Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Julia Child's 100 and feeling extraordinary

Julia Child was born 100 years ago today. I felt I should write a little something because her life, it seems to me, was pretty awesome. It was all about personality and joy - my kind of living. Quite a few of my friends often tell me they think about me when her name pops up. Surely it's because like me, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. However, I hope they also think of me because like her, I am a woman with dreams and a passion for the delicious things in life.

She worked for the OSS during WWII and was stationed in present day Sri Lanka. There she met the love of her life, Paul Child, whose position with the US Foreign Service took them to Paris after the war. Paris exposed her to fine cuisine and she became one of the most famous chefs in the world and a standard to which chefs are still measured.

The Julia Child biographies I've read highlight her cheerfulness and drive. When I think of her, I think of the ambition that every woman should have to be extraordinary. Almost two years ago, I turned to my husband and asked him if he thought I was extraordinary. What I meant was whether or not he thought I was more interesting and fulfilled than an average 30-year old wife and mother. He said yes, or course, but I wasn't convinced of it myself. Thus the decision to attend culinary school, toddler in tow, and face not only a career change but also embark on a journey that would waken a new part of me. This adventure would fulfill a personal dream and also challenge the assumption than the average 30-year-old wife and mother can't realize her aspirations because such a plan could affect a family in so many ways. Lucky for me, my husband and I saw how this experience would benefit our family rather than affect it negatively.

Julia was a great chef who changed the course of cooking in the US for the better. I admire this aspect of her life, of course, but for me, the most inspiring element of her life was her ability to make decisions (though often radical) that allowed her to savor and appreciate the things in life that made her truly happy. Cooking and eating bring many of us happiness, but an inherent joy for life is the stuff that takes you that next step to feeling extraordinary.

In celebration of her life, I made my boys Le Cordon Bleu Paris' Creme Dubarry (Cream of Cauliflower). It was heart-warming and delicious - much like Julia Child's (and my) life.

Creme Dubarry with heart-shaped croutons

Here's the recipe. 

leek (white part)
salt & pepper
chicken stock

Thickening agent for soup:
egg yolks (optional)

white bread

Cut leeks lengthwise, then in half moons and sweat in butter. Add a pinch of salt and cook at low heat until almost translucent. Add cauliflower florets and stir - avoid browning. Add a bit of chicken stock to help the leek and cauliflower cook and absorb flavors. Add two tablespoons of flour and stir. Once the flour is cooked (without letting it brown), add enough chicken stock to submerge vegetables. Add a bit more salt, and cover pot. Once cauliflower is cooked through, blend soup and strain (optional). 

In a separate bowl, whisk cream, two egg yolks, salt and pepper together. Return blended soup to cooking pot, and slowly add cream mixture to thicken the soup. Season to taste.

Cut white bread into desired shapes and toast in an oven. Optional: dip a corner of the toasted croutons in olive oil and dip into finely chopped parsley for color.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The climax and a little dolce

After waking your taste buds with a little antipasto lovin' and a nicely paired wine, your mouth, body, and soul are left wanting more. Thus enters the climax of the meal - the main course. If done correctly, it can be the defining moment of an evening, and it's success can either make or break your decision to return to a restaurant.

Usually a protein, vegetable, and a carbohydrate make up a main course, but these rules can be bent, especially when a meal consists of multiple dishes, such as those at the fine Tuscan restaurants we visited this summer. 

For me, the gold medal of main dishes went to the cannelloni filled with shredded beef and topped with cream of artichoke. The guinea fowl and pancetta-wrapped french green beans came a close second, and how can I leave out the glorious linguine with white truffles? 

Cannelloni filled with shredded beef and topped with cream of artichoke
These beauties were part of a divine meal we had at Ristoro di Lamole, a lovely establishment at the top of the Tuscan hills. Just when the winding road from Chianti to Lamole seems to be unable to offer views that are any more beautiful, this restaurant appears. If you didn't know any better, you would probably not give the place a second thought and drive on. Thankfully, the villa we rented was in Lamole, and the owner of the villa recommended the place as a must - she was right.
Guinea fowl and pancetta-wrapped french green beans
Linguine with white truffles and fresh crushed pepper
I learned to appreciate medium rare beef at culinary school and this is now my preferred way to enjoy a steak.
Apparently the Tuscans agree.
Tuscan white beans and sausage
Finishing off our sinfully delicious meals, we had our share of gelato, including chocolate and pistachio scoops from the famous Gelateria Perche no! in Florence (the place is aptly named "why not" in Italian). We also sampled some very refined versions of Italian classics, such as tiramisu and panna cotta, and they will forever hold a special place in my gluttonous heart. How can I describe my happiness in words? I'll let you discover what I mean when you travel to Tuscany and have a few scoops, spoon-fulls, and fork-fulls of your own. Some things are better left unsaid.

