Discovering new possibilities in Montreal

Dining at La Salle A Manger in Montreal last night, I discovered a couple of novel culinary treats. The menu was atypically categorized as just Raw, Cold, Warm, Vegetarian, Meat and Fish. I tried the gravlax with yogurt with orange and fennel salad. It was a burst of flavors, contrasting citrus against the soft salmon. From the Warm, I ordered sweetbread in apple, walnut, and cream sauce. This was my first time eating sweetbread for me, since I am not much of a meat eater. In fact the meat was so tender and creamy, it melted in my mouth, that I could have never guessed I was eating veal throat meat. The restaurant boasted its meat selection in a glass closet which you could view from the dining area. No wonder it was so fresh and delicious! This was my first discovery.

The second one was Farroto. Being an Italian food lover and an excellent cook of risotto, my first guess was that Farroto was its long lost cousin who wasn’t adventurous enough to go out and explore the world, therefore it never got as famous as Risotto. Turns out I was right! Farro is a spelt, hearty, grain from an older generation. It has a nutty texture, similar to that of dirty rice (rice with husk) and cooked the same way as risotto. The vegetarian dish that I ate had well roasted pieces of root vegetables (turnips, potatoes, carrots) with faro in a heavy cheese sauce, topped with parsley leaves. I will have to go back and try this at home.

There were homemade desserts and cheese selection for the last course. I picked the pistachio biscuit, topped with chocolate cream, with a side of oranges, served on a plate lightly painted with Mexican dark chocolate. It looked like artwork that exploded its palette one it entered your mouth.

More on where to eat in Montreal

Celebrity dining in New York City

Visiting New York City has never been the same experience twice. This past December, I went for the filming of The Marriage Ref. While a full day was occupied at NBC studios, I had an agenda for the rest of my time there. As a die-hard foodie, I researched all the celebrity owned restaurants in the city and narrowed down to a few.

The first place I called, Rao’s did not even take my call! Their automated answering system said that they were fully booked and to call back in 2012. After being turned down by Rao’s, I decided to give Mario Batali and Bobby Flay a chance to feed me. Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill was very obliging in giving reservations only a day in advance.

My husband and I arrived at the (address) restaurant at 8pm and were seated only after 5 minutes. The place was bustling with locals and regulars. It had a nice vibrant atmosphere with an open hall, two-story ceilings, dim lights and the right level of noise. There were black and white blown up pictures of Hollywood actresses including, Bobby’s wife. Our check for two people was about $100.

The meal was one to remember. The tuna nachos made with sushi grade ahi-tune melted in my mouth. For my entrée I tried the cornmeal crusted chile relleno, a vegetarian dish. It was a whole chile filled with roasted eggplant and manchego cheese drizzled with a peppery balsamic vinegar sauce that made it look like artwork! The toasted coconut layer cake had the most perfect combination of moist cake, toasted coconut flakes and coconut cream.             

The following day I felt like I died and went to Italian heaven! Only I was at Eataly, a 50,000 Sq. Ft. Italian gourmet market by Mario Batali located at Fifth Avenue. This place had everything I ever wanted in life and I had no reason to leave. From made-to-order Paninis, Gelatos prepared with milk from local dairies, imported fine Italian wines, Illy coffee bar, to a wide selection of fresh produce (pasta, seafood, veggies, cheese, etc.) to take home.  There was even a wine bar and a sit down informal Italian restaurant where one could gather with friends after work to worship food. It was reasonably priced and so not uptight that you will forget you are in New York City. I didn’t make reservations, but sampled a number of items including the fungi Panini, cappuccino, cakes and gelato. Finally, my husband had to drag me out of there…


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Where to eat at the airport?

A dear friend of mine from high school, who is now settled in Australia, sent me a note the other day saying “I am a picky eater and don’t know what to eat at the airport when I am travelling. Should I try a new cuisine while I have a layover in a foreign country?” I promised her that I will respond in detail, so here it is.

Airport is not the place to experiment with food or try a new cuisine that you are unfamiliar with. Generally, airport gourmet consists of fast food or sport bar like restaurants. Very rarely, would you find a palatable freshly cooked meal at an airport (with some exceptions). My recommendation is to stick to what you are familiar with. If there are certain brand names that you have tried and liked before, eat there.

