Clearwater Beach is one of a series of beautiful barrier island towns that stretch along Florida’s Pinellas County Gulf of Mexico coast. Blessed with powder white sand it’s a favored playground for tourist worldwide.
At dusk throngs gather at Pier 60 to enjoy a typically stunning sunset that for residents is one of the perks of living along the Gulf of Mexico. Pier 60 juts over 1,000 feet into the Gulf. In the daytime it’s a popular fishing pier.
But after 5:00 p.m. it transforms into a free sunset party complete with buskers, musicians and vendors selling a myriad of arts and crafts.
After sunset walk over to Pier House 60 Hotel and take the elevator to the 10th floor. Jimmy’s Crows Nest Bar & Grill offers panoramic views of Clearwater Beach that at night are particularly impressive along with great burgers and drinks.
Florida, the Sunshine State, can just as easily be dubbed the Sunset State after spending an evening on Clearwater Beach.
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I dislike the term bucket list. I especially dislike it when it’s attached to travel. Adventure and exploration should be the impetus for travel, not checking off a predetermined list of must-see destinations.
Yet when it comes to life, reflecting on one’s innermost aspirations is healthy. How often do we express, especially to ourselves, “No, I can’t do that.” I’m not capable, talented, have no time, I’m afraid.
That’s the thought behind Saint Petersburg’s “Before I die…” wall located at 1049 Central Avenue in the heart of the Grand Central Arts District. A safe place to publicly express our aspirations shares a street bustling with cafes, art galleries and murals created by some of the city’s most talented artists.
A plastic bag of large colored chalk is available for all to use. The Before I die wall project started in New Orleans several years ago and has grown in popularity. I found it challenging, which sounds odd for a professional writer.
I also found reading the wall profoundly moving. I didn’t want to leave. I felt inspired and humbled by the aspirations of others in a way no bucket list blog ever achieved.
Saint Petersburg has been undergoing a major revival ever since the late 1990s despite the 2007 recession. Sprawling neighborhoods that radiated from a once decaying downtown were inconsequential to the trend towards the urban renewal of the 1960s-1980s, which often resulted in the destruction of low-rise residential and commercial streets. In the past decade a steady influx of young professionals with families, artists and entrepreneurs have found a treasure trove of Craftsman and art deco housing and sturdy commercial structures.
In an enviable partnership between business owners and artists – some who got their start defacing decaying buildings with graffiti – vast walls have been transformed into stunning murals.
The nearly 50 murals decorate walls in Saint Petersburg’s seven arts districts. And they’re not defaced. Provide a neighborhood with beauty and it will be respected.
Perhaps the greatest of human aspirations, when given a chance, is simply to be good.
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I’ve made Spanakopita most of my life. As a chef it’s been part of my repertoire my entire career. It’s flavorful, a classic vegetarian dish and easy once you become familiar using phyllo dough.
In North America phyllo is found in the freezer section of many grocery stores. (Making the same paper thin dough at home requires skill and helpers). Once you’re familiar handling phyllo its versatility is amazing.
I have wrapped anything and everything into attractive phyllo packets especially for hot hor d’oeuvres. They have graced many a buffet and cocktail party. Yet it wasn’t until I started traveling to Greece that I discovered not all phyllo is paper thin and difficult to prepare.
The village of Vathi on the Cycladic Island of Sifnos is a classic beauty. The winding road descends from the hills and one’s first glimpse is the gleaming white buildings clustered in a crescent on a white sand beach in front of the clear aqua water of the Aegean. Cars are parked at the entrance to the village because there’s nowhere else to drive. The few narrow streets – more stone paths than roads – were made for goats and donkeys.
After passing through the 17th century Church of Evangelistria Taxiarches, which creates part of the seawall, you walk a short distance on the beach to a grove of trees shading Tsikali Taverna. Nearly as many tables are directly on the sand as under the roof of the open-air restaurant. Flora and Nikos Kratzeskaros have operated Tsikali Taverna for decades.
Knowing that a chef culinary journalist was visiting that day Flora demonstrated how easy it was to make phyllo dough that isn’t the paper thin variation. Except for many dessert pastries, Greeks don’t use the paper thin sheets familiar to me. For savory dishes they roll fresh dough to the thickness of a thin pizza crust.
