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  • 05/26/14--15:40: Pandan 101
  • feature-blades-of-glory-pandan-grass-500x700-i166EnlargeCredit: James Oseland The fragrant plant Pandanus amaryllifolius, variously known as pandanus leaf, pandan, and screwpine in English, is a beloved aromatic throughout Southeast Asia. In the U.S., pandan is widely available frozen and can usually be found at Asian grocery stores.

    Because of its sturdiness, pandan can be kept in the freezer, where it retains much of its aroma. There is no need to thaw leaves before cooking; just use them as you would fresh. When buying frozen leaves, avoid those that are covered in ice crystals or blackened, signs that the pandan has been frozen too long.

    Fresh leaves can also be found at some Asian markets, especially in places with a warm climate and large Southeast Asian populations, such as the West Coast and Florida. With fresh pandan, look for firm deep-green leaves—avoid brown or shriveled leaves. Wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in the crisper of the refrigerator, fresh pandan leaves will keep for several days. As only the mature green leaves are fragrant, separate the blades before cooking, and trim off the whitish ends. Discard these, along with any immature pale leaves at the heart of the clump.


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  • 05/26/14--18:56: Fire in the Desert
  • Burning ManEnlargeCredit: Jim Urqhart/ Reuters

    Burning Urge

    Every summer, tens of thousands of “burners” descend on the Black Rock Desert, toting survival supplies for the weeklong performance-art fantasia called Burning Man. Here, across more than 3,500 acres of sand under the relentless August sun, they build massive interactive art installations—a fractal meditation pod made from timber and climbing nets; a fire-breathing dragon that melts down aluminum cans for sculptures; a 21-foot-tall tetrahedron of baseball bats and softballs—and they erect hundreds of themed encampments. At the festival's apex, a 90-foot-tall effigy, The Man, is set ablaze. I've been attending for eight years. Out in the desert, there's no running water or electricity; we bring everything we need in and out: construction cranes, club-quality sound systems, and freezer trucks. Best of all, the whole place runs on a gift economy—no bartering, no buying, only giving—including the “restaurants.” I love to explore the culinary camps, where scrappy cooks whip up a bacchanalian spread—North African lamb stew, ice cream frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen, sushi made from salmon flown to the desert. Festgoers set up countless makeshift cafes, bakeries, and supper clubs where you're free to go in and eat your fill.

    Enlarge
     

    Feels Like Home

    Music plays a central role at Burning Man, where revelers like the Mohawked woman at electronic music encampment Distrikt have their choice of dance parties. But camp themes are wide ranging: Last year I came 2,000 miles from my home in New Orleans only to happen upon another French Quarter here. Five hundred people built a fever-dream version from scratch with blue, yellow, and pink pastel facades, and a massive generator powering the enclave. As in the original, food was at the heart of this French Quarter: The Santopalato Supper Club featured a different chef's cooking each night. I traveled there, and everywhere, from my tent using the festival's preferred mode of transportation: a bicycle. It's amazing what you can discover peddling through the dust, like the Pacificana pop-up at Santopalato. Marketing consultant Victoria Davies grilled ginger flank steak and chile-laced sweet-potato cakes over an open fire. Down the street, Darias Jonker and other volunteers at Black Rock Bakery turned out crusty breads from an old airport Cinnabon oven. The efforts of these temporary restaurateurs are astonishing. Yehonatan Koenig, an Israeli-born ad agency director from California, started planning six months out for his special boil dinner, for which he flew in 100 pounds of live crawfish, cooking everything in two 80-quart pots.

    EnlargeCredit: Nick Vivion

    City Limits

    Even with room for 68,000, Burning Man sold out last year. It may seem impossible to find anyone or anything in this sprawling temporary “Black Rock City,” but it's laid out with street signs in a semicircle around The Man and a central temple. Some camps are mobile, though, setting up off the packed, curving grid of streets in unannounced locations: To find the popular Dust City Diner—a '50s-era greasy spoon run by California artists Michael Brown and David Cole—I biked into the central open sand, searching for its LED sign. At a Formica counter jerry-rigged in a flatbed truck, servers in blond beehive wigs sporting names like Dixie dished out coffee and pancakes on classic blue china. At other eateries, some of my favorite things are the sweets. When you're tussling with sandstorms, you just kind of want a treat—something like Davies' yogurt cake with passion fruit sauce—to keep your spirits lifted and primed for yet another crazy experience on, say, a 30-foot pendulum swing or an animal-shaped art car.

    EnlargeCredit: Nick Vivion


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  • 06/02/14--08:04: Kernel of Truth
  • Amaretti CookiesEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography

    Although most recipes for amaretti, the Italian version of macaroons, call for almonds, the original recipe included armellines, the kernels from inside apricot pits, whose rich flavor is akin to that of the fragrant bitter variety of nut. According to lore, a young couple whipped up the petite cookies off the cuff with sugar, the apricot kernels, and egg whites for the Cardinal of Milan when he paid a surprise visit to the Lombardy town of Saronno in 1718. The holy man was so enamored of the treats, which the bakers named amaretti (little bitter things), that he blessed their union. Our favorite version comes from the 126-year-old D. Lazzaroni & Company, which uses armellines to flavor the crunchy cookie and another of its products, the liqueur amaretto. Although Lazzaroni's mahogany-brown, pearl-sugar-speckled Amaretti di Saronno are delicious simply nibbled alongside an espresso, the cookies, which come tissue-wrapped in pairs and packaged in the iconic fire-engine-red tin, are also crumbled into desserts such as the Piedmontese amaretti peach tart and baked stuffed peaches to infuse them with a distinctive marzipan-like flavor.

    Lazzaroni Amaretti, $19 for a 16 oz. tin at amazon.com









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    I love Seattle. I love its coastline with its mist-shrouded islands. I love the wharfside Pike Place Market, where grown men play catch with fresh salmon. I love the otters in the waterfront aquarium, and those rusted Richard Serras in Olympic Sculpture Garden, with its sweeping ocean views. And Dungeness crab. Especially Dungeness crab, pulled from the sea right outside Seattle's front door.

    It wasn't until my most recent trip there that I bothered to look out Seattle's back door. Guess what I found? Lake Washington! And at 22 miles long and covering 21,500 acres, this lake is a doozy, home to sport fishermen, boaters, retirees, water skiiers, and Bill Gates. I figured I should learn more about this lake, so I checked into the Woodmark, a tony boutique hotel with a marina and a shopping plaza on the lake's eastern shore. Newly redressed in soothing whites and navy blues, with a lobby display case holding ships' models, including one of the property's own 1950s-era Chris Craft, the Woodmark has a yacht club vibe that put me quickly in sync with the good life.

    Standing on my balcony watching a Golden Retriever paddle out into the placid lake to retrieve a tennis ball his person had thrown, I wished I had someone to share it with—mainly my own dog. The Woodmark is a pet-friendly resort: Check in with a pooch, and your fine furry friend gets a treats-stuffed amenities package; once a month the locals and their pups gather at the lakefront Beach Cafe at "Yappier Hour" for romping and cocktails; and their annual Halloween "Mutt Mixer" costume contest is a popular draw. Heck, the joint even has its own on-premises mascot, a friendly black lab named Woody Meg.

    But, alas, my own pitbull, Lewis Lambchop, was back home in New York; I was alone and short on time, headed for parts much farther south. I had no time to partake in any of the sports the hotel offers—no jet ski or paddle board or waterskis or kayak. I didn’t have time to take a spin in that Chris Craft (a tremendous deal at $35 per person), or hire a captain to take me fishing for smallmouth bass. What I did have time for, however, was a meal.

    At the property’s warm, dark Bin on the Lake restaurant, Chef Dylan Giordan's food felt both refined and relaxed at the same time, not unlike the resort itself. A basil-flecked grapefruit granita added just a hint of icy herbal brightness to super-creamy, deep-cupped Alaskan oysters on the half shell. Local foie gras was broiled on a round of brioche, its deep, rich meatiness was buoyed by a huckleberry jam and a bunch of tiny, nearly savory, lingonberries, and offset by a cabernet franc ice. (It was one of the courses on the chef's "Study of" menu, a seasonally driven, ingredient- or technique-focused prix fixe concept shared by chefs at all properties in the Destinations Hotels & Resorts Group. This month’s offering was a study of duck.)

