Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Monday, June 16, 2014

Advice If Your Child Is Traveling On Their Own

International travel is a great way for kids to have fun experiences in worlds beyond school and home. For parents it can be a really good time but also stressful when children travel on their own. Our sons are good travelers. They are smart and careful. They love experiencing other cultures and landscapes.

Over the years I developed a to-do list for them so they are ready to get the best out of the experience. The to-do list helps me as well. I want to know they are having a good time and that they are safe and know how to navigate their travel environment.
Because there is a great difference between travel destinations, we are lucky to have the internet to research the attractions and safety issues of just about any venue.

Here is an email I sent our son when he was getting ready for a week's vacation to an island in the Caribbean.

Good morning. We’re very happy you’re going on your trip. That’s so cool.

It’s going to be beautiful there. Remember to bring sunscreen. From the iPhone weather app, it looks like you’ll have sunny warm weather (88 hi/79 low). That’s great.
Send us the confirmation email for the round trip airline ticket you bought so we have your travel information.

I put money in your ATM and paid your Credit Card bill.

PACKING
Pack as lightly as possible. Figure out what clothes you will need for each day. Pack that plus an extra day. Find out if the hotel has self-serve laundry facilities. Avoid using the hotel's laundry service. The rates are very high. As in, $5.00 for a pair of underwear. $3.50 for a pair of socks. $18.00 to launder a shirt.

If you don’t need your laptop, leave it at home and just bring your camera, phone and iPad. Remember to pack your adapters and extra batteries.

RESEARCHING YOUR DESTINATION
Take a look at the articles about your destination I emailed yesterday. Even if you don’t go off the resort property, they had good tips for dealing with crime and how to deal with people who approach you. Like the articles say, don’t wear jewelry, openly carry your electronics or pull money out of your pocket.
When you are at the airport you are vulnerable and criminals are looking for the right moment to grab a suitcase or backpack or wallet or phone, so hold on to everything you have with you at all times. Even in the bathroom.

CREDIT CARDS - TRAVEL NOTIFICATION
3-5 days before you leave, you need to call all of the credit card companies and banks with credit and ATM cards you use, to notify them that you will be using the cards on your trip. They will want to know your dates of travel and where you are traveling. That way when you use them out of the country, the banks won’t think it’s fraud when charges show up outside your normal area of use. The numbers to call are on the back of each credit card. 
CASH
Exchanging US currency at the airport or hotel is usually pretty expensive. Some people like to buy the foreign currency in the US before they leave, but that is also expensive. The most cost effective way to acquire local currency is from an ATM at your destination. The exchange rate is favorable and depending on your ATM bank, the fees may be low. When you call the credit card/ATM company you use to give them your travel notification, ask them what those fees are.

In my experience, an airport ATM that supports your bank's card is a good place to get local currency. 

Each time you use your ATM card, there is a fee, so don't use it to withdraw small amounts a lot of time. Withdraw what you need for 3-4 days. 

When you use an ATM machine, be aware of the people around you. Crooks like to grab money from people who have just gotten money from an ATM, so be watchful.
COPIES OF YOUR DOCUMENTS
Make 2 copies of your essential documents:  passport, credit cards (front and back) and medical card. Keep each set of copies in a separate place. When you are traveling, carry the original documents and one copy with you. Keep them in separate places.

When you are in the hotel, keep your passport and credit cards locked up in a safe. If there is not an in-room safe, usually the front desk has a safe available for guests.

To protect against pick pockets, always carry your wallet and passport in your front pocket never your back pocket or backpack. 

CELL PHONE USE
Call the cell phone company and tell them about your travel. Ask if there is an inexpensive payment to roam so you can use your phone for texting and emailing on the trip and find out the cost of cell phone use where you are traveling. Let's talk about the options.

When you call the phone company, ask what you have to do to activate your phone for roaming. For some carriers you have to enter a roaming code before you leave, turn off your phone while you travel, then when you arrive at your international destination, you turn your phone on, enter and send a roaming code.

When traveling internationally, only use roaming in emergencies or infrequently to use Google Maps and check for urgent messages and emails. The cost to roam is very high. Sharing one or two photographs, emailing and surfing the web can cost hundreds of dollars. Some carriers like Verizon offer discounted roaming plans, but even those do not solve the problem.

