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Category Archives: Travel

Cabo Cooking Class: Booked!

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Despite this pretty mild winter we’ve had in the Pacific Northwest, I’m really looking forward to our upcoming trip to Cabo. It pays to have family members who bid on ridiculous auction items like the mansion at the Palmilla where we are staying. Ok, I don’t really know if it’s a mansion officially, but it’s a grande casa for sure.

I figured while we’re there, I better scout out a cooking class, which is exactly what I did. Here is the description of what I’ll be cooking:

MEXICAN COMFORT FOODS- Foods that taste like home in Mexico include corn masa antojitos like Tlacoyos con Salsa Verde (delicate turnovers of blue masa stuffed with yellow fava beans served in a green sauce a colorful Central Mexican street favorite), Ensalada de Nopales (fresh nopal cactus salad with bright, crisp vegetables), Albondigas (savory meatball and vegetable soup) and Tortitas de Papa en Salsa Roja (crisp fried potato-cheese cakes with a red sauce)… and maybe even Minguichi (strips of roasted poblano pepper in a melted cheese sauce Michoacan style, delicious tucked into hot tortillas).  For dessert caramelized roasted Camotes (sweet potatoes) and cream.  Yum!

As I’m sure you can imagine, this Southern California native is dearly missing her daily dose of quality Mexican cuisine. So, in between sunning myself on the beach, catamaran cruises, and downing copious margaritas, I’ll be rolling up my sleeves until I’m elbow-deep in masa. Stay tuned for the blog about my adventure!

Banging Around a Berlin Kitchen

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Overdue is normally a word reserved for library books, but it’s fitting here, as the cooking class that I took in Berlin happened the Friday before Thanksgiving. That was November 18th for those keeping track, meaning I’m a solid month behind schedule in getting this posted. Demerit.

I guess I could blame it on the fact that I’ve been busy translating the recipes or making a failed attempt at piecing the marathon seven-hour long evening back together. But neither of those are really true. Minus part of the piecing, but that took place on my RyanAir flight from Berlin Schoenefeld back to London EARLY Saturday morning when the alarm went off. I found myself scratching my head wondering how a harmless cooking class turned into nearly a full day’s work, three full-course meals, and more bottles of wine than we properly counted, but hopefully paid for. At least I hope someone did.

Just getting to this class was a victory because it had been on my list during the original installment of Culinary Hopscotch. But as these things go (and went on that trip), Berlin was smack dab where my bank account reached an all-time low and I mentally began the journey home. There were no funds for the Kochen & Würzen class that time, but this trip to Berlin would be different. I was on a mission; I had a second chance at my class, on a day when Blane Gish (an American expat) was hosting, and I would be there to cook alongside him. I was doing it come hell or high water.

And I did…with two of my American friends, and about 10 of our newest German ones. It was, hands down, the most rammed cooking class I’ve been apart of, with the exception of my demonstration-based classes where you could hardly see let alone get your hands on a whisk. Being that Blane was an expat, I had assumed the class would be taught in English. It was. Kind of. Since 7/8’s of the class was German-speaking, he conducted the class that way, with random English commentary sprinkled in. Despite wondering what the hell was going on for a good portion of it, I was in awe of his command of the German language. It’s something I want desperately to learn, but my God, it’s a major pain in the ass with all of those cases. I digress. Sort of. Blane handed my friends and I the recipes, and low and behold, they were entirely in German. We looked at each other, had a laugh, and decided to get on with it. Surely there was a plan for us Amerikaneren.

Basiskurs feines Geflügel

Gebratene getrüffelte Perlhuhnbrust an Kürbis-Lauch-Risotto

Wachtel aus dem Ofen, gefüllt mit Prosecco-Sauerkraut und Thymiankartoffeln

Entenbrust mit Zimt-Orangensauce, Pommes Dauphin und Gemüse der Saison

Ouittenmousse mit Cranberry-Kompott

Yep, those were the dishes we would be making that evening, and our method of finding our way around the kitchen and the recipes was to pair up with a German ally, and be shown the ropes that way. It worked, until my partner began pouring glass after glass after glass of wine, which made for a comical evening. Especially when we washed and dried the Wachtel (those are Cornish Game Hens for the uninitiated) together, laughing mostly about the English name for which I had no explanation. We walked through the recipe together, me pointing out the few German food-related words I did know, and her marveling at the fact that an American could even piece together a sentence or two of her native tongue.

