Baja: All Zen and Fun on the Eastern Front

Loreto, Mexico

Loreto Mexico

It’s easy to associate Baja, Mexico with throngs of partying beach goers. No doubt the touristy tip of Cabo has this rep, but this is only a tiny part of Baja, the skinny California peninsula stretching more than 700 miles (1100 km) south of the U.S. border to its glittery tequila-soused point. For those seeking a more remote location, fret not, there are plenty of quieter and lesser trod areas in between that will quell the craving for a low key, sun soaked, holiday experience – with a margarita or cerveza in hand, of course.

Loreto Mexico

I was recently invited to attend a Chef’s Week event at the new Villa del Palmar Resort in Loreto, Baja, to not only indulge in rocking cuisine from a trio of world class chefs, but also to explore this relatively and refreshingly undiscovered niche of Baja.

Danzante Bay Mexico

Situated 300 miles (500 km) north of Cabo on the eastern coast overlooking the Sea of Cortez, the resort is away from it all, yet clearly in the middle of exactly where it should be, with abundant opportunities for relaxation and activity. Everything evokes balance – including (literally) the mighty location of its stunning golf course landscaped into the teetering cliffs overlooking the sea. I don’t golf, but I thought pretty hard about taking a lesson when I hiked the trails around the Rhees Jones designed golf course, perched on a bluff with panoramic views.

View from Hike

The orientation of the resort is equally spectacular, sandwiched between the jagged ridge line of the grand Sierra de la Giganta Mountains and the picturesque and vertiginous outcroppings of the Islands of Loreto, a pristine Unesco World Heritage Site.

Villa del Palmar Resort Loreto

Boat Tour Villa del Palmar

North of the resort lies the historically rich and vibrant colonial town of Loreto, which also (conveniently) has an international airport with direct flights to and from Los Angeles on Alaska Air. Loreto is a quaint fishing village, easily walkable and offering a little bit of everything, including an historic mission, muchos curios shops, and a vibrant plaza ringed with restaurants and bars that come alive at night. A long promenade stretches along the town’s sandy beach, home to fishing and tourist boats, thatched beach umbrellas and cafés overlooking the waters of the Sea of Cortez which beckons with its multitude of islands and marine life waiting to be explored.

Downtown Loreto Mexico

Loreto Mexico

Loreto Mexico

Thirty minutes south of the town, with easy shuttle access, lies the secluded property of Danzante Bay and the Villas, surrounded by unrivaled nature with an expansive white sand beach, miles of hiking trails, and all of the active and zen (your choice!) amenities of one-stop shopping resort life, including the aforementioned golf, a world class spa and fitness center, all things water sport, and beach yoga. The easiest task at hand is to simply park yourself and let time slip away while you contemplate your next cocktail, meal, or form of exercise.

Villa del Palmar Loreto

For nature lovers – and you will be one, after you explore the Islands of Loreto – take a private boat tour from the Villa and Danzante Bay, where you will weave between the craggy rocks and jutting, cactus strewn islands dotted with deserted beaches and private coves inhabited by a lexicon of birds, with plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and whale watching, likely in the company of pods of playful dolphins.

Snorkling and Boat Danzante Bay

Whale watching Danzante Bay

Back on the mainland, I was lucky enough to be at the Villa for Chef’s Week, which perfectly balanced my zen downtime. It was a 5-day fiesta extravaganza helmed by Celebrity Chefs Keith Breedlove, Manouschka Guerrier, and the Villa’s Gerardo Garcia Martinez, where we were treated to demonstrations and tastings, multi-course extravaganzas, plenty of local wine and tequila, and all around socializing with a fun group of food-loving (and writing) folks.

Chefs Week Culinerdy

Chefs Week Villa del Palmar

Chefs Week

Clearly there is something for everyone at this destination, which is conducive to families, couples, and even solo travelers. You can be as active, festive, or exploratory as you wish – or not, and simply chill with a book and beverage in a hammock on the beach. The point is that you will come back relaxed, refreshed, and well-fed, with no travel burnout or crowd fatigue, which to me is the whole point of a vacation escape.

Danzante Bay Mexico

Disclosure:
My travel costs and accommodations were provided for by Villa del Palmar and Alaska Air. I was not compensated for this post, and all opinions and impressions are my own.

