Monday, December 30, 2013

Authentic Mexican Lunch at The Palm at Playa

The Palm at Playa: A Restaurant Review

Shopping 5th Avenue, Playa del Carmen

A trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico demands a visit to main street or 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.  It's simply the trendy place for shopping, dining, night clubbing or people watching. 

The Rooftop Pool at The Palm at Playa

On my December visit, I made a stop in "The Palm at Playa," a boutique hotel located in the center of town. The hotel has a hip feel and offers 69 modern-style one and two bedroom lofts and suites which include high-tech devices. 

Hot Tub at The Palm

The rooftop pool is exquisite and many guests chose to spend their day there. Some  lounge around the pool while others soak into the hot-tub. The view from the elevated patio is terrific- I could see down to the ocean and beach, watch parasailing and often feel a nice breeze.


My group was offered lunch in the casual outdoor setting starting with a margarita on the rocks. In my opinion, a perfect start to an authentic Mexican meal.

Noe Islas, the chef, chose to offer a pairing of dishes from the region of Oaxaca, combining flavors, textures and colors along with a selection of Mexican wines from Baja California Norte.

Ceviche by Chef Noe Islas
As a starter we were served “fish ceviche” a delicacy throughout Latin America. This variation is Chef’s specialty made with chopped apple, marinated in tamarind sauce and a pinch of salt worm. The ceviche was paired with a fresh, cheerful and pleasant Sauvignon Blanc wine from “El Cielo”.  I believe the ceviche was the best dish I ate during my trip to Riviera Maya.  Absolutely brilliant flavors and outstanding freshness.

Chicken with Mole

For the second course we had grilled chicken with yellow mole and a side of sautéed potatoes. The mole, which is Mexican sauce, comes from Santa Maria de Tula, a beautiful little town in the state of Oaxaca. Pairing was  Parcelas from “Las Nubes” ,an intense aromatic woody red wine. It blended seamlessly with the spicy flavor of the mole´s ingredients.

Beef Steak

The third course was “beef steak on chichilo”, one of Oaxaca’s least know moles but one of the tastiest. The beef came with a side of Mexican Chaya. The wine pairing for this dish was a powerful  Barricas from “Las Nubes.”

Beautiful and Delicious Flan

And for dessert, we were served a Mexican favorite, a flan with intense caramel flavors and creamy goodness.  A fabulous finish to a grand lunch.

Although one would not likely drop into The Palm from the street, take note of the address and add it to your itinerary. Chef Islas makes terrific meals. (And is it any wonder I struggle with my weight-  this was just lunch?)

Debi Lander and Chef Noe Islas of The Palm

Disclosure:  I was flown to Riviera Maya, Mexico for a media trip hosted by Interval International. 

Calle 8, Nortte, Centro
Playa del Carmen, 

Quintana.Roo, Mexico 77710
Tel +52 (984) 873 33 33

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Zucchini Garlic Soup

Soup's On 

I bought four zucchini's almost a week ago to make Zucchini Cheese Appetizer Squares.  I got behind in preparation for my cocktail party and the snack squares never got made. 

Zucchini Garlic Soup

This morning started as a rainy, gray day and soup sounded perfect. I goggled zucchini soup hoping to find a recipe to use up my produce. I came upon this one that sounded ideal.  The finished product appears and tastes like a cream based soup, but contains no milk or dairy. You simply use an immersion blender (or regular blender) to change the consistency of the vegetables into a puree once everything is cooked.  Very simple preparation especially with my new Garject garlic press!

Yum! A healthy, easy and delicious soup.  I will definitely make this recipe again.  And to entice kids: tell them it's Shrek Soup!

Zucchini Garlic Soup Recipe

makes 1 1/2 quarts

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 white onion, sliced
8 to 9 large cloves garlic, sliced thinly 
4 medium zucchini, about 1 1/2 pounds
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
Salt and pepper


Melt the butter in a heavy 4-quart pot over medium heat. When it foams, add the sliced garlic and onions and cook on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent. Keep the heat low enough that the garlic doesn't brown; you want everything to sweat.
When the onions are soft, add the zucchini and cook until soft. Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Simmer at a low heat for about 45 minutes.

