Sunday, March 31, 2013

Florida, Family Fun and Food

We have traveled to Florida numerous times.  Both my husband's parent and mine have places down there and it is always the perfect family getaway.  This year we decided to split our time between the two locations, North Miami Beach and Pompano Beach.  This visit was different because my mother-in-law, Sandy, was by herself this year. My husband lost his father to prostate cancer last year.  Sandy decided to take her beloved dog, Louie, and spend three months at her condo. In the past "Nonnie's Hotel", as our children called it, was always vacant because my father-in-law wouldn't spend more than a couple of weeks at a time there and they were never there when we wanted to use the condo. We managed to squeeze ourselves into the two bedroom, two bathroom condo that over looked the golf course and had a partial view of the ocean.  We had our favorite spots to visit and dine while there, but this year may different, we thought. Our first day was short due to the fact that we took a later flight.  By the time we got our bags and rented a car it was after 9:00 pm and we were all starving.  A quick stop to drop off our bags and pick Nonnie up, and we headed for Rosalia's at the Aventura Mall.  This is one of our favorite places to eat, and their margarita pizza, salads and classic homemade Italian dishes were comfort food to us weary travelers.

The third day was an adventurous one.  We thought we would spend the day visiting Key Largo. We packed up a few things, and Nonnie brought Louie since we were going to be gone all day. Having not been their before we decided to stop at the visitors center as we got into town.  I had an idea of what we should do, but was uncertain of where to go exactly.  I had the name of a state park, John Pennekamp's Coral State Park, that I thought would be nice.  When we got to the visitor's center it was a trap for salesmen to sell you various tours and snorkeling trips.  I was so annoyed by this.  I whispered to my husband, "They just want to sell you stuff. Just find out where this park is", as I pointed to my notes. I went to the bathroom and when I returned he and his mother ended up booking the five of us, plus Louie, on a snorkeling excursion later that afternoon.  It was about 1:00 pm and we had a little over two hours before our water adventure.  My daughter discovered she forgot her memory card for her camera and I had to go K-Mart and buy one. An unplanned part of the day, but we have all had those days if you have kids. While we were there I picked up some under water cameras too. We made a quick stop at a local sandwich shop that made these large turkey sandwiches that were quite good.  After we ate we went to Harry Harris Park Beach.  I discovered later that Key Largo and Islamorada, which is the town after Key Largo, are not known for their beaches, but oh well.  It was somewhere to go and it provided us with something to do.  So, we get to Harris Park Beach and it is not the best beach, but the view of the ocean was beautiful.  My daughter took some pictures and we didn't stay long.  Next we were off to John Pennekamp's Coral State Park.  I had high hopes that it would be what I was looking for - Beautiful vegetation, colorful flowers and a pristine beach.  But it wasn't. The beach was very small and rocky. My mother-in-law and Louie found some shade and she read her book while we took some more photos.

By the time we had visited the two beaches it was time to head to the dock where we would catch the boat for our snorkeling trip. Another family was there and it turned out they were from a suburb near us in Illinois.   The captain, his wife and another crew member boarded the boat.  They happily greeted Louie and made some small talk with all of us and we were on our way.  It was a cloud free, 80 plus degree day and the boat slowly made its way out to the ocean.  The water was only 5 feet.  You could see to the bottom that is how clear it was.  As we got further out and the water became deeper we picked up speed.  The wind blowing in our hair, the spray of salt water in the air, it was fabulous.  My husband went up to the bow of the boat and I met up with him there and we laid down, soaking up the sun and talked about how beautiful the day was.  I imaged we were on a yacht, the only two on board with our private captain taking us to some secluded beach.  My thoughts were then interrupted by the unlikely notion that these people were going to kidnap us.  I mean, we didn't know these people.  We hadn't a clue of their experience.  They mentioned the ride to the snorkeling spot would take about 40 minutes.  We kept going father and farther out into the ocean, with land becoming further and further from site.  I quickly snapped out of my idiotic thought and began to enjoy the trip once again.  We were given a quick safety briefing and we were fitted for flippers and handed masks and snorkels.  Just before reaching the spot where we would anchor, one of the benches in the middle of the boat was converted into a viewing area.  The glass bottom gave us a preview of what we were about to see and we floated over a large statue of Christ of the Abyss. This statue is a copy of "Il Cristo Degli Abssi," located in the Mediterranean Sea near Genoa, Italy. The original statue was cast by artist Guido Galletti, and was modeled after Italian swimmer/diver Duillo Mercanet and was placed in 1954. In 1961, Italian SCUBA entrepreneur Egidi Cressi commissioned the second casting from the original mold, and donated it to the Underwater Society of America. The statue ended up in storage at O'Hare airport in Chicago, waiting for a home. Senator Holland of Florida helped John Pennekamp Park to get the OK, where it was placed on August 25, 1965.  (Credit to Roudesign).
Christ of the Abyss-Key Largo, FL

