Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tikinxic Fish, from the Yucatan to My Skillet

I got a little obsessed with Tikinxic fish down in the Yucatan.

How could you not? Fresh, local, whole tropical fish, basted up in a dark red paste of achiote, garlic, oregano, and sour orange juice, then grilled.

(A la parrilla means grilled over charcoal, while a la plancha means sauteed on a flat metal griddle. Important distinction. We learned it -- after a couple of *meh* fish fillet dinners.)

The place we got the Tikinxic fish on Isla Mujeres is one of those legendary beach bars, a ways out of town.

We traveled there by golf cart.

Before lunch, we stopped off at a few places.

This turtle farm (the Tortugranja) has a long ago, faraway Team Zissou feel to it.

Also a little bit like the TV show "Lost."

We also checked out the floating island made of plastic bottles!

It's maintained by a revolving crew of volunteers. 

We happened to be puttering by when a giant bag of plastic bottles was being dropped off by some nice hippies.

The house is in the background, with a palapa roof.

Then, we took a tour of the Isla Mujeres Palace, one of those big All-Inclusive resorts we'd looked at before deciding to go all indie.

I don't know if you can tell, but there is like, nobody at this resort. The buffet food didn't look great -- at all, there weren't any bartenders around, and the place had a general pall that just wasn't very vacationy feeling.

We adjourned to our beach bar next door with happy hearts that we had chosen wisely by staying on Playa Norte, a block from downtown, on a gorgeous beach at the Ixchel Beach Hotel.

Time to self-congratulate with some margaritas, a Sol, and some fresh fish.

The fish place to which most peeps on Isla Mujeres will send you to is called La Casa del Tikinxic, and it's one of a handful of laid-back beach bars/restaurants/clubs in a stretch of beach called Playa Lancheros.

We saw one of the hot restaurant hosts from downtown Isla Mujeres having a late canoodle-y lunch there with his lady, so it's confirmed -- the hospitality industry likes it too.

It is on a beautiful Caribbean beach, where you can totes get your hair braided while you wait for your fish to grill.

Isla Mujeres is near Cancun, kindof like Folly Beach or Bolinas in spirit.

Can you see the spirit?

Mexico is a pretty wicked good place to visit. I love it there.

This is where we stopped for a margarita at a blufftop contemporary sculpture garden (at Punta Sur) on  Playa Lancheros golf cart day.

Thanks for being so awesome, Mexico!

Now that I'm back home, I hunted up my Diana Kennedy book, Cuisines of Mexico.

She is the gringa who broughteth the truest Mexican cookbookery of her time from Mexico to the U.S. after many years as an expat there.

She is rad.

I had some wild salmon thawing from the All-Local Farmers Market here in Columbia, SC. That place is the radness.

Decided to look up the Tikinxic and see if I could pull it off.

Boom! There's the recipe.

See? She's good.

As one might have guessed, El Mariachi on 378 in West Columbia has pretty much every Mexican thing you need for cooking.

Achiote in whole, powdered, and paste form? Check.

Avocadoes, oranges, onions, mangoes, tomatillos, and limes? Check.

The cilantro and sunflower microgreens from City Roots urban sustainable farm make a tight garnish on this dish.

Just wait.

So I followed the recipe, and took the abovementioned salmon brushed in freshly made achiote paste, and let it rest a while.

I should note, however, that Seville oranges (sour orange, or naranja agria) seem to be a real pain to find in the US. They were all over the grocery stores in Mexico, of course.

I toasted some oregano, black peppercorns, cumin and later, some whole coriander in my grandmother's hot cast iron skillet.

Diana taught me that it makes them more fragrant. Si, claro.

Meanwhile, I chopped onions and City Roots purple haze carrots for a big pot of beans.

It's cold up in here. Bean time for the week ahead.

1. I put epazote in my black beans. Diana advises it, and the Mexican grocery sells it in the dried herbs area.

Supposed to help with human gassiness.

And it tastes great. Adds a bright herbaceous quality to one's beans.

2. I put a stick of dried kombu seaweed up in there, too, per the advice of nutrition maven Roxanne Koteles-Smith. Also good for gas. And nutrients!

3. I also put cumin, fresh ground coriander, s+ p, and a secret weapon...

...about a 1/2 cup of leftover turkey stock I'd made after I bought a 12 lb. brined, bourbon-glazed smoked turkey from Bone-In Artisan BBQ on Wheels at Xmas time. Yeah, dawg.