Let cool slightly, then blend with an immersion blender until creamy, or transfer to a standing blender to puree. Be very careful if you use the latter; only fill the blender half full with each batch, and hold the lid down tightly with a towel.

Taste and season with ginger, salt and pepper. Like most soups, this is significantly better after a night in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Idaho: World's Largest Producer of Fresh Water Rainbow Trout

I would never have guessed that Buhl, Idaho had the largest rainbow trout farm anywhere in the world. But, then again, I'd never heard of a place named Buhl.  The area is mostly flat farmland with immense rock walls on one side of the Snake River -- pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Rainbow Trout

Clear Springs Foods in Buhl raises between 24-26 millions pounds of trout annually, that's 70-75 percent of all Idaho’s trout production. And, Idaho produces more trout
than any other state. At any given time about 10 million fish thrive in their fresh water facilities. Now, that's a lot of fish.  

A natural phenomenon occurs at the edge of the walls of Snake River Canyon creating an ideal situation for trout farming.  Heavy winter snows in the Tetons area melt in the spring, thus filling an immense underground lava rock aquifer – one the size of Lake Erie. The water works it’s way southwest via gravity and emerges at Buhl in a gushing roar of pure oxygenated water, always at a constant temperature of 58 degrees. Since those are the exact environmental conditions trout prefer, this location makes the most perfect spot on earth to raise Rainbow Trout.   

Trout Pond at Clear Springs Foods
No surprise then that trout operations in the area date back to 1928, however, Clear Springs was founded in 1966. The company now manages the entire production process from selective breeding to growing, harvesting, cleaning, deboning, packaging and distributing nationwide. Somehow it seemed magical, almost Godlike to me; I was totally amazed.  

I toured parts of the plant, seeing labs used for testing, the breeding area and indoor and outdoor tanks where the fish grow.  Although trout typically spawn in the fall, by careful selection and specialized lighting to adjust the length of day, Clear Springs is able to stagger the normal spawning cycle to provide a continuous supply of eggs year 'round.

The eggs are placed in incubators where they are bathed in spring water for about 10 days until they hatch. The young fish (called fry as in small fry) are then transferred to indoor ponds to continue growth. When they reach three inches in length, they're moved to outdoor ponds.  Here they are nurtured for up to an additional year, until they reach a typical market weight of 16 to 28 ounces.

All ponds are constantly inventoried and monitored for health. The fish are fed a consistent diet of high quality nutrition including vitamins, minerals and protein.

At the optimal time, live trout are trucked to the nearby processing plant and placed in holding ponds. The fish then travel through computerized weighing and sorting lines and into chill tanks for about 30 minutes.  They are then packaged as "Dressed Fish" meaning they still have their head, tail and fins or sent to other stations for further processing such as fileting and breading.  Trout burgers, anyone?
Trout Filets
Finally, the trout are shipped fresh or frozen in refrigerated trucks across the US.  Some customers receive air shipments.

The water flowing through the farms and processing plants is closely monitored under very strict codes. The plants manage their waste by manufacturing liquid fertilizer and somehow remain non-consumptive water users.

From now on when I see Rainbow Trout on a menu, I will think of Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, Idaho.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Greenwood, Mississippi and the Amazing Garject Garlic Press

Greenwood, Mississippi

If you happen to find yourself in Greenwood, a small town on the Mississippi Delta, it may because you are attending  a cooking class at the Viking Cooking School. Of course, their very posh, beautiful kitchens feature Viking ovens.

The Viking Cooking School in Greenwood

Olivia Spencer as Minny

Hollywood came in 2010, when the town became the set for the movie "The Help." The film, which earned Olivia Spencer an Academy Award as best supporting actress, was shot almost entirely in Greenwood although the story actually takes place in Jackson, MI.  If you go to Greenwood take a Help Tour showcasing sites such as Skeeter's home, the Courthouse, and Baptist Town over the railroad tracks.

Baptist Town
Greenwood is the real thing.  Main Street
currently boasts some upscale storefronts including the Alluvian Hotel (which owns and manages the Cooking School), but the Mississippi town struggles. Greenwood was once the Cotton Capital of the World and right outside town, you'll still find cotton fields. But, they don't pick the cotton by hand anymore. Actually a number of the old cotton fields now grow soybeans. 

