Up in the air

This was my first time taking a hot air balloon ride so you can tell I was excited. I woke up at 4:45am, took a quick shower and headed on to The Westin Kierland hotel lobby for an early morning pickup. Rainbow Ryders, Inc. were my trusted company for the adventure while flying over the Phoenix-Scottsdale area.

Till this day I had no clue about the intricate details that go into flying a hot air balloon. First, you have to check the direction of the wind and identify a launching location accordingly. This can take some time as you may need to travel to several different locations before settling for one. After the blessings of the clouds and winds, we pulled up on the side of a road (across from a Dunkin Donuts) which had vast empty fields.

Second, came the process of arranging the baskets, hooking up the pipes, unwrapping the nylon, turning on the fans and inflating the balloons. We were carrying everything we needed to fly our balloon in the back of the trunk in a box! The experts at Rainbow Ryders got to work immediately and within a few minutes had everything set up. I helped as air was fanned into the 120,000 cubic feet envelope. It slowly began to take form of a giant balloon spanning quite a distance.

Next hot air was blasted using propane tanks which caused the balloon to rise. Now, us (the passengers and the flyer) had to get into the basket quickly. There is no door or latch, you just have to jump in. Since our basket was very small (3 people), we had a rough take off. The basket shook, shivered, went up in the air and came back down several times before we were finally floating above ground. All I could do was hold on tight and laugh at the balloon’s animated behavior.

Once in air, it was smooth sailing. I could see the arid Arizona landscape with mountains, open fields, giant cactus’s and some dried up creeks. It was quiet and peaceful. The sun was also rising into the horizon which caused reflection on the hills, creating a picturesque Kodak moment. You could see other balloons in the air by now, of different colors and sizes. We probably flew for 45 minutes. The balloon needed constant fuel and direction, which our experienced guide Richard provided.

Like takeoff, landing was a bit rough too. “It all depends on the wind when we get to the ground” said Richard as he gave as security instructions under high and low wind landings. In the end, no one was hurt and I had a lot of fun! The riders from other balloons met up in the field for champagne and breakfast after the beautiful morning flight.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely! It is a once in a lifetime experience that you will cherish memories of forever (although I would love to do it again).

Rainbow Ryders offers hot air balloon rides in Arizona and New Mexico to individuals and groups. Their pilots are FAA certified and have over 150 years combined experience with  15,000 hours of balloon flight time.

Citizen Public House

Don’t let the name fool you. Although Citizen Public House is an upscale version of a traditional public house serving contemporary cocktails, beer and wine, it is by no means limited to a drinking establishment. Located in Old Town Scottsdale, the European-fusion food that you will eat at Citizen Public House is probably the best Public House grub you have ever come across.

Representing it’s reputable name, I had to try the cocktail Citi-Zen. A unique blend of Absolut Pear vodka, Domaine de Canton, ginger liqueur, housemade sweet and sour, served with rock candy so you can stir and add more sweetness to your drink as your palate changes through the evening. I have to say perhaps the most innovative cocktail menus.

Opened just a few months ago, after the success of Cowboy Chow, another great hit in Old Town Scottsdale, Chef Bernie Kantak has created a menu that is a blend of Hungarian, American and Mediterranean inspirations.

The Original Chopped Salad is perhaps the only item I have seen on any menu that has its own facebook page! A flag like display of smoked salmon, Israeli couscous, chopped greens, pumpkin seeds, roasted corn and tomatoes, served with a buttermilk dressing is a wonderful blend of textures and flavors. See recipe.

From the bar snacks section, I tried the Gorgonzola-Emmental mac-n-cheese. I would describe it as the adult version of Mac and Cheese. It wasn’t very cheesy but had a rich strong flavor from the Gorgonzola enhanced further by slices grilled red bell peppers. The best part was they used actual macaroni pasta, which is usually not the case at many upscale restaurants.

All ingredients are sourced from artisanal and organic farms around the country. The menu offers gourmet burgers and sandwiches but I decided to try the seafood. Alaskan Halibut was perfectly pan seared and served with roasted cauliflower, charred tomato vinaigrette and tarragon butter. It melted in your mouth! Pan Seared Scallops were juicy and tended, delicately placed upon buttery roasted corn grits.

The menu is printed daily so we had to wait to see what pastry chef Tracy Dempsey had in sore for us. I decided upon the Chocolate Pecan Bars, which were described to me as home made rustic bars. They were much more than rustic I would say! Rich and crunchy pecan triangles served with chicory (a coffee replacement) ice cream and salted chocolate caramel sauce vanished from my plate into my mouth very quickly. I also tried the Pig in the Orchard Bread Pudding but wasn’t a big fan. The combination of Granny Smith apples, Applewood smoked bacon, bourbon brown sugar sauce sounded interesting but did not do much for me. I am still not use to the idea of having meat in my dessert, I guess.

Citizen Public House

7111 E. 5th Avenue Ste. E
Scottsdale, AZ 85251-3200

(480) 398-4208

Deseo Shrimp Chicharron

Perhaps one of the most dazzling dinners was one that I recently ate at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. Inside the resort is this cool, hip Nuevo-Latino restaurant named Daseo (meaning desire), as you are left with a strong desire to take home a doggy bag after dinner, even though you are staying at a hotel and your home is 2,000 miles away. Executive chef Todd Berry has created an innovative Latin inspired menu showcasing dishes that will blow your mind away. One of these is the Shrimp Chicharron. Unlike the name which usually stands for fried pork belly, this dish has no bacon in it. It has a fiery sauce complimented by fresh robust shrimp. If you like spicy food, this baby is for you.

The best part is that it is so easy to prepare. You will surely shine as a budding chef if you cooked this at your next party (Note: Holidays are coming up). Westin was kind enough to share the recipe with me which I am now passing on to you.

Shrimp Chicharron

6 oz cooked medium shrimp

1/2 oz chopped parsley

1 oz flour

2 oz shrimp chicharron sauce (see below)

pickled jalapenos

vegetable oil for frying

In a mixing bowl, dust shrimp with flour. Shake off excess flour and set aside. In a medium wok, heat oil and fry the shrimp for about a minute or two on high heat. Spoon out the shrimp and drain off excess oil. Lightly mix the chicharron sauce with the shrimp in a separate bowl. Garnish with chopped parsley and pickled jalapenos.

Chicharron Sauce

3 oz aji amarillo paste

6 oz condensed milk

4 oz mayonnaise

juice of 1 lime

splash of habanero sauce

In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients. Cover and chill until ready to use.

Recipe courtesy of Deseo at The Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, Phoenix-Scottsdale. The resort has a members-only program to celebrate passionate foodies, known as “Kierland Epicurean Club.”