    So much of the good stuff to eat in the Pacific Northwest is pulled right from the land, air, and sea in nearby Alaska, including wild king salmon, its muscular minerality offset by a sweet corn sauce bolstered with white truffles. But the wonderful wines that I drank were all from Washington’s Columbia Valley: Long and lush Shadows Poet's Leap Riesling 2010 with the foie; smoky but bright Hestia Semillion 2006 with the salmon. Delicious.

    It was a shame I was too full before bed to partake of one of the Woodmark’s most charming amenities: the pantry raid. Right off the lobby, there's a room stuffed to the gills with every snack imaginable you might want before bed: fruit and sandwich fixings, cereals of all kinds, chips, sweets, and more...all on the house, and all for the taking in the two hours wrapping midnight on either side. If I could have fit in a glass of milk and a stack of cookies, I would have. But, instead, I slumbered. I had miles to cover the next day, starting at Din Tai Fung, the nearby branch of the famed Hong Kong dumpling house where there was an order of just-made, delicately packaged, wavy, steaming truffle-and-pork dumplings with my name on them. —Betsy Andrews
     

    In the Area


    Din Tai Fung Dumpling House:This Bellevue branch of the famed Hong Kong-based outfit serves the most delicious, most delicate dumplings this side of the Pacific. Juicy pork is the classic, but specials might include fillings as maverick as truffles. Din Tai Fung Restaurant; 700 Bellevue Way NE #280, Bellevue, WA 98004; 425/698-1095.

    Pike Place Market:Across the lake on the harbor side of Seattle is this famed 107-year-old market of more than 200 farm stands, crafts stalls, shops, and more. Watch the fishmongers toss salmon across the aisles to one another and then pop into a restaurants for Dungeness crab cakes, fish chowder, and more.Pike Place Market; 85 Pike St, Seattle, WA 98101; 206/682-7453

    Seattle Aquarium:Near Pike Place Market is this waterside wonderland where you can explore the glories of the ocean, including the world's cutest aquarium denizens, the otters. Seattle Aquarium; 1483 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98101; 206/386-4300

    Microsoft Visitor Center:Just 10 minutes east of the Woodmark is the corporate headquarters of Bill Gates' brainchild. Tour the exhibits about the history, culture, and products of the company, including a look at its latest innovations. 15010 NE 36th St, Redmond, WA 98052; 425/703-6214








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    EPICURIENCE VIRGINIA

    Picture a food and wine festival so unique that no existing name quite fit. A food and wine experience so epic, in fact, that we’re calling it something completely new Epicurience Virginia. Held in the East Coast’s premier wine region, Loudoun, Virginia: DC’s Wine Country. It’s where insiders come to savor award-winning wines and seek out noteworthy farm-to-table cuisine.

    Enter now for your chance to taste the finest in Virginia wines, meet top tastemakers and master winemakers, and sample cuisine prepared by celebrated chefs from around the country. 


    PRIZE PACKAGE INCLUDES:


    TICKETS & TRANSPORTATION:
    • Airfare for two (2) to Washington Dulles Airport in Loudoun County, Virginia
    • Hotel accommodations for three (3) nights at the Lansdowne Resort
    • Two (2) VIP tickets to Epicurience Virginia Food and Wine Festival, Saturday August 30th 12:00pm – 6:00pm
    • Transportation: Round-trip transportation from Lansdowne Resort to Epicurience Virginia Food and Wine Festival at Morven Park in a six passenger limousine provided by Reston Limousine
    • Two (2) tickets to Oatlands’ Fabulous 40’s Party, Saturday, August 30th  7:30 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.

    MEALS:

    TASTINGS:
     


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    There are two reasons why a traveler might find herself in Burgundy’s drowsy, windswept hill town of Vézelay: to catch a glimpse of the relics of Mary Magdalene housed in its soaring 12th-century basilica—rumor has it, they’ve got an actual finger—or to dine at L'Espérance Marc Meneau'sstoried wine country hideaway.

    With apologizes to the Magdalene, I came for the food. Meneau hasn’t achieved the same international renown as his fellow countrymen Michel Bras, Joël Robuchon, and Alain Ducasse, but in this neck of the woods, he is revered as a founding father of modern French cuisine. The son of a local saddle-maker, Meneau is a self-taught chef who pored over books as a young cook, taking Apicius and Taillevent and Brillat-Savarin as his mentors; early on in his career, he was a favorite of Julia Child’s.

    In the 40-odd years since Meneau and his wife, Françoise, first opened L’Espérance (the name means simply “hope”), the enterprise has expanded higgledy-piggledy to include 31 bedrooms, a small conference facility, and three distinct dining spaces: There is the famed tasting-menu-only dining room, a casual offering called Bistrot Gainsbourg, and L’Entre-Vignes, an airy, modern room which offers Sunday brunch and serves as an ersatz reception or meeting space.

    The centerpiece of the Relais & Chateaux property remains, as in 1972, a handsome stone lodge with cream-colored shutters and interiors that reflect the owners’ keen eye for design: The furnishings are modern and restrained, the walls rich with bold, dynamic contemporary artwork. A generous sitting room gives out onto rambling, romantic English-style gardens to the building’s rear, all creeping ivy and secluded grottos. Staying in one of the second-floor bedrooms felt like being a weekend guest at the country house of a stylish French friend.

    Across a narrow country road sits a 19th-century mill building (gurgling brook included), which the Meneaus have divided into eight cozy guest rooms, decked out with antique furnishings to compliment their rough-hewn stone walls and exposed oak beams. Nearby, they have built a modern, single-story guest annex called Le Pré des Marguerites; the rooms themselves are forgettable, but each includes a private terrace that opens onto a heavenly, secluded glade. There is no better place to take your morning café and a just-baked croissant.

    Today, fine dining is still at the heart of L’Espérance, both physically—the restaurant occupies much of the main building’s ground floor—as well as philosophically. “When I have money to spare and it’s a choice between investing in the food or investing in the property, I always choose the food,” Chef Meneau confided over breakfast. “If it’s between putting in a swimming pool or expanding the kitchen garden, I’ll expand the garden.” So it is that Meneau has wound up with a stunning 65,000 square feet of growing space for fruits and vegetables, as well as a 16-acre vineyard nearby where he grows Chardonnay for his own small wine label.

    To be fair, Meneau got around to that pool, which sprawls invitingly alongside Le Pré des Marguerites. But the property has no spa, nor fitness facility, nor business center. Guests are wise to take the hint. A visit to L’Espérance means hiding with something good to read in one of many garden nooks, taking walks through the silent countryside, or retiring to the library after dinner to sample from Meneau’s impressive Armagnac collection before tumbling into bed.

    And about that dinner? My experience at L’Espérance over-delivered on its two-Michelin star designation (the restaurant has held three stars for much of its four-decade history, but inexplicably lost the third in 2008). Seated in front of the floor-to-ceiling greenhouse glass overlooking the back garden, I savored barely-cooked young asparagus that had been growing there hours earlier; a near-translucent sliver of cod bathed in silky beurre blanc; milky slices of local veal served alongside humble onion, roasted into unctuous submission.

    These days, chefs tend to site travel as a major source of their culinary inspiration. Meneau derives his from a resolute, lifelong connection to his home turf of Vézelay, a town where, I learned, his family has lived for 500 years. Today, he is a 70-year student of its history, culture, flora, fauna, seasons, and soil. “I’m going to spend at least another 70 years focusing on French cuisine before I even think of moving on to other countries,” Meneau told me, with a wink. —Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn
     

    IN THE AREA


    Vézelay: L’Espérance sits at the foot of the "Eternal Hill" of Vézelay, whose Benedictine Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene is considered a masterpiece of French Romanesque architecture. The town was once a key stop on pilgrimage routes, as well as the launching point of the Second and Third Crusades.