Compost city.

While everything else is going down on the stove, I'm chopping 4 mid-size tomatillos, a mango, a big jalapeno, a very small onion, a few sprigs of cilantro, and I'm squeezing like 4 of those tiny little key limes they sell at the Mexican market out at the US 1 Flea Market on Saturdays.

Man those are good and tart!

This salsa is going to be so good I already want to drink it.

OK, time to griddle the fish. If it weren't so cold out, I'd grill it on the charcoal parrilla, but the plancha's just going to have to suffice because I don't want to face the coldness of starting the grill, even.

BUT I can fake the charcoal grill taste by dropping a teaspoon of rich, smoky Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork bacon drippings into Grandma B's skillet.

I like to keep my bacon drippings in a dainty glass candy jar.

Because I can.

Meanwhile, I've got a big French skillet heating up to fry my tortillas for tacos.

I like to brown them just so they have crispy patches on the outsides but chewy, soft, bendy insides.

This brand, La Banderita, is still my fave. Pliable. Tasty.

Fish time.

This salmon from the salmon girl at the All Local is slammin.

(I have been wanting to do this achiote thing for almost a decade. Holy grail of cooking moment!)

Now it's time to plate it all, as though we're in a cooking show remake of Fantasy Island.

Diana has her recommendations for garnishes, and they are great.

Like sliced avocado. Yum.

I am skipping the habanero because that stuff is too hot for my gringa mouth.

And skipping those Seville oranges that are impossible to get.

As soon as you get your presentation looking real cute for your bad self, then you rip it apart like a wild animal and make tacos.

So...what's the verdict? Did the recipe live up to the reality? Especially considering all the frou-frou Tracie Broom twists?

Success, my friends. This stuff is flippin' unbelievably good. I can't wait to eat it again. Cause guess what's on the menu for tomorrow? LEFTOVERS IN TACOS.

I love taco season*!

Buen provecho, dudes. Thanks for coming on my culinary nerd journey with me.

Oh, and happy new year!

*Taco season is when you have all kinds of yummy stuff prepped and ready to go for making any one of like, 4 different kinds of tacos, at any time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Huevos Rancheros, Columbia SC style

Today is going to be a big one, and that calls for a rad breakfast. I've just come in from harvesting winter-blooming honeysuckle out in my yard, and it is so cold that I had to run warm water over my fingers after being outside for 15 minutes with gloves on. Dang!

Fancy gringa huevos rancheros:

The eggs:
2 Wil-Moore Farms eggs, fried
One corn tortilla, La Banderita brand, sauteed in 1/4 teaspoon Caw Caw Creek bacon fat
  • Brown the tortilla, then crack one egg on top of it. Flip it so the egg cooks up into the tortilla. Yummah. Then fry the other egg alongside. I like em over medium but the choice is yours!
  • You'll plate this on a pre-warmed plate. Or a cold one. Whatever!
The beans on the side:
1 medium tomatillo, diced
1/2 small onion, diced
kosher salt + fresh ground pepper
fresh ground coriander
  • Saute all these things together in a saucepan til they're browned, then deglaze the pot with a couple of Tbsp of water.
Then add:
12-14oz can of drained organic cannellini beans (or any beans you like)
1 Tbsp hot salsa or 1 tsp hot sauce. I got to use fabu salsa from Papalote taqueria in San Francisco, CA (thank you for this most wonderful gift, Kate Baker!)
fresh oregano (from my garden, wooot! Dried is fine too.)
fresh spinach (again, from my garden)
  • Stir until hot and bubbly and spinach is wilted nicely.
  • Plate this by nestling a pile of beans next to your tortilla egg magic.
The sauce:
1/3 can Herdez Ranchera sauce, heated in the microwave or stovetop. I was heartened to see that in Mexico the grocery stores stock plenty of Herdez, just like here in SC.
  • You'll drizzle or ladle this pureed red chile sauce over the top of your egg + bean magic when it's done.
The garnish:
Fresh cilantro from City Roots urban farm
Fresh sunflower microgreens from City Roots urban farm
  • You can garnish with whatever fresh thing you want. I happened to have cilantro, which is the top choice.  And those sunflower sprouts are good on just about anything.

Mexican breakfast is big on my mind after spending a week on Isla Mujeres, MX, near Cancun, having a company retreat to do some macro-level thinking. Blog posting on that will follow, but suffice it to say that Yucatan cuisine is one of the best things ever.