After we  banged around the smallish kitchen, our class of 12-13 came together on three separate occasions over a fully prepared meal in the dining room. There was, of course, more wine to go with them. When the third of the three meals was nearing completion, I had a look at my phone. It was nearly 1:00 a.m., and it made sense to me why Blane had asked early on if we needed to be out of there at a certain time. No, no…we could catch a taxi home, so we weren’t on any U-bahn time constraints. But it all made sense now, and I could hear the nagging chime of my cell phone alarm bellowing at 5:45 a.m., telling me it was time to get up, surely hungover, for my early morning flight. Tick one for foreshadowing.

If you find yourself trolling Berlin’s duplicitous city streets–the ones that once forced out foreigners but now offer them staggering autonomy, the ones that once hid behind a wall that no longer stands, the ones who know their storied roots but watch progress grow where things have fallen down–make it a point to find Kochen & Würzen. You’ll learn your way around a German kitchen, but also find a place where everybody knows your name even when you can’t remember it yourself.

Why Social Media Counts, or How 140 Characters Scored Me 20K JetBlue Points

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As a Culinary Hopscotch reader, you may be wondering why you’re reading a blog post on social media. Trust me…read on and you’ll see how this all comes full-circle. You may also dart to create your own Twitter handle.

Twitter is one of those things that has been around for awhile now. You have probably seen the icon on webpages begging you to follow along, but you might not fully understand what Twitter is, how it’s useful, and why you should be on it. Facebook seems to reign supreme, and the young, old, and everyone in between know how to use it. To boil it down, Twitter is another platform where people can connect with messages that are 140 characters (letters and spaces) or less. Today, I want to share a personal anecdote about why social media is increasingly important, and how Twitter helped me score 20,000 JetBlue “Trueblue” points.

I follow @JetBlue on Twitter. Why? Because once a week on Tuesday they release their JetBlue “Cheeps,” or cheap airfares that are only advertised on Twitter via their handle @JetBlueCheeps. I follow both because I like to travel and don’t want to miss any deals that might apply to me. I’ve been following them both for a few months now, but haven’t interacted with either account at all. Until yesterday.

Two days ago, there was a CNN travel article about Twitter and how airlines are using it effectively to resolve customer service issues, complaints, reschedules, and so forth. In some cases, it’s an easier and quicker method of getting in touch with an airline than standing in line at the airport. I let my Google Reader stalk the CNN travel section for me (yay technology), so of course I read this article. They mentioned that JetBlue and Virgin America are probably the best Tweeters out there airline-wise, and that JetBlue specifically has resources dedicated exclusively to social media (i.e. there is a person manning the @JetBlue handle on Twitter).

So yesterday, I’m thumbing through Twitter on my iPad, and I see a message from @JetBlue about their CEO @DavidJBarger conducting an in-air contest for 20,000 “Trueblue” points. He was on a flight from JFK to somewhere, and this contest was taking place at their cruising altitude. “Rad!” I thought, and wished I was on that flight. I replied to the Tweet and said “Maybe you should think about having this same contest on Friday during your flight from LGB–PDX at ohhh, 3:10p.m.,” a flight I’m going to be on. @JetBlue responded to me and said “Did you pull that flight out of thin air? Thanks for choosing JetBlue but we don’t think the CEO normally flies that route.” Clearly, this Tweet was just for me, and that was very cool. I wasn’t after a handout, and was happy that what I had read on CNN was true: they do monitor their Twitter account and they respond.

I’d learn the next morning that their social media staff aren’t the only ones who monitor the @JetBlue account. When I woke up, I had an @message from the CEO himself telling me he had copied the Director of Customer Loyalty via Twitter and asked him to deposit 20,000 “Trueblue” points into my account. I then had a follow-up message from @Tremdave requesting my “Trueblue” account number, which I gave, and less than 10 minutes later, the 20,000 miles were in my account, I was thanked for being a loyal JetBlue customer, and wished a pleasant journey on Friday. Now that’s what I call customer service!

