightly sweet mango mixed with the tart was a great balance. I also added some fresh thinly sliced shallots and mint to add that “fresh” factor.

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Dessert: Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Apricot Compote and Candied Fennel

What a great finish. The buttermilk creates this wonderful light texture, where in standard panna cotta the texture is very rich and creamy. Buttermilk also brings this great tang and acidity. The apricot compote and candied fennel really complimented everything well and left your mouth feeling clean and refreshed.

TK’s Wisdom

Thomas Keller said, “Food should be fun.”; what an important phrase to comprehend and understand. Yes! Yes! Yes! Food should be fun, but somehow in our world it’s been morphed into this calorie counting, soul sucking, greased up kind of thing. Yes, I am objectifying the fast food chains of America, producing “food” for the fast paced. Calorie counters- there has GOT to be a better way to keep track of your food. I tried it for one day just to see what it was like… how can you see food for what it is when you are constantly weighing things in your mind? Where is the fun in that? No matter what, food is our sustenance, it keeps us alive. It’s our nourishment, and needs to be better appreciated, but at the same time, we spend so much time thinking about it, shopping for it, preparing it, eating it… it really should be fun.

For so many, cooking is like a job, part of their every day routine, something they’ve just got to get done for the day. Get home from work, turn the nightly news on while throwing some things together, shoveling some food in, then vegging for the rest of the night. I have been this person before. I don’t like to bring people into my blogs, but this one person in particular sucked the living foodie right out of me. I was a sophomore in college and newly dating. Was not the best year spent and some of my worst cooking. This person was literally the pickiest eater. Let the record show, there are two things I can’t deal with- unfaithfulness and a lack of palate. I was getting requests for Cream of Chicken baked over chicken and pasta coated in butter (probably not even butter actually…GOD what was I doing?!?). What a nightmare. Thankfully, it took just a year for me to realize how horrible this was going and I needed out. I could compromise on a lot, but not food. From that day on, my dating repertoire included, “must love food… and specifically, must love my food.” They say you learn a little something from every bad relationship in your life… well I learned I could never love someone who didn’t share a genuine interest in eating well.

It was after this gigantic catastrophe that I began chasing my dreams, not too long after I was accepted to culinary school, and, even though I decided not to go, I started giving food a chance to be the star in my life. I began collecting cookbooks and reading recipes like it was my job. I started working at an amazing French bistro/restaurant, where I was immersed in food every day. Sure, serving isn’t my favorite thing or my dream job, but hey, I love going in the kitchen and sampling the chocolate mousse that’s being whipped up, or a new recipe the chef is experimenting with. I love being a foodie- it’s just so much fun. So much fun, I can’t imagine what it will be like when I fall into a career involving food. I imagine it will be my little nirvana.

Giving Vegetarianism a Chance

Before I start, I feel obliged to give you a little background information on myself. I am NOT a vegetarian. Vegan? Forget about it. I love flavor and I love natural ingredients, so I can’t imagine substituting something in lieu of meat to create that texture. I also am a believer of butter. Now, with this in mind, I am absolutely in love with Yotam Ottolenghi’s PlentyIt is truly a revelation on vegetarian fare and puts a whole different perspective on what we consider to be “healthy food”. Now, before you go on assuming I may be some bigot butter- eating b- (well I won’t finish that sentence) who looks down on vegetarianism and eats steak and potatoes slathered in the rich substance, you should know I actually didn’t even grow up on butter. My mother, a proud Cambodian woman and a phenomenal home cook, had everything but butter. I was raised on soups, curries, stir-frys and jasmine rice. Butter was a request on my end, mostly for my cookie baking and pancake eating.

Ottolenghi’s cookbook really put vegetarianism in a different light- what I once viewed as a very alternative lifestyle was now something I really wanted to try. Not that I think I could consciously give up meat for a given amount of time, I could picture myself making different vegetables and proteins the star of a dish. A few weeks ago, I made one of the most interesting, flavor explosive, melt-in-your mouth dishes- eggplant with buttermilk sauce. When I was first introduced to Plenty by a good friend of mine, I was slightly intrigued. Vegetarian? You mean, there’s no meat at all? This coming from my bolognese eating, short rib cooking friend. I trusted her judgement and read through it, becoming more and more interested (and hungry). Not too long after, I received the cookbook as a gift- lucky me! My first endeavor was to make the eggplant dish. 