Once you have activated your phone for roaming on arrival, immediately turn off Cellular Data in Settings and only turn it back on as needed.

When you are in the hotel, presumably they have complimentary WiFi (if not in your room, then in the lobby), in which case you can email and text without charge. If WiFi is not available, most hotels have a lobby or Business Center desktop computer with internet access. If not, then check for important emails and texts a couple of times a day. Avoid sending photographs and, if you do, send them at the lowest file-size.
LANDLINE PHONE CARDS
We use iDPhoneCard which has dial-in numbers in most countries in the world. The rates are usually very low. Go on line to find others and compare. See which one you want to use. The way they work is you set up an account and make a deposit. Then when you are traveling, you can call in to the US for a low per minute rate. With iDPhoneCard there is no charge for making a call other than the minutes used. Some phone cards charge for each call + the minutes used.

ADAPTOR PLUGS
Find out if you need adaptor plugs for the hotel. If you have a toll free phone number for the hotel, call them and ask if they have plugs free-for-guest use you can use during the stay. If they do have them, ask them to please put aside 2 for you.

You can also go to a travel store to buy an adapter plug. They don’t cost much. All you need is a plug that attaches to the plug on your AC adapter. Traveling in most places, you don’t need a voltage regulator. But ask the hotel about that as well.
THE HOTEL CONTACT INFORMATION 
Make sure you bring with you the local phone number and address of the resort. Confirm with the hotel how you will get from the airport to the hotel. Ask if you need to give them your travel information & cell phone number so they have a person pick you up free of charge or is there a shuttle at the airport. In either case, ask how and where you will find the person bringing you to the resort. If you are expected to take a cab or bus, get all of those details and ask how much the cost will be.

Bring copies with you of your hotel confirmation.
Lots of small details but they are important. Once you get all this done, then you’ll be ready for a great adventure.

Let’s talk this afternoon.

Love, 
Dad and Mom

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Authentic Guatemalan Ceviche and Mexican Ice Cream on West Pico Near Crenshaw

Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows this is a great city to enjoy ethnic food. It is easy to eat affordably priced meals at any number of national and regional restaurants including those that serve Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, Jewish, Korean, Vietnamese, Armenian, Persian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Ethiopian and Indian dishes. 

Living near the beach, I don't come into town as often as I would like. To meet a friend close to where he lives meant we needed to find a restaurant near the 10 Freeway at the Crenshaw Boulevard exit.
Not knowing where to go, I turned to Bobby Rock, who knows the area well. He had suggestions.They all sounded good. We wanted a light meal, so we figured we'd try La Cevicheria (3809 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 732-1253).

As I parked in front of the restaurant, my friend called to say he would be late. A car issue, easily solved in ten to fifteen minutes. Ok, no problem. That gave me time to explore the area. 

Across the street, Jay's Market (4000 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019) is a Latin grocery store with a really good fresh produce section, a meat market with Mexican cuts and a well-stocked liquor department. I mention the latter because I really enjoy Quezalteca Especial, a grappa-like, Guatemalan white rum I used to buy from Golden Farms (6501 San Fernando Road, Glendale, CA 91202), an Armenian supermarket in Glendale near Adana (6918 San Fernando Road, Glendale, California 91201, 818-843-6237), an excellent Armenian restaurant I've written about. 
Golden Farms stopped selling the rum last year. Jay's Market carries it. Not knowing when I would be back in the area, I bought two bottles.

Back to La Cevicheria. 

Ethnic restaurants in LA are often family run and draw heavily on the home cooking taught by one generation to the next. Serving the local community, La Cevicheria reached a wider audience when the restaurant was reviewed positively by Jonathan Gold, LA's premier ethnic restaurant critic, and included by S. Irene Virbila in her ceviche round-up. 

Waiting for my friend, I sat down at one of the two small sidewalk tables to read the newspaper. Enjoying a quiet moment, even though a large truck was idling in front while the driver made a delivery, a man in a black t-shirt stuck his head out of the restaurant's front door to ask, "May I help you?" "Just waiting for my friend," I explained. He invited me inside because sitting next to an idling truck wasn't all that pleasant.