There are a couple of things to garner here. First, why would JetBlue do this? They’re in the business of running an airline, not giving away free flights for no reason (the points they gave me are equivalent to two roundtrips, by the way). It’s actually genius psychological marketing. Yesterday, there I was with 228 “Trueblue” points in my account thinking, “What am I going to do with these? It’s going to be years before I collect enough points for a free flight.” Now, I have more than enough for a couple of flights, and I’m inclined to fly JetBlue so I can continually add to my balance. Plus, they’ve shown me that they do listen, they care about their customers, and they are interested in maintaining my loyalty. I like that. And they’ll like the cha-ching they get each time I book a flight with them from here on out, my plugs for them via Twitter, Facebook, this blog post, etc…, and the windfall of additional business that may come their way as a result. That’s how and why social media works; it’s a way to ensure your brand is consistently on the mind of consumers, that you organically pop up first when people Google your name, etc…

Before you rush out and create your own Twitter handle and try to pilfer miles or points from any airline, do realize that this was likely an isolated incident. I was at the right place, at the right time, and said something that resonated with someone who could make things happen. I don’t maintain that this is the norm, and I doubt it will ever happen again. Ironically though, I received an email yesterday from a friend offering to give me additional Russian cooking lessons at her home in New York, home of @JetBlue and the place where all of this originated. If nothing else, with a short 140-character message, Twitter helped to condense my world a bit; I’m thinking of using these gift flights to reach my next few cooking classes for @CulinaryHScotch. Are you following me yet?

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Find Yourself the Spice Monkey

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There has got to be a way for me to convince Nikita to open a Spice Monkey in the USA. First things first: convincing him to give me the recipe for the flat rice snack we had. I’m vowing to figure it out.

Today, I traveled far from Fulham to Alexandra Palace. My beginners Indian cooking class was at Nikita’s family home, and I knew upon entry that I was in for a truly authentic experience. His adorable tiny mother, Mrs. G, acted as sous chef, and despite my early arrival, they welcomed me in from the impending rain. While we were chatting, I had a look at the table that was covered in an array of colorful spices, the nucleus of any Indian recipe. Clearly, spices were going to be a large part of our conversation.

Our class took place in their greenhouse, and there were just three of us and Nikita, which was fabulous from a learner’s vantage point. We spent a solid hour pouring over the different spices, their taste, their texture, and their origins. He had everything, from dried coriander and two kinds of cardamom to mustard seeds, fenugreek, and ground red pepper. Let us not forget turmeric; my hands and nails are currently stained a gorgeous yellow hue. He even had fresh turmeric, which I had never seen nor tasted before, but it was amazing. I presumed it was ginger by it’s looks, but as they say, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

From these spices, we created a variety of masalas. Garam masala is probably the most common and widely recognised, and in a grinder, we made our own version after toasting the different seeds in a dry pan. We also created a version that we didn’t toast at all, and it was great to be able to compare and contrast the two with our noses. Much of what we did today was sensory oriented. It was a wonderful way of getting familiar with so many spices that we have seen, heard about, or shoved to the back of our cupboards after using them just one time. One of Nikita’s biggest points was not to get overwhelmed by the options; use what you like that day, and if you leave something out (like we did a few times), c’est la vie.

Our menu today consisted of aromatic rice, Mrs. G’s chicken curry, cauliflower bhagi, potato curry, and shrikanda, an Indian dessert. I had no idea that Indians had such a sweet tooth, but evidently, that is the case, and randomly, I think the dessert may have been my favourite dish. Most people think of curry as blow-your-head-off hot, oily, and generally difficult to prepare, but I learned today that none of that is the case. In fact, with some thoughtful planning, I think an Indian feast would be the perfect way to entertain. We need to be more adventurous with our palettes in America, and it would be nice if you didn’t have to drive ten towns away to find a decent curry. I always lament that when leaving London because there are about as many Indian places here as there are Mexican joints in California. Are all of them good? Now, I think we all know the answer to that one.

