Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Culinary Diversion

I have procrastinated on delivering my promise of a post on Asheville, NC. However, I have a good and related excuse. I recently received a Biltmore House cookbook as a gift and was instantly intrigued by the complicated recipes and the traditional slow cooking methods. This is a no nonsense kind of cookbook in which some of the ingredients require separate recipes. Some dishes take a full day or more to prepare. Part of the appeal of travel for me is to experience different foods and ways of cooking that I might try to replicate back home. It's a way to extend and relive the journeys. This journey felt like one not only to another place, but to another time, when everything was made from scratch on a sustainable farm.

For those of you not familiar with the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, it is the largest home in America with 250 rooms that dates back to the 1800s, originally owned by George Vanderbilt. It is open to the public for tours and sampling of food and wines in the restaurants and the winery.

The Biltmore cookbook is divided by seasons. I decided to try to cook my way through the book. However, I'm not going to be a purist in this venture. I'm skipping recipes for ingredients that I don't care for, such as veal and duck. I just can't foresee spending the money on food that I dislike. And some of the recipes call for so much butter and sugar that I felt inclined to make some modifications. Still, the results of everything that I've cooked so far have been fabulous. I thought I would share some pictures and comments about the recipes.


Artichoke Crusted Salmon (pg. 108)
Brussel Sprouts with Vidalia Onions and Bacon (pg. 110)
Lemon Grits (pg. 104)

I fixed this meal for a dinner party and it was a big hit. The cookbook did not pair these recipes together, but I think the flavors blended so well that I'll replicate the same menu again.

Salmon: I had to alter this recipe because it called for crab in the artichoke topping and I'm allergic to shellfish. But it stands alone just fine between the artichokes, shallot, garlic, butter and cream cheese. I only made 4 salmon fillets, so I was left with extra topping to use on toast later. Next time I'll process this mixture less so that it will retain some artichoke chunks.

Brussel sprouts: These came out so tender and I think even those who avoid this vegetable would be won over by the bacon and caramelized onion topping. It is tricky not to overbrown the onions. I suggest cooking them longer on lower heat.

Lemon grits: Wow. Very tangy and creamy. The lemon flavor goes very well with fish. I'm not sure how much I would like it with other meats. The recipe calls for lemon zest and 2-3 lemons and 2 seems to be plenty of tang. It also needs enough pepper for balance, determined by taste testing. The mascarpone cheese makes it creamy, but its mild enough not to turn them into cheesy grits.

I also made a rustic apple tart (pg. 120), but we ate it before I remembered to take a picture. It was the second one I've made and I'll likely make another one soon, so I'll post the picture later. You make the dough from scratch and it makes for a pretty dessert. It's very artistic, but simple to make and goes great with whipped cream and some coffee.

Look for future posts on more Biltmore recipes as well as other "Travel Like a Local" guides coming soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Apple Heaven

Why the North Georgia Mountains are Special
Peace and quiet. Reconnect with nature. Stock your pantry with all things apple and fill your tummy with homemade apple pies. I visited the area of Blue Ridge, GA this past fall and decided that this journey made for a great annual rejuvenation trip. By next year, I'm sure my apple supplies will be depleted and my spirit will want to return to the woods. Picture an afternoon of hiking followed by an evening with a blanket and a good book while the rain hits the tin roof above you. Yes, this is my idea of "camping".

Where to Stay
I highly recommend renting a cabin from Sliding Rock Cabins ( The accommodations are very comfortable and well maintained. This company is the most pet friendly of any that I have dealt with. There are no pet fees, deposits or weight limits. Cabins come with a large dog bed, bowls and toys. My three pups felt right at home here. Most cabins have hot tubs. The one we rented turned out to be within walking distance of one of the area hiking trails. The website has detailed descriptions of each cabin. Some are more secluded than others. I will ask for information about the driveway entrance and parking next time. The cabin we chose had a very steep drive and only room to park one vehicle. If we had traveled with friends, that would have been an obstacle.

