Saturday, July 28, 2007

Linguine with clams

I had craving for linguine with clams after reading about it in Heat. I added way too much red pepper, but, otherwise, it was good. I'll probably try it again soon so I can get the seasoning right.

Pollo al Vasquo

Basque chicken is a really great, simple meal. We had just about all of the ingredients kicking around the fridge, so it was a good use of left overs. Unfortunately, the picture isn't that great, but it does taste good (as does all Basque food, for that matter).

Here are the directions:
Julien a couple of bell peppers, slice one spanish onion, and cut a few (3 or 4) tomatoes into wedges (or dice them). It is preferable to peel the tomotoes first. The easiest way to do this is to score an X on the bottom of the tomato and drop it in some near boiling water for about 10 seconds. The peels should come right off after than. Start by cooking the onions and 2 or 3 cloves of minced garlic over medium heat in a big pan or dutch oven. After about 10 minutes, add the peppers and tomatoes, throw in a cup of white wine, some salt, sugar, and, if you have it, saffron (this is not essential). Let this cook away for a while at a medium heat. At the same time, sear the chicken (w/ olive oil) over really high heat. I think that chicken thighs and drumsticks work best for this dish. Let them cook until the skin is a nice golden brown color (probably about 4 min per side). Add the chicken to the pepper mixture and let it simmer, covered, on med-low heat for about 45 min. If the heat is too high, the chicken will dry out. When it is done cooking, mix in some vinegar or lemon juice. Serve with rice or roasted potatoes.

Mint gnocchi with lamb meatballs

About a week ago, Andre (my roommate) and Katherine (my neighbor) helped me put this dinner together.

This dish was sort of inspired by an episode of Top Chef that aired a few weeks back. To kick off the new season, a teams from season 1 and season 2 faced off in a challenge. One of the season 1 contestants made mint gnocchi with duck meatballs. I had never heard of mint gnocchi before, but I thought it sounded interesting and wanted to try pairing it with lamb instead. I guess you could say it was an attempt at Italian/Middle Eastern fusion food.

Making the dish was pretty straight forward. To make the gnocchi, boil and peel some potatoes and pass them through a ricer, a foodmill, or, if you don't have any of these, just mash them. Make a mound with the potatoes, add some flour, an egg, and a whole bunch of chopped mint. mix together, adding flour until you get the right consistency. I just add flour until the dough stops being sticky. Knead the dough for a little, let it rest, roll it out into cylinders and cut the gnocchi, like Andre is doing below.
While you are making the gnocchi, you should be bringing a very large pot of salty, salty water to a rapid boil. Then flick the gnocchi off a gnocchi board or fork. You can also just pinch them to make a little groove. The point is to help the sauce stick to the gnocchi a little better.

The gnocchi will sink down and float to the top when it is done.

The meatballs are also not that different from the standard italian recipe. Instead of the veal/pork/beef mix and parsley, I used lamb and mint. Other ingredients include bread crumbs, egg, salt, pepper, and finely chopped shallots. Cook the meatballs in batches in a really really hot pan. Don't add to many at once, otherwise the pan will cool down and you won't get a good sear. Patience, or a really high powered burner, is key to good cooking.

After the two main components were done, I tossed them together in a pan with a few splashes of demiglace and a little bit of tomato sauce (San Marzano tomatoes, finely chopped onion, finely diced carrots, and a couple minced garlic cloves simmered together for a while).

Bon appetite.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


I've been wanting to make these for a long time. It's one of the dishes that I always linger over when I flip through the Les Halles cookbook. A couple weeks ago, I was at the Garden with Elana and saw that it was special, so I had to try it. It did not disappoint. For those who aren't familiar, rillettes are a sort of pork condiment that you spread over toast and eat with mustard and cornichons.

As an aside, I'm just noticing that a lot of these posts feature pork dishes. This reminds me of a conversation I've had a couple of times. It's one of those "desert island" sort of questions. Assuming you are a full fledged omnivore (this question is pointless for veg and/or pescatarians), and you could only eat one type of animal for the rest of your life, what would it be? I go with pigs. No other animal can so efficiently produce the same range of different foods.

