My adventure getting over my fear of cooking octopus. It turned out delicious and wasn’t as difficult as I thought.
I love octopus. During our last trip to the Yucatan in Mexico, I ate octopus almost every day. The two entrees I had with octopus as a main course were some of the best dinners I’d ever had. But I’d never tried to cook it at home. I have a memory of my mother’s attempt at cooking octopus when I was a kid. She didn’t really know what to do with it, so she cut the legs off and baked it in the oven. The result was the equivalent of chewing on a rubber tire, and we all ate TV dinners instead.
I asked our waiter at Kitchen Table in Tulum how my amazingly delicious octopus was prepared, and he said the trick to cooking octopus was to boil it for a very long time prior to finishing it in a saute pan or grill or however you plan to prepare it. Boil it PAST the rubber tire stage to edible perfection.
This last New Years Eve, we were inviting a few food-loving friends over for dinner and drinks, and I decided I was going to do it. I was going to cook a goddamn octopus.
But first, extensive research. I looked up some Spanish octopus recipes (Pulpo a la Gallega), and watched a couple YouTube videos. I learned that in addition to boiling the octopus for an hour, you need to tenderize it by freezing it and thawing it first.
This video of Eric Ripert cooking Spanish octopus was my main inspiration:
I procured my octopus at Uwajimaya in Seattle, the large Asian grocery store in the International District. Uwajimaya is a great place to go for all kinds of fresh seafood.
I found my octopus in the frozen section, which saved me the step of freezing it. It came in a solid square block. I tried thawing it for a day in the fridge, but ended up taking it out and leaving it on the counter for several hours the following day after fridge thawing yielded slow results.
Finally, my slimy, gelatinous blob of octopus was ready to cook.
Paddy is convinced that octopuses are not of this planet, that they came here from somewhere else.
I put my octopus in a large pot of water with some chopped celery, onion, several cloves of garlic cut in half, chopped parsley, and some paprika. Several of the recipes and videos advised to “shock” (or “frighten,” as one Spanish chef called it) the octopus by dunking it in the boiling pot for 10 seconds and pulling it back out for 10 seconds three times before submerging it for an hour-long boil.
From my understanding, the point of “shocking” the octopus before boiling is to help the tentacles curl up nicely.
After an hour, I pulled the octopus out and put it in a bowl with a lid to keep it hot while I boiled some red potatoes in the octopus broth, adding a generous dash of kosher salt. I boiled the potatoes until they were almost done, and then pulled them out and sliced them.
I then cut up the octopus, cutting the tentacles in long pieces, and then slicing the rest of the leg meat up to the head. I saw videos on how to remove the head and beak prior to cooking, but it didn’t really seem necessary since it was going to get cut up anyway. I discarded the head and beak area, using as much of the leg meat as possible.
I finished the octopus pieces in a pan with more onions and garlic, some high-quality Spanish olive oil, salt, and a mix of sweet Spanish paprika and smoked paprika. I then fried my potatoes in the same pan with the same ingredients.
I finished my “pulpo a la gallega” by arranging the sliced potatoes on a serving platter, and sprinkling with a little more paprika and drizzling with a little more Spanish olive oil. I then arranged the tentacles and leg meat slices on top of the potatoes with more olive oil, a pinch of salt, and more chopped parsley.
It turned out fabulous. The octopus was flavorful and tender, and was a nice compliment to the potatoes.
If I had to improve on this dish next time, I would add a tiny bit of salt to the octopus broth while boiling it (I saw one recipe say not to add salt, but I wasn’t sure why). Also, I would be a little more heavy handed with the olive oil, and use fingerling potatoes instead of red potatoes. (Fingerlings weren’t available at Uwajimaya when I was shopping, and I was too lazy to go to a different grocery store). A squeeze of lemon might be a nice touch. I noticed that Eric Ripert added ham to his broth while boiling it. I was concerned that this might overpower the flavor of the octopus, but I am curious to try it next time.
I am over my fear of cooking octopus, and am excited to try it again this summer and finish it on the grill to get a nice charred flavor. Octopus is delicious and not as intimidating as it looks. Easier than roasting a chicken.
Culinary Adventures: Easy Pineapple Cupcakes with Spicy Coconut Topping
One Saturday, my attempt at a Pinterest cupcake recipe failed miserably (who writes a recipe with all the dry ingredients in a recipe in cups except for the flour anyway?). I needed cupcakes to bring to a party that I was heading to and was running out of time.