Local Eats
If you stay in a cabin with a fully equipped kitchen, you might choose to grab groceries on the way in and never have to think about dining out (very conducive to hibernating). I actually cheated and made a long pitstop in Asheville, NC (three hours north of this destination, and on my path) to collect food from several of my favorite restaurants. Yes, there will be a future Asheville post.

Toccoa Riverside Restaurant: It is worth the drive to this joint. It's always interesting to find a restaurant out in the middle of nowhere, and this place sits right on an impressive river. The specialty is trout and it is very local; never frozen. Please don't order steak here. It would insult the fisherman and the chef. The outdoor seating area is nice; but only if you've shown up covered with mosquito repellant.

Mercier Orchards: I asked a local for advice on where to buy some apples, while imagining a simple roadside stand. He sent me to Mercier Orchards and as soon as I stepped into the large building, I was surrounded by what I now refer to as "Apple Heaven". When in season, you can pick your own on the weekends. But you could spend hours in the store. Apple cider, apple butter, apple cider vinegar, dried apples, apple pies, applesauce. You can sample ciders from different apples from the bar before you buy (winery style). They make all of their products on site, so these goodies have little to no carbon footprint. Plus, this turned out to be a great place to eat lunch. The deli serves salads and sandwiches. Next year, I'll know to go there on the first day to buy a box of apple pies to last the week (well, maybe they'll last that long). And next year, I'll have to take pictures. I was so much in awe on the first visit that I forgot to make use of my camera.

Things to Do

  •  Burt's Farm: Take some great pictures and enjoy hugging pumpkins as big as you are. Tiny, huge, orange, blue, bumpy or smooth, you'll see every variety. This place also sells fried apple pies, but they're not as good as Mercier's. However, it is fun to drive from one stand to another trying everyone's version of the dessert. Find the pumpkin patch on Hwy 52 on the way to Amicalola Falls.

  • Hiking: There are so many trails to choose from in this area. You can explore a new one each day of your trip. The trails in Georgia are well marked, so there's no guessing about which path is the trail and there's a sign at the entrance that tells you the amount of mileage you're in for (something I really appreciate). A must see trail can be found at Amicalola State Park ( Stop at the information center for helpful information about your options (one route involves 604 stairs, which might not be your idea of a good time). The Appalachian Trail starts from this park (look for the rock marker), so obviously you can make your hike as long as you want from this point. $ Budget tip: parking is free on Wednesdays.

  •  One of the other long trails is the Benton MacKaye. This is the trail    we were able to pick up just around the corner from our cabin door. The entire trail is 80 miles and takes you to the Tennessee state line. We hiked part of the 25 mile Duncan Ridge Trail and enjoyed the seclusion since the route is far from highways or populated parks. We only saw two other hikers in three hours.

  •  Water Activities: There are several rivers in this area, so kayaking and white water rafting are very accessible options. I have rafting plans for my next trip, but I don't have an outfitter reference for you for this post. I did talk to a store owner in Blue Ridge who personally knows some expert guides, so I'd start there. I would prefer to encounter white water on a float with someone who knows what they're doing.

  • Shopping: Downtown Blue Ridge is a quaint area to explore. You can find hand crafted items, antiques and clothing. Seek out turqoise jewlry made by Native Americans and sold at very reasonable prices. Take the scenic train tour from downtown on the weekends.

 Side Bars
  • October is probably the best month to visit, when apples are ripe and the weather begins to cool.
  • Read the guest book in the cabin on the first day. Previous visitors may give helpful tourist advice. Or, they may mention bear sightings in the back yard.
  • The most important packing item is mosquito repellant.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Born Again Cruzan

Why St. Croix is So Special
You will wish you had been born Cruzan. What a magical island. This is the place that I picture in my mind when I need to escape the reality of my daily life. St. Croix is one of the US Virgin Islands. It's not as crowded and does not cater to tourists like some of the other islands. And if you're planning to island hop, this might not be your best option because it is farther south than the other cluster of islands, so hopping is expensive. But really, why would you ever leave? I spent my last trip trying to figure out how to move there permanently... and people often do.

