The world in a glass, or on a plate.

You've heard of culinary travel, and armchair travel. I'm officially declaring this year the year of culinary armchair travel. Many of us, for one reason or another, are curtailing travel. Some of us are smarting over the deprivation. Discovering new worlds, new flavors and cultures can be one of life's more rewarding experiences. Finding something new - something surprising - can be difficult when we are limited by circumstance from the travel that allows us to access these epiphanies. If you're like me, a part of you dies without travel. That's not drama. It's truth. Or close to it. There is something essential in travel that keeps people like me alive.

Before leaping off in the world of writing, I forgot to ask about the pay and benefits. Too late. I am smitten, and broke. So, no travel. What's a girl to do?

Taste the world - at home - in a glass or on a plate.

In the past weeks (discounting the week of flu and cough-induced neck spasms) I have traveled to Alsace, Cape Verde, Scotland, Israel, and Mexico. Oh and I just finished my tour of Spain. Come away with me, in the night...

Alsace - this unique and smallest region of France has the most culinary stars. Our guide this evening was Master Chef Raymond Ost. See Alsace on a Plate.

Cape Verde - situated off the Western coast of Africa, the Cape Verde islands are influenced by both the Portuguese and the Africans. On the very evening I was missing our friend  Guilherme (Billy) who is from Cape Verde, I got the invitation to visit a Cape Verdean restaurant here in Boston. Table Critic Carol O'Connor is a dynamo that I would follow anywhere. I took it as a sign she called as I was thinking of Billy. It was also an opportunity to explore more of the cuisine I'd only begun to learn through him.

Restaurant Laura is in historic Upham's Corner, not far from the Strand Theatre. The co-owner and chef de cuisine Laura worked 12 years in the kitchens of Westin before embarking on her own restaurant with partner Arlindo. Arlindo is the classic immigrant success story: engineer turned successful businessman and neighborhood booster. You can tell that this spot is an anchor for the neighborhood that is on its way back from years of being ignored. See the website for the full story.

Arlindo has a wine cellar next door, tucked in back of the liquor store he owns. Needless to say our wines for the evening were excellent.

Cordoniz Grelhado - Grilled Quail- this may have been my favorite dish of the evening. I tried to coax the secret ingredients out of Laura but no amount of compliments or flattery would do the trick. Guess I'll have to go back. This spicy marinated and grilled quail had everyone digging in with fingers so as not to miss any shred of the smoky tender meat. Hauntingly good.

Polvo Grelhado ou salteado - Octopus - Like squid, octopus has the ability to be tough and rubbery or delicate with just a hint of snap like a cherrystone perhaps. This was grilled and stewed with a very light tomato sauce laced with garlic. Even folks who'd never had it were going back for seconds. 

octopus foreground, conch in background

Buzio Salteado  - Conch - Both this dish and the goat reminded me instantly of being in the Caribbean islands. Similar to great meals there the secret to Laura's success is simple preparation of fresh ingredients. 

Roasted whole Black Grouper - In some cultures the fish is served filetted, in others whole. In many cultures, to serve a fish without the head is seen as suspect - was it not fresh? This was served in a different technique than I'm accustomed to with a light soffrito of peppers and onions. Again, the plate was clean as a whistle.

Goat - braised with yucca, potatoes, carrots  - For many this might be the one thing they've never seen on a menu. Yet, check Saveur, Gourmet, the food sections of major papers and you'll see that this is becoming a more sought after protein. It's much more sustainable than beef, it's less gamey than lamb. Tender and delicious, this goat was lightly stewed or braised.

Vegetables and rice were served family-style and were also very simply prepared. In fact, over the course of the meal, I slowly came to feel that the best way to describe the Restaurant Laura dining experience is this. Imagine if your good friend invites you home for dinner, and his mother happens to be a very, very good cook. You are well-fed with good, honest straightforward food. You feel well-cared for. It's a warm feeling one doesn't get often enough in many restaurants. I'm sure it explains the popularity of the place.

Desserts included a candied papaya with a fresh home-style cheese (think manchego and membrillo) and a cheesecake that had a savory quality to it. 

With the meal we enjoyed:

  • Murales de Monaco Vino Verde Sul-Regia de Monca - Vino Verde (literally "green wine") is a light, just slightly frizzante white wine. It's refreshing and often drunk as a summer wine, or a picnic wine. This particular Vino Verde had just the slightest frizzante character, much less pronounced than others I've tried. It paired nicely with the appetizer courses.
  • Espora Reserva Alentejo -  With the main courses, Arlindo poured this Alentejo. The wine wasn't overpowering for a Reserva so it went equally well with the grouper and the goat, the light garlicky sauces. 
  • Moscatel de Setubal (Favios) - The muscatel wine is one of the oldest produced worldwide. This is a fortified dessert wine that had a light caramel flavor which paired well with the savory cheesecake.

To view a slideshow of the entire dinner and guests, please see Alberto Pina's photos here. To explore the world of Cape Verdean culture here in Boston, see the comprehensive FORCV.com - covering news, politics, social and cultural events.

Scotland - Okay it's made in Scotland, but Hendrick's gin doesn't really transport you - to Scotland. It takes you to a fine place, but it won't make you feel like sitting down to some Haggis. Still, it was a fun evening with a bunch of cocktail fanatics preparing for our gathering in New Orleans in July.

Israel - Thanks to my friend Richard, the Passionate Foodie, I visited the Golan Heights, the hills of Judea, Galilee, all through Israeli wines. That's right. The wines of Israel. As our host, Richard Shaffer of Israeli Wine Direct, put it, Taste the Future of Wine History. For whatever reason, we talk of old world wines, new world wines, yet we rarely hear of "first world" wines, or perhaps the original old world wines. He asked us to recall what was the first thing Noah did when he got off the ark? Planted a vineyard. Wine is as old as our history. Certainly much of the wine in Israel deserves the same attention as other wine growing regions. 

I was so intrigued by the tasting (not a weak one in the whole bunch, you'll pardon the pun) that I took impossibly few notes. Sipping, slurping, swirling.

What I do recall is how remarkable many of the wines were and how two wines of the same varietals grown 3km away from each other could be so different. One had a floral nose the other, berries. "I love this one, Richard, how much is it?" "Oh, no wonder." All of the wines had terrific balance. Sometimes you'll have a wine with an intriguing nose, then it's utterly disappointing on the palate. These wines, in contrast, were well-made and expressed the essence of the grapes, nuances in the terroir and the profile one vintner or another wanted to achieve. Most had really full mouth-feel, you sensed something on each part of the tongue and quite a few finished well.

Speaking of finishing, I'll pick up with Mexico and Spain tomorrow...

...Mexico, the Southwest...at Masa con Don Julio.