At that moment, my friend arrived, so inside we went and found a table in the middle of the restaurant. The man in the black t-shirt handed us menus and introduced himself as Julio Orellana.  He waved his arm in the air, gesturing at Jonathan Gold's review on the wall. He was happy to meet us, he said, although the person we really should meet was chef Carolina Orellana, his wife, but she was not there. 

A gregarious person, Orellana gave us a thumbnail description of the restaurant. The recipes came from Guatemala. Carolina made everything in the kitchen. Ok. there were a few hot sauces in bottles because people fancied them, but everything else was made in the kitchen, the way his wife cooked for the family at home.

We read the menu. Hip hop music played overhead. More people came into the restaurant. The truck deliveryman came inside and found an empty table. A woman, her mom and a friend sat across from us. She ordered and when her food came, she told us about the dishes.

La Cevicheria is the kind of place where people start conversations with strangers. Everyone wants to talk about their favorite dishes.
The woman told us we should order the Chapin, described in the menu as "Guatemalan style with shrimp, crab, octopus, tomatoes, onions, avocado, mint, lime, Worcestershire sauce" ($12) and the Campechana ("shrimp, bloody clams, octopus, abalone, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, cilantro, avocado") served with crisp corn tortillas ($12). 

She also told us that because La Cevicheria doesn't have a liquor license, we could bring our own beer in brown paper bags. But, no bottles, only beer in cans. 

We shared a plate of Aguachiles, a ceviche appetizer with 4 jumbo raw shrimp, deveined, the shells peeled back to the tails. The shrimp were placed in a thick, spicy-hot green sauce, flavored with pulverized jalapeños, lime, cilantro, onions and garlic. The translucent shrimp quickly turned pink under the withering glare of the jalapeño-lime marinade. The heat surrounded the sweet shrimp and coated the inside of my mouth. The dish satisfied on so many levels. 

We had the Campechana. Arriving in an unglamorous, large metal bowl, bits of shrimp, clams, octopus and abalone float in an ink-dark liquid. Lacking the visual appeal of the Aguachiles, the Campechana cocktail needs to be eaten to be appreciated. Cilantro, avocado and peeled cucumbers brighten the seriousness of the ceviche. Eaten on pieces of crisp corn tortilla, each mouthful becomes an experience of contrasting textures and flavors--crisp, soft, chewy, sweet, acidic. After each bite, mouth empty, a quiet heat envelopes your palate like the sweet remembrance that comes when a lover leaves and you yearn with anticipation for her return. 
As a contrast to the two first dishes, the Mariscadas, a seafood stew is an intermezzo of quiet. Served in a mild tomato based sauce with steamed white rice ($15), the dish is visually elegant and easy on the palate, as if to say, Guatemalan cuisine isn't all about heat. Mariscadas comforts where its companions sought to excite and challenge.

Providing a through line for all the dishes, we had glasses of freshly squeezed, tart-sweet limeade.

After all the heat, we needed something sweet. My friend remembered Mateo's, an ice cream store on Pico, just west of Crenshaw. 

As we walked to our cars, we passed Restaurante Puerto La Union (3811 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019, 323/373-0429). A quick look at the menu with its list of affordable, large plates of familiar Salvadorian dishes and we knew we would come back. Maybe next time we would have appetizers at La Cevicheria (surf) and an entrée at Restaurante Puerto La Union (turf).
Mateo's Ice Cream has three locations (1250 S. Vermont Avenue, #105, Los Angeles 90006, 213/738-7288 and 4929 S. Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City 90230, 310/313-7625). We stopped at the West Pico store (4234 W. Pico, Los Angeles 90019, 323/931-5500). 

The ice creams and paletas (fruit bars with and without milk) are made in the Culver City store. All use fresh ingredients. When paletas are made right, they are sweet but not too sweet. They are all about flavor. 
The flavors are familiar--vanilla, pistachio, caramel, rum with raisins, egg nog with raisins, neapolitan, banana split, coffee, strawberry, banana and lemon. And not so familiar--mamey sapote, melon, pepino and chile, watermelon, smoked milk, tamarind and chile, pitaya, nance, tejocote, yogurt and dried fruit, guanabana, mango and walnut. 

Mateo's is rightly proud of their ice creams.

