Archive for Travels

Back to the Blog: Prague and Vienna

Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been away from the blog for so long. What have I been up to in the past month, you might ask? Well, let’s see: There was that week spent in Prague and Vienna in mid-December. Then I jetted off to Italy for work and promptly came down with a cold. Another week later I flew home in the middle of a snowstorm and hurtled full-force into Christmas and all the family-visiting, meat-eating it requires. Since New Year’s I’ve just been…recovering. I’ve cooked a few meals and seen a few movies, that’s about it. But I’ve missed my little blog and I hope to get back on a regular posting schedule now that the holidays are firmly behind us.

I guess the appropriate place for me to pick up my blogging is back in Eastern Europe. Oh, Prague and Vienna. I loved them both, Prague with its weathered town squares and grey skies, and Vienna with its overwhelming, magnificent grandeur. Jim and I passed the week walking, talking, and looking.

Prague, view from the Castle

Prague, view from the Castle

But eating? I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Czech or Austrian cuisine. Simply put, I missed my vegetables and I quickly grew tired of meat. But I really shouldn’t complain. Each city had its bright spots along the way, so here’s a quick tour:

You can’t visit Prague without trying the Czech sausages known as klobasy. Here’s Jim with one of our lunches from the Christmas market in Old Town Square. Served with thick slices of bread, these bright red sausages exploded upon first bite, their juices dripping down onto the plate.

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After finishing my klobasa I strolled through the Christmas market in search of dessert. Because of the sheer number of stalls offering them, a Czech pastry called trdlo was the obvious choice. For this snack, dough is wrapped around a rotating pin and baked over an open flame. When it has finished cooking, it’s rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts, creating a simple and comforting treat. We asked the vendor about the origin of the word trdlo, but she said it was complicated; we think it might mean “horse collar.” In any case, don’t I look happy eating one in that photo below (right)?

Trdlo at the Christmas market in Old Town SquareMe, enjoying said trdlo 

A few other culinary highlights in Prague included a lovely dinner in the romantic cellars of Vinárna U Maltézských rytíru (Restaurant of the Knights of Malta), where I enjoyed duck breast, a red cabbage-stuffed apple, potato gnocchi, and a sumptuous apple strudel; a festive evening of singing, beer, and goulash at historic beer hall U Flekù; and sweet, decadent “pancakes” decked out with whipped cream, sour cream, honey, and blackberries at the well-known Cafe Slavia. Here, take a look at this breakfast of champions:

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When we finally made it to Vienna, we had little more than a day to see the city. Jim and I walked almost every inch of that town in seven hours, taking in the ornate architecture, museums, and never-ending stream of Christmas markets. (As you can tell, we certainly got our fill of holiday cheer on this trip.)

We made sure to stroll through the Nachtmarkt, Vienna’s sprawling open-air food market. It offered everything from produce and pastries to fish and poultry, with small restaurants peeking out from between the food stalls. I would have loved to stop for a snack, but we were pressed for time and had to keep moving. We contented ourselves with the sights and sounds of the vendors selling their wares on a busy afternoon.  

market

We rested our feet and filled our stomachs with an Austrian meal at Zum Weissen Rauchfankehrer, a traditional restaurant in the center of the city whose name translates to “The White Chimney Sweep.” The meal was a little ornate for our tastes, with several courses and a more formal atmosphere than we desired, but it was wonderful to relax and enjoy a glass of wine after our intense day of sight-seeing.

With all this travel and activity, I’m sure you understand why it’s taken me a little while to return to the blog. But I assure you that I am done resting my tired feet, and I am ready to blog in 2009. I can’t wait to see what the year has in store for us!

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Until the New Year…

pies

I thought I’d have some time to write this week, but it’s just not going to happen. I’m heading to Italy for work and Prague and Vienna for fun, so I won’t be around for the next few weeks. I’m frazzled trying to prepare for the trip, and I’m still not fully recovered from Thanksgiving. So I’ll leave you with these three pies—one chocolate-pecan, one pumpkin, and one cherry—until I’m back and blogging. With the future jetlag and holiday craziness, I’m sad to say it might not be until the New Year. I hope you’ll wait for me until then! Oh, and any food-related tips on Prague and Vienna would be much appreciated. Happy Holidays!

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Dinner at Avec

sardines2

Yay, Top Chef is back! Last year I watched the entire season from start to finish, and I was totally hooked. So I found it appropriate that the weekend before the newest round of this culinary competition was set to begin, Jim and I took a quick trip to Chicago, where last season was filmed. We even had dinner at Avec, Chef Koren Grieveson’s Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and the more casual cousin of neighboring restaurant Blackbird. Chef Grieveson was a guest judge on Top Chef last year. (See, I told you I was hooked.)

I have to admit, I hadn’t read much about the restaurant before we jumped in a cab and sped over from our hotel. But once I started recognizing some of the faces behind the bar and made the Top Chef connection, I was even more excited about our newest dining adventure. We started with a drink at the long, stainless steel bar while waiting for seats at one of the restaurant’s communal tables. (Avec does not take reservations.) After ordering from the lengthy wine list, we observed the bustling scene and listened in astonishment to the noise emitted from the room. Top Chef notoriety aside, Avec hosted one of the most festive—and loud—crowds in town. 

After about half an hour, Jim and I were led through the narrow, blond-wood dining room to a table near the back of the restaurant, close to a glinting wall of green wine bottles. As our neighbors settled in around us, we perused the menu, which was divided into “small” and “large” plates. I suddenly understood the use of the word avec—which means with in French—as the name of the restaurant: As the menu made clear, this was food to be shared and experienced with other people. 

lemonsausage

We ordered some meaty house-marinated olives to start our meal ($5). Next, piles of deliciously oily, house-pickled sardines with shaved apples, red onion, radish sprouts, and fresh parsley tumbled over thick slices of buttery bread ($12). The contrasting interplay of crisp fruits and vegetables with the tender, salty fish created a dish that Jim is still raving about. Without a doubt, it would have won any Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef.

But the preserved lemon sausage with fresh kidney beans, one of Avec’s daily specials, was also a strong contender that evening ($8). Lemony bits of crumbled meat were gently tempered by the smooth beans, and Jim and I scooped spoonfuls onto our plates, enjoying the textural jumble of flavors. Perhaps the ultimate champion of the night was the “deluxe” focaccia, a closed pizza-like dish oozing with warm taleggio cheese, fresh herbs, and musky truffle oil ($14.50). Chef Grieveson would never lose an Elimination Challenge, not with this decadent focaccia.

focaccia

As Jim and I ate our meal, we noticed our neighbors striking up a conversation with each other. Soon these once-separate parties were sharing dishes such as the chorizo-stuffed dates and buying each other shots of limoncello. The jovial spirit of Avec is infectious, and makes friends out of strangers. Jim and I were so stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but we left feeling thrilled with our dining experience. I can’t wait to return and try more dishes from the menu, as those chorizo-stuffed dates and the house-cured salumi are still calling to me. I’m certain that a second visit to Avec would never feel like a repeat of Top Chef—or any other show for that matter.

Avec, 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago 60661 T: 312-377-2002

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Cape Cod and the Sesuit Harbor Café

First of all, let me apologize for being out of touch for so long. Last week Jim and I escaped to Cape Cod and spent most of those days with our feet buried in the sand, only looking up from our books long enough to sigh and stare at the ocean. It was wonderful and relaxing, but after seven days with little cell phone reception or Internet access, I’ve had some trouble getting back on the grid this week.

We took breaks from the beach with quick lunches at the area’s myriad seafood shacks. The options were endless: fried clams, scallops, cod and more. Tasty items indeed, but when I’m on Cape Cod, I’m there for one thing: the lobster roll. And on this trip I found my new favorite spot for it, the Sesuit Harbor Café in East Dennis.

It actually wasn’t that easy to find. Driving through the gates of the Sesuit Marina, Jim and I saw only towers of grounded boats. In addition to this industrial-looking entrance, no signs indicated the presence of a restaurant. But we had faith we would come across it (especially after we asked someone where it was), and a few turns later, our shabby shack finally appeared.

After this rather lackluster approach, we weren’t expecting much in terms of atmosphere. But once we waited in line and placed our order, we walked out back to a charming waterside patio. Boats actually sailed by the tables—that’s what I call ambiance. After a few minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the restaurant, holding a tray with our two “world famous” lobster rolls ($15.95 each). “58!” she shouted. “58!” We waved her over to our table as quickly as we could.

