Saturday, December 5, 2009

A touch of El Diablo

My last post on Chips and Salsa mentioned an old chain restaurant that is no longer in business, Chi Chi's. The brand lives on in supermarkets where you can purchase salsa, taco seasoning, and corn fritter mix, but when it was a restaurant chain, it was among Sandra's and my favorite places despite the fact that it was a chain.

What was special about Chi Chi's? The taste. I may have fell in love with Mexican food at El Torito, but Chi Chi's always had a fresher taste. I believe that they used cilantro more liberally than in any other place I ate at when I first started on my Mexican kick, and cilantro has this very "fresh" taste that enhances salsa, rice, and most Mexican dishes. This fresh taste made me feel that every dish they made was made solely for me. It's a wonderful way to run a restaurant--freshness is probably a quality that will keep you coming back, and it worked for me with Chi Chi's.

I remember one of the first times that Sandra and I visited Chi Chi's. I believe it was in Sunrise, Florida, in Broward Country up route 27 (this was before I-75 and I-595 were created, and Rt. 84 was "Alligator Alley"). The two of us made quick work of their chips and salsa and we asked the waiter for more. He cheerfully brought us out some more warm chips, but then admonished us: "You should watch out. They expand when they hit your stomach!" Sandra and I were both amused by this, and we've repeated it to each other (and our kids) many, many times whenever we eat chips and salsa.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my other article, I grew up thinking that Mexican food was hot. I've learned since that while you can find some spicy Mexican dishes, you are more likely to find dishes that don't have too much spiciness at all. In fact, corn and cheese really defines the cuisine, with spiciness a distant third.

After I moved from Miami to New England, I found a Chi Chi's was never too far away. The closest was a twenty minute drive, which was close enough for a special meal for Sandra and me.

I remember one day when I was visiting Chi Chi's, they had some new items on their menu, advertised to be pretty spicy. They were touted as Diablo (Spanish for "Devil"), but of the selections, nothing really appealed to me. At the time, I favored Chi Chi's beef chimichangas, and didn't want to order anything that was too different from that. Luckily, I noticed that they also had Diablo Sauce, which could be ordered separately, so I did. It came out with my chimichanga in a small bowl. The sauce was deliciously spicy--a warm, green sauce with meat in it. After a taste, I knew that they had something special, and I dumped most of it over my chimichangas and--voila!--a very good dish became ever better! I left a bit of sauce so that I could dip my chips into it.

From that day, I had a new favorite dish, and until the Chi Chi's near us closed, the Beef Chimichangas with a side order of Diablo Sauce was what I ordered every time I visited the place.

Alas, the place is no more. They closed the restaurants near me quite a few years ago, and the entire chain has since gone out of the restaurant business.

Last spring, I was feeling nostalgic about Chi Chi's and did a Google search to find out whatever became of them. In doing so, I found a Chi Chi's Copycat Recipes site, which I linked in my previous article. Two recipes linked on that sight intrigued me: Baked Chicken Chimichanga Chi Chi's Copycat Recipe and Chi Chi's Diablo Sauce Copycat Recipe. I copied those recipes into my personal recipe collection and did a Chi Chi's Mexican Dinner night with Sandra, including some freshly fried tortilla chips and Chi Chi's Garden Salsa (see previous post). Both Sandra and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, although Sandra has never been as fond of the Diablo Sauce as I was; the recipe they gave would have made too much for the two of us.

I include the recipes for the Diablo sauce and the chimicangas below.

Chi-Chi's Diablo Sauce

Source:#131271 (C) 2009 Recipezaar. All Rights Reserved.
Cook Time:35 min
Prep Time:10 min
Yield:Serves 4


1 lb ground pork

2/3 cup chopped white onion

1 (4 ounce) can diced green chilies, with juice

10 tablespoons la victoria green chili salsa

jalapeno (x-tra hot)

3 cups water

1 (1 ¼ ounce) package Ortega taco seasoning (Hot & Spicey)

2 tablespoons cumin

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ cup water

Brown ground pork, onions.

Add diced chilis, La Victoria salsa.

Add 3 cups water.

Add Ortega taco seasoning.

Add ½ tsp salt.

add 2 tbsp cumin.

Combine 2 tbsp corn starch and ¼ cup water and add too sauce.

Continue to simmer till thickened.

Baked Chicken Chimichangas like Chi-Chi's®

Source:Copycat Recipe Site
Prep Time:0:45
Yield:Serves : 8


1 sm. onion - chopped

3 cloves garlic - minced

1 Tbls vegetable oil OR butter OR margarine

2 cups salsa

1 ½ tsp chili powder

½ tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 pinch salt

2 ½ cups cooked, shredded chicken OR turkey

8 12 flour tortillas

1 cup canned refried beans

non-stick cooking spray - as needed

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté onion and garlic in oil/butter until tender; stir in salsa, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, and salt; fold in chicken/turkey; remove from heat and set aside.

Working with one tortilla at a time, spoon 2 Tablespoons of beans down the center of each tortilla; top with a scant ½ cup of the chicken mixture.

