Thursday, January 31, 2008

A More Prudent Farmers' Market Pasta

As I mentioned on Monday, I have a new Sunday dinner tradition: Delaney’s Culinary Fresh pasta mixed with anything I find that morning at the farmers’ market. Last week, I could not resist buying a variety of beautiful, wild mushrooms despite a slightly sketchy story about their origin.

Fortunately, I have made a cyber friend, Melanie Lytle, author of the blog Livin’ the Vida Local, who set me straight. On a year-long mission to eat food grown primarily in the San Diego foodshed, Melanie has extensively researched local food producers, from those setting up booths at farmers’ markets to those selling meat, fish and dairy products in shops. Her blog has already been a tremendous resource for me.

After reading in an article Melanie sent me that the mushrooms I purchased last Sunday might actually have been shipped from Japan, I felt quite deceived. I now know, however, on this big West Coast, I must become a more savvy farmers’-market shopper.

And last Sunday I did make some prudent choices as well, including 8 (yes 8) bundles of Swiss chard which I purchased from the Eli’s Ranch (a farm located in Fallbrook) stand. It was a little excessive, I admit, but I had just read in Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, about the importance of eating leaves as opposed to seeds and about how the shift from a food chain with green plants at its base to one based on seeds — a shift embodied in the Western Diet — has had detrimental consequences to our health. (More on this book in an upcoming entry.)

So, I may have fibbed a little. Delaney’s Culinary Fresh pasta has become a little more than a Sunday night tradition. It has been more like a twice-a-week dinner affair, which supplies us with leftovers for lunch at least twice a week as well. The simplest and most delicious way I have thus far prepared this fresh linguini is this: Sauté sliced onions and fennel together over medium heat until caramelized. Transfer to a bowl. In the same pan, sauté Swiss chard with garlic and red pepper flakes until wilted and add to the bowl. Cook the pasta for two minutes, add to the bowl of vegetables, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and serve. Ben has been very pleased with this combination, loving particularly the toothsomeness of the pasta and the texture of the chard.

As I mentioned above, I will devote an entry entirely to In Defense Of Food, but for now, I’ll give you a little preview. In the last 50 pages of the book, Pollan gives some basic rules to help readers more simply figure out what to eat. Here are a few: Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food (such as Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt tubes). Avoid Products that make health claims (because even products such as corn oil can make claims such as, "One tablespoon of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease".) And my favorite: Have a glass of wine with dinner.

Here’s another good one — one that is particularly relevant to this delectable fresh linguini: Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A.) unfamiliar, B.) unpronounceable, and C.) more than five in number. As a little experiment, I pulled a bag of egg noodles from my cupboard. Here are the ingredients: semolina, durum flour, egg yolks, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid. The Delaney’s Culinary Fresh red pepper linguini, on the other hand, is made with semolina flour, red bell pepper, egg and sea salt — ingregients we all recognize and know how to pronounce.

Visit the Delaney's Culinary Fresh Web site to read owner Jordan Stone's inspiring story, to find other locations to purchase this handmade pasta, and to read other ways to prepare a wonderful dinner in no time.

Farmers’ Market Linguini II
Serves 4

5 thin slices pancetta (Note: This can be omitted. I've made this basic recipe twice now, once with pancetta and once with olive oil, and both are delicious. Substitute a tablespoon of olive oil for the pancetta if desired.)
2 small heads fennel
one onion
kosher salt

two large heads Swiss chard, escarole or kale, washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes
1 lb. red pepper linguini
purchased, if possible, from Delaney's Culinary Fresh
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
freshly cracked black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Slice the pancetta into thin strips or cut into small dice. Place in a large, nonstick sauté pan over medium-low heat. Cook until the fat melts and the pancetta begins to brown. When the pancetta turns dark brown and becomes crispy, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon or tongs, and set aside. (This could take as long as 20 minutes or as fast as 10, depending on how patient you are with the heat dial and how much time you have to spare.)

