Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thai-inspired Spicy Steamed Wild Cockles with Lemongrass and Chiles

I'm taking a break from travel photos to post about some recipes I've been trying.  This one was a keeper!

I found some wild cockles at Costco.  I was looking for mussels or clams.  They had mussels but I was intrigued with the cockles.  I've had clams before but never cockles.  What's the difference you ask?  Well I quickly googled it at Costco.  (What would I do without google?)  Apparently they are basically the same.  Cockles are soft-shelled clams and usually smaller, brinier and have vertical ridges on their shell.  Sounds delicious.  I bought a tray.    

I was going to steam the clams/mussels in a butter, garlic and white wine sauce.  Then inspiration hit me.  I wanted to try a Thai-inspired broth instead.  You know that sour, salty and sweet type of broth that awakens all of your senses at the same time?  I gathered these ingredients.  
The recipe turned out delicious.  The cockles are a real treat.  Where have I been all of my life?  They have a distinct briny taste to them.  Some of the cockles (when cooked) retained a juice sack.  When you ate them, the briny sack burst.  It was delicious!  They are also supposed to be more sandy and gritty than clams so be sure to soak and change the water several times to release all of the sand and grit.  Also, careful with the fish sauce.  Only add more after the cockles are cooked and release some of their brine or it will be very salty.  Really, you can use mussels or clams or cockles or a mixture.  It's a delicious recipe.  Don't forget the french bread to sop up all the extra juices.  

Thai-inspired Spicy Steamed Wild Cockles with Lemongrass and Chiles
Serves 4

4-5 lb. fresh wild cockles (or mussels or clams), scrubbed well (Soak in a large pot of water to allow clams to expel sand and grit.  You will need to change the water several times to get all the sand out)
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 c. low salt chicken broth
1/2 c. dry white wine
2-3 stalks lemongrass, trimmed & cut into 1-2 inch pieces (smash them to release flavor)
1 1/2 inch of fresh ginger, skin removed and cut into chunks
3 kaffir lime leaves (or zest of 1/2 a lime peeled off in large strips-about 5 strips)
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
juice of 1/2 a lime
1-2 Thai red chiles (1 for a little heat, 2 for a lot), sliced into thin rounds
cilantro (for garnish)
bread (for dipping into sauce)

1) Start soaking your cockles about an hour before cooking.  I changed the water 4 or 5 times and still had some grit.  I started about 30 min prior to cooking. 

2) Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large saute pan or pot (with cover) over medium heat.  Add the shallots and stir often until browned, about 2-3 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute for an additional 1 minute.  Be careful not to let the garlic burn. 
3) Add the chicken broth, white wine, lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and lime juice to the pan/pot.  Bring the ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat to medium low; cover the pan/pot and simmer for about 10 minutes
4) Remove the cover and increase heat to medium-high.  Add the well drained cockles and Thai chiles to the pan/pot.  Cover and simmer until the cockles open, about 3-4 minutes.  Transfer the cockles to serving bowls, throw away any cockle that hasn't opened. 
5) Taste the broth remaining in the pot/pan.  Season to taste.  Ladle broth over the cockles.  Serve with french bread.  

Note: Discard the lemongrass, ginger and kaffir lime leaves.  They are not edible. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Restaurant Ramblings: Gelateria Carabe (Florence, Italy)

We visited a few gelaterias during our stay in Italy.  This one was in Florence, near the Galleria dell' Accademia (where David lives).  
The gelato here was delicious!  So many little time.

I ended up with a chocolate and a raspberry/citrus gelato.  The chocolate was so yummy.  The raspberry/citrus was good too.  It had just enough bite from the citrus.  

Gelateria Carabe
Via Ricasoli 60
Florence, Italy
ph: +39 055 289476

Hotel Enza (Florence, Italy)

We stayed at Hotel Enza for 4 nights.  It was about a 10 minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence.  It was in the San Lorenzo area of Florence, north of the train station.  The location itself was convenience enough but yet outside more of the real touristy area of the city.  We were close to the Central Market but still within walking distance from the Duomo.  Note the hotel did not have an elevator and there were 2 flights of stairs.  It also did not offer breakfast.

The room itself was newer (recently remodeled?).  We had a queen sized bed and a pull out couch.  The desk staff was hit or miss.  There were some that were very helpful and others that were grouchy and gruff.  One refused to give me extra towels.  When I explain why I needed them, you'll understand.  

While the room itself was large by European standards, the bathroom appeared just as new and spacious.  The room came with air conditioning, cable tv and free wifi (even in the rooms).  However the shower was a whole other story.  I'm not sure how you're supposed to use this shower.  Perhaps I'm just a silly American but for the life of me I didn't understand why there was no enclosure for the shower.  There was no lip in the floor to contain the water.  The shower curtain was a joke as it did not contain the water running out from under it.  Personally, I think they missed something in the a shower door!!!