Here is where the trip took a wrong turn for me.  Looking down into this hole while the boat rocked and swayed was a mistake.  Noticing how I was beginning to feel I moved away, trying to stabilize myself by breathing in through my nose and out from my mouth.  I was dizzy and nauseous.  We anchored, I put on all the gear and decide that getting into the water would be better.  I would be off the rocking boat and I would relax as I swam.  My daughter had decided that she wasn't going to go because she was afraid of seeing a shark, which was possible, but it would have only been a nurse shark and they are harmless.  She stayed with my mother-in-law, Louie, and the other family.  Their son was the only one to venture out.  His mother, who was planning on going with him had become ill too, and I don't think the father had any intentions of going in the first place.  They too were traveling with grandma, the mother's mom, and she wasn't going to go either.  My husband and son quickly jumped into the ocean and swam off to where others were snorkeling from other boats who had anchored there earlier.  I jumped in and the water was freezing.  I quickly started to tread water and began to warm up.  The captains wife had jumped in too, and we both began to swim to meet up with the other tourists.  As I began to look around below me, my eyes began to burn.  I took off the mask and wiped the fogged plastic and rubbed my eyes.  The captain's wife shouted to me, "Look, there is a barracuda right here!"  I tried to look down and towards where she was pointing to, but it was no use.  I couldn't see.  I shouted back to her that I was going back to the boat.  My husband and son had reached the snorkeling area and I shouted to them as well.  The boat seemed so far away.  I was by myself, in this huge ocean, vision blurred, feet flipping up and down, trying to get back to the boat.  I imaged "jaws" grabbing my legs as I was making my way back to the boat.  This was one of the scariest moments!  Finally reaching the boat, I climbed up the ladder and felt so glad to be back on board.  I thought the salt water was the cause of my blurred vision, but then I realized that it must have been from the sunscreen that I put on face before we left the boat dock. I sat with my daughter and mother-in-law as I rubbed my eyes.  I flushed my eyes out with fresh water hoping this would help.  My nausea wasn't going away and I sat with my head down telling myself not to throw up, though that may have been the best thing I could have done.  That boat kept rocking and swaying, and I just couldn't control how I was feeling.  I looked out at the horizon, trying to focus on the stillness, and it did help a little.  After 45 minutes the captain rang his bell which was the signal to come back to the boat.  My husband and son had an amazing experience, and took some pictures with the disposable under water camera that I had purchased at K-Mart.  The boat started up and we set back for land.  I couldn't have been happier and I finally began to feel better.
Nonnie and Louie
We got back to land, made a quick change into some clothes and drove to a restaurant that the captain's wife had recommended, Sundowners.  Sundowners was exactly what I had envisioned a restaurant in the Keys to be.  Crowded with nicely dressed tourists, overlooking the ocean, the restaurant was the perfect way to the end the day.  There was a small pier where you could feed the pelicans that had congregated there, and the view of the sun as it slowly began it's descent was magical. The food at Sundowners was very good.  We started out with appetizers of spicy shrimp with an Asian dipping sauce and calamari.  My husband, son and myself had grilled grouper, my daughter had an Asian grilled chicken salad that had a tasty vinaigrette and peanut sauce, and Sandy shared her prime rib with Louie, who was at her feet and was the best one on the boat.  He earned that prime rib. For dessert they had the most amazing key lime pie.