    Abbey of Fontenay:This 12th-century monastery is one of the oldest and best preserved Cistercian abbeys in Europe, now in the care of a private owner who has lovingly restored it and carefully maintains its status as a UNESCO heritage site. Visitors can tour its beautiful grounds, which include the original Romanesque church, dormitory, cloister, chapter house, refectory, and forge. 21500 Montbard, France, 33/3/8092-1500

    Morvan Nature Park:L’Esperance borders 430,000 acres of protected parkland, rich with woodlands and lakes ideal for outside pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, climbing—even whitewater rafting. Maison du parc, 58230 Saint-Brisson, France, 33/38/6787-900
     








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    I forget how much I love the smell of the Maine woods until I step out of the car onto pine needle-flecked dirt and drink in a big sip of fresh air. I grew up in New Hampshire, just a 15 minute drive from the Maine border, so the delicious smell of salty sea and earth is a homecoming of sorts for me.

    I'm here at Hidden Pond, an upscale take on the Maine campground cabin, to spend a week dining and drinking with my mom at the Kennebunkport Food Festival. I've been looking forward to eating food from chefs like TK name from Zapoteca in TK, and TK, and while I was also looking forward to dining at Earth—Hidden Pond's on-site New American restaurant helmed by chef Justin TK in collaboration with James Beard Award-winning chef Ken Oringer—I had no idea how much I'd fall in love with the property itself and all the thoughtful, unexpected touches.

    THE ROOMS

    Our room is a small private cottage, befit with a screened in porch, one bedroom, a small seating area with a fireplace, a spacious bathroom, and an outdoor shower—more than we'd need for a mother-daughter girls weekend. The décor was rustic but chic, with handsome wooden fixtures, ikat pillows and bedding in dark, rusty reds and greens, antique touches, and salvaged driftwood displayed on the wall as natural sculpture. Next to the seating area, we had the tiniest kitchenette with more than we'd need—wine, glasses, plates, a mini-fridge stocked with yogurt, fresh milk and OJ, a small sink, a coffee maker with locally-roasted coffee from Portland, and granola made right at Hidden Pond.

    THE FOOD

    We dine at Earth our first night in Maine, and it blows my expectations away. I would list the standouts, but every plate that comes out of the open kitchen seems somehow better than the last course: Fried oysters with padrón pepper relish and fried mint whet our appetite as we sip cocktails and look over the menu; an asparagus salad with salsify, lemon curd, and chiccaronnes is as pretty to look at as it is delicious; handmade pasta with rabbit, fiddleheads, TK is elementally satisfying; Maine lobster cooked with yogurt, curry leaves, TK, and meyer lemon butter is a beautiful reinterpretation of classic Maine fare. Just when I think I can't possible fit another bit, my mom, who has a mean sweet tooth, orders dessert. I someone make room and try what might have been my favorite bite of the whole meal: fresh-fried chocolate-covered donuts, perfectly crunchy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside, paired with an anise-TK ice cream topped with dehydrated strawberry streusel. I'm telling you, it sounds crazy, but it was like taking a bite out of heaven.

    THE EXPERIENCE

    The rest of our week unfolds in the same tone as our first night—rosy-toned and relaxing, and full of happy surprises. Every morning the staff drops off a cooler packed with fresh baked goods from earth—mini vegetable quiches, coffee cake made with fresh local fruit (both the strawberry-rhubarb and blueberry were phenomenal), fresh fruit salad, and a thermos of hot coffee—we don't even have to don't even have to use that coffee maker in the room.

    More than once we borrow bikes to head down the road to the beach, and get lunch Tides Beach Club, a sister property to Hidden Pond also developed by Tim Harrington and his business partner, TK. Tides has a totally different vibe, but is just as lovely—white, blue, nautical and beachy, with a sleek marble bar outfitted with lucite-backed bar chairs. The menu is stoked with well-executed beach foods from lobster rolls to fresh Maine oysters. We order cocktails because why not, and my mom beats me with her selection: watermelon-infused vodka shaken with lemon, simple syrup, and cranberry juice. The ice-cold, rosy pink cocktail tastes like summer, and is a perfect prelude to an afternoon spent lounging in the chairs at Tides.

    By the end of the week neither of us wanted to go back to real life—I actually think I said more than once, "Maybe I should move to Maine." Whether I become a resident or not, I know where I'll be making my home-away-from-home next time I'm in vacationland: Hidden Pond. —Cory Baldwin

    IN THE AREA


    Goose Rocks Beach: Grab a bike from Hidden Pond and you can peddle the quick 1-mile road to postcard-perfect Goose Rocks Beach, a happily un-crowded sandy cove. Beach-side Tides Beach Club, Hidden Pond’s sister property, provides complimentary beach chairs and towels and even offers chair-side lunch service that you can charge back to your HP room. 254 Kings Highway, Goose Rocks Beach, Kennebunkport, ME 04046, (855) 632-3224

    The Clam Shack: There’s lobstah, lobstah everywhere on the Maine Coast, but this landmark spot in the middle of Kennebunkport served the best lobster roll, not to mention fried clam bellies, of my trip. Boats bring their wares to the backdoor of the Clam Shack, and then the tiny spot serves the super-fresh shellfish out the window in front. The lobster roll is a full lobster on a hamburger roll, napped with your choice of mayo or melted butter. 2 Western Ave, Kennebunk, ME 04043, (207) 967-3321

    The Ogunquit Museum of American Art: Thirty minutes south of Kennebunkport, this petite museum captured my attention as much for its stunning setting as its collection of 20th century American artwork. Floor to ceiling windows fill the entire back wall and the views sweep out over the fishing port of Perkins Cove, past the rocky cliffs, and straight out to the Atlantic. 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit, ME (207) 646-4909 —Melissa Klurman



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  • 06/27/14--09:32: Maine: State of Bliss
  • Enlarge
    Natives of Maine are a discreet breed, prizing modesty and restraint above other virtues. "Don't brag," local mothers caution their children when they win a spelling bee, an Oscar, or a Pulitzer Prize. So, when it comes to the extraordinary food we have in this northeasternmost state, we don't go around boasting about it. "Oh, it's pretty good," we say, or sometimes, when it's truly exceptional, we might even deem it "pretty darned good".

    Most people "from away" know coastal, summertime Maine, a place of busy lobster shacks, juicy fried clams, and fresh-made blueberry pie. And it's pretty good. But if you stick around after Labor Day and venture beyond the vacation playgrounds, you'll find something even better. With apologies to my fellow citizens, I will confide that Maine is now home to some of the most varied and rewarding eating and drinking experiences in the country.

    I've heard Maine described by one food writer as "the Bay Area of the East" and compared by another to the Dordogne region of France, two places of indisputable culinary excellence. To that I respond with a typical Mainer's reserve as I cut a wedge of semisoft, aged Eleanor Buttercup cheese and tuck into a bowl of Morse's barrel-aged sauerkraut served with one of Maurice Bonneau's smoked sausages that's been smeared with Raye's Piquant Down East Schooner Mustard — all chased down by a pint of Gritty McDuff's Best Brown Ale. These are simple pleasures. Nothing fancy. Pretty darned good.

    Whether you're visiting Kittery in the south, Calais down east, or Fort Kent in the state's rooftop, Maine's gastronomic treasures abound, from it's bakeries (like Black Crow in Litchfield), its classic diners (like the exemplary A1, in Gardiner), and its hot dog wagons (like Wasses, in Rockland) to dedicated farmers (like the Chase family, who also operate Chase's Daily, a market and restaurant in Belfast), its fishermen (like those who supply Stonington Sea Products, in Stonington), and its hot-shot chefs (like Melissa Kelly ofPrimo, in Rockland, and Sam Hayward of Fore Street, in Portland, to name just two). And don't forget the farmers' markets brimming with brilliant-hued vegetables, tart Wolf River apples, and fresh and cured pork; the sweet little Maine shrimp that arrive in February; the full-flavored smelts netted from beneath the river ice in March; April's tender fiddlehead ferns; or our late-spring asparagus. These purely home-grown glories are more than pretty darned good; they are—as even the most tight-lipped Mainers will admit—just about the finest kind.