I was the first victim of the shower.  The first night I took a shower.  At the end, I was standing in water.  The entire floor of the bathroom was covered in water.  The water even seeped under the bathroom door and into the bedroom area.  We had to use the hand towels to mop up the mess.  We mentioned it to the front desk in the morning and they said ok.  They would look into it.  The second night was when I asked for extra towels.  I was told no.  Instead, I should go see if the shower still leaks and come back if I need the towels.  No, I would like extra towels now I said because if it leaks, I don't want to have to come back down for the towels.  No, he told me.  Go see if they fixed it first.  

Grrr.  Of course I knew it was not "fixed".  So on the second, third and forth nights we got good at building beaver dams.  As you can see in this photo, here's the aftermath of our beaver dams.  It was comical yet frustrating at the same time.
If they would only fix the shower situation this hotel could be better.  For now, stay here at your own risk.  Be sure to check out the shower before you start running the water.  Just sayin....

Hotel Enza
Via San Zanobi 45
Florence, Italy
ph: +39 055 490990

High Speed Train from Rome to Florence

We packed up after one night in Rome and walked to the train station.  Roma Termini was a 10 minute walk from our hotel.  We had bought our train tickets online before traveling to Italy.  The one way ticket was 39 euro and the ride would take 90 minutes.
If you don't buy your tickets ahead of time, you can always buy tickets for same day travel at these machines.  You'll either need coins or a credit card with a PIN number.  The machines have an option to change the language to English.  Just type in destination and time tables will show.  Select the time you want to depart and continue to the payment.
Once you have a ticket, look on the big departure boards to see which platform your train will depart from.  Note:  sometimes your destination will not be the last on that specific train line & thus not listed.  It's easiest to look for the departure time and double check that it's really your train.  The platform will show on the last column.  
This is really really really important.  Before boarding the train, be sure to get your ticket verified in the machines near the platform.  The fines for not verifying your ticket are pretty steep in Italy.  The trains were fast and convenient.  We were in Florence before we knew it....well after a nap of course.  

Foro Romano (Rome, Italy)

The Foro Romano or the Roman Forum was the religious, political and commercial center of the city of Rome.  What remains in the valley between Capitol and Palatine Hills are columns, broken fragments of marble and the remains of temples, palaces and shops.  The ruins are not of one period, but of almost 900 years (from 500 BC to AD 400).
This area was the original Forum or the main square.  In this area were temples, courts of law, government buildings and arches.  Rome was said to be born here. 

This is the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.  The Roman Senate built this temple to honor Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) and his wife, Faustina.  The columns stand 50 feet high.  In 1550, a church was housed here.  

The Arch of Titus commemorated the Roman victory over the province of Judaea (Israel) in AD 70.  The Israelites believed in only one god, which wasn't the emperor of Rome.  This angered the emperor.  Israel revolted against Rome.  The Romans defeated the Israelites, took Jerusalem and destroyed their temple.  They left just what remains today (the "Wailing Wall").  50,000 Jewish slaves were brought to Rome and forced to build this arch and the Colosseum.  
The inside of the arch shows the Romans bringing back treasures from their conquering of Jerusalem.
The other side shows Emperor Titus in a chariot being crowned by the goddess Victory.

This road is Via Sacra and it leads from the Arch of Titus to Capitol Hill.  This was the main street of the Forum.  

Foro Romano (Roman Forum)
Via della Salaria Vecchia 5/6
Rome, Italy

Arch of Constantine (Rome, Italy)

The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch.  It marks one of the great turning points in history - the military coup that made Christianity mainstream.      
Emperor Constantine defeated rival Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312.  The night before the battle, Constantine saw a cross in the sky.  When he became sole emperor, he legalized Christianity.  

Arch of Constantine
Via di San Gregorio
Rome, Italy

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Colosseo (Rome, Italy)

The staff at the front desk of our hotel gave us a great tip (and I read it in one of my guidebooks).  If you don't have tickets to the Colosseum, don't wait in line at the Colosseum.  The lines are usually very very very long.  The tickets are combination tickets, allowing you entrance to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill in addition to the Colosseum.  Get your tickets at the entrance to Palatine Hill instead.  The line will be shorter there.  When we got there, there was just 2 other people in line.  Once you have your ticket, you can enter and visit Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum first or proceed to the Colosseum.  Once at the Colosseum, stand in the shorter line for people with tickets.  It goes fast.

Legend says that as long as the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand; and when Rome falls, so will the world.
The Colosseum is one of Rome's iconic landmarks.  It was built at the peak of the Roman empire in AD 80.  The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater.  It was an arena used for gladiator contests and public spectacles.  
In it's day, the Colosseum could accommodate more than 50,000 roaring fans.  Only about 1/3 of the original Colosseum remains today.  Most of it was destroyed by earthquakes.  The rest of it was stolen for other buildings.

The arena was originally covered by a wooden floor.  Part of it is reconstructed.  The other part remains uncovered.  You can see the underground tunnels where the animals and prisoners were kept.  
Climbing a steep set of stairs leads to a panoramic view of the Colosseum.

Colosseo (Colosseum)
Piazza del Colosseo 1

Tickets: 12 euro for combo ticket (includes Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill), valid for 2 consecutive days, one entry per sight
Tip: Buy your combo ticket at the less crowded Palatine Hill entrance on Via di San Gregorio

Restaurant Ramblings: Entocea Cavour 313 (Rome, Italy)

If you follow my blog, you know I love food.  I had scoped this place out prior to arriving in Rome.  I had noted that it was close to our hotel.  After reading reviews and seeing the menu online, I wanted to try this place out.  

It's a lovely wine bar and located on one of the main streets in the area (Via Cavour).  It was about 5 minutes from our hotel and about 5 minutes from the Colosseum.  We arrived early for dinner by Italy standards (around 7:00 pm).  Italians, as do most Europeans, tend to dine later (closer to 9pm).   
The bar has a nice wooden interior.  I love love love how they store their wine bottles, on top of the rafters!!  We witnessed the waiters and waitresses retrieving some of the bottles.  It was quite a show!  
Since it's a wine bar, let's start with the wine.  We each ordered 2 glasses during the evening.  My friend and I both are red wine drinkers.  She tried the 2011 Castello di Uzzano Chianti Classico for 4.50 euro.  She liked it so she ordered it twice.  I tried 2 different wines: 2008 Venturini Amarone della Valpolicella for 8 euro and 2012 Castello di Corbara Campo della Fiera (Sangiovese, Umbria).  All the wines we tried that night were delicious.
For food, we started with the Calabrian Mix for 10 euro.  It contained nduja (a spicy, spreadable salami - served on a crostini), olives, sun dried tomatoes (in olive oil & seasoned with herbs, red pepper and garlic) and soppressata (spicy salami).  Yummy!
We also had a Catherine Salad for 7 euro (lettuce, arugula, goat cheese and a sauce made with garlic, olive oil, anchovies & capers).  We both loved the lightness and freshness of this salad.
Our last dish was Culatello Rolls (prime cut of pork prepared like prosciutto and stuffed with goat cheese, hazelnuts, honey and balsamic vinegar) for 10 euro.  Culatello is considered the filet mignon of prosciutto.  This dish was delicious!!
Cheers to our first night in Italy!!
If you're ever in the area, I highly suggest this fun wine bar.  They have a very nice selection of wine by the glass and they are reasonably priced.  The food is also delicious! 

Entocea Cavour 313
Via Cavour 313
Rome, Italy

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome, Italy)

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore was basically right up the street from our hotel.  It celebrates Mary, the mother of Jesus.  It is one of Rome's oldest and best preserved churches.  It was built in AD 432 on the spot where a 3rd century pope witnessed a miraculous midsummer snowfall (reenacted every August 15th).
It is also one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome.  Maggiore indicates that this church, a Vatican possession, was much more important than other churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The interior of the church contains mosaics, said to be some of Rome's best surviving.  Unfortunately, we did not enter the church to see these.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore 42 (off of Via Cavour)
Rome, Italy

Hotel Saturnia (Rome, Italy)

A girlfriend and I have been planning this trip for a while!  She was traveling from Hawaii and I was traveling from Oregon.  We were meeting up in Italy for 11 days of fun fun fun!!   We would be meeting in Rome to start our adventure.  We were on a budget with respect to our hotels.  We had decided in advance to look for budget hotels so we could spend more on meals and other excursions.

I had picked this hotel for it's convenient location near the Rome Termini train station and the Colosseum.  From the airport, I took the Leonardo Express high speed train for 14 euro.  It took about 30 minutes from FCO airport to the Rome Termini station.  From the train station, the hotel was about a 10 minute walk away.  It is located on a small side street/alley off of Via Cavour (near the Santa Maria Maggiore Church).  
We were given a room that was not in the actual hotel.  It was a couple doors down and had a private and separate entrance from the hotel.  We had an outer door/gate that locked and our actual door with a lock.  The room was very basic and minimal.  We were given a single bed and a double bed.  The room had cable tv and air conditioning.  
The bathroom was small and a little shabby but it would do for the one night we were spending there.  
Being directly on the street at ground level, our room was loud.  We heard all the little noises of the night - from the buses running on the main street to voices outside to our door, to cars being started, etc.  

Breakfast the next day was also included in the room price.  They have an espresso machine and we were treated to excellent cappuccinos.  
Breakfast included a selection of yogurt, cereals, meats, processed cheese, hard boiled eggs and assorted pastries.  Did I mention the coffee was good?  =)
Overall, our experience at the hotel was okay.  I would definitely recommend requesting a room in the main hotel.  The annex room was way too noisy to enjoy a good night's sleep (and I'm usually a heavy sleeper).  The room we were given was definitely not like the ones on the hotel website.  However, the staff was very friendly and helpful.  Note: from other reviews I've read, the hotel does not have an elevator (keep this in mind when packing!).  

It was also very close to the train station and the Colosseum (10 min walk) which were definite pluses.  Wifi was free but only worked in the reception area.  We were allowed to sit in the dining area during the evening to use the wifi.  The desk staff made us comfortable, even making us tea while we sat.  I would recommend staying here if you're looking for a budget hotel close to the train station and Colosseum for a couple of nights.   

Hotel Saturnia
Via Ruinaglia 4/6
Rome, Italy
ph: +3906484609