Saturday, September 30, 2006

frijoles borrachos

if you're looking to make something spicy using pinto beans, here's a southwestern recipe for frijoles borrachos that will so hit the spot. it's so simple but you have to wait for half an hour or a little longer to get the flavours to simmer together. the beer and the cilantro and the jalapenos and the tomatoes are such a great combination. i had only one can of pinto beans in my pantry so i mixed it with another can of canneloni beans and it was just as yummy.

the drunken beans are a delicious accompaniment to baked rice with cheese and green chiles. i love brown rice and adore this recipe which uses ricotta, cheddar, lots of cilantro and jalapenos. just be careful not to bake too long as brown rice doesn't taste too good when it gets too brittle.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

charred tomato table salsa


our good friends d and r came over for sunday lunch last weekend. i was tempted to make crepes but given that they weren't going to land up till around 1pm, i decided that something spicier would hit the spot. d lived in san francisco for years before moving to london. somehow i had a feeling that he might be missing mexican/southwestern food. so i whipped up some homemade roasted tomato salsa, a wild mushroom fritata, drunken beans and a brown rice casserole.

salsa is so simple to make yet most restaurants get it oh so wrong and the store bought varities just don't cut it. he's a great recipe from "salsa" by reed heron that will ensure that you never have to enjoy anything but the real thing.

2 large tomatoes pan roasted until blistered, black, and soft
3 jalapeno chiles charred until blistered and black
1 small white onion thickly sliced and pan-roasted until dark brown and soft
2 cloves garlic pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
1/4 teaspoon dried mexican oregano toasted
1/4 teaspoon cumin seed toasted and then ground
1/2 cup water
salt to taste

chop together with a knfe or food processor tomatoes, chiles with seeds, onion, and garlic until you have a coarsely textured salsa. add oregano and cumin, thin with the water, and salt to taste. makes about 2 1/2 cups.

enjoy with lots of tortilla chips or with a variety of grilled foods.

ps - it's really difficult to get jalapenos at your average grocery store in london so i just used thai green chillies and they worked just as well and perhaps even gave the salsa a bit more bite!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

rome diary: gelato

after three days in the amalfi coast, we drove to rome after a brief stop in pompeii. we spent the night in rome with some friends who live in the city. i was a bit maxed out on taking photos of my every meal but i did pull out my camera on one instance just so i had a picture for what i already knew would be my final post on italy.

no italian holiday diary is complete without mention of the ubiquitous gelateria or ice cream shop. i'm sure that those of you who have been to italy have vivid memories of the best gelato in the world. no matter how hard you try, it's really hard to resist the temptation.

gelato is made from milk, sugar and one other key ingredient whether it is fruit, chocolate or nut. sorbetto is the non-diary healthier version but just as delicious. my favourites were hazelnut ice cream and lemon sorbet.

i hope you have enjoyed my italian diaries in the past several weeks. back to cooking and eating in london now.

napoli diary: pasta pasta!

i visited a food shop (near the famous galleria umberto) in napoli that made me realise just how many types of pasta are available in italy. i had learnt about a few new ones in sardinia but still i can only reel off about fifteen from the top of my head while there are many many more waiting to be discovered. how many types of pasta can you name?

here's my list:

curligione (sardinia)
malloredus (sardinia)

my favourite is papparadelle. what's yours?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

napoli diary: pizza napoletana

you haven't tasted authentic pizza unless you've had pizza made the way neapolitans do. lucky new yorkers can satisfy their cravings at una pizza napoletana in the east village, but the rest of us have to go all the way to napoli to find out what the fuss is all about. napoli is where pizza originated. the word pizza is the neapolitan slang pronounciation for "pita".

pizza margherita is my absolute favourite but i had consumed so much mozzarella by the time we reach naples that the simpler and cheeseless pizza marinara was what i chose for lunch at briandi restaurant in naples where pizza originated...well, actually, pizza probably dates back to the days of pompeii and briandi can harldy claim to have invented pizza but the restaurant does deserve some credit as it has been around for more than a hundred years and has been showing what the real thing is all about to generations of non-italians.

