Marble inlay artists in Agra, India

Saturday, 30 January 2016

In Agra we toured the Taj Mahal (photo above shows detail work on the exterior walls) and while I'll post about that experience later, I wanted to share about the marble inlay work. The Taj had approximately 20,000 people working on it for some 22 years and many of them spent almost a lifetime doing marble inlay. Now there are only about 300 families that still know how to do the work and we were able to visit one shop where the tradition has been passed down. 

Young men have learned from the fathers, who learned from their fathers, etc. We sat through a brief demonstration where we learned about this amazing art. 

All of the inlay here is still done by hand (I don't even know if it can be done by machines - probably somewhere). I asked if the workers' fingers, hands, and arms get tired and the spokesperson said yes - of course - but the other problem is that their concentration wavers and the artists need to take breaks about every 15 minutes. The precious stones that are inlaid are so small (we held the tiny jewels for a minute) that no one can sustain the precision for very long. For instance, the photo of the flower below has more than 50 precious stones that are carved into a shape and will be inlaid. Amazing! 

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! 

Chef's Table at Rocky Fork

Thursday, 21 January 2016
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). 

Fulbright to Sri Lanka Update

Wednesday, 20 January 2016
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

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.