Anyway, back to the rillettes. You start with a few really cheap cuts. Pork shoulder (I substituted pork butt, since that's what was available), pork belly, and pork fat.
Cut up the shoulder and belly and throw it in a pot with a few cups of water and a bouquet garni. Cook the hell out of it. In the mean time, cut the fat into little cubes and stick it in a warm oven (~200-250) to render the fat.
Six hours later, take the pork out and use a couple of forks to shred it up.
The next step is to pack the pork into small jars and seal it with the rendered fat. The final step is to wait for at least three days to let all the flavors mix.

Sharlene's first cooking lesson

Sharlene is getting cooking lessons this summer. Thursday was our first session, and we made roast chicken, potato salad, and green beans. Here's Sharlene working on her knife skills.
Here's the potato salad that we made. We dressed it with homemade mayo, vinegar, saffron, honey, and a healthy dose of truffle oil. Next time I'll cut the saffron and honey and just use the truffle oil. One decadent ingredient is really enough. After all, its just potato salad.
I forgot to take pictures of the chicken. By that time the chicken was done, the table was littered with empty beer bottles, we were on the second bottle of wine, and everyone was hungry. Taking pictures was the last thing on my mind.


Last Monday, Sharlene invited me to one of those hush-hush private bistros called 'The Wink.' Here friend, Brandon does this every week (Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of the food). This time around, he started with a cold dish of swiss chard stuffed with mushrooms, pecans, tempe, and a few other things on top of a white bean puree with, I think, a parsley oil. People who know me know that I absolutely hate mushrooms, but, not wanting to be rude, I took a few bits of the dish. It was delicious. The dish had everything going for it: the taste was vibrant, the textures were good, and the presentation was great. I didn't think it tasted much like mushrooms though. I thought I had survived the meal, and then the next dish came out. It was....mushrooms. I took a small bite, again, to be polite. It wasn't bad. In fact, it was kind of good. I ended up eating the whole dish.

I don't think I'm a full scale mushroom fan now. Getting over an ages long food phobia takes time, but, if I do end up liking mushrooms, I'll have Brendon to thank.

The Savant Project

Last weekend, Benny hosted a tasting for his new restaurant, the Savant Project. He's in the middle, his business partner, Luis, is in the foreground, and Isaac, the executive chef, is busily preparing plates in the background. Benny has been wanting to open a lounge as long as I've known him. I remember wandering into his dorm room in Lyon freshman year, and, with a set of turn tables, ambient lighting, a killer sound system, and a small crowd of students, he had something pretty close to a lounge going right then and there. Now, 9 years later, the real thing is about to open. Any of you in the Longwood area should check it out. It's located where the Solstice Cafe used to be.

Congratulations Adam and Erin

Adam and Erin, the elder statesmen of the health economics program, are now officially doctors. Adam celebrated his PhD status by hosting a carnival themed bbq and finding creative ways to eat pie.
Jon decided to take a more conservative approach with his cuisine and opted to grill up a batch of brats, which, by the way, you can eat with your hands.