This is the view from where we stayed at the Ixchel Beach Hotel on Playa Norte. We loved it.

Why is it a big day, btw?

My Flock and Rally business partner, Debi Schadel, has co-founded and co-organized a brand new TedX Columbia here in the South Carolina state capital (TedX is the mini, localized offshoot of the $5000-per-ticket TED Talk series), and the sponsor appreciation cocktail party is this evening.

I'm doing some floral arrangements for it and I couldn't be more stoked to be involved in some small way! So proud of my business partner for bringing something so rad to Columbia, SC.

Here's to Friday the 13th, 2012!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Get Your Tycoon on at The Sanctuary at Kiawah

As spring + summer vacation planning begins for the hardcore leisure scientists, I'd encourage the luxury travelers and conference planners to train your eyes on The Sanctuary at Kiawah if you haven't just yet. 

Inside, The Atlantic Room, with its formidable dining tables, thick linens, comfortable-as-a-steel-tycoon chairs, giant plate glass windows & wraparound porch, is one of the most luxe restaurants on the Eastern seaboard. Not kidding. And this isn't even the main hotel -- it's clear across the island at the Ocean Course golf club. Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

The Sanctuary is awesome. It's awesome for getting one's luxury dollar's worth, for one thing.

But it's also awesome for our state's economy. The more national and international travelers realize what an utterly killer resort this is, the more tourist dollars come into South Carolina over time. And the money trickles down to support working families, and education, and even the arts. (Among other desperately important things.)

From afar, is *does* look a bit McMansiony for a lover of old school beachhouses. I'll admit.

Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

But I am also a lover of fanciness and luxury, and this place has got it in spades.

I had no idea that we had such a high-end resort hotel & spa here in South Carolina. It reminded me of The Peninsula Beverly Hills and Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA, albeit without the Frette linens and Limoges china, which usually just make me feel nervous and a little embarrasingly brand-whorish anyway.

The Morning Room, where each morning, you can take your complimentary delicious coffee and read the WSJ or NYT by the light of a thousand fancy suns. Or at least it feels that way. Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Call me a snottypants, but taking coffee and having cocktails in the room above was very nice. Very, very nice.

Also, those things were nice to enjoy in this room, below. Both of these spaces make up a fraction of the lobby and face out to an enormous green lawn, beyond which is the dear Atlantic ocean.

The lobby. Lord love it. Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Oh. This room? Oh, that's just the lobby bar. No big deal. It's only totally sailing tycoon fantasyland. At night, it is actually pretty hoppin'. If you like to sit around and chat and drink. Which I do.

The lobby bar. Of tycoon dreams. Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Maybe The Sanctuary is more like a Four Seasons, actually. The service at The Sanctuary is incredible. Our server at The Atlantic Room not only had the requisite bussers, runners, etc. but she also had an assistant server, who introduced himself as such.

And when we asked for oysters on the half shell despite them not being on the menu (we being The Shop Tart, my Flock and Rally business partner Debi, and myself), our server sped to the kitchen and swooped up on the last 6 raw oysters in the house. Do I love that The Atlantic Room has their own version of the classic tycoon hors d'oeuvre, Oysters Rockefeller? Yes. Do I love even more that they are willing to supersede it for some shellfish-grabby ladies? Definitely.

The Atlantic Room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. This photograph does not even begin to display the excellent majesty of the casual fine dining experience there, but it's a start.
I think that if you like the service levels at The Four Seasons and such, you will be very happy. I will bet you five American dollars on this.

The grandeur, casual elegance and overall laid-back splendor of dining at The Atlantic Room was something you don't get all the time. Giant chairs. Enormous, solid tables. Formidable linens. A beautiful, U-shaped wraparound wooden porch w/excellent lounge chairs. Adirondacks out in the grass overlooking the sea. Epic stuff. Solidity, noblesse, wealth, and a sporting life. With great shellfish.

The wine list at The Atlantic Room is pretty epic too -- I was stoked to spy something I thought I recognized from my Napa Valley wine nerd days, by winemaker Ehren Jordan: an '05 Alban vineyard viognier from the Edna Valley under the Failla label. What does that mean?

Means it's really, really delicious.

Also delightful: rocking chairs out by the valet area, so that you can wait for your car in a relaxed fashion. Witness my comrades enjoying this easy-breezy amenity.

