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Baja California Eating

Knowing the effect that an atmospheric or immaculately outfitted restaurant can have, it should come as no surprise that the fish in Baja California just tastes better – or that this week was my third time visiting. While previous trips have centered on East Cape’s Cabo Pulmo on the Sea of Cortez, motivated by the best shore-accessible snorkeling I’ve experienced and the parched, otherworldly beauty of the unpaved coastal roads, the time had come to try out the Pacific Coast. I was curious whether I’d still loved Baja beaches without the world-class snorkeling, and to see if Todos Santos was as special as I’d read.

From the empty beaches and rainbow sherbet sunsets to the genuinely friendly people (and drivers!), it was almost disturbing the extent to which Baja took the form of my inchoate hopes for it. Sitting on the sand sipping a Pacifico after a swim, I struggled to parse the burnished mammals legs that whipped by: two kids playing darted one way as the eight legs of two horses took off the other direction. The Airbnb arrival instructions read like a treasure map, relying on landmarks and mysterious ‘Ts,’ ending as we trundled down a dry riverbed. The food wasn’t so terrible either. 🙂

At Mariscos El Compa Chavo, the pleasure of eating in a palm-thatched palapa off an unpaved side street as the lemon fuzz of growing chicks bobbed by stood up impressively to the food itself: a thick plastic milkshake glass of pulpo ceviche, a crisp tostada topped with triggerfish ceviche, and a platter of aguachile, raw shrimp halved lengthwise and tossed with lime juice, sliced cucumber, and red onions with nearly no bite but much crunch.

While I didn’t associate arid Baja California Sur with agriculture, it was exciting to see tucked-away harvests of jalapeno peppers growing and extensive fresh fruits and lettuces on field and plate. After two ocean-filled days, my friends, husband, and I agreed that we should seek out a swimming pool for general lazing about. Perched on a cliff with a swimming beach on one side and dramatic, surf-sculpted crags on the other was Hacienda Cerritos, an elegant (if garishly saffron) 10-room boutique hotel built in the Spanish colonial style. If we each spent $50 in food and drinks during the day, we could use their pool, Jacuzzis, and patio. While there’s no denying the appeal of a swim-up bar or a pool with wrap-around canals accessible by swimming under stairways, I was less than optimistic about a memorable lunch after glancing over the gringo-geared, hamburger and chicken sandwich-heavy menu. On the advice of the waiter, I ordered the shrimp with vegetables and salad. The shrimp was served with tails on (keeping the fish fresher by minimizing air exposure as well as helping prevent overcooking) in a creamy chipotle sauce with lightly sautéed Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, green beans, and broccoli. What blew me away though was the salad, a fluffy tangle dominated by tender, dark baby greens, thicker than spinach and striated with purple (possibly a sorrel cousin?), gorgeous and so fresh.

Just when I thought the day couldn’t get much better, I discover a stone-hewn spiral stairway from the hotel down to the swimming beach. After catching a couple of waves bodysurfing, I head back across the beach and see two fishermen cleaning their catch – and there’s the triggerfish I’d just eaten for the first time, in the flesh! (Also piled on the makeshift cutting board were red snapper (pargo rojo) and a lovely blue and yellow-dashed fish I was told was mojarra reina, though Google image results do not corroborate this.)

You know what else was really good and showed up at restaurants in both La Paz (El Toro Guero, a popular low-key seafood spot with another location in San Jose del Cabo) and San Jose del Cabo (La Lupita, with another location in Cabo San Lucas)? A rich, orange shrimp broth served in tiny mugs as a complementary appetizer. While those warm, sweet-salty sips deeply soothed my hangover on the last day of the trip, the broth was just as tasty and aromatic the first time around.

Ironically, the reason I ended up with such a wicked hangover is that I didn’t set down a good base of food before a fantastic mezcal flight at El Refugio Mezcaleria. All the mezcales we had were enjoyable from the common-but-solid 400 Conejos to fancier stuff like Siete Leguas and even a pechuga (a type of mezcal where raw poultry is cooked on the still during the distillation process, imparting a unique savory depth to the flavor of the liquor as the juices drip down) from Barracuda Bar in Los Cerritos (also home to the best fish tacos of the trip). The hyper local offerings at El Refugio set themselves apart with a more potent and balanced mix of the sizzled spices, cool river rock, and slippery gasoline that I love from mezcal.