Braised Lamb Meatballs with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Feta

 – It’s a Meatball Time of Year –

Recipe for Lamb Meatballs with Feta

When the weather is cold, wet, and snowy, nothing is more comforting than a platter of comforting meatballs, browned and braised in a fragrant and spicy tomato sauce. These meatballs take inspiration from my two favorite types of meatball, a Moroccan lamb kefta and an Italian meatball, and roll them into a spicy and oh-so satisfying dish. In this recipe, the ground lamb is seasoned with North African spices, and each ball is filled with a nugget of feta cheese nestling in the center. After a quick browning in a skillet, they are popped into the oven to braise and finish cooking in a blanket of roasted tomato-pepper sauce infused with spices and a kick of heat, harissa-style. It may be chilly outside, but these meatballs will surely warm you up.

Braised Lamb Meatballs

Braised Lamb Meatballs with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Feta

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling time
Makes about 20 meatballs and 2 1/2 cups sauce; Serves 4 to 6

Sauce:
1 (14.5-ounce) can fire roasted tomatoes with juices
1 (12-ounce) jars roasted peppers, drained
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons ground chili paste, such as sambal olek
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Meatballs:
2 pounds ground lamb
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces feta, cut into 1/3-inch cubes, plus 1/4 cup, crumbled, for garnish
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or mint leaves

1. Combine the sauce ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to blend.
2. Combine all of the meatball ingredients, except the feta, in a bowl. Using your hands, gently mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed.
3. Shape the meat into 1 1/2 inch balls. Make a small indentation in the centers with your thumb and insert a feta cube, then close the meat around to seal it. Place the meatballs on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides, turning as needed, about 5 minutes. (The meatballs will not be cooked through at this point. They will continue to cook in the sauce.) Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
5. Add the sauce to the skillet and cook briefly over medium heat, scraping up any brown bits in the pan. Return the meatballs to the skillet and nestle them in the sauce, turning to coat. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the meatballs are thoroughly cooked through, about 30 minutes. During the last 5 minutes of cooking time, sprinkle the crumbled feta over the lamb.
6. Serve with couscous or rice and garnish with chopped mint or cilantro.

 

Elegant Sides: Pureed Cauliflower

A light and silky alternative to mashed potatoes:

Silky pureed cauliflower

Can you ever get tired of potatoes? No, you firmly say, and I would agree. Sometimes, however, a fluffy-creamy-comforting side dish is called for, and potatoes (shocker) just don’t do the trick. Usually it’s simply a menu issue, meaning potatoes are not a perfect match to the main dish. Think shellfish, for instance, such as scallops or shrimp. Or a cuisine that doesn’t traditionally include potatoes. Step in, cauliflower. There’s something a little magical about this gnarly crucifer. Eaten raw, its flavor is pronounced in an earthy, grassy, unmistakably cruciferous way. When steamed, it transforms into something else, morphing into a buttery, milder version of itself – slightly sweet, a little fresh, and beautifully enhanced with, yes, butter. When roasted, it becomes something else entirely, evoking adjectives which include caramelized, nutty, and crisp. I made this puree recently to accompany a dinner of slow-cooked lamb. It goes equally well with just about anything.

Cauliflower Purée

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

The chicken stock adds great flavor to the purée. If you prefer a vegetarian version, substitute vegetable stock. Alternatively, you can use water, but adjust the seasoning accordingly.

1 large head cauliflower, florets and core cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, loosely packed
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1  teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for garnish
Fresh thyme leaves

Place the cauliflower and chicken stock in a large pot. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the cauliflower is very tender, about 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower to the bowl of a food processor. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock and process until smooth. Add the cheese, butter, garlic, salt, and pepper and process to blend. If the purée is too thick, thin with additional spoonfuls of the stock to your desired consistency. Serve garnished with fresh thyme leaves and extra black pepper.

Breakfast for Dinner: Shakshuka

Tunisian-style Ragout with Sausage, Kale, and Poached Egg

Egg, Sausage, Kale Ragout

Shakshuka is a traditional North African breakfast composed of simmered tomatoes, peppers, aromatics, and poached eggs. It’s meant to be spicy which is a nifty DIY method for keeping cool in the Saharan heat. (The more you sweat, the more you cool off). As for us, it’s a warming meal that screams comfort food, perfect for the dead of winter. The Tunisians call shakshuka breakfast, but I’ve added sausage, spinach, and chickpeas and prefer to call it dinner. It’s delicious as is, served with crusty bread for mopping up the egg yolk and the sauce. If desired, spoon prepared couscous (or rice for gluten-free) into shallow serving bowls. Make a well in the center of the couscous and ladle the ragout and egg into the center of the couscous.

Sausage Tomato Ragout with Poached Eggs and Chick Peas

Prepare this in a 10-inch deep skillet and serve family-style at the table. If you have individual skillets (pictured), then prepare the ragout in one large skillet or pot. Before adding the eggs, divide the ragout between individual skillets placed on the stovetop over medium heat, and add one egg to each skillet. Chard or kale leaves may be substituted for the spinach.

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 pound hot Italian or chorizo sausages, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 medium onion, chopped, about 1 cup
1 large garlic clove
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons harissa or hot sauce, to taste

1 bunch spinach, stems discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
4 to 6 large eggs
Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley for garnish

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a deep oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausages and brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Transfer the sausages with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with a paper towel. Discard the oil from the pan, but do not rinse out the skillet.
2. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the onion to the skillet and saute over medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about 2 minutes, scraping up any brown bits. Add the garlic, paprika, and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Return the sausages to the pan and add the tomatoes, chickpeas, and salt. Stir to combine and taste for seasoning. If more heat is desired, add the harissa or hot sauce to taste.
3. Simmer the ragout, partially covered, over medium-low heat, to slightly thicken and allow the flavors to develop, about 20 minutes, stirring and breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon. Stir in the spinach and cook until slightly wilted, about 2 minutes.
4. Make an indentation or well in the ragout with a spoon. Crack one egg in a small bowl and gently slide the egg into the indentation. Repeat with the remaining eggs, taking care to not overlap the eggs. Cover the skillet and simmer over medium-low heat until the egg whites are set but the yolks remain runny, about 10 minutes.
5. Remove from the heat. Serve family style or spoon the ragout with one egg into individual serving bowls. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or parsley and a grind of black pepper.

Holiday Prep: Orange Olive Oil Cake with Almonds and Cardamom

An easy holiday cake perfect for any time of day:

Orange Cardamom Tea Cake

This light and moist cake will carry you through the holidays, and, for that matter, any day. Redolent with orange and cardamom and slightly spiked with Gran Marnier, it’s delicious for brunch or afternoon tea and spiffy enough for dessert. Almond flour adds a slight nuttiness and wholesome crumb to the cake. And do not skimp on the orange zest, as it adds an important zing of citrus and fragrance. The sea salt is optional in the glaze, but if you lean that way, go for it. The flavors of the cake will develop while it cools and the glaze will ensure long lasting moistness, which makes this cake an entertainer’s best friend. Store the cake at room temperature for up to 3 days, but it will likely be eaten long before that.

Orange Olive Oil Cake with Almonds and Cardamom

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour plus cooling time
Serves 8 to 10

Cake:
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon (packed) finely grated orange zest, from an untreated orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon salt

Glaze:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon Gran Marnier or Cointreau (optional)
Pinch of sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch spring-form pan, line with parchment and butter the parchment.
2. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until light in color. Add the olive oil, orange juice, zest, vanilla and almond extracts and stir to blend.
3. Combine the flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, and salt in a separate bowl. Add to the wet ingredients, stirring to blend without over-mixing. Pour into the prepared pan.
4. Bake until the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes clean, about 45 minutes.
5. While the cake is baking, prepare the glaze. Combine the sugar and orange juice in a small saucepan. Simmer until the sugar dissolves and the liquid reduces to a syrupy consistency, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the Gran Marnier, if using, and sea salt and simmer briefly, about 1 minute, stirring frequently.
6. Transfer the cake from the oven to a wire rack. Brush the top with the glaze and cool 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the pan, and then brush the cake on the sides with the glaze. Cool completely.
7. Serve dusted with confectioners sugar and/or with whipped cream. If desired, add a tablespoon of the (thoroughly cooled) glaze to the cream while whipping.

Cider Brined and Grill Roasted Turkey

Do brine or not to brine?
In my opinion, brining is worth it – all you need is time. Follow these steps, and you will have an unfailingly moist and flavorful turkey with a crisp and crackly skin.