Fold the top and bottom of the tortillas toward the center, then roll up the sides.

Secure with wooden toothpicks or pieces of spaghetti noodles if necessary.

Place chimichangas in a 13" X 9" X 2" baking pan, seam side down.

Spray all sides of the chimichangas with a light coating of cooking spray.

Bake in a 450 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp, turning after 10 minutes.

Serve with sour cream and guacamole.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chips and Salsa

I believe that I've mentioned in the past that I was nearly twenty years old before I truly encountered Mexican cuisine. Before that, I had tacos, having learned to love them at the Jack in the Box fast food chain in my home town of Brentwood, NY. From that humble beginning, I slowly tested the waters, first with Taco Bell in Centereach (I went there with Sandra on a date; I was a big spender back then!), and then some other chains.

I admit that I was a bit naive when it came to Mexican food at that point in my life. All that I really knew about it was that it was hot. After all, there were many instances in cartoons where somebody would have Mexican food and then would get all red with smoke coming out the cartoon character's nose, ears, and other orifices. There were many jokes about Mexican food as well, like "Mexican weather report: Chile Today, Hot Tamale!"

My first taste of Mexican food was at a chain restaurant called El Torito in South Miami. This restaurant was in a lovely outdoor mall called "The Falls." For a person that wasn't that familiar with the cuisine, I was immediately in food heaven. There were all these things that I've vaguely heard about before, but now they were right there in front of me on the menu: Tacos, enchiladas, burritos... you name it! Oh yeah... Margaritas as well!

I frequented that restaurant quite a bit, although I didn't explore much beyond the typical tacos and enchilads (all beef, of course!). I also tried other Mexican restaurants, and being in Miami, most of them were pretty decent.

One thing common to nearly every Mexican restaurant I visited were the complimentary corn chips and salsa that were placed on the table, usually accompanied with "salsa," which is the local word for "sauce." The salsa was made with tomatoes, chiles, onions, cilantro, and other wonderful things. This simple starter became yet another reason I would fall in love with the Mexican cuisine.

Back in the early 1980s, you could get tortilla chips in the grocery store. I remember Fritos, of course, and later came Doritos. I think Old El Paso had box of chips called Nachips. However, these highly salted and mass produced chips didn't compare to the fresh chips that were made at the restaurants. Eventually, I learned how to take soft corn tortillas, cut them into wedges, and fry them to make decent chips myself. (That's the basic recipe; cut, fry, drain, serve!)

What set most restaurants apart--their signature, as it were--was their salsa. Some made it incredibly spicy, some were chunkier than others, some were almost a strained liquid. I liked a lot of them, disliked a few. One of my earliest favorite salsas came from a restaurant chain, of all places. Chi Chis had a salsa that just seemed fresher than the others. I eventually found out that the fresh taste was how I was interpreting the taste of cilantro, which apparently was a bit more predominant in Chi Chi's salsa than a lot of others. Chi Chis is no longer a restaurant chain, and since moving up north, I've found a few Mexican restaurants that I enjoy--usually all of them have a pretty good chips and salsa to start, although I've see a couple of restaurants start to charge for this. (Please, let's hope this is not a sign of things to come!!!)

Anyway, I found that I'm not the only person to miss Chi Chi's recipes. I've found a fan page for the place which has a recipe or two, and links to other recipes on the web. It was from this page that I found a pretty good copycat recipe for Chi Chi's garden salsa, which I present below:

Chi Chi's Fresh Garden Salsa Recipe Clone

Source:Chi Chis Copycat Recipes


2 pounds fresh roma tomatoes

1 bunch of fresh cilantro

1 bunch green onions

1 onion

2 limes or ¼ cup of lime juice

2 serrano peppers (If you substitute jalapenos, add about 5 drops of Tabasco sauce)

3 garlic cloves

3 tablespoons cumin

1 tablespoon each: salt, garlic powder, oregano, chili powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Chop up the tomatoes, both onions, and cilantro. Put almost half of the tomatoes into a blender with the lime juice, peppers, garlic, and rest of the spices. Blend until thick, but not watery. Add this mixture to the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowl. Put in the refrigerator for a few hours to allow the flavors to develop.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

iPhone -- Synchronizing Photos

Well, for the first time since I got my iPhone last year, I decided to wipe it and restore it from a backup. Why? It appeared to me that the iPhone was getting a bit sluggish. I figured that if I reloaded the operating system afresh and then reloaded from backup, things might go a bit faster.

Well, I think I did something wrong. The operating system loaded nicely (it didn't take very long). However, when I told it to restore from a backup, the iPhone just sat there doing nothing. No "synchronizing" message, just the home screen. Meanwhile, iTunes told me it was waiting for the iPhone. Finally, I rebooted the iPhone. Still no restore. After I disconnected and reconnected, I tried to restore from backup. This time, it worked. However, it didn't restore anything... it seems to have restored the iPhone from its state right after the operating system reload--no applications, no songs.

I tried to restore once again, this time carefully selecting the backup source. However, the "good" backup from about 45 minutes earlier was no longer listed.