As someone who occasionally sips salsa like soup, it’s fitting that my final food of the trip was basically sampling salsas at a taqueria a few hours after lunch. While I always love an oil-based dried chile salsa, with or without seeds and nuts, the stand-out for me at La Lupita was the salsa negra, a smooth, medium-thick, totally black sauce that somehow tasted utterly delicious, even as its made half with ashes. The waiter told me the secret was to take your ingredients – fresh habaneros and chile serranos and garlic and onion – and completely incinerate one half then only partially blacken the other half before pureeing everything together. While I’ll certainly be trying that recipe at home, I plan to travel back soon. I’ve yet to visit Loreto which looks gorgeous and pleasingly remote. #1 on my list is to have dinner at Fonda Canipole (and, um, try to convince Sophia, the owner and proprietor to let me apprentice with her).

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A thing of beauty

From cosmopolitan Cartagena to the dramatic desert stretches of La Guajira, a beach day on Colombia’s coast is near-synonymous with a plate of fried fish. Sure, a few guys with well-loved Styrofoam coolers strapped across their chests may be hawking shrimp cocktail. But the most widely available – and often the only – menu item is a whole, fried fish of your choosing accompanied by a simple shredded lettuce salad, coconut rice, patacones (fried, smashed plantains), and lime wedges.

You pay by weight, with a premium for less plentiful fish like red snapper. Given how overfished snapper is (and that many places will charge you for it and swap in another fish), your best bet is róbalo (snook), with a light, clean ocean flavor and sea bass-like texture. That said, even the humble mojarra (tilapia, usually farmed) is pretty darn tasty. You can’t really go wrong when all the options are fresh and come with potato chip-crisp fins and well-seasoned skin that has a strangely pleasant gummy give to it. Expert slashes on each side of the fish make the plump, flaky meat easy to remove whether you dig in with a plastic fork or bare hands for a more unmediated eating experience.

It’s the sides that really make the meal special: the lightly tropical starchiness of the coconut rice, the crunchy and deliciously mild salad, and the toothsome give of the patacones center once you bite through the crisp exterior. And everything deserves some love from the lime. It’s the homemade TV dinner of my dreams. The best part may be the postprandial ocean dip, the ultimate no-fuss, full body clean up.

  • For those who fear gazing into the eyes of their lunch: fillets are often on offer.
  • Some beaches have a legit restaurant on site but others outsource the meal prep to local women who deliver the fish plates lightly covered and stacked in bags. Don’t let an overdeveloped focus on seeking the authentic prevent you from enjoying these just-as-good-as-made-beachside plates.
  • Beaches where you can enjoy this include La Boquilla (a rougher-around-the-edges neighborhood about 15 min from the Old City in Cartagena), Bahia Concha (the Tayrona Park beach closest to Taganga by boat), and Playa Blanca (in Santa Marta). Most day-long boat trip from Cartagena also include this kind of lunch.

Making vegetable broth

Making a good vegetable stock has a primal appeal: it’s the vegetarian version of using all parts of the animal. And, while building up flavor from a semi-predictable roster of veggies that need only simmer in water until delicious sounds like it would require less ingenuity than, say, making pigs’ feet taste tasty, I’ve found it to be a challenge.

After reading countless recipes, and reviews thereof, and failing to make broth that rivals its store-bought counterpart, today’s result was encouraging (there have been plenty of mistakes to learn from).

Here’s my take on how to approach broth, given that the whole point is that a hard-and-fast recipe doesn’t square with either the frequent impetus behind broth – wanting to use up leftovers – or the happy reality that there’s many ways to get it right.

Don’t skip the herbs – even if you don’t have fresh ones. Fresh herbs are great – and it’s great to find another use for them after preparing the meal for which they were originally intended – but do head to the spice cabinet if sprigs of thyme and rosemary aren’t at hand. Herbs are an important part of creating a layered and satisfying flavor profile. I was happy with the result of using dried Italian seasoning – oregano, basil, thyme, and marjoram.

Don’t fear the peppercorn.
While I’m sure it can be overdone, I saw a few recipes calling for just 2-4 peppercorns. I used eight peppercorns with a generous 3 quarts of water and it didn’t overwhelm.

Be conservative with the water.
Yes, more stock is better. Yes, that onion is fucking huge and seems like it could successfully perfume the Caspian Sea. And, perhaps the most compelling among reasons to keep adding water, you can keep reducing the stock until it strengthens. However: mess with the flavorings-to-water balance too much and you’ll be hard-pressed to arrive at a tasty stock.

There are fixes for a weak stock. Beyond adding salt and continuing to simmer, here are flavor enhancers you might consider:
1. Miso. This is my favorite by far, bringing savory depth without asserting its own identity too strongly the way soy sauce can.
2. More alliums. Leeks, scallions, garlic, whatever you’ve got – if the broth is anemic, this is a semi-speedy and effective way to get it tasting like real food.
3. Add a splash of wine. Even a part-wine aperitif like Lilllet Blanc works well.

