Monday, August 03, 2009

This is a simple, delicious salad that can also be served as an antipasto. One or two-day old bread coarse white country bread (unsalted) to which very fresh vegetable are added along with excellent olive oil and good vinegar. To select only best quality is the secret of this dish! This is the basic version but there are many local versions of Panzanella (depending on the vegetables to your disposal) Better if prepared ahead of time and refrigerated for several hours. Remove from refrigerator about half an hour before serving at room temperature

1 lb Italian unsalted country style bread, 2 days old, in slices
2/3 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
3 T good quality red wine vinegar (to taste)
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 lb fresh, firm, ripe tomatoes, cubed, about 5 cups
1 small onion, thinly sliced
15 fresh basil leaves, washed, drained on paper towels and shredded, a few extra for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Soak the bread in cold water to cover for about twenty minutes
Meanwhile, prepare the dressing of oil, the 2 vinegars, salt and pepper: whip with a fork to combine thoroughly.
Remove bread from water, squeezing out as much moisture as you can (help yourself with a clean white cotton dishcloth). Coarsely crumble the bread into a large serving bowl.
Add the tomatoes, the onion and the basil. Add a little dressing at a time till all ingredients are well coated. Test for seasoning. Garnish with a few whole basil leaves. Buon appetito!

For more information on Walking & Cooking in Italy

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blogging your way to profits?

I recently was offered two free bottles of Country Bob's all purpose sauce both to try and to blog about. I'm one of those people who are true to their word so here I am blogging.

About the sauce: well it's like a Heinz 57 but a little more intense. We tried it as a dipping sauce for grilled chicken. Not bad, but as I said a little bit strong. I think it would make a good ingredient in recipes rather than a stand alone sauce.

What intrigues me most about this product is not the actual taste but the marketing. If you google Country Bob's you'll find several blogs on the product. These were presumably all people who were offered free product and asked to blog about it. I wonder what the success rate on that? How many people take the product and blog about it compared to those who just say yes to a freebie without the write-up? Don't know but it seems to be an effective way to get the search engines to find your name.

So here I am blogging about Country Bob's. Not raving about the sauce...but I'm sure this blog will show up in the search engines.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Pisco Sour...the new Mojito?

Seems like everywhere you went over the past couple of summers the drink of the moment was the Mojito. From the traditional recipe to variations made with 7-up (horror!) and other ingredients Mojitos seemed to be the "in" cocktail. (Remember Cosmopolitans?) Well move over Mojito...there's a new cocktail in town and it comes from one of the hottest culinary destinations in the world. It's the Pisco Sour.
Originally from the town of Pisco, pisco is a distilled liquor is made from a range of eight different grapes. Often times it is mixed with fruits and spices to create delicious cocktails. The most famous drink is the Pisco Sour. Epiculinary's tour to Peru includes a Pisco Night in which you enjoy a Pisco tasting and learn to make delicious pisco drinks. Add Image

3 parts Quebranta pisco
2 parts sugar syrup
1 part lime juice
1/8 of an egg white
3 drops of Angostura bitters

Place all the ingredients, except fo the bitters, in the order listed in a cocktail shaker. Shake for 15 seconds. Strain and serve in a chilled glass. Add 3 drops of Angostura bitters.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Accidental Activist

It was my first time in Cusco, or Peru for that matter, and I found myself knee deep in a political matter of local concern. Funny thing was, it happened to be a “matter” which affects my business…that is, travel.

We had just arrived in Cusco and after a nap and some cocoa tea the first order of business was to take a city tour with a stop at the cathedral. Our guide, in addition to explaining about the city’s history, also informed us that there was a fight going on in congress regarding the certification of Peruvian guides. According to our guide, one congress person had proposed doing away with any sort of education for licensed guides. Currently guides must undergo 4-6 years of higher education to become certified of licensed.
As he’s explaining the situation our driver arrives at the plaza in front of the cathedral and we emerge from the van to the shots and whistles of a huge crowd of a hundred or more people. I quickly glean that these are tour guides and their catcalls told me that we were going to cross the picket line with our guide. I’m thinking this is not good, so I just sort of hide behind my sunglasses.

As we walk to the entrance of the cathedral our guide speaks with one of the leaders of the movement. I do not know what he said as I do not speak Spanish. But he then hands me the bull horn and tells me “They want you to talk Catherine.” My reaction was not to say no. Not to say I can’t do it. No, my reaction was to ask again for him to summarize the issues. I repeat them silently in my head, grab the bull horn and turn to the crowd. My fellow travelers are looking at me with dumfounded, altitude induced wonder. (In other words they had no idea what was going on). For a minute I am nervous but tell myself, ‘You are good at public speaking.’ (Yea, right.) Then the words spill forth…” HELLO! WE ARE FROM THE UNITED STATES. (pause…silence…the catcalls and whistles stop) WE HAVE HEARD ABOUT THE PROPOSAL BEFORE CONGRESS AND WE DO NOT AGREE WITH IT.” The crowd erupts in cheers, waving their signs. Then, seizing the moment and maybe feeling a bit of the rush that some other South American female political leaders have felt before a crowd, “WE…ARE WITH….THE …TOUR GUIDES!” The crowd cheers, applauds, waves their signs. I, feeling even more empowered, raise my fist in triumph. And with that, I return the bull horn and we go into the cathedral.
Needless to say both I and my travel mates were shocked and humored by what had happened.

We went into the cathedral, saw the silver, gold and art, and started to wonder if maybe I might become a political target! (JK) We also figured that by offering me to speak we successfully crossed that picket line. Meantime, I found it difficult to concentrate on the guide’s words because in my head, I was silently composing my next political speech. I mean, you never know when you might be asked to lead a crowd…

The next day, my people (the tour guides) were camping in the square, ready for their next protest. We meet our guide for the visit to the Sacred Valley. Apparently I made the local news. He told us that part of my speech was used as a sound bite in a report on the protest. The reporter indicated that my views were what American tourists think. Oh really? Well I guess that as the owner of a tour company I believe that educated, licensed guides, are extremely important. I just wasn’t ready for my new role as leader (albeit for five minutes) of an organized political protest. Hmmm…it was fun. I wonder if they want me to come back. I’ve got my second speech ready.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"Voluntourism" Popular New Way to Travel

President Obama recently called Americans to action, saying that we as Americans have a duty to serve our communities and fellow citizens. That call to service has reached all the way to the travel industry as we see more and more travelers wanting to combine vacations and volunteer work.

The newly coined word for this travel niche is "voluntourism" and I recently had a chance to participate on a trip to New Orleans. While there at the Education Travel Conference, I and a few dozen other participants paid a nominal fee to volunteer in the 9th ward for the day. The neighborhood was devastated by hurricane Katrina and three and a half years later continues to struggle to return to normalcy.

Our day started with an introduction to the volunteers of a non profit organization called OnSite Relief whose mission is to provide relief to families devastated by natural disasters. They also aim to provide not only a fulfilling volunteer experience, but an exposure to the culture and allure of the cities that the organization aids.

A bus took us to the 9th ward where we met James Brown, a homeowner who was in the process of making his home habitable again. Most of the group stayed at Mr. Brown's house either painting the exterior or cleaning up the rubble in the yard. Several others were sent to another work site to help dry wall. Within six hours the yard was clean and the entire outside painted with at least one coat. Mr. Brown was so appreciative and we all truly enjoyed the cultural exchange. His stories about the hurricane and the friends he lost brought the catastrophe up close and personal.

Later we met a family who had been bilked of their relief money by an unscrupulous contractor and left with their home unfinished and uninhabitable. Onsite helped the family and we were able to hear both their gratitude and their stories of the volunteer crews that helped them.

The conference was great but the experience I had volunteering really resonated and in fact, friends and family asked about that the most as opposed to Mardi Gras or the cooking class that I took.

As more and more Americans answer the call to service volunteering is becoming a wonderful way to give back but also to interact with local cultures and people on a very personal level, especially when travelling. In fact if you are interested Epiculinary will arrange volunteer experiences for our participants wherever possible. By the way, we were told that it will take 10 more years for New Orleans to really recover. At this time, Galveston is in serious need of help.

Here's a link to Onsite Relief, one of the many volunteer agencies working in New Orleans:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Saving the Cala


The word "cala" comes from an African word for "rice," and refers to a deep-fried pastry made with rice, yeast, sugar and spices. Calas resemble small, round doughnuts without a hole and are usually sprinkled with confectioners' sugar. © Copyright Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1995 based on THE FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Well that's the official definition, but what I learned recently in New Orleans is that the humble cala can be any type of fritter that is composed of rice and other ingredients. They can even be of the savory sort and do not have to include yeast.

At a recent cooking class with Chef Frank Brigsten in New Orleans our first course was crawfish calas, made with baking powder instead of yeast and accompanied by a delicious homemade Russian dressing. They sort of reminded me of hush puppies made with rice.

It seems that the dish was almost extinct but Chef Brigsten and others are trying to resurrect it. I heard that it has been nominated or else is already on the Slow Food Ark . Anyone know the status of that?

While not a hit at Brigsten's restaurant, the recipe was a definite delight at the cooking class. I wolfed mine down and would have eaten more but needed to save room for the etoufee and jambalaya. I will definitely make it at home! (Recipe to follow...sorry folks but I left it in New Orleans in the hub bub of Mardi Gras)

Friday, August 22, 2008


Food is where we find it. Whether traveling to Lyon France or to the far away Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, the intrepid culinary traveler always seems to stumble upon a food adventure worth tasting and talking about.

Normally my travels take me to those culinary capitals that are on every gourmand’s list…Florence, Paris, Napa and even to more exotic destinations like Bangkok and Saigon. Trust me, I love my job. But when I’m not staying in gorgeous villas and being wined and dined by the best I pay good money to rough it. Yes, I actually pay people to keep me away from everything that we love about the 21st century.

With this in mind and coming up on a big birthday, I informed my partner that we would spend two weeks in Mongolia over the summer. His reply? “I don’t get it. But I trust you. Let’s go.” Thankfully he didn’t need much more convincing than that. Other friends of mine were equally perplexed which led me to wonder, why DO I want to go to Mongolia? It wasn’t for my job as owner of a culinary tour company. No, this trip was for my love of wide open spaces, horses, and adventure.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way. I do not eat meat. A gourmet who doesn’t eat meat? Yes…it is true. But, traveling to a meat eating culture? Yes…that too is true. So I diligently packed my protein bars and vacuum packs of tuna and set off on an adventure of a different sort. Food was not supposed to be on the agenda. Little did I know…you can’t escape it.

We set off on a five day camping expedition in the Terlj National Park, north of the capital. Leading the trek were a horseman, our guide Bulgaa, and a cook. While I was finally given his name at the end of the trek, we all called him “the cook.” Cook worked tirelessly from sunrise to sunset preparing all sorts of local dishes. On the first morning, I was awakened by the familiar sound of a knife chopping on a cutting board as our cook prepped for the day’s menu. After chopping a variety of root vegetables we watched him roll out dough which was then cut into noodles for what was called Mongolian “noodle soup” or Guriltai Shul. The same dough was transformed into meat pies or Khuushuur. These tasty meat pies (mine was made with fruit and cheese) are sold on every corner in the capital and seem to be very popular at wrestling matches. For us, they were a part of a picnic taken on a horse trek high in the mountains where we explored a crumbling monastery.

A word about Mongolian cuisine. While Mongolia is the least populated independent country on the planet, with plenty of wide open green space, the summers are short and there’s not a lot of time to grow vegetables. Harsh winters dictate that the Mongolians, a nomadic culture, eat a lot of protein and fat. So the traditional dishes are filling and hearty.

In the summer, when milk is abundant the nomadic diet centers on dairy products. I had read about airag, or fermented mare’s milk, and of course jumped at the chance to try it. Killing tie as we waited for a truck to pick us up on Terij, we set off on a walk across the steppe. Bulgaa spotted a ger with mares and foals and decided to take us for a visit. Hospitality is a big part of the nomadic culture and we were immediately invited in the family’s tent for a taste of airag and some snacks. Tradition dictates that visitors be offered a cup of airag upon arrival at a ger. Most Mongolians will drink the entire cup but thankfully it’s only necessary to take one sip before returning the cup to your hostess. What does it taste like? Think of the sourest, gamey yogurt in a liquid form and you get an idea. Along with the mare’s milk we sampled salty tea (Suutei Tsai), cheese curds (Aruul), clotted cream (urum), and some homemade biscuits.

We also were able to watch and learn about the process of making the airag. First the mares are milked. This is quite a project as one person has to hold the foal so that the female horse thinks the baby is nursing. The whole family got involved, even the teenagers home from university on summer break. The milk is then placed in a large leather open sack, which is then stirred often for a couple of days so that it can ferment. The stuff almost holds a mythical place in Mongolian culture. Our guide’s father goes to the countryside every summer just so he can drink mare’s milk for his health.

As we returned to the capital, we saw many roadside stands selling airag in liter bottles. Cars crammed with families and bearing the Mongolian flag crowded the road as practically the entire population migrated to UB (Ulaanbataar) for Nadaam. Herder’s trucks loaded with goats and sheep were stopped alongside the road as buyers came to pick out an animal for slaughter. No meat processing plant here…the livestock was slaughtered on the side of the road and prepared for sale or for a family celebration in the city.