Looking at what I had in my pantry to work with, I found a Pillsbury yellow butter cake mix and some pineapple juice. It’s just not my style to bring boring, run-of-the-mill vanilla cupcakes to a party, so I took a small yet calculated risk–I substituted the pineapple juice for water.
For the frosting, I took a bit more of a creative license. The basis of every buttercream frosting is about a half cup of butter (softened), and about 3 cups of powdered sugar, and about 1/4 cup of a liquid. These ingredients can be adjusted to create the right consistency.
I used pineapple juice as the liquid in the frosting, along with a dash of salt, about 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper.
Finally, for the topping: I had this:
I have a habit of going to the local Asian markets and buying things I’ve never heard of with absolutely no plan for its use. A while back I’d found this little bag of Serungdeng Indonesian fried spicy desiccated coconut. It enticed me, and I had to have it. I also had no idea what I was going to do with it. I decided that today was the day to give it a shot.
I opened it and tasted. It was sweet, but also savory and really spicy. I thought it might be a bit too savory to use as a cupcake topping by itself, so I toasted some sweetened shredded coconut and mixed it together with some of the Indonesian spicy coconut.
When I frosted my pineapple cupcakes and added the topping, the result was fantastic.
Easy Pineapple Cupcakes with Spicy Coconut Topping:
1 box yellow butter cake cake mix
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter (softened)
1 cup pineapple juice
Make cupcakes according to directions on the box, substituting pineapple juice for the water.
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter (softened)
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup pineapple juice
dash of salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Mix ingredients together with an electric mixer, adjusting by adding more of any ingredient to desired consistency and taste.
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut–toasted
3 tbsp Indonesian spicy desiccated coconut
Directions: mix the sweetened toasted coconut with the spicy Indonesian coconut in a bowl. Adjust ratios to desired taste. Sprinkle/spoon onto freshly frosted pineapple cupcakes.
Crafty adventures: making homemade sugar scrub. An insanely easy and fun craft project that makes great holiday gifts.
Homemade sugar scrubs are great for winter. They are comprised of three simple main ingredients: sugar, coconut oil, and essential oils. The coconut oil moisturizes your skin while the sugar exfoliates. The essential oils add fragrance and give a spa-like aroma therapy experience in the bath or shower. My skin tends to get dry in the winter, and homemade sugar scrub is the perfect remedy.
I’d never made homemade sugar scrub before, but it is super easy. I went on pinterest and found a few recipes to work from. They all seemed to have different ratios of coconut oil to sugar, and I tried a couple different recipes. Coconut oil is great for your skin, but it also is one of the few oils out there that is solid when stored at room temperature. The solid oil helps give the sugar scrub its crumbly shape. If you use a higher ratio of coconut oil to sugar, your scrub will feel a bit “stiff” at first, vs more crumbly. When used, the coconut oil will melt on contact with your skin and the hot water in the shower.
I ended up using two recipes for my homemade sugar scrubs, a green tea sugar scrub recipe, and another basic sugar scrub recipe that I customized with essential oils.
It was simple, and the matcha green tea powder colors the homemade sugar scrub nicely without any dyes. I tripled the recipe and wound up with six 8 oz jars.
Green Tea Sugar Scrub Recipe:
1 ½ cup white sugar
2 tsp. matcha green tea powder
2 green tea bags
1 cup cconut oil
Recipe Directions: Open green tea bags and empty green tea leaves and set aside. In a bowl place white sugar, green tea powder and loose leaf tea leaves; mix together all the ingredients until the green tea powder is incorporated into the sugar. Then slowly add coconut oil and stir until all the mixture is covered in oil. Place in air tight container and store.
Once the matcha green tea powder, sugar, and loose green tea were mixed, I added the coconut oil. It was a little like baking where you have to mix sugar and butter together. You want the end result to be crumbly and well-mixed. I ended up ditching the spoon and getting in there with my hands.
I also added several drops of eucalyptus essential oil to give it a spa-like soothing smell.
Basic customizable sugar scrub:
Other recipes I found fluctuated between a quarter cup to a half cup of coconut oil to one cup of sugar. I went with one cup of sugar to a half cup of coconut oil, and tripled that recipe (three cups sugar and 1.5 cups coconut oil) for each of the other sugar scrubs I made. I ended up with five 8 oz jars from the tripled recipe.
