The Backseat Gourmet-Roadtrip Through The N.E. 7 States in 7 Days!- Part 1 of 2

Let the driving begin- 7 states in 7 days!  I was graciously invited to travel with my step-mom and sisters to journey to uncharted territories.  With ipods charged, the Prius packed and several bags of eat-with-your-hands snacks, our expedition to the north east began.  We had no reservations and no real plan…except to eat.

Road trip snacks! All to be eaten with your hands!  A little bit salty, a little bit sweet and mostly healthy.

Our first stop was on the US side of Niagara Falls in New York.  Of course the main parking area was next to a multi-level mall with (shudder) a food court.  Tourist trap food courts?!…..NEVER!!!  We passed a corner restaurant that looked suitable to our hunger needs and decided the Red Coach Inn would be our dining destination for lunch.

Our first stop in Niagara, New York.

Now I know in my About Me page it says that you will find, clean, fresh, local, organic foods and 99% of the time that will be true.  BUT I just got back from living in Fiji for over 2 years and there are certain things that I have been craving with inexplicable fervor.  One of these things was a reuben sandwich.  And behold on this blessed menu was just such dish.  Yes, I know, you are right.  It’s not local and it’s not really all that healthy either, but they are my rules and if I make ’em then I can break ’em.  Plus,  I’m on vacation in my own country, everything is new again!!  The toasted rye bread is crunchy, the meat is salty, cheese gooey, kraut tangy and the light shmear of thousand island dressing makes my eyes roll back in reuben bliss.

Gooey goodness.

With the weight of the reuben reminding me the next day of why I don’t usually eat that way, on day 2 I suggest a picnic lunch.  Of course I love gourmet, innovative menus, exotic food pairings and layered desserts dripping in syrup.  But honestly I’m even more happy with a good old fashioned picnic.  We ran into the supermarket picked up some fruit, veggies, hummus, olives, avocado and bread and built ourselves a lovely little picnic in the woods of upstate New York.  I like indulging, but not everyday and especially not when I’m sitting on my rear end in a car for hours on end. Keeping it light and local makes me happier.

Picnic lunch in the woods. Fruits and build your own sandwiches. Yum!

On to our next spot, Lake Placid, New York.  The remnants of the Olympic rings still hang and vacationers saunter up and down the main thoroughfare of small boutiques, cafes and shops filled with outdoor gear for the weekend warrior.  My step-mom is an iphone aficionado and was on the ready to look up the latest trip adviser ratings.  And in Lake Placid, Alegria Garden Cafe was the place to be.   The food was inventive, service attentive and ambiance quiet and relaxed.  I ordered the suggested crab cakes with an orange beurre blanc.  They were indeed amazing as our hostess had said.  The crusty cakes were FILLED with shredded crab from edge to edge and the sauce they were nestled in was a creamy, citrusy delight.  Prior to my crab cakes arriving I perused the drink menu and made a tough decision: I narrowed it down to the Ginger Fizz.   Whew!! A punch to the taste buds, the fresh ginger gave my mouth a wallop and the fizz from the Prosecco nearly made me sneeze.  Calling this drink vibrant would be an understatement.  I also tried the Pisco Sour….its a good thing I wasn’t driving….there was no shortage of liquor there.  Check out the ingenuity of this drink menu, make them at home (but call me up to taste test first!)

Make it yourself!!

After New york we moved on to Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts!  Check out where we went and what we ate on my next post.  I’ll give you a hint…..maple syrup, Ben and Jerry’s factory, wild blueberries and lobster!! (but not all mixed together : )

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The Happy Haitian-Skillet Fish, Dirty Rice & Fried Plantains

You can take the girl (me) out of the islands but you can’t take the islands out of the girl.  I met with a friend from Haiti who is also a fellow salsa dancing-foodie, for the afternoon at the market and in the kitchen.  I’ve never been to the Caribbean but the food sounded similar to Fiji and to be honest I’ve been feeling a little Fiji home sick.  So off to the market we went to buy a whole fish (heads are yummy!), plantains, a coconut (yeah!) and our culinary accoutrements.

My Happy Haitian Friend, Anderson, teaching me some Caribbean cooking techniques.

While scraping my first coconut in America (awesome!) my friend prepped the fish.  Generously rubbing it with lime juice and swimming in a blend of green pepper, green onion and garlic, it quick cooked in the skillet while our dirty Haitian rice was simmering away.  I have never had rice like this before.  An unusual grey hue and full of flavor- why? Dried mushrooms.  The dried mushrooms are reconstituted in water and the rice is cooked in the shroomy water sans fungus.  Then in goes lima beans, shredded coconut and cilantro making it super vibrant and earthy!

Scoring the fish helps it from curling in the heat of the pan and it gives you a place to put more juice.  Rub that lime in!!

Our side for this most tasty Haitian lunch was…wait for it….fried plantains.  I don’t usually do a lot of deep fried foods but these are a guilty pleasure.  I don’t feel too bad though (not at all actually) because the rest of the meal is so healthy and  light.

