Monthly Archives: January 2013

Weekly Harvest – Orange You Glad…

blood oranges

Jokester 1: Knock-knock

Jokester 2: Who’s there?

Jokester 1: Banana

Jokester 2: Banana who?

(repeat above 2-3 times)

Jokester 1: Knock-knock

Jokester 2: Who’s there?

Jokester 1: Orange

Jokester 2: Orange who?

Jokester 1: Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

This was my favorite joke when I was a kid. Yes, really. It explains a great deal why I now rely on sarcasm and self-deprecation for my humor, right? This pitiful refrain has been knocking (pun intended) around my head continuously this week as I stare down the piles of citrus that have taken up permanent residence on a considerable portion of my kitchen counter.


(Only a small fraction – those to be used in the cake below)

To be clear, I am not complaining. I love oranges (navel or blood), mandarins and grapefruits dearly. They are great on-the-go snacks that have been smoothly integrated into my brown bag lunches. Plus, there are few sensory experiences as stimulating as that burst of fresh, clean, citrus scent that bowls me over every day at 4pm when I start peeling my daily snack. Yet, despite my best intentions and efforts, I have had a hard time keeping up with the piles we have been receiving continuously from our CSA share this winter. So, I am trying to think outside of the peel (I never claimed I was actually funny) for tasty, creative concoctions that will help me put my overflowing supply to best use.


One of the easiest ways I’ve been mixing it up is by adding them to a variety of salads. Here, mandarin slices are combined with romaine lettuce and roasted beets from the CSA, topped with some garlicky feta, toasted almonds and tossed with balsamic vinaigrette. I made the first version of this salad to accompany last week’s quiche, and I have gladly returned to it several times already. The bright tang of the mandarin compliments the rich, earthy sweetness of the beets well, both of which are in great contrast to the salty feta and crunch of the roasted nuts.


(Everything in my house is just a bit tilted…)

Juicing the oranges is always the most obvious path whenever I receive an overly generous number of them in my share, but this mimosa took freshly squeezed juice to the next level. I was thrilled to see the rosy blush on a few of the fruits we received last week and was rewarded with a stash of blood oranges. When combined with a splash (or more) from my favorite new bottle of bubbly, the result was a fresh, sweet fizzy cocktail that was the perfect companion on a lazy Sunday afternoon (and will be even better as it gets warmer).

cake and ice cream

This Flourless Orange and Ginger cake was, by far, the most creative use of the remaining orange stock, as well as one of the most unusual and tasty tea-time treats I have enjoyed in quite a while. The recipe, developed by Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini, actually has you boil 1.5 lbs of oranges before pureeing them in their entirety and adding them to a hefty scoop of sugar, several eggs, fresh and candied ginger and almond meal. Once baked and out of the oven, the cake is topped with a glaze of lemon juice, zest and turbinado sugar (at least, that is what I used, as I could not find chouquette sugar crystals at my local grocer). It has a very unique flavor profile – only slightly sweet, tart from the oranges and spicy from the occasional nub of ginger – and is far better consumed leisurely as a compliment to a morning cup of coffee or tea, than with ice cream after dinner as seen here. I have really been enjoying waking up to it for breakfast this week. I bake rarely, but when I do, I tend to gravitate towards these types of teacakes, rather than overly sweet party confections. I will definitely be adding this to the rotation.


Yet, no matter what creative uses for these fruits I find (or devise), it is hard to beat the perfection of a ruby red grapefruit, drizzled with honey and fresh from the CSA to start off my day. Overall, I am pretty confident that I’ll avoid the scurvy this year.


Resolutions and a Weekly Travel Theme


(Night market built into the old city walls of Cairo, Egypt)

I do not make New Year’s resolutions. My all-or-nothing, competitive personality tends to make promises that my schedule and energy cannot fulfill, resulting in a heavy dose of self-loathing usually followed by a large serving of cake. Yet, I can’t help but be inspired by the advent of a new year and the feelings of opportunity and motivation that come with it. In fact, I have this semi-ridiculous idea stuck in my head that by setting goals now, with January 1st well behind us, I may have avoided the typical overpromise/underdeliver pitfalls that have plagued resolutions past.