Forget about the French fries and cole slaw, which were perfectly decent; I went straight for the creamy, fresh lobster meat piled onto that grilled and buttered hot dog roll. And I’ll cut to the chase right now: the Sesuit Harbor Café’s lobster roll was one of the best I’d ever had. I tasted the freshness of the seafood in each bite against the crunch of crispy green lettuce. Lightly seasoned mayonnaise, in just the right amount, created a silky sauce around the dense pillows of lobster meat. One week later, I still can’t stop thinking about it.

So please forgive me for being out of touch. I was busy eating lobster rolls. And I wish I still was.

Sesuit Harbor Café, 357 Sesuit Neck Road in East Dennis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts  T: 508-385-6132

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More Memories of Morocco

Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey

A few months back I mentioned that Jim and I spent our honeymoon in Morocco. Over ten days we explored some of this North African country’s most amazing cities: metropolitan Casablanca; the marvelous maze of Fez; Marrakech and its bustling markets; the seaside jewel of Essarouia.

I also told you that our camera, with hundreds of pictures documenting our trip, was stolen on our way back to New York. I still have trouble talking about it, the loss is so sad to me. Now Jim and I rely solely on our memories and senses when talking about our honeymoon. 

One way we relive our trip is through food. Throughout the centuries, Morocco endured years of Arab, Spanish, and French rule, all of which influenced its unique cuisine. With its mix of exotic spices and culinary traditions, Morocco’s food is impossible to forget, and on two of our three anniversaries, Jim and I have celebrated by creating our own Moroccan feasts at home. (Last year we skipped town and went to the North Fork, which was fun in a non-Moroccan way, of course!)

While we were in Morocco, we began each meal with a selection of mezze. Mezze are small plates of food—some hot, some cold—served to stimulate the appetite. For our first anniversary, we devoted an entire Sunday to preparing our meal. We started with a cooked eggplant and tomato salad, another minty salad of cold cucumbers and tomatoes, and a dish of paprika-infused caramelized carrots. Last week our anniversary was on Wednesday, so we scaled down our celebration and made only two mezze when we got home from work. We threw together a tangy feta cheese, red onion, and cucumber salad, and we also whipped up some baba ghanouj, a creamy roasted eggplant and tahini dip.

Anniversary 2008Table with mezze and Tagine

One of Morocco’s most distinctive dishes is the tagine, a savory, slow-cooked stew. Classic tagines combine meat with fruit and spices. The word “tagine” also refers to the conical earthenware vessel in which the dish is cooked. While in Fez, Jim and I actually purchased one as a souvenir. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold a lot of food, so now we use it more as a serving piece and cook with our Dutch oven instead. Supposedly the use of Dutch ovens and slow cookers is growing more diffuse in Morocco as well. During our trip Jim and I tried many different tagines, with ingredients such as lamb, chicken, seafood, and vegetables.

Anniversary 2006Anniversary 2006

On our first anniversary, our main dish was a traditional tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and artichoke hearts. Last week we chose to make a simple tagine of chicken with tomatoes and honey. We slowly simmered 4 chicken legs in a sauce of canned tomatoes, onion, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron, cooking it down until it caramelized, and adding honey at the end. The whole dish was then topped with toasted almonds and sesame seeds, resulting in a sweet, fragrant stew of tender meat and tomatoes.

So while we don’t have any photographs of our honeymoon in Morocco, we do our best to recreate it once a year. We’re planning to go back for our tenth anniversary, and hopefully next time we won’t lose our camera. Check back in with me in seven years…

Recipe for Djaj Matisha Mesla (Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey [first photo at top of post]; adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

  • 4 chicken legs, legs split from the thighs
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes
  • salt (to your taste)
  • pepper (to your taste)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup sliced, toasted almonds
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Put all of the ingredients except for the honey, almonds, and sesame seeds in a large Dutch oven. Cook gently over medium-low heat, covered. Turn the chicken occasionally to make sure it cooks evenly. Break up the whole tomatoes with a spoon as they cook. Cook for about 1 1/4 hours, or until the meat can be pulled easily off the bone.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and place on a plate. Continue to cook the sauce over medium heat until it thickens. This can take around 15 minutes. Stir the sauce as it begins to caramelize. Stir in the honey. Return the chicken pieces to the sauce and heat through. Serve the chicken hot, covered in the sauce and sprinkled with the almonds and sesame seeds. Serves 4 as a main course. Enjoy!

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