My all-time favorite Italian dessert - the Tiramisu.
This one in Lamole was one of the best I've had because the  mascarpone was just right.
Gorgeous panna cotta with strawberries.
A chocolate lava cake that was quite simply to die for.
As our family celebration continued, so did our seemingly insatiable appetite for good food. Lucky for us, Tuscany was the place to be. We resorted to unbuttoning our top buttons and using wine as an elixir to help digestion and thus make room for the grande finale of the Italian meal. We gluttons turned to the dessert menu as a drug that would take us to that moment during a good meal when you feel total bliss. A spiritual moment, really, for those of us whose religion involves praising the subtlety of a well-made dolce.

And thus I bring my Tuscan food entries to an end. It was an unforgettable vacation not only for the culinary genius of this part of the world, but because our family came together to celebrate love and the good things in life. It just so happened that some of the most special moments took place around a dinner table. Doesn't it often happen that way?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tuscany entry II: Antipasti

My Tuscan culinary goodness saga continues with a description of some antipasti we enjoyed during our recent trip. After a few hours of walking around Florence, it's hard to think of a better way to prepare for a meal than sipping some Chianti and accompanying it with a nice prosciutto.

Tuscan antipasti
On two occasions we were given Tuscan bread topped with a delicious liver spread. Bruschetta, (which by the way is pronounced bru'sket:ta in English as well - there's no "sh" sound anywhere in that word, as I hear constantly in the US), is also common in Tuscan antipasti, as are artichoke hearts, salami of all sorts, and ewe's milk pecorino, one of my favorite cheeses.

I have to say something, for I cannot keep quiet about this after living in Paris and enjoying some of the best bread in the world. Tuscan bread sucks. It has no taste. Apologies, my dear Tuscans, but you need to put some salt in that dough. The crust is lovely, the inside fluffiness is nice, but insipid should be no part of anything Tuscan or Italian. I understand that you often top it with strong-tasting stuff like wild boar prosciutto and liver spread, so you may think that you need neutral bread, but for goodness sake please put some taste in those buns.

Now that I've successfully insulted Tuscan bread lovers as well as Tuscan bread bakers who are probably very proud of their generations-old bread baking techniques, I'll go on. 
Burrata and vegetable tian
Have you ever heard of this glorious thing called burrata? It is a thing to make you cry because it is so good. It is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, and is so soft it feels like butter on your tongue. Actually, burrata means "buttered" in Italian. The dish photographed above is a quenelle of burrata served with a tian of roasted vegetables and a sun dried tomato sauce. Too bad for the tasteless Tuscan crouton on top, but I'll get over it. 
Olive oil tasting. The chickpeas offer a neutral flavor compared to the often bitter taste of the oil. 
Roasted vegetables with zucchini pesto and heavenly Chianti
Fantastic white wine from Umbria to accompany our antipasti
As part of the celebration of my parents' 40th wedding anniversary, we dined at Osteria di Passignano, a fantastic winery restaurant complete with its own Michelin star and a fabulous troupe of knowledgeable and amiable servers. It was a wine pairing extravaganza. The servers are well-trained sommeliers who taught us much about the wine we were drinking. It was a pageant of wines, olive oils, pestos, and flavors that had celebrations in our mouths. 

As my family's loving life saga continued, so did our adventure of eating our way through Chianti. The antipasti courses of our meals were exceptional, and only the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Tuscan food.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tradition, legacy, and some Chianti

I'm back online after a shameful absence. Back with a fresh new blog look, a touch of Latin flavors, and surprises in between.

The last box was unpacked, and our apartment in Panama feels like home. My kitchen has a huge window, granite countertops, and a six-burner gas stove. My only fear is that the oven also runs on gas, which scares the living daylights out of me because I have to ignite the range while the lethal gas sputters out of the vents. I fear that my baking projects may be a bit screwy for the first few tries. There is no temperature option, just a 1-to-6 level dial. Mostly, however, I fear for my eyebrows.

I haven't been able to escape to the Panama City seafood market that I've been told is fantastic. Unpacking, cleaning, and organizing have been the norm around this place, so I also haven't been to Casco Antiguo, the old city of Panama, where I'm told there are wonderful restaurants. This blog will tell you all about those places, and more.