3. Meanwhile, slice the fennel into half moons. Slice the onion into half moons as well. After removing the pancetta from the pan, sauté the onion and fennel together over medium heat until slightly caramelized. (Again, this can take more or less time depending on patience.) Season lightly with salt. Once slightly browned, transfer mixture to a bowl and set aside.

4. Meanwhile, if using chard, cut the stems from the greens and chop into 1/2-inch chunks. Cut the greens roughly too. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, add the stems and sauté over medium heat until tender, about five minutes. Turn the heat to high, add the garlic and the greens and season with salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Using tongs, rearrange the greens until nicely wilted. Turn off heat and add fennel-onion mixture to pan. Toss to combine. (If cooking the pasta right away, you can keep the pan on low heat.)

5. Cook pasta for two minutes. Drain, but do not rinse. Place pasta in a large bowl. Add a few large handfuls of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Add vegetables and reserved crispy pancetta pieces, and toss. Serve immediately, passing more cheese and freshly cracked pepper on the side.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Very Cute Seals & Cookies

One time it took my dad 7 hours to drive from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia, PA. Was there traffic, you may wonder? No. How then could it have taken so long? Well, he arrived to Philadelphia proper in about 4 hours, but then spent the next three hours driving around the suburbs, an area he had visited several times, trying to "follow his nose" to his hotel. He was exasperated (who wouldn't be?) to say the least, when he finally called me from his hotel room explaining what had happened. Our dinner reservation, planned for 3 hours earlier naturally, had long been cancelled, and we decided to meet for breakfast instead.

Yesterday, I felt a little bit like my dad. After spending an hour or so exploring downtown San Diego, I felt a little hungry. I called my friend — the same friend who swears it never rains in SD — who recommended a few lunch spots, one being the Living Room located in La Jolla. I had been to La Jolla once before, and so, like my dad, did not need directions. I headed back on I-5N, got off the exit for the La Jolla Parkway and headed west. The area looked familiar, but one wrong turn led me heading North, so far North I ended getting back on the 5 heading south, so far south I had to get off and turn around to head north. I wanted to scream. I contemplated pulling into the In-N-Out — a place I'm still dying to try — located right off the exit, but decided, like my dad, I could persevere for at least a few more hours.

Fortunately, before too long (well under three hours), I found myself sitting at one of the outside bistro tables at the Living Room, basking in the sun and sipping a very calming mocha, a drink highly recommended by my friend. My BLT arrived shortly after and I tucked in. Still flustered and famished from my journey up and down the 5, however, I forgot to photograph my delectable sandwich, and before I realized what was happening, I had devoured all but one bite of my potential blog entry. Alas!

After lunch, I took a quick stroll around Seal Beach, which I had seen once before but only at night. Seals are so cute! And very tired it seems. A few of them slithered (do seals slither? whatever they do, it looks exhausting) in and out of the water, but most of them lay motionless in the sand. Except for this guy pictured below. Every time the tide reached his underbelly, he arched his back, curling up his tail and head. I could have watched it all day.

In honor of my moment with the seals, I purchased a cookie, pictured above, from Girard Gourmet, another spot recommended by my friend. By this point, I had regained my composure and was able to snap a picture before tasting this yummy and very cute treat. Thanks Chu for a wonderful day in La Jolla!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Farmers' Market Mushrooms & Melograno Nostalgia

I seem to have been deceived. Contrary to what I believed before arriving to the West Coast nearly three weeks ago, it does rain in Southern California. And it also gets cloudy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. And while I’m not longing for East Coast weather by any means, yesterday, while shopping at the San Clemente’s farmers’ market, I found myself craving my all-time favorite pasta dish — pappardelle tartufate — found in only one place: a little, Italian BYOB, located 2,378 miles away (as the crow flies) in Philadelphia.