I developed this variation on classic Spanakopita decades ago and have used it my entire career. It calls for the frozen dough familiar to most outside of Greece, but you can certainly substitute this New York Times recipe for the dough Flora Kratzeskaros taught me.
I add cottage cheese along with feta because I like the mix. Sometimes I include a couple tablespoons of toasted pine nuts and a grating of fresh nutmeg. All are ingredients traditional to Greece and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine therefore as authentic as any dish can be that has existed for thousands of years and is part of several regional cuisines.
Spanakopita – 6 entrée portions
1/3rd pound defrosted phyllo dough
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds fresh spinach or 20 ounces of loose frozen chopped spinach
2 cups crumbled feta cheese
2 cups cottage cheese
Defrost filo dough still wrapped for 24 hours in the refrigerator. DO NOT unwrap until instructed in step #8.
If using frozen spinach: remove from the bag and place in a colander over a bowl large enough to fit the colander. Thaw the spinach for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Discard the collected spinach water or reserve for other uses. Place the spinach in a large square of cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and press out as much liquid as possible.
If using fresh spinach: remove the stems and chop the leaves. Rinse in a colander and place in a large pot. Cover the pot and steam, stirring several times, until soft, approximately 5 minutes. Place the spinach in a large square of cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and press out as much liquid as possible.
Preheat oven to 375°
Melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a sauté pan and add the onions, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Sauté until lightly browned.
In a large mixing bowl combine onion, spinach, feta cheese, cottage cheese and eggs.
Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small pan.
Remove the thawed phyllo from its wrapping and unfold onto a kitchen towel or waxed paper. Cover immediately with a slightly damp kitchen towel (phyllo dries and crumbles quickly when exposed to dry air).
Brush the bottom and sides of a deep pie or flan pan (10” X 2”) lightly with butter.
Arrange 8 sheets of phyllo overlapping in a circular pattern. The phyllo will larger than the diameter of the pan. (cover the remaining phyllo with the damp towel) Brush the phyllo with half of the remaining melted butter. Spread the spinach mixture into the pan and overlap the phyllo over the spinach one piece at a time. Gently press the phyllo onto the spinach and with a serrated knife score the phyllo into 6 wedges – do not cut through the spinach – this makes it easier to serve without the flakey dough breaking apart after baking. Brush the top with the remaining butter. (Wrap the remaining phyllo dough in waxed paper and then in aluminum foil sealing well. You can place that in a plastic bag. Refrigerate up to 3 weeks for later use.)
Place the dish on a sheet pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the phyllo is light golden brown. Allow the Spanakopita to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
A 9” X 13” cake pan can be used for the Spanakopita and it can be scored into smaller portions to be served as a first course.
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I was a boy when I first became familiar with salt codfish. Racks of salted fillets would line the docks of our ancestral Nova Scotia Bay of Fundy village where my parents maintained a home. I loved sautéed Acadian cod cakes made with potatoes and the salty fish served with pickled chow chow.
Salting cod is at least 500 years old and became a staple food product and cash crop for Canada’s Maritime Provinces, Northern Europe and the Caribbean Islands. I grew up on stories of the infamous triangular trade route before I knew its full implications. The stories were romance for my early wanderlust as generations of my family caught, salted and transported this easily preserved fish to hot Caribbean islands in return for the dark rum and molasses that would warm my relatives during cold, wet Maritime winters.
While living in Puerto Rico as a young adult I immediately recognized the wooden boxes of salt cod marked with Canadian port towns I was familiar. Nothing had changed for centuries, except being introduced to the breadth of recipes this simple fish had inspired. Light fritters of salt cod – bacalaítos – became a favored comfort food.
Some years later traveling in Basque Country I enjoyed Bacalao a la Vizcaina, their codfish stew including hard-boiled eggs, capers and raisins. In France I scarfed down copious amounts of rich, elegant Brandade de Morue, a whipped spread with olive oil, cream and potatoes on crusty baguette slices.
As a chef I’ve often played with salt cod. With the worldwide decline of cod stocks due to over fishing salted pollock is a suitable substitute available in North American stores. I feel my recipe for a salt cod stew appeals to most North American tastes.
Salt Cod Stew – 6 servings
1 pound salt cod prepared 2 days ahead of using
3 cups prepared or canned, drained & rinsed garbanzo beans
1 large sweet onion
4 ribs celery
1 green bell pepper
2 scallions – green & white part.