Besides ice cream scoops, fruit bars (paletas), smoothies, milkshakes and freshly squeezed juices, Mateo's also has a short menu of sandwiches so if you are hungry you can eat before you feast on ice cream treats.
I had a vanilla paleta with strawberries. Delicious. My friend had scoops of smoked milk and caramel. I wanted to try the coconut, pineapple and mango with chile paletas but after the lunch at La Cevicheria, I was too full.

I'm looking forward to my next visit to West Pico and Crenshaw.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Picnic Food and Caviar at 30,000 Feet

Growing up, we used to fly from Los Angeles to New York once and sometimes twice a year so my mom could visit her mom who lived on the Upper West Side (110th and Amsterdam). In those days I looked forward to flying. How amazing, I thought, that this big heavy thing could roar down a runway and push itself into the air.

Sitting next to the window and looking down as we passed over desserts, mountains and cities, I was mesmerized.
I still regard flight as something of a miracle even if the actual experience of being in an airplane isn't as much fun. Terrorism and economics have degraded the airport and flying experience. Having to pay for amenities we used to take for granted like paying to check luggage and being charged to phone an airline agent are high on my list of why travel is less fun than it used to be. And what about being charged for food on planes? When I was a kid, I looked forward to those meals. I know, I was easily satisfied when my favorite not-cooked-by-mom meal was a fried chicken Swanson TV dinner with mashed potatoes and corn in butter sauce.

Putting the fun back into flying

When we fly these days, I make a meal I think of as a picnic lunch. All the foods my family would eat when we went to the beach are great to have on the plane. Think about it. Nothing is better than a shared lunch of cold rosemary fried chicken, deli bar olives, Comte cheese and Breton crackers, chicken salad with mango chutney and toasted almonds, egg salad flavored with bacon, arugula salad with home made croutons, potato salad with corn, chopped Italian parsley salad with cherry tomatoes, olives, Persian dukes, croutons and feta cheese with a reduced balsamic and olive oil dressing, roasted beet salad, carrot salad with lemon-pepper infused golden raisins and Fuji apples from a farmers market.
If I'm watching movies on my iPad and snacking on good food, flying is fun again.

Flights out of Tom Bradley International Terminal, LAX

Last fall I flew to Geneva, Switzerland out of LAX. Unfortunately, at the time, while the renovation of the terminal had been completed, the Level 4 food court vendors hadn't moved in.
Last week I was invited to a press reception at the terminal to try out the food and beverages served at the Petrossian Caviar and Champagne Bar.
Not everyone enjoys caviar. It's expensive and, well,  it is "eggs from a fish". Two strikes against caviar to many people. My dad loved caviar. He was Russian and loved all that kind of food: black bread, radishes, herring with onions in sour cream and chopped liver.

Back to last week.

Going to the boarding area of an airport when you aren't actually flying is not easy. Special approvals need to be obtained. Passes are issued. Guards inspect you. PR people and airport personnel escort you every minute you are beyond security check points without a boarding pass.

I mention this for a reason.
Level 4 at Bradley International could be a destination for Angelenos. Going to airports and watching planes take off and land used to be a fun thing to do. No more. But if you are traveling internationally out of LAX, arriving at the airport two hours early won't be an inconvenience because you'll have the opportunity to enjoy the open, airy Great Hall with dozens of restaurants and retail stores as good as any you'll find at The Grove.
Petrossian gave us a tasting of their appetizers (smoked salmon canapés with salmon roe, blinis and hardboiled eggs topped with caviar), champagne and a High Society cocktail. Everything was delicious. Besides serving caviar as God intended--on a blini--Petrossian has also created caviar powder and white chocolate with caviar. The powder is cool. Used instead of salt on the rim of a cocktail glass in the High Society adds a crunchy-salty-caviar flavor that worked great with the gin, St. Germaine and green Chartruse.
Besides a full menu at the Bar, Petrossian also has insulated packs to take on the plane. The snacks come with a big price tag, but if you are a caviar-eating kind of person, the high cost will be familiar.
I wrote a profile for Luxury Travel Magazine with a lot more details.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Which Credit Cards Offer the Best Award Miles and Benefits Programs?

With the summer travel season approaching, now is a good time to look through the credit cards in your wallet. Every week unsolicited credit card offers arrive in the mail.  I don't need any more credit cards, but it's good to check out the offers. Are the terms as good as the credit card offers you're receiving in the mail?  Maybe it's time to switch.
NOT ALL CREDIT CARDS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Not all credit cards have benefits. Many are just "credit" cards.  In the simplest terms, with these cards, the bank advances you money. You are expected to repay what you borrowed at the end of the month. If you don't repay all the money you borrowed, you pay interest on the balance. That's pretty straight forward.

But since there are credit cards out there that not only loan you money but also give you a goodie bag of benefits, why not use those cards?  Banks want your business. That means you can have credit and goodies too.  And that is a very good thing.

Over the last month, I received offers from Barclay, Citi, American Express, Bank of America and Chase asking me to apply for one of their credit cards. The banks will pay me to use their money.

They'll pay me in the sense that they are offering cash back
or miles to be used to buy airline tickets, hotel stays and other purchases. The devil's bargain is simple. All I have to do is use my credit card as often as possible. Merchants pay the bank when I use my credit card. The bank hopes I will spend a lot of money, carry an outstanding balance and occasionally miss a due date so I have to pay late fees. My plan is to pay my monthly balances on time so I get the miles without having to pay interest or fees.

GETTING A CREDIT CARD IS LIKE GETTING MARRIED
As in any marriage, it is important to get to know your prospective mate before you tie the knot. The bank's agreement is a prenup. You should read those terms very carefully.

1. BENEFITS: Carefully read the terms of the agreement. Since there are many different types of benefit programs, compare and evaluate which credit cards give you what you need. Some cards give money back bonuses. Others focus on miles that can be converted into free airline travel while some are designed for travelers who want free hotel nights.  For sites that compare different credit card offers, see the list at the end of the article.
I use credit cards to accumulate miles toward airline travel, so I want a credit card that accrues miles on a 1:1 basis, or better.  Which means when I spend $1.00, I get 1 mile or point credited to my account.  One of our Master Card accounts did not charge us an annual fee. The miles were accumulated on the basis of 2:1. $2.00 spent for 1 mile credited. When our use of the card was low, that made sense, but in time we used the card more and more, so the advantage of no annual fee was not worth the miles we lost.

With some cards you accrue miles on a basis of 1:2 ($1.00 spent for 2 miles credited). That is the case with some Bank of America plans when the card is used to purchase groceries and gasoline products. With some American Airlines plans, purchasing American's products will add more bonus points to your account. Some plans give cash back instead of miles. Other plans sweeten the pot by crediting back a percentage of the miles you used to purchase airline tickets, as does American Airlines with its more expensive cards. Spend 25,000 miles to purchase a round trip ticket and the card credits 5,000 miles to your account.
Notice how many times I have to say "some plans." It's worth your while to read the fine print and pick the best card for you.

2. ANNUAL FEE: Typically, when you sign up for a credit card, the first year's fee is waived. This isn't always true, but it might be the case, so check. Annual fees typically range between $50.00  and $100.00. High end cards charge high annual fees, as much as $450.00 or more, but in return the benefits are highly prized by travelers--entry into airport lounges, free baggage allowance, discounted prices on airline products, bonus points, special offers, no foreign transaction fees, concierge services and much more.
3. AIRLINE VS BANK CARDS: Many credit cards are affiliated with specific airlines. Use a VISA card issued by American Airlines and the miles accrue for flights on American Airlines. There are many cards which accumulate points and miles that can be used on any airline. Those cards proudly tout their non-affiliation as an advantage because you can pick and choose airlines for the best deals. Personally, I have not used this type of card. I have cards which are tied to airlines: American, Southwest and United. These are airlines that fly where I tend to travel. As with any card, carefully read the fine print to see if your purchasing and travel needs are best served by a particular card's agreement.

4. SIGNING BONUSES: Many credit cards--well actually most these days in the push to sign up more customers--offer a signing bonus. The annual fee may be waived for the first year as part of the signing bonus. Typically a new user is also credited miles as a bonus. The number of miles can be an insignificant 10,000 miles or a very meaningful 75,000 miles.

Accruing those miles to your mileage account is often linked to your spending a certain amount during a specified period of time, say $3,000.00 spent in the first three months after the card is activated. Once you spend the $3,000.00, the bonus miles will be credited to your account.
Usually the best deals go to consumers who have the best credit history and who also have good paying, long term employment. This may strike some as unfair--why should one person get more than another person--but this issue is important. When you use your credit card, the bank has money you want to use. The bank wants guarantees that they will get their money back. Good credit history and current employment tell them you are more likely to give them back their money when asked, so they'll be nicer to you. Which brings up the next issue.

5. INTEREST RATES: What is APR? APR is an abbreviation for Annual Percentage Rate. That's the rate the bank will charge you for keeping their money longer than one month (or 28 days or 27 days or 30 days, depending on their definitions -- always remember to read the fine print because you may encounter a card that begins charging interest ON THE DAY YOU MAKE THE PURCHASE--I have only seen one card with that feature).

If you pay your credit card balances before the DUE DATE. You have won the jackpot. The bank gave you their money. You spent it. But you paid it back before the due date, so the bank gets no money from you. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Which means you don't care what the APR is because you are the smartest person on the planet.  Even though the bank didn't get any money from you for all those transactions during the month, the businesses who sold you the goods and services did have to the pay the bank. So the credit card companies are making money, just not from you.
If you don't pay all of the credit card balance on time, then you will pay for the money the bank let you use.  In which case, the APR is really really important. And you should look carefully at how much interest you will pay and all the other terms that come with keeping the bank's money past that first month.

As part of the signing bonus for some cards, you are allowed without fee to transfer existing credit card balances from other credit cards. This can be a very handy way of starting over again, especially if you have racked up fees, which is the next topic to discuss.

6. MINIMUM MONTHLY PAYMENT: Minimum monthly payment is a really scary idea. The bank helpfully tells you the smallest amount you need to pay on the monthly bill. The problem is that paying the minimum amount maximizes the bank's profits. It might seem really cool and friendly to only pay $32.18 on a monthly balance of $3517.23, but the bank is hoping you'll take the easy way out, pay the minimum legally required so that they can levy their very exorbitant APR.
7. FEES: Late fees and every other fee you are liable for if you don't pay all of your monthly bill each billing cycle on time and in full are the Devil's wager you make for using credit cards. Miss a due date and you will be hit with a fee in addition to the APR costs. And those fees will themselves accrue APR charges if you don't pay off all of the outstanding balance. When people talk about slipping into a downward spiral of debt because of credit card use, this is how it happens. Many banks make their profits on the frailties of the human condition. Late fees are an important profit center. So that's the bad news.

8. CREDIT CARDS PROTECT YOU FROM FRAUD: The good news is using a credit card protects you from fraud. Buy a faulty product that the seller won't repair or replace, the credit card company will go to bat for you and challenge the seller. Someone hacks your account and uses your credit card to take a trip to Rio and stay in a 5-Star hotel for ten days. Not your problem. If you didn't use the card, you are not liable for the charges. When you use a debit card, things get complicated because the money comes directly out of YOUR account, not the bank's. With a credit card, the thief sticks a straw into the BANK's account, not yours. That is the law and the law, in this regard, favors the consumer and that is YOU.
9. WEB SITES THAT EVALUATE CREDIT CARDS: There are many more benefits and limitations that are found in credit card offers. Since they are specific to different credit cards, I've listed below some very good analyses that compare credit cards. Here are several I like.

Tasha Lockyer looks at the "Top Seven Credit Card Offers." Her analysis focuses on consumers who have the best credit. The better your credit, the better the deal.

The editors at NextAdvisor list the best credit cards, broken down by features: lowest APR, best for travel, best transfer rates from another card, best rewards, best cash back, best student, best business and best card to rebuild your credit.

Value Penguin evaluates financial opportunities--health insurance, auto insurance, mortgage rates and credit cards. They throw a very wide net, comparing thirty-three credit cards across eleven value points including annual fee, APR, signing bonus and valuations of each card based on how many points or miles you receive relative to the cost of the card (which would include the annual fee). I know that sounds like a lot of comparison points, but Value Penguin has a very cool graphic that creates a visual comparison to help guide you through the advantages of each card.

Ben Schlappig writes a blog and subscription email called One Mile at a Time  with a monthly evaluation of the ten best credit card deals. His March evaluation is posted now. Because he updates his lists every month, I find it well worth my while to subscribe to his emails, which detail his personal experiences traveling around the world.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Locals Know Where to Eat in the Berkshires

The road to John Andrews Restaurant (224 Hillsdale Road, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 413/528-3469) twists and turns through woods and farmlands.

We arrived at dusk while there was enough light to sit outside on the wooden deck that backed up against a grassy hill. What looks like the decayed remnant of a hundred year old shed leans perilously to one side.
Inside, the restaurant has the cozy feeling of an English road house. The floor to ceiling windows in the dining room open out onto the deck and hill in back.

In the summer, visitors come to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts to escape the heat and congestion of the city.  Offering opportunities to relax and catch up on your reading, a string of small towns with B&Bs cuts through the expanses of woods and farmlands.

With music at Tanglewood and dance at Jacob's Pillow, historical sites like Edith Wharton's home, the Mountthe Berkshire Botanical Garden and innovative exhibits at MASS MoCa in North Adams, there's plenty to keep you occupied.

In August I visited the area for the first time. Beyond the charms of small New England towns and the pleasure of world class art, the Berkshires also has great chefs who take advantage of good products from local farms.
Chef-owner Dan Smith at John Andrews Restaurant has his own garden so he can supply his kitchen with fresh produce during the summer and fall. After more than two decades in the area, he has close relationships with local farmers who bring him high quality meat, poultry, milk, cheese, produce and honey.

On that trip in August, we had a tasting of chef Smith's menu that included a grilled eggplant with local heirloom tomatoes, creamy mozzarella and a drizzle of basil,
an artful tempura of squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheeses, seared foie gras accompanied with grilled pears and pickled red onion, salads of beats and tomatoes with corn, sweet duck breast and mashed potatoes with a maple-balsamic glaze and local lamb served blood red and juicy.

All those dishes were delicious. The creme de la creme was Smith's diver's scallops with a risotto of roast cauliflower, leeks and pancetta. This was no ordinary risotto. This was a risotto without rice.

Huh?

Chef Smith likes the creaminess of risotto but wanted a side dish that didn't rely on rice for flavor and texture.

There isn't a good reason to call this a "risotto," but I liked the result so I wouldn't deny him his naming rights.

He pared the creamy cauliflower with tender, sweet scallops. I could easily imagine the risotto accompanying grilled halibut, a thick medium-rare bone-in ribeye steak or a roasted chicken breast.

Happily chef Smith was generous enough to send me the recipe so I could make the dish at home.

Diver Scallops, Risotto of Roast Cauliflower-Leeks-Pancetta, Charred Scallion Oil

The dish can be served as an appetizer or entrée.


Serves 4 as an entrée

Ingredients

16 large diver sea scallops, washed, pat dried
2 leeks
1 head cauliflower, washed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/4 cup olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 bunch scallions
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
Sea salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F degrees.

2. Trim cauliflower, leaving the tender florets. Separate the florets and toss in a bowl with garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil and 2 teaspoons sea salt. Spread seasoned cauliflower on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven 30 minutes until cauliflower is tender.

3. Trim and wash scallions, season with 1 teaspoon sea salt and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Char the scallions on a grill or roast in the 400 F degree oven until tender. Let cool, chop up and place in a blender with 3/4 cup olive oil. Makes approximately 1 cup scallion oil. Use half the scallion oil for the recipe. Refrigerate the remainder to use with fish.

4. Slice leeks in half,  length wise, then slice across each half to create 1/2" strips. Rise well in clean water and place in a non-reactive sauce pan, cover with water and add a pinch of sea salt. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes on medium high heat. Stir leeks every couple of minutes. After 10 minutes, remove the lid, reduce the heat to medium and cook leeks until tender and most of the liquid has reduced.

5. In a sauce pan, render the chopped pancetta until brown and crispy. Drain well. Discard the fat. Toss together the pancetta, leeks and roasted cauliflower florets in the sauce pan. Stir in the heavy cream and simmer. Reduce the cream to coat cauliflower, stir in Parmesan and chopped parsley.

6. Heat a large stainless steel or cast iron pan on a medium high flame. Season the scallops with sea salt and sear 1 minute per side.

