Sunday, March 30, 2008

Quail Eggs

As a child, for me Easter was characterized as a time of milk chocolate shaped like rabbits and ornately carved eggs, palm branches in church on palm Sunday, hot cross buns on easter Sunday morning, and lunch when aunts, uncles and cousins would come to our house for a meal centered around fish or seafood of some kind. My favorite was a freshwater crayfish stew made by my aunt whom I had fruitlessly entreated to prepare again for me and has to this day not obliged. I'm sure she wanted to but that lunch was the last notable easter we spent together as a family before we all started to migrate from Trinidad. My uncle left first, then my grandmother, followed by an aunt and her entire family, then the crayfish aunt, then me.

Subsequently,for a long time, Easter has been very low key for me. As it continues to be. It is more a time of reflection but still is a time of cooking. Enter: Minneapolis. This city is a bounty of fresh, new and seasonal ingredients (although not as diverse as, say, New York or Toronto, but who's complaining? ) I am able to try a new ingredient on a regular basis. The newest being quail eggs, unintentionally fitting at the beginning of spring. (Though spring has been teasing us here in the city. Three weeks ago, the lakes started to melt, the temperature rose to the mid forties. One week later, it was freezing. This week, we are expecting temperatures also in the mid forties. Hopefully, spring will play nice and stay for a couple months, like nature intended. )

For the first time in my life I saw real quail eggs. I had seen them only in magazines. They may not be the bright pink and blue eggs that are synonymous with Easter but there is an "awe " factor to these miniature, bespeckled ovoids. Quail eggs are the smallest eggs consumed in America, but are also relatively new to mainstream cuisine. Traditionally, they have been used in Japan and other Asian countries for centuries before being introduced to Europe and the Americas within the past few decades. However, they are sold mostly at specialty food stores and some Asian supermarkets which was where I made my first purchase. To my surprise, they were not as pricey as I had expected for such a relatively exotic food.

The size of a quail egg next to a chicken egg.

Having purchased the eggs, I was now left with the challenge of how to cook them. As any curious, twenty first century mind would do, I "googled" it. Apparently, quail eggs are very popular in the UK evidenced by the numerous relevant articles on the BBC's website. They can be boiled ( hard and soft) or fried, poached or even made into an omelet; cooked in the same way as you would chicken eggs. Interestingly, the taste is also quite similar.

Now, what do I think about quail eggs? In my opinion, to truly enjoy food, we need to be riveted by more than just our sense of taste; the sight, smell and texture of what we are eating all need to be taken into account. Simply put, I enjoy, first of all, the novelty of having this type of egg for breakfast, and secondly, because of its size, I can imagine incorporating it into many dishes. Novelty and flexibility are two winning attributes of the dainty quail eggs.

How to boil quail eggs:
1. Set a sauce pan with enough water to cover the number of eggs you want to cook over medium high heat. Bring to a boil.
2. Place eggs in pan and boil for three to five minutes (three minutes for soft to medium boiled, five minutes for hard boiled.)
3. Remove from pan, cool, peel and season with salt and pepper. Serve with toast.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Essence of Simplicity

The prospect of spring, yelping puppies, laying under an umbrella on a beach some where tropical, the first snow fall, a good cup of coffee, a good book, being with friends whom you haven't seen in years. All simple things yet powerful enough to delight the senses and the spirit.

Keeping things simple can help minimize stress in our lives. Back in September of 2007, when were we in the process of moving to Minneapolis, it became obvious to me how much junk I have accumulated over my four years at college. (It's not a good sign when 100 boxes are barely enough to move the belongings of two people from a two bedroom apartment. ) There were things I kept because I thought I would need them yet they had not been used since the day they were bought. What was I thinking when I bought two sets of the same outfit, in different colors, that I wore only once? Not to mention the dumpling-maker that I never used. And who needs three cosmetic cases full of make-up? Ok, maybe some people do, but I am certainly not one of those. I made the decision then and there to get rid of anything I hadn't used in more than six months. Miraculously, my possessions shrunk to a little more than a half! And I like it like that.