Braised pork

This is a dish that I've been working on for a while now. It was inspired by an excellent braised pork shank that I had at the East Coast grill this winter. Instead of using pork shank, I go with the easy to find and very cheap pork sirloin. Cut the pork into a couple of large pieces, season with salt and pepper, brown it in a heavy pot and then add the braising liquid. I use chicken stock (low sodium broth or water would do just fine) and a few scoops of apple juice concentrate, if you have an almost empty bottle of wine sitting around, you can toss that in too. Add a sliced orange, reserving some of the zest, one roughly chopped onion (a small one), a couple crushed garlic cloves, a few sprigs of thyme, a bay leaf, and some peppercorns. This is a braise, not a stew, so make sure that the liquid only comes about half way up the meat. Once you toss in all the ingredients, cover the pot, turn the heat to low and go read a book, do some homework, watch some TV...whatever. A couple hours later, its time to get the finishing touches done. Remove the meat and pass the braising liquid through a strainer. If you are planning on having left overs, reserve some of the liquid so you can use it to reheat the meat. Take the liquid you are using and reduce it to about half or a quarter of its original volume. If you have some demi glace, don't be shy with it. Once you get it down to the desired level, start adding some balsamic vinegar. Start with a little bit, maybe a teaspoon, and keep adding until you get just enough to taste the vinegar. Your looking to strike a balance between the balsamic vinegar taste and the fruity sweetness that you get from the oranges. Put the pork back in the reduction to coat it, plate it, and spoon the remaining liquid around the dish. This time around, I served it over a bed of polenta with kale. The pork is topped with a gremolata of sorts, made with orange zest, cilantro, and pine nuts.

Arctic char

I had never had arctic char before, so when I saw it at Savenor's I had to give it a try. It's a gorgeous piece of fish, and it tastes as good as it looks.
I seared the char with a citrus glaze and served it over couscous and some cabbage that had been sitting around the fridge for a while. The fish is topped with lemon zest and parsley.

Soup and sandwiches

With the right additions, boxed soup can be pretty good. Abby and I enjoyed this quick lunch of boxed, tomato soup infused with thyme and garnished with parmesan cheese, parsley, and a hint of truffle oil. On the side is grilled cheese sandwich with some really great mustard that I picked up at Whole Foods the other day (Medocino Mustard's Seeds & Suds mustard, if your interested).

Brined pork

Abby left for Guatemala at the beginning of May, but before she took off, we had a couple of friends over for a little send off dinner party. The menu was a brined rack of pork with apple chutney and a bourbon reduction, a puree of sweet and russet potatoes, and braised brussels sprouts with pancetta. I the rack came from Savenor's so I knew that, if I prepared it well, it would taste great. The recipe for the pork, chutney, and sauce was from a Bobby Flay show, and since I like the kind of food he makes, I knew that if I didn't mess things up, it would probably taste pretty good. Brussles sprouts are something I've been making a lot lately and the potatoes are a dish that I've been experimenting with lately.

There were a lot of components to this dish, so everyone pitched in on the preparation. Here's Kathleen, Sharlene, and Gustavo trying to make sense of the food blog. Gustavo, by the way, has an amazing food blog that is really one of the major inspirations for this blog. I highly recommend it. I'm very impressed by his pictures, the range of dishes that he creates, his great use of seasonal ingredients, and his eye for economy in cooking, a must for any grad student/cooking enthusiast. His cooking is something to aspire to.
Here, Abby and Kathleen work on the chutney. I think that I might be secretly related to Kathleen. She really looks a lot like a Kina. Any relatives reading this might want to look into that and let me know if you find anything.
Here are the ingredients for the potatoes, simmering away.
The potatoes that I made were a half and half mix of sweet and regular potatoes. Sweet potatoes alone, I think, would be overpowering, hence the mixture. I'm essentially thinning out, or diluting, the sweet potato with the regular russets. The sweet potatoes are a lot denser, so I start boiling those a few minutes before adding the other potatoes. On the right is a mixture of cream and butter with thyme and dried sage. Heating it over low heat infuses the flavor of the herbs into the cream, but I probably needed to add more herbs and steeped it for a longer to get the effect I was going for. Once the potatoes are boiled, I pass them through a ricer, fold in the creme mixture and a couple cloves of roasted garlic, and season with salt and pepper. If you have a ricer, I would advise always using it to make mashed potatoes. If you have a potato masher, throw it out and get a ricer. Potatoes are, of course, a starch, and working it too much makes them heavy and sticky, like paste. I think its more or less the same reaction that you get when you knead dough. By using a ricer and gently folding in the ingredients, the mixture stays light and fluffy.