Before that, however, I'll take you on a little detour. We've just returned from Tuscany, where we celebrated my parents' 40th wedding anniversary. I did my best to chronicle the magical bites of pasta and sips of Chianti wine that we feasted upon, so the next couple of entries will tell you about the Italian delicacies we enjoyed.
Badia di Passignano vineyard and tractor, Chianti
In proper Italian fashion, I'll start with some antipasti, move on to the primi piatti, then secondi, and end with mouth-watering desserts and cheeses. The first Italy entry, however, begins with the nectar of Chianti gods: wine.
Renzo Marinai, family-run, organic, fabulous wine
During my visit to a couple of Chianti wineries, I discovered that I love the Sangiovese grape. Chianti Classico must use at least 80% Sangiovese in order to be considered as such. This grape is robust and deep, tasting of blackberries and the oak from the French barrels that the wine lives in for a while.
Renzo Marinai purchased a Chianti vineyard in the 1990s and created it into one of the first organic wineries in the region. He chooses to produce a small amount of wine, but at excellent standards. His 2008 Chianti Classico Reserva won a gold metal at the Los Angeles Wine & Spirits award, and I loved it.
Leonardo da Vinci came up with the technique on top of the barrel that prevents air from getting inside
Chianti is all about tradition. The Sangiovese grape was already around in the 16th century, and not much has changed in the way wine is made in this region. 
Sun dial placed by Galileo Galilei in 1587, damaged during WWII 
Badia di Passignano cellars - moldy walls since 395
For example, the Badia di Passignano cellars are located in a monastery that dates back to 395. Today, the Antinori family make the award-winning Chianti wines and use techniques that they've used for 600 years.
The Antinori family rents the monastery cellars from the Vatican

270 euro price tag, and worth every penny
Walking through the orderly emerald mazes of Chianti vineyards and feeling the reassuring dampness of cellars that have been making wine for centuries fills you with a profound respect for tradition and legacy. Even though we were learning about these wines, and enjoying their blood-red goodness, we were also celebrating our family's legacy. 

The 40 years of my parents' happy marriage is something to be proud of, and only the best, most exquisite meals and wine were good enough to commemorate our family's love and passion for the good things in life.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Farewell, Trinidad

One last time, I sit in front of my view of the emerald hills of Cascade. Our little family is preparing to move to Panama, and the packing boxes that surround me foretell a change. We've said goodbye to friends, colleagues, our local fruit stand, Maracas Bay, bake 'n shark, soca, calypso, and the steel pan, and look ahead at a new adventure.

The best way I know how to say farewell to my island home is to pay tribute to one of its recipes, which has brought me so much pleasure. Corn soup. I told myself that before leaving Trinidad, I had to learn how to make this soup so that I could replicate it when the craving for it hits, which is usually on a melancholy and comfort-food seeking Sunday evening. Even though it won't be at the street food stalls of the Savannah, I will enjoy corn soup in my Panamanian home and think of the rhythms and Caribbean beats of my Trinbagonian home of three-and-a-half years.
Pimento peppers
Mayah, our lovely housekeeper, taught me how to make corn soup. She's of Indian decent, and it was interesting to speak with her about what she thought the origins of corn soup were. She said she thought that, like much Trinbagonian food, it was inspired by Indian food. A major ingredient in corn soup is dal, or yellow split peas, which are a staple Indian food. I've also had corn soup in Trinidad that contains pig tail, which shows that non-Hindu Trinidadians, like those of African decent, also created their variations of corn soup. See this previous blog entry about origins, and alterations, of Trinidadian food.
ingredients for corn soup
There are many variations of corn soup, and Trinidadian families make their version according to taste. This is Mayah's version.

Corn Soup

yellow split peas
pimento peppers (mild chili peppers photographed above)
canned cream style corn
corn-on-the-cob (not sweet corn)

In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Rinse yellow split peas, and add them to the pot. Add  minced garlic and boil the peas until soft (at least 45 minutes). Cut pumpkin into cubes and add to the pot. Add minced pimento peppers and season to taste.

Once ingredients are soft, use a hand blender to puree them. This will create a soft texture without completely liquifying the soup. After blending, add canned cream style corn and pieces of corn-on-the-cob. 

Corn soup usually contains "dumplings" made of flour and water. This is not my favorite part of the dish because I don't believe it offers any added taste value nor is it very nutritious. 
maya's delicious corn soup
Trinidad offers plenty of comfort food options that we learned to know and love. Panamanian cuisine is much like the kinds of things we eat in Cartagena. For example, deep fried red snapper served with patacones (fried green plantains) and lulo juice (more on this to come) are a staple, and I know I can be very happy in a place like that.