    GREAT MAINE RESTAURANTS

    Black Crow Bakery
    232 Plains Rd
    Litchfield, ME 04350
    207/268-9927

    A1 Diner
    3 Bridge St
    Gardiner, ME 04345
    207/582-4804

    Wasses Hot Dogs
    2 N Main Street
    Rockland, Maine 04841
    207/975-7472

    Fore Street
    288 Fore St
    Portland, Maine 04101
    207/775-2717

    Primo
    2 South Main Street
    Rockland, ME 04841
    207/596-0770

    Stonington Seafood
    536 Sunshine Rd
    Deer Isle, Maine 04627
    207/348-2730

    Chase's Daily
    96 Main St
    Belfast, Maine 04915
    207/338-0555








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    EnlargeCredit: Catherine Smart
    Growing up in the Northeast, Maine always meant vacation, as it does for many: Sandwiching s’mores around a crackling campfire in Acadia, dipping toes into icy tidal pools in Port Clyde, and cracking lobster claws up and down the coast. As a Boston-based adult often caught up in the busyness of life that can plague us all, the sweet simplicity of a Maine summer escape starts to beckon when June fades into July. After watching friends exchange vows on the moss-covered stone steps of the enchanting Camden Harbor Amphitheatre last year, I was eager to get to know the quaint, quintessentially Maine town, so I recently set out for a two day, one night jaunt.
    Perched midcoast, Camden lies between the gentle bustle of Portland and the solitude of the craggy Northern coast. As a destination, the town strikes a unique balance: fulfilling the reclusive urge to getaway from the concerns of daily life, while serving up amenities you’d expect from the most cosmopolitan seaside resort. Whether you want to indulge in a seven-course, seasonal tasting menu with wine pairings, or sit at a roadside picnic table, putting back pints of fried clams, Camden has you covered.
     

    1:30 PM: WELCOME TO VACATIONLAND

    Long Grain
    31 Elm St, Camden
    207/236-9001
    Extracting yourself from the daily grind is work in and of itself. If you are anything like me, your escape will commence with an underfed, over-scheduled morning that leaves you ravenous, and a bit woozy as you finally pull into picturesque Camden, after a four-hour drive up the coast. Sit down in the airy, light-filled Long Grain restaurant, owned by husband and wife team Ravin Nakjaroen and Paula Palakawong, the two turn out an ever-changing menu of what they bill as “Asian home-cooked & street food,” pulling ingredients from local farms and flavor profiles from their Native Thailand. Icy pour of Tsing Tao in hand, an oil-slicked Panang curry, fragrant with coconut and chilies, teeming with fork tender braised beef, materializes before you. Alternate with bites of Pad Ke Mao, a slightly spicy, toothsome stir-fry of meaty mushrooms, crisped pork belly, peppery greens, and thick handmade noodles topped with plenty of sweet basil. Chopsticks fall into a rhythm and you have a kind of moving meditation—curry, noodles, beer, curry, noodles beer. You are here. Officially on vacation.
     

    2:45 PM: TREASURE HUNT

    The Goose River Exchange
    23 Bayview Street
    207/236-3345

    Peruse this charming store chock-full of vintage magazines, books and posters; you never know what you might find when you aren’t really looking. Tucked in the back room, in drawer marked “misc. maps”, between guides to Prussia and Mexico, was a ripped, but recoverable 1920’s map of my adopted hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. After years of looking for just such a print to hang in my hallway, this serendipitous discovery made my day. $20 later I walked out with my prize, and strict instructions to have a framer lay it on linen. Whether it’s a favorite forgotten children’s book, a New England nautical guide, or antique postcard, you are sure to find some hidden treasures of your own.

    EnlargeCredit: Camden Harbour Inn, a Relais & Châteaux Property

    5:00 PM: PROSECCO AND POSTCARD VIEWS

    Camden Harbour Inn
    83 Bayview Street
    207/236-4200

    Even if you’re not checking into this elegant Relais & Châteaux property, it’s worth checking out the sumptuous lounge offerings at cocktail hour. The charming, historic hotel sits perched on a hilltop overlooking the sparkling water. Sip a glass of prosecco on the white wooden porch, or saddle up to the bar for one of their well-made cocktails mixed by dapper bartenders who will craft something special to suit your cravings—when I requested a Campari drink, sans gin, our barman whipped up a fizzy, bitter-sweet concoction kissed with grapefruit. Whatever you order, be sure it includes a house-made candied citrus peel.

    9:00 AM FUEL YOUR MORNING

    Zoot Coffee
    31 Elm Street
    207/236-9858

    After such an epic dinner, it’s hard to believe you are eating again, but if you are staying the night at Camden Harbour Inn you don’t want to miss the complimentary champagne breakfast included in your stay. Help yourself to a smorgasbord of fruit, housemade granola and pastries, or order up fluffy silver dollar ricotta pancakes studded with Maine blueberries. If savory is more your style go for the surprisingly light (and supremely delicious) chilaquiles. If you didn’t get your fill of lobster last night, there is always the Maine lobster benedict.

    Otherwise, power up your morning with one of Zoot Coffee’s rich Italian-style espresso drinks, like the strong but smooth iced Americano. The local café also serves up organic juices and smoothies, as well as tasty baked goods that include a generous selection of vegan and gluten-free offerings.

    EnlargeCredit: Catherine Smart

    10:00 AM: WORK UP AN APPETITE

    Maiden’s Cliff Trail
    Highway 52
    Located in Camden Hills State Park, Maiden’s Cliff Trail is a perfect hike for the food-centric traveler. Just a mile long, up a moderately rocky woodland path, you will work up a good appetite, and be back to Camden in time for lunch, with plenty of time to soak in the panoramic view of Lake Megunticook and the Atlantic Ocean on the way.

    1:30 PM: LUNCH IN ANOTHER ERA

    Boynton-McKay Food Company
    30 Main Street
    207/236-2465

    Lunch with the locals at this historic diner. The building, which opened as an apothecary in 1893, is still fitted with the original birds-eye maple cabinetry, Minton tile checkerboard floor, and pressed tin ceiling. Order at the counter and slide into a booth to enjoy a classic avocado BLT or eggs any style from their all-day breakfast menu.

    2:15 PM: Good Design To Go

    Sugar Tools
    29 Bayview Street
    207/706-4016
    This small shop houses a beautifully curated collection of well-designed and covetable artisanal goods for the home and garden, from handsome, yet fully machine wash and dryable striped linen aprons to the Japanese Hori Hori gardening tool, literal translating “dig, dig,” which owner Amy O’Donnell tells me is a digger, weeder, and seed planter all in one. Whether it’s the airy Lithuanian tablecloths, Mason jar cocktail shakers crafted by brothers in Brooklyn, or Maine-made rope bracelets, something is bound to end up in your basket.
     

    5:00 PM: A LAST HURRAH

    Mount Battie Takeout & Ice Cream
    235 S Belfast Road
    207/236-6122

    You are going to want a snack before you hit the road and head home. Make sure you get it at Mount Battie Takeout & Ice Cream, an unremarkable looking shack just north of downtown, where owners Gary Oliver and Kevin Defoe serve up some of the best, unadulterated New England seafood around. Maybe you are lucky enough to snag a seat at the solitary picnic table outside the takeout window. More likely, you will eat leaning against your car on the side of Route-1, but you’ll be happy either way. Fresh-shucked local clams are fried up crisp and golden, with meaty bellies and a side thick fries to sprinkle with malt vinegar. The crab roll is simply just-picked crabmeat mixed with a little mayonnaise, tucked into a toasted hot dog bun. You won’t want to wait to dig in, but if you must have an ocean view, they will pack up a picnic to take to nearby Lincolnville beach, so you can stretch out your Maine get-away just a little bit longer.
    EnlargeCredit: Catherine Smart

    WHERE TO STAY


    Camden Harbour Inn
    83 Bay View Street
    207/236-4200
    A Luxurious Relais and Chateaux property, built in 1874, with beautiful harbor views.