i'll admit that the restaurant was a bit of a tourist trap but the pizza was delicious nonetheless. how can you beat an individually made thin-crust pizza pie baked in a woodfired oven and topped with a simple tomato sauce made from san maranzano tomatoes and sprinkled with fresh basil, dried oregano, a garlic glove, salt and pepper?!

amalfi coast diary: marecoccola resort

if you're planning a holiday in the amalfi coast, the sorrento peninsula is a good base from which to explore the campania region of italy. napoli is an hour's drive, mount vesuvius and pompeii are about half an hour and positano and the rest of the costa amalfitana are about twenty minutes away. additionally, you have easy access to the wonderful islands of ischia and capri from sorrento.

mareccola resort would be my recommendation. it's like staying at the farmhouse of a close family friend who happens to have a sprawling estate on the top of the sorrento peninsula with unbelievable vistas of the amalfi coast. this is where you want to come to escape the urban grind and be closer to nature and all the bounties she has to offer. everything cooked at the restaurant is only from produce grown on the farm. even wine is produced here.

the resort organises hiking trips and boat trips. if you're feeling up to some activity but don't want to leave the premises, there's a gorgoeus pool where you can catch-up on exercise before you consumer more calories at the sumptious dinner spread.

you can rent an entire cottage to yourself or just get a bedroom with a terrace. just picture yourself sipping hot coffee early in the morning watching the sun rise as the day comes alive or sharing a glass of champage with a loved one watching the sun set and the gorgeous colours of the sky and the sea making you oblivous to everything else in the world.

Friday, September 22, 2006

amalfi coast diary: positano

after a simple breakfast of tea and pan con chocolate at our agriturismo hotel in the sorrento peninsula, we headed off to positano (about half an hour away by car) to take a hydrofoil or ferry to the island of capri. until this holiday, this typical photo of positano was my image of the amalfi coast. it was about four years ago when i saw a documentary on kqed in san francisco which talked about the natural beauty of the amalfi coast. ever since i've been dying to visit this part of the world.

as we neared positano, we realised that this town was quite unlike the other towns we'd visited in the amalfi coast. perched all along a hill, houses are at all all levels from the top - which is where you enter the town - to the beach at the bottom. you can either park somewhere near the top and take any of the stairs down about a kilometre. or you can drive all the way down but parking is not guaranteed. we chose to walk down and enjoy the view while making our way to the beach.

we reached the beach after twenty minutes of downhill walking, passing through hotels and private residences perched at different levels. the beach was really hopping. a fancy stereo system was belting out hit numbers. the sunbeds were packed with tanners eager to get a deep bronze in a day's work. we sipped tea and cafe on the patio while we enquired about boats to capri. but while we waited, the beach looked so welcoming and the lunch to be had after a swim so delicious that we couldn't help stripping to our bathing suits and settling down on adjoining sunbeds. so much for our plans to head to capri!

we spent a lot of time lazing on our sunbeds and enjoying the fantastic ambience, swimming a few times in the freeezing cold water and getting massages from a chinese woman. but as you can probably guess, lunch and dinner were the highlights of the day.

i had a well made mojito and grilled mozzarella on lemon leaves. i've taken a big liking to grilled cheeses and particularly enjoyed this dish which was lightly dressed with the juice of an amalfi lemon and some amazing extra virgin olive oil. the lemon leaves tasted yummy as well.

dinner was at a charming restaurant on top of the hill. they had tables set outside on the pavement from where you had a stunning view of sparkling positano at night. i tried a fresh pasta called scialitelle alla puttanesca. it's a thicker type of spaghetti which goes really well with a chunky sauce like the puttanesca.