chateau d'if

(View of Chateau d’If, the infamous prison that fictitiously housed the Count of Monte Cristo, off the coast of Marsailles, France)

To remove further potential room for error, I have spent most of January considering the one goal I would like to set for myself this year, rather than the extensive list I usually have by Halloween. After much deliberation, I realized that I would like to spend 2013 taking my photography to the next level. Honestly, I am not quite sure what I mean by that, but I do know that taking photos – of almost anything – brings me great pleasure, and that I would like more of that in my life. So, maybe I experiment with portraits or more macro, abstract images. We’ll just have to see where this year takes me.

avignon castle

(The Palais des Papes, or Pope’s palace, in Avignon, France)

What I am sure of is where I am going to start. I have an extensive blogroll (there, on the sidebar!) that I follow as much as possible. Included are several sites that I have been reading for years, as well as new favorites. One of the newbies is Where is My Backpack?, a collection of travel tales and photos from all over the world, written by the thoughtful and eloquent Ailsa.  Each week she hosts a photo challenge in which she provides a theme (usually associated with travel) that her readers are invited to interpret through their lens, sharing links and photos with their take on the theme throughout the next week. I am officially throwing my hat in the ring. Seems a great opportunity for me to put that resolution into action!

vatican city

(City walls of separating Rome from Vatican City, Italy)

This week’s theme was Walls. One of my favorite aspects of living in and exploring Europe (and beyond!) was that omnipresent sensation that each city was a living museum. As a lover of all things history, it always thrilled me to see the ruins and remnants of earlier cultures co-existing alongside modern day infrastructures. In some places, like Avignon and Vatican City, the city walls are still impeccably maintained. Walking through the existing gates provided a glimpse of what it may have been like to live within that boundary of thick hewn stone that so often provided a first line of defense. It was not hard while exploring castles and fortifications from a time past, to imagine that these walls offered not only physical protection, but represented the boundaries of culture, civilized society and the rule of law. Once one ventured beyond them, they would have been literally and figuratively on their own.


(The alpine town of Brancion, France)

Taco Tuesday – Fernandez Restaurant

roasted penos

When push comes to shove, I like food that tastes good. Although I prefer my meals to be seasonal and whole foods-based, not every meal works out that way. Sometimes this girl needs her queso (Make that. Maybe for the Super Bowl this weekend? It’s amazing).  And, after more than a decade living thousands of miles away from Mexico, I have not had the privilege to be a stickler about authenticity in my south-of-the-border specialties.  Although, it must be said that even in Paris there is a growing appreciation for quality tacos and burritos, although they are few and far between.


That being said, I’m an equal opportunity taco enthusiast. I don’t spend a lot of time assessing how traditional my meal is, as long as it satisfies that craving for well-seasoned meat, fresh veg, a heavy hand with the spice, all wrapped in a warm tortilla. So, I guess I have a few standards – this is definitely out. However, I am never going to turn down a chance to learn and eat the real thing. When I recently was invited to join a few local bloggers for some traditional, border-adjacent taco hunting, I could not have been more excited.fernandez

Kristin and Antonio, the vibrant couple behind Life and Food, suggested we meet at Fernandez restaurant on a Sunday morning to indulge in some of the the best tacos north of the border. We arrived at 9:30 (tacos for breakfast – yeah!) just as the church next door was letting out and filed over, en masse, with the same plan in mind. Luckily the four of us got our name on the list before the crowd hit and had us first dibs as tables started to turn over.

birria long shot

Before addressing the absolute awesomeness of the food (and company), let me just first mention to how amazing (and rare) it is to actually be able to follow my nose to a meal. Although I had caught sight of the restaurant, set back from a narrow, potholed side street in a building that looked to be more of an apartment complex than an in-demand, hotbed of taco magnificence, I had to drive past it in order to find parking alongside the church. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I could smell the deliciousness of what was about to be my breakfast (and, due to overindulgence, lunch). The scents of slow braising meat and roasting chilies were like a siren’s call. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see the cartoon-y steam drawing me down the sidewalk, feet barely touching the ground. However, potholes. So, I kept my eyes open – and my camera at the ready.