One of my great regrets of this stay is that I did not collect a photograph of the genius guest room bath layout. Obviously, the rooms are nice. They're a little froufy for those who veer toward the contemporary, but the fabrics are quality, the motifs are solidly classic Carolina coast, and it would seem that there is an ocean view of some dimension for everyone.

Better-then-average guest room. Note the homage to the traditional South Carolinian rice bed. Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort
But the bathroom. Man, it's great. I'm a bath-taker, so a great bathtub situation is really the thing. And this one is kindof genius.

There is a brilliant, shuttered cutout window between the deep, fancypants bathtub and the bedroom. You can open the shutters, or not. Either way, you can take a perfect, deep, hot bubble bath, completely nude, and still chat with your friend or loved one in the other room.

And not only that.

The bath products -- and good bath products are a huge indicator of whether a resort is worth its salt -- are the well-regarded Elemis brand, and they smell incredible.

Although the shampoo and conditioner don't possess the super-powered awesome smell good-ness of the Elemis Sharp Shower Body Wash and concomitant body lotion, these two jammers are both absolutely exemplary guest room bath products, rife with "uplifting Spearmint and Peppermint essential oils, combined with plant extracts of Nettle, Wild Marjoram, Marshmallow, Chamomile and Thyme in a Soya, Wheat and Milk Protein base."

That is a spa nerd's happiness, can't you see? Marshmallow? Soya? Wild Nettle? And two mints are always better than one. So yes, the bathrooms are great at The Sanctuary.

Which brings us to The Spa.

Yes! It is worth your spa dollars. Feel free to spend them lavishly here. Thou shalt be rewarded with an excellent treatment, luxurious appointments, accommodating, down-to-earth staff, and the best locker room whirlpool this side of Burke Williams Day Spa in San Francisco. Or Los Angeles. (Those Burke Williams locker rooms are kinda all the same anyway, right? [But those Burke Williams locker rooms are GREAT. Do not mistake my churlishness for a lack of reverence for the Burke Williams locker room. I'd kill for a BW in Columbia, SC.])

The solarium actually has rows of these chaise longues. And lots of magazines and throws. And the pre-requisite urn of chilled, fancy water and a few noshy snacks that are a micro-hallmark of all good resort spas.

Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Full-body immersion in hot, fancy water is key. This fanciness of this whirlpool situation, above, is well designed, with various nooks and seats beneath the surface.

Fun fact: they have installed two giant planters on either side of the stairs, so it almost feels like there are 2 or 3 zones in the whirlpool, so that you can *kindof* sequester and feel separate from other spagoers. This is a nice thing.

The spa locker room and bathing area aren't huge or spacious, but the space is used intelligently, and on a Fall holiday weekend afternoon, we didn't feel cramped or crowded. The treatment rooms are comfortable, as you can see.

Spa robes: the best. High quality, double-faced with the plushy inside and smooth outside. None with ratty edges that we could see, indicating that spa management attends to details like rotating out the ratty-edged robes when their time comes.

There is something about a fresh, buff-colored, rolled-up tower of spa towels that just puts me at ease.

Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

I'd like to slap the architect on the wrist, however, for making us ladies and gents walk *out* of the locker room/bathing area in our robes, past the check-in desk, and through a separate door to get to the solarium. When you are spending the valuable currencies of both time and dollars, the illusion of total escapism is important. I hope this was a design necessity and not a design flaw. Like somehow, because they cut that corner, they were able to fit an indoor heated pool onto the property.

Which they did. I love an indoor lap pool with a bank of plate glass windows.

Blessed be: 'tis a heated indoor pool, with a Chef's lettuce, herb and vegetable garden outside, which is the coolness. Sadly, the hot tub was tepid. That's all I'm going to say about that.  Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Speaking of the heated pool thing: of all the truly delightful things about The Sanctuary, this one irked me and my ladyfriends to no end. Not only was the outdoor hot tub tepid at best on a brisk early October morning; the indoor hot tub was the same *meh* temperature. While the staff responded quickly to my plaintive, whiny cry, the problem was not solved within our 3-day stay.

That said, the outdoor pool deck looked pretty sweet.

Image: Kiawah Island Golf Resort
 And right along the path from the lobby out to the pool?

A boatload of beautyberry, one of my favorite South Carolina native plants. Top marks on the landscaping, y'all. You don't expect to see a ton of natives and perennials planted at a megaresort, and I appreciate it.

Well played.