oysters and arugula


Fish tacos, shrimp tacos, oysters freshly plucked from the sea

Hibiscus water, icy cold cervezas, grapefruit garnished margaritas

Orange sunrises over the mountains

Pink purple sunsets over the sea

Nighttime lightning over the ocean

Cobblestone streets

leading to dirt roads

leading to jungle paths

leading to secret beaches

Las Cuevas, Playa Malpasos, Carrizitos

Friend-seeking dogs sleeping beneath our beach chairs

Iguanas in the Iguana Tree

Tiny salamanders on the terrace

Land crabs scurrying from us in the jungle, burrowing on the beach, surprising us in our room

Just-made tortillas

Pozole from the street stand

The pollo al carbon we didn’t get to



Dinner for an August Night in June

The schools were closing early due to the 100 degree heat, and a sweet little bag of key limes became the inspiration for dinner.  Steak fajitas with guacamole, rice and beans seemed the perfect dinner for the south of the border-type heat we were experiencing.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but for a brief period of time I worked in the garde manger station of David Burke’s now-defunct Park Avenue Café .  We were responsible for cold appetizer preparation, and for a few hot summer days, this included a special of guacamole.

Park Avenue Cafe, circa 1997

A quick search on Epicurious produces 48 guacamole recipes.  Among the several versions found on The California Avocado Commission website is guacamóle auténico, which calls for cumin, tomato, sweet white onion, Serranos, cilantro, and lime juice.  Meanwhile, back in the kitchen we were told that Chef Burke’s version was the authentic one, and being young and impressionable, I believed it and have stuck by it.  Our version called for nothing more than salt, lime juice, and cilantro.   I seem to recall that some chopped tomato may have garnished the plate, but it certainly wasn’t incorporated into the guacamole prior to serving.

Aside from ingredients, another place where the guacamole camps diverge is on the question of texture.  There are some folks out there who apparently like their guacamole to have the texture of Cool Whip.  Should you find yourself invited to my home for margaritas, the guacamole I will serve you will be chunky.  The preparation of the avocado is, in fact, my favorite part of guacamole-making.  After scoring the avocado in half the long way, twisting each half in opposite directions to release one side from the pit, you can (carefully) smack the heel of your chef’s knife into the pit and twist to remove the pit from the other half.  You can then take a smaller knife and score the flesh of the avocado diagonally in one direction, then the other, forming a diamond pattern. Now, take a spoon and, pressing the back of the spoon against the shell, you can scoop out the flesh, and voila!  Diced avocado!  (For those visual learners among my reading audience, the next time I have avocados on hand, I will take a few photos of this process and add them here.)

One thing about which I’ve learned that my sous chef friends were mistaken, however, is the notion that submerging the pit in your guacamole will prevent discoloration.  Thanks to the thorough experiments of Harold McGee, author of The Curious Cook, I now know that the best way to prevent browning (which is caused by the interaction of oxygen with an enzyme in the avocado), is to lay plastic wrap directly on the exposed surface, being sure to eliminate all air bubbles.  While the pit will protect the small bit that it touches from browning, Harold tells us that a light bulb would perform the same function.  Nothing magic about the pit, and plastic wrap does a more effective job.

Margaritas, anyone?

Whatever the Chef Suggests

I’ve been getting to know a new city and her environs, and our relationship is off to a very good start.  Philadelphia feeds me well and always seems to have something new to share.  She’s introduced me to the yarn store Loop in Center City (where only the fact that my companion was double-parked outside the door kept me from lingering long and spending wildly);

the boutiques of Chestnut Hill (where unique Christmas or Hanukkah presents can be found in an afternoon);

the Barnes (in its original home);

and Fante’s Kitchen Wares shop in the Italian Market neighborhood, where one can pick up an indispensable countertop butter keeper.

I’ve discovered the pleasures of people watching in Rittenhouse Square while eating a sandwich from Di Bruno Brothers; making one’s own margaritas at Lolita; and waiting in a tiny townhouse foyer for the chance to enjoy a bargain-priced, pre-symphony Italian dinner at La Viola.  I’ve brunched at LeBus in Manayunk and Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat in Northern Liberties.

And while all of this has been awfully delightful, what I discovered recently was that Philadelphia had been holding a little bit back.  Perhaps she just wanted to be sure I wasn’t a fair-weather friend.   I can understand this.  Because Vetri is simply not a restaurant to be shared with a casual acquaintance.

To begin with, it’s the sort of place that requires a degree of forethought if you wish to dine here on a Saturday evening.  Two months of forethought, in fact.  (Given that sort of advance planning, you may feel justified in buying a new pair of shoes for the occasion.)

It’s also the sort of place where, upon arriving, you will be greeted in the townhouse foyer by a young man who may apologize that your table is not quite ready, but a glass of Prosecco will be offered to ease your wait, while your anticipation increases.

