Thursday, 5 March 2015

Basi Italia: Columbus, Ohio

James and I decided to go downtown to dinner last week to try Basi Italia. It is near the Short North, in the Victoria Village, and definitely worth a try. It was snowing like crazy when we arrived (of course, we're in Ohio) and were pleasantly surprised to find a valet option just outside the front door for $5. We don't always valet but in this part of town, where there's really no parking, the service is fantastic. Plus... it was snowing!

When we walked through the door, I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the restaurant. We entered on the side of the building where there is a gorgeous outside space and bar. The hostess was happy to walk us through the kitchen area into the main dining space and it was fun to get a look at what the chefs were up to.

The lighting was perfect for romantic ambiance but I wasn't really able to take pictures that are blog-worthy. The interior is cozy and decidedly European. Diners certainly feel like they are sitting in a warm village in Italy or somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than in cold, cold Columbus.

We both began the evening with a glass of champagne. James ordered the toasted pistachio flatbread with Rosemary, fontina, and truffle honey. (Truffle honey!!) It was fantastic as an appetizer (it could also be a main course). I ordered the roasted beet salad with mixed greens, goat cheese, and almonds. Portions are large and we agreed that we could have shared a starter.

For the main course, our server, David, recommended the prosciutto wrapped scallops served with roasted brussels sprouts and a maple syrup jus. It was to die for! The scallops were cooked perfectly - tender and juicy and the flavor presentation of the brussels sprouts was inventive. James ordered a Basi Italia signature dish: rigatoni salumeria. He loved it and savored every bite. The pasta was served with an amazing sauce of sweet sausage, tomato, raisins, fennel, and pine nuts.

Here's a look at the pasta dish. The photo was found in Basi Italia's archives:

We were also thoroughly impressed with the service. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and attentive. I felt special and hope to go back soon to try another item on the enticing menu (it regularly changes).

Basi Italia occasionally has a three course prix fixe dinner for $25. They have a Facebook page with details on specials. Also, the wine menu is impressive! Go early and spend time enjoying the experience. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On the Shelf: The Tenth Muse, My Life in Food

I'm reading yet another book (when I'm not working on my dissertation which is never) by Judith Jones. She is a book editor and wrote the book The Tenth Muse; My Life in Food. The book is amazingly excellent and as usual, I have full inspiration to lean more, more, more about cooking, preparing food, and even growing produce and scavenging for edible plants.

Image from Jones' book: The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food

Jones explains in details some of the meals that she remembers over her life with amazing foodies and chefs. Please allow me to share just one of the many passages that give passion and depth to her involvement with food. When I'm not completely stressed out about my dissertation or the job search, I find cooking to be an amazing stress reliever. Peeling and chopping red onions and garlic and hearing the sizzle when they hit extra virgin olive oil is soothing. Here's how Jones explains it:

I gravitate toward the kitchen... and can't wait to bring it to life, to fill it with good smells, to start chopping or whisking or tossing and smelling up my hands with garlic. I turn on some music and have a glass of Campari or wine, and it is for me the best part of the day, a time for relaxation.

Jones writes about cooking after her husband of 50 years Evan (also a foodie) has died. She recalls a quote from Alfred North Whitehead that he posted on their refrigerator. "Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of a religious nature." She was touched by the quote and her interpretation is meaningful to me:

We take raw materials of the earth and work with them - touch them, manipulate them, taste them, glory in their heady smells and colors, and then, through a bit of alchemy, transform them into delicious creations. Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, respect. It is a way of worship, a way of giving thanks.

Who knows why exactly but this book has helped to highlight a special food moment in my life. In 2006 (when I was earning my Master's degree in London at the University of Westminster) my mother, father, and grandmother traveled to Paris and I met them there. We stayed in a two bedroom apartment with an impressive view of the Eiffel Tower.

One evening during the week, after studying the book of recommended eateries by the owner of the apartment, we ventured across the street to a small market with a bistro in the back. They were closing but the young owner invited us in. He recommended a serving of foie gras for each person as a starter. We balked but he offered to pay for it himself if we didn't enjoy it.

Our table had one-slice toasters for each guest (Have you ever even heard of that!?) and we dutifully toasted our homemade bread slices in anticipation of the arrival of the foie gras. As the soft bread popped up with a newly crisp exterior, we spread a generous helping of the foie gras on the surface and tasted. The texture and buttery flavor was glamorous and exotic.

