The Joy of the Unexpected in Traveling

One of my favorite restaurants in the world is also one of the most simple.  From the food and decor to the husband-and-wife team who run the place, Caffe Solaris is an all around modest establishment.  In 2006, we visited Taormina for the first time.  A glitzy resort town, we were disappointed by sub-par food and outrageous prices.  

One afternoon we stumbled into a small deli/convenience store right on the main drag and my mom struck up a conversation with the owner.  His name was Benedetto and he had salt-and-pepper hair and a fiery spirit.  As he was preparing our delicious sandwiches we planned to take away, my mom made the unthinkable request of asking for two different cheeses in the same sandwich.  Benedetto wouldn't allow it.  "You Americans- all you do is eat at McDonald's- you don't know about food," he ranted.  My mom asked him what he knew about America and to our amusement he had spent time in Quincy, MA (the town my mom learned how to drive in!).  We allowed him to make the sandwich the proper Italian way and told him about our difficulty finding good food in Taormina.  He told us to meet him at his friend's place, Caffe Solaris, that evening.  
             A wonderful array of bruschettta

It wasn't too far from the Porta Messina- just off the beaten path.  There were only a few tables outside, overlooking a crumbled ancient theatre, and a few more tables were set up inside.  Benedetto was sitting outside chatting up a New Yorker who was there for the summer.  He beckoned us over and introduced us to Paolo, the owner/chef and his sweet wife, Maria, the server for the entire, albeit small, restaurant.  After the best bruschetta sampler I'd ever tasted, we were hooked and it became our dining spot for the rest of our stay in Taormina.  

We made it our mission to return and when we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in Taormina this summer, we stopped at Benedetto's deli, just a stone's throw from our hotel this time.  The man inside resembled him to a degree but we knew it wasn't Benedetto.  I had remembered to download a picture onto my phone of the entire group in 2006 (along with Benedetto and Paolo) at Caffe Solaris to jog their memory in case they didn't remember us. We asked the man about Benedetto and he told us he was his brother.  We showed him the picture and he looked at it and smiled.  "Where is Benedetto?" my mother asked in Italian.  "In paradiso," he responded.  We were all taken aback.  Benedetto had just passed away a few months earlier in April from an illness.  His kind-faced brother graciously accepted our condolences and confirmed that Paolo was still running Caffe Solaris.  

We managed to find it by memory that evening and we had a lovely reunion with him and his wife.  The food was as good as we remembered it.  At the end of the meal, he came around with shot glasses for the entire table and told us we had to try the Sicilian dessert wines.  We returned to eat there every night during our stay in Taormina and every night he brought us a different digestivo.  He'd come out to our table and chat with my mom during his cigarette breaks.  One of the evenings was his birthday and all his friends sang to him around the bar. 
                                    Fresh spaghetti all'arrabbiata and lasagna the first night
After the first night this visit, we found that Paolo reserved a table for us on the patio every night.
Clockwise from top left- risotto with shrimp, pasta alla carbonara, penne alla norma (a Sicilian specialty), spaghetti alle vongole
Desserts clockwise from left- fresh peaches in white wine, crêpe, cantaloupe

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the best memories during travel can come when you least expect it.  Even in tourist-centric Taormina, we found a little piece of home in our time with Paolo and his family.  It doesn't hurt that my mom speaks Italian which goes a long way.  But whether or not you are studying another language (which I highly recommend), I wholeheartedly encourage you to push yourself a little outside your comfort zone when traveling, because you will never know when you might meet a new friend.


The Best Grilled Cheese

I've always liked a simple grilled cheese every now and then, because it takes me back to my childhood afternoons spent with friends.  It's also the perfect comfort food which is what I crave at this time of year.  So I was more than excited when I found a delicious-sounding recipe on one of my favorite visual food blogs, The Kitchy Kitchen.  You definitely have to check out Claire's blog, if not for the amazing recipes then for the beautiful pictures and videos she creates.  But heed my advice- never, ever watch them on a hungry stomach.  You have been warned.  That being said, of course I did just that and found myself drooling over her goat gouda with mustard apple salad recipe.  

Sadly, there was no gouda in my fridge so I headed over to my nearest grocery store and bought a simple gouda cheese.  (I don't think it was goat gouda as the recipe calls for.)  No worries, I followed everything else and it was by far the best grilled cheese ever.  Seriously.  I invite you to see for yourself.
This sandwich is the perfect dinner on a cold evening when you're feeling a little lazy.  If you want to make it a little more formal- just throw in a glass of red wine and then you'll really be in heaven.  

