TOP 10 FOOD EXPERIENCES OF 2008

I must admit that I’ve eaten a lot these past two weeks let alone this entire year. Between the holiday lunches, tree trimmings, and my indulgent Aruban vacation, I’ve completely exhausted my senses and my stomach. I don’t think there’s a food I’d left uncovered. From my renewed romance with steak, to a variety of fine cheeses, local seafood, organic mixed greens, exotic fruits, and so much more this has truly been a year of glorious excess.

But despite the wonderful culinary delights I’ve experienced over the past year, no meal would have been as pleasurable without the people I’d shared them with. I’m lucky to have such warm and caring family and friends to encourage my passion for both food and life. This past week in Aruba alone has given me a great appreciation for dining with friends and realizing that WHAT you eat isn’t always that important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to not be eating lunch at the Aruban Subway anymore, but sometimes just kicking back and letting someone else do the ordering can be just as enjoyable.

And to all of those who have endured my mid-meal picture taking, I thank you and hope you won’t hold it against me. Hopefully it will prove its success in my year-end blog stats. And just to prove to myself that my 2008 culinary year has left its mark, please help me reminisce with a list of my TOP 10 food experiences this year…

TOP 10 FOOD EXPERIENCES OF 2008

10. Pure Food & Wine, Zucchini & Local Hot House Tomatoes Lasagna
9. Blue Moon Cafe, Tuna Tar Tar Trio
8. Jimmy’s 43, Beer, Chocolate, & Cheese Tasting
7. BondSt, Shrimp Special (similar to popcorn shrimp with spicy sauce on top)
6. The Inn, Grilled PB&J
5. Baroanda, Linguine con Vongole
4. Marigolds, Vegetable Grilled Cheese
3. Chef’s Tables, Tuna Tar Tar & Creme Brulee Dessert Shot
2. Toloache, Fish Tacos
1. Counter, Mini Vegan Pecan Pies

I hope you’ll try some of these restaurants in 2009. And to all, good eating and Happy New Year!

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Verdict on Holiday Inn’s Grilled Cheese

So, I had every intention to taste the aformentioned Holiday Inn grilled cheese that night. But after placing my first bet at the roulette table, I became an instant winner, and my desire to try the grilled cheese flew right out the window just like that. I’ve never been much of a gambler, but when you achieve that first win, it’s like a high you’ve never had. And at that moment, I wanted more.

After winning a whopping $60, which to most is a measly sum, I knew I needed to try my luck again. I also needed a reason to go back to see if this infamous grilled cheese rumor was in fact true. After a full day’s work of sun bathing, I headed back to the Holiday Inn casino. And again, I was a winner! I couldn’t believe my luck, especially at a game as unpredictable as roulette. Though after I cashed out I remembered about the grilled cheese and asked on of the waiters. To my delight, the rumor was true! The Holiday Inn does serve grilled cheese but only to their gambling folk. I knew I’d need to return…

A few hours later, I was ready to head back to my new home away from home, The Holiday Inn Casino. I told my family I was going downstairs to read, and book in hand I was off. Determined to take back another $50 or so to add to my winnings. As I approached the table I looked at the roulette board, as I usually do and noticed that a few of my numbers had come up. 90% of the time I will not play unless my numbers are posted. Feeling confident from the 3-day winning streak I decided to test the waters. My gambling is quite habitual. I come with $20, play only if my numbers show, and leave after my luck that $20 has failed me. And this time, I had failed myself.* I not only lost the $20 in two plays but was too bummed to even think about the grilled cheese.

In the end, I never had the privilege of trying out Aruba’s Holiday Inn grilled cheese. I guess there’s always next year?

*I only failed myself once this trip. My last night in Aruba proved I was a winner, just not at the Holiday Inn and without a grilled cheese.

Holiday Inn Late Night Grilled Cheese?

At the Holiday Inn, everyone’s a winner. Last year on my last night here I won $100 which is the most money I’ve ever won gambling. And rumor has it (says some trusty seasoned vets) that the Holiday Inn in Aruba serves up a tasty grilled cheese in their casino AFTER 12pm. I think tonight might be the night I find out. Last night I won a whopping $60 at the Hyatt’s roulette table at 2AM. I’m thinking late night gambling might be my lucky time.

Apparently they don’t just serve these buttery cheese sandwhiches to just anyone though… I wonder what I’ll need to do to get my fix. Either way, I think it will be satified.

Stay tuned for details…

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches on Foodista

Good Morning Aruba

An Aruban morning isn’t much different than any other morning I spend in New York. In Aruba, I leisurely awake around 9:30-10am, hit the gym for about an hour, shower, eat breakfast, grab some Dunkin Donuts coffee and start my day, though here I’m adorned in swimwear.

But yes, Aruba is about as Americanized as they come in terms of vacations. If you’re coming for the local food, turn yourself right back around. If you really wanted to, you could eat breakfast at Dunkin Donuts, lunch at Hooters, and spend dinner munching on Dominos from your 5th floor hotel balcony. Dunkin Donuts is the only American thing here I care to indulge in and I must admit, it’s a nice perk. AND, my hotel even has a Subway attached to it and considering how poor the local food is here you really can’t beat that!
Two mornings ago I decided to skip the gym and head straight to Dunkin for a coffee run for the group. I’d been eyeing some of the donuts native to the island the day before and decided that today was the day I was going to eat one. Being that there are only two donuts native to Aruba, I chose the guava donut over the pineapple donut since it seemed a little more exotic. Unfortunately the day I chose to eat the donut it’s covered in sugar rather than powder, but had a very interesting flavor none the less. To my disappointment the guava filling tasted artificially sweetened. It didn’t have that fresh naturally sweet flavor of the actual guava fruit but what can I really expect out of a donut made in an Aruban Dunkin Donuts? None the less, I happily finished the donut by sunset.
DUNKIN DONUTS, ARUBA
– Across from the Playa Linda

Aruban Cuban Cookin’

For our second night in Aruba we decided to try the most ethnic restaurant on the island, Cuba’s Cookin’. Although the restaurant was appropriately decorated and even provided lively Spanish singers, the food proved to be anything BUT authentic.

Highly recommended by multiple friends, our family had been very eager to try out this so-called delicious and entertaining local spot which has now been in existence for 9 years. We figured they must have done something right!

Upon our arrival we were served a complimentary round of mojitos and two bowls of fried plantain chips accompanied by a trio of salsas. I’d never seen or tasted salas quite like Cuba’s Cookin’. Since I love to mix my foods, my favorite of the three was the combination of the homemade honey mustard and spicy salsas. None of the three were traditional salsas, but a nice change from what I had become accustomed to.

We then quickly devoured another trio, though this time of empanadas. We were served three small fried dumplings of fish, chicken, and savory beef. The beef was by far the best of the trio, and probably Cuba’s Cookin’s best dish, or part of a dish.

Our group’s order of main courses spanned the gamut from pork ribs to shrimp enchiladas. Though in my heart I wanted to try the Ropa Vieja I just couldn’t envision myself eating MORE steak. I know, I know, for most people this wouldn’t be a problem but I wanted to experience a variety of Aruban Cuisine this week. And lucky for me I didn’t order the Ropa Vieja. To our disappointment it was extremely dry, though quite flavorful. Luckily it was served with sweet fried plantains, rice, and black beans which were all terrific with the exception of the dry white rice. The sweet fried plantains were served with all of our meals and were also the highlight of each and every dish. Below you will find some photos of our satisfactory meals.

Filet with Mushrooms Shrimp Enchiladas

BBQ Pork Ribs Ropa Vieja

Pollo Pastor Pollo

But despite Cuba’s literal Cookin’, the restaurant really caters to their crowd. Sensing our inner party animal, they cleared the tables of the near empty restaurant and encouraged us to sing and dance along with the singers. Musical instruments in hand we sang danced the night away with no cares in the world.






CUBA’S COOKIN’

Wilhelminastraat 27, Oranjestad

A Taste of Aruban Cuisine

Greetings from Aruba! You didn’t think I’d go an entire week without posting did you? Well, while all you New Yorkers are freezing in today’s 25 degree brisk weather, I’m here sunning myself in a nice warm 96 degrees. Jealous are you? Well you should be because Aruba in December is just glorious. But my family vacation would not be complete without the delicious local cuisine of sunny Aruba.

Being the ultimate vacation planner, my dad made advance dinner reservations for our entire seven night stay. If you’ve ever been to Aruba over Christmas time you know that it’s the scene to be seen, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, in my opinion. But it also means that every restaurant in the city from the most elaborate to the dilapidated shack on the corner is booked solid. Luckily my dad took the lead and looked into some of the best restaurants on the island. Now being a seasoned Aruban vacationer (2nd year in), our family is determined to try out restaurants we never have before. Though I have a feeling we’ll cover them all after this year (wink, wink). Throughout the week I’ll be posting the tastiest and most repulsive food Aruba has to offer.
Our first stop on the trip, after hitting the beach, was an decorated Carribean seafood restaurant called Driftwood. Favored by the locals, Driftwood attracts a diverse crowd and caters to seafood lovers. Though Driftwood has a limited menu, it offers a few key seafood options prepared in either a garlic or creole sauce, blackened, grilled, or deep fried. Rumor has it that the catch of the day is the fish caught by the owner of the restaurant. We can’t know this for sure, but whatever they happened to catch yesterday was good in our book!

Though Driftwoods interior is best described as kitchy, its food is both authentic and satisfying after a long day of traveling. And after waiting many months for this vacation, I was ready to eat and I think the rest of our group was too. Being known for their locally caught seafood, that is just what most of us ordered. Our group of seven ordered the following:


Garlic Bread Green Salad with Creamy Garlic Dressing

Seafood Chowder Crabcake

Grilled Shrimp with Garlic Sauce The Driftwood Special

Land & Sea Kebab Wahu with Creole Sauce
Overall the steak was probably the best Driftwood had to offer. I ordered the Driftwood Special which included a 4 oz filet with mushroom sauce and a lobster tail. The filet was perfectly cooked and suprisingly delicious, considering I don’t usually order steak. The lobster, though nicely flavored, was a bit overcooked which was disappointing. The shrimp was also cooked and seasoned very well and was accompanied by a tasty garlic sauce which complimented the shrimp and mixed vegetables. Apparently the Catch of the Day (Wahu) cooked in Creole sauce was mouthwatering.

Baked Ziti & A Tree Trimming Party?

Apparently Tree Trimming parties are all the rage this season. Though there are a few left in cold, stumped as to what a tree trimming exactly is. No, a tree trimming is not a brazilian waxing or the actual cutting of the tree’s branches. A tree trimming is the decorating of a Christmas tree.

Though I do not celebrate Christmas, I gleefully await this time every year so that I can spend some quality time with some of my old Renegade co-workers. Ironically only one of them still actually works at Renegade, but those are minor details. Being the token Jew at every tree trimming (keep in mind this was only my 2nd one) I try to spread some of my own holiday cheer by either bringing Chanukah paraphernalia or by placing a blue ornament at the top of the tree. Hebrews re-pre-sent! I later dropped and broke an ornament but hey, it’s the thought that counts. Of course my kind friends make me feel at home by playing famous Chanukah songs like Southpark’s “The Dreidel Song” and Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”. So many fond memories of past Chanukah’s singing those songs. Ohhh, that’s what those gentiles think (dare I snicker).

But all jokes a side, a tree trimming is a wonderful reason to have a party and celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season, Jew or Gentile alike. And an even better reason to consume massive quantities of deliciously cheap red wine. Thanks to leftovers from the Nielsen Potluck Holiday Party, I was able to provide some extra goodies like store bought 5 layer dip, tortilla chips, and Entemann’s chocolate covered donuts. But the culinary highlight of the night, was Neil’s Baked Ziti. Though the Baked Ziti Recipe was taken from the Food Network Test Kitchens, it was a great one and especially made for beginner cooks like Neil. Being the carnivore Neil is, he decided to include some sausage and ground beef, yum, yum! And being the nice guy that he is, made a special dairy-free version for our lactose friend Rody. Below you’ll find an easy to follow recipe that you should try out for your next tree trimming or holiday affair.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

NEIL’S BAKED ZITI

Ingredients


1 pound dried ziti pasta
Kosher salt
5 cups Tomato Sauce
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
8 oz Ricotta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound sweet and or spicy Italian sausages, casing removed and crumbled
1/2 pound ground beef
1/4 medium onion, diced (about 3 tablespoons)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes
Preparation

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt generously.
2. While the pasta boils, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage and beef until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the onion and garlic, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes more.
4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
5. When the large pot of water reaches a boil, cook the pasta until al dente, tender but still slightly firm. Drain.
6. Toss the cooked pasta with the marinara sauce, ricotta, meat mixture, half the Parmesan cheese, black pepper, and pepper flakes.
7. Transfer the pasta to an oiled 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Cover the top of the pasta with the sliced mozzarella, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.
8. Bake until lightly browned and hot, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Baked Ziti on Foodista