Morocco: One day stops

July 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

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We had a couple of one-night stays when traveling from place to place in Morocco, despite our desire to pick a few places and explore them well instead of trying to maximize the number of cities and towns we hit. The day of our initial arrival in Morocco, we spent a night in Casablanca, which significant prior reading advised skipping altogether as the city itself is “nothing special” to the Western traveler.

I was actually quite glad we stayed. While the city was certainly larger and busier than the ones to follow, we learned quickly that the best way to cross a large boulevard is to dart out in front of moving vehicles. In the morning we walked from our hotel to the Hassan II Mosque, attempting to hug the waterfront along the way, a path that was thwarted by the police officer who stopped us, concerned that we might not want to be walking into the industrial fishing port. Once on our way again, the mosque was easy to discern amongst the other buildings in the area. The intricate, detailed tiling and high arches were enough to keep us entertained for quite awhile, even without the hour-and-a-half tour of the inside. What struck me most about Casablanca was the old medina, which again we had read was barely worth a visit. The medina in Casablanca is very much still in use, a huddle of alleyways packed with people selling produce – bundles of herbs and fresh watermelons – fried breads and other bites to eat. We wandered through virtually unnoticed as everyone went about their everyday lives. Keeping a eye on the paths we took, we eventually spilled out through a gate at the other side of the medina, almost exactly where we were aiming. Again, busier, dirtier, (I think my walk down one alley must have looked much like I was playing hopscotch) but I walked away from Morocco a week later feeling that if there was one place I would have liked to linger and chat about “daily life,” it would have been here.
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One day stop number two! We arrived in Fes after a 5-hour bus ride from Chef chaouen, expecting a 7 hour train to Marrakech the next afternoon. It was the first place we encountered the young boys aggressively offering directions, and I owe part of our negative experience here to my getting easily upset over being followed and harassed by 13-year-olds. Still some good things did come out of our 16 hours in Fes, mostly on the food front. We had our best (and most expensive) tagine in a restaurant recommended by our riad – a selection of small-bowled Moroccan salads with bread, a chicken tagine with lemon and a kefta (lamb) with spicy tomato stew and egg, followed by thin sheets of deep fried pastry layered with condensed milk cream and a huge plate of sugar cookies and coconut balls that I just had to pack up for later. Below you can see the extensive breakfast spread put out for us at the riad the next morning with mint tea and coffee. In addition to the standard bread circles and the cut loaf of sweet anise bread, we were offered a plate of warm mille trous, a soft, spongy pancake that literally translates to “a thousand holes.”
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Cotogna, SF

July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was attempting to put together a post chronicling all of the eating I’ve done in the past three weeks in San Francisco – some places I’ve been meaning to check out for awhile and some others I wanted to return to – and ran smack into a technical problem: This file exceeds maximum allowable upload size for this site. And, gosh, darn, as expected, the next step is to fork over my week’s eating money + to purchase more space for the site. So while I ponder this major life decision, please accept the photos I managed to get through right before the belt tightened (ha ha).

Cotogna sits at a corner right at the edge of two neighborhoods, where the financial district meets North Beach. I went once when my grandparents were in town last November (read winter lighting means no photos) and decided to revisit this summer with the family. Photos in order: the last word cocktail (Dan’s choice); the daily special sea urchin crostini – expecting chewy, the creamy, melt-in-the-mouth texture threw me off a bit -; burrata, apricot & almond; the empty plate leftover from a pizza; my mom’s eggplant fagotelli; Mission fig tart; vanilla crema, fresh peaches & burnt sugar brittle.

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Lisboa, Portugal

July 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

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It feels like a long time since I flew back from Lisbon and our last meal there is now starting to feel distant, as I’m clearing out cupboards of baking pans and cookbooks at home in anticipation of packing boxes. There are a lot of things I could say about our (very brief) time in Lisbon, starting with that, for us, it was the city of second chances. We spent only two nights, one before taking off to Morocco and one upon returning and experienced the city in entirely different ways between the two. Blurry-eyed from the cross-Atlantic flight, I took in the shuttered storefronts, torn-up cobblestones, and dark, empty pastelerias, and each passing whiff of urine and thought surely I was missing something. We walked part of the route of the Tram 28, ducking into a nondescript restaurant just as the rain began, ordering a plate of oily, garlicy shrimps with their heads on and thick french fries, washed down with a pretty terrible table wine.