I'm not sure if I'll ever have foie gras again because of the concerns raised with how animals are treated while fattening the liver but I'll never forget that intimate evening. We were the only people in the restaurant, with the full attention of the owner, and his insight into what would be delicious and memorable. He was right.

Many thanks to Jones for her hard work editing cookbooks from the greats and also sharing her own relationship with food while inspiring others. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

On the Shelf: Blood, Bones & Butter

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton is a literary genius. You don’t always hear about fantastic chefs being fantastic writers but she is. I just listened to her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter while driving from Ohio to Tennessee to teach and I was reluctant to even get out of the car! If you love food, humor, and appreciate strong women who are highly successful, read this book.

 I can only aspire to be as fabulous as Hamilton, who owns her own restaurant (Prune) in New York City, and has published two books. She is also a mother and has put up with unbelievable mental and physical stress while building her own restaurant.

An example: Hamilton (who narrates her own book on CD) tells a story about how she had to deal with human feces outside the door of her restaurant one morning (homeless guy) and a rodent that was still moving when it appeared to be dead (maggots). I have so much admiration for this person who takes no shit from anyone (figuratively) but works impossibly hard to make sure her patrons are well cared and leave happy.

James and I have kind of gotten “over” New York City because of its presumptuous folks, high prices, and horrid airports but I MUST return soon to dine at Prune and relish in the behind-the-scenes stories about how Hamilton turning the former Italian-gone-bankrupt restaurant into her own jewel. (Her newest book, by the way, is Prune.)

 Beyond the fact that Hamilton’s life is/was fantastically adventurous (she backpacked by herself through Europe, worked as an alcohol-serving waitress in a busy NYC night club before the age of 18, married an Italian MD to help him get a green card, climbed 25 foot trees to trim back branches so her mother-in-law could have a few of the sea) she can put pen to paper while explaining food like I’ve never read before.

Listening to this book has inspired me to do something. I try to plan, prep, and cook yummy meals for James and I each night. I present some inventive meals such as steamed artichokes, roasted Italian sausage from the butcher, green salad with fresh herbs along side oozing, pungent, soft cheese. James is on a champagne kick and opens something gorgeous (we recently tried the label owned by Jay-Z) most evenings and we are keeping a journal of what we taste. But I want to learn more, attempt new knife techniques, and bring different flavors into our home.

Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter has inspired me to take local cooking classes. Even if they are commercial and I learn to use equipment sold by a certain store (or whatever), at least I’ll be adding somewhat to my kitchen skills. Being in the kitchen and preparing good food is a stress reliever in my life. Thinking is not necessary while I go through the practiced motions of chopping onions and garlic and sautéing them in extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes not thinking (especially while most of your mental energy goes to a dissertation) is a good thing.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

January on Bald Head Island

Mom and dad went to Bald Head Island last week and invited James and I to join them. We were able to get away for the weekend and we all stayed in a lovely house on the golf course. Even though it was January, we enjoyed temperatures in the 60s and the sun came out two of the three days we were there.

James and I took a long walk to the Old Baldy lighthouse (established in 1817) and marveled at the structure that has stood strong for so many years. The walk was enjoyable and we listened to the sounds of the island as we strolled.

During the off-season Bald Head Island is even quieter and more private than usual. We saw only a few golf carts each day and even on the beach, we didn’t see a single other person.

Mom and I went to the beach one afternoon to walk and loved feeling the sun on our faces. Rather than people, we saw quite a bit of nature: dolphins, pelicans surfing the thermals over the water, and lines of hundreds of migratory birds.

The four of us took a walk on the golf course (near hole 11) around 4:00 one afternoon and spooked a huge Blue Heron. It squawked its displeasure at us and landed in a far-off tree. Once we walked past the tree, the heron circled back to its original perch by the lagoon. As we walked back to the house on the golf course, we started seeing medium-sized bats dart and dip through the sky. They were feeding on insects and their quick acrobatics were fascinating to watch.