Since an airport caters to people from different cultures, ages and preferences, the choices tend to be more international than local. You will tend to find pretty much the same categories of foods – American, Chinese, Italian, Coffee Shops, Bars, etc. at each airport without fail. There may be one or two restaurants that would offer regional fare based on the location. For example Mexican is quite common in Southwestern United States, steaks in the Midwest. Again, if you have eaten a stake before, go ahead and have one. But if you are a newbie, please don’t make the airport a place for your virgin foodie experience.

Frequent travelers often complain about not being able to eat healthy while on the road. Your choice of what you are consuming is perhaps the most important decision factor in picking an airport restaurant. I have found that if you do pay attention and look around, you can always find healthy options such as soups, salads and sandwiches at the very least. The hardest part is to control your mind that may be wandering off to the tempting smell of French fries and doughnuts.

Some common sense should also be used when picking from the menu. You don’t want to eat seafood in a fast food restaurant. A lot of people are conscious of where their meat comes from and I bet your airport restaurant will not be able to provide you this information. Best option is to stay vegetarian as much as you can, but go easy on the cheese and white flour. Eating too many carbohydrates can leave you feeling bloated in the sky.

I like to pack my own snacks before I leave home. Granola bars and dried fruits (almonds, raisins, etc.) are my favorites. That ways, I always have something on me in case of delays and I am not famished and reaching out to the first available food joint that I spot. These days, there are outlets for frozen yogurt and nuts everywhere, so you can forego the free peanuts, pretzels and cookies.

Save on Airport Parking

Travelling abroad with credit cards

I have friends who believe in not using credit cards at all in order to control their spending. I also have friends on the other side of the spectrum that have Multiple Credit Cards. However, it’s the people that don’t believe in credit cards that concern me. I say to them, you must carry a credit card when traveling abroad. You never know when you get into a situation when you need extra cash (such as when all airlines stopped operating due to the volcanic ash from Iceland last year) or when you get stranded in a foreign country against your wishes.

Here are some tips I have listed that will help you in better managing your credit cards while on your next trip overseas:

Research the country you will be traveling to and find out what are the acceptable cards there. Some countries, such as India do not accept Discover cards at most outlets. You can easily find this out by visiting a local hotel web site and looking at their reservation page.

Make sure you carry the same card that you use to make your travel reservations with. Sometimes, the airline or hotel would ask you for it.

You dont need to carry all your cards with you. Carry only 2-3 credit cards, plus your debit card with you. I find my bank offers me the best conversion rate on foreign currencies and no ATM fees anywhere in the world. Therefore, I just withdraw cash as and when I need it. However you may want to beware of credit card charges, especially when abroad.

Most credit cards offer a transaction fee when using the card outside US. Call your credit card company and ask them their rates before deciding on which one to carry with you.

If you are planning to go outside the country for a longer period of time (1 month+) call your credit card company and ask them to issue you another local card so that you are not paying a transaction fee every time. If they say no, call their local office in the country you are in once you get there.

Call your credit card company and let them know where and when you will be travelling. If you fail to do so, you may find that your card has been put on fraud alert and you no longer have access to it.

Make sure you make a photocopy of each card or write the card number and customer service number. This will be handy in case your card is lost or stolen. You will be able to call the bank and cancel your card immediately.

To avoid scams when travelling abroad, I recommend using credit cards only at reputable facilities. Use cash at restaurants, smaller shops, tours, etc. If the establishment does not have a web site, it will be hard to dispute any false charges later on. Do not give your card to individuals under any circumstances.

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Cooks across borders

I was talking to a friend last night who is a jazz singer. She works long hours and wants to have a light snack that is quick to prepare, when she come home late in the night. She said her favorite treat was homemade popcorn sprinkled with chaat masala. That got me thinking I should write about this!

Have you ever tried blending flavors from two different countries to create one stunning dish? The art has come to be known as “Fusion” and has gained significant popularity over the recent years.  I believe there has always been some degree of fusion taking place but it’s been geographically limited to neighboring countries. For example, the Mediterranean countries borrow cuisines from each other.  In the Far East, Singapore adopts spices from India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Restaurants and chefs have gone a step further by combining distinct cuisines into one meal. Vermillion in Chicago, Mesa Grill in New York City and Lukshon in Los Angeles are a few top rated ones. Even on the show, Top Chef, the contestants were asked to create something by picking flags randomly. The Mexican-Chinese pairing was quite challenging!

