Thursday, May 8, 2014

Waxing Nostalgic for Mexico: Quesadillas Fritas Con Ensaladita de Col & Agua de Pepino

Quesadillas Fritas con Ensaladita de Col;
Fried Quesadillas with Cabbage Salad
Some meals bring home the sunshine.  They make me smile, they make me lounge, they make me want to run in the clover barefooted like a little girl.  Some meals make me think of home - when home was mom and dad and sister, half-Spanish, half-English (NOT Spanglish), Texas sunshine, and the smell of lime, cilantro and onions.  In some ways, that still is home - in other ways, it isn't because now I'm the mom.  And it's my sons wreaking havoc and smelling the smells of Mexico that will, one day, bring nostalgia to them.

I made a trip back to Mexico in early April to see my ailing grandmother.  I didn't have much time - just a few days - but I took a moment to smell my grandfather's roses, his lime tree, to walk the market of Queretaro and eat some carnitas tacos at a stand on the street.  I am lucky that here in Denver we live very close to one of the major epicenters of Mexican culture in Colorado: Federal Ave.  There are enough panaderias (menudo on the weekends!), paleterias (they also sell esquites and corn on a stick!), and taco stands (as well as any other variation of Mexican street food) to keep my never-ending-nostalgia for Mexico at a reasonable level.  My son is growing up eating Mexican street food far more often than I ever did.  I can get fresh tortillas, queso Oaxaca (my favorite cheese growing up that my mother and aunts used to freeze and smuggle into the US in their suitcases), and all the Mexican cuts of meat that I need for a good taquiza (taco-grill-out).  Not to mention fresh Nopales.

In that spirit, I want to share a meal I made recently that takes me back to Mexico, to my childhood, but also contains a new Mexican food discovery - one that belongs to my kitchen now - not  my mom's - one that has become Roman's go-to Spring drink, and an indispensable part of my own repertoire of Mexican comfort foods.

the meal
*  *  *

There is this one little taco place called Tacos Junior (it's a chain) near us that we go to almost every Tuesday night after Roman's soccer practice.  He always orders the Tacos de Carne Asada, a cheese quesadilla and rice.  Matt gets a Huarache with Carnitas.  And, besides the ever-rotating list of foods, I always get a fresh "Agua" de sabor - a fruit drink made by blending water, sugar and fresh fruit.

They make them fresh for you per-order and $4 will get you a giant Big-Gulp sized cup of whatever fruity-deliciousness you choose.  I've mentioned these before when I posted a recipe for Agua de Limon a few years back (did mention this Lime shorage is killing me?!).  I almost always get Lime or Watermelon.  Matt always gets Horchata.  But recently I went rogue and tried a new flavor I'd never heard of before but which, on hindsight, is painfully obvious.  Roman's favorite vegetable.  Agua de Pepino - Cucumber water. 

What a waste my life has been!  And no, non-hispanic-American-friends, I don't mean that trendy concoction pushed by the likes of Martha Stewart where you infuse plain water in a fancy dispenser by placing daintily cut cucumber slices and ice into it.  I mean taking a whole damn cucumber and blending it up with water and sugar and lime or lemon juice.  I mean DRINKING a cucumber.  It's freaking incredible.  DO IT.  Spring in a glass, I tell you.  It was the only thing I made for Roman's party last weekend that actually ran out.  People were mesmerized.  Hell, so was I . :)

Agua de Pepino
Makes 2 liters


Large pitcher
1 1/2 -2 cucumbers, washed & very roughly chopped (you can peel them if you want, but I don't)
2 limes or lemons (preferably limes)
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
~2 liters water
Optional variation: fresh mint


1. In a blender with 1 liter water and the cucumbers (and mint if you want it), liquefy until completely....well, liquified. :)  The mix will be somewhat pulpy (which I really like), but should not have "chunks" in it.

2. Meanwhile, combine the other liter of water and the sugar in the pitcher and mix until completely dissolved.  Do not be tempted to add the sugar after the cucumbers or the lime juice - my mother assures me the sugar will not dissolve as the water will already be saturated.

3. Add the lime / lemon juice and mix.

4. Add the cucumber mix to the pitcher (you can pass it through a strainer as you go, if you prefer, but I never do) and mix well.

Serve with ice on a sunny day.

NB: I keep a wooden mixing spoon in my pitcher at all times as the pulp will separate from the water after just sitting for 2 minutes.  You need to mix it each time before serving.  Keep refrigerated and it will last 2-3 days.

 *  *  *

The other half of the meal I want to share is a dish my mother used to make for us.  Fried quesadillas with ground beef, served with a simple lime & cabbage slaw.  You can change the filling for these as you wish, but some typical versions are: chorizo and potatoes, sauteed mushrooms or picadillo.  I took some liberties with my spicing for the ground beef  filling (for example, I like cumin - and coriander - a lot, and my mom hates it), though, technically speaking otherwise, this is my mom's recipe.  The only thing I will say is non-negotiable is the insane, almost-excessive amount of lime and black pepper that goes into the slaw.  I promise you it does not disappoint, especially when eaten with such a rich, fried food.  You can add diced, cooked potatoes to the filling as well.

Quesadillas Fritas & Ensaladita de Col
Serves ~4; Makes 20 Quesadillas


Canola or Corn oil (for frying)
20 Corn tortillas
1/2 lb queso oaxaca or shredded mozzarella

1/2 lb ground beef or pork
splash of red wine vinegar
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of garlic powder
dash of cinnamon (optional)
1 tsp coriander, crushed (optional)
1/2 small onion (white or yellow) chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 serrano pepper, chopped (or to taste)
salt to taste

Lime-Pepper Cabbage Slaw
1/2 - 3/4 head of cabbage, sliced thinly into long, fine strings
3-4 limes, juiced
1-2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste


1.  Assemble the cabbage salad and set aside at room temp: Slice cabbage finely into long little strings (not squares or it will be very hard to handle) and place into a serving bowl.  Dress with lime juice and lots and lots of pepper.  The quantity given above is an approximation.  Basically: just a lot of pepper.  Add salt to taste and toss.

2. For the quesadillas: With 1 tbsp oil sautee onions, garlic, pepper.  Add red wine vinegar and deglaze pan.  Add ground beef and all spices and cook-through. Set aside.

3. Heat your oil (about 1-inch high) in a frying pan over medium-high heat (not high eat or the quesadillas will burn).  Meanwhile, microwave the tortillas (wrapped in a paper towel) in batches as you make the quesadillas (about 5 at a time, or however many you think will fit in your frying pan as a batch), for 30-45 seconds, to soften them.  Throw a crumb of cheese or tortilla into the oil and when you see it frying you'll know the oil is ready.

4. You need to work quickly here or your oil will start to burn: Take the first batch of tortillas and, laying them out flat, add some cheese (about 1-2 tbsp worth) plus about 1-2 tbsp of the meat mixture to one half of each tortilla.  When you've assembled them, gently fold the tortilla over and immediately place into the oil.  Be very gentle or the tortilla will break and/or the fillings will fall out of the quesadilla into the oil causing a frenzy of flying hot oil.  Not good.

5.  The oil should be bubbling vigorously around each quesadilla.  (If it isn't, the oil is too cold and you should turn up the heat or your quesadillas will be oil-logged-nastiness.)  Use a spatula to gently press the quesadillas down.  Cook about 1-2 minutes on each side or until golden brown, turning carefully so filling does not spill out.  Remove crispy quesadillas to a paper-towel lined plate and start over by heating the next batch of tortillas in the microwave.

Serve the quesadillas warm or at room temp with a side of cabbage slaw.  I like to also serve with a basic homemade salsa, avocado slices, and extra limes.  I also stuff the quesadillas with the slaw.  Oh, and don't forget the glass of Agua de Pepino.

NB: Do not place quesadillas in an oven to keep warm or they will get tough!  I learned this the hard way! 

¡Buen Provecho!

This post is brought to you by the cheesy throw-back online Spanish-music radio station Matt found and I am addicted to: Rey de Corazones.  And also the hilarious Spanish song from my childhood by Miguel Bose I heard on Rey de Corazones a few weeks back; it's like a hispanic power-ballad about a bandit lover: Amante Bandido.
Follow Me on Pinterest

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Homemade Porchetta Sandwiches with Salsa Verde: Crack(ling) for Foodies

Porchetta Panini with Salsa Verde: highly addictive, but legal.

I wrote this post over a month ago - life is so busy I didn't get to finish it and publish it till May, but I am retroactively publishing it :)

*  *  *

I'm struggling a little bit, as I usually do at this time of year, with the fact that it snowed again a few days ago.  In April.  And it's not easy to face the fact that it will probably keep doing that sporadically until mid May.  High desert.  Yep - sometimes I think you seriously do need to be high to put up with this shite with a smile on your face!  Freaking Denver.  Good thing I had these pictures and my porchetta adventure in the archives ready for a post that warms.

Not cool, Nature.  Not cool.

I'm not sure where the idea came from exactly but at a certain point in 2013 I became completely obsessed with making porchetta.  I suppose it might have been my subconscious harkening back to the market in Rome's Campo dei Fiori and the porchetta stand we'd passed by on our trip in 2010.  The regret of not buying a sandwich that day clung tightly to my capricious culinary heart.  I'd tried porchetta before - I'm not sure where - and the taste of it, crunchy-salty-deliciousness, lingered, like an unattainable sensory high, in my memory.  It could also be that since then I've been victim to what seems to be nothing short of a porchetta-centric-campaign of cooking shows aimed at me only, pedaling that legalized and quite addictive substance and how to make it yourself, featuring food trucks and restaurants alike showcasing kick-ass porchetta.  I was truly convinced I'd become the unwitting victim of a universal conspiracy to entice me to death with crackling, herbs and lemon juice.  Something had to be done. 

Porchetta in Campo dei Fiori; be still my beating heart!

A couple of months ago I happened to land on an episode of Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" (a show and celebrity chef I love to hate but can't stop watching) and was sucked into an episode on a sandwich joint that made what can only be described as the most tasty thing I'd ever seen (again): their own homemade porchetta sandwiches.  The place was called Meat and Bread in Vancouver, BC, and their purposely-simple approach to sandwiches (meat and bread, literally) drew me in.  Well, and I simply couldn't take it anymore.  I had to get out and finally commence that delicious hunt for the ingredients that would ensure that the most delicious of roasted pork belly sandwiches would be mine at last.

*  *  *


Crackling Heaven.

Porchetta is traditionally from Lazio, the region in Italy where Rome is located.  As if that is not already appealing enough to me, It's also considered something of a celebratory food in the sense that it's usually sold out of food stands, trucks or markets during festivals, and most people consider it a picnic or holiday food in Italy.  It was, not surprisingly, introduced to the US by Italian immigrants and has been adopted and adapted around the country.  It is wonderful served as a main dish (like a pork roast) but truly shines, in my humble opinion, when served as part of a "panino" or sandwich, along with Italian salsa verde - a divinely acidic and earthy sauce that perfectly cuts the fat of the pork belly.

And what is this salsa verde of which I speak?  It has nothing to do with tomatillos and onions.  Nothing new-world about it, really.  It's a sauce rumored to have been brought back from the near east by Roman soldiers to Italy where it was then exported to France and Germany and theoretically also the new world - which is where we get things like Argentina's Chimichurri.  Admittedly, there is some question in my mind as to whether salsa verde is always traditionally served with porchetta in Italy as most of the recipes for porchetta with salsa verde I've encountered tend to be found in modern American publications, but, frankly, at this point, I truly do not care about authenticity.  Salsa Verde is one of the few foods that makes me salivate on command.  At this very moment I have visions of fresh herbs, garlic, peperoncino, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovies dancing through my head.  Those six things may very well be my favorite ingredients of all time.  Ok, plus salt.  I can't imagine anything savory they wouldn't make taste better.  No, really. :)

I figured it would be pretty easy to find what I needed to make the porchetta.  Who doesn't like pork belly?!  Well, apparently nobody in Denver likes it enough to demand it be sold at their local grocery store.  I went to at least 5 different grocery stores.  I tried the regular suspects in addition to my two favorite ethnic Mexican grocery stores, but it wasn't until I entered the meat section at Pacific Ocean Int'l Market (my go-to Asian market here in Denver) that I found what I was looking for.  Amidst the smells of fermented bean curd, dried shrimp and science-experiment-looking tapioca puddings, I found a large selection of pork bellies, none of which had the loin still attached as is generally used in Italy - but no matter.  The vast availability of pork loins - the least flavorful part of the pig - is a testament to the boring culinary lives most of us lead.  I picked one up at King Soopers - and I swear I left my judgments at the meat cooler - and moved on with my life and recipe.

*  *  *

Delishness from above.

I read an article recently in Food & Wine written by a woman who grew up in Soviet Russia, living through food shortages and her mother's creative ways of making the government issued rations of nast palatable (see "Russian Food: A Love Story").  Apart from contemplating the oft-discussed reality that when there is none around, everything becomes about food, she also recalled her mother as having (maybe because of the food shortage, maybe in spite of it) "compulsive hospitality syndrome" - the compulsive love of sharing food with those you care about.  She would prepare dinner parties from tinned meat and half-rotting potatoes.  She coveted the neighbor's black-market bananas.  There was also a kettle ready to brew tea for a passing friend or neighbor.  I suppose this is akin to being called a "feeder," which is what my sister calls me.  I can't stand not feeding people, and, most of the time, if I am excited about making a recipe, it's at least in part because I can't wait to share it with someone I love. 

Which is why, one snowy weekend in February I invited our good friends and old neighbors over for a porchetta dinner after Matt and Tony went off to watch a Monster Truck Rally with the boys.  It left me ample time to make the salsa verde, make the salt rub for the porchetta with my friend Gaea, a recent convert to meat.  We rubbed the salt and lemon zest spice mix on the slotted pork belly skin.  We filled it with herbs.  We rolled it.  And then we roasted it low and slow in the oven, so that the skin on the pork belly became the crunchiest, saltiest of crackling, breaking off in chips as you sliced the roast, crushed onto the sandwich in an infinitely more sophisticated version of the ham-sandwich-with-Lays-potato-chips.

That night we feasted.  We served the sandwiches on ciabatta slathered in salsa verde, piled high with pork and crackling, and topped with more salsa verde.  A brisk white wine for me and beer for the rest finished it off quite nicely.  I'm certain I was in a salt and meat coma after the first three bites, my former vegetarian friend sitting across from me, smiling, licking her fingers - the best and realest testament to the transformative power of food - and the fact that Porchetta is crack for foodies.

*  *  *

Porchetta Sandwiches with Salsa Verde
Recipe from Meat & Bread in Vancouver
Serves 8-10


Salsa Verde
1 bunch parsley
1 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons toasted fennel seeds ground
2 teaspoons toasted coriander ground
2 teaspoons chili flakes
small handful of fresh fennel fronds, chopped (optional)
2 anchovy fillets (optional)
2 cloves garlic
zest of 1 lemon
lemon juice from 2 lemons

Salt & Herb Rub
2 tbsp coarse salt
2 tsp toasted fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tsp toasted fennel seed, crushed
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
zest of 1 lemon
small handful of fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Other Ingredients
2-3lbs (combined weight) Pork Belly with loin still attached (or buy them separately)
kitchen twine
extra canola oil
ciabatta rolls, sliced lengthwise for sandwiches


1. Preheat the oven to 275F.

2. Make the salsa verde in a blender (or chop by hand if you're feeling it), set aside.

3. Make the salt & herb rub in a small bowl and set aside.

4. Score the pork belly skin in a hatch pattern so it will roast and crisp up nicely (see pic above).  Spread some (about half) salt & herb rub on the inside of the belly and loin.  Roll the pork belly and loin (with the loin in the center) into a cylinder and tie tightlywith kitchen twine.  Rub the rest of the salt & herb rub and a generous amount of oil all over the outside.

5. Place porchetta in a roasting pan (relatively deep as lots of fat will be coming off this baby) and roast in the oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours.

6. Turn the heat up to 450F and roast for a further 25-30 minutes or until the skin is completely golden and crispy (as in the pictures above).

Serve on ciabatta rolls smeared with the salsa verde, with chopped up meat, sprinkled with the crispy crackling on top and more salsa verde.  Enjoy!

Follow Me on Pinterest

Friday, March 21, 2014

Homemade Pickles, Rick Moranis, and a Season Called Sprinter.

Successful Pickling Dabblage.
I was caught off-guard by the beginning of Spring this year.  I completely forgot about it, happy to live in my on-again, off-again sun-drenched-quick-melting-snow-filled-Denver-winter for a bit longer, I suppose.  Suddenly, Roman's class was taping paper flowers all over the school hallways and I was being asked questions about possibly acquiring a "blood-drinking plant that eats flies." Roman has an obsession with Venus Fly Traps ever since he caught me recounting to Matt the plot of Little Shop of Horrors a couple of weeks ago as I waxed nostalgic about my own love of Rick Moranis.  I suppose that's as cool as Spring gets for a 4 year-old boy.

Pretty dapper, I'd say.
It doesn't mean I'm not ecstatic to be out of winter, though, as I have been, admittedly, reading gardening books and websites for weeks.

Maybe it's because this is the first year ever when I have a piece of land to call my own, to mold and prune and plant and sow however I want (Matt is strangely happy to follow my lead on the garden, actually).

Maybe it's because I'd like to delay decisions on things like the color of the Wisteria I'll choose, whether or not I'll plant hydrangeas this year (our wedding flower), or what type of grapevines to purchase for our gazebo (learning toward Sauvignon Blanc and possible Merlot or Cab).

It all seems so exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  I should be glad, then, that in Denver one does not actually plant things until after Mother's Day.  Last year it snowed on Roman's birthday (May Day) and apparently that falls within the absolute norm for the high desert country we live in. 

Roman's favorite vegetable.

So maybe this half-way reluctance to usher in Spring is the reason why I've been cooking half-Spring, half-Wintery things the past few weeks. I can't quite commit to grilling yet, and still, I can't quite let go of the barely dormant excitement at fresh squash coming into the supermarkets.  I want to turn away from the winter crops, but I still find myself loading up on grapefruits and the last of the Brussels sprouts.  And maybe all of this is why I was suddenly inspired to make a batch of quick-fridge-pickles yesterday with a bag of mini cucumbers I purchased at Costco.  A warm-weather crop being preserved for winter, just before the summer.  Makes no sense and I don't care. It's not really Spring. And it's not really Winter.

It's Sprinter.

*  *  *

It's Fish Friday - and I'm hoping I can make it through the whole day without eating meat
(a sad, probably heretical ongoing joke between me and Matt).  Last week I accidentally ate a chicken nugget, the week before that I inhaled a breakfast taco with sausage at McDonald's before realizing my heathen ways.  And I still haven't given anything up for Lent, except maybe thinking about Lent.  But today I'm committed!  I went and got some lovely Cod fish yesterday and my plan is to make homemade fish and chips and serve them with homemade tartar sauce and homemade dill pickles.  And since Matt lives in perpetual fear of botulism from my home-made-preserves I decided to make those pickles in the fridge rather than jarring them for the winter to come.  They don't keep as long (they have to be refrigerated) but I don't think we'll have a problem finishing off a 1-quart jar in the next couple of weeks.

Here is the recipe I found and slightly modified from a blog called "Mountain Mama Cooks." Matt thinks they are a bit too sweet (which is odd because they contain no sugar) so my next attempt will be at making SOUR dill pickles.  And here also are the pretty pictures of the pickles that resulted from my 30-minute dabblage in pickle-making.

Happy Sprinter - for those of you who, like me, still haven't fully transitioned. :)

*  *  *

Quick Homemade Refrigerator Pickles 
Makes a 1 quart jar, tightly packed


1/2 head of garlic, unpeeled
5 cups water
2 1/2 cups vinegar
1/8 cup + 1 tbsp pickling salt
1 lb of mini cucumbers sliced in half lengthwise (look for the really thin-skinned ones as they absorb the pickling juice better)
1/2 serrano pepper (or to taste)
1 tbsp dried dill (or 1-2 large fresh sprigs)
1-2 tsp whole peppercorns
1-2 tsp whole coriander seeds
1-2 tsp yellow mustard seed


1. Bring water and garlic to a boil.  Allow to boil and cook for five minutes.

2. Add the vinegar and salt and stir until dissolve.  Take off the heat.

3. Sterilize your jar and fill with all the other ingredients, tightly packed and artistically if you so desire.

4. Bring the pickling juice back to a boil and pour into the jar, completely covering the veg and filling to the brim (ideally without burning your hand, as I did).

5. Seal the jar, allow to cool completely, and refrigerate.

These pickles are ready to eat as soon as you like and depending how the intensity of the picklage you crave.  I liked trying them a few hours in when they are still really crunch and taste like a cucumber salad. Today I'll enjoy the more intense pickling flavor and softness that reminds me of Saturdays at the movies in Texas. :)

Follow Me on Pinterest

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Amicable Alimentations: Sticky Toffee Pudding & Friendships that Stick

The steamed pudding.
Amicable Alimentations: A series of posts with no predictable order or timing dedicated to a delicious food and the friend who most reminds me of it or inspired me to love it.  Here's the link to post number one, number two, number three, number four and this is post number five in the series.

*  *  *

When you're facing life as an ex-pat, the natural tendency is to compare.  To compare the familiar, the presumed-correct, the "normal," with the unfamiliar or odd or inconvenient.  Living in the UK was baptism by fire in this regard, especially because it is deceptively convenient in the sense that the language is ostensibly the same (it's really not) and the outlook, that of "first world" or "ally" or whatever other politically and culturally-charged label has been hoisted on the UK from the other side of the Atlantic, similar (it's really not).

I'm an open-minded person, one who doesn't mind certain inconveniences if the pay-out is charm or beauty or leisure, or even education.  But I'm also highly intolerant of inefficiency, laziness, and lack of perspective.  Not a whole lot of things I saw and learned in the UK really stuck with me in the end, but many of my experiences and friendships did. 

Another thing that did stick - almost inevitably, as it was a rather sticky thing - was a love of steamed puddings, and Sticky Toffee Pudding in particular.  Steamed Puddings.  Yep - that sounds kinda gross to an American audience, doesn't it?  It makes me laugh.  The first time I heard of Suet Pudding I kind of gagged a little bit.  Beef fat pudding?  Literally, steamed lard pudding?  "What could be more disgusting?" said my inner-food-snob, dismissively.  I was wrong, of course.  It's delectable, especially in its' savory iteration.  And while I am indeed a professed lover of savory things, I must also admit that it was a sweet steamed pudding that fully won me over to steamed puddings in the end.  Well, that and the colorfully named "Spotted Dick" dessert which, however displeasing an image it may conjure - runny, creamy custard oozing all over its' brown spotted glory - is strangely delicious.  But we'll return to Spotted Dick in a moment.
I think I first had Sticky Toffee Pudding one very rainy June - our first in London, only weeks before our basement flat on Warwick Road was violently thrashed by an unexpected flood, at a restaurant in Kensington called Ffiona's.  My dear friend Sandra, whom I always think of as my "New York friend" (because really she was literally the only person outside my co-workers I hung out with in Manhattan), and her husband Jed had made the trek across the proverbial pond to visit us in the UK during what we erroneously called a "short relocation period" to Europe before heading back to New York. (We never returned to New York, of course, and we ended up staying in London for almost 4 years, but never mind the commonplace oddities of foiled life-plans.)
Ffiona's Charming Exterior on Kensington Church Street
Image Credit

I'd long-before noticed Ffiona's as it fell along the pleasant bus trip from Earl's Court to Notting Hill which we often made on the weekends.  It was located on a particularly picturesque and winding road through central London called Kensington Church Street, not far from an even more picturesque church where there was the most enticingly beautiful flower stand I'd ever seen and never went to.  That's a regret.  Anyway, it was tucked away in a small series of stone buildings and had a quirky sign.  It was one of hundreds of restaurants I'd pointed out to Matt and said "We should go there!" and never did.  Such is life in London - so many things to spend one's money on, and so little money to do it with!  And, yet, in this case - we did go to Ffiona's, and all because of something else rather sticky and wonderful - my friendship with Sandra.

