A Picnic at Wolf Trap

What better way to spend a summer evening than a nice picnic at an outdoor concert? Last night, Brant, Eric and I enjoyed a lovely picnic dinner at Wolf Trap in Virginia with music courtesy of one of our favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams. Here’s a picture of Dar and me at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland back in August 2009 – isn’t she adorable?

When you’re like me and your musical tastes vary away from the mainstream (my roommate says I listen to “suicidal lesbian music” – thanks Scotty!) it’s nice to have friends that like the same kind of music that you do. Eric and Brant are also eager eaters, so they are fun to cook for, and delightful to spend time with in many ways. We kept the menu simple: BLTs with goat cheese on toasted french bread, sesame noodles (recipe below), and Ina Garten’s Ultimate Ginger Cookies.

Sesame Noodles

Cook according to package directions:

  • 1 lb Whole Wheat Spaghetti

While pasta is cooking, whisk together the sauce ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Sriracha (more or less to taste)
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 3 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted (reserve some for garnish if desired)

Drain the pasta and toss it thoroughly with the sauce ingredients while still warm. When it is cool, toss it with the following veggies:

  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
  • 1/2 cup sugar snap peas, trimmed and steamed
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 english cucumber, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (reserve some for garnish if desired)
  • 3 or 4 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (reserve some for garnish if desired)

Chill and serve. Serves 8 – 12.

We finished up with a sweet treat, Ina Garten’s Ultimate Ginger Cookies, recipe here:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/ultimate-ginger-cookie-recipe/index.html

Since I’m unable to resist the urge to mess with a good recipe, I had to add cashews to Ina’s recipe. I must say, the results were fantastic. I added a cup of whole, roasted, salted cashews at the end of the mixing. The mixing broke the nuts up a bit but they stayed pretty big and added some nice crunch and flavor to the cookies. I highly recommend this recipe with or without the cashews.

I’m a huge Ina Garten fan, and I have this fantasy where I somehow get invited to one of her parties in the Hamptons. If you ever watch her show, you know she’s flanked by more gay men than Lady GaGa, so I can’t help but think this fantasy could someday come true. A boy can dream… Anyway, in true Ina fashion, I even put the cookies into “glassine bags and tied them with ribbon” just like I saw on her TV show (I know, I’m a total freak). But before you judge me, I should tell you that when I originally planned this, I thought Brant’s daughters were joining us for the concert, and I was planning this special touch to impress them. I was also going to serve the noodle salad in festive Chinese take-out containers but I stopped short when I found out the kids weren’t coming. I’m coo-coo, but not THAT coo-coo.

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Notes from Costa Rica

What we’re exploring: Costa Rica

What we found:

  • Abundant wildlife and gorgeous scenery
  • Great recipe ideas

A couple weeks back, my sister, Tree, and I took my mother to Costa Rica for Mother’s Day. A lot of families take vacations in order to GET AWAY from each other, but my sister, my Mom and I get along really well and we travel well together. Tree and I have been all over Europe together, and Mom and I traveled to Amsterdam a couple years back. (We must get along well – I mean, who the hell goes to Amsterdam with their MOM?). As a trio, we’ve ventured to Ireland and several U.S. destinations.

Few moments in my life have been as special as Mother’s Day of this year, when we took Mom to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where we enjoyed the splendor of the Costa Rican rainforest from up in the treetops. Not a bad way to celebrate your 68-year-old Mom!

Yes, Mother is quite spry, but after the hanging bridges, the rough ride to Monteverde on the largely-unpaved roads nearly turned  into Complain-fest 2010 (could this have been payback for all my childhood road-trip whinings of “Are we there yet?”)

No need to worry, awaiting us in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was not only the misty, majestic Cloud Forest reserve, but some really good chow, too.

The Monteverde area is known for producing great coffee, and a great cup is easy to find, much to Mom’s delight – she’s a true coffee lover. We even took a tour of the relatively new family-run San Luis Coffee Growers. A few years back on another trip, Tree and I explored a much larger local outfit, the Don Juan coffee plantation. On that previous trip, Tree and I also fell in love with the restaurant Chimera (Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde), a Latin-fusion tapas restaurant. Their small dishes are lovely and highlight fresh, local flavors while bringing in some excitement with a variety of sauces, garnishes, and special touches. This time, we made it a point to also try the other restaurant in town owned by the same folks, called Sofia (just off Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde).

Sofia is a bit fancier, with a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style dining room and a fusion menu that calls upon Latin, Asian and Caribbean influences. I had a wonderful dish of pork loin with figs, which I have since been working to recreate. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly how I’d like it, but here’s my version:

Pork Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Fig Glaze

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 pork loin chops

1 Tablespoon butter

10 dried figs, stemmed and cut in half

1 T minced shallot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 C balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider, or apple juice

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1. Soak the figs in very hot water. Season the pork chops liberally with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add pork chops. Sauté the chops until they are almost cooked through, about 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Set aside.

2. Add the shallot and garlic to pan and sauté for a minute (adding a tad more butter or olive oil if necessary). Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to combine and to release any browned bits from the pan. Boil until the liquid begins to thicken and reduce slightly. Drain the figs, discarding the soaking liquid, and add them to the pan, along with the pork chops. Simmer until the pork is cooked through, coating the pork with the glaze.

At Sofia, the pork was served with fufu, a side dish of mashed plantains with bacon and onion. In my research, I learned that fufu (with alternate spellings including foufou and foofoo) originated in Africa as a word to describe a variety of dishes that are starchy and mashed, sometimes made from yams, cassava, or even rice or flour. Fufu traveled to the Caribbean along with West African immigrants, and transformed along the way to use available vegetables and flavorings. Hence the Caribbean-style fufu I enjoyed in Costa Rica. Here’s a version I found on the web and played with a little:

Fufu

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

4 sweet plantains (peeled and cut into uniform pieces)

1/4 pound of bacon (cut into small pieces)

1 medium onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1. In a saucepan, cover plantains with cold, salted water and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until plantains are soft (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until slightly cooked and some fat is rendered. Add the onion and continue to sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes more.

3. Drain the plantains (reserving some of the water) and mash.

4. Fold the bacon, onion, and about 2 Tablespoons bacon fat into the plantains. Discard any additional grease. If the mixture is dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

The pork and fufu go together marvelously. If you’d like a little heat to offset the sweetness of the dish, you can prepare a simple jalapeno salsa to garnish the fufu. Just mix 1/2 of a jalapeño pepper with 2 chopped scallions and a little fresh cilantro. Mix in the juice of 1/2 a lime and a pinch of salt and allow it to sit for 15 minutes or so for the flavors to blend. The heat and acid will balance nicely with the sweetness of the plantains and the sweet-and-sour glaze.

Our meal at Sofia was likely the gastronomical high point of the Costa Rican journey. However, great food was easily found elsewhere, too. Gorgeous, fresh fruit was in abundance everywhere we went – Tree made a sport of taste-testing mango smoothies in each of the towns and villages we visited. Furthermore, I love the Costa Rican take on breakfast, where black beans and rice, and sauteed sweet plantains are staples on the morning table. Though Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary travel destination, one could certainly do a lot worse. Go for the wildlife and scenery, but be sure to enjoy a few good bites along the way!