Brined, Air-Dried, and Grill-Roasted Turkey

My favorite way to make a turkey is to brine it – not dry brine, but in a liquid, for 24 hours. Then I remove it from the brine and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator overnight to dry out. This ensures that the skin will not be soggy, but sufficiently dry of moisture so that it will roast, or in this case grill, to crispy perfection. Before roasting, I allow it to sit at room temperature for 1 hour, to ensure even cooking, and then I roast it on the grill. The grill? Yep. Not only am I partial to my gas grill for all sorts of cooking, I only have one oven. So when the holidays roll around and the kitchen and its appliances kick into overtime, I rely on my handy outdoor grill to step in for roasting. It’s simple to do over indirect heat, much like the indirect heat of your oven. Just pay attention to the temperature, and rotate the turkey for even cooking. The added bonus is that the grill will burnish your turkey a gorgeous mahogany color, a hue I have never achieved in my kitchen oven. So there you have it.

The turkey pictured is a 20 pounder, but generally, I roast a 16 to 18 pound bird. My family and I don’t like stuffings, so I fill the cavity of the turkey with handfuls of herbs, a quartered onion, and a quartered lemon, while taking care not to pack in too much. Once the turkey has finished cooking and while it’s resting (for at least 30 minutes) I remove the herbs and wedges and replace with a fresh bunch of herbs for decoration before carving. This step is necessary in order to show off the gorgeous results – and, boy, are they gorgeous.

So, go ahead and work these simple steps into your pre-Thanksgiving plan. You can do one step a day: Begin on Monday with the brine and finish with grilling on Thursday for a spectacular Thanksgiving turkey. It’s worth it.

Cider Brine:
3 quarts water, divided
1 quart apple cider
1 cup kosher salt
1 medium onion, quartered
1 small bunch fresh sage and/or rosemary sprigs
3 garlic cloves, smashed but intact
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
Peeled zest of one orange

To brine the turkey, you will need enough space in your refrigerator for a container large enough to hold your turkey submerged in the brine. This can be cumbersome, but it’s worth it, in my book.  I have used a plastic storage box in the past, but now rely on a cooler, in which I pour the brine directly to cover the turkey. I then leave the cooler outside overnight (note: this is only practical if the outside temperature is as cold as your refrigerator).

1. Make the brine: Combine 1 to 2 quarts water, the salt, onion, sage or rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and the orange zest in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and add the remaining water and the cider; cool thoroughly (or chill overnight).

2. Brine the turkey: Place the turkey in the brine. If not fully submerged, then add more water to cover. Refrigerate overnight.

3. Air-dry the turkey: Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry inside the cavity and outside. Place on a rack in a large roasting pan and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.

4. Grill the turkey: Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 1 hour before roasting or grilling. To grill: Prepare the grill for indirect cooking over medium heat (325°F). Grill until thoroughly cooked, rotating the turkey every hour and basting every 30 minutes or so with pan juices. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.

Cranberry Fig Chutney

Cranberry Sauce 2.0
Add a little zing to your sauce

Cranberry Sauce Recipe

Thanksgiving dinner is not complete without cranberry sauce. And while I have nothing against the traditional sugary cranberry combination, I find I crave an extra depth of flavor in the standard sauce – and so I devised this chutney. What I like about chutney is it’s a combination of fruit and savory ingredients, and not timid about incorporating herbs, spices, and even a kick of heat. In other words, it nails many of the flavor senses (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, heat) that, to me, yield a more satisfying mouthful.

In this chutney, dried figs add a mellow, nutty sweetness, and fresh ginger and orange add perfume and zing, all of which balance out the cranberries’ natural astringency, while allowing them to remain the star of the show – after all we’re talking Thanksgiving here.

The good news is that this chutney is not exclusively for the Thanksgiving table. It also makes a great condiment for other fruit-loving proteins such as pork, duck, and lamb. I like to serve it as an accompaniment on a cheese platter as well, or dabbed on goat cheese-smeared crostini.

Cranberry Fig Chutney

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Makes about 2 cups

18 dried black mission figs, quartered
1/2 cup Port wine
12 ounces cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger
Juice and zest from 1/2 orange
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (2-inch) rosemary sprig

1. Place the figs in a small bowl and pour the Port wine over the figs. Set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Combine the cranberries and sugar in a heavy medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Add the figs and Port wine, the ginger, orange juice and zest, pepper, salt, and rosemary sprig. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until the cranberries burst and the chutney has thickened, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Discard the rosemary sprig. (The chutney may be made up to 3 days in advance. Cover and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature).