Sunday, August 23, 2015

Using My Family As Guinea Pigs For Summer Recipes

I know I don't need to repeat this for the hundredth time, but I love this time of year.  Summer is the best time for food.  Summer is peaches and corn and tomatoes.  Summer is farm markets that contain booths full of actual nutritious fresh produce I want to eat (as opposed to only having cheese, bread, and squash like the fall and winter farm markets).  Most importantly, with all of these topnotch fruit and vegetables so abundant, I am always seeking creative ways to cook them

That is why a few weeks ago I began pestering the husband.  "Let's have people over.  We Must have people over.  I need to have a dinner party."  Sure it sounds rather selfless and generous, but I have an ulterior motive.  I want to test new recipes on my unsuspecting friends and family.

Fortunately, we have family members who are always willing to oblige, so this weekend we had our mothers and family friend come over, thinking that I was just inviting them over from the goodness of my heart.  Little did they know I was testing recipes on them.

Who am I kidding?  They know.  They see me taking photos during dinner.  It's never a secret that I'm cooking certain dishes to feature on the blog.

This particular dinner was meant to feature every star ingredient of late summer:  Corn, tomatoes, and peaches.  Although it's a little past berry season, I did sneak a blueberry pie in there as well.

My first course was savory cornmeal pancakes with basil and tomatoes.  I was thinking of cooking the tomatoes down into a sauce, but decided to leave them raw.  Tomatoes this time of year are good enough that they don't need to have much done to them.  I let them sit in some olive oil, garlic, and fresh oregano for a few hours before I served them over the pancakes.

My main course was a pork loin that I topped with a peach whiskey sauce.  The sauce is very simple, but works very well with the pork.  On the side I served a green bean salad.  I bought green beans, wax beans, and purple string beans for the salad, but the purple beans turned green after two minutes in the steamer.  I dressed them simply with white wine vinegar, dijon mustard, and olive oil.

 Finally we had the blueberry crumb pie.  I tried King Arthur Flour pie filling enhancer for the first time.  It makes a huge difference in the consistency of a pie filling.  I recommend it.

Need some recipes?

Pork Loin with Whiskey Peach Sauce

  • 3 lb pork loin roast
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • 2 Tbl butter
  • 6 ripe peaches, thinly sliced
  • 3/4 cup whiskey
  • 2 Tbl honey
  • 6 chopped sage leaves
Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Sprinkle pork roast with salt and pepper all over.  Place in a cast iron pan (or other heavy pan) and brown well over medium heat on all sides.  Place in oven and roast for 75 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.  Remove from oven, tent with foil, and let rest 15 minutes.

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat in a large pan.  Add the peaches and cook until they soften.  Add the whiskey and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes.  The sauce should thicken and become syrupy.  Stir in the sage leaves and honey and cook another 5 minutes.

Slice the pork and serve topped with the sauce.

Savory Corn Pancakes

  • Kernels scraped from 2 ears of cooked corn
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbl melted butter (plus additional for cooking)
  • 6 basil leaves cut in chiffonade
In a large bowl whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, and baking powder.

In another bowl, whisk milk, eggs, and butter.

Gently mix together the milk mixture with the flour mixture.  Stir just to blend.  Stir in the corn and basil.  Be careful not to overmix.

Melt butter in a skillet.  You can use a ladle full of batter for large pancakes, or if you prefer mini pancakes, use about 1/4 at a time.  Cook on one side until you see bubbles form and break (look carefully as it won't be as obvious as it is with regular pancakes) and flip over and cook until completely done.

Serve topped with tomatoes, cheese, salsa, or whatever other toppings you feel would be tasty.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Dining on the Sea - My Mediterranean Cruise Experience

A week ago I returned from a spectacular Voyage aboard the Regent Mariner where I cruised with my family to Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia.  (Description of the trip itself is here.  Photos are here and here.)  I saw many beautiful sights and enjoyed plenty of fun times with my family.  It was a unique opportunity for me and I'm grateful to have had it.

So about that food...

Cruise ships are infamous for having food available 24/7 and quality is often thought to suffer alongside quantity.  Ask any passenger who was cruised on any given cruise line and you will receive any number of varied answers about the quality of the food.  You may hear high praise from a passenger on a mass market cruise line and a long list of complaints from someone on a luxury cruise line.  You never know and there is no possible way of any ship catering to everyone's tastes.