Now here I am, six months later, in my new home, my life and surroundings seem so much more orderly. Interestingly, I am beginning to appreciate the things that I own even more, in the sense that I pay more attention to and take better care of them. Not to mention that it is now easier to find things. The apartment is a lot less cluttered (which gives the perception of neatness, stress on "perception.") There is a lot to be said about living in an environment that is neatly organized and functional.

This notion of simplicity is also extending to my approach to food. Now, don't get me wrong: I appreciate the complexity of creating an elaborate dinner; the time, energy, creativity, the plethora of ingredients. In fact, I have plans for my most elaborate and ornate Easter dinner so far (even though it will be dinner for two.) Yet, there are times when a few simple ingredients make the most impressive dishes. Interestingly, I have found that, in these cases, the fewer the ingredients, the more flavorful the final dish. Possibly, our taste buds have a heightened awareness of each individual ingredient that would have otherwise been dissipated by a jumble of stronger flavors. Or, maybe, it's just my imagination. Either way, simplicity is the main ingredient in the dishes I share with you today. At the same time, I implore you delve into your own simple world and I hope that you find a universe of elegance; a place that flows in a way that inspires you.

Simple Herb Roasted Chicken

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 lbs
1 - 2 tsp salt
11/2 tsp black pepper and lemon mixture (or ground pepper)
1/2 tsp chili powder (optional)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 small bunch fresh parsley
1 tsp dried thyme

1. Set oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Wash and dry chicken well with paper towels.
3. Mix salt, black pepper and lemon mixture, and chili powder. Set aside.
4. Remove rosemary leaves from twig and discard twigs. Cut away parsley leaves and discard stalks. Set herbs aside
5. Carefully separate the skin from the flesh of the chicken being careful not to remove it completely. Gently place parsley and rosemary underneath the skin trying to distribute it as thoroughly as possible. Flatten the skin over the flesh, being sure to remove all air bubbles.
6. Sprinkle salt mixture into chicken cavity then tie legs together securely.
7. Thoroughly rub the remainder of the salt mixture over the entire bird and place in roasting pan. Sprinkle thyme evenly over top of chicken.
8. Place in oven and roast for one hour, turning pan 180 degrees only once halfway during roasting, for even browning.
9. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before dissecting to serve.

Lentil Stew with Spinach

2 cups brown lentils
2 tbsp olive oil
3 whole tomatoes, diced
1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 mild green chilies, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cooking wine
1 cup frozen or 2 cups fresh spinach
handful of fresh parsley

1. Wash and cook lentils in pressure cooker for 5 to 10 minutes until soft but still holds its structure. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. In large saute pan on medium heat add olive oil. To hot olive oil add chopped onion, garlic and chilies. Cook for 5 minutes until onions are translucent.
3. Add tomatoes to pan and cook for a further 3 minutes.
3. Add cooked lentils and cooking wine. Mix well and simmer on medium low heat for 8 to 10 minutes.
4. Add spinach and cook for another minute or two until fresh spinach has wilted or frozen spinach is thoroughly mixed throughout peas.
5. Season to taste with salt and pepper, Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley before serving.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mesmerized in Maui

The first view of this paradise is the majestic Haleakale mountain as the plane makes its final descent into the Kahalui airport. Haleakala means "house of the sun" and I couldn't think of a more appropriate name as the sun glistened down on this giant, illuminating every valley and undulation, conjuring up an image of an octopus with its tentacles flayed across the bottom of the ocean. Maui, the valley island, beckons.

We picked up the rental car and began the 30 minute drive to our hotel, the Sheraton in Ka'anapali. From the moment we arrived to this quaint, charming town, we were ushered through a palm lined driveway towars the hotel. The Sheraton is the last among a string of hotels on that beach but, in this case, last is best because it meant that the property was located on the famous Black Rock. Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts do not leave the island without making a trip up here. This was my first real snorkel adventure and, undoubtedly, we could not have chosen a better place to spend the next five days. It is here that the climax of the Sheraton's Sunset Cliff Dive takes place. Every evening, guests can view this breathtaking ceremony from the Lagoon bar or, for those who can't get enough of the sand between their toes, from on the beach. The ceremony is a depiction of the legend of the last king of Maui as he jumped off the Pu'u Keka'a (Hawaiian for Black Rock) into the pacific ocean to prove his spiritual strength. Ancient Hawaiian Legend also has it that this is the spot where their spirits have to jump off in order to meet their ancestors in order to avoid an eternity of roaming the earth causing mischief.