Monday, February 6, 2012

All hail the Trinidadian avocado

Buttery, creamy sweetness. Green goodness. Tropical freshness.
giant trinidadian avocado
I miss a lot of things about Paris, but some times things like Trinidadian avocados come along, and make me remember that this island offers exotic deliciousness that you can't find easily in the farmer's market produce-heaven that is Paris.

Avocados are a pre-Columbian fruit, the word derived from the Aztec "ahuacatl". You may remember my praise of ancient Mexico's major contribution to some of the main foods we eat today, such as chocolate and tomatoes. 

Avocados have a long list of health benefits. Research shows that a substance in avocados may have the ability to kill cancer cells. Avocados also contain carotenoid antioxidants, can reduce the risk of heart disease, have anti-inflammatory benefits (may help treat arthritis), and promote blood sugar regulation.

Inspired by the gorgeous Trinidadian avocados I found at my local fruit and vegetable stand, I created these recipes to show them off.

Shrimp cocktail with avocado balls 

This is a shrimp cocktail that highlights the taste of Trinidadian avocados. I give the pink cocktail sauce a little kick with Pommery mustard I brought from France as well as a bit of Trinidadian red hot sauce. The sweet, buttery taste of the avocados match very nicely with this. 

Cocktail sauce: mayonnaise, ketchup, Pommery mustard, red hot sauce (such as Tabasco), lemon juice, salt, pepper.

Briefly saute shrimp for about 2 minutes in garlic and olive oil. Let shrimp cool, and mix with cocktail sauce. 

Using a melon baller, scoop balls of avocado and place a layer of avocado balls at the bottom of the serving glasses. Place a layer of shrimp in sauce, then another layer of avocados balls.


I don't like to mess too much with avocados when making guacamole. Some people add chopped onions, chili peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, etc., etc., etc., but since I love the taste of avocados so much, I simply add a bit of coarse salt and fresh ground pepper to accompany an already heavy dish, such as these nachos supremos I made for a client last week. The nachos had all sorts of favors, peppers, spices, so I let the avocados do their thing to balance out the dish and offer some relief from the spicy dish.
my nachos with guacamole

Friday, January 27, 2012

Toddlers and restaurants

This morning I read an article entitled Non, non and non: Discipline and three-course meals on that struck a familiar cord. Enter the two-year-old into a Parisian cafe. French customers eating at tiny tables nearby (about 3mm away from your own table since there isn't much room in there) glare down from their Le Monde to give you a sly, almost threatening, look. The look says "you better be able to control that child while I sit here and sip my cafe and read my paper!"

I can proudly say that I am one of the moms who can control my toddler. He was raised to sit calmly and quietly while enjoying his hot chocolate and croissant. Usually a small toy car can hold him off while we wait for our meal. Other times, we rely on i-touch toddler apps. It's not always perfect, of course because he can get frustrated and antsy, but he's sat through (and enjoyed!) meals at michelin-starred restaurants, our regular crepe cafe, among others. One day, some friends invited us to an Indian restaurant near Opera, and they were shocked to see that my son, then barely two years old, sat through the whole meal reading books, chatting, and flirting with our friends. None of them has children, and they told me that they were inspired by our dynamic and were excited to see that it is, in fact, possible to take toddlers out to dinner if you know how to teach then to just chill.

Culture shock: a cafeteria at Disney World. I've talked a bit about the unhealthy options available at US sporting events. Well, the same goes for theme parks. Sugar, preservatives, sodium, fat, more sugar, and yes, more fat. That's what there is to be had at Disney World. We were there over Christmas break and even though we had a wonderful time, after three days of hot dogs, corn dogs, pizza, fish n chips, and coke, I was ready to give my kingdom for an asparagus, or anything green. At Sea World, I was able to find a chicken caesar salad, and the closest thing it came to green was wilted lettuce with the salad. However, Parisians give their kids sugar, and they give their kids fat. My son loved his hot chocolate and croissant - how much more butter can you get? And if sugar makes kids hyper, then why can Parisian parents get their kids to stay still, while the parents at Disney World cafeterias sat there while their kids ran circles around the table?