Recipe- courtesy of Claire Thomas' The Kitchy Kitchen, slightly tweaked
(serves one)  
2 slices sourdough bread
1 pink lady apple, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
4 slices gouda (or really as much cheese as you like!)

Toss the apple slices, mustard, shallot, and parsley in a bowl.  Add some salt and pepper to taste.  Place half the cheese on the bottom of one slice, then carefully place the apple mixture on top, finally adding the remaining cheese.  Butter the bread, then place it butter-side down in a skillet pan on medium high heat.  I used a small pot weighted-down with water as a makeshift panini press to flatten it down a bit.  Once the cheese has started to melt and the bottom piece of bread is starting to brown, butter the top slice, then flip and wait for the other side to brown.  The whole thing should take about 3 minutes, just be careful you don't burn the bread.  Slice in half and enjoy.  


Roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime, and habanero

Sometimes I make something from a cookbook and it becomes my new favorite dish, a crowd-pleaser at a dinner party, and something I'll store in my recipe archives for a lifetime.  (i.e. anything Ina Garten).  Other times, I am not as fortunate.  The other day I was browsing the cookbooks at Costco and came across Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty.  The pictures looked lovely and I ended up looking some of his recipes online when I got home.  I decided to make his roasted butternut squash dish and substituted the green chiles with habanero pepper. The dish came out very beautiful-looking but it didn't wow me in the taste department.  I think there are a few too many flavors going on and none of the ingredients really complement one another.  Perhaps the measurement conversions listed on the recipe I followed weren't accurate.  The cardamom was on the overpowering side and so were the limes, so I couldn't enjoy the natural flavor of the squash.  That being said, it is a nice vegetarian option and after a little tweaking in the ingredient and measurement departments, I think you could have something good on your hands.  Back to the test kitchen I go!


Weekend Postcard from LA

This past weekend we headed down to LA for a little reunion.  As we were a big group this time, some of us ended up staying in a charming new boutique hotel- The Hotel Wilshire.  It just opened up a week before our arrival so everything was in tip top shape.  The highlights included spacious bathrooms, extremely comfortable beds, and an amazing rooftop bar and pool area.  We tried their brunch which was enjoyable in the cabana, but I really recommend the bar.  I suggest going up there for a pre-dinner drink when the sun sets.  My favorite cocktail- the bramble (a lovely take on one of my favorite drinks- a kir royale) is a refreshing and delicious way to start off the night.  At night the pool was sparkling, the city lights were glowing, and we found warmth from the fabulous fire pit.  
Left-banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery Right- burrata and marinated vegetables appetizer from Allora

A lovely Sunday in Manhattan Beach proved relaxing.  We strolled the pedestrian path and stared at all the gorgeous houses along the walkway.  This one above was my favorite- they were setting up for what must have been a fabulous dinner party by the beach!  A trip down to LA is always a nice way to liven things up and catch up with family.  I hope the next one is as fun!
Macarons from Bottega Louie


Farewell to Summer

I baked a pie recently.  It was my farewell to summer.  I remember the dread I used to feel (back in my school days) at the end of August knowing that September was creeping its way back.  Sure the trips to Office Max for binders, highlighters, and pens were semi-exciting for the organizational freak like myself, but like any kid, I wanted summer to last forever.  This pie evokes the same bittersweet feeling.  It's sweet and tangy at the same time and a scoop of vanilla ice cream complements the intense fruitiness.  I used the same recipe as I did for my peach and raspberry pies.  It was my first time doing a lattice crust and it didn't turn out picture perfect but I didn't care too much because I knew it would be eaten quickly.  

Out of the three pie flavors I made this summer, this was by far my favorite.  It just oozed summer.  The homemade vanilla ice cream didn't hurt either.  As I try to get inspired for fall seasonal cooking, I will bid adieu to blackberries and turn to more rustic fruits and vegetables.  Even for the summer lover like myself, butternut squash soup always seems to get me in the mood for autumn.  But for now, let me savor my pie and the final days of summer.