dessert was absolutely subliminal - tiramisu con limon. i'm not a big tiramisu fan but it sounded too good to pass on mainly because of the husky voice of our waiter. the tiramisu was perfectly moist, perfectly sweet, perfectly creamy and perfectly lemony. a perfect ending to a perfect positano day.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

amalfi coast diary: salerno and ravello

the amalfi coast was everything and more i imagined it would be - high cliffs overlooking a never-ending ocean, quaint fishing villages perched on top of the steep cliffs, panoramic views from every turn in the road, lush greenery, lemon trees everywhere and simple italian food to die for.

after sailing all night from olbia, our ship docked at salerno port half an hour earlier than expected at about 9:30 in the morning. we looked for a taxi to take us to hertz car rental in the center of town but were told that the only way to get a taxi was to book in advance. mon dieu, we were going to be stranded in the very unglamourous port of salerno - so close, yet so far away from where we wanted to be!

luckily, the guard at the gates of the port - whose main job was to permit access to the big, commercial trucks carrying loads of food for export - took pity on us obviously clueless foreigners. he gave me a number to call for a taxi. i dialled the number on my cellphone and immediately gave it back to him since i wasn't in a mood to use even some basic italian. believe it or not - within ten minutes a taxi showed up and we were on our way to salerno centro via a boulevard along a sea front that was paved with palm trees. thank god for the goodness of human nature.

we had heard that the amalfi coast was packed with tourists but driving through salerno didn't feel touristy at all. the locals were going about their day to day lives - buying vegetables from street vendors, sipping dopios at cafes, ziping around in vespas and taking life as leisurely as you can imagine. what's so enchanting aboout these small towns in italy is the absolute delicious pace at which italians live their lives. no honking, no screeching, no aggression. even the polive give you a broad smile when you are going down a one-way, the wrong way!

after picking up our car at hertz, we left salerno and followed the coastal road called costa amalfitana. breathtaking views were to be taken in every second of the way. our first stop was the rustic town of ravello, famous for attracting many writers and poets including d.h.lawrence who is supposed to have written most of lady chatterly's love in ravello.

this perfect italian gem of a town is endlessly charming. situated right on the top of the cliffs, we had to drive uphill for about 5 km from sea level to get to ravello. no matter where in town you go, yet another dramatic view of the amalfi coast is yours to enjoy. you don't even have to think too carefully about which restaurant or cafe to select because they all offer spectacular views of the ocean, english style gardens, or vineyards being cultivated on the cliffs.

we had read a lot about villa cimbrone so made our way to the hotel and adjoining gardens as soon we had parked as close as we could to the centre of town from which point onwards there is pedestrian access only. it was five euros each to enter the garden even though we planned to lunch at the lovely, luxurious and supremely elegant restaurant at villa cimbrone which has a very inviting swimming pool.

at ravello, i had one of the most memorable lunches of my life. the food was quite delicious, the white wine was produced from grapes growing in the garden itself but the ambience was the show stopper, being absolutely to die for as you will see for yourself from the photo below. i don't think it gets any better than this, anywhere in the world. time literaaly stopped still for me and i wondered in the awe at the visuak feast i was being treated to. i've been so spoilt by the fantastic views that you get in the amalfi coast that the phrase "sea view" is really going to take on a new meaning for the bar has been set very high now!

after lunch we had a lesiurely stroll around the gardens and ended up at a belvedere studded with marble busts from where you could see the hills on one side and the amalfi coast spread out below. i wanted to spend all afternoon in ravello but we were getting quite tired so decided to drive straight to the sorrento peninsula where we were staying at an agriturismo farm.

goodbye sardinia, hello amalfi coast!

after five wonderful days in sardinia, we set sail on a diamaio line
ship from olbia to salerno. it was an overnight journey which took twelve hours but was quite a novel experience as neither h nor i had ever traveled by ship. we were the only foreigners on board and nobody spoke english so we had to get by on our minimal italian.

as our ship set sail for mainland italy, we spent all evening on the ship deck waving goodbye to sardinia where we had created such wonderful memories. i saw one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life while we pulled away from sardinia - what a fitting goodbye to a spectacular holiday in sardinia.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

sardinia diary: a few favourite foods

i must have eaten mozzarella almost every day while traveling in sardinia. it's just too delicious here and such a unbeatable combination when paired with fresh tomatoes and basil. and drizzled with olive oil, sea salt and pepper.