So I started by roasting the eggplants in the oven- I have to admit, this was my least favorite step. The smell of eggplants roasting is slightly pungent, and made me question what I was doing. Also, I couldn’t find any lemon, or wild, thyme anywhere, so I had to substitute thyme with lemon zest. Never the less, I continued on. As the eggplants deflated away, I started the buttermilk sauce. The buttermilk on its own is already tangy, however combined with the creamy and slightly tangy greek yogurt, olive oil, spicy garlic, and salt, creates this sauce full of flavor and zest. I could imagine this sauce over roasted new potatoes, as well. After the eggplants were fully deflated (haha that word gets me… deflated), they cooled at room temperature- my guess as to why they cool is so when you top them with the cool buttermilk sauce, the sauce stays where you place it, whereas if the eggplant was warm the sauce would run everywhere. As I started putting everything together, slathering the eggplants with the sauce, sprinkling za’atar and pomegranate seeds on top, finishing with an olive oil drizzle. I have to say, it was truly an experience. The tender smooth eggplant comes easily away from the skin, covered in this tangy and creamy sauce with a little pop of pomegranate- truly amazing how it all came together. I love it when food makes sense. What I took away from this experience is to never judge a vegetarian by it’s cover.

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Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce, p110, Ottolenghi’s Plenty

 

Wine Library of the Universe

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Everyone has that jaw dropping, show stopping, heart beat slowing moment in their life. Where it seems as though everything has come to a complete and utter standstill. Where people are asking you questions and you disregard them as if they never existed. This, my friends, was my moment. Il Cantiniere literally took my breath away. Every shelf was filled with bottle upon bottle of the throat warming and palate pleasing elixir. As I stood in the doorway, for what felt like ages, my friends laughed at me. Looking over, I blushed, realizing I had been caught up in my own climactic moment. As we shuffled in to the restaurant, I ran into a table and nearly broke a glass due to the excessive staring. I just hope I wasn’t drooling over all my wine ogling.

Being a server at a fine dining restaurant, I am rarely impressed with service. I am over critical, but really, I just want the same service I would give to someone on any given day. For me to say that the service was great is an understatement. I couldn’t understand much, but body language and personal presentation were so spot on, he could be selling me kraft macaroni and cheese and I would probably just nod my head and smile. After a long and painful discussion, I finally decided I would try the steak with peaches in marsala. My friend Sarah said I just had to have the steak here, so of course, I took her word for it. Shortly after our server left, I realized we didn’t order wine- what a CRIME! Low and behold, there is no list. Very understandable, because there is just too much, no one would be able to pick from their inventory by looking over the entire book. Instead, a sommelier came over promptly to guide us to a wine. First, he asks “red or white”, “full bodied or light”, then proceeds to talk over wine characteristics/ grapes, then finally price. We ended up getting a 2010 Baglio di Pianetto Shymer, Merlot and Syrah blend. It was wonderful. Medium bodied and smooth, was perfect. After a quick salute, we were greeted with our appetizer. Oh. My. Wow. Sarah and Giancarlo told me that we had to have the charcuterie plate, and they were so right.

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Yeah… you see what I mean? How to put all of this gloriousness into words. There are 5 types of cheeses and 4 types of meats. The meats are all cured in house (meats are their specialty), and all cheeses made nearby. One trend I did see quite a bit was whole peppercorns in the cheese (see directly above). The peppercorns pack a punch, but tamed down with the citrus jam to the left. Fresh Mozzarella di bufala is a staple here and is the king of all mozzarella. Made with the milk from buffalo, it is richer and has a flavor component missing from that of average cow’s milk mozzarella. I’m not being a hypocrite ( I do realize I wrote a whole post on local Mozzarella!!)- I do genuinely appreciate local products and what they are able to create within their region. However, there is a reason mozzarella is highly sought after and tried to replicate. It is downright amazing. You find that a knife slices it like warm butter, smooth and clean. Taste is fantastic, slightly saturated and creamy, is a perfect accompaniment to any antipasto. Moving on to the cured meats. Il Cantiniere as I mentioned before, is known for two things- the plethora of wine and house cured meats. You may think you have had prosciutto, but there is nothing quite like it when its from the source. I mean, sometimes I feel that my judgement may be a little clouded and biased, but seriously, go to Italy, try it, and come back and tell me it was not the best cured meat you have ever tasted. Techniques handed down from generations- I am not really religious, but they may be praying to the meat Gods up there. Taste it, and you’ll believe.