Thus, I had to reload all my applications (they were lumped together on about five screens sorted by name), my songs, and my podcasts. I interrupted the sync to disable the movies and television shows--they could wait. I carefully rearranged my application screens into my standard order:

  1. Main screen -- most used applications and games
  2. Second screen -- other important applications and games
  3. Games #1
  4. Travel / Places
  5. Photography #1
  6. Photography #2 (I have a lot of photo apps)
  7. Media (music, video sites)
  8. Games #2 (less used games)
  9. Other #1 (Apps I use very infrequently but want to keep on phone)
  10. Other #2 (overflow from previous page)
  11. Apple apps I never/rarely use (Contact, iTunes, YouTube, Stocks, Voice Memos, Notes, Clock, Calculator, Weather, Calendar, Photos)
However, after synchronizing, for some reason, my apps went back to that "all Apple applications followed by all applications sorted in alphabetical order" arrangement, so I had to once again reorder my applications. Thankfully, the latest iPhone update allows me to rearrange more or less easily on my Mac rather than have to do it on the iPhone (a big bother).

I did notice a couple of issues.
  1. My contacts with pictures all had the wrong pictures. I'm not sure what causes this; I'll be looking into it soon.
  2. I lost all my iPhone photos. Well, all of them since some time last spring when I copied them into iPhoto and then got the good idea to auto-sync the iPhoto folder with the iPhone.
That last issue is the one I want to address now.

Apparently, iTunes allows you to synchronize an iPhoto folder TO the iPhone, but offers no service whatsoever to synchronize the images on the iPhone itself--the ones the iPhone took--back to iPhoto without you having to run iPhoto manually and tell it to import. In other words, synchronizing photos FROM the iPhone requires manual intervention.

I couldn't believe it. I did a Google search, and found other people with similar complaints. iTunes would sync TO the iPhone, but not back.

This, obviously, is not a good situation, to put it mildly.

What to do?

Well, I had a free Preference Pane installed called "Cameras." I heard about it some time ago and installed it. I played around with it with my Canon digital camera and then forgot about it.

The idea for this simple preference pane is to manage what happens when you connect a camera to your Mac. It is smart enough to allow you to have different settings based on which camera is connected.

I decided to look into the Cameras preference pane, and it showed my my iPhone and Canon camera. (It also told me there was an update with Snow Leopard compatibility; I updated it!) For the iPhone, the action was "Do nothing."

Obviously, this is a good place to start. I selected the iPhone and found an opportunity to open iPhoto or a couple of other programs. Again, this was a bit better than a manual sync... I certainly didn't want to open iPhoto every time I connected my iPhone and manually download the pictures, but this was a step up.

There was, however, another option. "Automatically download..." This looked intriguing. I selected it, and then got a dialog:

Yes! This was a good automated solution that I could use! Apparently, every time I connected my iPhone to my Mac, this little program will run, look for any new images on my Camera Roll (the place where the iPhone puts the images it takes), and copy any new ones into a folder on my Mac!

Solution found!

Anyway, I did lose a few pictures that I didn't want to lose. I had some pictures of the Seacoast I took back in August when a hurricane or two was causing huge swells in the Atlantic Ocean. There was a picture of Sandra that I particularly liked of her wearing a floral Lei that she got from Kona Brewery (a Hawaiian brewery) at the NH Brew Fest last month (well, I did have that picture still... I physically downloaded it onto my Mac to use for Sandra's birthday, but I modified that image a bit....). There were probably other "once in a lifetime" pictures that I lost as well.

The "funny" thing is that I'm usually pretty good about backups. Every night, I have two jobs (count 'em!) that copy every file that changes on my main file server at home and mirrors them onto another drive and over a network. I have both my Mac Minis running Time Machine to do the same for them. Every time I take a memory card from a camera and copy it onto my file server, I never delete the original file from the memory card until I know there are two copies of it somewhere. Despite my feelings about backups, I just assumed that Apple wouldn't allow me to lose pictures, because iTunes synchronizes all the files, applications, songs, etc. from my iPhone onto my Mac.

Well, I've been burned by lack of backups before. My current attitude toward automated backups is a result of experience, and now that I have found a new problem (Apple's unwillingness to backup my photos automatically), at least I've found a new solution (Cameras Preference Pane--free application--get it if you have a Mac and an iPhone!)

My next blog entry should be, once again, about food.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Harpoon Brewery, Windsor, VT

A couple of months ago, Sandra had to drive to Lebanon, NH (about an hour and a half away from where we live) to go to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for some Girl Scout meeting (she's a leader of the Girl Scouts in Salem, and the council encompasses both Vermont and New Hampshire, so Lebanon at the western border of New Hampshire probably seemed to be a good "central" place to meet. Anyway, I surprised Sandra by offering to go with her.

Actually, my offer was something to the effect of "I can find a few places to go in Lebanon. There's the Seven Barrel Brewery and a few shopping centers. Just call me when you're ready for me to pick you up."

My wife really appreciated my offer and we drove there early one Saturday morning in August. We got there about a half hour early and there was a Co-op grocery store across the street for us to while away the extra time.

