Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Green turtles in Hawaii

If you happen to be a huge sea turtle fan like me (my first love was the Loggerhead on Bald Head Island) then you will enjoy seeing the Green Turtle on the beaches near Kona. We stayed at the Four Seasons on the big island and one of the staff members told us that the best place to see these creatures on the resort property is near Kings Pond (a saltwater pool with many species of fish). We were lucky enough to see three during our stay. 

We had an even better spotting of these wonderful creatures after our trip out on the sailboat to see the Humpbacks. We then drove around the harbor and went to the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. The beaches there are beyond gorgeous and I wish I would have brought my snorkel gear! 

The turtles bask on the lava rock and look like dry stones. They especially like shallow lagoons. While walking on the beach you can wander out into the water up to your shins and see turtles chilling in the sun. 

My best Green Turtle experience occurred on our last day in Hawaii. We were staying at the Hilton so we could be closer to the airport and spend a little time with family (the guys had a convention to attend). The resort has a beautiful open-ocean pool where guests can snorkel. On Monday I was prepared and had my snorkel gear at the ready. Mom and Haylee (my brother's partner) were walking away from our cabana when Haylee ran back to get her camera. There was a huge Green Turtle in the water! I grabbed my gear, ran down the hill and raced out into the water like a cheesy Baywatch lifeguard. I was lucky enough to snorkel beside this creature (just the two of us) for 20 minutes. The turtle ate flowers from the surface of the water near some trees and just glided along beautifully. Sea turtles are so elegant in the water. It was an exhilarating experience and I will remember it always. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Whale watching off the coast of Kona

James and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii because my father had a work convention that my mother, brother (also works in the industry) and his girlfriend were attending. We went a few days early to explore the island and have fun before meetings began.

One morning we got up early for a whale watching trip aboard the SV Inspire with Hawaii Island Sailing. We were so happy with the experience our Captain Elaine and crew member Cassidy provided. We set out at 8am and even though there was a surf advisory, after we were out of the harbor, the ride was smooth and peaceful. We found Humpback whales immediately and rode along side a group of three for an hour and a half. It was spectacular.

The group we watched included a female with a calf and a male "escort." While it seems bizarre - apparently this is how it works in the world of the Humpback. The male is not necessarily the father of the calf. He is just there to make sure the female and offspring are safe going through shallow waters while nursing. The calves drink 100 gallons (!!) of milk each day.

We also enjoyed sailing. The sails are hoisted when the wind is strong enough and then the captain cut the engine. We just glided along and listened to the peaceful sounds of the surf. Spectacular! 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Chef's Table at Rocky Fork

In order to celebrate the coming in of 2016 and our appointment in Sri Lanka, James' father John arranged for a special evening at our country club. Members have the unique option to design a meal and dine in the kitchen as the chefs cook and prepare the food. The lights are turned low, flowers added to the table, and patrons are seated in front of the prep station to watch all of the plating. John invited James and I as well as my parents (and of course James' mother). Note: I apologize for dark photos - the lights were turned down for ambiance.

John and I had the pleasure of meeting with Chef Joel last week to discuss our tastes, new cooking techniques, and available ingredients. Joel is creative and inventive and I especially enjoyed brainstorming ideas for the different courses. We decided on an amuse-bouche (I get a tiny bit of credit for this idea because I love soft cheese), an appetizer, soup, salad, entree duet, and fancy dessert. (I'll get to the amazing wine later.)

The amuse-bouche is a single, bite-sized hors d'oeuvre. I wanted to add brie to the meal in some way and Chef Joel suggested we do a square of brie with honey and black pepper (the taste combo is impressive). He finished the dish with a bit of fresh thyme. Oh my goodness. I'm going to try this for a party. It is easy to do and your guests will love feeling pampered by this delicate but flavor packed treat. 

Up next was the appetizer. I love duck and asked if we could use it as something small for each person. Joel came up with the perfect flavor incorporation of honey glazed, sliced duck breast, with parsnip puree, red beet coulis, and fingerling potato chips. No clue how he managed to do the chips but they were perfectly crispy and not greasy. Have you ever had parsnips with beets? Delicious - if you don't like the texture of either just whiz it in the food processor before using in your dish.

The chefs used small plastic squeeze bottles (think ketchup and mustard bottles in a diner) to add the beet coulis to the plates above. Cathe and I decided we need some to add flare to the presentation of our dishes. (I'll probably just squeeze Sriracha on the side of mashed potatoes but hey...)