The rest of our time in North Miami beach consisted of a stroll on Lincoln Road in South Beach, some time spent by the pool, and a family get together with my husband's cousins who live in Cooperstown.  It was great to see them all and to catch up.  We headed over to Pompano Beach on the first night of Passover.  When we arrived my mother was already waiting for us in the living room.  My father had set the dining table beautifully and even made the matzo ball soup, as my mother is not able to walk that well.  My father started the service with a funny rendition of a seder with one-liners for each step, and then we all took our turns reading from the Haggadah. We laughed when my mother thought we were on page nine when we were really on page 2,  and asked my father to hurry it up.  "Expresso!", she said.  My father did his best job to keep it short and still capture the meaning of the night.  The food was ordered from a local deli and couldn't have been tastier. Brisket that was so tender it fell apart, potato kugel that was moist, not dry, and mushroom and matzo farfel, which is one of favorites.  Sandy brought Louie, and he happily ate gelfilte fish, matzo balls and brisket. For dessert there were macaroons, some were dipped in chocolate, and they were so moist. There was honey and marble cakes too.  I served each course, cleared the table, and ran the dishwasher at the end of the night so that my father didn't have to do it all. 

When visiting Pompano one of things we like to do is walk around the "Festival" or "Sample Road" mall, which is an indoor flea market.  Rows and rows of stalls that sell everything from closeout cosmetics, to clothing, jewelry, and those kid shirts that say "Future Doctor or Lawyer" and "All my Bubbie bought me was this T-Shirt".  There is a guy who sells nothing but belts and there are many stalls of things you don't need, but you buy anyway because it was so cheap.  Knock off and designer sunglasses, purses, fragrances, and "As Seen on TV" items are among the wears that are peddled there. There is also a food court with the best knishes, meat or potato, and a fresh fruit market. My mother lasted the whole day out at the Festival Mall.  We went down every aisle, looked at everything we wanted to see and in the end walked away with a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses for my son, shoes and a necklace for my daughter, a bracelet for myself and a gift for a girlfriend, and my mom got nail polish.

The second night of Passover we stayed in and ate left overs and my dad brought in some chicken from Boston Market and some sides, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. After dinner we took a car ride down A1A to check out the spring break scene and see what was new in Fort Lauderdale.  We drove down Las Olas and I noticed that Big City Tavern was no longer there, and then we drove down some side streets to look at the homes along the inter coastal.  Our mouths agape at some of the beautiful homes as we drove slowly through the streets and noticing numerous homes for sale, dreaming of being able to purchase one.  

One night my dad took us to dinner at Bonefish and we had an amazing meal. We started out with some more spicy shrimp and calamari, and my dad and I had the sampler dinner for two which was tuna with a mango salsa, sea bass with chimichurri sauce, salmon with a lemon sauce and grilled shrimp and scallops with an Asian sauce. Your choice of soup or salad accompanied the entree, of course. I had the corn chowder and lump crab soup. It was delicious.  My daughter had the crab cake appetizer as a meal, and my son and husband had blackened mahi and tilapia with an Asian glaze.  We we stuffed!  After dinner my husband and son went to Chilli's to watch the Bulls play the Miami Heat.  They were surrounded by Heat fans, but the Bulls won, blowing the Miami Heat's winning streak. How funny that must have been for them.  They had a great time.

We spent two days at the beach in Fort Lauderdale.  The weather was so perfect for the beach that we couldn't pass it up, and really who would want to knowing that when we got back home it would be cold and dreary. The first day we had lunch at The Drunken Taco.  I love the name!  Food was good, the people watching from the street and watching the cool cars go by made it even better.  The second day we had lunch at The Rock Bar, which was right next to The Drunken Taco. There we met a family from Anaheim, California. We struck up a conversation with them and learned that he was AP European history teacher for the high school, and his aunt was a third grade teacher. We talked shop a bit, since my husband is in the children's book business. We had a great time laughing, and we talked about high school's curriculum, college admittance procedures and requirements, which is very fitting since our son will be a junior next year.  I hope my son listened to at least half of what he said, for what he said and how he said it was brilliant.  He said what my husband and I have been trying to get through to him for years. That everything matters - grades, volunteering, becoming and being leader, and that schools are looking for the whole package. This teacher spoke at a teenagers level, gave it to him straight and didn't sugar coat anything. A real reality check. I thanked him as we left saying, "Sometimes people come in to your life, whether if it is just for a few moments, for a reason."  I believe that reason was to help get the point across to my son.
Drunken Taco
Rock Bar
Our last night in Pompano and we took my dad out for Greek food.  A new place called Ethos in a fairly new shopping center.  We started out with a spread sampler of whipped feta, hummus and tzatziki served with warm pita bread. My husband had the Greek lamb chops which were some of the best lambs chops he said he has had, and my father had grilled Branzino, which is a fish found in the Mediterranean.  He ate the whole fish. The Greek style skirt steak, dolmadas (rice and lamb wrapped in grapes leaves with a lemon sauce) and the avgolemono soup (chicken, rice and lemon) were excellent.  We were stuffed again!

Did I mention that I had wanted to try and watch what I ate while on this trip?  Well, I watched all the food as it went into my mouth! I lasted about two days.  I know, I know, it is not a good idea to try and start to eat healthy on a trip.  I get an "A" for the thought, but in reality an "F" as we stuffed ourselves with ice cream, ate fried foods, and large portion dinners. We did walk almost every morning, but I only mention it to make myself feel better.

We are home now.  It is hard to come back to the gloomy mid-west.  No palm trees swaying in the warm breeze.  No sandy beaches to walk upon. It is exciting to go away on vacation.  The anticipation of a good time and the memories you will create and have always.  Still, coming home is even better.  When the plane's tires touch the ground it is one of the best sounds to hear. This vacation with our family was one of the greatest and I wouldn't change a thing about this trip. 

So, when I woke up the next morning after just coming back from our trip I really missed Florida. I thought I would end our spring break vacation with a breakfast that was inspired by Florida.  

Spiced Coconut Pancakes with Fruit Salsa

1 3/4 cups Trader Joe's Buttermilk Pancake Mix
1 large egg
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sweetened coconut flakes, to your taste
For fruit:
1 banana, diced
1 ripe mango, diced
1/2 cup chopped strawberries
1/2 blackberries
Fresh mint, leaves torn (optional)

Mix all the ingredients for the pancakes. Make pancakes and serve with mixed fruit and maple syrup on top.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Inspired by the First TV Food Stars

When I was in grade school and on up through high school, I would watch cooking shows with my mother.  We used to tune in to our local public broadcasting station and watch Julia Child -The French Chef,  Graham Kerr -The Galloping Gourmet, the Cajun guy Justin Wilson (I gawruntee), Martin Yan from Yan Can Cook, Natalie Dupree, with her southern recipes, and Jeff Smith, who was The Frugal Gourmet.  These were the first TV food stars. It was these shows that were among the many things that inspired my love to cook and entertain. 

Watching The Frugal Gourmet wasn't like any other cooking show.  It was a cooking show and a history class all wrapped into one.  Jeff Smith brought his love of cooking and his love for history and other cultures together in a cooking series that was very popular back in the 80's. He said he, "became interested in the meaning of the event of the table and the concept of food has history", probably since he grew up in a mixture of cultures.  He learned to cook from his Norwegian mother and his Lebanese uncle.  He learned from his uncle that he should cook from his memories, something that partly led me to create my blog.

I hadn't realized how much watching this cooking show would have an impact on how I look at food and cooking as an adult today.  My table is inspired by many things, such as other cultures, my own childhood memories and family traditions.  "The Frug", as my mother and I would call him, disliked fast food, felt that cooking from scratch cost less, and that wine, family and children belonged around the table to relax and enjoy conversation.  He called himself "The Frugal Gourmet" not because he was cheap, but because he felt that you should use the best ingredients wisely with good use of your time and care.  He chose the word "gourmet" not to mean "food snob", but to mean a lover of food and wine.  He was truly an inspiring teacher of food. He always ended his shows with. "I bid you peace." It was a wonderful closing to a show that incorporated all cultures and religions, and something we could all use every day in our lives.

I chose to share this recipe because it is a favorite of  my parents. There used to be this cafeteria style restaurant in Florida called Piccadilly and they loved going there.  They served old fashioned rice pudding there.  It was the kind of rice pudding that was custardy, not loose like oatmeal.  My parents don't get to Piccadilly that often anymore, but this rice pudding is much like the one they served, and it brings back fond memories of our youth and winter vacations we spent in Florida.

Old-Fashioned Rice Pudding
(Adapted from The Frugal Gourmet)

1 1/2 cups milk
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons brandy, cognac or rum
1 cups long-grain rice, cooked
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Cinnamon for topping

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 8 X 10 baking dish with melted butter. Mix all the ingredients except the rice and lemon juice and cinnamon.  Mix well and add rice and lemon juice.  Sprinkle top with cinnamon.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Serves 6 to 8

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