The dining room holds only 35 guests and a pre-fixe tasting menu is served.  A seasonal menu, written in the hand of the chef, Marc Vetri, is given to each diner, showing the array of dishes from which the kitchen will select your dinner.  If there is something you simply must have or absolutely can’t have, you let the waiter know and the kitchen will respond accordingly.  While several of us made one request – it’s difficult to pass up soft shell crab – we left the remainder of the evening in the chef’s hands.

Starting things off was a plate of assaggi – little bites – including vegetable crostini, foie gras on brioche, and homemade salami.

Next came the soft shell crab, seated on a small mound of fregola and slivered green beans, for those of us who had expressed an interest in it.   Though we were more than content, the one member of our table who had gone entirely “chef’s choice” received the sweet onion crepe with white truffle as his first course.  When he closed his eyes to more completely experience his second bite, I knew I wouldn’t be making any requests the next time (should there be a next time) I found myself in this dining room.  At this point, there was a bottle of 2009 Parusso, Langhe, Nebbiolo on the table, along with a glass of 2007 Falesco “Ferentano” Roscetto.

Third course –  almond tortellini with truffle sauce, rigatoni alla bolognese with chard, and spinach gnocchi with brown butter.

Fourth course – duck salad with apricots and chanterelles for some of us, rotelle with lobster and leek for others.

Fifth course – black bass with zucchini and peas for the women, Creekstone dry-aged ribeye with roasted pepper and celery salad for the men.  We drank a 2002 Le Macchiole, Paleo Rosso and 2009 Isole e Olena Chardonnay with these.  Cheese and dessert courses followed, and some 3 1/2 hours after we had arrived, we sat sipping coffee and discussing the possibility of recreating the meal from Babette’s Feast, so inspired were we by the pleasure of the meal we had just shared.

What’s next, Philadelphia?

Serendipity in DUMBO

After attending a concert there a good many years ago, this past Sunday I returned to Bargemusic, a chamber music venue located on, yes, a barge, moored just south of the Brooklyn Bridge.  We listened to Mahler, Mozart, and Brahms (the electrifying 4th movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor had us all on our feet, practically cheering – one audience member had actually shouted out a “Bravo” in the midst of the 4th movement), before heading back out into the August-like heat of the late afternoon to consider our options for the approaching evening.

Hmmm, what to do, where to go, most important – what to eat?  Atlantic Avenue for Middle Eastern food?  Park Slope for whatever we happened across?  Back over to Chinatown?  No, nothing doing.  Our parking spot was too good.  We were hot, and soon to be hungry (though we had quelled my threatening sea-sickness – yes, the barge does unfortunately do some rocking – at intermission with a shared bean and cheese quesadilla from the Calexico Mexican food cart), and it was feeling important to me that we find just the right place to complete our thus far very right day.  We walked, we looked at a couple of menus, and I pulled out my phone.

“Are you going to text Zabella?”  (He does pay attention, doesn’t he?)

“I am.  But she’s at the beach.  Don’t think she’s likely to be near her phone.”

Zabella is my work colleague, has lived in Brooklyn, and having many friends there, continues to know the territory.  I felt sure that if she responded, she would not lead us astray.

Me:  Hi – we’re in DUMBO – do you have any good recommendations for fun dinner place?

(almost instantaneously) Zabella:  Yes, Vinegar Hill House.  Have fun!!

A quick Google map search informed us that 72 Hudson Avenue was a mere 4ish blocks from where we were parked on Pearl Street.  We headed north on Water Street, away from the gourmet chocolate shops and onto blocks containing a renovated loft building here, a vacant warehouse there.   When we finally reached Hudson, it seemed quite possible that we had made a wrong turn.  Aside from a closed kosher butcher, there wasn’t another retail establishment to be seen.

“Look!  A couple!  Let’s see where they’re headed!”  Vinegar Hill House, as it turned out.

Plaster-exposed walls, cacti-filled shelves, filament-glowing light bulbs, carved wood tables in varying shapes, and a friendly, tall, blond, Brooklyn-cool hostess greeted us.  It was just 6 p.m. and approximately 5 tables were occupied.  We were seated quickly, and grinned at each other in self-congratulatory satisfaction.  A bottle of rosé was promptly ordered, and I relaxed in the comfort of knowing we had found just the right place.

First course:  Green Papaya Salad – matchstick pieces of green papaya, rainbow radish, cucumber, peanuts, cilantro, vinegar.  Perfection on a 95˚ day.

We opted for the two specials for our second course – walnut and hazelnut encrusted brook trout and a far-too-small plate (in its defense, it was an appetizer special) of homemade pappardelle with artichoke hearts, snails, and lemon.  A side dish of roasted asparagus under a blanket of melting Parmesan rounded things out.   I think I may safely say that there was not a happier pair in the restaurant, and by this time, the place was overflowing with under-35 Brooklyn folks.  They filled the tables, the bar, and the light-strung garden.  But we couldn’t give up our table just yet.  Despite a general disinclination toward desserts, my “very funny and very smart scientist” friend was swayed.  Salted caramel custard was ordered.  And consumed in its entirety.