I have been mocked by many about my love for Melograno. Whenever anyone I know visits Philadelphia, I point them to the corner of 22nd and Spruce; whenever I learn of anyone living in Philadelphia who hasn’t been to Melograno, I gasp, and then point them to the corner of 22nd and Spruce. I also tell them what to order: the baby arugula and prosciutto salad to start; the papardelle tartufate as an entrée; and the tiramisu for dessert. Melograno serves many other delectable appetizers, desserts (and entrées) too, but the papardelle tartufate —a mix of homemade pappardelle pasta, wild mushrooms, chopped walnuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and truffle oil — must never be substituted.Anyway, while at the market yesterday, I began chatting with Don of Don’s Farm in Wildomar, CA. Don sells eggs, preserves, honey, apple butter, avocados, squash and a host of other vegetables. He also a variety of mushrooms — maitake, brown beech, white beech and royal trumpet — though I am unsure if he grows or just sells these mushrooms.

In any case, Don briefly described the growing technique: these bunches each grow in a bottle in a temperature-controlled room under a fine mist. They are not hydroponic; they are not grown in soil; they are totally organic. Don tells me, “they” — I’m not sure who this refers to, thus the confusion as to who is growing the mushrooms — are building a multi-million dollar facility to increase production of these prized fungi. (As a supporter of small, diversified farms practicing environmentally responsible growing techniques, I am instinctively averse to the idea of this facility: Is growing mushrooms this way any different than the way Earthbound Farms grows their organic greens, in large facilities requiring huge amounts of energy to keep the temperature controlled to prevent the greens from wilting? I’ll have to investigate further, for now, however, I’ll continue to enjoy these delectable fungi.)

Don recommends keeping the mushrooms in their plastic wrappings until cooking time. Do not wash them, he says, and snip off just the outermost end before cooking.

These are the maitake, meaning "dancing mushroom" in Japanese:
I cannot say this recipe replicates Melograno’s pasta exactly, but it has satisfied my fresh pasta-truffle oil-wild mushroom craving. And this pasta, purchased at the Delaney’s Culinary Fresh stand at the farmers’ market, while completely different than the pappardelle at Melograno, is unbelievable. Last week I bought a pound of the red-pepper linguini and this week a pound each of the lemon basil and red pepper. The pasta will keep, I am told, for up to a week in the refrigerator or months in the freezer. Requiring only two minutes in boiling water to cook, this flavorful pasta remains toothsome and chewy and has already become a Sunday evening tradition.
Farmers’ Market Linguini
Inspired by Melograno in Philadelphia
Serves 4

8 pkgs. mixed mushrooms: I used a mix of white beech, brown beech and maitake purchased from Don’s Farm at the San Clemente’s farmers’ market (Note: I only used four packages and found that was not sufficient for the one pound of pasta. I am doubling the recipe I made today as a result. I would guess that each package of mushrooms weighs about 4 ounces, so a total of 2 lbs. (or 1.75lbs at least) of mushrooms is required for 1 lb. of pasta)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, plus more to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 sprigs thyme, leaves removed and finely chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 lb. fresh linguini (I used fresh lemon-basil linguini purchased from the Delaney’s Culinary Fresh stand at the San Clemente’s farmers’ market, but any fresh or dried pasta will do. I actually think a dried orecchiette or bowtie pasta might be a better shape to toss with the mushrooms, though this fresh pasta is unbelievable!)
freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
truffle oil, optional
a few big, thick shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano to top each plate
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, heat one tablespoon of oil with one teaspoon of butter. When hot, add half of the mushrooms, shake the pan once, then let them cook undisturbed for one to two minutes — this will help them get a nice brown, seared edge. Shake the pan again, and if necessary, stir and rearrange the mushrooms with a wooden spoon. Let cook until tender and slightly caramelized. Add half of the garlic and thyme, kosher salt and pepper to taste, and let cook for one minute longer. Transfer these mushrooms to a bowl then repeat with remaining oil, butter, mushrooms, etc. When all the mushrooms have finished cooking, return the first batch to the sauté pan to keep warm.

3. Cook the fresh pasta for 2 minutes. Alternatively, cook dried pasta until al dente. Drain. Place pasta in a large bowl. Add a dab of butter and a handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Add the mushrooms and toss gently to combine.

4. Place small mounds of the pasta on all plates. Drizzle each serving with a tiny (or not so tiny) amount of truffle oil, if desired. Top each with the thick shavings of Parmigiano.

Note: Melograno also adds chopped walnuts, which add a nice crunch and good flavor. I forgot to purchase them and so did not include them in the recipe, but they would be a nice addition to this dish.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Captain Mauri's: New Favorite Lunch Spot

The Avocado N' Jack sandwich at Captain Mauri's:
So, I've created a nice little routine for myself: I wake up at a leisurely hour; I make coffee and a pot of oatmeal; I walk to the library where I find free wifi and a quiet place to "work"; I break for lunch around 1:00; then return to the library (to continue my job search) until dinner time.

Now, thanks to a little spot on Avenida del Mar called Captain Mauri's, lunch has become the highlight of my day. On Monday, having had a late breakfast and in the mood for a light lunch, I decided to try an acaí bowl — a bowl of acaí puréed with a little juice, topped with granola, sliced bananas, apple and chopped pecans. I might have preferred just banana and granola, but the mixture was delicious anyway. Yesterday, I savored the above pictured avocado and jack sandwich and today, the veggie wrap, pictured below. All of the sandwiches are served with mayo, lettuce, tomato and sprouts on squaw (? — never heard of it either —) bread, and the wrap was filled with a vegetarian pattie, cucumber, zucchini, carrots, balsamic vinegar and sprouts — yum! Thanks Cousin Jay for another great recommendation.

And I should also mention that on Sunday, before shopping at the farmers' market, Ben and I stopped by Captain Mauri's for a cup of coffee. As we placed our order, we spotted a baking tin sitting by the register filled with bran-like delectable-looking muffins, which we couldn't resist trying. Made with zucchini, blueberries and oatmeal, these muffins are like none other I have ever tasted. I found them moist and delicious too. My husband, however, unable to determine the muffin's identity — sweet or savory — instantly found them offensive, but he persevered nonetheless, finishing his half, leaving not even a crumb for the birds hovering around our bench to taste.

Captain Mauri's
149 Avenida del Mar
San Clemente, CA
Open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Veggie Wrap at Captain Mauri's:

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Simple Pasta Salad

Many years ago, I traveled to the Cape with my aunt Marcy to see my Grand Auntie Phyllis' family. I don't remember much of our short visit except that I returned home with the recipe for a pasta salad that we soon named after my cousin, Kristina, who had prepared the salad for us during our visit. That summer and for many summers that followed, we prepared this salad often — it's particularly good warm, when the just-boiled shells melt the cheese and soak up all the flavors of the olive oil and lemon juice. I don't have the recipe, and my mother is not home to read me the original, but I believe this combination closely resembles Kristina's. Feta may have been used in place of mozzarella, and there may have been some other subtle differences, but this is the basic idea.

Though best when warm, this salad can also be prepared ahead and served at room temperature. This is just one of many recipes introduced to the family by Kristina that I have been meaning to make for months. I am dying to have a full kitchen so I can actually bake something. I will not let another winter pass, even if the weather never drops below 70º, without making Kristina's molasses cookies. Thanks for all the yummy recipes Kristina!
Kristina's Pasta Salad
Serves 6 to 8 as a side

1 lb. shells
½ cup pine nuts
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 bunch scallions
3 roasted red peppers (see recipe below or used jarred)
2 balls (large size) fresh mozzarella
1 bunch basil
olive oil
kosher salt
fresh cracked pepper
1 lemon
freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta. Cook about 8 minutes or until done but not mushy. Drain and set aside. Note: If you are going to prepare this salad ahead of time, rinse the pasta off and add the remaining ingredients once the pasta is completely cooled.

Meanwhile, place pine nuts in a small skillet over low heat. Toast, stirring often to avoid burning. Remove from heat when evenly golden brown. Set aside.