After dropping Sandra off at the building she needed to be in, I drove into downtown Lebanon.

For the past twenty years, Lebanon has been a stop off point for Sandra and me on our travels to Canada. The eight-hour trip can be broken into legs of one and a half to two hours, and Lebanon is usually our first stop on our way up to Canada, usually for dinner, before we switch drivers for the Vermont leg of the trip. So... I knew that there were a few fast food places in Lebanon, as well as the Seven Barrel Brewery, a brew pub very conveniently located at the intersection of downtown Lebanon and I-89. The food is all right at the Seven Barrel, and the beers are even better. I figured that I would have lunch there and look around at the shops we've seen in the past but never had any opportunity to explore.

Since it was still early morning, my first stop was another grocery, but that got old quickly. I then drove to a little indoor shopping center and discovered a neat toy store.

Around 10:30 or so, I pulled out my iPhone and did a Yelp search for restaurants nearby. It listed quite a few; most I never heard of before, and I read the reviews. Perhaps I wouldn't be going to the Seven Barrel after all. For instance, there was this Indian restaurant that looked promising. Of all the restaurants, however, the Seven Barrel wasn't listed. I was surprised, but I figured that it was probably listed on Yelp under a different category.

Searching for Breweries didn't show up the Seven Barrel either. In fact, quite a few breweries were listed--one as far away as Burlington, VT (about a ninety minute drive; not really a contender!). To my surprise, however, was a brewery that I was familiar with, and it was only 10-15 minutes away.

The Harpoon Brewery has two locations. One somewhere in the Boston area, and one in Windsor, Vermont. The Windsor location was one exit down I-91 past White River Junction, the point at which I-89 and I-91 intersect just over the border adjacent to Lebanon once you cross the White River into Vermont.

I read the Yelp reviews, and found that the brewery had a lunch spot as well. All of a sudden, my plans changed.

One of the beers I have been favoring recently is Harpoon's IPA, a nice and hoppy India Pale Ale. I'm not sure why my taste changed from my old standby, Bass Ale, but for the past year, Harpoon IPA has been my beer of choice. If a place doesn't have it, I try to find an IPA or Pale Ale or something else with a nice hoppy aftertaste, but my favorite is definitely Harpoon.

Let me digress a bit here. I've been drinking Harpoon IPA since the 1980's when I first moved into New England. During the 1990s, my favorite IPA (and favorite beer) was an IPA from the now-defunct Luck Now brewery (I toured their brewery at the Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough in New Hampshire's lakes region. However, once Luck Now closed, I went back to Bass Ale. I'm not sure exactly when I moved over to Harpoon, but it must have been in the past year or so. I guess I've always liked IPAs, and every once in a while, I like the wonderfully bitter aftertaste.

Back to my story, I found some amusing comments in the Yelp reviews regarding the Harpoon Brewery. One reviewer was overwhelmed by an IPA they served at the brewery; not the Harpoon IPA that I was used to, but another one called Imperial IPA, part of their "Leviathan" series that they introduced in 2008. The following were used to describe the Imperial IPA:

"Wow this is bitter! If you drink this before sampling the others- yuo wont [sic] be able to taste your beers."

"Beautifully crafted and completely redeeming."

Now, I know that IPAs are bitter. The bitterness comes from the hops and extra malts. The India in the name refers to the East India Company which shipped the highly hopped beer from Britain to India hundreds of years ago and, according to the Wikipedia, the beer "benefited exceptionally from conditions of the voyage and was apparently highly regarded among consumers in India." So, a reviewer complaining about the bitterness of an IPA is actually reporting on one of its defining characteristics. That, and the second review that said that Imperial IPA was beautifully crafted got my curiosity piqued.

I was going to Windsor for lunch!

The brewery is a short distance from the I-91 exit and shares a parking lot with a "Path of Life" sculpture garden (the sculpture garden requires an admission feed, there is no admission charge for the brewery and restaurant itself).

When you first enter the building, you find yourself in their souvenir shop (a lot of Harpoon labeled clothes and merchandise). To your right is a door that leads to an overlook of the actual brewery floor. You can self-guide yourself thanks to the placards that outline the brewing process and offer some trivia. To the left is the Riverbend Taps and Beer Garden, their restaurant.

I glanced at the merchandise as I walked toward the restaurant. I knew I wanted to try the Imperial IPA after those reviews, but they offered a sampler of five 5oz beers, which is what I ordered first.

The menu at the restaurant can be described as your usual pub grub. Wings, chowder, salads, burgers, and sandwiches. Nothing on the menu was over $9. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings. I gave them my usual "medium well to well" but it came out very (VERY!) rare. The waitress recognized the mistake and sent it back. A little bit later I got a new burger done correctly (and an apology from both the waitress and later on, from the manager).

The Imperial Ale was part of the sampler, and it was as bitter as the one reviewer said. However, this was not a negative to me. Instead, it was wonderful! After I finished the sampler, I ordered a separate pint of the Imperial Ale, which was just as good as the sample.