Basic sugar scrub recipe:
1 cup sugar (refined or raw)
1/2 cup coconut oil
essential oils for fragrance
One friend of mine wanted a more organic scrub and used raw turbinado sugar, which is brown. It was a coarser texture and provided a more rustic, organic look.
As for essential oils, you can pretty much use whatever scents you like. Some recipes had measured amounts of drops of essential oil suggested, but I just added it until it smelled good.
I was a bit surprised by how strong the coconut oil smell came through. Some essential oils overpowered the coconut oil more than others.
The other two scrubs I made were a citrus sugar scrub with a blend of orange, lime, and grapefruit essential oils, and a lavender peppermint scrub. Of the three, the lavender peppermint scrub was the most pungent and ended up being my favorite.
For color I added a teeny tiny drop of gel food coloring to the citrus and lavender peppermint scrubs, turning them a light lavender and a light peach color. The tiny amount of food coloring mixed in isn’t enough to dye your skin and gives it a fun colorful appearance. Adding food color is completely optional.
The containers I used were wide mouth 8 oz plastic jars from the Specialty Bottle Supply company, which you can order online. My friends just used 8 oz and 4 oz canning jars, which give a nice homemade looking presentation. Personally I’m not a fan of glass in the shower, but you can use whatever you want. My only suggestion would be to get something with a wider mouth that is easy to get your hand into when scooping out the scrub in the bath or shower.
Decorate with a little ribbon or a printed label and you are all set with gifts for the holidays!
Strawberry Margarita Cupcakes: rich, buttery, sweet and citrus cupcakes, great for a spring get together.
The market near our house had some awesome local organic strawberries with some great flavor, so I thought I’d try some to make some strawberry margarita cupcakes for a spring party we were going to. First I googled a recipe for strawberry margarita cupcakes, and found one on The Baker Chick’s blog. I opted to skip her filling recipe and make my own frosting instead, but I used her cupcake recipe.
**Note: The recipe yields about 11 cupcakes, so I doubled it so that I would have enough to bring to the party. Recipe below is original for 11-12 cupcakes.
Ingredients: 1½ cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder ¼ tsp. salt ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 cup sugar 2 large eggs, at room temperature 2 small limes, zested and juiced ¼ tsp. vanilla extract ½ cup buttermilk- room temperature
Directions: Preheat the oven to 325F. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Blend in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the lime zest, lime juice and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat each addition just until incorporated. Divide the batter between the prepared cupcake liners, filling each about ¾ full. Bake 20-24 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely
The cupcakes turned out rich and dense. A little denser than I like, but I think the denseness comes from all the buttermilk and butter in the cupcakes (not the healthiest, I know, but fat is flavor right?). The buttermilk together with the lime juice gave them that tangy lime citrus flavor that they needed.
For the frosting, I pureed some strawberries in the food processor with lime juice and a quality silver tequila, and used that for the liquid to mix in with the 1 and a half sticks of butter and about 2/3 of a 32 oz bag of powdered sugar. (I never measure stuff with frosting, I just make it to taste based on those ratios of powdered sugar and butter and a liquid mixed in to the right consistency and taste).
I have made strawberry frosting before with fresh strawberries, and one word of warning is that the heavy fruit does make the frosting loose its shape. You don’t want to add too much more powdered sugar to make it stand up better, because then the frosting will be too sweet and too stiff. My motto is that it’s always better to have it taste good than look pretty.
**Note: be sure cupcakes are completely cool before frosting, or your frosting will melt all over the place.
The pretty frosting pouf that I piped on with a pastry tip deflated a bit, but the frosting tasted good. I don’t think I put enough tequila and lime in the frosting, however because you could taste the citrus in the cupcake and the strawberry in the frosting but the margarita concept seemed lost to the party guests gobbling the cupcakes. They were tasty though, and I got lots of compliments on them.
I think that next time, I will add more tequila and lime to the frosting, and some candied lime slices and maybe little drink umbrellas sticking out of the cupcakes. The cupcakes were good, but they were pretty much just strawberry lime.
Another note on using fresh strawberries as a topper: They begin to mold very quickly, so only top as many strawberry margarita cupcakes with fresh strawberries as you think will be eaten, and remove the strawberries from any leftovers.
Overall I would recommend this recipe for strawberry margarita cupcakes. They are a welcome sweet addition to any summer BBQ.