Frying plantains using a traditional plantain masher.

Anderson used an interesting technique which included frying the sliced plantains on both sides, smashing them, then dipping them in salted water before they get fried a second time to give them that exquisite crispness. Upon my salted water inquiry his response was that it helps it from getting too dry. Duh.

I know they’re fried but they are so delicious!!

Citrusy fish, dirty Haitian rice and beans, fried plantains and sliced avocado- I’m happy to be kicking back island style in Cleveland.

Doesn’t get more Caribbean then that.

Haitian Skillet Fish

1 1-1.5 lb whole snapper (or other hearty white fish), scored on both sides

2 limes

1 medium onion, sliced into rounds

2 garlic cloves

1/2 small green pepper, core removed and roughly chopped

2 green onions

Sea salt to taste

Sauce:

Add garlic, green pepper, green onions and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor with enough water to make it blend and form a thick but slightly watery paste.  Set aside.

Fish:

Slice limes in half and rub every square inch of the fish inside and out with lime juice.  Salt fish inside and out.  Place fish in a skillet (cut in half if needed to fit)  add 1/2 cup of green pepper sauce and sliced onions to the pan.  Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes then flip and cover for the remainder of the cooking for another 3-4 minutes depending on the thickness.  Add cilantro for garnish if desired.  Then put on some Caribbean tunes and dance!

Welcome To The USA…What Do I Eat Now?

The day arrived…for better or for worse….my landing on US soil.  Leaving all the exotic of the S. Pacific and my treasured Fijian fish and fruits.  My mom had sent me an email asking what foods she should buy for my return and what I would like to have for my first meal….the list as you can imagine was long – and kept growing.  But the meal….whats the opposite of Fiji? All I wanted was waldorf salad.  A nostalgic family classic for me and an All – American summer staple.

The All-American Classic – Waldorf Salad.  Learn how to make me! See recipe below.

Before I would indulge in my mayonnaise saturated salad I would have a layover in Los Angeles. I had been envisioning this moment for weeks….my first meal on US soil.  What would it be?  I could eat anything in the Land of Milk and Honey right?  Two words:  Fish Tacos.  Why?  I have no explanation.  My friend Reid & I went at nearly 10pm to Haciendas Restaurant & it was hopping.  In fact there was an excellent live mariachi band playing!! Welcome to America, dinner and live music at 10pm on a Sunday!!

Fish tacos baby….check out the oil spilling out of the one in the back….and I asked for less oil!! It still hit the spot.

Once I reached my family there were plenty of snacks.  The heaping bowl of cherries was a delightful surprise as I don’t believe I have eaten one of these ruby gems in over 2 years.

What a blessing to come back to a bowl full of these.

Popcorn balls have always been a picnic classic and even though I gave it my all to recreate them in Fiji, Humphrey Popcorn does it way better.  And look at the label….Go Tribe! hahaha (Haven’t seen that for a while.)

2 of my 3 requests…apples and popcorn balls.

With day one down & my belly full of cherries, popcorn balls, neon orange jello and waldorf salad we move on to day two.  I became reacquainted with my old boyfriend….the grill.  We had some really good times together.  And we haven’t seen each other for a very, VERY long time.  On the menu: burgers, hot dogs, zucchini, onions, portobello mushrooms and sweet Ohio corn (envision a single glistening tear streaming down my Fiji-sunburned cheek while eating this tender, sweet corn).

Grillin’ out. Whats more American then that?!  As you can see, I’m pretty blissed out.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss my fresh coconuts and pineapples.  But that grill sure put a smile on my face.  And that waldorf salad, prepared with some big welcome home love,  went down real easy.

Waldorf Salad

5-apples, granny smith, fuji or any crunchy firm variety, cored and chopped into small chunks

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

3/4 cup raisins

1/3 cup mayonnaise (add more or less to your liking)

Toss all ingredients in a large bowl.  Serve immediately or refrigerate for 1 hour then serve.

Note:  Some people like to go New Age healthy on this and use yogurt instead of mayo.  I haven’t eaten “real” mayonnaise in a LONG time so I’m going old school 1950’s  full- fat with real Hellmann’s Mayo.

My Market Family

Two years ago I joined the Peace Corps.  I had no idea what was in store for my life.  Third world living, new languages, weather and of course food.  By no accident I was placed in a small city to which, in my humble opinion, has the best market in all of Fiji, and of course I’ve been to all 8 markets that exist on the 2 main islands.  The Lautoka market has become a haven, a classroom and a social outlet.  The breadth of my knowledge has expanded in incalculable ways.  I have not only discovered new foods and how to prepare them but I have discovered how wonderful it is to forge relationships with people whose lives are also centered around food.

Who wouldn’t love shopping at this market with a smile like that!