I have cruised twice before in the past and both times were on mass market cruise lines (Princess and Norwegian).  My assessment of the food was that they tended to aim high and miss.  The chefs wanted to be impressive and high-end, but the food had that mass-produced quality to it.  There were some delicious meals and there were some mediocre ones.  Some of my favorite foods came from the buffets. (I had this pesto lasagne for lunch on Princess that I never forgot even though the cruise was 10 years ago.)

My view of Regent is that I never had a bad meal, but very little of the food really blew me away.  There was some spectacular meals and some that were just the good side of average.  During the cruise I tried to have lunch in most of the ports so that I could have a taste of local specialties as well.  Much of the magic happened ashore.

One advantage of Regent is that there is no charge for alcohol. With about 8 bars on board, you could pretty much keep an ongoing flow of alcohol in your bloodstream.  The wines were more limited than the liquors though.  At mealtimes there would be a featured red and a featured white that was included with the meal, but anything off the wine list incurred a fee.

Rather than go meal-by-meal, I will review each restaurant and each port.

Compass Rose - This was the Regent Mariner's main dining room.  The menu changed nightly, but there was a section of the menu that offered foods that were always available.  I would say they offered a comprehensive selection to suit a wide variety of tastes.

We ate here most nights because it was the easiest place to just walk in and get a table.

Some of the standout meals included appetizers such as a fresh tomato and arugula salad and foie gras over a cornmeal cake.

Some of the best entrees were roast duck, a stuffed pork loin, and my first ever beef wellington.

Prime 7 - This the was the steakhouse restaurant on the ship.  Although there was no extra charge to eat here, you can't eat here without a reservation and you can only reserve here once a trip.  This is also true for the French restaurant, Signatures.

When I first sat down and perused the menu, I thought I might just stick to the light side and order a petite filet.  Then I noticed that directly opposite me there was a chef slicing off pieces of a huge prime rib.  I had to have that.

When I saw this perfectly-cooked slab arrive at my place, I nearly screamed, "Get in mah belly!"

This was preceded by a roasted vegetable "tart" (more like a timbale) topped with a crust of goat cheese, sitting in a pool of yellow pepper coulis.

I had a fun dessert.  It was a caramel popcorn sundae with whiskey caramel and chocolate sauces.

All restaurants on board served a tray of chocolates and petit fours at the end of dinner.  Sometimes there by themselves were enough dessert.  They were always delicious with unexpected flavors.

Signatures - This was meant to be the fancypants French restaurant.  I enjoyed my meal here, although I don't know if the food was that much better than the food in Compass Rose.

The most memorable part of the meal was the presentation.  When your main course arrived, a server stood at everyone's place with your meal under a dome.  When it came time to put your plates in front of you, they simultaneously said, "Bon Appetit," and pulled off the domes and put the plates down.  Very cheesy, but it was cute."

Dinner included mushroom soup and duck breast with an intermezzo of champagne sorbet.

I don't remember exactly what dessert was, but there were more petit fours and that basket handle thing was chocolate.

Sette Mari - At night the ship's breakfast and lunch buffet becomes an upscale Italian restaurant.  It doesn't require reservations and you can eat there more than once, but good luck getting a table.  It's too small for the demand.  My family did manage to eat there twice and I photographed it once.

The best part of Sette Mari is the appetizers.  They bring an assortment of antipasti to the table (crostini, cheese, olives, and meatballs) and then there is a huge antipasto buffet.

My sister-in-law accused me of "eating with my eyes" because after all that antipasto deliciousness, I went on for the full meal.

The risotto with speck was a too salty, but the lamb chops were delicious.

 Dessert buffet was a dream come true.

The Lounges...

There were bars everywhere, as there always are on cruise ships.  The Mariner Lounge, was ordinary and I never ate anything there.  It adjoined the Compass Rose.

The Observation Lounge was at the fore end of the top deck and always had snacks and entertainment before dinner.  Kevin and I sometimes hung out there before dinner to enjoy a drink and some great views.  This was the place where we met and socialized with fellow passengers the most.

The Horizon Lounge was quite large and was on the same deck as Signatures and Prime 7.  They had a small stage for larger musical acts  (there is only a single piano at the Observation Lounge).  The best part of the lounge was the afternoon tea.

They had the standard sandwiches and scones in a buffet.