Before I left, I looked at the merchandise store, and fell in love with a red vest with the white Harpoon logo in back. The inside is black fleece, and there are Harpoon logos on the front left (front right if you wear it with the black fleece facing out). I purchased the vest, and it's currently my outerwear during the autumn into the early winter.

For a brewery, the Windsor Harpoon brewery is small. It's nowhere near the size of the Anheuser Busch Brewery in Merrimack, NH (which is the smallest of all the Anheuser Busch breweries in America), or the Red Hook Brewery on the NH seacoast. However, it brews great beer.

When I got back home, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Leviathan Imperial IPA in a local store. It's sold as a four pack costing about $10 or so; very expensive for a beer, but it is a great tasting one. I figure I'll buy some for special events like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Well, this coming weekend, Sandra has another Girl Scout meeting. This time it will be at the old Opera House in Claremont, NH. Claremont is another western border town, so when I found out about it, I whipped out my iPhone and located the place on Google Maps. Then I got directions from the Opera House to Windsor, VT. Guess what? It's 9.9 miles!

Guess where I'll be going this weekend?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flatbread Company - North Conway

I've already explained my thoughts about pizza a couple of times, but the Flatbread Company up in scenic North Conway Village has me rethinking things.

I've seen the place many times during visits to the mountains. After all, it's right across the street from one of my favorite drinking holes (Houlihan's) and Sandra's and the kids' shops (The Penguin, Zeb's, Beggar's Pouch).

One of our family's "August Trips" this summer was up to North Conway, and with my iPhone, I was able to prepare for the trip using Yelp, a comprehensive "members review" web site, I got a listing of restaurants in the area to see if there were any hidden gems or new hot spots around.

To my surprise, a very favorably-rated place was the Flatbread Company of North Conway. As I said, I've seen the place a few times, nestled in the parking lot of a hotel, but the word "flat bread" seemed to be analogous to "pizza," which wasn't very impressive to me in the least. However, the favorable reviews got me intrigued, and when I read them, I found some more words, aside from pizza, that got me worried: "organic," "vegetarian," and a warning from one review "Very limited menu. (Basically, just pizza and salad.)." I decided that despite the favorable reviews, the place may not be for me.

However, on that trip, I decided to give everybody a chance to pick out a restaurant that weekend. Harmony borrowed my iPhone, which has the free Yelp application on it, and she also saw the reviews for the Flatbread Company. She, apparently, was unintimidated by those words, and was impressed by the number of favorable reviews. I told her where it was, and she absolutely LOVED to have all those shops in close proximity in addition. So, guess where we were going?

When we got there, I found a Homemade Sausage pizza that Harmony also favored. Meanwhile, Chardonnay and Sandra found another pie of their own. They do slice the pies weirdly; using parallel cuts and another perpendicular half-cut, but aside from that, the pizzas weren't bad. I considered doing a review of the place from that first visit, but that is against my policy--I don't want to review what may or may not be a fluke. I've found that service and/or taste at a restaurant can vary widely if either isn't considered important to the management.

So, this weekend, when Sandra and I went away for a long weekend slightly north of North Conway in Jackson, we knew that the Flatbread Company would be one of our lunch stops. This time, Sandra and I did the Homemade Sausage pizza, but without the mushrooms (Sandra doesn't like them). This second time, the pizza was just as good, and the service was still pretty attentive.

The place has a stone oven that they use to make their pizzas. The smell of burning wood surrounds the place, and it is tempting. The sausages are made by hand and there are signs all around the place touting environmentalist slogans (I guess being organic and using local ingredients makes them "green," which isn't a turn-off for me; if it makes them feel good, more power to them!)

The menu, as the Yelp reviewer pointed out, is basically pizzas and salads. If you want more, you should find another place. They do have a full bar and some good beers as well. (I can at least vouch for the beers!)

Anyway, I give the place a big "thumbs up," and that should mean something coming from a person that isn't particularly impressed by pizza in the first place!

Saturday, June 13, 2009


When I was a youngster, there were these commercials on television that intrigued me. Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill Wine had a catchy jingle, as did (Cruz Garcia's?) Real Sangria. Alas, these commercials were on the air when I was about thirteen or fourteen year's old; much too young to actually be imbibing in alcoholic spirits.

I started drinking wine when I was about twenty. At first, I liked the sweeter ones, but eventually I found that I favored the drier wines. My first wine love was Chardonnay (not coincidentally, the name of my youngest daughter, born 1989). I still love that wine, but I also find that the drier red wines, which I didn't like when I first started drinking wines, have now become my favorites.

The first time I saw an actual bottle of Boone's Farm, I remembered the commercials. I also realized that I didn't like strawberrries, and the gist I got just from the name was that this was going to be a sweet wine. I never really had any desire to try some.

Sometime around 1985, I was in a Latin American restaurant called Meson Olé with my wife. They had good margaritas, and for some reason, I didn't feel like having a margarita. I saw that they had pitchers of Sangria as well, and I remembered the commercials from my childhood and decided to get a pitcher.