Point being, don’t be discouraged when it comes to experimenting with Indian food in your own kitchen. Try your hand at it with a cookbook and only buy small quantities of the spices until you decide which combinations suit your taste best. Better yet, if you can swing it, make a trip to Spice Monkey and take a class. You’ll be happy you did. I can’t tell you how much easier it was to learn from an expert and see things firsthand. I will be back for another class with Nikita, mark my words.

For now, I’m hanging up my apron to head back to America. Next stop: California followed by a more permanent stop in Portland, Oregon. It may be time for a move into the culinary world, because with each of these classes, I realise more and more that this is what I’m meant to be doing whether it’s stirring, writing, teaching, or otherwise.

The Spice Monkey

Culinary Hopscotch Continues!

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I cannot wait for June. I just can’t. Not only are we heading to Capri to see our good friends tie the knot, but we will also be spending some time in London. 

It’s an amazing city…a favorite in fact. And despite the stereotypes about the food, I’m planning to take some cooking classes while I’m there. 

Keep your eye on the blog for the latest and greatest!

Stove-Slaving in St. Petersburg for Stroganoff & Kotlety

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Today, our journey took us into the depths of St. Petersburg on the metro, and out of the historical city centre. Exiting the metro, we’d find architecture that triggered immediate ideas of Communism; we had ascended into the projects. Real estate prices here, however, fetch surprisingly high tariffs, and we still are at a loss for an answer as to how people pay to live in this city. It is incredibly expensive.

The food, on the other hand, is quite simple. Russian cuisine is hearty to a point of insulation, and it reminds me a lot of the cuisine I had in Poland earlier this winter. In fact, some of the words are even the same, however, their translations couldn’t be farther apart. Take “pierogi” for example. During our city tour the other day, our driver, Alex, took Brady and I to a traditional Russian “fast food” restaurant for pierogi. We walked in, approached the counter, and looked around for the tender dumplings of various fillings, only to find exquisite golden pastries bursting with sweet and savory insides. Lost in translation? Apparently. Russian pierogis have nothing to do with the dumplings you’d find in Polish milk bars and in the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s. They are bonafide pastries filled with everything from salmon to apricot jam. And quite good. But I digress. The cooking class is why you are reading.

Brady (or Buh-rian, depending on who you ask) and I jumped on the metro this morning and made our way far out of the city centre. You wouldn’t believe how deep these metros are here. A picture wouldn’t even do it justice (and we tried), and if that wasn’t enough, we descended to find just a row of metal doors with people hanging about. Where were the trains? Behind the doors, of course. We entered the train, the doors slammed shut with a resounding clunk, and we were not getting out. Russian suicide prevention, or something else? We wouldn’t find out, but this was unlike any metro either of us had ever seen. The train skated along the tracks briskly, and after about 40 minutes, we arrived at our stop, the 2nd to last on the line. 

The plan was to meet our host there at the exit, but as we waited and waited, we both questioned why I hadn’t been more judicious in getting a description of this woman, or giving her ours. Clearly, we stood out; Brady, looking like a proper English gent in his camel overcoat, and me with flat boots and round eyes taking it all in. Everyone was staring. Suddenly, from nowhere, Polina appeared. 
An unforeseen incident with her electricity forced us to her mom’s apartment around the corner where the three of us met her mom and Jack, the English Spaniel. Polina and I were about to be up to our elbows in Beef Stroganoff and Turkey Kotlety, so we got straight to work. Neither of these dishes required any special cooking equipment though, only time. The three of us had a chat before we got started regarding the American interpretation of Beef Stroganoff versus the Russian one. Being that it was invented by a chef in this city, I can without a doubt say, we’ve got it all wrong.

I didn’t see a can of mushroom soup anywhere today, nor did I see a mushroom for that matter. Egg noodles need not apply, as they’re not even a part of this dish. Our stroganoff included hand-pounded and sliced meet, an onion, olive oil, a bit of sour cream (save it people), Russian herbs (which Polina so graciously sent us home with), and salt and pepper. C’est tout. The dish truly could not have been easier and I can imagine having it on a cold winter’s night, assuming we actually have a winter this year. Based on current reports, it sounds like a long-shot. We boiled off some potatoes for a mash on the side, and there, my friends, you have the real Beef Stroganoff. Where we ever came up with this concoction over noodles is beyond me. 