We were seated in a rambunctious dining area, crowded with families in their Sunday best, all engaged in rapid-fire conversations in between gobbling up the piles of tacos in front of them. My befuddled brain took a moment to register that almost everyone was speaking Spanish – I struggled to pull simple phrases out of my French-addled brain. It did not work. When I responded with a oui, rather than si, to our overworked waiter, he grinned at me as he walked away.


No matter. The menu was straightforward and despite a few different taco options, I went straight for their specialty, the birria. A traditional dish from Jalisco (one of 31 states in Mexico), birria is typically stewed in a roasted pepper broth and served with tortillas, onions, lime and cilantro. I did learn, after the fact, that it is usually made with lamb, mutton or goat, meats I often associate with a gamey taste and stringy consistency. It speaks to the quality of the meat (and other ingredients) and the low, slow heat of the braising process that I could not tell you which of these was featured, but only that I ate and ate and ate until I could not eat anymore. Each time I grabbed another tortilla, dredged meat dripping with broth from the bottom of the bowl, added the standard onions, cilantro, and lime with a few radish slices and scoop of house made salsa, I promised it would be my last. I lied. Several times over.

quesa taco

A few of us also indulged in a queso taco, the base of which was more birria but this time sitting atop a thick house made tortilla and a layer of gooey, melted cheese. Excessive, yes. But oh so good.  In between bites of taco or roasted jalapeno, we got to know each other, exchanging embarrassing travel stories and trading restaurant recommendations (I mostly collected ideas, rather than contributing). These locals were warm and welcoming to my ‘newcomer on the scene’ situation in a way that made me feel like I was going to be just fine in the new friends department. We talked about the growing food and wine scene emerging in Tijuana and came up with a short list of other strictly traditional Mexican eateries north of the border. There was mention of a reunion to go scope out a little known barbacoa  place in the New Year. I hope that happens, but in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to more birria, who’s in?

Update! I wasn’t the only one in my group that decided that Fernandez deserved a write-up – here is Marie’s (from MeanderingEats) take in San Diego CityBeat magazine. Her article even answers some unknowns from above – apparently this birria is Tijuana-style, meaning entirely beef. Delicious!

Fernandez Restaurant

2265 Flower Ave.

San Diego, CA 92154

(619) 628-8235

CSA Week 3 – Templates (Quiche)

csa week 3

Clockwise from top: Pile of Satsumas, caulflower, two heads of dark-leafed lettuce, baby bok choy, curly parsley, golden beets, grapefruit, chard, carrots and mizuna). 

(Updated: I’ve been invited to join the “What’s in the Box” CSA round-up over at In Her Chucks. You can follow along here. Looking forward to more CSA inspiration and seeing what everyone else is getting in their share!)

If it is not completely obvious, I am a huge fan and very vocal proponent of the CSA system. Picking up my share every other week allows me to support local business, eat seasonally (despite what most of you think, there are seasons here) and save money on fresh produce. An added benefit is the challenge each week’s share brings to the table (pun intended). It is so easy to find a few dishes that you like to cook (and eat) and get stuck in a rut making them day in, day out. Basing a large portion of my diet on the veggies and fruits I get through the CSA does not allow for that type of complacency. I have to be ready to up my game, to learn how to cook with new ingredients, experiment with new flavors and be open to pushing my boundaries in the kitchen.


Golden beets, halved. So pretty. 

It seems that this is the most intimidating part of subscribing to such a service for many people. Time and time again I have discussed my CSA subscription with interested friends and colleagues, and the conversation always come back to two basic doubts (i.e. fears) about taking the leap and enrolling for themselves: 1) throwing too many veggies away; and 2) learning to cook and eat new ingredients that are not existing favorites.


And roasted, so tasty.

The first concern is simply resolved by the possibility of bi-monthly subscriptions. Each share is considerable, and there is no way that I alone (or two of us) could go through it all in a week. Picking it up every other week gives us time to eat our way through the variety of produce we’ve received while still giving us time to enjoy non-CSA based meals. Because sometimes you want sushi or a burger, not something made of chard or Satsumas.


Quiche, step 1

Concern #2 is a matter of personal comfort in the kitchen. Experience breeds familiarity and confidence, and I can vouch that, with each share, I become more comfortable exploring in the kitchen. I can assure you, I did not start there. I am a scientist, through and through. I crave step-by-step protocols (recipes) and precise measurements. Until I started getting CSA shares in Paris, I had rarely strayed from a well-worn but limited list of three or four basic recipes that I felt could be made without too much fuss or risk of culinary disaster.