And indeed, we were missing something. The second time around was like exploring an entirely new city, a city of white stone and street-side bars, where we stumbled upon majestic statues and cozy steps where friends settled in with drinks to watch the ocean shore below them. We ducked into the Taberna da Rua das Flores at the recommendation of a friend of my mother’s and it was hands-down the best meal of our entire week. Starting with a ceviche de corvina, which came cutely accompanied by popcorn and potato chips, followed by a seared fish (the foreign names of fish escape me, even when I understand the language, as they often don’t even exist at home, but we got that “half cooked, half raw” as it was described by the waitress meant seared) served with a seaweed salad and a kick of spicy orange relish. Our third dish was a squid ink udon with charred squid, and, since we wanted to linger a little longer, we finished with an aged goat cheese served alongside a guava paste. The service was wonderfully attentive and caring, ending with some recommendations for the rest of the night from the man with the curled ‘stache. All in all a wonderful meal, and (thanks to Dan!) a lovely graduation present tucked into a small corner in Lisbon.

An aside because you know I love my sugar – the sortidos amendoa from the Confeitaria Nacional on the Praça da Figueira were divine and started off my afternoon with a huge smile (pictured above!).

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A wine country lunch

July 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

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While I decipher the rest of Morocco and continue baking while at home in San Francisco (more to come later!), I thought I’d post a couple of photos from a recent foray into wine country. For me, the highlight was definitely a lunch of “Italian street food,” all cooked on an outdoor grill, at the Figone’s Olive Oil Company. It was hot, hot, hot, and we ate a communal-style lunch outside, following an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting inside. I am also quite excited about the couple of bottles I picked up in the store, especially a tart raspberry vinegar that I’m looking forward to opening in my new kitchen after the big move.
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An order gets a cute little California license plate of the many regions and cities of Italy. I’m on the lookout for them!
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My favorite, a grilled Caesar salad with crisped, burnt edges and a light dressing.
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Another favorite, breaded calamari, then (to follow) stuffed artichokes, and a lackluster chickpea cake that everyone agreed needed zing.
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Then, a grilled garlic bread with a colossal garlic. Two pictures, for scale (above)! And finally, dessert! Two pieces of Tuscan toast with cinnamon, honey, and Parmesan. The cheese was much softer, milder, and melted better than a Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, so my brother wandered over to the grill to ask about its origins – the Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma.
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Chef chaouen, Morocco

June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Ever since seeing photos of Chef chaouen, a small Moroccan town in the Rif mountains outside of Tangier, I’ve had my heart set on going. Until the logistics of getting there looked complicated and I began to think maybe it was too much hassle, maybe this is one of those moments in life where it’s better to be flexible, do what makes sense instead of what you’re longing for, accept that the world will not end if you don’t get your way today. So as I started backing down, saying we could skip Chef chaouen in favor of the coastal Essaouira, which is much, much closer to Marrakech, Dan staunchly insisted there was no way we were skipping the once place I really wanted to go.

And so, that’s how we found ourselves dumped in a parking lot at the bottom of a hill, after a 7-hour bus ride from Casablanca, confident that we knew how to find our hotel from there, but really, not even beginning to understand the road that lead up to the medina. We walked that road up, and then back down, several times before finally finding the way (with a little help).
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Once entering the medina, we were hit with an onslaught of blue, at once expected but in such a vibrant, calming hue that the entire town seemed lost in a permanent shade of cheer. Blue staircases melted into the walls of buildings, doors open jumping out in a different hue of blue. Once we stumbled upon a pot of dried paint, the same color as the rest of the medina – just add water and repaint the nearby staircase! I was in awe every time I emerged from the hotel.
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The hotel, Casa Perleta, was probably the favorite of the trip. Chef chaouen had quite a large Spanish denomination, a vestige of its part in Spanish Morocco, and my French was virtually useless here. The Casa was run by a very helpful Spanish family and was, itself, lost in the blue hue. On the rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the medina and the surrounding hills, we enjoyed bread with goat cheese, dates, olives, and a sugary-liquid orange marmalade, alongside coffee, Moroccan mint tea, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Breakfast began with a ring of fried bread each, I still wish I knew what they were called!