Then while you were nibbling your sandwiches and scones, they brought around the dessert cart.
My picks: Mortadella, hummus and blueberry, and egg and tomato sandwiches with a plain scone and clotted cream.

Dessert was an eclair and a chocolate mousse cake.

The photos don't show my beverages, but the servers came around with tea chests so we could pick our tea of choice (mint for me).  The bar was open as well, so I have to admit there was a glass of champagne involved as well.  (Don't look at me like that.  Everyone was doing it.)

We only made it to tea time once, but tea times often had themes.  One day it was cheesecake and another day it was chocolate.  (Sorry we missed that one.)

We also had breakfast and lunch in the Veranda buffet (also adjoins the Pool Grill)

It was pretty standard stuff.  Lunch included pizza and some hot foods at the buffet and a large selection of burgers at the Pool Grill.  Breakfast had made-to-order eggs and omelets.

The pool grill had a pretty nice setup for making your own sundaes, but I preferred to eat my ice cream ashore.

We did not have lunch at every stop, as there were times we just wanted to return to the ship.  Sometimes lunch was included on our tours.  In any case, we ate some pretty good food in every port.

Room Service - Room service was 24 hours and free, so it came in handy many times when we came back late from a shore excursion and had little time to eat in the dining rooms, or if we needed an extra early breakfast before a shore excursion.

No matter what the meal, this was the setup.  This photo depicts breakfast.  We had a steward laying out this elaborate table setting for a croissant, a pot of coffee, and a bowl of oatmeal.

My nephew loved room service.  Not only did my brother's family eat most of their breakfasts in their suite, but Charles loved being able to call up and order popcorn with his in-room movies or a hot dog or a pizza when he wanted one.

So what did we have at our various destinations?

Sorrento Italy  - After a long, hot day touring Pompeii, we returned to Sorrento and ate at a cafeteria/trattoria our guide had suggested called Fauno.  It was large, and had a bustling tourist business, but I can't complain too much about the food.  Most of us had pizza.  I had one with sausage and eggplant.

There are those who will argue that even in Italy, you will not find better pizza than you find in New York.

Do I agree that even the birthplace of pizza can't rival the perfection of a NY slice?

It's really hard to say.  The problem with making a comparison like that is foods like pizza will always taste better when they have Italy surrounding them.

We had free samples of the local limoncello at the end of our meal.  This is a cream-based one.  I never had one like this before.

Also, to truly be in the Italian spirit, I did not skip the wine with lunch at any meal.

Taormina Sicily - We spent a few hours walking through Taormina and exploring the Greco-Roman theater and decided to make the most of our free time.  My family browsed many of the shops along the Corso Umberto.  Speaking of limoncello, I learned that in southern Italy you can find more than just lemon liqueurs.  I went home with limoncello as well as local orange and pistachio liqueurs.

We were getting hungry and wanted to have lunch before returning to the ship.  Where would we eat?  There were restaurants everywhere along the main street.  All of them were clogged with tourists.  I had noted that when we were visiting shops and vendors that many of the side streets/alleys led to bars and restaurants.  I suggested we find a side street and seek out the restaurant at the end.  We chose the fist one that looked promising.

We headed down the alley and found it terminated in two restaurants.  I spotted the one on the right first, but the host from the one on the left tried to lure us to him.  We decided to give him a try.

The place was called Maffei's and we were very happy we tried it.  The restaurant had this beautiful patio beneath a trellis of greenery.  As soon as I entered, I could not help exclaiming, "Look how pretty this is!"  It was like every stereotypical dream fantasy of an outdoor Italian trattoria.

Food was as good as the scenery.  Kevin and I both tried cavatappi with a creamy pistachio sauce.  Even my niece upon receiving her tagliatelle with cheese and speck said she was not going to let anyone else have any of it.  Yes, of course I had wine.

Service could not be friendlier.  I thought it was especially cute that they kept referring to Penelope as "La Bella Signorina."

We opted to have dessert at a gelateria closer to the port shuttle though.  I had this unusual flavor called Pane e Nutella.  The "bread" flavor was like the flavor of a wafer cone somehow infused through the ice cream.  I don't know how they did it.

Zakynthos Island, Greece - I was not expecting to eat anything on this tour. I only had half a day in Zakynthos because the ship didn't anchor in port until noon.  I had booked a private excursion for my whole family that included a boat ride to Shipwreck Beach and the Blue Caves.  Any time that was left was meant for just touring local towns.

