Italian Food in Eight Easy Steps

Italian food is tasty! And I’d say easy. It’s a layered architecture – you take tasty ingredients and add things that compliment the taste. Tomatoes + garlic + olive oil + grilled chicken + shredded parmesan. Yum!

This is very different from Thai where you take many things that taste neutral to terrible by themselves and combine them in a way that plays each flavor against the others to create something amazing. Coconut milk + curry paste + fish sauce + lime juice + rice. But if you go wrong it’s not just too much garlic, or too little. It’s terrible!

So, having just returned from a visit to Italy, here is my quick guide to a big chunk of Italian cooking. It applies to making food, or what to buy when going out there.

Rule #1. Ingredients. Italy is blessed with incredible ingredients. In the US you’ll have to do some shopping. Taste and explore the subtle differences. Bread, olive oil, charcuterie, cheeses… Now on to the recipes.

#1 Slice bread. Bring to table with olive oil.

#2 Slice meat. Bring to table. Voilà – salumi plate! Do try to slice appropriate to the meat, and vary the thickness within the slice for things like Jamón. Different thicknesses are different experiences.

#3 Slice cheese. Bring to table. Cheese plate!

If you are in Italy I highly recommend buying the above at the store and slicing yourselves. You’ll be stunned at the amount of salumi you can get at the grocery store for the price of one little salumi plate.

I would also say that these are the highlights of eating in Italy. Oh, and of course wine. Most restaurants, especially in the tourist zones and city centers, seem to actually subtract value in moving to the following items. You can find good places, but in my limited experience it’s easier to find great Italian food in a major US city than in a major city in Italy, just because there are so many places that are expensive yet stunningly mediocre and cater to tourists that never come back. I also think the internet ratings are skewed by travelers smitten more with their adventure than the actual food. I’m sure that this gets better out of the tourist zones and look forward to exploring on the next trip.

Anyway, moving on to adding value beyond ingredients.

#4 Caprese. Go beyond simply cutting stuff up to add a little mixing. Slice great tomatoes and real mozzarella. Intermix the slices with fresh basil leaves and/or arugula or other fresh greens. Drizzle with a little good olive oil (they can add more). Serve with bread. You can also add a little balsamic vinegar. Key word – little. And don’t add honey, sugar or get fancy!

#5 Pesto. Take a combination of pine nuts (preferably slightly toasted), shredded parmesan, garlic (preferably slightly roasted), olive oil, and herbs. Fresh basil is the classic but you can mix in others – fresh thyme, arugula, etc. Put in a food processor until it’s a rough paste that still has some character to it – not completely smooth. Experiment with proportions – you can mix, taste, edit, repeat. Or you can even omit or change the nuts, add no cheese, no garlic, whatever. Tasty herby stuff mixed. It’s not rocket science. Put on about anything, bread, pasta, chicken, or just eat it straight!

#6 Polenta. An underutilized star. It’s basically cornmeal porridge, aka grits. It can be coarse or fine. But the difference is really in the preparation. It can be made creamy with cheese in which case it’s a lot like grits ( not my favorite ). Or it can be more coarse and made into little pancakes. From there you can use the pancakes as is, or grill them which is my favorite! And then put stuff on ’em – kind of like little pizzas. Meat, sauce, cheese… Easy enough!

#7 Tomato sauce. It’s not super hard but the prepared versions are awfully good these days so I’d probably just buy it. Put on pasta as usual, grilled chicken, meatballs, grilled eggplant, vegetables, whatever!

#8 White sauce. This is harder to make well. The stuff in the store that doesn’t require refrigeration is inherently pretty bad. The fresh stuff in the gourmet section is ok. I’m not going to get into it here, but if you learn how to make a basic Bechamel sauce then you can do anything – cheeses, herbs, mushrooms… Real (dulce) Gorgonzola and mushrooms is my favorite!

Mix those together in interesting ways and you have darn near everything covered. Add some grilled meat and you have a full meal!

Travel Guide: NYC

First off, I’m far from an expert. I’ve never lived there and don’t visit that often. I’m just posting my favorites here and will probably expand in the future as I know more.

I’ll put events first since they might go away.

