Thursday, May 27, 2010

Disaster in the Gulf

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Change of plans…instead of highlighting Mexico City’s interesting spots, I have to vent about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe writing about it will provide some sort of relief from the heartbreak…but I doubt it.

My memories of diving in the Gulf are almost dreamlike – crystalline waters, amazing plants and creatures that look otherworldly, fish in brilliant colors and patterns, hand-painted by God himself. I can picture the fragile coral reefs that developed over decades, teaming with creatures of all sizes and shapes, darting into crevices, gliding in and out of sun-dappled seagrass. From beneath the Gulf’s blue waves I have been blessed with the opportunity to see sharks, dolphins, stingrays and giant sea turtles. From above, snow-white egrets and roseate spoonbills were among the beautiful birds gracing the air and shoreline.

And now this.

The images are killing me. Black-coated birds that will never recover, miles and miles of Louisiana wetlands coated in the deadly slime, closed beaches. To date, there have been well over 300 dead birds, 200 sea turtles and at least 20 dolphins, but we all know these numbers are nothing compared to what is to come. The oil from the BP well has been gushing, day and night, for over five weeks now. Like a cloud of death, it spreads out over the water, blackening and destroying everything in its path. Clean-up efforts have taken the noxious mess to a higher level by using tons of toxic chemicals that are jacking up the death toll. All we need now is a storm or, worse, a hurricane.

No word yet on whether yesterday’s effort to plug it with a mud and cement is working. We’re supposed to hear something by tomorrow. Some may say it’s in God’s hands now, but I disagree. When it was in God’s hands, the Gulf of Mexico was amazing, beautiful, breathtaking. I can’t help but wonder if it will ever be that way again. Certainly not in my lifetime.

Lord, I pray for a miracle. Only You know what is needed now. Only You have the power to make it happen. Only You can extend the grace we need, for no one could ever possibly atone for this devastation. Please give powerful guidance to all those in charge, those working to seal up the uncapped well, and everyone involved in the clean-up. I pray that all will work together, instead of pointing fingers, and that, impossible as it seems, something good will come from this horrendous disaster. Amen.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mexico's Famous Ruins

There is so much to see in Mexico that it’s impossible to put it all into a blog. Incredible beaches and diving, tropical forests, historical sites, archeological sites, the National Museum of Art, the National Palace, Chapultepec Castle …the list goes on and on. Today I’m going to focus on ruins because…well, I like ruins. They’re old, they’re sometimes eerie, sometimes peaceful, always mysterious. You can’t be in the presence of a ruin without it stirring you in some way.

Two of Mexico’s most famous are Palenke (or Palenque) and Chichen Itza, both originally built by the Mayans.

The Palenke Ruins are close to the tropical forests of the foothills of the mountains in Chiapas. They are considered among the most important Mayan archaeological sites in all of Mexico and Central America. Most of the buildings were built before the tenth century AD. Hard to even imagine what life was like for the people working on those structures. One of the most fascinating ruins is the palace, with its walls and roof covered with mortar carved images of kings and gods. So far, only 34 buildings have been excavated, while there is believed to be around 500 hidden somewhere beneath the surface.

Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan Peninsula and was once a major regional center for the Mayans. Interestingly, the land under the ruins was privately owned until March of this year! It is now owned by the state of Yucatan. If you go, you’ll see many stone buildings in various states of preservation. Some have even been restored. They are connected by a network of roads called sacbeob.

Next up….some interesting sites in Mexico City and one last Mexican recipe.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marvelous Mexico

Divers and snorkelers like me know that Mexico is one of the best places for underwater beauty. At least…it used to be. Unfortunately the very people who love the undersea world are ruining it. Sometimes thoughtlessly, by breaking off coral as a souvenir or crashing a boat anchor into a reef, other times by accident. Now, of course, with countless gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig, who knows what may happen to our precious Gulf and its marine life.

In an effort to draw tourists away from the reef, thereby giving it a chance to recuperate, an underwater sculpture museum has been created and placed in the National Marine Park off the coast of Cancun. When complete, the art-meets-science project will be composed of 400 permanent life-size sculptures on sandy areas close to Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc. And here’s the best part – they are made of specialized materials used to promote coral life. The statues will actually form a reef structure for marine life to colonize and inhabit. Very cool!

If you go to Mexico, be sure to sample some elote, Mexican corn that is usually available on a stick from street vendors. My family loves it so much we make it at home. Healthy? No…not one bit. Delicious? Absolutamente!

Elote (Mexican corn)

Corn on the cob
Melted butter or margarine
Cotija cheese
Chili piquin
Lime wedges (optional)

Boil corn on the cob until done. Spread with thin layer of mayonnaise. Sprinkle with cheese. Drizzle with melted butter. Sprinkle with chili piquin, as much or as little as you desire. You can finish it off with a drizzle of lime, which I haven’t tried yet, but it sounds pretty good. This stuff is amazing and addictive! Many thanks to my niece, Laura Ortiz, for introducing me to this family favorite.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wildly Beautiful

Did you know France has a Grand Canyon?
Gorges de Verdon is a river canyon that is considered to be Europe’s most beautiful. The turquoise color of the water and dramatic ravine that cuts through walls of limestone makes this a don’t miss for hikers, rock climbers, kayakers and photographer’s. The river flows into the Sainte Croix du Verdon Lake. The canyon is close to the French Riviera, making it very popular with tourists.

Have you heard about the Golden Isles (also known as the Hyeres Islands)? These three islands off the coast of Southern France are named for the sunlight reflecting off their golden-brown mica shale. They consist of Porquerolles, wildly beautiful with long sandy beaches and rocky cliffs; Port-Cros, a thickly forested National Park; and Levant, surrounded by steep, rocky cliffs and popular with “naturalists.” (You might want to avoid this one if taking a family vacation. The only place nudity is not permitted is on a few public beaches.)

Here's a final French recipe for meat lovers.

Boeuf (beef) Bourguignon
2 large onions, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced in rounds
2 tablespoons cooking oil
6 ounces lean bacon cut into small pieces
2 pounds of stew meat, cut into bite size pieces
1 bottle of red wine (less a glass or two if you wish)
bouquet garni or 2 tablespoons mixed dried herbs
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
salt and pepper
Optional Ingredients for Beurre Manié
2 tablespoons softened butter
2 tablespoons flour

In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven, cook the onions and carrots in the oil on medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the bacon and continue cooking and stirring for 10 minutes.
Add the meat and cook until browned on all sides. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper. Add the herbs, the garlic and the red wine. Cover, turn down the heat, and let simmer for at least two hours.

Meanwhile cook the mushrooms in the butter until soft and add to the stew after about two hours along with the tomato concentrate. Simmer until meat is very tender. Sometimes I cook it for the last hour without the lid to get a more concentrated sauce. If you are thickening your stew before serving, mix the butter and flour together in a small bowl until well blended. Blend in a tablespoon of the cooking liquid, and then stir this mixture back into the stew. Continue cooking for several minutes.
Makes 6 generous servings.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

France Fun Facts

While researching France I found some interesting facts to share, but first I want to tell you about a book written by a friend of mine, Margot Justes. Margot and I give food and travel programs at libraries and will be presenting “A Taste of Italy” at 7 p.m., Monday, May 24 at the Elk Grove Village Library, 1001 Wellington Ave., Elk Grove, IL. If you live in the area, come by for a beautiful slide presentation and tasty treats!

Margot was born in Poland and has lived in some of the world s most wonderful places, including Israel, France and South Africa, and has traveled to many countries worldwide. Her book, A HOTEL IN PARIS, features Minola Grey, an American painter who decides that a trip to Paris is just what she needs to re-capture her muse. Soon after her arrival, a murder in the hotel disrupts her peaceful contemplation. Pick up a copy to see what happens next!

In the meantime, check out some Fun France Facts that might surprise you!

1. France is the largest European country in terms of land area after Russia and Ukraine.
2. French people cheek kiss to greet each others between family and friends, even between men. The number of kisses varies according to the region, from 1 (e.g. in the tip of Brittany) to 4 (e.g. Paris and most of the North), and occasionally up to 5 in Corsica (wow…a bit much for me!)
3. According to a 2004 IFOP survey, 44% of French people are Atheists (How sad.)
4. The French are the world's biggest consumers of psychotropic drugs. About one fourth of the population admits having taken anti-depressants or tranquilizers over the past year. (Hmm…any connection to Fact #3???)
5. Nicotine was named after Jean Nicot (1530-1600), a French diplomat and scholar who introduced the tobacco plant to France in 1559 (from Portugal).
6. In France, in exceptional cases, it is possible to marry a deceased person with the authorization of the President of the Republic. (Okay…why? And one more comment…ewww.)
7. Famous French inventions include the adding machine, the hot air balloon, the airship, the parachute, the submarine, the ambulance service, photography, animation and cinema.
8. 72% of the adult French population finds it difficult to understand French wine labels.

My final post on France will provide some interesting sites and another recipe
. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On to France

Okay, break’s over. Time to visit a little place Europe known for its fancy cuisine, high fashion and expensive wine. France is on the rather long list of places I have not yet been and want to go. Not for any of the reasons mentioned above (well…maybe the food), but just because it is so beautiful. The photo at left may not be a typical representation of France, but I liked it far better than a shot of the Eiffel Tower or an outdoor café. And if I go, I’d rather see the French countryside than Paris.

Our virtual visit to France begins with a recipe that not only sounds delicious, but is fun to say. Rich and chock full of calories, Chicken Fricassee combines, chicken, mushrooms, carrots, garlic, wine and cream for a dish you won’t soon forget. Fricassee is a cooking method where the meat and/or vegetables are browned lightly in butter, sprinkled with flour and than cooked in bouillon or wine, resulting in a flavorful sauce. You’ll notice this recipe calls for fresh Tarragon. Remember that when replacing fresh herbs with dried, you substitute approximately 1 tablespoon of dried herbs for 3 tablespoons of fresh.

Fricassée de Poulet
(Chicken Fricassee)

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced or crushed
1 1/2 pounds skinned chicken breasts, cubed in bite sized pieces
(I prefer dark meat and would use thighs. Also, cubing the chicken is optional.)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced 1/4 inch
3 medium carrots, scraped and julienned in 1/4 inch wide strips
3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 cup crème fraîche or whipping cream
(for a crème fraiche recipe, go to

Melt the butter and olive oil together in a Dutch oven or other heavy large skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion and crushed garlic and cook for five minutes stirring occasionally. Add the chicken and brown on all sides - about five minutes. Stir in salt and pepper. Sprinkle the top of the chicken with the flour and stir for 1 minute, thoroughly coating the chicken with the flour. Stir in the water and wine and then the prepared mushrooms, carrots and tarragon. Bring to a low boil, cover and simmer on medium low heat for 15 minutes or just until the vegetables are cooked as you like them.
Turn off the heat and stir in the crème fraîche or whipping cream. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings.