Monday, July 26, 2010

Flashback: The Lobster Landing & How I Learned to Love Butter

A Lobster Roll from The Lobster Landing in Clinton, CT
Lobster Roll Nirvana on earth.

Despite our immediate cosmic connection, there were several points on which Matt and I differed when we met, and even for years after we started dating, and got married. One of these points was butter. He loved it, cooked with it, smeared it on everything edible. I, on the other hand, grew up in a house of margarine and canola (
rapeseed) oil and found his use of butter nothing short of an open display of gluttony. "Might as well inject fat into your veins!" I would taunt. He always just shook his head and laughed.

On that note, this summer we
visited Connecticut. One of the things that is most appealing to me about New England is the coastal aspect of its culture. I am a seafood fiend and would eat it almost every single day if I could. Connecticut is where I first tried whole-bellied clams, maniacally ate "steamers" with my bare hands, where I discovered the beauty of a garlic and clam pizza pie, and where I was first introduced to the concept of a "Lobster Roll."

All of these experiences culminated in the utter demise of my butter snobbery and allowed me to discover a real hidden gem. Here's how and why, in list form.

* * *

How I Learned to Love Butter & Lobster Rolls

The Lobster Landing, Clinton CT

4. A toast.

This has nothing to do with seafood, but I must admit it was on a piece of toasted bread that I first learned to appreciate what butter can do for a piece of food.

To this day, I cannot count buttering a piece of toast as one of my mother's many-splendid talents. When she does it, she leaves a giant clump of butter, half-smeared, in the middle of the toast. It never melts, and you end up biting into a blob of cold butter, which is unpleasant and, well, greasy. Sadly, I also took on that toast buttering style for most of my life, not knowing any better, and therefore avoided putting butter on bread at all costs - much less eating it.

Enter Matt. Enter paper-thin slivers of butter that instantly melt and are deftly scraped across the entire piece of bread the moment they touch the hot toast. Enter small, dainty pools of melted butter which swirl into the strawberry jam you put on top. Enter butter-loving Brenda.

3. Heavenly made and heavenly matched.

Clams and Butter: they go together "like a wink and a smile," in the melodic words of Harry Connick Jr.

I don't remember exactly when it happened - definitely before Matt and I were married - his dad came home with a giant bag of fresh "steamers." I had no idea what that meant, and I didn't really care either until fifteen minutes later when I saw the pot of freshly opened clams and an accompanying pot of "butter sauce" (read: melted butter) to go with them.

Now, these clams are interesting because they are anything but aesthetically pleasing to look at. They go by lots of names: soft-shells, longnecks, essex clams, and even, sadly, piss clams. They have a gigantic clam "foot" which you have to peel before dipping them into butter and eating them whole (minus the shell, of course).

While I still recall today feeling that the clams would have reached a level of sublimity had there been some lemon juice somewhere to compliment the butter, I do also remember that I, for one of the first times, appreciated having that melted butter to dip them in, and did not actually have to keep consciously telling myself it was ok that I was eating "melted fat" because it was de-li-cious.

2. "Tonight we eat!"
We took a pleasure cruise on the Hannah May this June in Connecticut. Matt's dad had a crazy twinkle in his eye, the kind you only get when you're out to catch something. On this particular day it was fish on Long Island sound. Matt and his father were armed with poles and they weren't coming back to shore empty-handed.

As luck would have it, within 5 minutes of dropping the hook into the water, Matt was reeling furiously with the weight of an unlucky but rather portly bluefish. And after a great exclamation of joy, much fiddling with a net and cutting the line, we know that night we'd have a mighty feast.

Matt's parents kept talking about this "great way" they always make bluefish. When the platter finally hit the dinner table that night, I realized they had used one of my newly found but also newly favorite recipes: beurre meuniere. It's a French butter sauce in which you toast the butter and mix it with shallots, sherry vinegar and lemon juice (here's my take). When I tasted that fish, it reaffirmed exactly why you could never use oil for a sauce like that, and why the butter was almost as important as the fish that night.

1. The Lobster Roll: Trial, Error and Nirvana.
The first lobster roll I ever had was at a forgettable place near Mystic, Connecticut almost 5 years ago. I can never recall the name of the place, but I recall with exactitude the way I felt after I bit into my lobster roll: The sun was beating down on us, the lobster meat was shredded on a stale hotdog bun which was soggy from all the butter that had been mixed into the meat. There was no salt, no lemon and the lobster tasted almost like shredded imitation crab. What a waste of time and lobster meat! Almost $20.00 the poorer, bitterness quickly set in.

Luckily, this past June Matt's dad off-handedly mentioned a place in Clinton run by an old Italian guy who is also a fisherman. His family runs this little "shack" right on the water and it had been claimed by the likes of unmentionable snobby celebrity chefs to be one of the best lobster rolls ever. Needless to say, a day later there we were.

Having just left the beach, we were hot and hungry. Roman camped out in his car seat with the doors open as we sat outside next to the car on a rickety but clean card table overlooking the water. The Lobster Landing is actually a little shack. It's old and quaint and outside of it is a giant bbq where the Bacci family mans the station where you can buy lobster rolls or hot dogs, accompanied by a bag of chips and canned soda or water. Inside the shack is the old Italian man himself, shucking clams, cleaning fish - doing his fisherman thing. No frills. No pomp. (pic: seating and ordering at The Lobster Landing)

When I got my lobster roll I noticed an immediate difference from the train wreck in Mystic: we're talking giant hunks of briny, fresh lobster meat, delicately placed over a fresh bun, oozing in butter. The bun was warm from having been toasted in the same bbq as the lobsters were cooking in, and it had been generously brushed with butter and lemon sauce before having the hulking portion of succulent lobster meat placed on it. The whole thing comes wrapped in foil to preserve the heat, though I doubt one has ever gotten cold. How could it? Mine was gone in under 2 minutes. (pic: Lobster Landing Menu and Prices)

The place doesn't look like much, but I would rate it among the top 10 seafood experiences of my life. And while I do give credit to the old Italian and his family, and even the lobster, even I have to admit, they just couldn't have done it without the butter. :)

* * *

The Lobster Landing
152 Commerce St. & Grove Ave.
Clinton, Connecticut 06413

Tel: (860) 669-2005

The Bacci Family signed their sidewalk
outside The Lobster Landing.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Skillfully Elusive Emirati Cuisine

Loomi Aswad: dried black lime - a common Emirati spice

Since we've arrived in the UAE I have been asking anyone and everyone I come in contact with where I can get good Emirati food. The responses I have received have been elusive, uninformed and uninspired in equal parts. Nobody - especially not expats - seems to know or care
what Emirati food is, much less where you can get it. Everyone at home asks me what "typical" food in Abu Dhabi is, and the sad reality is that beyond telling them vaguely - almost elusively - that it involves "lots of rice" and "lots of meat," I have no idea. Because I have literally never seen or tried it.

To be honest, I am completely overwhelmed trying to find a reasonably priced, yet safe car; the drivers here are ruthless and I have essentially been convinced by everyone from the relocation agent to the real estate guy that I need a "big heavy car" in order to keep myself and Roman in one piece. I am also overwhelmed in trying to buy new furniture that doesn't cost
two arms and a leg. I have to sign up for cable, telephone, internet, water deliveries (tap water is generally undrinkable unless boiled), and still manage to cook dinner too with only 1 pot, 1 pan, salt, pepper and a "grilling spice mix" in my cupboard. Ah the beauties of relocation!

Yet despite these large and numerous monkeys hanging on my back, I have somehow ended up trawling the aisles of various different"hypermarkets" (read: gigantic supermarkets) almost every single day since I've been here. Roman thought it was fun to ride in the supermarket seat the first couple of times as he never got to do that in London, but even he can only take 1.5 hours looking at different noodles and cuts of meat.

Even with all the time spent at
Lulu's and Carrefour I have almost no sense of what a real Emirati meal would look or taste like. In the mall, "Arabian food" is basically chalked up to fast-food Lebanese: Shawarma wraps, fattoush, tabbouleh and hummus - not that I'm complaining. :) And every supermarket has vast cheese, yogurt, rice and meat sections, which does give a hint. But apart from suddenly becoming best friends with an Emirati woman or serendipitously meeting a with-it fellow foodie who has happened to do her research, I am starting to despair.

Maybe the food is so bad, the Emiratis want to hide it? Or better yet, maybe it is so good they don't want big corporate restaurants to ruin yet another national treasure?
Whatever the case may be, today I turned my sights to the internet because the human world was failing me. I came across several blogs that I intend to follow and which have afforded me my first glimpse into the doubtless tasty and existent world of Arabian and Emirati cooking. From what I've read so far, though it does involve complex spices, Emirati cooking may not be nearly as elusive as I first thought. Here are the top 3 and an article I found very helpful on the subject.

* * *

3 Skillfully Non-Elusive Blogs About Middle Eastern and Emirati Cuisine
interestingly, mostly written by part-Westerners

3. Emiratican Kitchen
This blog is written by a half-Emirati, half-Texan woman who married a man from Dubai. She grew up in San Antonia and so along with blogs explaining what Loomi Aswad is (dried black lime, if you don't know; apparently very common in Emirati cuisine), she also posts on how to make homemade tortillas. I love her already.

2. Ya Salam Cooking
Like with many other great food blogs, the recipe for this one started with an enterprising woman with a knack for cooking and a husband who appreciates and fuels that passion. Noor grew up in Tennesse but based on her name must have some kind of Arabic background. She now lives in Saudi Arabia (!) where she loves to cook up a storm of varied and interesting Middle Eastern recipes with the odd American one thrown in.

1. Anissa Helou
Anissa is a professional chef and cookery teacher living in London, but she is Lebanese originally and has spent much time in places like Syria and Turkey. Her blog is a unique mix of travel, food and personal experience. Also, her photographs are visually stunning. I am definitely interested in getting to know more about things like ful medammes and eating camel meat(!).

The Article: UAE on the Menu
This is a wonderful article explaining the lack of authentic Emirati food on the public Emirati tables. What it is, why it's still primarily kept as a family domain, and where to get it if you really, really want to taste the goods.

* * *

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dish-Dasha-ing Around Abu Dhabi, Abayas in My View

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque in Abu Dhabi:
6th largest in the world
image credit

We made it! We're here! Or in the words of a hilariously self-important friend overcome by the glory of Union Square shopping in NYC, arms outstretched: We have arrived!

London is but a distant memory and now our world consists of 100-degree days, air conditioning and lots of (shockingly cheap) cab rides. It's hard to encapsulate the changes and surprises that moving to the UAE has brought to our lives without sounding cliched, materialistic or even downright presumptuous. It is a unique place full of money, and oil, and definitely lots of bling bling - but that's not all there is to it.

Abu Dhabi is a place of contrast and extremity and even, to a certain degree, of ordered confusion. To the Western eye, largely untrained in the ways of the Middle East, there are many things that seem vastly different but actually aren't, and many things that seem exactly the same but actually aren't either.

While I don't think it would be prudent to go into every single one of those impressions today, I would like to share information on one of the biggest sources of surprise and shock to me: the Emirati National Dress. It is exemplary of so much about Emirati culture in that what we see is not always what it seems.

* * *

Dishdashas and Abayas: A Black and White Way of Life
But not so much.

Dish-dashas and Abayas: Real Culture Shock.

Proud of their dishdashas.
image credit

It is a hot topic everywhere - extremist Islam and women's rights therein. I wasn't sure how I, a generally pretty sassy Western woman, would take to being in a "male dominated" society where women are "required to cover everything but their eyes."

Luckily for me, most of the caveats and "facts" I was given regarding Islamic practices and requirements in clothing a) don't apply to me in the UAE and b) are not anywhere near as extreme as people would have you think, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai at least. I was shocked to see people walking around in what I had always assumed was "extremist Islamic" dress at the mall, supermarket and even in luxury hotels; happily, I soon realized that their clothes were as commonplace and un-extremist as jeans and a t-shirt are to you and me.

National dress or National Threat?

Male dishdashas (or thawbs) and female Abayas are the National Dress in the UAE, loosely comparable to wearing a Kimono in Japan, but far more common. Contrary to paranoid Western opinion, both men and women wear them everywhere. They are both long-sleeved, neck-high, floor-length robes. The male version is white and the female version is black. They are both accompanied by traditional, long headscarfs: a white ghutra and black igal for men, and a black niqāb for women. None of these things cover the face, hands or eyes and any further covering is simply dictated by the degree to which that family considers itself "conservative."

Men wearing Traditional Thawbs or Dishdashas
image credit

While I have seen women with fully covered faces (even their eyes!), on the whole, most Emirati women I see do not have their faces covered at all and it is generally Muslims from different countries who require this (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Most Emirati women sport immaculate mani-pedis, designer handbags, and are incredibly friendly toward non-Abaya'd Westerners.

A fashionable Abaya.

The biggest culture shock to me was my revelation that Abayas are beautiful. I was shocked to find myself aesthetically thrilled by them, to the degree that I began window-shopping at Abaya stores, curiously, wishing it wouldn't be culturally inappropriate for me to go in and try them on.