You absolutely, positively, must go see, no, experience Sleep No More. Best if you’ve read MacBeth, or at least the Cliff notes, prior. Wear some comfortable shoes and plan on spending a few hours. Do as they say and split off on your own if you’re with a group. And take some time to just pause and enjoy the experience. It is more than it appears. I’m going tonight for a second time. Have an absinthe at the hotel’s rooftop garden oasis Gallow Green before or after.

Two tips after my second visit. First, go early. They wrap it up around 10:30 and you really need three hours, so get in by 7. Second, they say to follow the actors, but there are enough people there that I felt like a lemming. The acting was ok, but the spaces are surreal. If you don’t follow the actors you can often be completely alone and just enjoy the environment.

Fuerza Bruta was fun, though only playing in the summer. Kind of Cirque de Sole crossed with a rave. Hard to explain, watch the video. The giant overhead transparent slip-n-slide was an engineering marvel, and the slip-n-sliders weren’t bad either.

On to places…

The High Line is an urban planning coup. Walk or run from one end of the other on what was an elevated railway. Fantastic!

The High Line runs through Chelsea which is a very nice neighborhood to stay in. Hotels suck, AirBnB rocks. TiaPol has good tapas, but the restaurants are endless.

The Standard High Line Hotel anchors the south end of the elevated walkway. Head to the Le Bain rooftop bar and experience the epic Marco Brambilla Civilization video that plays in the elevator on the way up. The video has played on my ceiling at many a party.

EVOLUTION-BRAMBILLA

The first floor of the rooftop bar is enclosed and has a hot tub! And on hot days it’s a cool tub. Either way, win! They have towels, bag check, and changing rooms so bring your suit. The individual bathrooms have floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking an incredible view. And locks on the door too, just sayin’… Use your own judgement there. Walk upstairs for an astro-turfed wonderland overlooking the Hudson.

le bain

Just blocks away is another exceptional rooftop spot. As with the Standard enter the Hotel Gansevoort and take the elevator to the top.

18curr.1

To the right is a a nice, enclosed, room for cooler days. Straight ahead is the bar. Get yerself a drink and tip well (details later). There’s a door to an indulgent wraparound deck with comfy couches. But on hot days, the gem is to the left. There is a changing room with non-locked lockers, so you don’t have to wear you suit through the lobby looking all suspicious and not at all like a hotel guest. And then the pool.

There is a very small “hotel guests only” sign, but have you ever been asked if you were a guest? I haven’t. Especially not when ordering $20 drinks and tipping another $10. The pool is a glorious escape from a hot Manhattan day. Open a tab and spend a few hours. I sat in the big round lounger with my Mac and free wifi preparing for a conference presentation. (that’s my leg there, recovering after way too much walking after break/surgery) Oh, and they bring you cups with frozen grapes, if you’re into that sort of thing.

IMG_5134 (1)

The Hudson River Park is a great escape. If the High Line is not enough then continue on to the Staten Island Ferry. Or get a CitiBike and ride it.

Pok Pok Brooklyn  is the New York version of Andy Ricker’s famous Portland Thai restaurant. Awesome food! And they serve it in the bar across the street as well if it’s crowded. The cookbook is amazing too. Brooklyn seems kind of far away, but it’s only 20 minutes on the subway.

Barbes Brooklyn has an amazing and eclectic lineup almost every night. See my Spotify playlist of the same name for some of the bands. The calendar is online so even if you don’t go, check out the bands and the music. Seriously unique!

One of the few gems in midtown, the balcony of the Bookmarks bar on the 14’th floor of the Library Hotel is surprisingly unknown and often not crowded. Yes, it’s really as romantic as it looks.

Bookmarks balcony

Further north, up in Harlem, is the restaurant of Marcus Samuelsson – Red Rooster. We read his book, Yes Chef, for book club and then visited the restaurant. He even came and talked to us while we had dinner.

CitiBike is a fun option for getting around – a cross between Amsterdam and Mad Max. There are bike lanes on many streets, use them. Left turners are a serious problem, you’ll see. Swerve right when they stop for pedestrians then sharp left before a taxi takes you out. And beware the Prius taxis – ” silent killers” as they’re known. And dark. After a few drinks the video-game-like rush of bombing down Broadway between taxis without a helmet is very real. But so is death. So, don’t be like me.IMG_5147

Of course, Central Park is incredible.

Uncle Boons thai was just ok. Get the mango salad and leave.