The most fun part was preparing the bourbon reduction. I've always liked playing with fire.
And, here is the final product all finished and plated before heading out to the dining room. The brussels sprouts were braised a little too long, so the color isn't as vivid as I would like, but it tasted good, and other than that, I have no complaints.
Here's Gustavo, Gary, and Abby. Notice how Abby has three glasses of wine in front of her.
She really loves her wine.

Pastries have feelings too!

He's not too thrilled about being someone's snack. Poor guy.


At the end of April, I want back to Pomona for my 5 year reunion. Even though I encountered a few setbacks (losing my license, almost losing the passport that Abby overnighted to me, and losing the keys to the car that Andrew and I rented) I had a great time. A wine tasting was one of the first official alumni weekend events, and it gave everyone a chance to liquor up, loosen up, and get reacquainted. The wine was pretty decent too. Most of the wineries featured were run by Pomona alumni. Here's Eric, Andrew Gordon, and Andre (my now three time roommate) at the wine tasting.
Andrew Jennings and I had been longing to hit up our favorite eateries from college, and spent quite some time devising our plan of attack. So, after the wine tasting and a quick detour through the Wash (a once great Friday afternoon event that is slowly dying as the Pomona student population becomes more straight laced and the campus alcohol policies become more strict) we began our "best of college" food tour and went to Happy Family, an amazing vegetarian place. Unfortunately, we were the only one's in our group that were so obsessed with food that we were designing the entire reunion weekend around our meals, and, so, it was just the two of us that made the trek out to Diamond Bar. We ordered fried eggplant, a chicken dish (which was actually deep fried and battered mushrooms), minced squab sans the squab, and fake shrimp with cashews. This probably would have fee five people, but we wanted variety, so we left the restaurant with a ton of leftovers that we never ate.
While Happy Family was nice, the big event happened the next day. Patty's! If heaven as a burrito place, it's probably serving Patty's burritos.
Once, during my first year after college, Andrew went back to Claremont to visit a friend, and he stopped by Patty's and picked up a carne asada burrito for me before he got on the plane back east. When he got back to the east coast, he stopped in DC on his way back to Baltimore and we dug into our burritos, reliving an experience from college that we held in an almost religious reverence. What a great gift. Even after traveling all those miles and being reheated in the oven, they were better than any other burrito you could ever lay your hands on. They are that good. Words cannot describe, so, here's another picture, a close up of a glorious chile relleno burrito with a thick, floury tortilla still warm from the griddle that it had been freshly cooked on just minutes earlier.
We had planned to get at least three Patty's meals that day, but we spent the bulk of the afternoon chasing after my passport, which the people at the hotel somehow refused when the mailman tried to deliver it, and looking for the lost keys to our rental car. While I'm on the topic, NEVER stay at the Howard Johnson in Claremont. They are disorganized, careless, and incompetent. Its a wonder they are able to run a business. Anyway, by the time everything was sorted out, Patty's was closed, so we went to the reunion dinner with somewhat empty stomachs.

Our class reunion dinner was located in the gym. They did their best to make it look nice with strings of lights, carpet, and some lattice dividing walls, but they couldn't hide the fact that we were in a gym. In spite of that, and the fact that the air conditioner wasn't working, I think everyone enjoyed themselves. When dining, company always trumps ambiance. Here are some pics.

Just about everyone at our two tables lived in the west side of Lyon hall freshman year, and we went back to visit our old dorms after dinner. I'm proud to say that the two Lyon sponsor groups had by far the best representation at the reunion. After that, we all went to another class social event, and the party continued early into the morning at our hotel. Of course, Andrew and I had one more stop on our food tour before the night was up. Alberto's
It's no Patty's but it's a damn good burrito, and you can get it at 1 in the morning if you need to. Alberto's satiated a number of late night cravings, but ordering from the night shift was always a crap shoot. On many occasions, Andrew, a vegetarian, would order a bean and rice burrito and, when we got back home, bite into a burrito made of tortilla, carne asasada, and a little hot sauce. We went back to Alberto's the following morning for breakfast since Patty's was closed.