    Abigail’s Inn
    8 High Street207/236-2501
    A quiet bed & breakfast just a short walk to Camden’s harbor.

    Camping at Camden Hills State Park
    280 Belfast Road
    207/236-3109

    Enjoy the outdoors and visit Camden on a budget. Make reservations well in advance at campwithme.com
     

    HOW TO GET THERE


    Camden is about 200 miles from Boston between Portland and Bar Harbor. Major airlines fly into Portland International Jetport (85 miles south) and Bangor International Airport (65 miles north). From there, you can rent a car or hire a limo or taxi to take you to Camden.


    Catherine Smart is a Boston Globe correspondent for the food section, and owner of The Pocket Garden, a Boston based personal chef service. You can find her recipes, writing, and photography on her blog smartentertaining.com








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  • 06/25/14--11:05: Maine's Belgian Beer Mecca
  • EnlargeCredit: Ebenezer's Pub
    Several years ago, I started to hear rumors about some ridiculously great beer wonderland deep in Maine’s lush interior, near where Stephen King has his summer redoubt. The rumors were blessedly true. Down a dirt road, close to the middle of nowhere, lies Ebenezer's Pub, a sylvan hideaway that’s become a necessary and delightful pilgrimage for beer lovers from all across the country, and abroad too.

    This is where Jennifer and Chris Lively have been preaching the merits of advanced beer knowledge, and of Belgian beers in particular. The slightly shabby but charming farmhouse, with its cozy bar, covered porch and picnic tables, has been their pulpit. Lately, the lessons have focused on the wild-yeast Belgian “sours” that at first taste might seem a bit extreme for the average American palate, but which are now bringing thousands to the pub.

    “We started with the Belgians, the dubbels and tripels, then a few years ago we decided we were going to start pushing our customers’ palates and get them expanding into the sours,” Jennifer says. Count me in. The Livelys’ teaching material begins with thirty-five dazzling taps of heavenly brew; move to hundreds of bottles in the refrigerator, and continue with hundreds of vintage beers in the climate-controlled cellar. Most (but by no means all) of the stock is Belgian, and much of it’s hard-to-find in the U.S., from strong Belgian pale ale classics such as Delirium Tremens, to exotic Italian entries such as Birrificio De Ducato’s Kiss Me Lipsia, which is sour and salty thanks to pinches of pink Himalayan salt, and close-to-home native Mainers such as Allagash Interlude (aged in red-wine barrels).
     
    We started with the Belgians, the dubbels and tripels, then a few years ago we decided we were going to start pushing our customers’ palates and get them expanding into the sours
    The menu really shines with the Belgian lambics, typically made from blends of open-vat vintages (sometimes from more than one year) that rely on whatever yeast floats in, and are often aged with fruit, berry and herb additives: Oud Beersel’s cherry-bottomed Oude Geuze Veille, Cantillon’s raspberry-leather Rosé De Grambinus, Vapeur’s Cochonne, spiced with roasted chicory and orange peel. And to soak it all up, there's a solid pub menu with local ingredients and, of course, Belgian frites.

    Downstairs in the cellar, there’s much more. In its climate-controlled recesses you can find a wealth of vintagable (i.e., high alcohol-content) beers: a handful of Bass’s 1902 King’s Ale, cases of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Ale, stacked vertically by year, and a room in back dedicated to lambics of years past. Some of these you can try, but some of the most valuable are off-limits: Jen Lively says they are the family’s retirement plan.

    Be sure to call or email ahead for a cellar tour. In the summer, Ebenezer’s grows wildly busy, especially during the six-day Belgian festival—which starts on August 21 this year—when Belgian chefs and brewer-priests are on hand, and congregants pitch tents on the property. It can be surprisingly crowded in mid-winter too: Ebenezer’s has become a way-station for thirsty snowmobilers who motor over from a local trail.

    Today, Jen Lively crowds a tall bar table with samples. My favorite is one of the sour lambics, Drie Fonteinen’s “Intense Red.” It’s a kriek, or “cherry,” for the Morello cherries it’s flavored with. But you might as well translate it as “crack.” It’s delicious—very fruity, but very dry, with all sweetness squeezed out. Lively brings out a Belgian Royal Stout, Black Albert, uniquely brewed for Ebenezer’s by De Struise (tip: when a given year’s supply grows thin, it’s sometimes disguised on the menu as “Alberto Negro”). It’s darker than most stouts, but somehow smoother with a big mocha richness up-front, and a faintly fruity remainder at the end.Then, for a final wash-down, she pours De Dolle’s Bos Keun (Rabbit of the Woods), a strong but comparatively light-tasting blonde Easter beer. It smells floral and citrusy, like rosehips do, and has a bit of bitter, cleansing hoppiness to it.

    Fortunately, after this afternoon’s beery bounty, I have a lighter-drinking companion, Georgia, to drive us home to Portland. I'm equally fortunate that when I don’t want to trek so far inland, I can still benefit from the Lively’s expertise: They’ve just started to brew their own Belgian-style beers in Brunswick, Maine, 20 minutes up the coast from Portland. Husband Scott Lively declares Ebenezer’s Brew Pub’s first tripel the best in the U.S. And for this amateur, his tangy, sour-style “Lemon Haze” holds up beautifully against its Belgian inspirators. I am not about to argue with the experts. I just want to learn more.

    Ebenezer's Pub
    44 Allen Rd
    Lovell, ME 04051
    207/925-3200

    See more stories about the food of Maine in our Essential Maine guide »


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    EnlargeCredit: Laura Sant
    I was heading west along Route 1 near Whiting, Maine, for a mid-week lunch with a carful of hungry writers. Soaking in the lush green hills dotted with lakes we almost blew right past a little house with a white trailer parked out front bearing a hand-painted sign that read "Doughnuts" and then another, "Honk 4 Service."

    There was a brief pause as our minds registered "doughnuts," and then an almost frantic call and response: "Can we stop?"; "Pull over!"

    EnlargeCredit: Laura Sant We made a U-turn and pulled into the gravel driveway, honking a couple of times, and soon a bearded man scurried out of the house—Jeremy Towne, a former pastry chef who now runs the doughnut operation, cleverly named The Towne Fryer. He climbed into the trailer while we examined our choices: cake doughnuts in flavors like molasses, coconut, apple cider, and 3D chocolate (a chocolate cake doughnut drenched with chocolate icing and sprinkled with chocolate chips). To one side was an empty tray that had once been full of yeast-raised, honey glazed doughnuts, but those had gone hours ago—Jeremy starts at 6AM most mornings, and serves a string of morning commuters, townspeople, and tourists passing through. The local school bus even makes a daily stop when school's in session, and the children file out to spend part of their lunch money on his treats.

    And sure enough, given the chance, we were happy to ruin our own lunches with a small pile of dense, cakey doughnuts, sugar and coconut flakes scattering the floor of the car as we continued on our way.

    The Towne Fryer
    681 US Route 1
    Whiting, Maine
    6AM–4PM Tuesdays through Thursdays (Fridays and Saturdays the truck is mobile, usually near the Machias Dike)


    See more stories about the food of Maine in our Essential Maine guide »


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  • 07/02/14--13:00: Sky High
  • EnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography
    Believe it or not, some of the most remarkable spirits I've had have been consumed at 30,000 feet in the air. Though cocktails may be an entitlement that's mostly reserved for first class, on international flights the airline staple known as the mini bottle, a 50-milliliter vessel, is ideal for sampling indigenous liquor brands in the economy seats. On LOT Polish Airlines, I sampled 1. Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, with notes of vanilla and mint; mixed with apple juice, it tasted uncannily like apple pie. 2. Jameson Irish Whiskey, a 234-year-old brand with a toffee and leather profile, has held me over aboard Ireland's Aer Lingus. My go-to nips, with a squeeze of lime, on Caribbean Airlines are Jamaica's rich amber 3. Appleton Estate Reserve Rum and its 4. Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum, a potent, fruity spirit. I've also whiled away hours on Hawaiian Airlines with smooth Kaua'ian 5. Koloa White Rum, as well as organic 6. Ocean Vodka, a clean, sweet liquor diluted with “deep-ocean” water from 3,000 feet below the seas of Big Island. Even in the cramped back of the plane, I appreciate the room to luxuriate in the world's regional spirits.








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    When I started planning a peaceful getaway with my husband somewhere in my home state of Florida, Miami wasn't the first place to come to mind. But to my surprise, a four-day weekend at the Mandarin Oriental was the perfect balance of tranquil and exciting, and completely altered my take on the city.

    THE BOTTOM LINE

    Every part of my stay seemed designed to relax. The rooms were spacious and bright with glistening water views and when the sunshine poured in, I felt I could have happily lost hours sitting on the balcony watching giant iguanas scurry up into tropical trees. The enormous marble bathrooms with walk-in showers were a thoughtful design consideration, as my husband and I (I assume like most couples) are often attempting to get ready for a night out at the same time and sharing a mirror and a sink can be quite the battle. We spent hours lounging by the infinity pool and made sure to take a walk around the perimeter of the pristine island every evening. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the spa too, and could've easily booked an entire day there if I hadn’t already made other plans. Between the soothing sounds piped in from room to room and scents of exotic, floral incense, I couldn't ask for a better start to our one hour couples massage. It was perfect.  —Michellina Jones; @michellina
     

    THE FOOD

    In addition to Mo Bar located in the lobby, which serves an amazing New York Sour, there are two wonderful and very contrasting dining options: Azul, the hotel's fine dining anchor, and La Mar, the latest Peruvian restaurant from acclaimed chef Gaston Acurio. Early this year Azul underwent a major transformation when William Crandell, a young and talented chef from Chicago, took the reins and revamped the menu of French- and Asian-inspired dishes. Service was top notch and you can also expect a strong wine program led by Wine Director Todd Phillips, who broke every stereotype I held against wine experts—his wealth of knowledge from region to grape varietal made it so easy to talk my way through a menu, despite being a novice myself. Under Crandell's leadership, the restaurant has also revived its private cooking classes, so on a leisurely Sunday morning I walked down to the Azul kitchen, put on an apron, and had the pleasure of learning how to make Sudachi Scallops two ways (Japanese ponzu marinated ceviche) along with a traditional dry-aged New York strip and a classic pomme purée—a perfect sampling of both cuisines Azul represents.

    On the opposite side of the spectrum, the newly opened La Mar has a vivacious atmosphere and food that hums with layers of flavor and unexpected textures, hitting all the right beats—during my dining experience, it seemed that every plate executive chef Diego Oka turned out was more interesting than the last. Chef Diego’s Japanese heritage was playfully present throughout the menu, delivering one of the most fun fusion cuisines I've had the pleasure to taste. I was awestruck by the artfully served La Chalanita, also known as causa (Peruvian potato dumplings with sushi), sitting atop hand carved boats. But the Ceviche Barrio is the plate you can't miss: A hearty bowl of snapper, clams, mussels and calamari tossed in a tangy, silky sauce whirled with heat from spicy South American rocoto peppers.

    THE BACKSTORY

    The Mandarin Oriental is the only hotel offering on the private island of Brickell Key, and its neighbors are quiet residential condos and a few small shops. The property is surrounded by natural beauty with picturesque views of Biscayne Bay at every turn. But even more alluring is the hotel's proximity to all major points of interest like South Beach, Coconut Grove and the Design District—while remaining secluded. Originally built in 2000, the hotel has undergone expansive renovations over the last few years to beautiful effect. From the moment I walked in, I was relaxed by the breezy, casual opulence; it's tough to find a luxury hotel that meets five-star expectations while putting aside the stuffy aura. The staff was friendly and attentive but without being overly formal or hovering too close to my personal space (which I deeply appreciated).

    IN THE AREA

    Wynwood Walls/Design District: Immerse yourself in Miami’s art culture and stroll the Wynwood Walls near the Design District where street art is glorified. Artists from around the world have contributed to this bold display of neighborhood personality. You can easily spend an afternoon strolling galleries, shops, and dining at some great restaurants.
    Wynwood Walls NW Second Avenue – between 25th Street and 26th Street Design District 3841 NE 2nd Avenue Miami, FL 33137

    Pérez Art Museum: This modern museum houses exhibits from international contemporary artists and designers. The museum architecture alone is worth a visit; the striking structure sits bayside and was intentionally designed to accentuate the Miami lifestyle with vast open air spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the gallery with natural light.
    Pérez Art Museum Miami 1103 Biscayne Blvd. Miami, FL 33132

    South Beach: When you’re ready to slip into the teal ocean and bear witness to the fast-paced rush and fashionable life of Miami, head to South Beach. Arrive early to get some sun, then take your pick of overwhelming choices for a delicious meal and a cooling cocktail. My pick was Yardbird, where they serve up a crispy taste of the South with fried chicken specialities and chilled bourbon lemonades.


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    goanese shrimp curryEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography SERVES 4
     

    Ingredients

    1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
    1 cup grated fresh or frozen coconut
    1 tsp. cumin seeds
    3 chiles de árbol, stemmed
    2 plum tomatoes, chopped
    ¼ cup canola oil
    5 whole cloves
    4 green cardamom pods
    2 Indian or regular bay leaves
    1 stick cinnamon, halved
    1 medium yellow onion, chopped
    1 tbsp. ground coriander
    1 tsp. ground turmeric
    ½ tsp. ground black pepper
    2 cloves garlic, mashed into a paste
    1 (1") piece ginger, peeled and mashed into a paste
    1 (14-oz.) can coconut milk
    ½ cup chopped cilantro
    2 tsp. sugar
    2 small green Thai chiles or 1 serrano, thinly sliced
    Kosher salt, to taste
     

    Instructions

    Remove and discard tails from 6 shrimp; place in a food processor. Add coconut, cumin seeds, chiles de árbol, tomatoes, and 2 tbsp. water; purée into a paste. Heat oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high. Cook cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, and cinnamon until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Add onion; cook until golden, 6–8 minutes. Add coriander, turmeric, pepper, garlic, and ginger; cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Stir in reserved paste; cook until oil separates, 8–10 minutes. Stir in coconut milk; boil. Reduce heat to medium; add remaining shrimp, half the cilantro, the sugar, and green chiles. Cook until shrimp are pink and sauce is slightly thickened, 6–8 minutes; garnish with remaining cilantro.


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  • 07/22/14--13:45: Christmas on the Coast
  • christmas in goaEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography It was a tropical Christmas, steaming hot and bright as an egg yolk. Mosquitoes buzzed, gray-backed monkeys rummaged through the mango trees. The geese that live in our front yard waddled over to the fishpond for some relief.

    I was in Goa, where I was born and my father still lives. It is a tiny palm-fringed coastal state in western India that was under Portuguese rule until 1961, when the Indian army stormed in and dramatically liberated it. As in other parts of India, the Portuguese brought with them vegetables and fruits that Goans had never heard of before, such as potato and pumpkin, papaya and pineapple; they introduced us to chiles from the Americas. The cross-pollination of food traditions that defines Goa today can be attributed in part to conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese general who encouraged mixed marriages between Portuguese men and local women in the early 1500s.

    Although two-thirds of the population is still Hindu, many Goans converted to Catholicism under the Portuguese, and Christmas remains a beloved celebration. We attend midnight Mass, set up a manger in the garden, and prepare elaborate meals. We like to hang a five-point Christmas star on the porch, and after dark our villages gleam like the night sky.

    Last Christmas my husband and I returned to Goa to spend time with my father, sisters, extended family, and friends. The holidays are filled with invitations to our relatives’ rambling old houses for dinner. These parties are crowded, loud, happy affairs. We can catch up for hours over wine, beef croquets, and prawn forminhas (canapés), before we finally sit down to dinner, which is always laid out buffet style on long oval tables covered with heirloom lace tablecloths. There are at least a dozen traditional delicacies, such as pork vindaloo and chicken xacuti, accompanied by stacks of sannas, fermented bread. The centerpiece is inevitably a sturdy suckling pig, roasted just right so that the outside crackles and the inside tastes like butter. After dinner my teenage cousins often sing for us.