Poi Poi looks promising but the oppressive flood from the theater district overwhelmed my desire to try it.

Buvette is a beautiful, simple breakfast. But at $36, it’s not that practical. Instead, buy a pound of lox, a dozen eggs, and good bread, and make breakfast for a week!

That’s all for now.

Travel Guide: Kauai

Several years ago I was fortunate to get a three-month sabbatical. And by sabbatical, I really mean time off. My first thought was a round-the-world trip to warmer climates in the middle of winter. But with the kids in school that would be challenging. And, more practically, three months of rigorous travel with kids 9 and 12 would be challenging. We decided instead to pick somewhere great and live there to really experience the culture and the way of life. That place was Hanalei. We rented a little house near Tunnels and settled in to the north-shore cadence. A fresh dawn after the rains in the night. A sunny morning and mid-day on the beach or hiking. Settling in somewhere for a few hours during the afternoon rain. Then back to sun for the evening.

After a couple of weeks I also got island fever really bad. It’s really small! I realized, as nice as it is, I could never settle down in paradise. To keep busy I started kiteboarding, and also exploring the island. Hiked to Kalalau with Jasper, explored every jungle trail and more around Ke’e, and the drier secret beaches past Mahaulepu.

A friend recently said she is going there for two weeks so I wrote her these notes – starting in Princeville where she is staying, and expanding out.

Bali-hi – the bar at the Hanalei Bay Resort is an epic view, great for sunsets. The St. Regis is nice too. There’s a nice trail from Hanalei Bay Resort to the beach/pool at the St. Regis. And they don’t mind you using the pool if you buy drinks.

My favorite Princeville beach is Hideaways. The trail is unmarked and starts along the outside of the chain-link fence at the road entrance to the St Regis hotel. Parking is minimal but you can also park somewhere else and walk over there. The trail is steep but short. You can walk around the point to the west (right as you enter the beach) to even more secluded beaches. The snorkeling is very good when the tide is right. You can also swim all the way to the St Regis to the east – about 20 minutes (no rest stops).

Hideaways Beach

On snorkeling:

  • Rule number one is, don’t walk on the reef. It hurts the reef, and it will probably hurt you. Urchins are bad. “Reef shoes” should be banned.
  • Look for the right tides. Tides in Hawaii vary by only a couple of feet. Reefs grow only a little beyond the low-tide line. So the water depth goes from zero, with the reef exposed a few inches, to around a foot and a half deep. All you need is enough to slither over between deeper parts – maybe a foot or so. In the picture above you can see the sandy channels between reef parts. Generally stay in those, with occasional trips over the flat reef part.
  • It’s ok to go outside the reef if you feel comfortable. The fish are bigger and cool over there, and the turtles (Honu) tend to be on that side. And the precipitous drop to the abyss at places like Ke’e is wild.
  • Significant waves make it all more challenging. They stir up the water. They slosh you around. But most importantly and subtly , they create rip currents.
  • If you get in waves near rocks, stay in the water. You can be in incredibly scary looking places with waves crashing against big rocks and be just fine. The waves move you up, then down. What you want to avoid is a wave on one side of you and the rocks in the other. If a wave is coming at you, dip down a few feet and even a big one will go right over you. Then swim until the next one, dip, repeat.

On rip currents:

  • First, in all my ocean fun I’ve never had any problems or been even close to caught. But, good to be aware and careful. It’s all about where the water comes in via waves, and where it goes out.
  • For sandy beaches with no reef, if the beach is straight then waves go in and water goes straight back out where it came from. That’s an undertow (or toad…) – scary for kids but not dangerous. But for waves hitting the beach at an angle, or a curved beach, waves come in, bounce of the beach, and then go out a different direction. That’s a current. In a symmetric, curved beach, the waves reflect into the middle and a rip current will tend to form down the middle. From above, you can often see a highway of sand dragged out to sea. Take a little time to observe and think about where the water is going.
  • For beaches with a reef it’s more complicated. If it’s low tide and little water is coming over the reef then the inner area will be a bathtub. If the waves are coming over the reef then think of that as pouring water into the area inside the reef. It’s going to go out somewhere. Again, from above, you will often see one or more channels cut between the reef that make it fairly obvious. Ke’e is a great example, water comes in over the reef and exits left through one large, deep channel. As you swim near a channel, float for a minute and notice what happens. If you’re zipping along somewhere you probably want to think about that.
  • Bigger waves, bigger currents…

Anyway, back to the beaches. You can see the main (bigger) Hideaways beach, and the smaller less visited one on the left here

Hidden hideaways on the left

Sea Lodge beach is also there – slightly longer hike but less steep and nice snorkeling. It has a nice wild feeling.

http://www.kauaibeachscoop.com/north-shore/sea-lodge-beach#scoop!