You know, it's not often one finds a life-long friend, but I did when I met Sandra.  And despite only having lived in the same place as friends for a little over a year, we've shared some awesome experiences together, and, most of all, continue to.  From tapas' nights cooked in tiny Manhattan kitchens to Grey's Anatomy Marathons to drooling over Bacon Naan at Tabla to Greek feasts in her first home.  From karaoke in a sleazy French quarter bar to near-fisty-cuffs outside a fancy restaurant in Nola.  From my pregnancy with Roman to watching her adopt her beautiful twins to now sharing Alexander's adoption, our lives have been, it feels, somehow divinely intertwined.  I'm happy to be able to look back and say that.

The Cozy Interior.
Image Credit
But back to the pudding.  As luck would have it, Sandra's husband's parents had lived in London too.  They'd lived less than a mile from our flat in Earl's Court, in a beautiful mew (Adam & Eve Mew, if I recall correctly) on the much nicer, less dodgy end of Kensington Borough.  They'd recommended Ffiona's to us and were good friends with the namesake owner of the joint.  We went and had a lovely dinner there - mostly due to ambiance and company, I must say - which ended with Ffiona's "infamous" sticky toffee pudding.  It wasn't the best STP I've had since, but it was good enough to be memorable and make me want more.  Also on that trip, as Sandra recently reminded me, we made a feeble but valorous attempt at making Spotted Dick (because, again, who can an opportunity to continue making fun of that name?) in our damnable but somewhat-charming basement flat on Warwick Rd., which, quite frankly, was falling apart long before the July flood of 2007.  In the midst of checking on the pudding, our oven door literally fell off very nearly smashing onto my feet at 400 degrees.  It was, as Sandra put it, a little bit scary at the time, but pretty hilarious afterwards.  Moments like that, with good friends and in memorable places, make foods come to life.

And so I dedicate this post to Sandra and our many memories, food and not, one of which has left the legacy of Sticky Toffee Pudding in my life.  Sandrett will be coming to visit me and meet Alexander in a week's time, and I can't wait to have another delicious adventure with her here - including making some STP again.  Hopefully the oven door won't fall off this time, but even if it does, we'll laugh just as hard.

*  *  *

English Sticky Toffee Pudding
Serves 8-10

I made this version of Sticky Toffee Pudding, the recipe for which I found on David Lebovtz's wonderful blog, and which is a derivatory version itself, being a variation on Mani Niall's version in the book Sweet!  I have to say, I deviated slightly on the tofee recipe as I, sadly, didn't have Lyle's Golden Syrup or Molasses.  And, also, I prefer to use a few more dates in mine (because I love dates).  This recipe has always been a winner for me - I think I made a toffee addict out of my brother-in-law Jim, for one thing - but I made it again a few weeks back and it worked a treat on the chill from a Mile-High Winter's day.  Best served warm. 


Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Euclid Hall: Pigs' Heads and Baby Godzilla

Pigs' Heads at the Bar

The past few weeks have been a little rough.

Two weeks ago Matt got into a "fender bender," as he taught Roman to call it, with a telephone pole when his car slid out of control on the snow and ice.  They were headed to A-basin to go skiing in a big storm and had decided to turn around when it happened.  Nobody was hurt, except the car, thank God, but the absence of Matt's car and the lack of straight-forwardness regarding when it will be ready has created some crazy mornings with me driving both him and Roman into downtown Denver and then some exhausting afternoons picking them up.  On the one hand, Roman and I listened to the entirety of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, a favorite of mine from Mrs. Moses' 4th grade class (and perhaps one of the many reasons I viciously hate mosquitoes).  On the other hand, we are all also sick (wonderful mid-winter colds and coughs for the lot of us!) and exhausted and ready to have life back to normal.  All of this occurred just when we'd started to settle into the house and had begun to turn a corner with Alexander's horrible reflux and lack of sleeping at night, so I was literally at the end of my tether on Friday when I spent more than 4 hours in the car.

As if a direct answer to my unspoken-but-probably-telepathically-communicated-prayers, Matt's coworker and his girlfriend randomly offered to babysit the boys so we could get out.  It was nothing short of a miracle.  I went from facing a mediocre dinner while holding a crying baby and yelling at Roman to sit down, to a gourmet meal at an amazing restaurant in LoDo (lower downtown Denver) which I have not been able to stop thinking or talking about.  And what's odd is that the food was not perfect.  There were things I didn't enjoy about the meal much at all, in fact.  It was more that this is the first restaurant I've been to in Denver that I felt took real risks, and was successful with them.

So, our dinner at Euclid Hall.

I don't usually review restaurants but this one is worth the effort.  I truly loved it - which is more than I can say for almost any of the restaurants I've tried in Denver.  I'm not sure how to describe it; maybe modern American nose-to-tail eating with a twist?  First of all, we sat at the bar directly in front of the open kitchen (which is always my favorite place to sit) and right next to us on the elevated section of the bar where the chefs placed all the outgoing dishes were 3 partially cooked whole pigs' heads on plates.  That might bother some people, but it's literally what drew me in.  We found out that they were actually on sale to take home and cook for $60, something we'd like to do one of these days.  But I digress.