Cut grape tomatoes in half lengthwise. Remove ends from scallions and discard. Chop thinly, using only the white and pale green parts. Chop the roasted red peppers into small strips. Cut the mozzarella into cubes about the same size as the cherry tomatoes. Set aside.

Place pasta in a large bowl. Drizzle olive oil over pasta until nicely coated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add all of the prepared ingredients. Remove tiny leaves from basil stems and add directly to the bowl. Stack four to five larger basil leaves on top of one another. Roll into a tight spiral, then cut into thin strips. Add to the bowl. Squeeze the lemon over the top of the whole mixture. Add a few handfuls of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Toss gently with a large spoon. Taste, add more salt, pepper, olive oil or lemon juice if necessary.
Roasted Red Peppers

peppers (as many as you need, 3 for this recipe)

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with foil. Drizzle a tiny amount of oil on foil. Slice peppers in half lengthwise, remove stem and seeds, and place cut side down onto a baking sheet.

Roast for 20-30 minutes or until almost completely charred. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove blistered, charred skin. Use as needed.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tamales at the Carlsbad Farmers' Market

So, not much to report over here in sunny San Clemente other than I've now been to two more farmers' markets, one in Carlsbad and one in Oceanside. The picture above shows the goodies Ben and I picked up on Wednesday in Carlsbad, minus the four tamales (pictured below) we picked up from Juanita Fukuda's stand. Mrs. Fukudu sells an array of both sweet and savory handmade tamales 6 days a week at various farmers' markets in the area — I spotted her in Oceanside yesterday as well.

Wednesday evening, Cousin Jay joined Ben and me for a small farmers'-market-bounty feast, featuring microwaved (we could not devise a steamer with our limited kitchen equipment) tamales, sautéed Swiss chard, and a salad of greens and tomatoes. I think we all agreed that the tamales, while fun to eat, were not the best we'd ever tasted, though a good dousing of the salsa verde, also purchased at the market, made them far tastier. The Swiss chard and the greens, however, fresh and delectable, inspired me to buy several more bags of each yesterday in Oceanside, enough, I hope, to last through the weekend.

Monday, January 14, 2008

In The Land Of Avocados and Lemons

San Clemente Sunday Farmers' Market
I feel like I'm on a never-ending spring break: The temperature peaks around 70ºF every day; palm trees line nearly every street I walk on; sunglasses rarely leave my head; and I already seem to have misplaced my Birkenstocks. I suppose, however, nothing has let me know I'm in Southern California for the long term more than the produce — avocados, lemons, oranges, guavas, kaffir limes — spilling off the tables at my new hometown's Sunday farmers' market.

Yesterday, Ben's aunt Vicki and I had a field day, purchasing an array of goods that would soon become our dinner: baby spinach, mixed greens, avocados and cherry tomatoes for a salad; green beans, the miniest patty pan squash and brown beech mushrooms for a vegetable sauté; and wild sea bass caught on Saturday night off the coast of Mexico for our main course. As we walked, we sampled spicy, chicken-filled tamales and rainbow-colored kettle corn; we ooed and awed over a package of freshly made red pepper linguini; and we caved-in at the bake stand, purchasing a half-dozen chocolate-covered macaroons, which I subsequently thought about at least twice an hour until we finally got to sample them at 9 o'clock that evening.

I had never tasted a guava (pictured below) before yesterday. The woman selling them told us to wash them, cut off the stem on each end, and eat them — there is no peeling involved. I can't find a word other than "tropical" to describe the taste of guava. Small seeds, which I munched on and swallowed, are dispersed throughout the flesh. I have thus confirmed the seeds to be harmless.

In addition to seeing items I had never seen at a farmers' market before, I also found foods such as kaffir lime leaves and branches of fresh bay leaves I never imagined ever seeing at a local market. View all the photos from the market here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Breakfast Burritos and Fish Tacos

Pipes Cafe, San Clemente, CA
So, since arriving in California, we have been dying to get to Kono's, a cafe in Pacific Beach that, according to a local source (the same source presently living in Philly), serves "the best breakfast burritos ever!" Though my friend strongly encouraged us to try Kono's first, she also recommended Pipes Cafe, a breakfast and lunch spot opened in 1995 by the owners of Kono's.