Cliff diver on Black Rock during the Sheraton's nightly cliff diving ceremony

Hula dancer at the Sheraton.
For the first time snorkeler and seasoned ones alike, Black Rock will surely impress. Whether or not you choose to stay at the Sheraton; it's easily accessible via the public accesses provided by all of the hotels along the beach. Feeding the fish, yes feeding the fish, was undoubtedly one of the most thrilling things I have ever done. The hotel's beach shop sells fish food that the almost domesticated fish of the Black Rock seem to prefer. Once underwater, all you need to do is tear open the pack and they will come. Oh, and will they come! By the hundreds it seems. I must admit, it can be a bit overwhelming at first: fish zipping by from all directions, so many colors, different sizes,all at once, but their only interest is the food. This is also the perfect opportunity for photos. Regretfully, we didn't bring along an underwater camera so all we have are the memories. But, rest assured, I will be prepared for the next time.

As breathtaking as being surrounded by so many different types of fish was, nothing was more exhilarating than being surprised by three green sea turtles as they glided ever so gracefully beneath us. The majesty, the power, the pride exuded by these reptiles is unmistakeable. Black Rock is a popular place for such sightings; they even nest along the Ka'anapli shore at nights. Seeing them for the first time, you begin to understand why animal activists are lobbying to keep them off the endangered species list. Touching them either on the shore or in the water is prohibited.

The other hotspot for snorkeling is the reef off the coast of Molokini, a tiny, crescent-shaped volcanic crater that slightly jutes out off the ocean which makes it a perfect habitat for reef animals. The clarity is almost 100 feet! It was like swimming in a pool in someone's backyard. The best way to get here is to purchase a seat on one of several tour boats in the town of Wailea. The boats are usually crowed but, once there, it's worth it. You might even be lucky to spot the occasional reef shark, if you consider being the the water with any kind of shark lucky.

On our second day, we planned to have lunch then do some sightseeing around the north west part of the island, along the route known as The Road to Hana. We opted for lunch at Aloha Mixed Plate, after all , this was my first visit to Hawaii and how could I leave without sampling the local food. The restaurant is ideally located on the beach, so no matter where you sit, there is a view of the pacific, in a very relaxed and casual atmosphere. the typical fare here is hawaiian: lau-lau, kalua pork, macaroni salad, lomi lomi; there was also the occasional teriyaki pork. With full stomachs, camera-ready, swim suits and comfortable shoes in the car trunk, we began the drive from old Lahaina north towards Kapalua on Highway 30.

The view from Aloha Mixed Plate.

The highway itself is in immaculate condition, notwithstanding the winding road would keep you on the edge of your seat if you are anything like me i.e. someone who constantly assumes the worst case scenario (what if there were an accident? What if we fell off the cliff?) This is why I typically don't drive when we are on vacations. The narrow, winding road took us through acres of lush, thick, green forests, passing the occasional "no trespassing, private property" sign at the entrance of the sometimes dilapidated, sometimes luxurious homes along the road, only to bring us back again to a view of the ocean. The topography of this part of the island is characteristic of its volcanic past and this becomes evident the further we drove along the north coast. The best display of this lava rock formation is at the Nakalele blowhole located 1/2 mile past mile mark 38. This geyser-like phenomenon occurs every time a wave forces water into the lava shelf below; the water has no where to go but up. It pays to always be prepared because, although the blowhole can be viewed from road side, the best view can only obtained by making the short hike (about 10 to 15 minutes) down a rocky slope to the lava plateau; hence we needed those comfortable shoes in the car's trunk.

Nakalele Blowhole.

In spite of our best intentions, the blowhole was as far as we got that day but we did resolve to complete the drive to Hana in another trip. There is just so much one can do in just one trip. For us, enjoying a few activities is better than trying to cram the entire island into five days and not being able to truly appreciate the sights and its history.

