Thursday, March 12, 2009

Honeymoon Time Travel

Jodi and I lived in Barolo, Italy for 3 months back in 2000 - in tents in the garden of Rafaella Pittatore's agriturismo.  In between picking nebbiolo grapes, fierce euchre contests over four dollar bottles of the best barbera, and a near daily obsession with agnolotti del plin, we managed to sneak some time with chef Ercole Musso in his Barolo Osteria, I Cannubi.  At the foot of the famed Cannubi hill, we'd sit with him and his wife Loredana between Pranzo and Cena or after hours, talking politics in broken Italian, sipping Tokaji.  He invited us into his kitchen for one whole afternoon so we could experience "La Cucina Italiana" and we marveled as he made everything - EVERYTHING - from scratch and by himself. He fed 80-100 during busy lunches or dinners and he was all alone in the kitchen.  "Ercole" translates as "Hercules", so I guess it's no wonder.
Ever since those days it's always been my dream to get married in Barolo - a small affair outside on Rafaella's lawn - our little Barolo friends bringing unlabeled bottles from their family cellars, salumi from Franco the Macellaio, some grissini from "the paneteria people", tajarin or ceci soup from Rafaella's mother, and of course Ercole on the outdoor wood-fired grill.  Well, familial and financial circumstances wouldn't allow for such a party this year, but I think the gods did what they could.  A few months before the wedding, we found out that of all things, Ercole and Loredana recently left Barolo and opened up "The Post" - a restaurant in Grand Cayman - one of the two stops on our honeymoon cruise.
So Barolo came to us, sort of.  And boy was it sweet.  Right across from Seven Mile Beach we were treated to a REAL Italian antipasto of prosciutti e formaggi, Piedmontese wines and grappas, Caribbean spiny lobster risotto served in the shell, and a continual offer of more and more and more with the classic Barolo refrain of "All you have to say is Si"  But after eating non-stop for a week already on the cruise ship we had to say "Basta" - though not before Jodi's long-prayed-for finale: Ercole's Panna Cotta.  Just enough gelatin to keep it from spilling off the plate, this virtuosic effort has haunted us since 2000 and has eluded our every attempt to reproduce it.  Alas, strewn with a few berries and an aged balsamic-ish sauce, it sat before us again - regal, uncomplicated, and utterly perfect.  I guess we were too entranced to snap a picture of it, but feast your eyes on his amazing chocolate dessert: a luscious showstopper to be sure.  Tasting that panna cotta again, though, was like traveling through a wormhole - it consumed us.  And when food does that, it's grace.  It's religion.
And for the rest of that afternoon and evening, long after Loredana's hundredth "ciao, ciao, ciao" goodbye at the pier, our bellies and our smiles bore the stigmata of Ercole.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cruising into the Future via Mexico

Alas, we are in Chicago, which translates as: at the end of all the craziness. Between the move across the country, the wedding and cruise, and settling in to a new place...we found ourselves floating back and forth from elation to exhaustion over and over again....WHEW! What a ride! Great time to stop, take a breath and share one or two stories from the wedding trip as a bridge between the San Francisco foodie life and the exciting Chicago adventures to come.
From the moment the cruise plan was hatched we knew we were onto something potentially serious. Bringing this group of people together anywhere was bound to make for good times. We had 24 people on the "yes" list, only our closest friends and family members.  It was even more perfect than we had imagined!
But since this is our FOOD blog, I will cut to the culinary highlight of the wedding cruise: Cozumel, Mexico. Keep in mind we are super fans of the Mexican table....we can hardly wait to stain up some of our new kitchen wedding gifts with chili puree and achiote pastes! We didn't have time to research anything about Cozumel and what to do there, so when we docked, we crossed our fingers and walked onto the island.
Twenty minutes into our journey downtown on foot someone finally said yes to one of the cab drivers and 7 of us piled on in. Although we were all enjoying the walk, the cab ride proved to be worthwhile after pumping the driver for information about where to get the best Conchinita Pibil, a specialty of the Yucatan region of Mexico. He explained where to go and how to get there as he dropped us off deep in the heart of Cozumel at a VERY local outdoor market. There were no tourists around, which delighted all of us....but we did see our somelier from the ship dining at one of the market's tiny little restaurants. 
We looked around, someone got a HUGE avocado and mango smoothie (wicked good) and before too long the tune of LUNCH was being hummed by at least half the group. Luckily the restaurant the cab driver mentioned was just a few blocks away. We slipped through the quiet streets and easily found our way. Our first impression was not the was so large and spotless that we were a little afraid we had been sent to a gringo trap. But that twinge of concern was nothing compared to the fright we all experienced when Jeff found out there was no Conchinita Pibil on the menu. It was not pretty!
But we had come this far, everyone was hungry and we all had beers on the table...Bohemia Negro, I think, very yummy. It really didn't seem like we could leave at this point, we just had to go with it. We asked the waiter what the best yucatecan dish on the menu was and he pointed us toward the Pollo Negro, black and spicy from the toasted chilies. Reluctantly, Jeff consented to this new paradigm and we moved on, admittedly made easier by the top notch tortilla chips and guacamole that appeared on the table. 
After the grumbly beginning, we all loosened up and Jeff was soothed by the fact that there were fresh house made corn tortillas available. We were not prepared for the obscene love that we were to feel about this black chicken. When it finally hit the table we saw, smelled and tasted that all was right with this experience and that although the cabbie misled us in some ways, he was our new hero. The chicken was soft, moist and bathed in the black sauce that was NOT a mole. It was deep and tangy and somewhat unfamiliar. We had to know more about this mysterious inky potion. The waiter was able to get across that this was another paste like achiote paste, which is what makes pibil pibil. Back to the market!!
We did manage to get our hands on some of these wonder pastes. You can find the red achiote paste in the US but it is always a thrill to pick it up in Mexico from the market where they pry a hunk off for you from a massive block. We found the red, the new beloved black paste and a new one none of us had tried or seen before that is spent green tea green. It is still burning a hole in our pockets at this time and we are dreaming of a spicy paste-y Mexican dinner ASAP!
After that score, contentedness was wafting in the air. We lollygagged along the streets that led back to the more touristy parts of downtown, shopping and bargaining as we went. We whiled away the entire afternoon just enjoying having this beloved group of friends together. Some of us bought jewelry or blankets, and others....Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) masks. You can't imagine the sight of this! 
Day turned toward evening and we managed to find a menu with Conchinita Pibil. There was a cute patio and we decided to have a small nibble before heading back to the ship. It was good but could not be compared with any of the dishes we had as a group at lunch. But there was a real highlight featured in the photo. The margaritas were just delightful! Fresh lime, expertly balanced....and no one was holding back. People were having one or two, maybe three....and finally the waiter threw out his best card. Matt ordered one more and the waiter said "I have something for you!" When he returned he had a Margarita in a glass as wide as Matt himself! We got such a kick out of this...I did not think it possible, even with 9 people, this drink would be taken down. Sometimes we amaze ourselves though. 
Sun soaked and electrified by a perfect day with pals, we made our way back to the ship, miraculously punctual. The party continued on board from dancing on the deck, highs and lows at the slot machines to literally gut busting laughter and some late euchre played through half closed eyes as a night cap. We bid each other "buenos noches" and the ship rocked us to sleep.