Marrakech, Morocco

June 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The call to prayer begins at 4:30 a.m., a sudden awakening from exhausted sleep by a vaguely monotone voice over the loudspeaker, originating from the mosque rising above the roofs of the old medina, just a couple of buildings over. It lasts about ten minutes, in which we lay, in the darkness of our room, in silence, waiting it out before sinking back into sleep. Outside, shopkeepers might already be making their way to their daily posts, a small cafe selling miniature honeyed almond confections, or maybe a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand in the market square, Djemaa El Fna. By 8 a.m., we’re slinking out of our room at the top floor of the Riad Marrakiss, down two staircases to a pot of coffee and some bread with jam.

The breakfast might not have been as plentiful as those at our previous Riad’s (a small hotel in the old medina, ranging from a family home to a boutique hotel) but we made up for it with a lunch of those pretty almond confections, and one peanut-dense square of honeyed pastry. Our days in Morocco tended to follow my wandering pastry-nose and Dan’s unspoken quests for coffee, happily skipping over palace tours in favor of our stomachs.
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More often than not, we were stopped by a dead-end alleyway, a young boy persistently offering directions (in exchange for money, of course, though this was less aggressively prevalent than in Fes), or the seemingly random operating hours of some of the more sought-after attractions. Occasionally, we fell into tourist traps; occasionally, into alleys dead-ending in the laborers’ district, where the air filled with the smell of polish and men bent over metal works.
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Happily, our initial cab driver to the gates of the medina upon arrival in Marrakech was one of the more talkative, advising a trip to the Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden in the Nouvelle Ville (otherwise known as the French district), partly a memorial dedicated to the designer Yves Saint-Laurent. Once entering the garden gates, the pressing noise of the city faded, the harking, bargaining of the vendors and the wizz of motorbikes replaced by plentiful displays of cacti, lily ponds, and bamboo forests. While many of the plants weren’t native to the region, many even brought over from South America, the calm and beauty of the garden was a welcome respite.
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That evening found us amidst a cluster of locals in one of the narrow streets leading away from El Fna, stumbling over a sandwich order in front of a plastic case filled with ground meat and unidentifiable animals brains. After a highly confused conversation, in which we attempted to order something we had yet to identify, we had in our hands a circle of bread, much like the ones we were served for breakfast, stuffed with spiced ground meat, a fried egg, onion, and sauce piquante. Not bad for a second dinner.

In the evenings, I often went without a camera, feeling liberated without a need to be constantly checking that yes, my purse was still there. So there are no pictures of that dinner, or of the large huddle of women scooping soup into bowls at a low, dark table, street-side, or of the masses of young men beckoning you to their respective restaurant table in the square, an onslaught of aggressive noise, deals that never seemed to be followed up on, and some humorous expressions (“See you later, alligator”) delivered in Australian accents.

I will always be surprised at how quickly one can go from noise to silence in Marrakech. As we slipped back into our Riad in the evening, the city seemed to stop at the door and, in the calm, we overlooked the hundreds of roofs surrounding us in the hazy evening light from the rooftop terrace.
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Springtime Paris

May 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

So I’m sitting trying to write one of my final papers, facing the window, watching white cherry blossom leaves blow in the wind outside. Yesterday, it poured and it poured. Anyway, I thought I’d go back and share some of the photos from a spring break trip to Paris. We ate well, we ate everything. You’ll mostly just see the desserts here (and breakfast!), but my boyfriend who actually likes to…like….eat normal things…like sugar-less things…actually had us sit down to meals twice a day. The escargot chocolat pistache is from Du Pain et Des Idées, the tarte tatin from a venture into La Goutte d’Or for a lunch of huge plates of paella on our final afternoon. Tartines of mozzarella and sweet chili sauce and coffees at the Tuck Shop, butternut squash soup and quiche (and a slice of lemon citrus bread to go for the walk up to Sacré-Cœur) at the Rose Bakery, a wonderful first meal at the cosy Verjus bar à vins, where the butternut squash angliotti, with roasted garlic, brown butter, sage, and parmigiano reggiano is over-the-moon twice good.

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