The view of Molokai from our table at the Pacific'O restaurant.

Almost everyone can claim to have seen pictures and videos of the beauty of Maui's exotic beaches and breath-taking landscapes. Little, is said, however, about the island's world class cuisine. Hawaii's chefs are world leaders in pan-asian and Hawaiian fusion cuisine. No where is this more apparent that at Roy's. Master chef Roy Yamaguchi's original creations transcends all that was previously known about island cuisine. Yes, there is fish. Yes, the dishes is light. Yes, the cocktails are breezy and refreshing. That's where the similarity to island food ends. Roy's offers the choicest cuts of meats, creative vegetable dishes and desserts that redefines the concept of dessert. So successful were his hawaiian locations that Mr. Yamaguchi has now opened restaurants in eleven states, including Nevada, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

At Roy's. 

Stunning. My first Maui sunset.

Whether you go for the beaches, the food, the hiking, surfing, snorkeling or scuba-diving, Maui will be etched in your memory forever. Simply put, Maui is remarkable in it's ability to heighten the senses; it allows a deeper appreciation of nature. Our five days on the island left us with a new perception of what our future vacations should be like: simple yet stimulating. We are already planning our next trip.

My Pick of the Top Restaurants:

Roy's Kahana Bar and Grill
Honoapiilani Highway,
(808) 669- 

Aloha Mixed Plate
1285 Front St,

(808) 661-3322

Pacific'O Restaurant
505 Front Street,

Five Palms Beach Grill
2960 South Kihei Road

Lahaina Fish Company
831 Front Street,
(808) 661-3472

My pick of great sights and activities:

  • The Road to Hana
  • Snorkeling at the Black Rock
  • Boat trip to Molokini (don't forget your snorkel gear)
  • Enjoying fresh mangoes and papayas at one of the many fruit stands along the road ways
  • The Nakalele blowhole
  • Enjoying the breathtaking views simply from any designated lookout point.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Good Mornings

There is no question about it: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We have heard this said time and again. Breakfast not only provides fuel to begin the day but it also kick starts our metabolism. By eating breakfast,we tell our bodies to start burning calories. Many scientists believe that this mechanism helps maintain a healthy weight. Yet, so many people do not have the time to eat on mornings. Others simply don't eat because they are incorrectly convinced that, by skipping meals, they will consume less calories. A complete myth. Researchers have found that breakfast skippers do in fact consume more calories throughout the day than those of us who eat breakfast.
There are some mornings when I am also crunched for time. So to get around this, I make these hearty muffins. Make them ahead of time, make two or three batches for the week, have one as desert. These muffins are packed with energy, fiber and antioxidants. A good way to begin the day.

Breakfast Muffins
Makes 1 dozen

1 cup bran cereal
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tbsp cake flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 egg whites
12 oz plain fat free yogurt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
2 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup apple sauce or 2 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup whole oats

1. Set oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 2 muffins tins set aside.
2. Grind cereal in food processor until a fine, flour-like texture.
3. Sift together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix in ground cereal.
4. Blend together egg whites, yogurt, oil, sugar, honey, and vanilla extract.
5. Fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients with about 10 to 12 strokes. The batter might not appear to be fully incorporated; that's ok. You do not want to over-mix any muffin batter otherwise the muffins will turn out too chewy.
6. Sprinkle reserved 2 tbsp cake flour over blueberries and walnuts, mix to coat, then fold into batter folding gently two or three times.
7. Divide batter equally between two muffins tins.
7. In a separate bowl, mix together butter, apple sauce and oats.
8. Crumble oat mixture over muffin batter.
9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack before serving.

Note: If blueberries are unavailable, use raisins or dried cranberries instead.

Monday, March 3, 2008

New York, the Sea and I

Each visit to the city seems like the first. A new play, a new restaurant, a new art exhibit. Yet the romance and the thrill of being there never changes. This time, the play was Curtains, the restaurant was Rio and You, and the art exhibit was "Realizing an African Renaissance." New York city is the one place where I actually feel the world revolve, where I feel that I am part of something alive, something changing. New York City seems to be the epicenter of the world; the place where I feel the smallest. My trips to New York are typically hinged on a visit to my fiancé's relatives. Yet, each time I visit, I feel re-energized, optimistic, humbled and, most of all, grateful to be part of the city, even if it's just for a few days.