This morning, we pulled into the San Clemente Pipes Cafe location, read the menu, boldly assuring, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem," and ordered our breakfast. We sat outside — why wouldn't we sit outside in January? — sipped our coffee and waited for our food, a breakfast burrito filled with scrambled eggs, cilantro, green chile, cheese and pica sauce rolled in a flour tortilla, for me, and a breakfast burrito filled with eggs, ham, bell pepper, onion, cheese and pica sauce, for Ben. When these massive wraps arrived, we tucked in. If the breakfast concoctions at Kono's even resemble the fare we savored this morning, we're in for a real treat. Thanks Chu!

A shot of the ocean in San Clemente. I still cannot believe it is January.

Pedro's Tacos, San Clemente, CA
I wonder if I'll ever get sick of the Mexican food here. So far, I can't get enough of it, especially the fish tacos. Though we've only tried one location, Pedro's in San Clemente has set the bar quite high. These tacos, filled with deep-fried cod, cabbage and some sort of remoulade sauce barely need hot sauce, though a small dash gives them a nice kick. This morning on our way to Pipes Cafe, a small line of customers stretched from the window of Pedro's and the drive-thru lane, where patrons shout orders into a surf board, already had several cars passing through. I could definitely get used to eating fish tacos for breakfast.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

California Here We Are!!

We have finally arrived! Yesterday, after lunch in Tuscon, we decided to push, skipping Yuma and driving all the way to Camp Pendleton. Famished, as usual, we stopped in Carlsbad and dined at Pizza Port, a great local restaurant that serves "tasty grub and grog." Under surfboards dangling from the ceiling, we sat at wooden picnic tables surrounded by diners sporting flipflops and hoodies. While I am well equipped in the hoodie department, I definitely need a new pair of shoes.

Pizza Port brews its own beer, which a friend of mine — a San Diegoan-turned-Philadelphian — reported spotting on the Tria menu recently. Ben and I ordered a white pizza with clams and mozzarella. It took a little explaining — I'm not sure they get many requests for white pizza. Our ticket was scribbled with the instructions: "NO SAUCE!!" The beer we ordered, Carlsbad Chronic, reminded us of the Ambar Ale, which of course makes us (me) very happy. And the pizza, though not at all similar to our favorite New Haven-style thin-crust pizza was delectable!

This literally is the view from the cottage we are staying in for the next couple days. This place is unbelievably beautiful, exceeding every expectation, answering every question I had about my crazy college roommates who insisted there was no place on earth like San Diego (and San Francisco).

Some snapshots from the road:

Monday, January 7, 2008

Road Blogging: Santa Fe

Cafe Pasqual's, Santa Fe, NM
As Ben and I left Boulder early this morning, I suddenly felt extremely disappointed that we didn't make it to The Kitchen, a restaurant my mother has been telling me about for years, quite possibly her all-time favorite dining destination. And we really should have eaten there last night because the Mexican restaurant, Ephrain's, highly recommended from a local the night before, proved to be more than disappointing. (Sorry Mama, I really should always listen to what you say.) The highlight of my dinner at Ephrain's came early: the Pink Cadillac, a margarita served in a 16 oz. canning jar — it was awesome. The food, however, failed to differ much from Chili's.

Anyway, we made much headway today, changing our route due to weather from I-70W to I-25S, traveling over 400 miles before lunch, which we enjoyed in Santa Fe, New Mexico at Cafe Pasqual's, another recommendation in the Stern's Roadfood book. As we pulled into downtown Santa Fe, snow — lucky for us — dumped from the sky, discouraging many locals to stay home and enabling us to find a table at Cafe Pasqual's without waiting, a rare feat apparently any day of the week.