Next to our Beef Stroganoff and potatoes were massive patties called Kotlety. We ground the meat by hand, and passed all the other ingredients (garlic, carrot, onion, and a bit of white bread) through the meat grinder as well. Cinchy. Before forming the mixture into patties under water, we added in an additional Russian dried herb and salt and pepper, and then sauteed them in frying pans until they were golden brown. This was truly winter fare, and perfect for the flurries falling outside the window.

At the conclusion of our cooking, Brady, Polina and I sat down to a lovely lunch, and talked about all things everything. Polina has Russian citizenship, but was born in London so she’s a British national above all else. We each shared our interpretation of St. Petersburg, discussed immigration in our countries, pondered what living in the Soviet time must have been like, and laughed about how Russians can’t queue or drive for shit. She regaled us with some hilarious stories about being pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road here (they drove over from London, and she drives on the opposite side in her car), and it was a really fun afternoon. 

If you’re headed to Russia and fear the food, don’t worry. It’s really nothing more than meat and potatoes, just like my Irish ancestors noshed on in a similar effort to keep warm in blustery times. The cooking digs today were a real indication of what Soviet Era Russia must have looked like. From the austere apartment buildings with unfinished concrete hallways and stairwells, and the metro experience from start to finish, we were whisked away from European Russia and transported to decades of yesteryear. I’m realizing more and more that traveling through the lens of cooking is a fantastic way to move between countries. Fantastic and different. Really.

Mexican Picnic in Paris

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There has been an idea brewing in the brains of two Americans in Paris, so we decided to perform some due diligence while we were here. A friend came in from London on Saturday who has been living there for the last year or so, and she was dying for a taste of Mexican food. Fine I thought. I had recently read a blog about a new Mexican place in Paris that had the word “authentic” attached to it on more than one occasion. We would be the judges. 
After a night out in Paris that looked more like a third-world tumbling routine, we needed a pick-me-up yesterday morning. Off we set for El Nopal near Canal St. Martin. It was a cinchy excursion on the metro, and when we hopped off, we took our chances, turned left and found the street: Rue Eugene Varlin. It was three storefronts in from the canal, and seriously the tiniest place you have ever seen.
A true Harlequin facade, we rammed ourselves inside three-men wide and we were all that would fit. We passed along our order, and the man, whose name we never even got (kicking myself right now), might have been the friendliest person ever. He shared the whole enchilada with us. He was from Monterrey, Mexico with a Columbian wife who was born in Paris, and despite an attempt to live in America and her protests about living in Paris, here they found themselves after not having been given visas in New York. He enrolled in school and learned French, and just five weeks ago opened up this veritable taco stand. And there were were standing in it.
It was en fuego. Quite literally. That’s the thing with European Mexican food. Somewhere along the line, someone got the the idea that Tex-Mex was the all the rage. Mais non. We all had a laugh about that in El Nopal when he said, “You can’t believe how many people come in and ask if I’m going to make chile con carne.” There’s a total misconception about what Mexican cuisine actually is in Europe. People think if you throw meat and tomatoes in a tortilla, voila…you have a taco or burrito. Ah hem…no. In any event, El Nopal was the  real deal with spice, verve, and a store-keeper with a personality that would make me queue there for lunch day-in and day-out in Paris provided I lived here. 
As luck would have it, we stumbled upon Mexican joint #2 today in the Latin quarter on Rue Mouffetard. We had just finished lunch, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to juxtapose two Mexican restaurants in Paris. We shared a chicken quesadilla, and for God’s sake, it was another hit. Spicy salsa and well-prepared chicken in a bonafide flour tortilla. And Coronas. We couldn’t believe it. Bon chance! 
Tomorrow, we’re off to the Champagne region of France, and I think our lunch at Jardin des Crayeres will border more on avant-garde than internationale, but we’ll see. It’s fine though. We leave for Russia on Wednesday morning, and I can only imagine what the cuisine will bring there. I don’t think we’ll be having tacos and vodka, let’s just say that. But who knows…only time will tell.