The chefs served soup next. We had potato and leek soup with roasted red pepper sauce, parsley oil, and toasted pine nuts. You can see Chef Joel using the squeeze bottle to drizzle the sauce on the soup in the photo below. It was smooth and just thick enough to be hearty but not overwhelming. Sometimes with potato soup the only flavor that comes through is the salt - but not with this dish. Wow. The taste was perfectly balanced between potato, leek, chicken stock and the toppings. (Loved the parsley oil.)

Chef Joel proposed doing a citrus salad with pomegranate and apple but I prefer savory salads so we asked if he likes working with fresh spinach. He immediately came up with this deliciousness: spinach, grilled red onion, crimini mushrooms, warm bacon dressing with - wait for it - pan-fried goat cheese medallions. Warm bacon dressing with spinach is a great occasional treat - especially in the winter. He added onion, mushrooms, and goat cheese. I will also try to reproduce this dish at home but will have to work to perfect it because there was nothing lacking last night. Even the onion was cut to the perfect thickness and did not come with an overwhelming flavor. YUM!

While watching Joel plate, I learned to pile the spinach leaves up for a nice presentation as opposed to spreading them out. Then, rather than sprinkling all the ingredients on top of the leaves, placing some of them in piles makes a lovely plate.

We first discussed using hangar steak with a special preparation for one part of our entree duet. John and I then asked about other meat choices and Joel suggested bison. Bison is not easy to prepare because it can come out a little dry. He solved this problem by suggesting a coating of porcini dust to coat the strip loin before cooking. Wow. Again - such a great idea and the slices came out tender. Before the bison was served though - Joel plated delicious glazed root vegetables with herbed farro pilaf. (I've never cooked farro before - it is a wheat grain such as cous cous.)

While we waited for the bison and scallops to be served - scallops were the other part of the entree duet - Tom decanted a magnum of Diamond Creek Lake for the table. John brought this very special wine from his personal cellar - there were probably only 25 bottles produced in 1984 and we were lucky enough to enjoy one of them. This was by far the best red wine I've had the pleasure to drink. Thank you so much to John and Cathe for sharing. My mom loved it so much that she somehow convinced my dad to give her the rest of his. What!? I need to work on that trick...

Check out this plate (please note the pan-seared scallops with whole grain mustard sauce and red wine shallot marmalade - absolutely the most perfectly prepared scallops that I have ever had):

As large as we were all living at this point - dessert was still to come. I don't know how he brought something even more inventive to the plate each course but Chef Joel impressed us again. For our last course we had chocolate cremeaux with raspberry jam, clementine pavlova with ginger whipped cream and brown sugar caramelized clementine topping. The chefs even brought out the torch! 

Yowza! And if all of that didn't happen to be enough... John presented a bottle of Delaforce 1977 vintage port. I'm really not a port fan but this was smooth and sweet and went down nicely (it was 18F out so it warmed us up). If port can always be this wonderful, I'd like to try it again.  

We had a night full of memories, loud laughter, and amazing tastes and sustenance. After that inventive meal with complex tastes and fresh ingredients I'm certain that I can get through the dreary Ohio winter! I'll just close my eyes and think of the sights, smells, and tastes of Chef's Table at Rocky Fork (2016). 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Fulbright to Sri Lanka Update

My appointment to Pakistan didn't pan out (it apparently can take years to get clearance from the Pakistani government to enter the country) so the Fulbright folks asked if I'd like to go to Sri Lanka instead. Absolutely. What an opportunity, right?!

(Map from travel.nationalgeographic.com)

Last week I signed the official grant papers and booked my plane ticket. I will be going for three months and while there I will interview journalists who covered the civil war conflict. I may also conduct focus groups with reporters and photographers. This research is in line with my previous agenda regarding influences on reporting from conflict zones. (My dissertation was on this topic.)

As I start preparing to go, my feelings are all over the place. I'm beyond thrilled for the opportunity to represent the Fulbright program as a scholar and to spend time in a new country. I am also nervous about living in a new country - especially one that has a different culture than we are used to. There will be a few instances of culture shock. I have already read articles about faux pas that Westerners commit such as touching someone - or food - with the left hand (considered to be unclean). Also shaking your head "no" in India and Sri Lanka can be read as a sort of head waggle that means "yes."

I'm searching for accommodations and there are so many websites such as Airbnb and FlipKey that I'm at a bit of a loss. Thankfully a property broker got back to me today and will start searching. James will come and go, using Sri Lanka and Colombo as a base to go back to India and explore the island. 