They have beautiful, colorful embellishments (despite the fact that Abayas only come in black) and are not cut like the dreaded and taboo burqas, straight down and matronly. Many of them are made of satin, chiffon or other beautiful materials and are cut with curves, flounces and even ruffle-y edges. The way women drape them over their hair (for the most part) is feminine, flattering, and even reminiscent of haute-couture. And most amazingly, underneath the black Abaya they are wearing the latest fashions, sometimes giving away their predilection for one brand or another through their exposed designer heels and sandals.

The male headdress can either be white or red/white checkered and can be worn hanging straight down or with the sides folded over the head in the "cobra fashion." If they are not wearing their headscarf they will often wear a small cap called a kufi or even just a baseball cap (generally designer too).

Another fashionable Abaya.
Image credit

While I do not mean to underplay or deny the existence of oppression, lack of rights or forced traditions anywhere in the world, I do wish to state that for my part and in my limited experience in the UAE, I think thawbs and abayas are a colorful cultural tradition that enriches a place that has tried so hard to make itself Western. They are, it seems, a source of national pride and identity, more than a political statement, and defining them as such (in this case anyway) would make me ethnocentric and, frankly, a little too black and white in my view of the world.

* * *

Informative & Interesting Links

Abayas as Haute Couture: An article that came out today!

Abaya-Jubah Blog: Pictures of Haute Couture Abayas & Modern Abayas for Sale!

Arabmania Blog: More Pictures of Haute Couture Abayas

Clothing in Arabia: A brief overview of male national dress

List of types of Sartorial hijab (Islamic dress)

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Re-discovering Connecticut: A New Childhood Summer Sojourn

My summertime boy relaxing on the deck

In the past 3 1/2 years that we've lived in London, we haven't really made an effort to go back to the US during the summer, and this for several reasons:

1. We always go back for Christmas for a month which uses up most of Matt's vacation time

2. We always go somewhere in Europe during the summer, to take advantage of our temporary proximity to places like Greece or Spain.

3. The spring/summer is the only really nice time of the year in London, so why miss it? :)

This year, with our permanent departure from Europe increasingly more imminent (t-minus 2 weeks), we decided to do a month-long, gardening-leave-inspired visit to our two home states, the first of which was Connecticut, followed by Texas. It's the perfect opportunity to reminisce, take in some sun, visit with loved ones, and look at our old haunts with a new lens...

* * *

Summer is magical everywhere. But it is never as magical as in the place you grew up.

Going back to your home town in summer is like dipping yourself in a personalized fountain of youth for a brief but magical moment. However short-lived the high is, it's an experience that
brings back that addictive and contagious childhood anticipation and wonder that I consider the world's most natural and effective cure for unnecessary stuffiness and sometimes inevitable boredom.

On the other hand, going back to your home town in summer with your first child is like accidentally turning the knob to turbo in the fountain of youth jacuzzi (roll with it). It makes the whole nostalgic ride a little bumpier, funnier and altogether more intense and definitely all the better for it. As you watch your son see and do all the things you saw and did as a child, everything is transformed into a magical 3-dimensional world where senses are heightened and wonder abounds.

There are many small, idiosyncratic aspects to Matt's hometown that make me enjoy visiting: it is the original founding place of Yale University, was home to Katherine Hepburn most of her life, and even has the first pharmacy run by a black female dating back to 1790.

We spent two idyllic weeks on Long Island Sound in Southeastern Connecticut with Matt's family this June. The weather and company couldn't have been better for our first summertime return.
Here are our top 5 moments in Connecticut this summer before the Abu Dhabian adventure begins, with Roman in tow.

* * *

Re-discovering Connecticut: The Top 5 Moments
seeing it all and loving it all again, for the first time

5. The Sox & Hat
Matt's brother and his girlfriend surprised us with tickets to a Matt's favorite baseball team our first night in New England (which was spent in Boston). We dragged a jetlagged, practically catatonic 1-year-old to the Boston Red Sox vs. Phillies game. He was a total ham - smiling and waving at all our neighbors and incredibly still and patient as we cheered and consumed copious amounts of beer and hot dogs in the cramped bleachers.

The Sox & The Hat

And for his time, he even got a bonafide infant Red Sox baseball cap to match his daddy's out of the deal.