One of the best parts of the weekend for me was riding a bike around the island. I biked in the forest as well as along the beach. There aren’t many hills on the island so riding is easy and the bikes were simple to use. My thighs pumped hard while I road into the wind and the light spray from the ocean felt refreshing against my face.

On the day before James and I were set to leave the island, the power went out. Apparently a barge with a crane snagged some power lines on the main land and the entire island was without power. Luckily the house we were staying in had a gas fireplace as well as a gas grill with propane! We lit candles, grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, sipped wine and even went for a walk on the beach under a full moon. That was truly a magical experience. We could see our shadows on the sand and loved seeing the light sparkle on the ocean. I can’t wait to go back.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Best of 2014

Best thing someone did for me in 2014: James took me to Africa. We went on an almost three week trip to Botswana and Mozambique. While in Botswana, I was able to watch the sun rise and set over the African landscape for the first time and it was a life-changing experience. The sun is so central to life in that part of the world and without Wifi, buildings to obstruct the landscape, and lots of time spent outdoors, I started to grasp how inconsequential humans are. I hope to go back to share a short part of time again with the majestic creatures that live there: lions, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, impalas, leopards, and the list goes on.

Best thing I did for someone else in 2014: Upped my annual contribution to public radio (WUOT-FM) and volunteered to help with a new charity event for Friends of Literacy. These are two of my favorite entities to help out. Both have a strong educational element and it makes me feel worthwhile to know that because of my small contribution adults in Knoxville might earn their GED and others are learning about events in the world through public radio. Please consider finding one charity in your community to contribute to in 2015. Even if you don’t have extra funds, please volunteer.

Best thing I did for myself in 2014: Embracing and exploring my love of camping. I have always loved the outdoors. This year I purchased a vintage travel trailer and worked on it a few hours a day until it was renovated. While I worked on it, I dreamed of camping in national parks in the United States. I didn’t have an opportunity to camp in the travel trailer before I sold it but I began booking spots in state and national parks where I would pitch a tent, observe nature, and enjoy falling asleep to a stream flowing or leaves rustling. I’m upgrading some of my camping gear this winter and can’t wait to explore more of the protected outdoors in our beautiful country.

Best non-fiction books of 2014: Wild, Tracks, and Lean In. I’ve previously blogged about Wild and Tracks (just click on the titles for the reviews) but I started reading Lean In at the end of this year. In this easy-read book, Facebook CEO, Sheryl Sandberg confronts gender bias head on. I call this an “easy-read book” because it is designed so that the reader can take in one subject in one chapter, hit the high points, and put the book down as needed until the next opportunity. I was most impressed with the amount of research presented that supports the theory that sexism is alive and well in the work force. My biggest take away: men are more confident than women when it comes to their careers and we have to work on this. Rather than thinking, “I’m just not ready to take on this new opportunity. I don’t have enough experience,” we should be thinking, “I am smart, educated, and capable of doing an excellent job in this opportunity even while learning new things.” All women should read this book.

Best meal of 2014: I’ve written about Mario Batali’s Babbo in NYC before so I’ll pick another favorite: Three course lunch at Elephant Hill winery in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Oh wow! I’m the type of person who appreciates the creative presentation of a dish especially if it is delicious and the chef here certainly gets that right. Elephant Hill Restaurant earned the distinction of 2014 “Best Winery Restaurant” by Cuisine Good Food Guide and I feel it is very deserving. They use locally sourced, seasonal, fresh food from growers and suppliers who are passionate about their products. I ordered the dish of cauliflower parfait, chilled prawns, pickles, smoked tomato crème to start, paired with 2013 Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc. My second course (just as wonderful as the first) was the entrée of smoked ricotta, duck tortellini, road beans, mint, confit onion dressing, paired with 2013 Elephant Hill Chardonnay. Elephant Hill’s website says the staff wishes to leave a lasting impression of fine food. Success!