i also enjoyed many fine plates of assorted grilled vegetables including eggplant, zucchini, peppers and even chicory. it is really easy to be vegetarian in sardinia.

sardinia diary: acqua at porto cervo marina

if you find yourself in porto cervo, you must dine at acqua bar ristorante, by far the most stylish place in town. be sure to get a table outside on the gorgeous terrace which offers splendid views of the porto cervo marina.

every minute detail of the experience is well designed at acqua. the all white decor gives the place a very dream-like feel and the comfortable sofas on the terrace allow you to sink in and escape to your own world. i was most impressed with the white menu cards with pressed flowers on handmade paper.

the food was absolutely fantastic. i had a simple spaghetti with tomato, rocket and white truffle oil but it was so divine. must have been the combo of fresh pasta and the best quality truffle oil. i remember smelling my food so many times and delighting in the aromas before actually digging in.

dessert was also as memorable - perhaps the sweetest dish i've ever had. chocolate cake with white chocolate sauce and chocolate discs sprinkled with powdered sugar. how decadent. but, hey, we were in porto cervo!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

sardinia diary: porto cervo and porto rotondo

the shopping at porto cervo is very chi chi. all the high-end fashion houses are located in a rustic village-like shopping complex at the centre of town which also has direct access to the marina. there are lots of fancy restaurants which serve up great food with even greater views.

porto rotondo - about twenty minutes away - is the less pretentious neighbouring town but also as picturesque and romantic.

both porto rotondo and porto cervo are great for eating and shopping but the best beaches are actually tucked away in different corners all along the coast. spaggia liscia ruja is one of the most popular beaches in the area.

sardinia diary: the costa smerlada

the costa smeralda is the jewel in sardinia's crown. here you will experience some of the most stunning views in the world and feel wonderfully high on life and love.

olbia is the closest airport to costa smeralda. since we were further south in tortoli, we drove via olbia to reach the many towns along this famed coast. the drive from tortoli to olbia took us about two hours. there's an initial stretch of about thirty minutes that takes you through forests and mountains but then you get to the highway and zip along for the rest of the journey. after passing olbia, it's very easy to follow the "costa smeralda" signs to porto rondo and porto cervo, which are the two most popular destinations in the region. the italians think that this is the most beautiful part of the mediterranean but i reckon that the french will fiercely defend the beauty of la corse (corsica) which is just an hour from the costa smeralda.

given the glorious word of mouth that this place has, i was expecting a landscape spectacularly different from the south east cost of sardinia, bluer and more crystal clear waters, and the sandiest beaches ever. but i have to admit that, at first, i was not particularly enamored. the road does not hug the coast as it does in the south. the water is no bluer. the roads are a lot more crowded. and there are yachts every where - an uncommon sight in the southern sardinia. but once it all comes together though, the beauty of costa smerlada starts to grow on you and you start to understand what the fuss was all about.

it came together for me at porto cervo when sipping champagne and looking at an exquisitely framed seascape from the gigantic square windows of the restaurant at our hotel luci di la muntagne. the rugged cliff, the natural inlet, the lovely yachts, the marina at dusk - it was all dizzily mesmerising.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

sardinia diary: restaurants in tortoli


tortoli is the perfect base from which to explore pretty much all of sardinia as it is approximately two to three hours by car from cagliari airport in the south east, olbia in the north east and alghero in the north west. it has easy access by boat to some of the most exclusive and secluded beaches in sardinia and it is just a two hour drive to the breathtaking costa smeralda.