Oh, Zabella – I KNEW we could count on  you!

Happy Mothers’ Day

At 7:45 this morning, I was awoken to a chorus of “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mommy!” and the sight of two beaming girls holding a breakfast tray.  For the past several days, 9-year old Greta had been saying that she wanted to make scrambled eggs for me for Mothers’ Day, and while telling her what a lovely thought that was, I had tried to encourage something that wouldn’t involved the stove top, since the thought of the girls in the kitchen with an open flame, while I slept, was a bit unnerving.

“We used Julia’s recipe, Mommy!”


“Yes, Julia Child!”

How fantastic is that?!!  My daughters had turned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking for their first solo cooking endeavor.  Could I be more proud?

Considering how well that had all gone, I reasoned that it would be ok to ask Anna to put a kettle on, for my coffee, while I read their cards.

A few minutes later, after I had opened a gift of homemade vanilla-scented sugar and olive oil scrub, I realized I had been hearing a periodic clicking sort-of sound and asked Anna to take a peek in the kitchen to be sure everything was ok on the stove.  “Oh, no! Oh, no!” is what Greta and I heard seconds later.  I ran to the kitchen half expecting to find the room ablaze, to discover the milk bottle we have been using as a water carafe, sitting on the stove top, directly beside the gas burner, still standing but cracked into three pieces.  Though the girls were fond of the bottle, fortunately this was no catastrophe.  In fact, it provided a “teaching” moment, as well as an opportunity to practice my nursing skills.

Because as soon as I picked up the bottle, it fell to pieces and at least one tiny shard ended up on the floor, and soon after, in Anna’s foot.  Thus I found myself, seated by the window, sipping my coffee, tweezers in hand, extracting a sliver of glass from Anna’s tender foot. What’s a Mothers’ Day without a little mothering!

Sunday Night Pasta

After a weekend road trip to visit friends in the nation’s capitol (little did we know the intrigue that was afoot as we strolled past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday afternoon), which included the consumption of mussels in a cilantro and coconut milk sauce at Bertha’s; baseball-size crab cakes from Faidleys Seafood; home-roasted salmon followed by berries with a brown sugar, amaretto sour cream sauce; fried artichoke hearts, NY strip steak, and Belgian beer;  and finally Sunday-morning eggs Benedict, by our return home on Sunday evening, we were ready for the easy comfort of a big bowl of pasta.

I suggested a recipe my trusty traveling companion had found in The NY Times a few years back – Fettucine with Butter, Peas, and Sage Sauce.  Agreement.  After a quick stop at the grocery store, dinner was soon in the making.  My beau has himself a lovely little herb garden, and the sage is already a good 8″ high, so I had no trouble procuring the requisite 12 leaves, though it was so much fun to pluck them that we went this evening with 20. 

When I returned to the kitchen, wine had been poured, water had been put up to boil, and a stick of butter was melting on the stove.  The sage was tossed in with the butter to stew a little bit, and I leaned back against the counter to enjoy my wine, while my host measured parmesan, toasted some pine nuts and prepared a salad dressing.

I love cooking.  And I love cooking for and with Dr. S.  But there is something so very delightful about watching Dr. S. cook for me, for us.  I don’t know that I will ever tire of it!  (Remind me to tell you about the recent breakfast he prepared out of dinner leftovers. . .)  So my contribution to this meal preparation was minimal.  Other than picking the aforementioned sage leaves, I tossed the butter sauce onto the pasta, popped it in the oven, and lighted the dining room candles.  Here’s what dinner looked like as it went into the oven . . .

And here’s what it looked like on the table . . .

And in case you’d like your own dish of this comforting pasta next Sunday night, here’s the recipe, courtesy of The NY Times, but with our own secret ingredient added at the end!

Fresh Fettucine with Butter, Peas, and Sage Sauce

1/2 c. butter

12 fresh sage leaves (but you can’t go wrong with more)

1 c. frozen petite peas

salt & freshly ground black pepper

1 lb. fresh fettucine

1/4 lb. Parmesan, grated (about 1 1/2 c.)

Optional:  J’s secret ingredient – Truffle Salt!!!

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and put the pasta water on.  Melt 1/4 c. of the butter in a small saucepan, and add the sage leaves.  Cook until they’re crisp – but not burnt!  When the butter begins to brown, add the peas and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.  Add 1/4 c. water, cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to low.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook the fettucine, drain well and, in an ovenproof dish, toss with the remaining 1/4 c. of butter, 1 c. of the grated Parmesan and the pea and sage mixture.  Place in the oven for 5 minutes.  Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan, and, if the idea does not offend you and you are so fortunate as to have it in your pantry, serve with truffle salt on the side!

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