Parents that were sitting next to us at these theme park cafeterias had terrible table manners, and their attitude at the table was completely different than the kind of restaurant culture you'd find in Paris. In Paris, the meal is the center of attention, each dish is considered and appreciated, and eaten with cutlery. It's harder to see a toddler in the US using cutlery than it is in Paris. In the US, parents usually cut up chunks of food and place it on a placemat, or simply on the table in front of the child, and the child grabs the chunks and stuffs it into his/her mouth. My son has always used a plate, and he's been manipulating spoons and forks ever since he was six months old. Granted it's not perfect, but his eating etiquette is far more pleasant to look at than what we saw in those cafeterias.

Yes, it can be difficult to encourage a two-year-old to sit still through a meal. But if you create a comfortable dining experience and explain to a child that a meal is an important place for a family to come together and enjoy delicious food and take the time to point out the lovely cutlery, plates, flower arrangements, and also the flavors and details of each ingredient, then they are far more likely to appreciate the meal for what it is, and stay still.

Practice makes perfect. Take your toddler out for a 15-minute hot chocolate break at a nearby cafe, and start there. Bring a book, enjoy the drink, and then leave. Talk to them about the restaurant, the decoration, the people, the table, and talk to them about anything at all. I guarantee this will make the experience far more enjoyable for everyone involved.
food available at Disney's Animal Kingdom
food available at Disney's Animal Kingdom
food available at Paris's Rolland Garros - "legumes" means vegetables

drinks available at Paris's Rolland Garros - tropicana fruit juice and sparkling water

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Because it's still January, and I venture to guess that many of us are still in "resolution" mode, I thought of sharing some low-calerie detox recipes I've been making for my boys. After the gluttony of the holidays, junk food at theme parks, and gigantic portions at Florida hotels and restaurants, our family needed to cleanse. 

The first is one of my favorite salads. It contains a lot of beautifully balanced flavors, including sweet, tart, nutty, and vinegar, a lot of protein, and a lot of color!

Ingredients: 1 can Kidney beans*, 1 can corn, 1 apple, 1 romaine lettuce heart, walnuts (the more, the merrier!), baby spinach (ditto), 1/2 cup Craisins, and a splash of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and coarse salt as a dressing.

*I like to wash canned red kidney beans to remove the extra sodium.

You could also add Rochefort or Blue cheese to this salad because the flavors pair beautifully with the beans.

Here's a vegetable quinoa soup that was a big hit on a cold (76 degrees - HA!), rainy, Trinidadian Sunday afternoon:

Sweat onions and garlic in a pot with a bit of olive oil. Add chopped carrots, zucchini, celery, peas, and green beans (in this order, considering their cooking times). Add enough chicken or vegetable stock to cover all the vegetables, and season with coarse salt. Add 1 cup of quinoa, let it poof, and bingo! 

These recipes make your body and soul feel good. Go forth and cleanse.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Year and an Anniversary

This month marks Blue Ribbon Chronicles' one-year anniversary. It has been an enjoyable, even therapeutic, experience writing about everything from street food in Trinidad, tajines in Morocco, hot chocolate in Paris, to my trials in Le Cordon Bleu kitchens.

The blog has gotten almost 9,000 hits, and I've received encouraging comments from followers (both people I know and total strangers from different countries around the world). 

I feel I have so much more to say, so many stories to tell about food adventures inside my kitchen, at outdoor food markets, in posh restaurants, and by the side of the road. 

My son will start attending pre-school regularly next week, so I've resolved to take that time to write blog entries, test recipes, and launch my business as a personal chef. I created a website and printed business cards. 

2011 was a magical year of cooking in Paris, and now I'm ready for real life. The real world of looking at your dreams in the face, and saying, "I'm going for it". I'm sure there will be plenty of disasters like last month's croissant catastrophe, but I'm hoping these experiences will only help me get better at this cooking business. 

It's only the 6th of January, and I've already achieved two of my new year's resolutions. 

One: cancel cable tv. My husband did that while we were away in Paris, and I haven't gotten it hooked up again. I haven't watched it in 10 months, and don't miss a thing. I feel more productive and less, well, stupid. I have a shameful addiction to vampire shows, to be specific, and they were making me stupid. Let's ignore the fact that I have them all on DVD, shall we? But those are for special occasions.

Two: I'm now making two different vegetable dishes with every meal in an effort to bring down my husband's cholesterol. I'm proud to say that the other day, my husband made us Mac 'N Cheese (yes, from a box), and green beans on the side, and my two-and-a-half-year-old ate only the greens and not the Mac 'N Cheese. Nice.

My third resolution is to begin my career as a person chef, full blast. With the condition that I love it. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Oh, yes, and I plan to continue writing this blog. Thanks for reading.