    What I most look forward to is Christmas lunch at our friend Elaine de Lima Pereira’s house in Panjim, a 45-minute drive from my father’s village. The daughter of a well-known caterer, Elaine was practically raised in the kitchen, and last year she made a dozen dishes singlehandedly for 50 guests.

    In the back garden, a long wooden table with white tablecloths and red table runners held the al fresco lunch. Elaine set out a seafood stew, a spicy red pork balchao curry in an earthenware bowl, and crispy baked mussels in their glinting silver blue shells. The roasted duck was red with spices, and the ox tongue had been marinated for three days in ginger, garlic, peppercorns, cloves, and lime. Her wonderful chili-fried tiger prawns—a local specialty marinated in turmeric—were as large as my fist and redolent of the rich taste of fried tomatoes and onions. For dessert, there were walnut drop chocolates and rose-water-infused marzipan fruits. But the coup de grâce was the Bolo Sans Rival or Cake Without Rival, which we ate off plates balanced on our knees in Elaine’s living room, our ears buzzing with the sounds of music and children playing.

    This festive cardamom-scented staple also came to Goa with the Portuguese. Canopies of butter cream separate four layers of spongy cashew-meringue cake. The sides of the cake are covered with even more cashew nuts, and the top is scattered with silver metallic dragées. The Sans Rival, like Christmas, comes only once a year, but the glamorous confection is so intensely rich that even one sliver feels like a year’s worth of indulgence.


    See the recipe for Goanese Shrimp Curry »

    Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.


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  • 07/22/14--14:32: The Last Tappers
  • Toddy TappersEnlargeCredit: James Oseland I remember that rainy evening 17 years ago. Crickets pierced the wet air with their shrill harmony, as my mother struggled to bring to life her smoky stone stove, blowing on the dying embers, stirring them with dry twigs. She did not lift her face, despite the ashes stinging her eyes. I thought she was weeping, but why? Outside, my brother was plying paper boats, ferrying stranded ants in the puddles in the yard. My dad sat on a stool by the stove, his chin resting on his clenched fist; his thoughts seemed heavy. That night, a decision was made: I would become a toddy tapper, just like him.

    Toddy tapping has been a traditional job among the Thiyya caste, one of hundreds of Hindu castes in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where I grew up, since the 14th century. The job involves scaling palm trees to the top, cutting open the leaves, and collecting the white sap that pours out. That sap is fermented anywhere from a few hours to a full day (the longer the fermentation, the more potent the drink), turning it from a sweet to a slightly bitter and sour alcoholic beverage known as toddy, or palm wine—a fixture of working-class taverns throughout the region.

    It is a perilous job. Some people fall off those trees. Some people die. For those reasons and more, Kerala’s young men are turning to better jobs in distant places: tech work in the United States, data entry in the Middle East. Fifteen years ago, there were more than 100,000 toddy tappers in Kerala; now there are around 40,000. Many wonder if the occupation will survive the next few decades.

    Many wonder if the occupation will survive the next few decades
    While my mother feared both the social stigma and the dangers of tapping, Dad saw things differently. To him, I was a man at 18 years old. I was in need of a livelihood. He had little faith in my dreams of becoming a journalist. After all, he had once had dreams, too. As a young man, he’d worked happily, rolling the thin Indian cigarettes known as beedie, a job that allowed him to wear crisp white cotton garments that distinguished him from the toddy tappers with their dishrag shirts tucked around their waist. Beedi rolling didn’t pay much, but it was enough for a bachelor. Then he got married, had children. He moved to Mumbai, where he worked in the trucking business. But life in a one-room slum home knocked the wind out of him.

    Eventually he gave in, returning home to Pinarayi on the Malabar Coast to become a tapper, work that he continues today, even into his 60s. Like my father, most men turn to tapping reluctantly, knowing that once they start, they’ll be bound to those palms until the day they die. Quitting is a sign of weakness, something that causes friends, even family members, to look down upon you as less masculine.

    A few months after Dad’s decision was made, I started working alongside him atop the trees lining the village river. This went on for seven years, until one evening, when everything changed. It was monsoon season, and our village had an outbreak of viral fever. I was laid up for days. Just as I started to recover, Dad came down with the sickness and asked me to pick up his slack in the trees. That evening, as I slowly scaled a tall palm, everything below started churning. My knees and hands went weak; a cold shiver ran down my spine. While I somehow managed to finish the work, a newfound fear was born within me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew my life as a tapper was over. Though I kept at it for the remainder of that year, there was a terror in my heart from which I could not recover.

    There was a terror in my heart from which I could not recover
    Finally I told my father, “I can’t climb anymore. I am too afraid.” He shot me an icy stare. “We are all afraid,” he said. “But we have got to work!” Still, we both knew it was over. Soon after, I began brushing up on my English, started post-graduate work in English literature, found a job teaching classes, and, finally, became a journalist.

    I know my father is still afraid, especially now, after one of his fellow tappers recently fell to his death. And yet he pretends to remain unfazed. As I sit in my newspaper office miles away from home, typing my latest story and living out a dream neither of us considered possible, I think about him up there, high above the ground, gambling with his life for that sweet, potent sap.

    VK Sreelesh is a journalist in Thalassery.


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    Anu Vaidyanath prepares to celebrate PongalEnlargeCredit: Kelly Campbell So much has changed in Molasur. I used to drive past this isolated agricultural hamlet in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu on my way home to the nearby town of Pondicherry. Twenty years ago, the village was a jumble of thatch huts and farms. But in the wake of India’s economic reforms, those farms have been replaced by concrete buildings and gated communities. Bicycles and bullock carts have given way to motorcycles. Molasur is slowly becoming a town.

    Yet for all the change, the four-day South Indian harvest festival known as Pongal is still observed each January. For me, the highlight takes place on the second day: a vegetarian feast like no other, featuring the best and most bountiful crops this town has to offer—from earthy sweet potatoes to meaty coconuts, nutty broad beans to creamy bananas. As landlord families throughout South India have done for centuries, the Reddiars, former feudal masters over 85 villages in the area, host the meal, which is meant to honor the land’s abundance, the weather gods, and cattle. Each year, for generations, the family has decorated cows in flowers and painted horns and opened the doors of their vast whitewashed home to feed the village’s approximatley 5,000 residents.

    The start of Pongal is determined by the beginning of the sun’s six-month journey northward, which Hindus consider auspicious. This year, the feast was held on January 14. I was invited by my friend R. Sathyaranayan, or Sathy, the youngest son in the Reddiar household. His family began their preparations at 7 am, just after dawn, gathering in the courtyard to watch a clay pot filled with milk and rice that would determine the coming year’s fortune. They were relieved to see the pot boil evenly on all sides, a signal of prosperity and abundance for the year. Pongal, after all, means “to boil” in Tamil, and of the range of pongal dishes, this dish—sakarai (or sweet) pongal—is reserved for its namesake festival.

    Pongal in Tamil Nadu, IndiaEnlargeCredit: Kelly Campbell
    Not far from the clay pot, Gopal, the family cook, worked with his helpers, slicing vegetables and cleaning lentils. Gopal is 80 years old but looks much younger. He heaved gunny sacks of rice; he lifted logs of wood and stoked the fires—Pongal feasts are cooked traditionally over wood, never gas.

    The best part of the meal is the special dish that shares its name and annual appearance with the festival itself: sakarai pongal
    At midday, we moved to the pooja room, or meditation room, where a ceremony was held amid incense smoke and ringing bells to honor the gods and the family’s ancestors. The ceremony over, we moved on to the serious business of the day, the feast itself. A score of family members and friends gathered in the living room for this meal made mostly with ingredients from Molasur’s fields. Outside, villagers milled around as we ate; they would be invited into the home to eat later.