Demi glace

Last year I made demi glace for the first time. It just ran out a little while ago, so its time to reload. Making a batch of demi takes all day, but it's really worth it. I freeze the demi in ice cube trays, so I have nice little portions that I can throw into sauce. For those who aren't familiar with it, demi glace is a super concentrated concoction of veal stock and red wine. I start out with the a mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onion) and bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf, garlic, and peppercorns wrapped in a cheesecloth). To develop the flavor in these vegetables, I roast them for a little while with tomato paste. While the vegetables are roasting, I fill a pot (or two) with veal bones that have also been roasted.
I let the veal bones simmer for a while and then add the roasted vegetables.
After several hours of simmering, strain the liquid several times (I probably passed the stock through a strainer lined with cheesecloth about 20 times). Now, you have the veal stock, which, along with some shallots and a lot of red wine, will turn into demiglace. Mix together all of these ingredients and portion them out in as many pots as possible. Spreading the liquid out in as many wide pots as possible maximizes surface area, greatly speeding up the time it takes to reduce the stock and wine mixture. Reduce, reduce, and reduce some more. In this batch, I reduced a couple of gallon to about 2 liters. This batch should last me through the year and will be a great way to add a backbone to numerous sauces, braises, and stews.

Catching up, pt 3 (Thanksgiving 06)

This year Abby and I hosted our second Thanksgiving together in Cambridge. We moved in together in September, got engaged in October, and this was one of the first big dinners we hosted at our new place. It was very exciting, and as I already waxed on about how much I love Thanksgiving below, I'll leave it at that.

Fitting together various tables, we were able to make one massive table that could hold all 16 people in attendance. The previous year, we just set up two tables and served the food in the kitchen. I didn't really like that format, and this year's arrangement with everyone gathered round a table piled high with all of the dishes was much more fitting for a Thanksgiving feast.
While I wouldn't have minded preparing everything myself, we had several great cooks in attendance, so it was only fitting to divide up that tasks. Stephanie, one of Abby's law school classmates and a former restaurant cook, outdid herself, bringing several kinds of stuffing and a butternut squash gratin. Melissa, my cousin, brought two different desserts, and many other guests contributed more food and wine, and a lot of people helped with the preparation. Here' are Dino, Melissa, and Aiden helping out in the kitchen.
I think that this was the year that I finally perfected the Thanksgiving turkey. Everyone said it was good, and this time I actually believe them. So, while I don't feel like writing out a full recipe, here are the main steps. First, I should note that I spent some time debating whether to go to Savenor's and get an 'artisanal' turkey raised with loving care at a local farm or go with a frozen bird from the Market Basket. I'm a graduate student and I was trying to feed 16 people, so economy won out over any concern for the humane treatment of poultry. I went to Market Basket and got an 18 pound bird for around $20.
Now, frozen supermarket birds have more in common with cardboard than actual turkeys, so you have to keep that in mind when you decide how to approach the dish. If I had gone with Savenor's, I probably would just sprinkle some salt, pepper, and butter on the turkey and let the ingredient speak for itself. With a factory bird, I think the best approach is to make it into a medium for all sorts of other flavors. So, I start by brining the bird in a solution that includes oranges, onions, thyme, rosemary, garlic, peppercorns, brown sugar and a lot of kosher salt. I put the turkey in the brine on Tuesday night and took it out on Wednesday evening so it could air dry in the fridge overnight. Air drying is an important step that ensures crispy skin. The brine infuses the turkey with all sorts of nice flavors, but I wanted to throw all subtlety out the window with this turkey, so a slathered it with a garlic herb butter and stuffed the cavity with more garlic, more herbs, and apple slices. To flavor the gravy, put the turkey neck, roughly chopped carrots, onion, and celery, a few crushed cloves of garlic, and a few sprigs of thyme in the roasting pan along with some chicken stock. Roast the bird at a really high heat (~450) for a half hour or so, then cover the breast with foil and continue roasting at ~350 until the temperature gets to about 160. I use a digital thermometer to tell when its done. When it's finished, let the bird rest for a while and make the gravy. Here's Abby draining the broth into a fat separator. This little tool is really nice because it allows you to make a gravy that isn't half fat. Most gravy recipes use a roux as a thickener, and instead of using butter and flour to make mine, I used the pan drippings, a nice mix of butter and turkey fat.
I think that this Thanksgiving was a huge success, and I hope everyone had a great time eating
and drinking
and being entertained by Aiden.