The result was instant love, which surprised not only me, but Sandra as well. I'm not a fan of fruity wines (or of fruits, for that matter!). But this was a combination of red wine and fruit juices that made me tell Sandra that she should try this stuff. She did, and she loved it immediately as well. The next time I was at that restaurant, I ordered another pitcher. This time, it wasn't just Sandra and me. Her parents were there as well. Guess what? They loved the drink as much as we did.

After ordering it a few times, I figured that I was able to discern enough of the juices involved to make it at home. In my first try, I came up with the following formula of 8 parts burgundy wine, 4 parts orange juice, 2 parts apple juice, 1 part grape juice, and the juice of a lime (the key here is that each succeeding ingredient is about half as much as the preceding ingredient). To that, I added thin slices of apple, orange, two limes, and a bunch of Concord grapes. I added some ice to make an entire pitcher, and I had my own wonderful Sangria at home!

I've ordered Sangria elsewhere, including one of Sandra's and my favorite Mexican restaurants up here in New Hampshire. What I usually got was a pitcher of such utter sweetness that I couldn't even drink a single glass of it. I realized that I managed to catch lightning in a bottle when I first ordered it at Meson Olé, and have avoided ordering Sangria elsewhere.

I was still happy. I had my own recipe for Sangria, and I made it a lot back then, and every time I've visited Meson Olé, I've made it a point to order a pitcher of their wonderful elixir.

Last year, in 2008, a bunch of people I knew that were International Challenge Masters for Destination Imagination went with me to a place in Knoxville's Market Square named La Costa and had dinner. It was a Sunday, and they had their "liter of Sangria for half price Sunday" special. I ordered it, and was very impressed by it. It wasn't sickeningly sweet like the one I ordered in New Hampshire, but it wasn't exactly like the one I had at Meson Olé. There were some interesting spices in it. I loved it, and thought it was another perfect Sangria.

Well, when I was in Knoxville again this year, I knew that I was going to have to do La Costa's Sangria once again. This time, I was sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender. I asked about the spices in their Sangria and found out that cinnamon and cloves were part of their ingredient list. I was also told that they make their Sangria twenty-four hours in advance—when they run out, they don't make any more that night (and I heard other people tell me that the restaurant ran out of Sangria one night when they visited).

I've decided to try to reproduce La Costa's recipe, and have taken the original recipe I adapted from Meson Olé and added the spices after doing a Google search for recipes.

Here's my latest recipe.


This Sangria recipe has been adapted from the first one that I loved (from Meson Olé) to my latest favorite (La Costa in Knoxville).


8 cups (divided) Burgundy wine (or any other dry wine)

10 Whole Cloves

2 Whole cinnamon sticks

3 cups Apple juice

2 cups Orange juice

1 cups Grape juice

4 Limes (divided)

1 Whole orange

1 Small bunch of Concord grapes

2 Granny Smith apples

To 1.5 cups of Burgundy wine, add the cloves and cinnamon sticks into a 1 qt saucepan. Heat until warm and then let sit for at least 10-20 minutes. Take off heat and let cool (add some ice to hasten this step).

Into a one gallon pitcher, strain the cooled contents of the spiced wine, and add the rest of the wine, apple juice, orange juice, grape juice, and juices from three of the limes.

Slice the remaining lime, and orange real thin. Add to the pitcher. Remove the grapes from their stems and also add to the pitcher

Core and slice one of the apples and add to the pitcher

Core and slice the second apple, and then dice the apple into â…›" bits. Put the bits into a jar, add some apple juice, and refrigerate.

Put the pitcher into a cooler or the refrigerator and allow about 24 hours for the flavors to marry.

When ready to serve, fill an old fashioned glass with ice, and strain the liquid from the pitcher into the glass. Add fruit, as desired, as a garnish into the glass as well. Then, take about a tablespoon of the apple bits and add it to the glass as well. Stir and serve immediately.

Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Celebrating Mardi Gras

When I went to the butcher shop this weekend, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't any andouille sausage; I had really wanted to make some chicken and shrimp gumbo for Mardi Gras this week.

Instead, I found a nice package of four pork chops. I immediately thought about a meal I made before the kids were born. I believe I saw the recipe in James Beard's "American Cookery" cookbook, but I know that I adapted it to my own and Sandra's tastes.

Remembering that I liked that recipe, I decided to try to re-create it once again, this time doing it straight from memory. I had all the necessary ingredients, and asked Sandra if she had any packages of the "yellow rice" we both like (Carolina's Yellow Rice, packaged just right for the two of us with a hint of saffron).

This gave me a great opportunity to use my (relatively) new Calphalon pot, a 4.5 quart "Slow Poke" Saucier that I got for Christmas. It was the perfect size to saute four pork chops without crowding the bottom.

Sandra helped by making the Saffron Rice, substituting the water in the package directions with a can of chicken broth (for additional flavor).

The meal took about 45 minutes to accomplish (including preparation and cooking), and we each had a glass of Pinot Grigio to accompany the meal.

I won't claim that this meal was the next best thing to a pot of gumbo or to being in New Orleans watching the revelry, but it was a nice, relaxing meal for the two of us.

Would we do it again? Well, if I can get andouille sausage next year, I might just make a gumbo, but if I can't find them, this might good enough for the two of us!

Creole Pork Chops with Rice

Yield:2 servings (2 pork chops per serving)

Pork Chops

4 medium sized pork chops

Extra-virgin olive oil

One half of a large, sweet onion, slice thin

Flour (for coating pork chops)

2 tsp Cajun seasoning

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground thyme

1 dash Accent flavoring (MSG-optional)

1 10 oz can Tomatoes and Green Chiles (Rotel)

¼ cup red wine (dry or sweet)


1 package Carolina Yellow Rice

1 tbs butter

1 15 oz can chicken broth

On a stove, put 2 tbs olive oil into a large sauce pan (4.5 quart) on medium-high heat. Add sliced onions and saute for about 5 minutes until they get translucent.

Meanwhile, combine flour, Cajun seasoning, cumin, thyme, and Accent (if using) into a 1 quart Ziploc bag, and mix thoroughly. One by one, add a pork chop into the bag, seal, and then shake to coat the chops with the flour mixture. Set aside.

Remove the onions from the large saute pan and add floured pork chops, adding additional olive oil as needed. Saute over medium-high heat for 10 minutes a side until nicely browned on both sides (do not burn).

Prepare the yellow rice by bringing the can of broth and 1 tablespoon margarine to a boil in a medium (2 quart) saucepan. Stir in rice mix. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

When pork chops are all browned, add the can of tomatoes and green chiles, the onions that you have set aside, and red wine. Mix thoroughly together, moving the pork chops so they are setting on top of the tomato mixture. Cover pan, and simmer at medium-high heat until the sauce starts to bubble, and then reduce heat to medium. After ten minutes, turn the pork chops over and mix the sauce again, adding water or additional wine if the sauce starts to reduce too much. Lower heat to medium-low and allow the mixture to set for an additional 10 minutes.

To serve, fluff rice lightly with fork and then spoon rice onto two plates. Next, add two pork chops per pate, dividing the sauce over the four chops.

Serve with a dry white wine (Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay).

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A "Gem" of a Cruise

For my fiftieth birthday (yeah, I'm now that old!), Sandra decided to give me one of the best birthday presents I ever received: a ten day cruise to the Caribbean, stopping at five ports of callr: St. Thomas (USVI), Antigua, Barbados, St. Martin, and Tortola (BVI).

From New England, we took a ferry from New London to Orient Point, and then arrived at Sandra's father's condo. The next morning, Sandra's father and brother drove us into New York City to Pier 88, where the lovely Norwegian Gem was waiting to take us to paradise.

The ship is huge, and has room for 2,900 passengers. Of those, there were only about 200 children, so I guess that Sandra and I were about the median age of the passengers on board. (The cruise director, Ray Carr, mentioned that the very next cruise, departing from NYC to the Bahamas, would have nearly a thousand kids on break... shudder!).

Norwegian Cruise Lines has what they call "Freestyle Dining" which means that there are no set times for dinner. That means that you can have dinner at 5pm one day, 7pm the next, etc. There are also specialty dining rooms that feature different cuisines. Since this is more or less a food blog, this post will discuss the various dining options that we encountered.

First, Sandra and I wanted to try all the different venues, but with twelve restaurants and a ten day itinerary, that was not to be. However, we tried as many as we could. Here are my thoughts on each:

  1. Orchid Garden (Asian, Deck 7 midship)

    The Orchid Garden has Chinese, Thai, and Japanese menu items. A cover charge applies, but we found that it was frequently discounted to half price between 5:30 and 7:30 nearly every day of our cruise. While this may not be the best Asian restaurant that I ever ate at, it had some wonderful soups (I've always loved soup). Part of the Orchid Grill complex includes a Sushi Bar and a Teppanyaki (Japanese hibachi-style restaurant), but NCL lists those as separate restaurants, so I'll also do that.

  2. Teppanyaki (Japanese Hibachi, Deck 7, midship)

    This restaurant has traditional Japanese Hibachi grill of the kind made popular by Benihana. There are only four grills with seating for eight, and we found that this was nearly always fully reserved at dinner. There is also a single seating for lunch, and we saw that it wasn't that filled then. There's a cover charge for eating here. Sandra and I didn't eat here.

  3. Sushi (Japanese, Deck 7, midship)

    Sandra and I ate here for lunch on day early in our cruise. We ordered about five different items, including spicy tuna roll and a shrimp tempura roll, and we found we were so stuffed, we couldn't finish. Interestingly, the Sushi chef told us he was not allowed to package the leftovers for us to have in our rooms (how unfortunate; the food was so good!). We intended to go there a second time, but we never found the time to do so. There's a cover charge for eating here.