6 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped green olives
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 – 28 ounce can diced stewed tomatoes with juice
2 cups cold water
2 baking potatoes
chopped parsley for garnish
(Two days before making the stew)
Place the salt cod in a stainless steel or glass dish large enough to completely cover with cold water. Refrigerate the cod changing the water 2 to 3 times a day for two days.
If using dried garbanzo beans start their preparation the same day as the cod. Cover ½ pound dried garbanzo beans with 2 quarts cold water. Cover and soak for at least 12 and up to 18 hours. Drain and rinse the beans. Place into a heavy 2-quart pot and cover with two quarts cold water. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour. The water should simmer not boil or else the beans may break up. Check after one hour. The beans should be tender but not mushy. Drain and rinse. Refrigerate until ready to use.
(Cooking the stew)
Drain the cod and pat dry with paper towel. Slice the cod fillets into chunks about 1 to 1-½ inch squares.
Dice the sweet onion, celery, green pepper, scallions and garlic.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4-quart pot. Add the onion and celery and sauté until the onions are translucent. Reduce the heat slightly and add the green pepper, scallions, basil and oregano. Continue cooking for 5 minutes stirring frequently.
Increase the heat and add the salt, black pepper, chopped garlic, cod chunks, chopped green olives, the entire can of diced tomatoes and the 2 cups of cold water.
Bring the stew to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes.
While the stew is simmering, peel and dice the potatoes. Place the diced potatoes in a bowl & cover with cold water to prevent browning until ready to use.
After 45 minutes of simmering the stew, drain and add the diced potatoes and the prepared or canned and drained garbanzo beans.
Return to a simmer. Taste test the stew to check for salt and add more if desired. Cover and simmer the stew for an additional 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
Ladle into bowels and sprinkle with chopped parsley. You may spice it up with hot sauce to taste.
Like with so many stews, you can make this a day ahead of time. Allow the stew to cool for an hour and refrigerate. Gently reheat before serving.
This stew is excellent accompanied with a green salad and a good dry wine such as a Spanish rioja.
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“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” is a simpler statement than posterity has endowed. In her monograph, “Blessed be he that invented Puddings,” (2013) Dr. Clarissa Dillon explains that it’s just an instruction not to under cook the pudding. Too little time in the water bath results in a loose mass rather than the firm ball that signifies proper texture. Of course, she’s not writing about Jello-O instant pudding in this case.
Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Bryn Mawr College and the foremost authority on 16th through 18th century English and colonial American cooking and household industries, tackles the often confusing interpretations of our shared culinary past. For centuries, puddings were virtually any mixture of ingredients from sweet to savory including meats, seafood, fruits, oats that were blended, wrapped in a casing and steamed. This included what we call today sausages. The casing could be sheep gut or heavy linen cloth.
Puddings were a major component of the English and American table during these centuries and often served as the foundation of a one dish meal in this age of cooking on an open wood fired hearth. In her monograph, Dr. Dillon covers the breadth of combinations that must have delighted an imaginative cook of the day. Puddings can also be seen as the casseroles of the era in so far as any leftover could be added to compliment ingredients creating a new dish.
In an age where few could afford to waste food, even blood from butchered animals combined with cream, eggs, oatmeal, herbs and spices created the famous Black Pudding, a sausage that still graces many a full English breakfast. Without preaching to the reader, Dr. Dillon’s “Blessed be he that invented Puddings” effectively dispels the myth that past diets were monotonous and tasteless. The recipes include a litany of herbs, spices and flavorings that many cooks today believe were either rare or reserved for the very rich – raisins, nutmeg, mace, oysters, anchovies, currents, gooseberries, almonds, saffron, sherry and, by the 18th century, New World Indian corn.
The genius of creating puddings to serve as the center piece of a one dish boiled meal proves that the cook of old was just as conscious of time management as any modern household. The recipe for a basic oatmeal pudding could serve as a savory carbohydrate for some meat and vegetables easily steamed in the same pot. Fortunately, we do not have to labor over the raisins today individually seeding them with a long needle.
An Oatmeal Pudding
This recipe in “Blessed be he that invented Puddings,” by Dr. Clarissa Dillon is from “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” by Hannah Glasse, London 1747.
16 ounces good quality oatmeal such as Irish steel cut (not quick cooking)
16 ounces suet – edible suet from a butcher, not what one puts out for the birds.