Catching up, pt 2 (Fall 05-Summer 06)

After a long year braving the cold climes of Cambridge alone, Abby finally arrived to start her first year of law school. The first big dinner party of the year was, in my opinion, a big success. The only failure was that we didn't do another one. Jon (my roommate that year) and I had grand visions of starting a monthly dinner party, but, you know, life happens, you get busy, and, more often than not, the dinners that Jon and I would plan revolved around delivery pizza (Dominoes, I am embarrassed to admit) with pineapple and peppers (an unlikely, but surprisingly tasty combination) and a soccer game.
I only have a couple pictures from this dinner party and, alas, none of them were of the food. So, the best I could do was find a picture of good friends, empty plates, and empty wine bottles. If you're curious, the menu included a salad with wine poached pears and goat cheese, roasted butternut squash soup with truffle oil, creme fraiche, and chives, and herbed gnocchi with roasted root vegetables. Instead of the somewhat bland potato gnocchi of Italy, I went with a Thomas Keller recipe for French style gnocchi. The main ingredients are flour, butter, gruyere, and tons of herbs. Healthy? No. But it was damn tasty.

The next and last big dinner party that 34 Sparks Street saw was Thanksgiving. It seems that most of the Harvard population vacates Cambridge for the long weekend, but Abby and I were able to find enough people to fill up a couple of tables.

Thanksgiving has to be one of my favorite holidays. When I was younger, Christmas was the big thing. So great was my anticipation, I would often sneak down stairs in the middle of the night after mom and dad had put all of the presents under the tree and inspect the various packages in the dim, holiday glow that you can really only get from a lit Christmas tree. I would almost always wake up before the sun was up (which isn't saying much, given the latitude) so I could continue to speculate about what sort of Christmas haul I would pull in that year. It just killed me that we couldn't open presents until after breakfast. Now, though, my family sleeps in on Christmas, and idles over breakfast while, in typical Northwest fashion, drinking pots and pots of coffee to combat the oppressive greyness of a Seattle winter. We might get around to opening presents at around 3. Last year, it was dark before we were finished.

As the excitement of Christmas has waned, Thanksgiving has firmly secured number one holiday status. I start thinking about recipes weeks in advance, and as soon as the November issues come out, I obsess over all of the options that the various food magazines present. I begin preparation days in advance. The perfect turkey, I find, takes several days to prepare.

I made my first Thanksgiving turkey in DC, the year after I graduated from college. I made the turkey, Spencer and Tyler made about 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, and Jacob, the host, made cranberry sauce and a pecan pie. I didn't really know what I was doing, the turkey was really dry, and my attempt at gravy was overly thick, lumpy, and salty. My friends said it was really good, but I think they were just being nice. We ate and drank and at and drank, and when the dust had settled, a number of us were sprawled out on Jacob's living room floor, getting into the serious business of digesting a volume of food that had no business being contained by our stomachs. This is what it must have been like to go to those Roman feasts.

This Thanksgiving was my next time making a turkey, and in the intervening years, I've become a lot better at cooking. Even so, the turkey was not without its flaws. Nervous about producing another dry turkey I undercooked it this time. At least it looked nice, and the parts that were cooked correctly were really good. Several of our guests contributed to our Thanksgiving feast, making my work a little easier.

Here are a couple of pictures.

