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Notes from Ventura

I've lived in California for 24 years this year, and despite no small amount of traveling throughout the state, there remain countless corners and crannies which I have not explored. In fact, despite having driven to and from San Diego dozens of times, there are entire communities which I've seen only through the windshield, having never taken the time to stop and pay a visit. 

Ventura was one of those towns, until last week. I'd been tapped by one of the organizers of Craftcation to present*, and it seemed not only like a good opportunity to meet and mingle with crafty types, but to experience a coastal California community that was new to me. 

I carpooled down with my friend Susie, also presenting at the conference. Barreling down the 101, we chatted about food (natch), entrepreneurship, life in general. There was nary a quiet moment between us. Still, it's a five-plus hour drive to Ventura, so we stopped off at the Mission San Miguel to stretch our legs, get some fresh air, and partake of picnic goodies we packed. This, my friends, is what happens when two avid food enthusiasts pack a picnic: 


To go with our various crackers and chips, we had peanut butter from Peanut Butter & Co., Duchy Originals oatcakes and shortbreads, Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, dehydrated persimmons, and a few condiments I had to make on assignment: Mango salsa, corn salsa and guacamole. We were well sated. 

Mission San Miguel makes for a pleasantly serene stopoff en route. Basking in the warm sun and gentle breeze, we enjoyed the grounds, particularly noting the way the stucco had been meticulously maintained to a state of half-erosion to give it an authentically rustic feel.  




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Ka’anapali Fresh: Grand Tasting

Disclosure: We were guests of Ka'anapali Fresh for their inaugural event last year. All our travel expenses were covered. I was not paid to write this post, and all opinions are my own. 

The apex of last year's inaugural Ka'anapali Fresh event was the grand tasting, held on the grounds of the Royal Kāʻanapali Golf Course. Think of it as being along the lines of SF Chefs or the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, only far more intimate. And, in Hawaii, ergo not freezing. 

Several of Maui's best chefs set up pavilions to dish up small bites of their most creative offerings. 

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

But it was more than just a feast for attendees. The chefs' dishes were being judged, and a winner would be declared.

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

To us, the most memorable dishes came from Japengo restaurant, who served up some phenomenal poached abalone, as well as beautiful seared wagyu beef. 

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

There were plenty of wineries represented, mostly Californian, but Joto Sake got our attention, particularly the Chikurin Fukamari "Depth" Junmai. Aromatic, fruity, yet light. Perfect for the balmy evening, and compatible with practically anything. 

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I ate worms (and didn’t die)

PromoDisclosure: I was a guest of Casa Noble Tequila, who paid for my airfare, lodging and meals. I was not paid to write this post, and all opinions and observations are my own.

Maguey worms and ant larvae. Also, not pictured, chapulines.

I should have known from the look on Pepe's face.

We had just come in from enjoying some tamarind margaritas on the rooftop deck at La Tequila in Guadalajara. As we sat at our table, Pepe suggested ordering some appetizers for the table, asking whether he should order some more unusual things. Innocently, and ignoring for a moment that I was part of a group that included five other unwitting American writers and photographers, I said that I always have an appetite for the new. 

Pepe grinned like a calaca. A sinister glint flashed in his eye. I had given him the answer he was looking for.

Pepe in the barrel room

Really, I had no reason to suspect his intentions. As CEO of Casa Noble Tequila, Pepe Hermosillo had flown the group of us in from around the U.S. to gain a better understanding of tequila in general, and Casa Noble in particular. The previous day he and his wife Gina served us a magnificent lunch at their airy, modern Guadalajara home (including a cilantro mousse that I am currently obsessed with). He shared some of his housemade infused tequilas that blew my mind. Just a few hours prior to this dinner, we had toured the La Cofradìa distillery, culminating with comprehensive tastings of Casa Noble's offerings. The previous 36 hours were a blur of delicious regional Jalisqueño food and very, very good tequila. So, my guard was down. 

Barrel proof extra-añejo

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Ka’anapali Fresh: Media lunch and progressive dinner

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

It stands to reason that a festival dedicated to the emerging food scene of an area would have plenty to eat. Even so, I don't think we were prepared for the barrage of food that awaited us. 

We kicked off  the weekend with a media lunch event at the Ali'i, where we were staying. We were greeted with leis, and mixed and mingled until Fred Torres, cultural director of the Ali'i, announced the commencement of the lunch by blowing the traditional pu shell horn to the four directions and offering a blessing. 

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

The lunch was prepared by the Hyatt Regency's Chef Greg Grohowski, with each course paired  with a beer from Maui Brewing Company. To enhance the pairing, Chef Grohowski incorporated the beers into the dishes. We started with a salad of Kula greens and strawberries, with a macadamia brie crouton and Maui Brewing Co. Golden Ale vinaigrette. 