Culinary Adventures: Green Tea Cupcakes with Lychee Frosting. Asian-inspired cupcakes with subtle green tea flavor for the Lunar New Year.
Some friends of ours were having a Vietnamese Lunar New Year dinner and I wanted to bring something fun to contribute. I found this green tea cupcakes recipe on a baking blog called Sprigandflours.com created by baker Connie Choi. I’m not talented enough to make up my own baking recipes, and hers looked like a great one to try out.
In retrospect, I wish I would have doubled the recipe. It only made 11 cupcakes, and the dinner party we were going to was larger than 11 people. Fortunately the host had a cake as well, and we stopped and picked up some Chinese almond cookies at the Asian market on the way just to make sure we were bringing enough treats. If you are making this for an event, double the cupcake recipe. The frosting recipe portion makes a good batch of frosting, more than needed for the cupcake portion. (I do now notice that Connie’s recipe says “serves 12”)
I went to a local Asian market (our neighborhood is blessed with many lovely Asian markets) and picked up the matcha green tea powder and a can of lychees. If you don’t have an Asian market near you, you might try a Whole Foods or health food store for the matcha, and they may have lychees as well. Or you can always order on Amazon.
Green Tea Cupcakes with Lychee Buttercream Frosting
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Line one 12-cup muffin pan with baking cups.
In a small cup, combine the water and tea bag. Let it steep for 5 minutes, then remove the tea bag. Put in the refrigerator to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar.
Add in the vanilla extract then the eggs, one at a time.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and green tea powder. Stir together.
Slowly add the dry mixture and the green tea to the wet mixture.
Pour the batter into 12 cupcake tins about ⅔ filled.
Bake for about 18-20 minutes. Allow it to cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
The matcha powder turns the cupcakes a subtle but pretty mossy green color.
For the frosting:
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the butter, lychee juice, and powdered sugar with an electric mixer on low speed — one cup of sugar and one tablespoon of juice at a time.
When the ingredients are incorporated, increase the speed to medium and mix for another 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy.
Spread or pipe the frosting on top of cooled cupcakes.
I didn’t completely follow the exact frosting recipe, because I always just make frosting to taste. I used 1.5 sticks of butter and about 1/3 of a bag of powdered sugar, and poured the lychee juice out of the can into the mix a little at a time until the right consistency was reached. The lychee juice was really sweet, so I added a pinch of salt (in addition to the salted butter) to even it out a bit.
Aside from the recipe making a smaller batch of green tea cupcakes than I’d wanted (my fault for not reading the yield on the recipe), they turned out great. Everyone seemed to like them. I thought the green tea was a nice subtle but identifiable flavor, and the lychee frosting was a nice compliment to it without overpowering the green tea. The two flavors worked well together.
Old-fashioned candy cane cookies for Christmas: a classic recipe that is always tasty and fun to make.
These candy cane cookies are a classic recipe that turn out super cute and are fun to make. A word of warning though–you really have to be into making cookies, because they are a little more labor intensive. Easy to make, but they take some time. Don’t plan on making them if you are in a rush.
Before you get started, know that you have to make the dough and then refrigerate it for four hours or overnight before you can form and bake them.
Betty Crocker Candy Cane Cookies recipe:
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
3 1/2 cups Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red food color
2 tablespoons finely crushed peppermint candies
2 tablespoons sugar
Stir together 1 cup sugar, the butter, milk, vanilla, peppermint extract and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Divide dough in half. Stir food color into 1 half. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.
Heat oven to 375ºF.
Stir together peppermint candy and 2 tablespoon sugar; set aside.
For each candy cane, shape 1 rounded teaspoon dough from each half into 4-inch rope by rolling back and forth on floured surface. Place 1 red and white rope side by side; press together lightly and twist. Place on ungreased cookie sheet; curve top of cookie down to form handle of cane.
Bake 9 to 12 minutes or until set and very light brown. Immediately sprinkle candy mixture over cookies. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.
The recipe says “stir food coloring into one half,” but stir really isn’t the right word. I made a dent in the middle of the half of the dough I was making pink, dropped the food color drops in there, and then closed it up and kneaded the ball of dough until the color was evenly distributed.
When rolling the dough, I pinched and rolled a ball of each color to ensure similar size, then rolled it between my palms to start elongating it and then transferred it to wax paper to roll longer. You can roll adding pressure to parts of the dough to get it evenly sized down the length of the “rope.” Next, twist them together and form a cane and transfer to your cookie sheet.
The candy crushed candy cane and sugar didn’t stick to the candy cane cookies when they came out of the oven, so I scratched that step. I think they look great without the candy cane stuff on top, a bit more classic. The mint extract in the dough is a nice flavor without being overpowering.
I always cool on wax paper instead of a wire rack. It works out fine.
I liked the candy cane cookies recipe and would definitely make it again. I hope our friends and family enjoy them as well. Don’t forget to leave some for Santa…
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie: a spicier and richer version of the classic fall favorite.
Paddy and I are both big fans of spicy chocolate, and I wanted to shake things up a bit for Thanksgiving this year. I found this recipe for Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, and decided to try it out. I changed it up a bit, using pre-made chocolate cookie pie crusts, dividing the recipe into two (the cookie pie crusts were pretty shallow) and tripling the chocolate ganache recipe. It turned out fantastic and our families loved it.
Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie Recipe:
1 recipe Baked Piecrust (I subbed out a pre-made chocolate cookie crust
1 3.1 ounce disc Mexican chocolate or 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped plus 1 tsp. cinnamon
Prepare Baked Pastry Shell; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a small saucepan heat the chocolate, cinnamon and butter over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, just until melted; set aside to cool. In a large bowl combine the brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, salt, 1/4 teaspoon chili powder, and cayenne. Stir in the pumpkin and eggs until combined. Gradually stir in half-and-half until combined.
Stir 1 1/2 cups of the pumpkin mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture. Pour chocolate mixture into baked pastry shell. Gently pour remaining pumpkin mixture over the chocolate layer. If necessary, cover edges of pie with foil to prevent overbrowning. Bake for 60 minutes or until edges are puffed and center appears set. Cool on a wire rack. Chill within 2 hours. Serve with Chocolate Ganache. Sprinkle with grated chocolate and chili powder, if desired.
CHOCOLATE GANACHE: (I tripled this recipe to make enough for two pie toppings)
Chop 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate and place in a small bowl. Heat 1/4 cup whipping cream to a simmer and pour over chopped chocolate. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir until smooth. Immediately spoon over center of cooled pie.
The Mexican chocolate I used I found at the little Mexican tienda across the street from our house. We live in a pretty culturally diverse neighborhood, so it was pretty easy to find. If you don’t have any Mexican grocery/variety stores in your area, you could try using regular chocolate and adding in cinnamon and cayenne, but it probably won’t turn out entirely the same.
The chocolate comes in disks inside the package. The recipe called for one disk.
The filling wasn’t so different from a regular pumpkin pie, aside from mixing part of the pumpkin filling with the Mexican chocolate for the bottom layer, and adding a few extra spices. It was pretty easy.
The pies came out the consistency of a regular pumpkin pie, and when they were cool I made the chocolate ganache and poured it over the tops. Once the ganache was cool, I grated part of a chili chocolate bar and sprinkled it on top. I used the local Seattle Theo Chocolate chili bar.
Paddy says he expects Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving now. I will try to accommodate, but I do love trying a new recipe every year!
Our top food experiences from our adventures 2008-2015: Our most memorable meals from our travels around the world (so far).
10. The Winding Stair in Dublin, Ireland
Given that everything in Ireland is expensive, we couldn’t eat out at many upscale restaurants on our two-week trip. The Winding Stair was our one big splurge in Ireland, and it was worth it. It is located above an affiliated book store (one of the oldest independent book stores in Dublin) overlooking the River Liffey. It was cute, quiet, and romantic. The food is fresh, organic, and locally sourced. If you’re in Dublin looking for a fantastic Irish meal with ambiance, this is a great little spot. Definitely one of our top food experiences in Ireland.
9. Kèköldi Indigenous family farm, Costa Rica
Our friends Sarah and Julio took us to a farm owned by the indigenous Kèköldi people near Cahuita, Costa Rica. Our host gave us a tour through the rain forest surrounding his home and told us about all the medicinal plants and foods found in the area that are used by his family. Afterward, we were served a typical lunch of chicken, plantains breadfruit, and sweet potatoes served in banana leaves, which are used as plates and bowls. The chicken was some of the best we’d ever had and it was a very interesting and educational day. If you are interested in taking this tour, you can book it through Sarah and Julio’s tour company, www.boyerotours.com.
8. Argentinian cooking at Tierras Del Sol, Tulum, Mexico
When we were in Tulum, Mexico in 2009, we stayed at a little place on the beach called Tierras Del Sol (unfortunately, it looks like it is now closed). The beach was the best we’ve ever seen in our travels to the tropics, and because it was the low season we usually had it all to ourselves.
It was located at the very end of the Boca Paila Rd, about 12 miles from the center of town and we had no car. They served dinner and breakfast, and the manager/cook was from Argentina and cooked amazing food every night. It was pretty much the same menu: three salads, grilled vegetables, and then grilled meat or fish with an Argentinian marinade. We stayed for four nights, and ate three dinners there it was so good. Each night the grilled meat or fish was whatever looked fresh at the market that day. One night we ventured further down the road to a neighboring bungalow resort and ate at their restaurant, but the food was small, pretentious, and not nearly as good.
Simple and delicious, served with a side of peace and quiet, the warm sea air, and plenty of beer and margaritas. It was one of our top food experiences for sure.
7. Kuma’s Corner, Chicago
Paddy maintains that one of the best burgers he has ever had (perhaps THE best burger he has ever had) was at Kuma’s Corner while we were visiting a friend in Chicago in 2008. Located in the Avondale neighborhood, Kuma’s Corner is all about two things: amazing burgers and heavy metal. And burgers named after heavy metal. What more could you want?
It sounds gimmicky, but the real rock star here is the food. Most of the burgers are served on pretzel buns, and really are in a league of their own. If you go to Chicago, don’t miss Kuma’s.
6. The Jam Cafe, Victoria B.C. Canada
We spent a holiday weekend in Victoria BC in 2014, and we were surprised to find so much great food! It was tough to choose which one of our meals that weekend would wind up on our top food experiences list, but we decided it must be the Jam Cafe. We had pulled pork pancakes (large enough to feed a family of four) and the fried chicken benedict and shared. The bloody marys were also fabulous and are served with a piece of candied bacon and a seasoned salt rim. It was one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had, and worth the 20 minute wait in line.
A close second of our top food experiences in Victoria: Red Fish Blue Fish. It was almost a coin toss.
5. Atchafalaya, New Orleans
We spent Halloween 2015 in New Orleans, which I’m sure you know is home to some pretty spectacular cuisine. The winner from this trip was definitely brunch at Atchafalaya in the Garden District. They had a delicious-looking breakfast cocktail list, but we couldn’t pass up the bloody mary bar where you can build your own bloody mary from two different types of mixes, and an array of hot sauces and house pickled veggies to go with it. The bartender gives you a glass with your choice of vodka and you make it however you want it.
The breakfast menu made for a tough decision. I eventually decided on the duck hash with blackberries, mangos, duck confit, potatoes, hollandaise sauce, and bacon vinigarette. Paddy had the shrimp and cream cheese grits with smoked tomatoes and andouille sausage. Our friends tried the fried chicken and biscuits and gravy, the bananas foster french toast, and the truffled eggs with spinach. It was all amazing. They also serve dinner, and we will definitely be back on our next visit to NOLA.
4. Chiky Blu Restaurant in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
On our first night in the small beach town of Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, we ventured into a little unassuming open-air beach restaurant with reasonable prices and ordered up some dinner. I had no idea going in that I would have the best whole fried fish I’d ever had that I still think about to this day. It was simple, but full of flavor, and very crispy without any greasiness. It came with rosemary fried potatoes on a bed of lettuce with three tomato slices on top and a lime wedge.
Paddy had gnocchi which was also excellent. We went back for dinner again on our last night and had the pizza which was also good, but I still think about that fried fish. I haven’t had one live up to that one since.
3. Hotel La Pirogue, Taha’a, French Polynesia
We spent our honeymoon in French Polynesia, traveling to Tahiti, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. On Taha’a we stayed on a remote motu island off the coast of the main island of Taha’a at a little resort called Hotel La Pirogue. It was completely remote, so we did the breakfast and dinner meal plan. Breakfast was standard European continental style, with muesli, yogurt, fruit, and baguettes with cheese and ham cold cuts.
Dinner, however was unexpectedly some of the best food we’ve ever had. The little resort was owned by a French couple who were very welcoming. The husband was an outstanding chef and cooked dinner for the guests while his wife waited tables. We could choose a starter, main course and dessert for dinner each night.
The fusion of French cuisine with local Polynesian ingredients like vanilla, breadfruit, spices, and local fish, and shellfish was innovative and unique. It was some of the best food we’ve ever had.
We spent our days reading books, swimming in the beach in front of our bungalow, kayaking around the lagoon, and day touring the island of Taha’a. At night we would stuff ourselves silly at the restaurant and waddle back to our bungalow to sit on our porch and drink wine in the moonlight. It was a great four days.
2. Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland
While in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2015, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.
We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.
Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.
The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. It was a two-hour ordeal, and the most high-end culinary experience we’ve ever had. I hate rutabagas, and the rutabaga course with cream cheese foam, sweet and sour dill oil, and toasted millet was so delicious I almost licked the plate.
Nothing could really top that dining experience in Iceland, but I will give the lobster soup at Salthusid Restaurant in Grindavik a second prize.
1. Farm Pu Nim (Softshell Crab Farm) in Chanthaburi, Thailand
I don’t know where this is or how you get to it, but try to find out if you find yourself in the Chanthaburi province of Thailand. Farm Pu Nim (translates to “softshell crab farm”) was host to the number one of all our top food experiences in our travels to date.
We were visiting a Thai friend of mine and her family in Chanthaburi, Thailand, and they wanted to take us to lunch here. We drove a little ways outside of Chanthaburi town, and then parked and got in a small boat ferrying customers to the restaurant.
It was busy with Thai tourists and locals (no westerners that I saw), and our friend said it is somewhere that they take visitors or go to on special occasions. They ordered a bunch of dishes for us all to share.
The restaurant kitchen was visible from the path to the bathroom, and was totally chaotic. Piles of sea shells, plastic tubs, and tanks of fish and crabs were everywhere.
Our food arrived in courses, and it was a seafood feast. The food was amazing, and there was so much that we couldn’t finish it all. Oysters, shrimp, squid, a spicy fish soup, fried soft shell crab, soft shell crab in curry, and a whole fried fish with garlic. We’d never seen such a spread.
We squabbled over the bill at the end– we insisted on paying as they were taking us around Chanthaburi and being fabulous hosts, and after some arguing we were allowed to pay. For seven people (albeit two were small children), the total for all that food and a couple beers was $45.
A large part of what makes this number one of our top food experiences was the amazing food, but another part was being able to share in something uniquely Thai that our friends wanted to share with us. We would have never found that place on our own, and being able to share it with a long lost friend from my exchange student days and her family was very special.
Food is a huge part of our travels, and we hope to add many more meals to this list in the future. A meal doesn’t have to be expensive to be amazing, it just needs to be made with love and either talent or a good recipe. Stay tuned for more of our top food experiences in the future.
Crafty Adventures: Making my own Carmen Miranda costume for Halloween
I get really into Halloween. I start planning my costume in August. I love the experience of crafting a unique costume that isn’t a cheap out-of-the-bag costume that I may see ten other people wearing when I go out. Last year, I wanted to be Carmen Miranda. It took a little work, but my Carmen Miranda costume ended up being a success. Here’s how I made it:
Since I’m not a talented seamstress, I usually start with a pre-made costume or garment and modify it. I looked around at some of the “samba lady” costumes online, and didn’t find much that was my size, or that didn’t involve a bikini top.
I figured what I really needed was something strapless with a big slit up the side of the skirt that I could add ruffles to. I looked at some costumes on HalloweenCostumes.com and found a Jessica Rabbit costume that I thought might do the trick as the base. It came in plus sizes too.
The dress showed up, and it fit but was a bit big. Not wanting it to be too tight, I decided to keep the slightly too big size and modify it to fit me better.
But first, ruffles:
I bought all of the red and yellow ruffles that Joann Fabrics had. There was a bit more red than yellow, so I made that my main color, and it matched the dress anyway. I was hoping to make it a bit more colorful but I could only find other ruffles in white, black, or pastel colors that didn’t really go with the bold Brazilian samba look.
I started with a yellow ruffle along the hemline of the skirt and up the skirt slit, overlapping at the top. Next I added a red ruffle underneath it. I hand sewed everything, since my sewing machine died last year and I hadn’t replaced it yet. It wasn’t that bad, it was something productive to do while watching TV.
For the armbands I bought some extra wide elastic, made arm bands with it, and sewed four tiers of ruffles alternating yellow and red. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the fact that if you sew something non-elastic to elastic, it prevents the piece from being elastic.
I solved this by cutting it back open and sewing a small additional elastic strip to give the band some elasticity. not the nicest looking job, but it was on the inside of my arm so no one could really see it. I did the same thing with the second armband, leaving some of the elastic open.
The top of the dress had a big sweetheart neckline that was a bit too big. I folded it down and hemmed it, trimming off the excess fabric. I then took some yellow ruffle and sewed it around the top of the dress. The lack of elasticity in the ruffle actually helped out quite a bit here, as the dress was a bit big and it helped tighten it up.
Last, the most important piece of the Carmen Miranda costume is the fruit hat. I ordered this one online from another costume retailer, intending to add some fruit to it:
Not surprisingly, it arrived much less glorious and more deflated than the web photo above. That giant green ostrich feather at the top was only about 6 inches long. This wasn’t a problem as I wanted to add a lot more fruit to it anyway. The grapes were nice, but the little pineapple on top was pretty pathetic. I went to Michaels and bought more grapes, two bananas, two lemons, an apple, and an orange and two big red and yellow ostrich feathers.
The thing that was most helpful to me in embellishing the Carmen Miranda costume fruit hat was a glass head that Paddy acquired from an old roommate. It sat out in our garage for ages and I once asked if we could get rid of it but he wanted to keep it, and now I’m glad we did.
I was able to put the hat on the glass head and superglue the extra fruit and feathers to it while it was upright. Assuming that you are a normal person who doesn’t have glass heads in your garage, you might be able to get a styrofoam wig head from a craft store to use, or just ask your best buddy to model it for you.
Wearing the fruit hat was a bit of a balancing act. I had to bobby pin it to my head around the rim of the velvet turban part, but it was still a little slippy. I had some flower hair clips that I ended up clipping in the back to secure it further, and they worked well.
I added some bracelets and beaded necklaces, and some spangly chandelier earrings, and voila!
Somehow, my Carmen Miranda costume fruit hat stayed on crammed into a car, at our friend’s Halloween party, crammed into a car again, at another friend’s Halloween party, and then out at the bars on Capitol Hill in Seattle. It got me a free drink from a guy dressed as a widow carrying around a framed photo of an old man. Finally, just after we were kicked out of the bar at 2:00 AM, I was eating a taco at a food truck and my fruit hat dove off of my head and crashed onto the sidewalk. I’ll call it a success.
Pumpkin pancakes with apple cider syrup: our favorite fall brunch recipe. The apple cider syrup is what makes this recipe the best–a sweet and spicy mouthful of fall in every bite.
I found this pumpkin pancakes recipe years ago on www.bbonline.com shared from Mountain Home Lodge in Leavenworth, WA. Looks like they have since taken the recipe down and put up some other pumpkin pancakes recipes instead. This one is perfect though, and the apple cider syrup is what really makes it great.
Mountain Home Lodge’s Pumpkin Pancakes with Apple Cider Syrup Recipe:
Ingredients 2 eggs 1 cup milk 1/2 cup canned pumpkin 1/4 cup oil 1-3/4 cups pancake flour 1/3 cup sugar 2 ounces melted butter 1/2 teaspoon or more of each: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger Apple Cider Syrup 1/2 cup sugar 1 Tablespoon cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice 1 cup apple juice or cider 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/4 cup butter
Directions: In large bowl, beat the eggs well with the sugar. Add the other “wet” ingredients and mix. Whisk in pancake flour and spices until the batter is smooth. Batter may need more milk to make it thick, but pourable. Cook on griddle until golden brown. Serve with Apple Cider Syrup.
**Note--The pumpkin in the pumpkin pancakes batter makes them cook quicker than normal pancakes. I made a few black ones until I realized I needed the burner on lower than normal. Try a few small ones first until you get it right. Apple Cider Syrup: Mix sugar, cornstarch, and spice in a medium saucepan. Stir in apple juice and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it boils. Turn heat to low and allow syrup to thicken. Add butter, stirring in a Tablespoon at a time. Remove from heat. Refrigerate any unused syrup for another morning.
It seems like every fall we have at least one visitor from out of town, and that’s usually when I make pumpkin pancakes. It makes too big of a batch for just the two of us, so it’s nice to have someone to share them with. We like to pair them with chicken apple breakfast sausages and eggs–protein to balance out the sugar.