16 ounces currents
8 ounces raisins
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large square of thick linen cloth at least 2’X2’
Finely shred the suit with a knife or the grater blade of a food processor.
Combine with the remaining ingredients.
Fill a large pot – 2 to 3 gallon size – with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat (or over a good fire if you have a cooking hearth).
Dip the linen cloth into the hot water and spread out onto the work counter. Coat the cloth with a handful of flour – this seals the fabric.
Place the oatmeal mixture in the center of the cloth and bring the corners up to encase the mixture into a ball and securely tie it with kitchen twine. Be careful not to make the ball to tight because there must be room for the oatmeal to expand.
Place the ball into the boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 2 to 3 hours.
If desired, half way through cooking, add any meat you wish to the pot – pork butt, cubed beef, chicken – and root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, carrots and potatoes. Continue to cook until the ball of pudding feels firm to the touch.
Remove from the water and let rest on a sheet pan for a few minutes. Unwrap the cloth and slice the pudding, surrounding it with the meat and vegetables.
As one 18th century author, William Ellis, put it, “if they cannot dine on this with good boiled beef, or with pork, or with bacon and roots, or herbs, they deserve to want (skip) dinner.”
Leaving the sprawling modern city of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, Maurice Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels and my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica, deftly maneuvered the Toyota Rav4 on the winding roads as we ascended into the Cloud Forest. I was pleased I didn’t have to drive or else my field of vision would have been narrowed concentrating on the well paved but narrow mountain roads on our way to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Instead I could marvel at the panorama of the receding Central Valley as we entered the lush landscape for which this bio-diverse Central American nation is justifiably famous.
Costa Rica is a landmass equal to 0.03% of the Earth, about 20,000 square miles – the size of Vermont – but accounts for over 6% of the globe’s biodiversity. Just one hour from San Jose the emerald green mountain slopes are thick with coffee plants. Costa Rica leads world coffee production per acre because two trees are planted together.
Herds of cows and goats graze wrapped in swirls of misty clouds. Vendors selling large plump strawberries and the country’s ubiquitous balls of fresh mozzarella-like white cheese line village roads.
We stopped first at one of Costa Rica’s 27 national parks, which along with private wildlife and biological reserves encompasses nearly a third of the country – the largest percentage of protected national land on Earth. Central America is a seismically potent part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Parc National Volcan Poas encompasses one of Costa Rica’s six active volcanoes. Exacerbated by the temperature differential of the venting volcano, the crater is often shrouded in mist that wafts up the steep walls of the caldera. Yet when the mist parts mineral rich turquoise lakes are visible.
The spacious modern visitor center at Parc National Volcan Poas has fine educational exhibits of the surrounding ecology. The gift shop displays top quality pottery and woodwork from some of Costa Rica’s most famous artists. I was particularly taken with the ingenious creations made from recycled materials such as a life-size toucan crafted from a single automobile tire.
Our objective for the day was a visit to the privately owned La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge – one of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Florida entrepreneur Lee Banks purchased this property with its five spectacular waterfalls with the intention of preserving its pristine biosphere. Visitors take self-guided tours along several miles of well-designed wooden walkways through the hills, along the La Paz River providing numerous vistas of the spectacular falls.
Within the gardens is a large butterfly house with a colorful collection of over 4,000 butterflies from 40 species native to this mile-high environment – only a small portion of Costa Rica’s over 1,200 species. The butterfly conservatory is part of an educational heritage village of pre-industrial rural life.
The visitor center complex is the gateway to the gardens and Peace Lodge. The architectural integration of the structures with their native wood and stone mirrors the surrounding environment. Like all Small Distinctive Hotels, the quality of the cuisine matched the beauty of the surroundings.
Lunch with Vanessa Gonzalez, restaurant manager, and Executive Chef Diego Seitour highlighted the quality of local ingredients and the creativity of Costa Rican talent. Diego’s French grandfather and Argentine born father were chefs. His Spanish mother added an additional culinary insight to his environment. Diego was born in Costa Rica and studied culinary arts in France and Costa Rica but worked in restaurants since he was a boy. I found this mix of talents and culinary backgrounds common in Costa Rica.