Local Eats
Obviously, I would never consider moving to a place unless there was great food. On my first of two visits to this island, I got a great tip about a vegetarian soul food restaurant in downtown Frederiksted. It's called Yucca's Kitchen. She has a hand written menu of a few items every day to choose from and when it's gone, it's gone. I beg you to try this place even if you're a carnivore. I had the best chili I've ever eaten there and it's the spot to get your fried plantains, fresh fruit juices and spicy popcorn. Portions are large and will probably cover a few meals at a cheap price. You will meet very friendly locals here. I've never run into another tourist. Please tell Ms. Yucca I said hello.

I require an excellent coffee shop while vacationing and this is the spot: Polly's (downtown Frederiksted). Once we discovered this place, we were there every morning for a few hours. The owners, Steven and Seth are very friendly and wonderful to talk to. I enjoyed the best espresso since leaving Italy there. They also serve smoothies, ice cream, cocktails, beer and sandwiches. By the end of the week, I called these guys my friends.

Best sunset view restaurant: Ono's (Frederiksted)
The food is very creative and the menu changes frequently. Service is good. Vegetarians and meat eaters will be happy with the selections.
$ Budget Tip: Check for coupons around town. Also, there is a bar only menu that offers cheaper options.

Villa Morales
Okay, this is the real scoop. They are only open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Plan your trip around it. They serve Puerto-Rican and Cruzan food such as plantains, fish, goat, etc. The changing menu is written on a dry erase board at your table. You must try a Johnny cake or two (better yet, get several to go). Tell J.T. I sent you and he'll treat you like family. He is also the master of the mojito.

Things to Do
It's a great place to go and do nothing, but you don't want to miss these beautiful places.
  • Day sail trip to Buck Island. The island and reef are protected and when you see the water, it will be hard to believe your eyes (see pic at top of this post). I had a great experience with Caribbean Sea Adventures ( Ask for J.P. to be your sailor. $ Budget tip: this company offers a second trip at half price if you decide to go again. I recommend avoiding Buck Island on Sundays because all of the locals head to the island on that day.  
  • Hike to the tide pools at Annaly Bay. Soaking in the pools is worth the two mile hike (and free).
  • Horseback riding through the rainforest:
Side Bars

  • Racial diversity: as a member of a racial majority, I think it's healthy to experience being in the minority occasionally. When I first visited St. Croix, I expected that the locals would not be friendly, but found that nothing was further from the truth. They treat you like family as long as you remember to begin conversations with "good morning" or "good evening".
  • Driving on the left takes some getting used to, but you'll catch on sooner than you think. Just remember that it's left on red there and be careful not to let your autopilot driver take over at intersections. Roads are not marked well, so take a map but be flexible and realize that the island is not very complicated, so you will get there eventually. Also, honking in this culture means "hello", or a signal that they'll let you go first (which happens a lot and makes you a friendlier driver).
  • Go in search of roadside fruit and vegetable stands. It's a good idea to do this at the start of your trip so you can stock up for the week (you can't take it with you). It's also a great way to meet people and learn about their own recipes.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

About this blog...

I created this blog to share insider information about travel locations. I always spend a few weeks doing web and guidebook research before visiting a new place, but I always find useful tips and cool spots when I'm there that I can't find by searching in advance. It makes me want to revisit the location again once I've learned about the great local places. I usually figure out ways to make the next trip better and more affordable.

So, I'll share this information with you in the hopes that you'll find interesting information that you can't easily find elsewhere. I'll focus on the cultural flavor and on local and organic food spots as much as possible. I will also focus on nature appreciation and activities and will highlight gay friendly destinations. And I'll tell you about the true values. There's nothing worse than paying too much for a unsatisfactory hotel or a crappy meal.

* Disclaimers*

This blog is not for you if:

  • you only like to visit places teaming with tourists
  • you prefer nightlife over nature
  • you are not willing to venture from the well-beaten tourist path
  • you seek out McDonald's and Ruby Tuesdays when you travel