Queens bath is really cool – you can snorkel in a rock pool that is filled in high tide – like a big aquarium. It can be dangerous but not as much as everyone says.

A drive to the west, Secret beach is huge. Swimming is very dangerous here – shore break, no reef. But the long walk down the sand is fun.  http://www.kauaibeachscoop.com/north-shore/secret-kauapea-beach#scoop!

Hanalei bay in town is the spot for surfing. Lots of great food too. Hanalei wake-up cafe is a local favorite. Tahiti Nui is party-central – fun music and crowd.

The farmers markets are crazy good – though usually open just for a few hours once or twice a week. Ask at the natural food store in Hanalei.

From Hanalei it’s about 8 miles more to the end of the road. Be considerate on the bridges, and give ’em a hang-loose when they let you by.

Lumahai is the first great beach after town – the parking is just after you crest a hill on a headland. Walk down the trail to the curved beach at the west end. The big broad part is ok and closer to the road but not the same.

Lumahai!

The left, curved one is the deal. The trail enters from the very bottom of the picture. The rocks there can be fun to jump off if the waves aren’t too crazy.  The middle beach can be nicely private.

Tunnels is really nice. Park at the campground and walk back west towards Hanalei to great snorkeling.

Tunnels beach and reef

Our house was behind the beach there. Notice the massive reef and drainage channel to the right. It’s bigger than it looks here – swimming across the channel to the outer reef is an adventure.

Ke’e at the end is my favorite. Good snorkeling when the tide is right and surf is down. Lots of turtles on the outer part of the reef if you can get out there (when there’s about a foot of water over the reef. Incredible sunsets.

Ke’e! My favorite beach.

The trail to Hanakapa’i and the falls begins here.

Explore the headland at the east-end of Ke’e. Either walk the rocks to the west along the beach cove to the point and then head up, or take the old road between the hiking trail and the beach and go through the fence with the no-trespassing sign and past the abandoned house. There’s are multiple rock structures (platforms)- parts of an old Hawaiian village/temple. More stuff in the jungle if you look around. Being up on the upper site (Ke Ahu a Laka) at sunset is quite a deal.

http://www.kaimi.org/heiau.htm

The hike to Hanakapi’ai is a must! It’s a two mile rather strenuous hike from Ke’e. The views from even the first 10 minutes are incredible! The trail winds up and over the headland, and down to the beautiful isolated beach. Check out the ferrel cats that roam around, and the sea caves to the east (yes it does go through, keep crawling). But, they mean it about the drownings – don’t go in the water.

hanakapaai

Almost to Hanakapi’ai!

From Hanakapi’ai beach you need a permit to hike the 9 miles further down the coast to Kalalau. I highly recommend that but it’s a serious undertaking. You start and end at sea level, but there is over 5000 feet of elevation changes as you go from valley to ridge over and over.

But you can hike two miles inland to the falls. The guava trees and bamboo forests on the way are really cool. Just follow the creek. Oh, and bring lots of water!

Here’s a nice view from afar that shows both the beach and the falls up there in the valley. You hike in from the left.

Hanakapi’ai beach, valley, and falls

On the south side of the island, the best thing by far is Mahaulepu. Drive past the Hyatt, onto gated (but public) dirt roads, and park at Gillins. Then walk east out to the rocky point (Mahaulepu) The rock formations are incredible. The sandy beach on the far east side is remote and awesome. Trespassing around the fence past there leads to an incredible beach where you’ll either be all alone, or possibly surrounded by angry Hawaiians. And more beaches beyond that over headlands…

Mahaulepu pearch.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahaulepu_Beach

Waimea canyon is a long drive but cool *if* it’s clear. If it’s not, it’s nothing. From the top, the sandy beach you see below is Kalalau where Jasper and I camped.

That’s should do it! Highlights are Hideaways, Ke’e, and Mahaulepu.