Lunch started with a sea bass ceviche. The paper-thin slices of sea bass were garnished with pajibaye – the iconic steamed bright orange Costa Rican fruit of the Peach Palm tree – and napped with a lime, orange juice and olive oil dressing that was bright and intense. Diego adds meat bones to the broth when simmering the pajibaye to provide a depth of flavor uncommon when the fruit is simply cooked in water.
Surrounding the base of a waterfall adjacent to the swimming pool at Peace Lodge is a large free form trout pond fed by the La Paz River. Chef Seitour uses the organically farmed trout in his menus. His impressive trout Napoleon is a pair of fillets sandwiched between grilled onions and eggplant resting on risotto cakes that have been pan seared. The accompanying vegetables and rice have a smoky flavor, which gives depth to the trout. The fish is glazed with a red and yellow pepper jam.
Papaya and Curry Soup blends the natural sweetness of papaya with the spice of curry creating a warm flavored soup.
Diego has assembled an impressive collection of craft beers for Peace Lodge. A local Escalante brew was dark and strong with a distinct hint of chocolate followed by coffee notes that worked well with the warm tones of the soup. Famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià created Estrella Damm Inedit for Barcelona based Damm S.A. that had strong citrus overtones with a light and effervescent mouth feel. It paired well with both fish dishes.
Hugging the hillside, the village-like complex of 18 rooms and suites of Peace Lodge are unique. Each is individually designed to integrate the Cloud Forest into the room while providing maximum privacy. Large log beds, stone gas fireplaces – Peace Lodge is 5,300 feet elevation – plant infused bathrooms with their own waterfalls and hot tubs on private patios and balconies are only a few of the serine elements that make Peace Lodge a sought after refuge and honeymoon haven.
I found it unique that Peace Lodge suggests no more than a three day stay. The expressed purpose is to encourage guests to explore the rest of Costa Rica. After over a week at five Small Distinctive Hotels I was no longer surprised at this sentiment, which seems to run counter to maximizing profits. What makes the Costa Rican experience memorable is the obvious pride both the owners of these beautiful hotels and ordinary citizens from scientist to street vendors have for their peaceful nation and their eagerness to share it with visitors.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive to downtown San Jose and an hour to La Paz Waterfall Gardens/Peace Lodge
Chef Tal Ronnen, owner of West Hollywood’s Crossroads, and his executive chef Scott Jones demonstrated their flavorful vegetarian cuisine for well-healed foodies at Sun Valley Lodge. Although Sun Valley, a celebrity studded Idaho town, may be out of budget for many, Ronnen and Jones’ cuisine at Crossroads is well within the means of the average working American. Chefs to A-list celebrities, Tal Ronnen’s bestselling The Conscious Cook will intrigue any carnivore.
Chef Tal Ronnen’sCrossroads eggplant caponata over toasted buckwheat and black quinoa
Ingredients for the caponata
5 large sweet red peppers, roasted and diced
2 large eggplant, peeled and diced
2 medium to large white onions, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
3 Tablespoons capers
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups tomato puree
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Teaspoon red pepper flakes
Preparation for the caponata
Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C).
Place the red peppers on a lightly oiled or parchment paper lined sheet pan.
Roast the peppers for 30 minutes turning every 10 minutes.
Remove the peppers from the oven and place in a paper bag. Roll the top of the bag shut and cool for 30 minutes.
Remove the peppers and slip off the charred skin. Discard the seeds and dice the peppers. You should have approximately 2 to 2-1/2 cups diced pepper.
6. Heat a wide deep (4”) pot on medium high heat for a couple minutes. Add the olive oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the eggplant, onions and celery and sauté for several minutes stirring a couple times. Add the red peppers and cook for 3 minutes more.
7. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.
8. Reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer and cook uncovered for 1 hour stirring every 8 minutes.
9. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
Note: The caponata will stay fresh covered and refrigerated for several days and makes a terrific cold appetizer on crackers or topping for bruschetta.
Ingredients for quinoa
The use of black quinoa is for color contrast, not taste. Therefore any color quinoa is fine.
1 cup black quinoa
3 cups water or vegetable stock
1/2 Teaspoon salt
Preparation for quinoa
Place the quinoa in a bowl, cover with cold water and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain through a strainer and rinse.
Bring the water or stock to a boil. Add the quinoa and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. When done the quinoa will display a tiny white thread.
Drain through a sieve and return to the pan. Cover the pan and let rest for 10 minutes.