#kfreshmaui Kula greens and strawberries, macadamia brie crouton, golden ale vinaigrette

With this dish we were privileged to get a sneak preview at Maui Brewing's Golden Ale, which they would release officially on the final night of the festival. It's a full-bodied ale made with fresh lilikoi and guava, which only came to rise on the finish, adding freshness to the brew.

Next up: Maui Cattle Co. tenderloin, sweet potato hash, edamame and hamakua mushrooms, Maui Brewing Co. Scotch Ale demiglace.

#kfreshmaui papaya-marinated Maui cattle tenderloin, sweet potato hash, edamame and hamakua mushrooms,  scotch ale Demi glace

Maui Cattle's beef is extraordinairily lean, so they used papaya to tenderize the beef. It was positively fall-apart tender. The Scotch ale, a higher-ABV and heavily malty ale, added sweetness to the demiglace. Delicious. 

Finally, Kula strawberry shortcake on a lavender scone with whipped sour cream.

#kfreshmaui Kula strawberry shortcake, lavender scone, whipped sour cream.

The chef joked that this was his least photogenic dish, but i'm inclined to disagree. This was paired with Maui Brewing Co.'s CoCoNut Porter, the beer that put them on the map. 

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

Brewer Garret Marrero is passionate about his craft, affable and loquacious on the matter. He's also easy on the eyes.

Ka'anapali Fresh ©dpaul brown

The hardest part was trying, and failing, to show some restraint. After all, this was a substantial meal, and we had to save room for the evening's kickoff event, the progressive dinner spanning three Ka'anapali resorts. 

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Ka’anapali Fresh, celebrating the Maui food scene

Sorry, guys, but this is going to make you jealous. It just is. We went to Maui. And it was as marvelous as you would expect. 

Actually, no. Let me restate that. It was more marvelous than you would expect. And here’s why. 

We’ve been to Maui once before, about a decade ago, and to Kaua’i and O’ahu a decade before that. Both those trips were fabulous, except for one thing: The food. For countless years, the Hawaiian food scene has been synonymous with spam musubi, schlocky luaus with tiki buffets and uninspired plate lunches. If you stayed in a place with a kitchen, you could try to head that off with a trip to the grocery store, only to be faced with expensive, sad produce flown in from the mainland. 

On Maui in particular, most of the arable land used to be dedicated to two major commodity crops: Pineapple and sugar cane, almost all of which was for processing and export. Consequently, any produce for actual human consumption on-island had to come from somewhere else. But that’s changing. 

The commodity crops have scaled back considerably, and a new culture of small, independent family farmers is on the rise. Farmers markets are cropping up across the island. Fresh produce is now becoming so available that even the chefs of the big resorts are featuring it. And this was the central premise for the inaugural Ka’anapali Fresh food and wine festival, a three-day bacchanal celebrating the emergence of this new food culture that took place August 31-September 2, 2012. 

dpaul and I were invited to attend, courtesy of the Ka’anapali Beach Resort Association, representing the collective of resorts that sprawls up the West Maui coast north of Lahaina. These run the gamut from shimmering high rises to low-slung bungalows. Some are hotels, others are condo/timeshare resorts, coming in at a wide range of prices. What they all share is access to one of the best beaches in Hawaii, overlooking the channel to Lanai and Moloka’i.

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Portland, a love story (part three)

Disclosure: Travel Oregon covered my expenses for this trip. I have not, however, received any compensation for writing about it.

Portland, like its big sister Seattle, is a serious coffee town. On this third morning, we had the handsome, tattooed hipsters from Water Avenue Coffee pouring us our morning cuppa. I wanted to crawl into the cup. Even some of our most notable roasters here in the Bay Area roast a little much for my taste. Water Avenue's brew was smooth, mellow and rich. Best of all, we got a half-pound bag to take home, so I got to savor it for days after my return. (DPaul is not a coffee drinker, so MORE FOR ME.) Seriously, this stuff was so good I wanted to suck the beans.

But it wouldn't have been prudent for me to overcaffeinate. This morning's activity was a trip to Steven Smith Teamaker, where we got rockstar access.

Steven Smith Teas

Smith knows a thing or two about tea. He was one of the cofounders of Stash Tea, and then the founder of Tazo, both of which were acquired. With his eponymous brand, Smith set out to leverage his expertise and connections in the global market to create a superpremium collection of teas. 

After a tour of the facility, they set us up with a tasting of three groupings of teas: Green, black and herbal infusions. 