UB was hopping the night before Nadaam. We threw our backpacks in our room, hopped in the shower, and set out for a well deserved meal at an Indian-Mexican restaurant. After five days on the steppes, the prospect of dinner in a restaurant was mouthwatering. You can find a surprising number of international restaurants in the capital, serving everything from Korean to California cuisine. While the idea of fusing Indian and Mexican cuisine is novel, it works for Los Bandidos. I feasted on Ghinggiss beer and Saag Paneer while my partner enjoyed lamb stuffed burritos and a margarita.

Nadaam was all that I hoped it would be. While it is an athletic competition, it is also an incredible display of Mongolian pride and tradition. Watching soldiers carrying the state flags on horseback and hearing the drum beat of war, it was easy to imagine the days of Ginggis Khaan and past glories of this now small independent nation. From Mongolian wrestling to horse racing and archery we got a special look into the culture and history of the country.

What better way to cap off a day at Nadaam than to have dinner at California restaurant? While I normally wouldn’t chose to eat in an American restaurant, it was on our tour itinerary and I thought it would be fun to see how our cuisine is interpreted by other cultures. The menu offered hamburgers and French fries, club sandwiches, grilled chicken sandwiches, and smoothies. Our guide told us the restaurant is particularly popular with young Mongolians who like to go there to make contact with Americans.

After Nadaam we headed to the Gobi desert, a vast barren land that covers a good portion of southern Mongolia. It seems like to go anywhere in the desert you have to drive three hours. And it is not easy driving…our Soviet vehicle handle the terrain well (there are no roads) but I soon found out that the padded 70esque ceiling was more than just decoration. There are a few towns in the Gobi but most tourists stay in ger camps which are sprinkled across the desert. At our first camp we enjoyed a lunch of steamed dumplings and carrot salad. As a non-meat eater I received double portions of the potatoes and carrots. That night we had more meat and potatoes. I had purchased a bottle of Chinggis vodka…Bulgaa and our driver were happy to share a shot while I enjoyed a vodka tonic.

One of the must see sites in the Gobi are the singing sand dunes where you can climb to the top and also experience a camel ride at the base. The herding family who owns the camels graciously offered more airag…interesting to taste as the horses in the desert eat a different type of grass. In fact I was surprised that they are a lot fatter in the desert. The herder explained that the reason is because motorcycles are now being used to herd livestock and the horses aren’t being worked as much. The other theory is that the grass is richer in the Gobi. Either way, the airag wasn’t as strong and a little more palatable. Could it be that I was getting a taste for it? Nah…..

We had to delay our camel ride as a sand storm blew in from the north. A mix of rain, wind and sand, the storm created amazing colors against the sand dunes. While the herder battened down the hatches of his ger, I stayed inside playing with a week old goat that the family was keeping safe until it grew bigger. It turns out wolves are a very big problem for herders in the desert, eating livestock even during the daylight hours.

Our last night was in what was billed as a five star ger camp. There was a bar, a nice shared shower room with incense and candles, a spa, and in our ger our very own box of dung to burn in the stove. The food was traditional with a fancy spin on it. I would say it was just ok.

We flew back to the capital and were delighted to put on clean clothes and go out for our farewell dinner. This time it was in Hazara, a northern Indian restaurant serving what it called frontier food. We order plates to share…naan, curried chicken, grilled chicken shish kabob with lemon ginger, and tsatsiki. It was absolutely delicious and a welcome change from the ubiquitous meat and potatoes.

With free time the next day before our flight to Beijing, we wandered the city and stumbled on Luna Blanca, a restaurant that advertised itself to be vegetarian. While I was dubious, my partner encouraged me to check it out. It was really cute and at 11:30 already had a big table of customers eating lunch. I said we would come back but the hostess advised it would be filled and noisy within an hour. We stayed and what a great find it was! I was finally able to taste some of the traditional dishes that I longed to try but couldn’t due to the meat factor. So I ordered the Mongolian plate with buuz (small steamed dumplings), bansh (larger boiled dumplings), and khuushur (meat-less fried pies). They were all filled with a vegetarian protein along with onions and some spices. I ate half and took the rest on the plane with me to Beijing. We also ordered vegetarian kabobs and a traditional soup with dumplings. All delicious. We were so starved for vegetables that we ate the garnish!

Having fulfilled my need for vegetables I did not head straight to the salad bar at our airport hotel in Beijing. No, the only thing I really needed at that point was a glass of chardonnay…or two. We toasted our adventures, from horseback to Russian vehicle, and dreamed about our next getaway. Whether we plan it or not…somehow it will involve food.