Best thing to look forward to in 2015: Building a stronger body. James religiously goes to the gym and works out with a trainer. Like clockwork, he’s up and out the door at least three times a week. He has inspired me to get fit! I’m going to need a strong body in the New Year if I want to hike, kayak, and explore this great earth. He purchased a gym membership for me (don’t worry it was my idea) and we’ve been going together. We don’t work out together; we just ride together. I’ve been doing 35 minutes of cardio and stretching for 10 minutes on each visit. Now that my endurance is up slightly, I’m going to add core exercises such as abdominal work and yoga poses. It feels good to recognize the flow of adrenaline that comes from pushing oneself physically. I’m also paying particular attention again to regularly drinking green tea, eating probiotics such as Greek yogurt, and adding super foods like spinach, parsley, and kale to most dishes.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Glen Aros in Hawkes Bay

The accommodation in New Zealand is different than other places in the world. Cities are smaller and far between so there are not large chain hotels. Many of the luxury properties are actually called lodges instead of hotels and are run like what we would call a bed and breakfast.

By far our favorite lodge was Glen Aros in Hawkes Bay. The country estate was built in 1914 and is located in a breathtakingly beautiful setting with all of the luxuries: billiards room, pool, hot tub, impressive gardens, a wonderful hostess, and a personal chef (with Michelin star connections).

While this property is a bit farther out than others (drive 10k past the nearest lodge to get there), the only neighbors you'll hear in the evenings are sheep on the green hills around the estate. I took a 30 minute power walk both days we were there and had to stop to admire the roses, Golden Finches flying in and out of the fruit trees, and beautiful, fragrant herbs. 

Nigel (the chef) estimates that the Rosemary bush above has been in the garden for perhaps 100 years. He doesn't clip from this one but just lets it grow. We were in New Zealand in the early Summer this year and all of the roses were beautifully in bloom! I definitely stopped to smell the them...

I'm kicking myself for not taking photos of the lovely food served but the chef was highly talented. He baked his own bread, made the type of sauces and herbal vinaigrettes that make you close your eyes and savor, and prepared jellies and jams using fruit from the property for toast in the mornings. On of my favorite dishes used fresh peas and a mint vinaigrette. I should have begged for a cooking class but alas... someday.

Food was sourced from Glen Aros' own garden and yes - that's rhubarb in the photo. One morning we had rhubarb compost with fresh croissants! Certainly worth a stay if you ever plan on wine tasting in the Hawkes Bay area.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Bay of Islands, New Zealand

One of the wineries we especially loved is located in the North island called Marsden Estate. Our guide for the day, Diane, picked us up at Eagle's Nest in the Bay of Islands (one of my favorite spots in New Zealand) and we had a lovely half day tour.

Marsden Estate is located just outside of the village of Kerikeri on the way to the airport. Quirkier is an area in the North island of New Zealand that is very "Northern" and has a different climate and soil makeup than places in the South island. The Marlborough region is very popular for New Zealand wines but this part of the country is also on the map. 

Marsden, while more of a boutique winery, has won international awards for its wine and our wine expert there, Trevor, was a fantastic guide through the tasting! (I even found a picture of him on the Marsden Winery website.) He was passionate about the product and knowledgeable about its properties. James and I learned quite a bit about the wine making process and the lovely Marsden wines.

Our tasting was quick but informative and we especially loved the 2013 Pinot Gris. It was light in flavor with hints of apple. The best part was the spicy, dry finish that left an amazing watering in our mouths. The winery is sustainable and grows some uncommon varietals for the area such as Tempranillo, Chambourcin, and Pinotage.

Eagle's Nest, by the way, (where we were staying while in the Bay of Islands) is a fantastic property with sweeping views and spectacular service. I would LOVE to go back. They even put up a little Christmas tree in the corner for us!

The properties are unique in that they are "self-cater." If you would like to go out to dinner, the hosts will arrange transportation for you down to the village of Russell. Or, if you would like to shop for fresh ingredients and cook your own meal, that is also an option. James and I opted to do that one evening. 

We purchased an amazing cut of lamb, new potatoes, corn on the cob, "Living Lettuce," fresh onion, and a beautiful avocado - all from New Zealand. I cooked the meal, made a mint, blackberry sauce for the meat, and James poured the sparkling wine that he also sourced from this great country. 

Some of the villas have their own lap pools and on the afternoon that we arrived, the weather was gorgeous so I had a nice swim. The weather was warm (it is summer now in New Zealand) but not hot so I was lucky that the pools are heated. 

The views certainly are beautiful from Eagle's Nest. The property is very private - located on a peninsula - and up on the peak of the mountain. When we arrived, there was a cruise ship in the harbor but it sailed out peacefully that afternoon.