Quiche, step 2

That did not last long when I moved to a city known for dramatic seasonal shifts and the resulting, limited produce that went along them. There are only so many mashed potatoes I could eat, no matter how well they were made. It was a great way to learn to spread my wings in the kitchen, actually. I knew I would get some variation on potatoes, leeks, carrots and apples each week for several months. I could afford to try something new, outlandish or experimental. If it didn’t work, all I lost was that week’s ration of tubers.


Quiche, step 3

Turns out, cooking is fun! Learning to combine ingredients, finding that perfect balance between seasonings and freshness is a learned skill – and one that kept me entertained through many a long, cold winter’s night. Not only did I expand my basic recipe repertoire and taste all sorts of new vegetables, but (most importantly) I conquered my fear of the epicurean unknown. Digging deep into my weekly box to find some gnarled, dusty root no longer filled me with dread – now it was a challenge. One that I felt equipped to undertake.


Quiche, step 4

Enough playing around boosted my confidence such that I was able to shake the anxiety of cooking new things but, at heart, I am still a scientist and I remained attached to the idea of a recipe. To that end, I have developed several semi-recipes that I call templates. These are basic outlines for main dishes that allow me to feel that there is precedent and reliability to what I am cooking, but have enough freedom that I can substitute whatever ingredients I happen to have on hand that I feel might work together. Several  of these templates have become my go-to dishes for using those excessive or unknown CSA veggies in way I can be confident will taste good.


Quiche, step 5

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, this was a week for excessive greens. Endless salads would be made from two heads of lettuce, a deceptively small, but well-packed bag of spring mix as well as the narrow, spikey, peppery (think arugula) Japanese Mizuna greens. I am a big fan of roasted veggies in my salads, as well as a few well placed pieces of fruit – so the cauliflower, beets, carrots and Satsuma wedges have all found their way into our bowls (although not all at once). Exploring differing greens, vegetable and fruit salad combinations is one of my main ‘template’ experiments ongoing right now.


Quiche, step 6

That was a very long-winded way to introduce my template for quiche. There is an old one-liner out there stating that “real men don’t eat quiche.” Turns out, that if quiche-hating is what makes a man real, I’ll take a fake one any day. Quiches are a perfect template recipe in which the three key ingredients: cheese, vegetable and meat, can be mixed and matched almost endlessly in order to create a wide range of tastes maintaining only a crust and pie-shape in common.


Quiche, step 7

This week I took advantage of the chard, some leftover caramelized red onions that were languishing in the fridge (after a burger binge the night before), smoked ham and cheddar cheese to make an easy weeknight meal. I wilted the chard in a bit of oil, stirring in the onions and seasoning with salt and pepper (step 1). While those flavors were melding and cooling, I unrolled a premade (so easy!) crust into a pie pan and sprinkled the base with a thin layer of cheese (step 2). I have always heard this is necessary as to seal the base and to keep it from getting soggy from the egg mixture – it has not failed me yet, so I keep doing it.


Quiche, step 8 

Then I layered the ingredients (step 3): sliced ham, greens/onions, cheese, repeat. Two or three layers of each, or until the crust is full (step 4). Then I make the ‘custard’. Easy-peasy, one cup of whole milk and three eggs (step 5), whipped together right in the measuring cup and poured over the entire layered gimish (step 6). I always use whole milk, as I have it in the house (my rant against skim milk can be saved for another time, I’m already 1000+ words about quiche!). If you want a richer end product, spluge for the half-and-half or cream. Add a last sprinkling of cheese (step 7) to the top of the whole thing and carefully place it in the oven, at 375F for 35-45 minutes.


Quiche, step 9 – eat it!

The quiche is done when the crust is golden brown (I always use a glass pan so I can check the bottom as well), and the eggs are set completely when I jiggle it (step 8). I take it out of the oven, let it set and cool for about 10 minutes and then DIG IN (step 8). I usually serve my quiche accompanied by a salad and/or some roasted potatoes. This night I made a salad of spring greens, feta, roasted golden beets, feta, Satsuma wedges, toasted pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette. Quiche slices make great leftovers for brown-bag lunches in the following days, and they even freeze wonderfully for meals further down the road.

For me, cooking only became pleasurable when my confidence grew in the kitchen. I now take pride in mixing things up and creating flavors that taste great together that I would have never thought of before (that salad, who knew?). This is why I would never consider cancelling my CSA, despite endless citrus and salad greens. Each week is a new adventure and  opportunity for me to explore and grow – and not just my pants size.

Taco Tuesday – Cantina Mayahuel

chipsAlthough I spent my college years in San Diego (more than a decade ago <cough>), my current sense of familiarity with the city is distinctly off-kilter. I often feel that I know exactly where I should be going, but find myself two or three blocks from my destination driving in circles – as if the city had just nudged itself over an inch to make things complicated fun. It is therefore amusing to me that friends coming to visit often proclaim how excited they are to hang out on my ‘home turf’, despite the fact that, at this point, I might have a better sense of Boston, or Paris, than of the place I call home.


In each place I have lived, there are a few key places I am sure to take visitors such that they can see the city through my eyes (and tastes). In Paris, it was falafel, or maybe my neighborhood bistro, before hiking up the hill to take in the sweeping vista of the city from the Basilica Sacre Coeur. My favorite scenic views of San Diego have stood the test of time – La Jolla from the Torrey Pines gliderport, or the lights of downtown twinkling on the bay from Coronado. The restaurant scene, on the other hand, has changed (as have my tastes), so I am in the market for a few local favorites to show off the ‘essence’ of San Diego cuisine.

in the kitchen

My first visitor happened to be one of my closest friends. We were roommates in graduate school and have seen each other through thick and thin, including many co-hosted, wine-soaked dinner parties in Boston. When I inquired as to her dining priorities for a very short business trip to San Diego, she replied simply, “Tacos.” Done.

We chose Cantina Mayahuel in University Heights based on multiple glowing recommendations from friends for both the tacos and the extensive tequila selection. The cantina was crowded and noisy, mostly laughter and talking over the sounds of meat grilled to order from the open kitchen. We nabbed a bit of bar space, ordered margaritas, chips and salsa and waited for two seats to open up.

mahi mahi


We did not have to wait long, but it was plenty of time to study the menu, take in the mad dash for tacos at the grill and glance quickly at the tequila menu, noting that returning for a tasting flight in the near future should be a priority. Despite the temptation of a chicken mole special, we stuck to our taco plan. They arrived, sizzling straight off the grill. We each had ordered one carnitas taco, she chose an additional mahi-mahi taco, and I had a steak taco as my second. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, as two tacos each were definitely going to test our limits. We did our best. The tacos were so tasty that we ended up eating almost all of them, despite some significant (mostly figurative) bellyaching.



The meat tacos were the clear winners. Both the steak and the carnitas were extremely flavorful, well seasoned, moist and tender yet crispy around the edges. Unfortunately, the fish taco was overwhelmed by excessive condiment application, the flavor and texture of the mahi mahi lost under multiple layers of sauce.



So while I am not convinced that Cantina Mayahuel is my end all/be all for taco touring (it can’t be – I have too many places to explore!) I will be going back – hopefully soon. My plan is to order the street tacos, which will allow me to taste several of the taco fillings in much smaller, bite-size packages.  Plus, I am looking forward to not being the driver, as that tequila tasting flight has my name on it, helping me to feel at home.

Cantina Mayahuel

2934 Adams Ave (at 30th St.)

San Diego, 92116


In Images – Cabin Fever

Touring La Jolla recently. The sunshine and ocean air were wonderfully fortifying after a week spent inside, coping with whatever virus hit me hard recently.

la jolla contemporary art

(Outdoor installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)


(Onlookers at the Children’s Pool Beach, ogling the seals who have taken over)


(Pelicans roosting on an outcropping, seals swimming into shore)

la jolla cove

(The Pacific Ocean has always been my place for reflection and rejuvenation)

la jolla shore

(View of La Jolla Shores from La Jolla Cove – more seals in the foreground and the sea-kayak tour in the distance that has been added to the top of my ‘to-do on a sunny day’ list)

hang glider1

(Looking back at La Jolla from the Torrey Pines Gliderport)

blacks beach

(North view along Black’s Beach)


(A few braving the ocean – the sunshine was warming for both body and spirit; the water – I’d imagine – not so much)

Taco Tuesday – Birthday Tacos! (Blue Water Seafood)

fishFor the past 11 years whenever someone would ask me what I missed most about California, my instantaneous response was “FISH TACOS!” Seeing a look of confusion and disbelief on many faces, I often would back-pedal and mention how I ached to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean or wax rhapsodic about cloudless skies and endless sunshine; but, in the end, all I wanted were tacos. So, when it came time to decide what I wanted for my first birthday dinner back in San Diego, it was not a hard choice.

order here

My new friends did not let me just choose any fish taco. They strongly suggested that I try Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill, which (as it sounds) allows you to preview and choose from the catch of the day and have it prepared to your liking – marinated and served as an entrée with rice, made into a sandwich or taco-fied. The restaurant is very informal – you order from the counter staff before grabbing one of the few available picnic table seats and anxiously wait for your dinner to be delivered. If you would rather cook at home (or just slice, their sashimi-grade fish was beautiful) whatever seafood is fresh and available is on sale at market prices.


As the birthday girl, I put in my request for two tacos and went to grab our table as the rest of my group discussed appetizers, ordered beer and divvied up the bill. Despite the mellow atmosphere and service (food comes in plastic baskets with plastic utensils), this place definitely takes its food seriously. First up we received our appetizers: housemade ceviche, fried calamari, fries and onion rings.


Growing up in a fishing town on the coast of California gave me the (misguided) impression that I had already tasted the best calamari around.  I was just.wrong. Meltingly tender and heavily seasoned, the fried calamari was gobbled up by our table in less than five minutes, at which time a second order was promptly placed. The ceviche was also well done, chock-full of tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro and bay shrimp. The tortilla chips that were served alongside were made in-house and their residual warmth was necessary for enjoying this refreshingly cool appetizer on a cold night.

ahi sandwich

Two friends ordered their fish in sandwich form, one with tilapia and chipotle mayo, the other with seared ahi tuna. We all oohed and ahhed over the beauty of the seared tuna sandwich as I delayed consumption by taking photos (always good to be the birthday girl). I assume both sandwiches were delicious based on the rate they disappeared. The one ‘review’ I was able to elicit was just words strung together, “biting into buttery fish, ummmm so good.”

shark taco

Our tacos arrived, steaming in the cold winter air (we were relegated to patio seating due to the size of our party). No matter the fish, the basic fish tacos were all structued the same – large portions of your chosen fish (for me, thresher shark), cooked as requested (in lemon-garlic butter) wrapped in a cheesy flour tortilla and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, white sauce (sour cream-y secret sauce) and scallions. The garnishes were tasty, but the shark was the star of the show. Tender, moist and well marinated in lemon garlic butter, I was impressed that there were two steaks of fish wrapped in that tortilla for under $5.

beer battered tilapia

My second taco was one of the evening’s specials – a beer battered tilapia (I think) – fried to crispy, spicy, moist perfection served in a tortilla with avocado, white sauce and lettuce. The salsa verde served on the side, once poured all over, elevated this up into my ‘top fish tacos in San Diego’ list (actually they both are – this is now the place to beat). I was a bit envious that some (smarter) people at the table had ordered two.  Plus, the ample serving of salsa was a great additional dip for the remaining fries and onion rings making their way around the table.

red velvet birthday cake

It was a great way to celebrate my birthday – not at all pretentious, with a fun group of new friends, and local, seasonal and delicious food. After inhaling my dinner, I was squirming around in my picnic chair trying to find a comfortable position that would allow me to inconspicuously let my taco-belly hang out when they surprised me with a red velvet cupcake complete with candles and singing. I made several wishes for the year to come and, filled with gratitude and excitement about the life I am creating here, blew out the candles with gusto. Then I passed the cake around. I was too stuffed with tacos. Just the way I wanted it.

This is the first of a continuing series exploring the tacos of San Diego – both in fine dining establishments and my kitchen. If you have any recommendations of places (or recipes) to try, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at researchingsandiego(at)gmail(dot)com.