Friday, 25 December 2015

Viewing the Indian rhinos - elephant safari style

The Great One Horned Rhino (or Indian Rhino) is found in India. One of the best places to view these odd creatures is at the Kaziranga National Park in Eastern India. One morning we went on elephant back to get close to them and take photos. We were up at 4:30 a.m. and at the park by 5:30.

This was the first time I've ever ridden an elephant and we had to straddle their backs. It wasn't that comfortable but the ride is only for an hour and worth it in order to get close to the rhinos. (I do have some ethical concerns about keeping elephants in captivity. In the future, I don't think I'll ride an elephant but I guess you live and learn.)

The rhinos are pretty shy but not afraid of humans on elephant back. The elephants are comfortable around them as well and we were able to sit nearby and take pictures of a female and her baby as well as others. They are interesting to watch because they look so prehistoric! 

Rhinos use "communal toilets" and defecate in the same place often. Out of these piles of poo grow Rhino Dung Flowers or Spider Flowers. The species is invasive in India and the rhinos spread the seeds by eating them and passing them on. (So pretty but strange!)

The early morning elephant safari was peaceful and interesting. I enjoyed the opportunity to get close to the rhinos, water buffalo, and swamp deer. 

I've included a short video of clips I took of the one-horned rhino. They move like tanks! 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Indian food cooking lesson at Bagh Tola Lodge

Part of our tour included a stay at Bagh Tola Lodge near Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve. The lodge is fairly basic but we enjoyed great hospitality and delicious Indian dishes. One of the highlights was an impromptu Indian food cooking class.

The cook has to prepare food on basically a bunsen burner - not easy, right? Check out the heat source (I would surely burn the house down):

We learned how to make the foundation to many Indian dishes: a paste of fresh ginger, red onion, and garlic. This was amazing to watch and I'm going to try it in my own kitchen. I usually start most of my dishes with minced fresh garlic and red onion but throw in a little ginger and you have a healthy kick! I've also read in a couple of Indian recipes that you can do this in a simple way by just throwing the ingredients into a food processor. 

He prepared a carrot and pea dish with minced tomatoes. It began with the mixture of ginger, onion, and garlic, in a little bit of canola oil. Then the spices are added: salt, cumin, turmeric, and a bit of coriander. Once the spices are "alive," add the carrots and peas. Easy! 

What isn't easy is... cooking in the dark! The power goes off frequently in India and the generator at Bagh Tola takes a few minutes to come on. In the photo below, someone is holding their cellphone flashlight up so we could finish our cooking lesson.

I created a simple video to show the cooking in action:

Visiting a tea estate in India

Our tour included a stop at an amazing tea estate on the way to our last camp, Diphlu River Lodge. We took a flight from our camp at Kanha National Park to Kolkata and drove to Haroocharai (an estate where they grow and process tea leaves). The estate boasts 430 acres of beautiful, short, green bushes with large, fat, tea leaves.

The manager and his wife greeted us (their two gorgeous labradors also approached the guests for a sniff and a pat) and they escorted us through the estate home. We then proceeded to the back "garden" where we relaxed on the gorgeous lawn with a glass of wine or beer. While we rested the manager told us about the tea estate and the harvest process. (James got lucky because the female yellow lab laid at his feet during the talk.)

Tea is harvested between March and December in the eastern part of India. The manager said that it is important to make sure the leaves are placed on drying racks within 20 hours of being harvested. I'm interested in the process of drying leaves (my grandmother taught me how to dry the herbs that I grow at home) and we learned that the estate uses oil or coal to fire the ovens that dry the tea leaves. 

We also learned that the harvesting process is similar to how one might harvest herbs. If you've ever grown basil or oregano or whatever - even in a pot - you know to pinch off the top, small leaves before going for the large leaves. This helps with growth and is the basic idea of pruning. This is exactly the harvesting process for tea. The manager explained to us that there are many different plots of tea over their 430 acres and workers will "pluck" (the Indian-English word used for "pick") the same plot once every seven days. That allows for exceeded growth during the other six days. 

Learning about tea and the harvesting and drying process was interesting to me because I enjoy a good cup of tea. What was even better, though, was sitting outside in lovely 74F weather, enjoying delicious, home-cooked Indian food for lunch and chatting with those who run the estate, their son, as well as their friends. They embraced us (symbolically) like family! We also adored the well behaved canine members of the family. The dogs were so sweet and allowed us to fawn over them as we were all missing our own pets. As a generalization, I have experienced that the people of India are very kind and welcoming.