You know, to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember our server taking the empty appetizer plate, however, I do remember getting my steak. Like any decent diner, I ordered my steak medium rare. Cooked to perfection, let me tell you. The steak was pan seared, served with a marsala sauce and peaches. I am not sure how the marsala sauce was created, however, from my opinion, there was probably some sort of browned stock cooked down, then marsala added and reduced further until the desired thickness is achieved. Peaches were soft, yet not soggy. They were so tender and full of flavor, and complimented the slight acidity and richness to the sauce, adding a freshness and sweet aspect to the dish. As you can see here, this was a BIG steak for little ol’ me. Thankfully I have great friends who helped me finish.

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As if I hadn’t indulged enough, we finished the meal with a little digestivo. Hello, Limoncello. Ice cold and refreshing, limoncello is an Italian staple whose heritage is fought after. Ask any Italian where limoncello comes from and they will say, with pride, wherever they hail from. When I was in Florence, they said they produced the best Limoncello, however, while visiting in Sicily, they said they produce the best Limoncello. So much pride and culture in one small glass. My throat cold while the liqueur slithered down, but warm as it hit my belly. It is as fresh tasting as a lemon off a tree, however, there is a balanced sweetness, along with a sharp bite of alcohol as you inhale. What a way to end a perfect meal. I could see the chefs “cheersing” through the swinging double doors in the kitchen, I smiled to myself and in my mind, cheersing them back… Well done, ladies and gents… Well done.

Here are some other pictures from my evening…

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Not Your Everyday Granita

A week later than I intended, however, I throw my hands in the air and fess that I have been consuming copious amounts of food, as my dear friends tied the knot, and…well, you know that means I ate and drank a bit much. Anyways, let’s pick up where I left off.

Oh yes, day two in Italy. My deep and dreamless sleep was disturbed when Sarah woke me up to go to the beach. Groggy eyed and half asleep, I dragged my jet lagged bum out of bed and changed into proper swim wear. Clearly, the jetlag was kicking in, and the couple of drinks I had the night prior only delayed the concentrated feeling of exhaustion. Hopping in the car, my stomach rumbles- I realize I haven’t eaten anything since my delicious arancino the day before. Now here’s the thing with Sarah and I- all we do is eat, and it’s like we have some weird food premonition with each other. We wake up and our first impulse, for better or for worse, is to find something to eat. Food is always on the brain. On top of all that, we have a sense, like if one is hungry, the feeling somehow produces wavelengths and frequencies that pulse through the other person and suddenly, the other is taken over by a wave of hunger as well. After sending telepathic wavelengths of hunger her way, asked me no more than seconds later if I was hungry….Uhhhh, yeah! 

So we stopped at this place called “Salamone”, a nice pasticceria in Giardini. When we sat down, she told me exactly what I was to order- granita e brioche. Okay, so I have tried granite only once on Bastille Day and it was a red bordeaux granita with cherry and lemon, but, given the red wine content, was more intended for a late afternoon/evening snack, not exactly what I was looking for so early in the morning. When I told her, she explained that concept was similar, however, the granite was different that what I previously had. I trust her judgement on all food decisions, therefore I ordered granita pesche con panna e un brioche (Peach Granita with whipped cream and a brioche). Okay, Sicilian granite is waaaaaayyy different that anything I had ever tasted. It literally is this frozen dessert, but the texture is something really quite indescribable. The way the peach is pureed and incorporated with the ice, giving it such an unusual consistency is like nothing I have every eaten. The freshly whipped cream on top literally is the icing on the cake. How have I never tasted something so wonderful and refreshing? As I was eating away at my delicious icy breakfast, Sarah reminded me not to forget about my brioche. Well, what about it? I don’t get it- am I supposed to eat it before? After? During? I haven’t the slightest clue! She told me I should dip the pieces of brioche into the granita for optimal enjoyment. Oh my… I haven’t been eating quite as much bread because honestly, much of the bread/grain I eat in the U.S. is quite lackluster and a fluffer- I would rather save my appetite for much tastier thing than bread! However, this was no ordinary bread. This was the lightest and balanced (sugarwise) brioche I had ever eaten. It’s pretty similar to a french brioche, except, it’s not quite as high. It also has this little ball of dough right on top- always eat that part first! Exceptional pastry with over the top granita con panna. 