The Stray Dogs of Sicily

As I first learned long ago, stray animals are a common sight in many parts of the globe, particularly the third world. I'll never forget when I was witness to a pack of peaceful dogs sauntering by the Greek ruins at sunset when I was in Paestum four years ago.  Still, I was quite surprised to see so many stray dogs, or cani randagi, during my most recent stay in Sicily, especially in Palermo.  They were everywhere, most often solo, sometimes in twos, and rarely in packs.  A self-proclaimed fearer of dogs, I never felt in any danger.  It was always a spectacle.  While some landowners do the unthinkable and poison the dogs with bait, many Palermitans treat them as part of their community.  From Trapani to Palermo, it's not uncommon to see a random water dish on a sidewalk corner.  In Rome you have the gattare, in Palermo, there are the dog ladies.  
After some research, I was sad to find that dog (and cat) abandonment is a significant problem in the south, and there have even been some deadly attacks.  Apparently more often than not, local governments ignore the laws requiring them to capture and kennel the strays.  
Italian author, Diana Lanciotti, wrote a book on this issue.  I wish there was an English translation.  While there have been national campaigns to end pet abandonment, sadly it remains a problem. Some visitors to Italy have taken it upon themselves to adopt strays and bring them back home.
This was my favorite encounter.  This adorable stray was taking an afternoon swim in Trapani- hey dogs get hot too!  We later saw the same dog walking the main boulevard with a sense of determination and purpose during the evening passeggiata.  What have been your experiences with strays (dogs or cats) in Italy?  I'd love to hear your take.


Cooking with the Barefoot Contessa- Roasted Salmon with Green Herbs

The other night I was in the mood for salmon, a popular fish here in the Pacific Northwest.  I've been on a Barefoot Contessa kick lately and decided to keep that going by trying out the roasted salmon with green herbs recipe from her How Easy is That? cookbook.  Apart from the vigorous herb-chopping (which would be simplified if we had a more professional chef's knife), this is such a simple recipe with so much flavor.  Check out the recipe below.

Roasted Salmon with Green Herbs, from the Barefoot Contessa's How Easy is That?
1 salmon fillet (about 2 1/2 pounds)- I left the skin on
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 good olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup minced scallions
1/2 cup minced fresh dill
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup dry white wine
lemon wedges for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Set salmon in glass dish and season with salt and pepper.  Whisk together lemon juice and olive oil and drizzle evenly over the salmon.  Let sit for 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir together scallions, dill, and parsley and then scatter over the salmon.  Pour the wine around the salmon.
Roast salmon for 10-12 minutes until it's slightly undercooked in the center at the thickest part.  Cover dish tightly with foil and let sit for 10 minutes to preserve the juices and finish cooking.  Cut into serving size pieces and serve with lemon wedges.  Serves 6.


Pappardelle with corn

The few times I've tried a pasta dish with corn, I was in heaven, especially with SPQR's corn agnoletti a few summers back in San Francisco.  So when I spied the latest Food Network magazine cover while grocery shopping, I knew I had to try to make the pappardelle with corn.  Luckily, the recipe was online so I saved myself four bucks.  Although the recipe is good enough that I'd say it would be worth shelling out four dollars if you had to.
Since it's summer and I still had corn from the farmers market in the fridge, I used fresh corn, as the recipe calls for.  It's so easy and so much better than frozen corn so do yourself a favor and don't be lazy on this step.  All you need is a decent chopping knife to slice off the kernels when it's done.  The only thing I would do differently for this recipe is add more corn and tomatoes. Topped off with freshly julienned basil and grated parmesan, it just screams summer.  And you still have three more official weeks of it so get out there and make yourself some pappardelle.  It's even fun saying it.  Papp-ar-delle!  Check out the recipe below.
Pappardelle with Corn, adapted from Food Network Magazine
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
three ears of corn
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pints of cherry tomatoes
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 cup white wine
12 ounces pappardelle pasta
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 bunch of scallions, sliced
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus more for topping
small bunch of basil for topping

-Bring large pot of salted water to boil.  Turn off heat.  Add shucked corn and cover for 10 minutes.  Pull corn from pot with tongs, reserving the pot of water.  Put water back on heat.  After corn has cooled, slice off kernels with chopping knife.  
-Melt two tablespoons of butter in large skillet over medium heat.  Add whole tomatoes, teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, cooking until tomatoes are soft and starting to split, about 4 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for another minute.  Add wine and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.  Add chicken broth and corn kernels to skillet and bring to simmer.
-Once pot has come to a boil again, add pappardelle and cook according to package directions.  Reserve one cup of pasta water, then drain pasta.  
-Add pasta to skillet and add scallions, parmesan, remaining 3 tablespoons butter, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Toss all together and add reserve pasta water as needed.  (If you have this dish for leftovers, I recommend adding a splash of chicken broth and a little butter before reheating it).    Season with salt and pepper.  Add julienned basil and grated parmesan on top.  Enjoy!