Skeeter's House

Viking Cooking School

Returning back downtown, I attended a demonstration at the Viking Cooking School featuring Caesar Salad, Jambalaya, and Chocolate Pie- minus the secret ingredient in Minny's pie, made rather infamous in the movie

Chocolate Pie

While preparing the jambalaya, the instructor used a garlic press without peeling her garlic. It was large enough to handle multiple garlic cloves at once, another bonus. I was intrigued. So, rather unexpectedly, the most important lesson I gained from the class ended up being the new garlic press I purchased in the school's gift shop.

Garject Garlic Press

I brought it home and immediately wanted to make something garlicky. I've recently grown to like kale, so I sauteed up some onions and garlic, then added the kale and a bit of broth. 

Jambalaya & Salad

Sure enough the gadget worked like a gem. My new stainless steel "Garject" pressed unpeeled garlic, scraped itself clean and even ejected the peel. You simply push the 'peel eject' button and it shoots the peel off. While not inexpensive at $34.95,  the tool seems well worth the price. No more smelly fingers from peeling garlic or picking the skin out of the press and the Garject is also dishwasher safe on the top rack.

The Garject Garlic Press

The company manufacturer, Dreamfarm from Albion, Australia, should also be congratulated for being green-minded. The packaging box was designed for easy recycling and included a reminder to do so.

A visit to Greenwood and the Viking Cooking School are memorable, but you've got to get yourself a Garject.

Disclosure:  I purchased my own Garject and received no payment from the maker, visit to Greenwood was sponsored by Mississippi Tourism.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Delightful Dining in Columbus, Georgia

On a recent trip to Georgia with good pal, Judy Wells, we did some great dining in the city of Columbus. That's Columbus in Georgia, near the state border with Alabama!

Cannon Brewpub Salad
First stop was the military themed Cannon Brewpub  for lunch of salad and beer. The chicken-topped spinach salads were fresh, tangy and had just the right amount of salad dressing. We discovered local Red Jacket beer with its malty taste and mild hop quite to our liking.

After a stormy late afternoon, we chose Downstairs at the Loft- an uptown kind of place located downtown. We started with fried artichoke hearts in lemon basil butter - rather sensuous. I ordered salmon over sautéed spinach and Judy had unstuffed chicken with vegetables. Both meals were decadently delightful.
Downstairs at the Loft

The next morning started the day at Iron Bank Coffee, an old bank building converted into an eclectic coffee shop. If you desire, sit at a table inside the vault. I desired a cinnamon roll and had it heated until the glaze oozed down the sides.  Perfect with a cappuccino!

Following breakfast, we checked out the rapids along the white water rafting course and then toured the Oxbow Environmental Center. Don't miss the surprising treetop walkway.

Then we toured the Last 100 Yards in the National Infantry Museum, a very emotional experience . Afterward we felt deeply indebted to the military who have served our country. To lighten the mood, we decided to try on uniforms and hats, then shoot rifles on a simulated humvee course. We highly recommend this very fun high-tech experience.

Country's on Broadway
We ran a little late for lunch, but no worries. Country's on Broadway prepared mouth watering barbecue in a flash. Drinks came in quart size mason jars and sides were southern specialties like collards, black eyed peas and skillet apples.

After lunch we zipped over the bridge to Whitewater Express for rafting.  Thrills but thankfully no spills, this urban whitewater course is very cool.  We enjoyed a  little down time and a shower  and were once again prepped for the evening.  This time it was a splurge on fine dining. We picked
Meritage on 1st Avenue, a locally owned and operated dinner restaurant, wine and martini bar and lunch time deli cafe.  

Sea Bass at Meritage
Faye Simmons, the owner greeted us, making us feel like we were dinner guests in her own home.  She suggested a few wines and let me assure you, Faye knows wine; she's a Certified Sommelier (2010) with the Court of Master Sommeliers and Certified Specialist of Wine (2011) with the Society of Wine Educators. I was impressed that one could order some very pricey choices by the ounce.  How clever to experience the taste a renowned vintage when one could never afford to buy the entire bottle.

Faye's daughter, Ashley Simmons Parsi-Garciana, is the executive chef and indeed, an excellent one.