Ingredients for the toasted buckwheat
1 cup toasted buckwheat (kasha)
2 cups water
1/4 Teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
fresh ground pepper to taste
Preparation for the toasted buckwheat
If you have purchased untoasted buckwheat (kasha), place the buckwheat in a dry sauté pan and toast over high heat, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes.
In a medium saucepan bring the water, oil and salt to a boil. Add the buckwheat and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.
Place a generous spoonful of quinoa and buckwheat, side-by-side, on a dinner plate. Place a generous serving of caponata on top but leave each of the grains still visible on the sides. Serve with a tossed salad or a Greek salad and a crisp dry Sauvignon blanc and you have a delicious vegetarian meal.
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The Bahía de Banderas is a sport fisherman’s dream and Puerto Vallarta is heaven for lovers of fish and seafood. At the shelf of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the mouth of three fresh water rivers the bay is an ecological reserve for whales, manta rays, coral reefs and sea birds. At it’s deepest points not far from the shore it plunges thousands of feet. From mid-November to April it’s the popular breeding ground for both humpback and grey wales – seems all mammals like to escape cold weather.
Bonita, skipjack, jack crevalle, sierra mackerel, pargo, red snapper, grouper and mahi mahi are all available for sport and at Puerto Vallarta’s restaurants and street vendors. Among the many charters available Mike’s Fishing Charters offers a wide variety of daily options and multi-day trips. A day excursion on Mike’s Fishing yacht Acalii embarks from Puerto Vallarta’s trendy Marina Vallarta residential and resort district.
Capitan Jose and mates Hassam and Jueith offer a relaxing day. Hassam provides running commentary of Puerto Vallarta sites as the yacht sails the coast – far more picturesque than from a bus. The Sierra Madre Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to view this city that hugs the beaches of the Bahía de Banderas.
The elegant yacht Acalli has a spacious air conditioned lounge and ample deck space. A covered top deck is perfect for the bay’s natural wonders while avoiding sunburn. Two well appointed cabins and a modern bath would make an overnight trip a true luxury cruise.
Jueith is an accomplished mixologist. Her margarita of cucumber, basil, lime, golden tequila with a dash of orange liquor is outstanding. It’s refreshing, not overly sweet and free from ice laden artificial flavor mixes. Jueith uses only real fresh ingredients in her cocktails. It’s common in Puerto Vallarta to rim a margarita with a mix of salt and chili pepper adding an additional flavor note.
The prize destination in the Bahía de Banderas is the national preserve of Los Arcos Marine Park. Dramatic granite outcroppings topped with a profusion of plant life are the breading grounds for dozens of sea birds that make their nests precariously (it seems to humans) on the sheer rock cliffs. Bedecked with plants as if designed by gardeners, this series of small rock islands have arched tunnels carved by the pounding surf. Their environs are a favorite for snorkelers and divers.
Mike’s Fishing Charters provides all the equipment needed for guests wishing to explore the islands.
Not too many miles south of Puerto Vallarta the lush foothills of the Sierra Mardre tumble into the bay. Villas and boutique hotels cling to the hillsides while thatched palapas dot secluded beaches. Secluded is the operative term because the single north/south highway along the coast is at points up to a mile and a half inland. Many beach locations are accessible only by boat.
Mike’s Fishing Charter’s private beach restaurant – Mike’s Beach Club – is one such venue. The long thatched roof restaurant hugging a white sand beach is a quintessential retreat from the modern world – although wifi is available. Among the menu offerings is superb seafood ceviche, made to order wood fired tortillas with grilled meat fillings and a variety of salads.
After lunch it’s siesta time. Guests can enjoy the clear blue waters of the bay, lounge under a beach palapa or, best yet, nap in one of the colorful hammocks. A day on board a Mike’s Fishing Charter yacht is a relaxing time warp into days before mass tourism.
Petra was carved into multi colored mineral laden sandstone by the Nabataeans c. 300 B.C., yet this geographically strategic region in present day Jordan generated wealth for whoever had control long before the city existed. As a center for long-haul caravans, some stretching for 700 camels, Petra was an ideal junction for the distribution of goods on their way south, west and north into the Levant, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. As for security, Petra was a natural bank vault.