I have become acutely aware of what “eating seasonal” means.  One automatically becomes so in touch with changing weather patterns; in the U.S. we lose this relationship because you can get a banana in Cleveland from Ecuador in January.  In Fiji, if it’s not the season for bananas you are not eating bananas.  What a blessing this is.  Sure you can buy imported apples and broccoli from a few select stores, but you are going to pay handsomely and the quality is inferior.

I’m indebted to those that became my “market family”.  The people I saw on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.  When I was gone for a few weeks they would actually notice I was gone.  When they found out I was single they would try to get me to marry their son (I was propositioned for an arranged marriage to an Indian woman’s son…it was mortifying as you can imagine).  When I was sick, they could see it in my face.  They have provided me with priceless education and friendship.  My Peace Corps service is ending in a few short days and I will miss these people dearly.

Sunjay & family: I would sit down with them every week to talk about life while drinking a coconut water and eating pineapple.

My dear friend Sandeep. I was dressed up in a sari for the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

Apple lady:  The first person who continuously spoke Hindi with me & helped me push through my struggle.  She would speak with me in Hindi in front of other people and brag about me as if I were her own daughter : )

My business savvy friend and her husband.

Coconut cutter:  There will be a gaping hole in my heart the size of a young coconut when I leave Fiji.  Coconuts are one thing I will miss most.

How did I live without so many coconuts?! Between eating the gratings, making coconut milk & drinking coconut water I think I’m up to 5 a week.

Seaweed lady: My guru for all traditional Fijian foods.  She is brilliant.  I will miss her sass and knowledge.

My sassy seaweed supplier, Eta. She was running late that morning and whispered quietly to me…”I met my friends out last night and we did a pub crawl..” hahahaha!!! I love her even more now.

No recipe this time as I am crazy busy packing and going to farewell dinners!!  Cheers!

Grapefruit Shake-Up!

Did I ever tell you I grew up in the carnival?  Yes, it’s true, I am a third generation carnie.  But a few things set me apart like an education and having all of my teeth.  My grandfather started AJ Sunny Amusements in 1956 and the business was later taken over by my father and aunt.  I began working the midway at the age of nine doing small things like sorting money or making lemonade. However most of my time was spent taking advantage of living the life every child dreams of which consisted of eating French fries and cotton candy for lunch and cutting in line to pick whatever seat I wanted on one of our psychedelically painted rides.

Working the midway. So according to this picture I guess I started working when I was about 18 months.

We’ve all had the ubiquitous frothy lemonade shake-up in the large, waxed paper cup that we must hold two-handed for fear the bottom may drop out (tragic!).  We’ve watched a carnie (maybe even me) shake this refreshing summer beverage with enthusiastic vigor.

My palate has diversified since my steady diet of sno cones and funnel cakes and living in Fiji has helped that considerably.  With my carnival days behind me and being a Peace Corps volunteer my current chosen profession, I’m going to be honest….. it can be really challenging.  The harassment, unreliable public transportation, harassment on the unreliable transportation….. sometimes when I get home on a sweaty Friday afternoon a nice cool drink (with vodka) is critical to maintaining sanity while enduring third world living.  However, on this occasion I will have to gracefully decline for 2 reasons: 1. I am on a volunteer budget and 2. I’m not even sure if the local vodka here is meant for human consumption.

I dare your mouth not to water.

It is citrus season in Fiji now.  There are at least eight types of citrus I can think of but I’m sure there are more I have yet to discover.  Small, sweet n sour kumquats, meyer-like lemons, traditional limes, candy sweet mandarins and the list goes on and on.  A few are eaten out of hand but most commonly they are used to make juice.

I was missing the tangy taste of a grapefruit and lucky for me I came across the Fiji version of just that.  They are MASSIVE and can weigh 3-4 lbs.  I picked a hefty one, squeezed the bloody hell out of it & shook it like a Polaroid picture.  This drink is a refreshing deviant from the norm and is so vibrant in its flavor that it could pull you out of a cotton candy coma.

Is it a grapefruit? Is it a pomelo? I’m not really sure. But what I do know is that its delicious.

Getting excited about citrus!

Lets get real, this beverage would be award winning with a heavy splash of vodka (or gin).  Pair this drink with some caramel apples and Italian sausages and you’ve got a carnie party to attend.

Grapefruit Shakeup

1 1/2 cups fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
4 tbsp Sugar
4 tbsp boiling water
Ice

Makes 2

Make a simple syrup by adding boiling water and sugar together stirring to dissolve sugar completely.

Juice grapefruit and strain to remove any excess seeds and pulp.  Making one at a time, in a pint glass add half the grapefruit juice to half of the syrup, fill glass with ice and pour 8 oz. of water over top.  Cover the pint glass with either a plastic cup or traditional lemonade paper cup that fits snuggly over the lip.  Shake vigorously for 1 minute until it well combined and frothy.  Serve in either pint glass or paper cup.  Garnish with a grapefruit wedge if desired.