Thanksgiving is usually the time of year that things start to get ugly in New England. The days or short and the weather is harsh. It is exactly the kind of character building, rigorous climate that I image the Puritans of yesteryear just loved. Or, perhaps it was the New England winters that made the Puritans the frigid, humorless.....well....Puritans, that they were. In any case, my time in New England has given me an understanding of spring break that I never could quite achieve as an undergraduate on Pomona's utopian campus. March brings a thirst for sun that can only be quenched with a trip to someplace tropical...Costa Rica!

Abby and I traveled around Costa Rica for about a week and a half. The highlight of the trip was Playa Samara, a tiny, isolated beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula. This is the kind of place that postcards are made of. It has yet to be discovered by the hoards of undergraduate spring breakers that invade several of the country's more well known beaches, and I hope it stays that way.
We were fortunate enough to find a room at a place right on the beach. It was a perfect collection of little bungalows situated around a shaded courtyard with hammocks strung between the palm trees.
We spent a couple of days here doing absolutely nothing but laying in the hammocks, reading, and snacking on the fresh, local produce.
At one point, we ventured down the beach about 50 yards to a beach front bar that a couple of guys from New York had just opened. Shortly after we sat down, me with a beer, Abby with something fruity and tropical, a mass of thunderclouds gathered, blocking out the sun and unleashing a torrent of swollen, tropical raindrops. Loud thunderclaps startled a band of wild horses that roamed around the beach, and we could see them galloping down the beach, illuminated by lightening. And then, not 20 minutes later, it was done. The retreating clouds framed a perfect sunset.

On our last night in Samara, Abby and I decided to take advantage of all of the fresh local ingredients and cook dinner in the communal kitchen. Actually getting our hands on the ingredients was more difficult than expected. We were able to get all of the fruit that we needed at a little shop down the street from our bungalow, but it seemed that there was not a single place in the little fishing village that actually sold fish. Luckily, Abby was there, and she has a real knack for making things happen when we travel. After much asking and charming, Abby found a grizzled old fisherman who reluctantly sold us some freshly caught Mahi Mahi. Using what little utensils and cooking implements I could find in the kitchen, I made a meal of rice boiled in coconut milk with coconut shavings and pan seared Mahi-Mahi with a mango avocado relish. Some of our fellow guests at the lodge supplied drinks and shared dinner with us.
After spring break, I got to the serious business of studying for my qualifying exams that were only a couple of months away. I wanted to reward myself with another vacation after I finished the exams, but Abby was in Sierra Leon, so I hit the road again with a new set of travel companions: Andrew and my brother Joe. We started in Oaxaca, which I was really excited about. Oaxaca might be the culinary capital of Mexico, and the food from this region is nothing like the Mexican food that you get in the states. This region is known for its chocolate and moles. Moles are complex sauces that can have upwards of 30 ingredients, and many families have their own recipes. I imagine that these recipes are deeply personal. On our first night in town, Andrew, feeling a bit adventurous, tried chile relleno stuffed with grasshoppers. Chapulinas, as they call them, are a popular snack in Oaxaca, and you can see baskets full of them in the markets, roasted and salted like peanuts. They don't taste so great. Fittingly enough, I thought the grasshoppers tasted a lot like grass. While I'm on the topic of bugs, its worth mentioning that Abby and I tried termites in Costa Rica. They taste like carrots and have a nice little crunch to them. I've heard that cicadas taste like pistachios when properly prepared, but I wasn't able to work up the courage to eat them the summer they showed up in DC.
We spent the rest of our time in Oaxaca trying some of the dishes made from more familiar ingredients. Our favorite place in Oaxaca was called La Naranja, by all accounts, the best restaurant in Oaxaca. If La Naranja is the best restaurant in Oaxaca and Oaxaca is the culinary center of Mexico, well, one might conclude that this is a damn good restaurant. I'm sure Mexico City and some of the bigger tourist destinations have more high end eating, but this restaurant is the place to go to get all of the best Oaxacan dishes, simply but well prepared.