The massive city was carved into the red sandstone cliffs on the flanks of Jordan’s vast dry Wadi Araba. The dramatic main entrance through a long towering and narrow gorge – a Siq – was a defensive and psychological tour de force. The eyes are focused on the first building that comes into view, the impressive Al Khaznch. Popularly known as the Treasury, its purpose was more likely ceremonial – shock and awe.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, chosen in 2007 as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and discovered by Hollywood in the Indiana Jones franchise, Petra deserves its reputation as the top tourist attraction in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With an international mix of visitors, the carriage, horse, donkey and camel rides, the craft and trinket stalls, local musicians and water hawkers add a visceral caravan atmosphere to a serious archaeological site.
Petra’s dominance of the Spice Route in the Levant continued well into the Roman era when the city became the capital of the empire’s Arabian province. Although it’s not clear what use the Nabataeans meant for many structures, the Romans added obvious flourishes – an impressive theater, colonnaded market and freestanding temples. Yet if it were not for the genius of three human accomplishments, the glory of Petra would have been impossible.
Petra’s wealth and life in the Cradle of Civilization were based on wheat, sheep and water. The domestication of a wild grain and a feisty animal in prior millenniums allowed for settled life and the rise of towns. Yet all life was dependent on water, especially in regions prone to drought. The Nabataeans mastered an efficient system of dams, cisterns and water channels carved in rock that provided this desert city with a profitable surplus of water.
While Petra declined after the 5th century A.D. due to changing commercial routes and serious earthquakes, wheat, sheep, people and the need for water remained. The cuisine of Jordan’s Bedouin culture harken back to the basics of ancient settled life. Flat ash bread is still buried under the hot coals while goat, lamb and poultry may be grilled or baked in a hot sand pit. Vegetables of all types are pickled and dried fruits, nuts and cheese round out the basics.
Who knows when humans first discovered that slathering toppings on flat rounds of bread and baking them were tasty and had infinite possibilities? Among the many dozens of mezze – small plates – that dominate Jordanian cuisine, Araies Iahma is a favorite among locals and visitors. Known as Bedouin Pizza, araies lahma is easy to prepare.
Araies Iahma (Bedouin Pizza) – 8 servings
1 pound ground meat – any combination of lamb, beef, mutton or goat
1 medium onion, diced
½ cup olive oil
1 green chili pepper, seeds removed, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed and diced
2 tomatoes, blanched, skinned and diced (see preparation)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C)
Blanch the tomatoes for 45 seconds in boiling water and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Using a sharp knife slit the sides of the skin and slip off the skin
Finely dice the tomatoes, onion, chili pepper and garlic
Add the salt, cumin, and diced vegetables to the ground meat and mix well.
Cut each round of pita in half, and spread a thin layer of meat inside each pocket.
Brush the stuffed pita halves with olive oil and arrange on a sheet pan.
Bake for 7 minutes, turn each pita over and continue for 5 minutes more.
Serve hot with a salad as a light lunch, as an appetizer or part of a festive and elaborate Jordanian mezze buffet.
Araies Iahma is just one of a dozen dishes a visitor can participate in preparing at the Petra Kitchen. The staff of the Petra Kitchen under manager Ali and chef Mustafe have created a participatory dinner that introduces guests to the top tastes of Jordanian cuisine. Couple this with its location at the very epicenter of ancient human achievement, and dining in Petra becomes a bonding experience with the ancestors.
When you go:
Non-stop flights are available from major North American hubs to Amman, Jordan.
Petra is a 3-hour drive south from Amman on modern highways. Although day excursions can easily be arranged from Amman, to give Petra its due, an overnight in one of the new town’s attractive hotels is recommended.
As in all hot arid regions, visitors to Petra are urged to carry and drink plenty of water. Visiting the entire site entails walking 6 to 9 miles round trip, but carriage, horse, donkey and camel transportation is available. Bottled water is easily purchased in the historic site from numerous vendors.
A nighttime candle light illumination of the Al Khaznch (the Treasury) is not recommended. Candlelight at its base fails to do the vast edifice justice. Save your energy for the daylight.
This article on the cuisine of Jordan – with recipes – has little to do with almonds; it has everything to do with the misunderstood terms of authenticity and fusion when it relates to national cuisines. Yet let’s take almonds as an example, in Jordan they do not coat this delectable nut in a tooth breaking armor of sugar. The reason is simple; Jordan Almonds are an invention of the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Jordan didn’t exist until the 20th century – let’s not get into the derivation of the name.