Chop well. The veggies will be discarded so there’s no need to make them bite sized. However, the more surface area you can expose, the more flavor can be leeched from them. So, while it’s kind of thrilling to halve an onion and call it a day, it may be worth doing a bit more breaking down before adding the vegetables to the pot.

The big question I have is if roasting veggies before putting them in water noticeably deepens their flavor.
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Ras el Hanout-Seared Scallop with Carrot Broth and Wilted Spinach

While it seems clear to me that the human digestive tract and teeth are built for eating meat – setting aside increasingly relevant ethical and health concerns like ‘How often?’ and ‘From where?’ – I’m just not a big fan. I generally find the flavor and texture to be overwhelming and even unpleasant (Prosciutto, I wanted to love you).

That being said, I adore seafood. Exposing myself enough times to fish that I began to crave certain favorites has been an exciting journey, from salmon to oysters to uni. (Incidentally, reluctant scallop-eaters should try the amazing dish that a friend’s wife shared in her Contemporary Moroccan Cooking class at The Pantry at Delancey in Seattle: Ras el Hanout-Seared Scallops with Carrot Broth and Wilted Spinach. You sear the scallop after dredging it in a freshly toasted and ground mix of spices, then serve it in a pool of sauce with spinach wilted in a little olive oil. The sauce is the magic: you reduce 16oz of fresh carrot juice, 1/2 cup white wine, and minced shallots for 30 min, then whisk in 5 TBSP of butter very slowly, piece by piece.)

At the end of the day, though, there are certain foods I’m almost always in the mood for. Cheese is #1 – a modest hill of extra sharp cheddar and water crackers, spinach-green chile enchiladas, green pepper and olive Round Table pizza, etc. #2 is a family of side dishes that follow the formula of VEGGIE + NUT + FRUIT. Here are some of my favorite combos:

  • Broccoli, red grape, and almond salad

Toss halved grapes, broccoli florets (blanched for 1 min first if raw broccoli sounds like a lot of chewing), and toasted almonds (slivered or sliced) with a mixture of mayo, yogurt, garlic salt, pepper and a dash of rice wine vinegar.

  • Swiss chard with pine nuts and raisins

Soak 1/4 cup raisins in 2 TBSP balsamic vinegar for at least 10 min. Cut the ribs from a bunch of Swiss chard and chop the leaves roughly. Heat 2 TBSP olive oil over medium heat and a minced clove of garlic and chard leaves, cooking for 2 min. Add the raisins and vinegar, cooking until leaves are fully wilted, about 2 min. Season, sprinkle with 3 TBSP toasted pine nuts, and serve hot.

  • Delicata squash with pecans and chives

Preheat the oven to 400. Cut the squash in half the long way, then cut each half into scalloped arches about 1/2 in thick (the skin is thin enough to eat). Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast in the oven until softened and slightly brown. Toss with toasted pecan pieces, finely cut chives, and a little more olive oil.

  • Arugula, hazelnut, and strawberry salad

If not already toasted, put hazelnuts in a pan over medium heat and dry toast them (no oil or nonstick spray) until they are fragrant and beginning to color up, removing immediately from the pan to prevent burning. Whisk together a simple vinaigrette that won’t overwhelm the ingredients. Add the baby arugula, sliced strawberries, and hazelnuts and toss to combine.

What’s nice about the “fruit + veggie/herb + nut” approach is that you can turn most of these from side dish to light entree by introducing a grain. I like quinoa or bulgur since they cook quickly and have a good amount of fiber (and because I’m horrible at cooking rice).

ecola

Get thee to this fishery!

Until I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I’d never eat canned fish, taking it  as a given that fresh beat tinned any day of the week. While I don’t fault former  me for the visual assessment – truly, it can look a whole lot like Fancy Feast – I  was seriously off base in terms of the high ceiling for overall quality. I  mean, I didn’t even know that whole fillets (vs. homogenous shreds) could  be canned, which better preserves the integrity of the fish’s texture and  flavor.

Much like frozen vegetables can be tastier and more full of nutrition  than out-of-season grocery store purchases since they’re often iced up so soon after being harvested, canned fish can allow a delicious, just-caught fish to enter a similar kind of suspension – meaning that it’s fresh as can be once you pop the top.