We soon learned why. These pictures don't do the food justice — every bite was incredible. Ben ordered the carne asada, the meal arriving to each of the three business men sitting at the table next to us, a plate of grilled marinated Niman Ranch beef (hanger steak we think) with guacamole, salsa fresca, black beans and grilled sweet red peppers. And I ordered the plato primo, a plate including one chile relleno, a vegetarian tamale, cilantro rice, salsa fresca and refried beans. Stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and onion, and lightly battered and fried, the chile relleno, we both agreed, was the highlight of our lunch spread.

Everything — the salsas, tortillas, beans, rice, masa — however, tasted fresh and delectable. So enamored by this corner cafe, we even tinkered with the idea of staying over night: check out the breakfast menu. We loved the decor and the staff too, though our waitress, as Ben says, totally "dominated" us, somehow tempting me to begin my meal with a Mimosa — organic, freshly squeezed orange juice mixed with sparkling California white wine — and finagling the two of us to share a piece of blackberry pie for dessert, neither decision we regretted ultimately. Oh, and I also walked out of there with a cookbook — Café Pasqual's Cookbook — a purchase which actually needed zero encouragement from the staff. Filled with artwork, stories and recipes from the cafe, this book promises to provide hours of entertainment on the last leg of our trip west.

This is the plato primo: a chile relleno and a vegetarian tamale served with cilantro rice, salsa fresca and refried beans. It's much tastier than it looks.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Road Blogging: Kansas City and Colorado Springs

Snead's Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, MO
As I write, Ben and I are sitting by the window in an adorable café, The BookEnd, in Boulder, Colorado, drinking coffee and watching the beginning of the snowstorm dump onto Pearl Street. Everything is going as planned: We arrived at my brother's apartment yesterday before the precipitation made the roads too dangerous to travel, and for the next couple days, we will wait out the storm — expected to deliver 10 feet of snow — before getting back onto I-70 to continue our journey west.

Guided again by Jane and Michael Stern, we stopped at two places on our way to Boulder: Snead's Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Missouri, and Conway's Red Top in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At Snead's, Ben ordered a mixed platter of brisket and pork, barbecued beans and applesauce, and I ordered a pork sandwich with applesauce. The food arrived with three sauces: two bbq sauces — one spicy and smoky, the other more traditional — and ketchup, for the delectable hand-cut fries. As described, the brisket was lean and smoky, and Ben ate every last bite of it, preferring its flavor and texture to the pork, which tasted a little fatty and mushy to him. I suppose we can't agree on everything — I loved the pork, particularly its moist texture and fatty flavor.

We loved everything about Snead's: the smells that pervade the parking lot; the decor: deer heads line the walls and a wood-fire, stoked by our server, warms the dining area; and the food: smoky, flavorful meats and traditional bbq side dishes make for a wonderful lunch (or dinner) and an authentic experience.

Conway's Red Top, Colorado Springs, CO
Unfortunately, we cannot give Conway's Red Top the same praise as Snead's. Ben likened his burger — his enormous burger (the picture doesn't do justice to its size) — to a Burger King patty, and the soups, while although offering some healthy beans and vegetables to our thus far meat-heavy diet, had that odd, cornstarch-thickened texture. Alas, the Sterns cannot be spot on about everything.

Last night, however, guided by my brother, we enjoyed a delicious Italian dinner at Il Pastaio. Before our entreés arrtived, we sipped Chianti served in little water glasses and dipped our rolls into eggplant caponata. The Italian family that runs this trattoria makes their own pasta: noodles, ravioli and gnocchi. In a spicy, Arrabiata sauce topped with fresh basil, the gnocchi (my order) and the pappardelle (Ben's order) made wonderful meals. Several other couples leaving the restaurant ordered pounds of the fresh pasta to take home with them — what a luxury! We split a yummy, though not-as-good-as-Isgro's cannoli for dessert before making our way home.

I'll have to snap a picture of Il Pastaio tonight on our way to dinner at Efrain's, a Mexican restaurant suggested to us by a man working at the wine shop next door to Il Pastaio. Incidentally, this café, BookEnds, serves a mean bran muffin and great coffee to boot.