Dad and Beth were unable to handle the boat ride (the boat was too difficult for Beth to climb into) so I guess they had enough of a land tour for all 8 of us.  Once we returned from an afternoon of swimming in unbelievably clear blue water, our guide suggested everyone go to a local Taverna for a snack.

We ended up at Taverna Margarita.  It was a simple, open air place along a country road.

I didn't want to eat anything too heavy, so I opted for a stuffed pepper and tomato.

I can't begin to describe how good these were.  It had to be the simplest dish on earth, but it was so tasty.  It was rice, olive oil, and maybe a little feta and spice thrown in.  It goes to show you that the best quality ingredients don't need much enhancement.

My brother and his family thought they were eating light when some of them ordered chicken souvlaki.  The orders were huge and also came with french fries, so there was plenty of sharing happening.  Kevin initially didn't order anything, but when he started to feel hungry, he had almost all of Charles's plate of chicken to snack on.

Zakynthos is a lush and fertile island where everything is grown locally.  You see farms everywhere growing grapes and olives and trees full of citrus fruits.   There are plenty of beehives making honey as well. There is no shortage of people who sell all this local goodness either.  I spotted a field of watermelons along one road and a stand selling them just a little drive down from there.  I wished I could buy it all.

Corfu, Greece - We had spent our morning and early afternoon on a private tour of the Achilleon Palace and Paleokastrisia monastery and we were hungry and ready for some beautiful views.  Our guide took us to a restaurant (and hotel and catering facility) called The Golden Fox.  The name made me think of some place senior citizens would go on a bus trip to gamble.  I didn't let that bias me though.

We started out with the best appetizers.  I had some sagnaki and my father had grape leaves, which we shared with the table.  Our server also suggested an eggplant and cheese appetizer.  It was very similar to the best eggplant parmigiana you ever ate - only better than that.  (Sorry we ate too much of it before I could get a photo.)  I don't like grape leaves much, but I loved the ones here.

I had the local specialty of pasta with lamb meat sauce.  It was mild and sweet with big chunks of lamb.  Many of my family members had huge platters of spaghetti with shrimp (those scary looking langoustines).

We were given a complimentary plate of dessert.  We had the local kumquat tart, 3 or 4 flavors of ice cream, and a few types of tarts and cheesecakes.  My niece and sister-in-law decided to have baklava as well.

I could not resist ordering a glass of the local kumquat liqueur.  I had sampled it at the monastery and needed some more.  I should have brought some home, but I was afraid I was running out of suitcase space.

This was probably my favorite meal on the cruise, except for the fact that we were constantly being attacked by bees.  They were always buzzing around the table.  Our server brought some burning coffee, which was supposed to repel them, but it did a better job of making us cough than it did of repelling the bees.
Kotor, Montenegro - We did not plan to have lunch here in this fairytale country where time seems to stand still, but our tour did take us to a mountaintop village for a snack.  We went to a restaurant to sample the local specialties.  The specialties included local wine, cheese, and prosciutto.

The bread was a bit crumbly rather than chewy like Italian bread.  The cheese was good, but not terribly memorable.

The prosciutto (or proscuitta as said in the local dialect) was the best I have ever had.  It was meatier, saltier, and somehow richer than the prosciutto of Italy.  I could have eaten 6 more slices (at least).  I have rarely tasted a pork product quite so delicious.  Outside the restaurant there was an outdoor market selling local (or so we want to believe) products to tourists, and there was a booth selling the ham.  I wanted to buy some very badly, but I doubted it was legal to take it back to the US.

As for the wine, we had a choice of trying the local red (Black Stallion) or the local firewater, called rakija, a sort of grappa.  The name of the wine tempted me, but I decided to try the rakija. 
Don't let the size of the cup fool you.  This is powerful stuff.  My throat and chest were feeling the burn for two minutes after my first sip.  The Montenegrans swear by it though.  They credit a daily dose with the long healthy life of the population.  It's okay.  No one drinks and drives.

Zadar, Croatia - I had an excursion planned to Krka National Park that I hadn't expected would include any food, but the tour wasn't quite what I expected (please refer to my Shipwrecked & Comatose blog for the full details).

In the little historic village of Skradin, I had lunch in a restaurant called Skradinski Buk (named for the beautiful waterfalls seen in the park).