My meal began with baby spinach, crumbled Goat Cheese, sliced oven roasted golden beets, candied pecans, grape tomatoes and a house citrus vinaigrette.
Fine dining at Meritage

The entree of seared and oven roasted Chilean Sea bass was exquisite- moist, flakey and over the top with a dollop of peach chutney and sweet potato hay- the thinnest crunchiest strands of fried sweet potato.  (My guess is they cook these for only a few seconds.) We couldn't pass up dessert: steamed lemon pudding cake with colorful blueberry coulis. 

Meritage  is a grand addition to the walkable city of Columbus and after that meal I needed a walk. I meandered through the historic house district and along the RiverWalk, which couldn't be a nicer way to end an evening.  

Display Cast at Bitter Brick
Off to Warm Springs the next morning, but not before we stopped at Bitter Brick for breakfast. They call the restaurant a cocoa, coffee and wine retreat. I call it my kind of place!  I devoured fresh peach French toast which was tasty enough to make me say, "Bazinga."  Judy enjoyed an egg and bacon biscuit. I am positive we left Columbus about two pounds heavier but very satisfied.  

Thanks to the Columbus Convention and Visitor's Bureau for hosting us in their city. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

South Beach Diet Vegetable Moussaka

Every once in a while I get a mood to cook something a little more involved and decided to try this recipe from a South Beach Diet cookbook.  Nothing about the preparation is difficult or tricky, just requires some time.  Little did I realize I would end up washing a cookie sheet, frying pan, saucepan and lid, large measuring cup, cutting board, cheese grater, nutmeg grinder, the garlic peeler and slicer, a whisk, assorted knives and stirring spoons.  My kitchen was disaster by the time I put the casserole in the over, but the results were worth it.  This recipe makes a hearty dish, layered with flavors and great for leftovers.  Yes, I'll make it again someday. 

Vegetable Moussaka

South Beach Diet Vegetable Moussaka

From The South Beach Diet Super Charged Cookbook
For Phase One


1 large eggplant (about 1 1/4 lbs), ends trimmed, cut widthwise into 1/4-inch thick rounds
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15-oz) can lentils, drained- I used dried lentils and cooked them according to the package directions.
1 (15-oz) can diced tomatoes, with juices
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup fat-free half-and-half
2 large eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg


Heat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Lightly coat eggplant slices with cooking spray and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake until softened and golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees F.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add lentils, tomatoes, and their juices, parsley, oregano, cinnamon, salt, and a pinch of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes.

While eggplant and lentils are cooking, in a medium bowl, whisk together half-and-half, eggs, 2 tblsp of the cheese, and nutmeg.

Lightly coat an 8- by 8-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Arrange one-third of the eggplant slices in a single layer in the dish. Spread half of the lentil mixture over the top. Repeat with remaining eggplant and lentil mixture, ending with a layer of eggplant. Pour half-and-half mixture over vegetables and sprinkle with remaining 2 tblsp cheese. Cover with aluminum foil.

Bake moussaka, covered, 20 minutes, then remove foil and bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, or until heated through and golden on top. Let stand for 15 minutes before cutting. Serve warm.

Moussaka prior to baking

Monday, August 26, 2013

Corn~n~Tater Microwave Cooking Bag

One of the best things about being a food blogger is tasting new recipes and trying out products. I was sent the Corn - n -Tater Microwave Cooking bag a while back and once I started using, it became a regular in my kitchen.
Corn~n~Tater Microwave Cooking Bag
Microwave Bag & Cookbook

I live alone so cooking veggies for one is sometimes difficult. But, I insist of buying fresh produce and enjoy a great variety. One of my favorites is sweet potato.

With my new microwave cooking bag all I need to do is dampen a paper towel and roll up a sweet potato. I then place the wrapped food inside the microwave bag and cook for 3-4 minutes depending on the size of the potato.  No need to prick the potato before cooking.

My sweet potato comes out perfectly every time.

I have also used the micro bag for green beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, sugar snap peas and carrots. Because your veggies are in a paper towel, there is no clean-up and the bag does not need to be washed very often. The special lining (blend of cotton and bamboo) is antibacterial and odor resistant, and will NOT mold.

I'm thrilled with this need cooking tool and might even take it with me when I travel. Many hotel rooms have microwave ovens and I bet it would be great for reheating pizza or a hot sandwich.