  4. Grand Pacific Main Room (Desk 6, Aft)

    This is one of the "main" dining rooms, and has a menu that changes every day. Apparently, it shares the same dinner menu as Magenta, but unlike Magenta, it offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was the first place we had breakfast on our cruise, and the two of us were sorely disappointed. The place was very crowded, and we were seated at a table of four with a couple of other guests. Service was slow, and the waitress didn't always get the correct items (Sandra and I ordered hot tea, and the only tea bags they gave us initially were "Apple Cinnamon." I didn't order a fruit tea!). For lunch, the service was better, and the food was actually quite good. We didn't eat dinner here.

  5. Magenta Main Dining Room (Deck 6, Midship)

    As mentioned above, the dinner menu at Magenta is the same as in the Grand Pacific, but Magenta doesn't serve breakfast or lunch. We ate dinner here once, and the food was nice, and the service was great.

  6. Cagney's (Steakhouse, Deck 13, Aft)

    Sandra and I ate here once. There is steak of all kinds here, from prime rib to filet mignon. The prime rib was cut large and served the way I liked it. Sandra seemed to enjoy her meal as well. There's a cover charge for eating here.

  7. Le Bistro (French, Deck 6, Midship)

    Sandra doesn't really enjoy French restaurants, but we overheard from other passengers that the steak at Le Bistro was actually better than the ones at Cagney's. We finally tried it, and we enjoyed it. It has an intimate feel about the place, and my Steak au Poivre was simply fantastic (cooked perfectly and very tender, the sauce was great). There's a cover charge for eating here, but occasionally you can find it discounted to half price during your cruise.

  8. Tequila Latin/Tapas (Latin, Deck 8, Midship)

    This was both Sandra's and my favorite dining option. Latin cuisine with an emphasis on Mexican. Excellent soups (Sandra loved the tortilla chicken soup; I couldn't get enough of their black bean soup), appetizers, and, best of all, one of the best dishes on the cruise: Il Popo. This is sort of like fajitas taken to another level. This was a dish for two, and consists of your standard fajita fare: chicken, steak, veggies, with accompaniments of rice, guacamole, salsa, and four flour tortillas. The meat and veggies are on a cast iron stand with little spikes radiating out from it on which the various meats and vegetables are placed. There is also an excellent drink menu featuring (of course!) tequila and margaritas. The hostess recognized us the second time we ate there, and the third time we ate there, we had the same waitress from the first time, and she remembered EXACTLY what I had to drink then! Needless to say, the excellent food was matched by their excellent service. You can see why this became our favorite destination. There's a cover charge for eating here, but it is almost always discounted to half price between 5:30 and 7:30.

  9. La Cucina (Italian, Deck 12, Aft)

    For some reason, Sandra and I found this the most difficult restaurant to get into. Nearly every morning when we'd make our reservation, it was fully booked until 8:30 or 9pm, which was after the "half price" time of 5:30 to 7:30pm. We always had to make our reservations the day before, which we will take into consideration the next time we are fortunate to cruise on the Gem. The food was enjoyable once we were able to get there, and the service was courteous and friendly. There's a cover charge for eating here, but it is frequently discounted to half price.

  10. Garden Cafe (Buffet, Deck 12, midship to aft)

    At first, the name of the restaurant turned me off; I thought it was vegetarian cuisine. Boy was I mistaken. It became the restaurant of choice for breakfast and lunch. This is a large buffet and it was surprising to me in the depth of its cuisine. For breakfast, there were multiple chefs ready to prepare you an omelet to your exact specifications. There was also French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, cereal, and just about any item you would normally associate with your morning meal. For lunch, there were many options from crepes, Indian/Pakastani (chicken curry, basmati rice, even papadums!), hamburgers, hot dogs, a carving station, and ice cream. We only walked past the buffet at dinner time, and there was different items for dinner, including a chocolate fountain. (Near the end of the cruise, Sandra went to a special "chocolate buffet" and the pictures she returned with showed many lovely chocolate creations, including a model of the Norwegian Gem itself!) Seating was difficult to get; it was nearly always crowded. However, we quickly found that the cafe extends outside to the Great Outdoors at the aft of the ship, where you could eat either at a conveniently located bar or at one of the many tables outside.

  11. Topsider's Grill (Deck 12, Pool area, midship)

    When I first saw this grill, I thought it was the main buffet. It serves mainly hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken pieces. On a few days, they had enormous barbecue grills cooking ribs, kielbasa, chicken, and some pasta or rice dish. This is popular, mostly because people didn't have to leave the pool area to get some food. At breakfast, they serve cereals and fruits, although there are areas that say "Eggs," they never seemed to be opened in my experience. The Garden Cafe, which is a quick walk toward the aft, has a much more extensive menu if you find the Topsider fare too limited.

  12. Blue Lagoon (Deck 8, midship)

    The Blue Lagoon is advertised as the place to go when you are hungry twenty-four hours a day. However, for a sit-down restaurant, it has the most limited menu. For lunch and dinner, the selections are hamburgers, fish and chips, meatloaf, etc. My burger was all right, but Sandra was extremely disappointed in her fish and chips. We only went here once.

And there you have it... lots of choices, and lots of food. If you don't watch out, you will find the many menu options will have you thinking "food, food, food!" all the time!

Would I take a cruise on this ship again? You betcha!

Bon Appetit!