Salatat Khyar and Fatoosh are ubiquitous and refreshing cucumber salads, part of the common repertoire in Jordan. Yet their main vegetable, the cucumber, probably didn’t make its way into Levantine cuisine from India until circa 1000 B.C.E. – long after a thriving food culture had developed. The Spice Route and the Silk Road, legendary commercial links between Europe and Asia, intersected in Jordan and the greater Levant resulting in today’s timeless fusion Middle Eastern cuisine.
The many variations on classic cucumber salads found throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean mimic the layers of cultural influence made possible through commerce on the Spice Route and the Silk Road. Research Salatat Khyar and often the Algerian recipe appears, significant for the absence of yogurt in the recipe despite that dairy staple being otherwise well utilized. Why the Berbers and Moors of North Africa left yogurt out is a mystery.
Still this article is not about cucumbers, yogurt or almonds – although Jordan has wonderful raw almonds that are another story altogether. National cuisines – aka authentic – are a myth simply because cooking is regional; it’s all about what’s available. For most that was a 50-mile radius from one’s village. Yet for the Middle East that was the known world.
The delectable smoky flavor of baba ganouj – Jordan’s spelling – is known throughout the Middle Eastern culinary world. Except in Jordan tahini (sesame paste) is absent. Yet tahini was common in the region. Pomegranate molasses on the other hand was an import from Persia brought in by caravan. Concentrating juices of perishable fruits (dibs) was common. The addition of mint is a regional Jordanian variation as well not found in the more commonly known Lebanese baba ghanoush. The result for Jordan’s baba ganuj is a recipe for chopped salad rather than a dip. It’s a refreshing mezze (small plate) with notes of mint and sweet/sour pomegranate.
Baba Ganuj (serves 8)
Pomegranate molasses is available in better markets (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc) and Middle Eastern groceries. This recipe comes from The Petra Kitchen, Petra, Jordan.
2 pounds eggplant (approximately 2 medium size)
1 green bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 large tomato
1 medium sweet onion
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Prick the eggplants with a fork and roast on a baking dish in a 375° oven for 45 to 60 minutes until very soft. (Roasting over charcoal in a baking dish will impart a better smokey flavor. Turn the eggplants several times.) Allow the eggplants to cool. Split the eggplants and scoop out all the flesh discarding the skins. Place in a stainless steel or ceramic mixing bowl.
Add olive oil, lemon juice and salt and mash with a fork until a chunky puree.
Dice the tomato, pepper and onion. Crush and dice the garlic and add all to the eggplants.
Stir in mint.
Garnish with parsley and/or additional mint and serve with flat bread.
Muhammara, redolent of roasted red peppers and walnuts, means brick colored in Arabic because that’s the color of the dip – the color of Wadi Rum sand. Yet variations are all over the world of the Spice Road and Silk Route as far north as Georgia in the Caucuses. It’s rich tasting yet light in texture, and this Jordanian recipe is simple to prepare.
Muhammara – 8 servings
2 ½ pounds red bell peppers
1 or 2 small hot chili peppers
6 ounces walnuts
½ cup wheat crackers
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Roast the red peppers until skins are blistered and charred using one of these three methods – (1) on a baking dish in a 400° oven for 10 – 15 minutes (2) over charcoal turning the peppers several times, or (3) over the open flame of a gas stove holding the peppers with tongs or a long fork like marshmallows.
Place the peppers in a bowl and cover or in a paper bag for 15 minutes. This will steam the peppers allowing the charred skin to easily slip off. Discard the skins, seeds and membranes.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts, crackers, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth.
Add the red peppers and process until smooth.
With the machine running, add the olive oil in a thin stream and then the chili peppers. If too thick add 1 to 2 tablespoons water.
Scrap the puree into a stainless, glass or ceramic bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight for best flavor, although it’s fine to eat it right away.
Serve drizzled with extra olive oil and/or pomegranate molasses garnished with walnuts or pine nuts and accompanied by wheat crackers or flat bread.
Labna (soft yogurt cheese) is more common than butter as a spread especially on traditional flat breads. It’s frequently on the breakfast table along with smoked fish. Flatbread with labna, smoked salmon, red onion, capers and dill is as common in Jordan as bagels and lox in America. Fusion isn’t the adulteration of cuisine; it’s evolution and creativity.