Leaving Salamone for the beach, even though I was so full, I wanted more, and as I looked back over my shoulder at the cute little pastry shop, Sarah assured me we would definitely be coming back for more. And that we did.

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My first of many granite- peach with whipped cream and my brioche

Arancini Awesomeness

I have been a little absent on the blog front for about 2 months, but I resurface with copious amounts of food and travel experience! I had a heck of a summer, and now it’s quintessential fall in New England. The leaves are starting to fall and your typical fall aromas of apple and pumpkin fill the air. There is nothing quite like this time of year anywhere else in the world. If you come to New England, you will understand why.

Anyways, I digress- it’s time to dig in… literally! I must tell you all about my trip! So my dear friend Sarah, whom I met on my very first trip to Italy, has been living in Taormina, Sicily for the past few months. I have always said that I wanted to go back to Italy and what a great way to visit not just the country I love, but my friend as well. I have always said, if you want it, make it happen! I am a true opportunist. One bus, one train, and two planes later- I was there! As soon as she scooped up my suitcases, she told me we were going to eat. Not that out friendship is solely based on food, however, we are foodies, and, like a good friend, she understood how hungry I was without having to utter a word. On second thought, maybe she just heard the outlandish roar and grumble of my tummy. I prefer to believe it was a friend-food instinct. We are driving into the city of Catania, where they are famous for a couple of things- a really great fish market and arancini. An arancino is essentially a risotto ball stuff with any toppings imaginable. The most common and famous is ragù. Ragù basically is a tomato and meat sauce. Well, of course, I had to try the most famous kind. I had tried arancino before, but it was about the size of a meatball. This was NO meatball. Literally, they were the size of a small nerf football, but the weight of a small melon. I could not believe how much technique was put into constructing this. How do they make it so large? Why do they make it in this pear shape? How does it cook evenly? Luckily, these questions only stayed in my mind for a hot second before I took a big bite, and let me tell you, it was pure bliss. The risotto is slightly incorporated with ragù to evenly distribute flavor and sauce. My second bite led me to the jackpot, oh my SAUCE! So the sauce was so warm and full of flavor, some secret recipe from Nonna, I am sure. And then, the unexpected cheese. Oh yes, there was cheese and there was plenty of it. Right in the center of my arancino universe. I was in heaven. My arancino in my left hand, glass of prosecco in my right, my good friend by my side, I was blissed out. 

….And to think this was one day out of my 2 week vacation there! I will be posting once a day until I’ve written about my food/wine/travel journey through Sicily, so keep up if you can! 

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(Not my picture, just a google image, I was too busy indulging to take a photo!)

Food, Friends, and the Fourth

Last week, I spent the day up in beautiful Vermont with one of my favorite families. I swear, each and every individual is remarkable in their own way, and I found myself immersed in conversation with each of them. It was a picturesque day in Vermont, although it was extremely hot! We found ourselves standing up to our ankles in a small reserve of water that pooled up a little before it reached their pond. It was absolutely perfect, the cold water streaming down, the sunshine cutting through the tree leaves. We were wrapped up in conversation so long that I forgot how hungry I was- personally, I love it when you’re so enwrapped and interested in what someone else is saying, that all other thoughts/processes head out the window. When we got back into the kitchen, that when the realization hit- it’s time to eat. My dear friends had quite a meal in store, I’ll let you know. I watched Fern grab a beautifully seasoned cast iron pan, oil it, and drop some marinated ribs in, and cover it to braise them. This was just the start. Isa and Griffin worked on some hummus, although untraditional without tahini, they blended up chickpeas, garlic, lemon, salt, and sesame oil, and topped it with paprika. Ladies and gentleman, behold, the single most addictive snack food! Then the salads, oh the salads. The salad they prepared were beautiful local greens, tossed with fennel, apple, carrots, and peas, served with a homemade vinaigrette made minutes before the salad was served- talk about fresh! Finally, the salad I contributed was a an heirloom tomato salad served with burrata, basil, balsamic, and olive oil. Nothing says summer quite like a fresh tomato salad. I sliced the tomato and placed them in a ring around the plate, alternating with yellow and red slices. After the slices were arranged, I added basil in between the layers. Then, it was time for the burrata. Burrata, is a wonderful artisanal cheese. I bought it local out of Southern Vermont. Let me just tell you- it’s a revelation. Burrata is mozzerella, however, it is cream filled. So the outer layer has the typical mozzarella texture, yet, when you cut inside, the cream flows out. At first glance, it looks almost like ricotta. Okay, enough about the cheese, you will just have to try it for yourself! Back to the salad, now! I topped the tomatoes with quarters of burrata, then finished it with balsamic and olive oil.