A trip to Mexico would not be complete without trying some of the street food. Oaxaca's central square was filled with protesters when we were there, and several street vendors were there to fill their hungry stomachs. I absolutely LOVE the tacos that the street vendors sell. You can get 4 of them for about a dollar.
Prior to this trip, I had only been fishing a couple of times, but Andrew and I spent much of our trip trying to reel in a fish. Our first attempt was in Lago Atitlan. Here's Andrew catching.....nothing.
We asked around at the docks to see if there was anyplace that we could rent a boat and fishing poles and eventually found a guy that gave us peddle boat and two crappy fishing poles. Armed with our fishing gear, our misguided ambitions, and some cold beer, Andrew and I peddled into the center of the lake, where we didn't get a single bite and spent most of our time untangling fishing line from the reels, which were constantly jamming. All the while, a current was carrying us further and further from the docks. We didn't notice this until we decided it was time to head back.

Horrible! Getting back was absolutely horrible. We didn't have any oars, and the peddles operated a wheels that hardly dipped into the water. It felt like we were trying to row upstream using teaspoons as paddles. We would spin and spin and spin and, still, the current would take us backwards. To make any progress, we had to cut across the current towards the shore and skirt around the edge of the lake. If we ever stopped peddling, we would start going backwards. We peddled, peddled some more, frantically waived at passing boats to tow us back to shore, and continued peddling. After about an hour of constant peddling (believe me, an hour is a hell of a long time to be stuck on a crappy little boat that will start going backwards if you stop peddling), we made it back to the docks. The guy the charged us extra for taking the boats out for an extra hour, and a couple days later I learned that the lake is so deep and clear that there is not enough nutrients in the water to support fish. There weren't any fish in the lake. There were never any fish in the lake. We were swindled! I was so pissed off.

We left Lago Atitlan and headed towards the town of Livingston in the little corner of Guatemala that touches the Caribbean. One of the best things about Livingston is getting there. The only way to get to Livingston is to take a long boat ride down the Rio Dulce. Once there, Andrew and I made another attempt to catch some fish.
Again, nothing. The only bites we got were from mosquitoes.

A few days later, we were in Belize, feasting on all sorts of fantastic seafood. We gave fishing another shot.
This attempt looked a little more promising from the get go. For the first time, we had good bait (fresh sardines), and we were near a reef that supported all sort of sea life. We also had the watchful eye of a new friend to spot any fish that might be roaming around the docks.
Eventually, I caught a little barracuda. I really had no idea what to do with it and was scared of its sharp teeth. Andrew must have thought that was pretty funny, and eventually he took over, removed the hook, and threw the fish back.

The next day, we finally scored. We hired someone to take us out to the reefs where we caught all sorts of fish
including a couple of barracudas. We would have had three, but the last one slipped the hook just as Andrew was pulling it up to the boat.
In addition to the big fish, we caught a ton of smaller snappers. There were more of them than I could believe. I would cast and 5 seconds later I would be reeling in a fish. The second the hook started sinking into the water, you could see fish speeding towards the bait. We each must have caught over 3o fish. We threw back most of them, but our guide took a few home for dinner. After we got back to shore, our guide cleaned our fish for us and Joe, Andrew, and I went to a local restaurant to get a side dishes, and then fired up the grill at our hotel's beachfront bar. For the whole fish (I don't recall the varieties), we stuffed the cavities with lemon, garlic, salt, and pepper. We scored the flesh on the outside and packed the cuts with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. The barracuda stakes got a simple treatment of olive oil, salt, and pepper. One of the other guests at our hotel, a gregarious Spaniard (pictured below) whose name I can't remember, gave me the tip that when grilling the barracuda, I should take it easy on the olive oil and, to maximize flavor, dress the fish with a moderate amount of raw olive oil at the end. This, he said, was the way the Spanish grill seafood. It was fantastic, and we had enough to feed all of our neighbors and the hotel staff.
The meal was fantastic. I really think I get fishing now. It is so satisfying to be involved in the complete food process, catching, preparing, and finally, eating. Also, there is nothing like fish that was swimming around an hour before you eat it. Doesn't get more fresh than that.