Columbus Circle

During my last visit, which was just over one week ago, I had lunch at the Carnegie Deli for the first time. This restaurant is a New York establishment, with its 10 inch tall sandwiches and 2 pound per serving cheese cake. I had been told that no one ever finishes an entire sandwich, and I have to agree. I ordered the pastrami on wheat. Let me say, it was one of the most delicious sandwiches I have ever had. Very meaty (obviously) but also flavorful. More than the taste, however, was simply eating at an historic New York restaurant, where pictures of celebrities adorn the walls, where even the sandwiches have celebrity names. Don't get me wrong. I am indifferent towards the lives of celebrities, but the atmosphere forces you to acknowledge that IT is a celebrity.

In the Brooklyn borough, on Sutphin Boulevard, is the babel that is the Corner Fish Market. Here, you can find numerous varieties of fish, clams, crabs, and shrimp, all sea water varieties. On the Friday morning that we were there, the snow storm of the previous night forgotten despite the 10 inches that was melting to an inconvenient slush, our mission was oysters. My fiance and his relatives believe that oysters are best during the winter season. Consequently, all of our trips to NY during the winter months involves an intense home-made oyster bar featuring his father's highly-guarded, secret, spicy oyster sauce. The oysters aside, having been hand-selected by the professional - my fiance- my attention shifted to the beautiful red snapper, sea bass, butter fish, salmon, and king fish. Whenever I can, I buy whole fish to take back home ( they are cleaned and frozen in zip top bags.)

Fresh fish

There was an impulse to purchase at least one of each variety, the same impulse a six year old in an ice-cream shop has to taste all of the flavors. Eventually, I decided on three types: the red snapper, the sea bass, and one that I have not tried before, butter fish - a small variety of a bright red color and similar in shape to the red snapper. If its name is any indication of its texture, I made a good choice.

Fresh oysters

Fresh fish reminds me of my childhood in the Caribbean. The smell of the ocean brings back such happy memories with my father and sister, building lopsided sand castles on the beach. Strangely, or maybe due to these early childhood experiences and the fact that the closest I have ever been to truly fresh seafood in Minneapolis was at the seafood counter of Whole Foods, those frozen zip top bags transport me to moments back in time when life was carefree and idyllic, and when all I looked forward to was the weekend at the beach. And if that were the only thing I can take back with me from New York, then I would still be happy. For what else do we truly own, if not our memories.

I bring back a lot more from New York though: an appreciation for my new life, for the arts, for good entertainment, good food, and for that I will always return.

Seared Red Snapper with Vegetables Julienne
Serves 4

4 fillets of fresh red snapper ( tilapia or other white fish)
2 tsp red pepper flakes (more or less for spicy or mild)
salt and ground pepper
6 tbsp olive oil
2 whole onions
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
2 medium carrots
1 large twig fresh rosemary
1 twig fresh thyme
2 tsp fresh lemon/lime juice

1. Set saute pan on medium high heat.
2. Peel onions and slice thinly.
3. Seed and julienne peppers.
4. Wash, peel and julienne carrots. Place vegetables together in bowl.
5. Strip rosemary leaves from twig and mince finely. Add rosemary and thyme to vegetables. Thyme can go in whole; remember to remove the twig before serving.
6. Add 3 tbsp olive oil to saute pan and cook vegetables for 15 to 20 minutes until soft; stirring frequently to prevent burning.
7. Meanwhile, season fish with salt, ground pepper and pepper flakes. Sear in skillet over medium heat with remaining 3 tbsp olive oil. Cook on either side for 5 to 6 minutes or until fish is cooked through. Place cooked fillets on paper towels to absorb excess oil.
8. Once vegetables have cooked, toss with lemon/lime juice.
9. To serve, arrange a single fillet on serving dish and pile vegetables on or next to it. Pair with a white wine of your choice.