we went to tortoli to spend a few days with our friend rutton, whose summer house is very close to the beach towards one end of town. even though torotoli was very busy given it was the last big weekend in august, it didn't feel touristy or overcrowded at all, especially where we were staying. actually it felt quite authentic sardinian though i'm sure there are more remote towns, especially in the mountains that are even more rustic. rutton took us to many restaurants during the few days we spent there but there are two that stand out:

ristorante pizzeria da lucitta

this is rutton's local pizzeria. simple sardinian food to die for. i tasted a type of sardinian pasta called culingione. it's kind of like ravioli but a bit plumpier and is filled with a mixture of potato, ricotta, pecorino, olive oil and garlic (and sometimes even spinach, i think ). it's really hearty and yummy, especially with just a bit of freshly prepared pasata and some basil.

i also shared a pizza porcini with the boys. i absolutely loved the thin crust and also liberally sprinkled peperonicino on the mushrooms to kick it up a notch.

agriturismo ogliastra
agriturismo or farm holidays are increasing in popularity all over italy. i guess many of us want to get closer to nature and also eat seasonal and regional food when on holiday. though we didn't stay at this farm which is about 15 minutes from tortoli, we went there for dinner one night.

it's a pre-set menu and you just show up and enjoy the ambience while food and wine is continually brought to the table. we were the only non-italians at farm but we befriended a charming young couple from northern italy who we ended up chatting with all evening in a hilarious combo of english, french, spanish and a smattering of italian.

the main attraction for h and rutton was the roast pig which had been roasting all day in an outdoor oven. for me, the mozzarella was the show stopper. it was so fresh, it couldn't have been made any earlier than that morning from milk just milked from a buffalo that is rasied on the farm. i also ate fried eggplant, moist pane carasau, ravioli and plenty of fresh fruit. we drunk lots of crema di limone (limonecello with milk) at the end of the meal which was pure manna. i was obviously so happy that i even forgot to take a photo of the this divine drink!

sardinia diary: pane carasau

though sardinia is officially a part of italy, it's almost a separate country with its own language, traditions and food. i guess you can say that about the other regions of italy as well except for the language part. one of the foods that i enjoyed very much in sardinia was pane carasau, a very thin crisp bread which tastes more like a cracker than bread.

the first thing that i looked forward to in restaurants was the bread basket which always had lots of pane carasau. sometimes it is roasted till it becomes almost terracotta-like in complexion. it can be eaten on its own or drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper.

it's yummy as a base for grilled cheeses and also is a good accompaniment to grilled vegetables. the sardinians use it in very innovative ways including as a plate which, of course, you eat at the end of the meal!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

sardinia diary: drive from cagliari to tortoli

i was so enamored by chia beach in the south west of cagliari that the breathtaking beauty of the south east coast caught me completely unawares. from the minute you leave cagliari, after whizzing past quartu sant elena, you begin a panoramic drive that hugs the coast all the way to villasmius, about 40 km away.

the road runs really close to the water and as you drive along you're completely swept away by the purity of the sea and the sky. i saw some truly splendid sights, especially when you are looking down from the top of cliffs to natural inlets below. it was like driving along highway 1 in california with the caribbean sea alongside. h and i played a game of thinking of every colour we could use to describe the sea!

on the way to tortoli there were many roadside fruit and vegetable vendors who stock the freshest and best looking peppers, eggplants, grapes, necatrines, peaches and lots of other produce. we stopped at one of the more colourful stalls to buy some fruit for the journey. i thought i had bought a lot and was worried how much i had spent but 3 bananas, 2 necatarines, 2 peaches, 8 plums and a big bunch of grapes came to just four euros.

once you leave the coast and stick to the highway (s125), the scenery is not terribly interesting until you enter ogliastra when you start seeing vineyards and the landscape turns lush and verdant again as you get close to tortoli, also known as arbatax. we were driving to tortoli to spend a few days with our friend rutton who has a lovely place close to the beach.

la bitta hotel is the best place in town to unwind with a vermentino (white wine from sardinia) while you watch the sun set in the distance. after a few glasses of wine, the ocean beckoned. rutton and i braved the initial chill of getting into the water and then had a lovely swim under the stars. rutton had an extra pair of snorkeling gear which made swimming in the ocean quite enjoyable. i'd never swum in the sea in the early evening and so thoroughly enjoyed the new experience.