If you want to experiment with international flavors at home, you need not be a Master Chef.  Even if you know a few basics, proceed confidently.

Trick #1: You family already enjoys pasta. Why not grab a sauce from another country and add it to your favorite pasta. Here are some ideas to get you started…

Thai+Italian=Make a thai red curry with penne pasta, then add shrimp or chicken depending on what your family prefers.

Indian+Italian=Top chicken tikka masala on a flat bread or pizza.

Mexican+Italian=Serve a gazpacho with shells or macaroni pasta.

More tricks coming each week.

Have any tips of your own? Please share in the Comments section.


More international flights than any other website!

My Eats featured on Tiny Green Mom

Tiny Green Mom has featured my recipe for Caponate Pasta Bake in her month long series of healthy recipes for the entire family. The blog is very informative for parents who are interested in a green lifestyle and latest organic products, amongst other things. Make sure to bookmark it.

I made the pasta last night for a Ciancia (Italian conversation club) get-together. It’s very healthy, flavorful and easy to make. Ciancia members meet once a month and each of us brings an Italian dish or wine to share, while we try to practise our language skills, network and meet friends. The next meeting will be at my place where I plan to make an assortment of Gelatos! If you have a favorite flavor, let me know and I would make sure to post the recipe for you…

Bollywood in Persia

I celebrated a dear friend’s birthday this past weekend at a Persian restaurant called Fanoos located in Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta. I have been to this place a few times before and over time, have come to know its owner Jalal.

Jalal moved from Northern Iran to the US over 30 years ago. He took over Persian Tea House couple of years ago. He renamed the place, added a bar but kept the menu and started offering a scrumptious lunch buffet. The restaurant is a typical family arrangement with an open hall and a water fountain in the centre. There are several booths with Persian carpets and cushions, where large families of 10-15 people can sit comfortably on the floor. In the corner, there is a glass booth with a tandoor (round clay oven) where the chef makes fresh bread as soon as you order.

Our group of friends started with a round of pomegranate martinis to celebrate the occasion. These were very different than what I have had at other bars before. Instead of the typical sweetness in the cocktail, there was a spicy flavor (from anise or cinnamon) but it was delicious and smooth!

Baskets of fresh bread was served with a small plate of starters (feta cheese, mint leaves, walnuts olives) even before we had our menus. We ordered some appetizers to share – Must O’ Kheiar, Must O’ Mousir,  Salad Shirazi, Dolmeh, Kashke Bademjon, Hummus, and Must O’ Kheia. If you have tried Lebanese or Turkish food before, some of these may sounds familiar.

For main course, I usually stick to one of their Polo’s, as that’s something I can’t find elsewhere. The Shirin Polo (sweet rice mixed with barberries, orange peels, sliced almonds, and pistachios) is my favorite. I ask them to pair it with Salmon, which is always grilled to perfection. When I am not in mood for sweet, I order the Zereshik  Polo (Rice mixed with barberry and saffron). My friends who ordered the lamb kebabs seemed to have loved it as well.

After dinner, we helped ourselves to the dance floor. Usually, there are belly dancers after 8pm on weekend. But since we were there on a Sunday, we asked Jalal to play some Bollywood music for us. Even the non-Indian patrons joined in for some Bhangra moves.




Interview with Howard’s

I am now writing for the Smyrna Patch, a hyper-local online magazine. My first assignment was to interview Bobby Martin, owner of Howard’s restaurant in Smyrna about the filming that took place at his restaurant for the movie “A Joyful Noise“. Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton were here in our neighborhood filming the movie!

You can read the article by visiting the Smyrna Patch page.


Why I volunteer…

I wrote this for my family and friends a few months ago and decided to share it with you too…

I lived in India with my grandmother till the age of 17. She was a professional volunteer social worker for most of her life as her husband did not want her to work for money. As a child, I would accompany her to blind schools, orphanages, Rotary clubs and many other places. Once when I was 10 years old, we were at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Chandigarh, where I overheard a comment that got tattooed in my brain. The nun who was running the orphanage said that they had about 99 baby girls out of 100 kids at any given time. When my grandmother exclaimed, “Why no boys?” she said the boys get adopted right away but nobody wants the girls. That day I decided that when I am an adult I will come by and adopt a baby girl from an orphanage in India. If not that, at least I would try to impact their lives in whatever way I can.

Did you know that 1 million children get orphaned in India every year, followed by Russia and Africa? This fact alone led me to my journey to Russia in summer of 2009. I found a volunteer program offered by Cross Cultural Solutions that involved an Insight to Russia where one could take a volunteer vacation. The volunteers would be working in orphanages for 4-6 hours a day and get to experience the country in evenings and weekends. Since it was my first time doing something like this, in a far away country, by myself, I signed up for the 1 week program. Closer to my departure, I was told that the placements at Yaroslavl had changed a bit due to the Government interventions. Nevertheless, we would be working with children during our trip.

During my week in Yaroslavl, I went to an orphanage, a boarding school, a woman’s mental hospitals and an elderly ladies facility. I enjoyed playing with the kids, teaching them new crafts, taking their Polaroid photos for them to keep, and bringing ear to ear smiles to their faces. The elderly women were eager to make conversation with me and wanted to know how I like Obama’s new government! The hospital was a grave site to watch. The women had battered beds, got communal showers and got to eat oatmeal for every meal. One thing I recognized from this experience was how similar we humans are in every part of the world. The people I met lived in a far away country, but shared the same aspirations, desires, needs and problems as they do here. I met a 19 year old girl who had a crush on her college professor, another young woman who started drinking heavily after her mother’s death, and a grandmother who kept inviting me to her home where she was thinking she was going to after being released from the psychological facility.

Be it in India, in USA or in Russia, we all share the common thread of humanity. We want to have a good life where we are able to have access to necessities, have good health, peace and happiness, be recognized at work or communities, have someone to share our love with, and be close to our families. Those are the most important things in life!

Best Friend’s Chocolate Cake

I attended high school in a small town in northern India. It was an all-girls Catholic Convent school, right across the street from where I lived. Our school was considered to produce polished, well-spoken, and smart girls who were quite successful in whatever path they chose after graduation.

From sixth grade until now, I have been best friends with two of my classmates. We use to hang out together all the time, be it sitting in class, having lunch during break, going for movies on the weekends, to spending all festivals and holidays together. All three of us moved to different parts of the world after college, but still managed to remain in touch and keep the friendship alive.

When my friends would come over, my mom would sometimes bake cakes and make noodles (my two favorite eats growing up). Since she could not find bags of chocolate morsels in stores, she would buy bars of Cadburys chocolates and melt them into the cake batter. It would be so delicious and rich!

One of my best friends from high school came to visit me at my home in Atlanta, back in 2005 while she was in New York for an assignment. Needless to say, I showed off my culinary skills by baking a chocolate cake for her. She fell in love with it and asked me to make it every time she visited then on.

It’s a very simple velvety chocolate cake with no layers or icing. I like it because it’s not too sweet and can be had at any time of the day. It serves well at tea or snack time so you don’t have to wait for dessert to enjoy it.

Chocolate Cake RecipeDan's Chocolates

1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate morsel

½ cup butter, at room temperature

16-oz brown sugar

3 eggs

2 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

8-oz sour cream

1 cup hot water

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoon powdered sugar

Melt the chocolate in a bowl in the microwave for 1 minute or until smooth. Stir gently.

Beat butter and sugar in an electric mixer at medium speed for 5 minutes, and then add eggs, 1 at a time. Beat until just blended. Add the melted chocolate and beat for another 30 seconds.

Mix together flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl. Now, gradually add the flour mixture to the chocolate base, alternating with sour cream. Beat at low speed during this process. Add the hot water in a low steady stream still blending on slow. Stir in the vanilla.

Spoon batter in a prepared (floured and greased) angel cake or a 10-inch round pan. Bake at 350F for 55-65 minutes or until wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely, sift powdered sugar on top and enjoy.


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