Our server was great, knowledgeable, thoughtful, timely.  He was interested in our experience and even had them split and serve our dessert on two plates without us asking.  The vibe was cool - it is a huge bar, actually - and their kitchen, I'm here to tell you, is nothing short of a perfectly orchestrated dance.  Their chef, Jorel Pierce, commanded and inspected and delegated quietly but firmly.  There was no chaos, no yelling, and if there was swearing - I mean, come on, there had to be swearing - it was done quietly enough that we couldn't hear.  The three guys in the kitchen with him worked quickly, efficiently and with skill.  I watched carefully at what they were doing and didn't order until I'd seen several different dishes come by me.  We almost got the chicken and waffles, but after we saw the composite-rectangular-chicken-y thing they serve there come by, we decided against it.  (Sorry guys, sometimes you've just got to leave a classic alone.)  We lingered, having our drinks, and enjoyed the show before us.

When, at last, we were ready, here is what we ordered.  First off, I recommend our approach: We decided to get several dishes - the menu does offer entrees but reads more like an American tapas menu - and just shared.  We skipped out on the homemade sausages and pickles (a great shame as they look fantastic), and the enticing roasted bone marrow (that was a tough call because it seriously looked perfect), and, to be honest, there were at least 10 other things besides that I would have happily tried.  But all that just gives me another reason to come back.

*  *  *

A Damn Good Meal at Euclid Hall
January 2014

First Course: Pig Ear Pad Thai; tamarind chili sauce, scallion, peanut, egg, sprouts, mint, cilantro
Pigs' Ear Pad Thai
This dish was literally incredible.  Pigs' ears are the hot thing right now so maybe ordering it was a bit trite (we've literally had them three times in the last two months and had never had them before that), but for once I don't mind being foody-mainstream.  This version by far surpassed anything else we'd ever tried.  Deep fried strips of pig ear that were just soft enough to be meaty but crispy enough for crunch, covered in a seriously spicy tamarind sauce and sauteed with peanuts and egg.  The garnishes were standard and perfect; the lime juice almost made the dish.  The serving size was more than enough for two people (though we greedily finished it and it took a lot of effort to agree to let Matt have the last bite) and rather reasonable at just $8.00.

Second Course: Manila Clams with Merguez Caldo Verde; braised kale, fried garlic, grape tomato, olive oil crostini, smoked malt and rye brodo
 This dish gets bonus points for creativity.  A riff on a Portuguese-style soup with the kale, sausage and seafood, it was good, but not great.  The presentation blew me - and everyone else who walked by - away.  I had a girl come up and ask if she could join us so she could eat what we were ordering.  It's odd that nobody else bothered to order the dish, but part of me wondered if maybe it had to do with them having tried it before.  The merguez sausage - a Moroccan-style lamb ditty - completely overpowered the clams and didn't marry well with the other components.  The broth lacked salt and was, well, almost too unique, too strange, being something like a "beer" broth with notes of sour and not-enough-savory, and yet, somehow...I liked it.  I added a lot of salt.  I would order it again just for the half baguette to dip in the soup when you're done.

Side 1: Brussel Sprout Casserole; garlic cheddar fondue, lemon, French fried onions
I am a self-professed Brussel Sprout fiend.  I almost always order them when I see them on a menu, and the winter is a perfect time to do so.  In this case, I enjoyed the combination of flavors, but after two bites felt that the cheddar fondue was just too rich.  It overtook the sprouts which are really the star of the show.  That said, it was a great combination of meaty, gooey and crunchy and a nice little dish to share with someone else.

Side 2: Wild Mushroom Poutine; porcini gravy, hand-cut fries, cheddar curds
One of the main reasons I wanted to try Euclid Hall was their Poutines.  I first tried this Canadian dish back in college during a very drunken trip with my roommates to go clubbing in a not-so-unique bordertown laden with bad casinos which we were all too young to enter.  It is a fantastic and almost-wrongly-decadent idea: to smother french fries in cheese and gravy.  It lured me in then just as it did last week.  I had seen that Euclid hall often offered a Duck Poutine, but that wasn't on the menu when we visited, so naturally I went for the mushroom offering.  The porcini gravy was definitely what I would call a super-umami food.  Delicious but almost too rich by the end of the somewhat-generously-portioned dish.  It all went well together and I enjoyed the cheese curds.  And maybe it's just the carnivore in me talking but I thought it was lacking meat of some sort. 

L to R: Brussel Sprout Casserole, Porcini Poutine and Clam & Merguez Soup

Dessert: Sourdough Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich; salted butterscotch ice cream, praline
Matt and I were so full - borderline food-coma-full - that we almost didn't order dessert.  But I'm glad we went for this.  One portion is the perfect size to share, and while I'm not a huge fan of sourdough, all the sour and salty notes worked well in this dessert.  I'd recommend it as a nice way to end the meal.

Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale: not much to say on the beer front except that Matt ordered two of these and was quite enamored.  Even I liked it and I'm not what you'd call a beer person.  Unique.

Me: Baby Godzilla!: This cocktail had me at hello.  I would wager that I'd order most things called "Baby Godzilla" just because it's such a fantastic name, but the fact that this concoction consisted mainly of gin and grapefruit reeled me in.  What a wonderfully perfect winter drink!  I am a gin-maniac, and have been eating the winter's ripest red grapefruits obsessively for the past few weeks, so this hit home.   There was sweetness, bitterness, and even some substance with the thickness that the grapefruit juice lends.  Give it a try.  Yes, it's pink.  But Baby Godzilla is anything but wussy.

*  *  *

In a city where the culinary scene is still slowly - sometimes too slowly, I think - clawing its way up the ladder to a status near some of the other big food cities in the US, it's hard to find a place that is less-flash and more-flavor.  Ironically, I'd been to one of Euclid Hall's sister restaurants - Rioja - about a year before and had the opposite experience: pretty, fancy, overpriced food that wasn't all that great.  Rioja is much-lauded while Euclid Hall seems to be the grungier, less ostentatious step-child content to sit in a dark corner and do his own thing.  But it is decidedly more unique, daring and, therefore, surprising.  And, despite not wanting to be - it's also refined.  Pigs' Heads, Baby Godzilla, and all.