7. Place 4 scallops on each plate on a bed of cauliflower risotto, drizzle with scallion oil.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Looking for Good Reasons to Travel, Visit Northern Spain and Morocco


Summer's almost here and it's time to think about planning vacation travel. Wanting to ease some of the difficulty traveling, I applied for and received a Global Entry pass so at many airports I breeze through domestic security (thank you TSA Pre) as well as international points of entry.

I would definitely recommend Global Entry to everyone who travels more than a few times a year. The cost is minimal ($100 for 5 years) and the online paper work isn't too time consuming. Email me and I will give you all the details.
Last fall I took a trip to Morocco on a press trip with half a dozen other journalists. We traveled from Fez in the east to Marrakech and the High Atlas Mountains in the west and then to Essaouira on the coast.
In the High Atlas Mountains, we arranged for a cooking lesson in the kitchen of a local cook. To get to her home on the grounds of a remote boutique hotel, we walked underneath walnut trees up a steep dirt switch-back trail we shared with men riding side-saddle on donkeys. "Shared" isn't accurate. If we hadn't jogged quickly to the muddy area to the side of the trail, the men on donkeys would certainly have bumped us out of their way.
The walk up that hill was a challenge. By the time we reached the hotel at the top, we were tired, thirsty and pretty dusty. At that moment the walk didn't seem worth the effort. Then we walked out onto the the wide deck of the Kasbah Toubkal where we were greeted with hot mint tea, Moroccan style--sweet and heavily caffeinated.
In the crisp, clear air, we took in the breath-taking view of the surrounding mountains and the village of Imlil in the valley below.
A few clouds floated by like rafters on inner tubes leisurely drifting on a vast blue lake. We sat and drank our tea and never wanted to leave.

Sitting on squat stools in the concrete floored pantry, Haja Rkia ben Houari and Fatima gave us a cooking lesson. The two Berber woman generously showed our group of journalists how to prepare a chicken tagine, couscous with lamb and potatoes and bread cooked on an outdoor oven.

At another cooking class at the very elegant La Maison Arabe, an upscale inn next to Marrakech's souk or shopping bazar, Amaggie Waga and Dadas Ayada taught us about Moroccan spices and cooking traditions and how modern Moroccan cooking resulted from the many groups who came to call the area home--Berbers, Jewish spice merchants, invading Arab armies and French colonialists.
Besides the historical facts, taking a cooking workshop was a way to learn how to make Morocco's signature dishes, most importantly how to make preserved vegetable pickles, which now I serve at practically every meal, that's how much I think their briny-spicy crunch brightens almost any dish.
For the holidays last year, my present-of-choice was preserved lemons, another recipe learned at the Maison Arabe cooking school.
This year in the spring, another press trip took me to Northern Spain on a wonderfully comprehensive tour with Insight Vacations. From Madrid we headed due north to San Sebastián and then rambled along the coast heading west. In the cathedral town of Burgos I enjoyed an hour's lunch in a small bar with half a dozen men watching soccer and eating tapas. We stopped in Bilbao to tour the Guggenheim and gaze up at Jeff Koons' "Puppy."
We traveled to a mountain top in the Picos de Europa mountains to visit the Cave of Covadonga the 8th century resting place of Spain's first Catholic king, Pelagius.
Our final stop was Santiago de Compostela, the end of the Pilgrims' trail and the Cathedral where it is said St. James' bones are buried. Inside the many rooms of the Cathedral there are statuary created over the centuries. The guide pointed out one that is very unusual--a very pregnant virgin Mary.
The trip mixed history, art and culinary traditions as we moved from tapas to pintxos, the Basque open faced sandwiches that I came to love. Whenever possible, Iberian ham, anchovies, sardines and octopus appeared on our plates along with delicious Galician beer, light and crisp.


From that trip I brought home ideas for appetizers, simply constructed with contrasting flavors and textures. Small plate tapas and grilled bread-pintxos now precede the soups, salads and entrees on our dinner party table. Easy-to-make, full of flavor, a delight to the eye, I took home from Northern Spain a great addition to our culinary vocabulary.
Both trips were for the Sunday print editions of New York Daily News and they showed me once again why it is great to get out town.

Former French Colony of Morocco Has Much to Recommend

Spain's Northern Coast, Far from Madrid, Barcelona and Bullfighting, Has Enticements of Its Own