4. The Verdant Plushness
The first thing that struck me when we arrived at Matt's parents' house in Connecticut was the beautiful contrast between their white 19th Century home and their perfectly kept, almost blindingly verdant lawn and backyard. It is so plush. The kind of grass that pretty much guaranteed Matt would lounge on the ground half the time, and even almost made me want to join him despite my fear of chiggers.

verdant and plush

Roman spent many a sunny Connecticuttian afternoon crawling on that lawn or pushing his Radio Flyer wagon all over it. Matt waxed poetic about the flower beds he'd planted in high school that were still there (he fancies himself an amateur landscaper) and showed off every inch of his childhood labor to his son. I very much enjoyed working on my tan and snapping aesthetic dalliances from the comfort of the lawn chairs, surrounded by the verdant plushness of it all.

3. Surf & Surf
Another extremely charming and- for Matt - nostalgic aspect of spending time in Connecticut is boat culture. Matt's family grew up with a sailboat and spent many weekends swimming and
fishing in Long Island sound. These days they own a motorboat made in Nova Scotia - a slightly smaller but equally charming little tugboat look-alike that offers the convenience of speed and therefore access to great swimming spots, tranquil sunset lookouts, and fun day trips trawling for blue fish or gathering mussels and clams.

Enjoying the boat with Nana

They took us out on the boat twice and both times bore fantastic spoils: the first time we got to experience a wonderful sunset on the Connecticut river (the only river of that size without a major city at its port, incidentally) accompanied by cocktails and appetizers, and the second time we got to swim / go out on the dingy for shell-collecting and beach exploration, plus Matt caught a blue fish to which his mother hilariously exclaimed: "Tonight we eat!"

Roman was a natural - fearless and possessing sea legs from the time he hit the deck, but unfortunately was not as big of a fan of sleeping on the boat which made extended trips out...interesting. Here's to the Hannah May and her new miniature skipper.

2. Water, Water Everywhere
Even before we got to Connecticut, Roman's kiddie pool was sitting in his grandparents' garage
waiting to be set up and taken advantage of. I ordered it online and purposely made sure I got one with cup holders and big enough for the whole family to get into. Shameless, I know. :)

Having grown up too far from the beach to go as often as I would have liked, pools were always my great escape from the summer heat. Roman got a taste of kiddie pools in London with some of our friends, but he thoroughly enjoyed having one all to himself in the beautiful setting of Nana and Grand's backyard. One day, in desperation, Matt and I joined him, but most of the time we just looked on as he splashed, half-dove and generally galavanted around the pool as if he were the next, significantly better looking, Michael Phelps.

We also got to spend some time on the beach with Matt's sister and her husband. Aunt Hannah is a beach expert. She knows the best spots and showed definite expertise in explaining and displaying the coolest most interesting aspects of the beach to a little kid: seaweed, sand sifting, castles and sandbars. Uncle Jim delighted Roman with a shockingly accurate display of the good old elementary school gym class fav: the crab walk.

Walking with Aunt Hannah

The beach we went to is in a state park so there are no floaties or kites allowed, but we had a wonderful time splashing in the cold water and snacking on apples as sand was gleefully flung in the air.

1. Connecticuttian Mystique
There's a certain je ne sais quoi about Connecticut summers that had been forgotten. One night as Matt and I walked down Main Street looking at the giant maples and the towering pines that inevitably make up most of the skyline over the charming colonial architecture that harkens back to the times of forefathers, witch trials and constitutions, he pointed out all the places he'd gone as a kid. And then he told me how much he regretted not taking part in the beautifully quotidian aspects of his town more when he was around to do it.

"It feels so luxurious," he said " to be at home, taking part in every day life during the summer while everybody else is working - I haven't done this since I was fourteen."

But none of that everydayness - the local fish markets, drives on the causeway, the cheesy Italian restaurants, shooting hoops at the park or even the family outings and drives down memory lane - seem that appealing when you're a young adult looking only ahead at your future rather than at your surroundings. All of those things are seemingly bland details that simply make up your reality - the only one you know, and therefore the one you take for granted. It is being able to go back to that reality, now distant and cherished in its every minute detail, and seeing it anew that makes you really appreciate it.

the good old childhood park

And maybe, just maybe, though you might long to be there a lot more often, it's enjoying those simple luxuries just a few weeks a year that helps keep home's true mystique intact forever.

* * *

More aesthetically pleasing shots of our time in Connecticut

New England Beaches

An American Yard

Seaweed on the Sandbar

"Tonight we eat!"

Old Saybrook Lighthouse
on the CT license plate

Mystic, CT Flag

* * *

Happy Early 4th of July!
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