    Assisted by his helpers, Gopal, shirtless and glistening with sweat, spooned helpings of food from brass buckets onto banana leaves spread across the concrete floor. Many of these wholesome, simple dishes reminded me of food I had eaten throughout my childhood. There were five types of poriyals—sautéed vegetables including yams, broad beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas, all infused with the distinctive South Indian flavor of coriander and curry leaves. I was also impressed by Gopal’s variations on classic dishes. His pumpkin poriyal, for example, was heavily seasoned with grated coconut.

    Sweet Rice PuddingEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography The best part of the meal is the special dish that shares its name and annual appearance with the festival itself: sakarai pongal. It is traditionally made with the season’s first rice and fresh milk, mixed with jaggery, raisins, and cashews, and then boiled until it is almost a paste. We didn’t wait to finish the rest of the dishes to eat this delicious dessert; we scooped up the sweet pongal with our hands between morsels of the main dishes.

    After the meal, Sathy and I went for a walk to the end of the village and sat at the edge of his family’s fields, by an ancient temple, its granite façade blackened over the years. Sathy told me that Molasur’s traditional agricultural life had withered amid India’s new economy. The young were no longer interested in farming; they preferred to work in the cities, in technology, at call centers. “Soon we probably won’t even farm here anymore,” he said, running his hand across the horizon, the length of his fields.

    A young boy from the village came running over. He asked Sathy when the feast would happen and Sathy told him it was being served at that very moment.

    As the boy ran off to eat, Sathy said, “I’m happy I can still open my doors once a year and feed the people of this village.” He looked at the ground, his hands in his pockets. “At least we can still do this.”

    See the recipe for Sakkarai Pongal (Tamil-Style Sweet Rice Pudding) »

    Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming (Penguin-Riverhead, 2012)


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  • 07/23/14--09:46: The Heart of South India
  • South India Field WorkersEnlargeCredit: Penny de los Santos I am in Rajahmundry, a town on the banks of the mighty Godavari River, as part of a slow, delicious journey to explore the many, varying cuisines of Andhra Pradesh. I am just about to eat in a mess.

    Andhra messes (short for mess halls) serve freshly made vegetarian food very cheaply. Hotel Vasavi is a dark, basement joint where, for a dollar, I am offered two types of rice: one plain and one flavored with a well-spiced tomato sauce. Rice is the base of the meal. To add variety of flavor, texture, and nutrients, there's majjiga pulusu, mixed vegetables cooked in a buttermilk sauce; palakoora vepadu, a stir-fried spinach; a curry made from jackfruit; and sambar, a spicy lentil-based stew. Since fried foods are essential to the soft, wet meal I'm having, I order kosu vepadu, a crispy cabbage fritter, which looks a bit like Medusa's head, with the strands of shredded cabbage providing a crunchy, unruly halo. All of the foods are startlingly, marvelously hot.

    Along with rice, there's a passion here for the pungent and sour
    Andhra Pradesh, near the Bay of Bengal, is known for its chiles, which are cultivated in the Guntur district, along the state's southeast coast, and are used to flavor the rice grown in the area's countless patties. Along with rice, there's a passion here for the pungent and sour. The sourness, which perks up meals and seems necessary to combat the soupy tropical climate, can come from limes, tamarind, vinegar, green mangoes, sour oranges, star fruit, and other local plants.

    Seafood also figures prominently here. On a small island in the Godavari River, which runs through Andhra Pradesh to the bay, I watch as a home cook named Ramanna sets up an open wood-burning fire outside her thatched hut. She squats in her printed blue sari, cooking a simple dish of gongura, red, sorrel-like sour leaves with tiny river shrimp, the two main ingredients flavoring each other.

    EnlargeCredit: Penny de los Santos
    I drive farther west to join other aficionados at the Babai Hotel, a small but popular eatery in the city of Vijayawada known for the softest idlis, flying saucer-shaped steamed cakes made with rice and urad dal, black lentils. Large steamers huff and puff in the kitchen, turning out dozens of idlis at a time. Each is anointed with ghee and served with a pat of butter. They melt in the mouth. They may be eaten with a dry chutney known as podi or with sambar. Equally loved here is the pesarattu, Andhra's savory pancake. Made with a batter of whole mung beans, soaked, blended, and spread out thinly on a griddle, pesarattu is large, crisp, nutritious, and quite addictive. I eat mine with a creamy coconut chutney and some sweet, milky coffee on the side.

    The region slowly developed a unique cuisine that was part northern Muslim and part southern Hindu
    But the foods of Andhra are not all beans and vegetables. To feast on meat, I travel to the city of Telangana, in the northwestern part of the state. Since the 14th century, Muslim emperors from Delhi sent governors to rule the Telangana area, now known as Hyderabad state. The governors often rebelled and set up their own kingdoms, and the region slowly developed a unique cuisine that was part northern Muslim and part southern Hindu. A Telangana-style chicken cooked today by a Hindu might well have both the south's coconut milk and the north's yogurt, southern seasonings like curry leaves and lime juice, and northern spices like mace and cardamom.

    It was the Nizams, the dripping-in-diamonds-rich rulers of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, starting in the 18th century, that had both the money and the leisure to become active patrons of this composite cuisine at its most elaborate. To taste it, you have to visit one of India's grandest hotels, the Falaknuma Palace. It's here I watch the making of a kacchay gosht ki biryani, a dish where rice and raw marinated meat are cooked together so magically that these disparate ingredients are done at the same time. Better yet, you have to be invited by one of Hyderabad's ever-courteous old families. I was lucky enough to receive a welcome from one aristocratic family while visiting. There I watched a housemaid named Rehana prepare a wonderful nihari, slow-cooked beef trotters, seasoned with potli ka masala, rare expensive spices, including sandalwood and rose petals, tied in a muslin bouquet garni. Rehana also prepared khatti dal, soured with tamarind and seasoned with curry leaves and mustard seeds. Pressure cookers whistled and hissed, and when we sat down to eat, there was plenty of rice for the dal, naan for the nihari, and pickles to eat with everything.

    See the recipe for Khatti Dal»
    See the recipe for Palakoora Vepadu»

    Madhur Jaffrey is the author of Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking (Barron's, 2003)


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  • 07/23/14--11:15: Cooking Cousins
  • Cooking Cousins Kerala DishesEnlargeCredit: James Oseland My in-laws' house in southwest India, on Kerala's coast, is normally very quiet. But whenever Jayanti, my mother-in-law Shyamala's cousin, is in town, it comes alive as the two women bond over cooking Kerala's most traditional dishes. Arriving one afternoon, famished and excited, I find Jayanti hovering over a boiling pot of tamarind soup known as rasam. Beside her, Shyamala arranges beetroot thoran, the ruby-hued roots stir-fried with chiles, curry leaves, and coconut oil. I watch as she fries bullseye, flaky, crimson-scaled local fish, seasoning them with turmeric and chile powder. On a table sits a huge pot of sambar, a spicy lentil-based stew exuding aromas of asafoetida, turmeric, coriander, and garlic. My father-in-law, Mohanan, sets the table, and my wife, Shyba, and I sit down with our young son Leo. We dig into a communal bowl of rice with our hands, drench it in sambar, and roll it into small, soggy spheres before popping them into our mouths. We scoop up more rice, adding pinches of the thoran. We grab pieces of fish, and ladle out the rasam. Once my belly is full, I lean back with an audible sigh as Shyamala and Jayanti look at each other, smiling.


    See the recipe for Beetroot Thoran»
    See the recipe for Rasam»



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  • 07/23/14--13:48: Mango: King of Fruits
  • Mango King of FruitsEnlargeCredit: James Roper
    Each summer, mango season brings India to its knees. It's a time when everyone comes together to celebrate the fragrant, yellow-fleshed fruit. People eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Street vendors slice it and serve it chilled and spiced. More than a thousand varieties of mango are indigenous to India. Everyone loves the creamy Alphonso, which grows abundantly in the south, but there are turf wars over which region has the best, and people anxiously read the newspapers for the latest updates on price and availability. When the season is over, pantry shelves are stocked with mango chutneys, pickles, powders, and dried fruit—wistful reminders of the best days of summer.



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