We started with a salad.  It was a pretty basic salad of lettuce and tomatoes (and the tomatoes were high quality) but also a dash of cabbage salad.  It was like standard cole slaw, but a little sweeter and less vinegary.

The next course was soup.  It was a basic consomme with little pasta shells in it.  The broth was definitely homemade, but was a little bland.  It could have used more salt.  The pasta was nicely cooked though.  It's rare that you ever eat a pasta soup in a restaurant where the pasta hasn't turned to mush.

It was quite hot out though, and soup was not what I really wanted to be eating.

The final course was steak with mushroom sauce.  The steak was tough, the mushroom sauce was tasty.
There was a bottle of wine on every table, so that kept most people's complaints at bay.

Koper Slovenia - I took a tour with Erik's family on a hop on/hop off bus tour of the 3 historic towns of Piran, Isola, and Portoroz.  The tour was officially called "Hop and Taste" and all of us were given coupons at various eating establishments in each town so sample local specialties.

In Piran we had a coupon for a "seafood appetizer".  We had no idea what we would get with that coupon.

It turned out to be fried sardines.  As you can imagine, I didn't use my voucher.  Some of  my family members were even a bit squeamish about eating fish with the heads on.  It was hot and I ordered a lemonade instead.  They serve lemonade without sugar and give you sugar packets to sweeten it yourself.  I thought that was weird, but sugarless lemonade is rather refreshing (although I did add some of the sugar to make it palatable).

We also had a coupon for ice cream in Piran.  I definitely indulged in that.

We moved on to Isola.  We had coupons for the local specialty cake in one restaurant, and a serving of fried calamari and a beer in the other.  My nephew is an even pickier eater than I am and fried calamari is one of the few foods he eats, so to make sure he didn't starve that day, we headed to the calamari place first.

As it turned out, the restaurant was a long walk from the spot where the bus dropped us off.  We never got to try the cake as we spent all of the time looking for, and eating, the fried calamari

I didn't eat the squid, but I did try a little of the beer.  I find I still can't drink beer and gave 3/4 of my glass to Erik.

Isola might have been a cute town, but we really didn't explore it unfortunately.

The town of Portoroz offered a voucher for a glass of wine, but at this point everyone was tired of exploring and just wanted to go to the beach and swim.  I'm not one to turn down swimming at the beach, so I didn't sweat it.  We also missed other tastings such as a sampling of the local salts (Slovenia is a big gourmet salt producer).

I walked around the port of Koper at the end of the day, but never bothered going to the chocolate store where I could have a chocolate sample.  I found out later it was closed anyway.

Venice - This city needs no introduction.  Is there any place more magical than Venice?

After a walking tour of Venice's back alleys and a tour of Frari Cathedral, Kevin and I had plenty of free time for lunch.  Our guide provided 4 rules for choosing a good restaurant with authentic food.

1.  Do not eat at restaurants on a main street.  You can walk just two minutes out of the way and avoid the tourist traps.

2.  Do not eat at a restaurant that have photos of the food on the displayed menus.

3.  Do not eat at a restaurant where someone is outside encouraging you to come in.  (Oops!  We did that in Sicily.  Also, Kevin and I did that in Paris.)

4.  Do not eat in a restaurant open 24 hours.  That would mean it's corporate owned and not locally owned.

We chose a place a few streets away from St. Mark's Square called Trattoria Canonica (in honor of the street on which it resided).  Kevin considered it touristy regardless of the fact that it stayed within the rules.  It was charming enough but had no air conditioning and was rather warm.

Since we were going to take a brief trip to Treviso the next day, I chose a pasta dish called Spaghetti Trevisiano.  It had tomatoes, speck, and of course, radicchio.  It was nice and light on a hot day although it could have used both a bit more radicchio and a bit more speck.  Kevin played it safe and had a cheese pizza.  I don't think of Venice as a major player in the pizza world.  To me pizza is a southern Italian dish, but I tasted some of his and it was good.  It almost reminded me of Sal's.  Then again, there is that food rule about food tasting better when it's surrounded by Italy.

Part of the joy of traveling is the joy of sampling cuisine in other countries.  This cruise definitely allowed me to try a bit of everything everywhere, even if I did eat in places mostly catering to tourists.  Italy, of course, will always have that special place in my heart for both food and for everything else.  Greece is coming in a close second though.