With good food and good company, good times were had by all. Here are some photos of our feast.

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The Dinner Spread, I love just about everything from the old table to the “No Muddy Shoes” sign in the background…

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Heirloom tomato salad… with some hummus on the side, there!

Sharp turn, next stop: Italy?

Now… I know what you’re thinking. Wait, I thought this was going to be a blog about Khmer cuisine and Cambodian culture! This is where I tell you a little more about myself. 

What I might say now may make little sense, but really, that is the true beauty of it. I am mostly Cambodian with a small bit of Chinese. I graduated with my degree in biology a few years back, and have yet to do anything with it. My initial goal when I began college was that I wanted to be a physician’s assistant. After reading a book titled, “Getting Into Physician Assistant School”, I learned that was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I have a passion for helping people, but, help is a very vague statement. After I graduated, I traveled a bit before being I was hired at a local fine dining restaurant. And, here I am now. I am a part-time server… full time food lover/enthusiast/writer. 

So… with that bit of background information, you now know, absolutely anything goes. So, here starts one of my cuisine tangents. Oh Italy… where do I start? I love how I get this overwhelming feeling of happiness and excitement when I talk about my travels, both past and future. I love Italy so very much and it is insane how close I have become with a culture that is outwardly different from that of my own. I have to admit, sometimes I feel like I need my mom to give me a slap on the wrist and snap her fingers while saying, “Pada- you need to get real. You need to learn more about your culture.” Literally, I can’t stop. I am obsessed, infatuated, possessed by Italian culture, more specifically, Italian food. 

Of course, there is the pizza, pasta, vino… One thing I can’t get over is simplicity. What on a paper menu is simply a Neopolitan pizza is so much more than a cheese pizza. It is a perfect crust with the perfect ratio of specific flours, kneaded to perfection, stretched and rolled to a raw circular form. The sauce is so simple, but that’s what makes it so complex. It’s possibly made with heirloom tomatoes grown in the soil at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. And the cheese- of course it is crafted by an artisan. It melts perfectly. Now, this is an exaggeration, but at the same time, this is exactly how I see it, and how I appreciate it. I think of all the steps that go into making a dish. And I have to say, even though I love pizza, I Love pasta. I have been so inspired by all the different ways pasta can be prepared. When I was traveling, I had pasta twice a day. Handmade pasta tasted so different from anything I had boiled from a box. I loved it and desired fresh pasta like this after my travels. 

When I began work as a server, I watched pasta being made. I remember watching what was a first a log of dough become increasingly flatter as it was sent through the pasta machine. I was absolutely amazed. I loved watching how paper thin the pasta could become. When it was at it’s thinnest, the long band of pasta was laid onto a semolina dusted surface before it was hand cut into pappardelle ribbons. This moment really inspired me to make my own pasta.

So, as luck would have it, while thrifting one day, I found it- the pasta maker of my dreams. In a slightly worn box, but inside, everything was untouched. Obviously, it took no more than half a second to decide to make it mine. After paying a mere $25, it was mine. 

Here I am, standing in my kitchen with my new pasta maker, opera playing in the background, sipping a glass of wine… seriously, why don’t I live in Italy, again?! After some advice on pasta making and recipes, the one I found to be the most successful happened to be the most simple: semolina flour, all purpose flour, salt, and water. Absolutely simple, right?After I mixed I had my fellow pasta comrade (you cannot make pasta on your own- you must have a friend who enjoys a good kneading!) push and pull my dough. 10 minutes of kneading and half a bottle of wine later, the pasta is done. Of course, my bolognese has been simmering for hours and, I swear, the flavor changes every time I taste it. Tossing the pasta gently in the bolognese, I am literally chomping at the bit to sit down and have at it. Topped with fresh local ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, and parsley- it’s ready. 

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