Euclid Hall on Urbanspoon

Follow Me on Pinterest

Saturday, January 25, 2014

little old me with a little old blog: 2014

It has been five years, shy 3 days, since I started Aesthetic Dalliances.  I went back and read my first-post-ever, and laughed at how apt the description for my blog still is.  Though lots of things have changed about me in five years, almost nothing has changed in terms of the random and varied nature of my blog.  I have become, admittedly, a less prolific blogger, but then three international moves and two kids will do that to you.  On the other hand, I still thoroughly enjoy the process of photographing and writing about the "generally uneventful and exciting (in my humble opinion) dalliances I indulge in."

It's interesting to me to ruminate on the multifarious (what a great word :)) nature of the past five years since I started writing Aesthetic Dalliances. Back when I started this blog, in the first post, I closed with a quotation that was a hope, a wish for myself - something I feel I hadn't been able to embrace entirely at that point, but which the past few years have brought more into perspective:

"Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always."
Rainer Maria Rilke

2009 was a high.  The second half of my first and only successful pregnancy, a beautiful spring in Londontown, culminating in the birth of our first, and probably only, biological son.  The winter of that year was filled with discovery, travel, and marination into the feeling of being a family of three - a thrill unparalleled and unrivaled by any other experience to date.

2010 marked another wonderful era of friendship and growth: between Roman learning to be a person, and the fact that we suddenly had more friends in London than we knew what to do with, I remember that Spring and Summer in London as probably the happiest time we spent in the UK.  It came to a climactic halt as we dove into the Middle East, quite literally, and commenced the first half of the short but eventful 10 months we would spend in Abu Dhabi.

2011 was marked with equal parts sadness and joy with our goodbyes to the UAE and all the friends we'd made there, but a great hello as the USA welcomed us back into the fold and showed us the many splendors of Portland, ME, a place that, to this day, I am deeply in love with.  No more Arab markets and five star holidays; just lobster shacks and trips to the Eastern promenade in the car with my sidekick Roman, and proximity to family - which felt like a breath of fresh air after more than four years abroad.

2012 was readjustment and reverse culture shock: loving Maine but suddenly feeling that we somehow didn't quite fit in with our American counterparts, looks from people wondering why we'd ever choose to live in the Middle East, questions about just-strange-enough diction and endless nostalgia for the life abroad we swore we were ready to end, but actually kind of missed.  Halfway through the year we moved to Denver, and that half of the year flew by in a blur of readjustment and, finally (!), adoption paperwork.

2013 was particularly patchy.  It was a tough, stressful year for us as we fully settled into yet another new city and hunkered down into the quietly-but-intensely difficult reality of waiting to adopt a child. On the other hand, we made wonderful friendships in Denver and found ourselves in perhaps the most hospitable neighborhood - Stapleton - we'd ever lived in.  By November, two painful, failed adoption matches later, we'd decided to buy a house.  And then, as fate would have it, Alexander came.  And his adoption was finalized on the same day we signed on our house.  All of this left precious little time or desire to blog although I still came back to it when my heart felt it needed a little something that was just mine.

As we start 2014 I have several goals - the first, with a newborn and 4-year-old, being survival in a happy, healthy kind of way.  The second is to be more consistent in posting on Aesthetic Dalliances, and even slightly more thematic.  I will be trying out lots of soup recipes on here, for one.  I have also joined a couple of knitting groups in Denver and have completed some projects I want to share.  Once the dust storm of my life has truly settled, maybe I'll even get back to watercoloring.  Oh, and stay tuned for our grand return to Vacationland on our first-ever beach-cottage vacation as a family in August. :)

So, life is different, but not all that different.  And, mostly, it is good in all the same and a couple of new-but-welcome ways.  In the end, it's still just little old me with a little old blog.

As in 2009, I'll close with another quote by Rilke, one of my favorite poets, whose words do encapsulate one of my lifelong goals, and express a thought that seems particularly apt as we move into another exciting new year:

"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things."
Rainer Maria Rilke 

I sure hope so. 

Follow Me on Pinterest

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mycophagy, Man: Tales of Foraging and Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle

Boletis edulis; Porcini

Me and Mushrooms.  Mushrooms and me. 

This love affair has been going on for my whole life.  But it was in August 2013 that I officially began dabbling in the world of amateur mycology - that is, the amateur study and collection of mushrooms - because that was when Matt, as a wonderful anniversary gift, got us a Saturday outing on an amateur mushroom hunt in the Rockies together.  I've been meaning to write this post since then!

cross-section of porcini ready to dry in the oven

We left Roman with a neighbor that sunny Saturday morning and headed off into the mountains of Jefferson County, Colorado to an undisclosed location to hunt Porcini - or King Boletes - boletis edulis.  (And for the record, who the heck knew Porcini grew in Colorado?!  Apparently it's a big thing.)  But I had been dabbling in the world of mycophagy - that is, the practice of consuming fungi, or being fungivorous (love that word!), my entire life.  I've mentioned before that as a small child rather than having an imaginary friend I had an imaginary mushroom I chewed on all day.  It's odd.  Very odd.  But very me.

I love mushrooms.  I seek them out at specialty shops on a regular basis.  And now, instead of paying a hefty price for barely passable fresh chanterelles and dried porcini from central Asia, I know how to collect them myself, right here in Denver and the surrounding areas.  I also know how to dry them, prepare them, and even discovered how to make porcini powder from the dried and blended underpart of the cap.  So many new secrets, discoveries, delicacies.

findings from the forest in Evergreen
Mushroom foraging was something of a revelation for me.  As Matt put it, rarely in life does one come across something that is so true and inherent a passion.  Not only did mushroom foraging come naturally to me (I'm pretty sure I had all the characteristics memorized the first time around), but I also became obsessed with it instantly.  The weekend after our first forage, during which I found the largest king bolete of the group, Matt and I returned and looked for more mushrooms.  He had a very hard time pulling me out of the woods after 3 hours.  I was unstoppable with my Danish knife, paper lunch bags and backpack.  A few weeks later, I booked my next foraging excursion with the same company and guide - Graham Steinruck of Mycotours.  I became friends with Graham and began to get mildly connected to the semi-secret underworld / sub culture of amateur mycology and mycophagy.  I couldn't stop talking about mushrooms, drying mushrooms, eating mushrooms.  Everywhere I went, I was looking for them - even while driving.  My neighbors even started bringing mushrooms back from their hikes for me to identify.  It was a pleasant surprise to have a new and convenient hobby - one I'd always wanted to take up but never had the time or access to do so.

One of my favorite aspects of mushroom foraging is the traipsing-through-the-woods part.  Matt and I took Roman with us on a couple of other forays - to the original spot in Jeffco and to a new spot up in Evergreen where we encountered a Czech man who gave us a giant load of porcini he didn't want.  We had so much fun being disconnected from society - no cell phones or computers - and just letting Roman run through the woods and explore.  He became a gatherer like me and I gave him his own paper bag to fill with different specimens (none of which we'd ever eat, of course, given the possible cross-contamination).  He loved it.  And I couldn't help but revel in this shared experience of gathering food together in a way that had been done by families for centuries all over the world.  It was a bonding experience, and one I look forward to repeating when the season starts up again next summer.

Until then, here are some photos of some of my mushrooms and a quick and delicious recipe for one of my favorite ways to eat wild mushrooms: a simple white wine and cream sauce on tagliatelle pasta.  Yum.

Our findings on that first foray

 My Favorite Mushrooms of Colorado
so far
**CAVEAT: Please do not try to collect these without expert help or knowledge!**

On that first foray we found a great representation of some of the most common mushrooms to be had in the Colorado mountains.  Clockwise from bottom left, here is what we found and dined upon:

1. Suillus Brevipes or Sticky Cap Mushrooms: (the light cream colored ones on the bottom left) Many experienced foragers turn their noses up at Suillus Brevipes but they are one of my favorites.  They are a meaty mushroom in the bolete family that have a dark brownish-grey cap which you peel off in order to eat them.  They are abundant in the pine forests of Colorado.

2. Lycoperdon perlatum or Gem-studded Puffballs: These are the cute little balls that look exactly as their names would suggest.  They are some of the easiest to identify and Roman's favorites.  They have little tiny white "gems" that come off like powder when you touch them.  The key is to make sure they don't have a stem, and to cut through them from top to bottom to make sure they are 100% white in the center, otherwise you might risk eating rotton or poisonous variations.  They have a tender, fluffy consistency.  These are the miniature versions of the Giant Puffballs or Calvatia gigantea.

3. Sarcodon imbricatus or Hawk's Wings: (dark brown scaly ones in the center) These are some of the easiest mushrooms to spot.  They are also very abundant in the CO hills and mountains and have a dark, tell-tale collection of teeth on the underside of the cap.  For this reason they are also often known as hedgehog mushrooms.  These are some of Matt's favorites to eat - though I find their taste strong and strange.  Their texture is similar to that of a portobello, but stronger and, for lack of a better word, gamier.

4. Boletis edulis or Porcini: What you see in my picture are representations of both the King Bolete and the more commonly prized Italian porcini.  The King boletes, as the name implies, are much larger than the oft-pictured small, chestnut colored, fat-stemmed porcini.  Both are delicious but hard to find without any wormholes as they are also favored by insects.  When you can get them, they are wonderful fresh, dry, in pastas and soups.  There is still some debate about whether the North American variation is exactly the same as the European one but that is something I consider something of a ridiculous quibble - they are delicious no matter what.  We ate the small ones fresh and I sliced and dried the larger ones, worms and wormholes and all.  Nothing wrong with a little extra protein. :)

5. Lactarius Deliciosus or Saffron Milk Cap: (the bright orange one with blueish-green spots) These are also some of my favorite mushrooms and often overlooked by porcini / chanterelle obsessed amateur mycologists.  I love their texture and just think they're really, really pretty.  There are some mildly poisonous variations of these but as long as you see that they "lactate" a bright blue-green liquid when cut, you are pretty safe (assuming you've also checked off the list for where and how to find them as well).  I love their orange-saffron color and find their Latin name pretty fun to say as well. :)

6. Yellowish gray ones: can't remember what these are.

7. Auricularia auricula-judae or Wood ears:  We were very fortunate to find some wood ear mushrooms on our first outing.  They are not particularly common here and I love them.  They are commonly found in Asian cooking and have a cartiledge-y texture that I find unique and wonderful, especially in Chinese Hot & Sour Soup.  They grow on the bark of elder trees, most commonly.

 8. Little Brown ones at the bottom: can't remember what these were either.

*  *  *

Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle
Serves 2 good eaters


2-3 tbsp butter1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, chopped finely
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
~1/4 cup good white wine or dry vermouth
~1/4 cup light cream 
1/2 lemon, juiced
1lb wild mushrooms, sliced: you can use a combination as I did or just use porcini / whatever good wild mushroom is available at your local market
2-3 tbsps Italian Parsley, chopped roughly, for garnish
1lb tagliatelle (or pappardelle) pasta
Salt & pepper

Buon appetito!
Heirloom tomato salad with parmigiano and balsamic
to accompany lightly sauteed wild mushroom tagliatelle.


1. Set a pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.  When boiling, and about five minutes from serving time, add the pasta.

2. Add butter and oil to a large sautee pan over medium-high heat and allow the butter to melt completely.  Then add the shallot and garlic and allow to cook for 30 seconds to a minute, tossing them around.

3. To the pan, add the mushrooms and sautee, allowing them to brown on one side for a while before moving them around too much. If the pan gets too dry, add salt and pepper to draw moisture from the mushrooms.  2-3 minutes

4. Once mushrooms are sauteed, add the wine or vermouth and deglaze the pan.  In the meantime, make sure the pasta is going and almost ready.  Then add the cream to the pan and allow it to bubble and simmer for a minute or so in order to reduce. Salt & pepper.

5. Remove the pasta from the water before it is fully cooked (after about 5 minutes or so).  Add to the sautee pan, turn off the heat, and toss gently in the mushroom sauce.  Squirt the juice of half a lemon over the dish and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serve immediately.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

His name is Alexander.

Born November 16th at 13:25 - 7lbs 7oz, 19 1/2 inches;
forever-and-ever-ours as of November 22nd 2013.

And he's just perfect. :)

Follow Me on Pinterest