While tuna is pretty good if you find a nice brand, salmon is generally better for you (more Omega-3s, less mercury) and more sustainable (be sure to buy wild salmon).  It has a more complex flavor, too, for me – a delicate sweetness adds subtlety to the dominant oceanic heft.

The large concentration of local fisheries along the Oregon and Washington coast means that markets here are lousy with high quality canned salmon, but you can generally order them online, too, if you know where to look. My two favorite brands are Loki Fish Co. and Ecola Seafoods (which has smoked fish offerings, too).

A fancy feast, indeed.

A fancy feast, indeed.

Recipes-wise, below is a recent favorite that is adaptable to most veggies or nuts you have on hand. Note that jars of hearts of palm can be pricey so seek out a Trader Joe’s if you have one nearby.

Really good salmon salad

Serves 2 (entree portions)

  • 2 cups greens (I prefer baby spinach since the mild flavor complements the assertive salmon salad)
  • 1/2 baguette, sliced
  •  olive oil for drizzling
  • 1 can whole wild salmon (I get it sans skin and bones)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hearts of palm
  • 1/4 cup walnuts (dry toasted, then chopped coarsely)
  • chopped cilantro to taste
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes (halved)
  • a splash of rice wine vinegar (you can use lemon or lime juice, too, but just a half or it’ll be too tart)
  • 2 TBSP mayo
  • Salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 and place baguette slices on cookie sheet, drizzling lightly with olive oil. Bake for 12 minutes or until nicely browned.

Place walnuts in a small pan and toast over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until walnuts become fragrant and have just begun to visibly brown.

Add mayo to the bottom of a medium bowl. Drain salmon and add to bowl, flaking it as you mix. Add in chopped tomatoes, hearts of palm, walnuts, and cilantro, tossing lightly to combine.

Mound spinach on two plates, topping with salmon salad, with 3-4 crostini fanned out on one side.

Have you ever been hungover and driving home and had the realization “I can eat TACO BELL” wash over you in joyful cascades like angels methodically bathing each other in ambrosia? Monday was such a day for me, following a friend’s wedding in Saratoga Springs.

While the plan was ultimately derailed by Siri – who was only able to tell me of Taco Bell locations nearby, but not those directly off the highway – and I ended up eating a spinach stromboli (followed by, um, a slice of cheese pizza) – I was lucky enough to stumble across the below Yelp review while hot on the trail of Mexican pizza and Seven-Layer Burritos:

“Drive thru gets a little backed up late at night especially when there is a show at Northern Lights. The food is very well made and extremely hot. Special requests are accommodated easily. Friendly workers.” – Mike L.

How did I not know or assume people reviewed fast food restaurants?! While the impulse to review a local Taco Bell eludes me, the review itself seems like it could be helpful to the discerning local eater. I love the idea of ‘well prepared’ and ‘extremely hot’ being the ultimate criteria for culinary success.

Summer summary

So, apparently an eventful summer is not super-conducive to writing things down. Here is a patchy reel of gastronomic happenings from the last few months:

Fun to find a savory recipe for a springform pan. This mix of pasta, cheese, peas, and mint – pleasingly odd-looking when cut into slices – is compliments of Bon Appetit:

A trip to Kauai in September involved an embarrassment of raw tuna and some freshly cleaved coconut:

This fine half-pounder of tuna, seaweed, and sesame oil came from Foodland’s (convincingly recommended) poke bar which had at least 15 different cold seafood salads on offer. I ate this over the course of a couple of days with cold beer and macadamia nuts.

Near Ke’e Beach on the North Shore. I also tried the younger coconut, more popular with locals, which is mild and has a jelly-like texture (unlike the meaty, shreddable heft of mature coconut flesh).

This was one of the best at-home salmon meals so far: arugula salad, simple, grilled salmon, and homemade versions of potato chips, tartar sauce, and pickled red onions for sides.

At $6/lb, very fresh, and the perfect size to feed two, rainbow trout was the grill favorite of the summer. Stuffed generously with cilantro, lemon slices, olive oil, and salt and pepper.

Here’s the trout topped with a gremolata of coarsely crushed roasted almonds, lemon juice (and some minced rind), olive oil, and cilantro.

Nature’s Easter eggs! Almost too whimsical to be true. These are from a farmstand somewhere between Seattle and La Conner, WA.

Summer brought a BBQ to the balcony. Shrimp grilling in their shells for maximum flavor.

Habanero gazpacho with crab and chives. This was really, really good.

The Leavenworth area was lousy with early-season pears (and sprinklers to water them, perfect for frolicking).

Lobster mushroom. This appealing monster was toothsome and flavorful cooked with butter and swiss chard.