Check out and order your own microwave bag at Homecooked Shortcuts.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Searching for Fresh Peach Pie in Georgia

A Slice of Peach Pie
I’ve noticed that coming across a slice of peach pie on a dessert menu or a whole pie in a bakery is practically impossible.  Having developed a real craving for the summertime treat, I set off on a ten-day trip to the Peach State - Georgia. 

I uncovered great stories- like how the public and private sectors of the city of Columbus worked together to develop their river into an urban whitewater rafting course. Woo-hoo; the ride was terrific.

I met interesting people like original Freedom Singer, Rutha Harris and learned of bridge builder Horace King in Albany.  I visited fun attractions like Tank Town, where I drove a tank, basked in the beauty of Callaway Gardens, and fished on West Point Lake in LaGrange with top bass pro fisherman Keith Poche.
Driving a Tank

I toured historical sites such as Andersonville- site of a Civil War POW camp and Warm Springs, where I saw the bed that FDR died in. I even stopped by Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home and HighSchool. 
The Famous Peanut of Plains, GA

FDR's Bed in the Little White House, Warm Springs, GA

Boy, did I eat. I ate in more fabulous restaurants than my waistline could hold, but day after day I struck out-- no pie. Peach Cobbler was fairly easy to find, and I ordered it. Sadly, each time I found cobbler made from canned peaches.

Then, one morning I came across fresh peach topped French toast at the Bitter Brick in Columbus. The dish made a yummy breakfast, but was not as yummy as my imagined pie.

Peaches and Creamy Pie
At lunch on day number eight, I found a peaches and cream pie at Blue Ridge Grocery.  Hooray! The dessert was absolutely delicious- with a graham cracker crust and wonderful crunchy topping, but it wasn’t the real fruit pie I was searching for.

Tim Mercier in his orchards.
On the ninth day of my trip, I toured Mercier Orchards, famous for their apples, and was overjoyed to find they also grew some peaches.  Tim Mercier, the owner, personally gave me basket of beauties to take home. He also informed me that peaches don’t sweeten up after they are picked, like apples do.  The real problem with peaches, he said, “is that their shelf life is a maximum of two weeks. “

So here’s the reason for the lack of fresh peach pie: peaches must be picked at the right time  - when sweet enough - and consumed or processed within days. 

Fortunately the next day my itinerary called for me to return home with my goodies.  Then,  on the twelfth day of peach pie hunting, my true love came to me.  I made myself a deep-dish delight.
Georgia Peaches

I prepared the crust using my food processor, and then blanched the peaches in boiling water for about 30 seconds.  The skins practically fell off..  I sliced them and added a bit of lemon juice, almond extract and a dusting of sugar, flour and cinnamon. 

Plus, a bonus for my efforts:  the recipe made enough filling so I froze an extra batch for another pie – to fix and enjoy sometime before those pipers coming piping.
My Homemade Fresh Peach Pie


 Makes 1 nine-inch deep dish pie and enough filling to freeze for another pie.  Use half the filling ingredients when making only one pie. 

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ripe peaches (about 5 pounds)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Pie crust - homemade or package

1.  Line a 9-inch pie plate with a double thickness of aluminum foil using 2 pieces.

2.  Mix sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt into a small bowl.

3.  Drop peaches, 3 or 4 at a time, into boiling water; leave for 15-30 seconds.  Lift out with a slotted spoon.  Peel off the skins, cut in half; remove pits, then slice (you should have 10 cups).

4.  Place peaches in a large bowl; sprinkle with lemon juice and almond extract; toss lightly.  Sprinkle with sugar mixture; toss gently to mix.

5.  Spoon filling into foil-lined pie; wrap foil snugly around to enclose completely.  Place in freezer.  Once frozen you can remove the pie plate, label and return to freezer.

6.  Roll out piecrust to fit the bottom and sides of the 9-inch pie plate. Fill with remaining peach slices.

7.  Roll out remaining pie crust and cut into 10 strips.  Weave over top of pie, turn edge under and flute the edges.  Brush top with milk and sprinkle with sugar. 

Bake in a hot oven 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the over to 350 degrees and continue to bake- 35-45 minutes longer or until the pastry is golden and juices bubble up near the center.  Cool one hour.