Steven Smith Teas

Our tea sherpa took us through the basics of making tea. Much of the tea you buy in the stores uses minute particles of tea leaves. This imparts a lot more flavor, but it's coarse. Smith uses whole-leaf teas for richer, more subtle flavor. When making tea, a bag or infuser should only be about 1/3 full. The water should be between 180-195ºF. Always add tea to water, not the other way around, lest the hot water scald the tea and give it a toasted flavor. Steep green tea for 3-4 minutes, black for 5, and herbals for as long as you like.

Now, here's my guilty foodie confession: I have a habit of making a pot of tea, whatever I have on hand, pouring the hot water over the tea, and then forgetting about it. Then, an hour or three later, I come back, notice the tepid pot of overextracted tea on the counter, and proceed to drink it anyway. I'm not saying I'm going to change my habits, but after this experience, I will at least know what I'm doing wrong.

Smith's teas are exquisite. We started with White Petal, a white tea with chamomile and osmanthium blossoms, which gave it a peachy, fresh flavor. (For this tea, they use only the petals of chamomile, the byproduct of their chamomile infusion, which uses only the heart of the flower.) Of the green teas, Mao Feng Shui was light and faintly kelpy. Jasmine Silver Tip was delicate and floral.  Unlike most jasmine teas, Smith adds fresh flowers to the dry tea leaves, which absorb the aroma. The flowers are then separated and discarded, leaving only an elegant perfume. I swooned for Fez, a green tea with Oregon spearmint and Australian lemon myrtle. It's fresh, citric and totally refreshing. 

In the black tea category, the Bungalow Darjeeling was nutty, toasty and faintly fruity. The Kandy Sri Lanka, a blend of three regions, had a balanced flavor and soft mouthfeel. By contrast, the Brahmin Assam was astringent, floral and leathery. And the Lord Bergamot is Smith's take on Earl Grey, with a refined  citrus aroma. 

But the herbals really blew me away, quite unexpectedly. We started with Meadow, a chamomile base with fragrant hyssop and lavender rooibos that had a honeyed flavor like moscato. Red Nectar combined rooibos and honeybush with fresh raspberries for a soothing brew. Blood-red Hisbiscus Flowers slapped you upside the head with bright acidity, notes of berries and hints of spice. I wanted to drink it forever. But the showstopper was the Peppermint Leaves, entirely from Oregon. The first sip instantly filled the mouth with intense coolness and a creamy texture. It blows every other mint tea out of the water, so to speak. Since the trip, I have made the peppermint, Fez and chamomile part of our regular rotation of teas. 

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Portland, a love story (part two)

Disclosure: Travel Oregon covered my expenses for this trip. I have not, however, received any compensation for writing about it.

Day two of Full On Oregon dawned bright, sunny and warm, cuz you know that's how it totally is every day in Portland. Isn't it? Anyway, the first portion of the day for me and my cohorts was to head up to glorious Mt. Hood, to meet John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures, who would  take us around the shores of Trillium Lake seeking wild edibles. 

John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures

Hot, sunny September is actually not the optimal time to go foraging. The best time is, actually, um, NOW, after the winter and spring rains have passed and the sun breaks through. But there were still enough things out there worth checking out, like smooth yellow violet, whose edible heart-shaped leaves have veins that branch out; its poisonous analogs' veins reconvene toward the point or are yellow. Fireweed's asparagus-like shoots and its flowers are edible, with a peppery flavor reminiscent of arugula with a little more astringency. Delicate thimbleberries have a rich, winey flavor.

Foraged foods

Some wild plants have non-edible uses, like the vanilla plant. Just crush a leaf and keep it in your pocket for several minutes. The aroma from the leaf is an effective insect repellent. 

Vanilla leaf

And there was more, including the third (baneberry) and first (water hemlock) most poisonous plants in the US. Delish!

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Portland, a love story (part one)


A little while ago … ok, a big while ago … ok eight months ago I had the pleasure of going to Portland, Oregon, courtesy of Travel Oregon along with a cadre of other bloggers.  This fandango, called Full On Oregon, was designed to showcase the best food-driven experiences Oregon has to offer. (Disclosure: Yes, this means Travel Oregon covered my expenses for this trip. I did not, however, accept any compensation for writing about it.)

Why did I wait this long to write about it? Well, I could give you some line about how I wanted to tantalize you at the appropriate time of year to consider traveling to Portland (which it is), or how it's taken me this long to lovingly craft the eloquent prose it deserves (which it does), but the truth is I immediately got super busy with work stuff after returning home, and, well, yeah. But what's important is that I'm here, telling you about this, now. So read on. 

I've been to Portland before. Dear friends of ours used to live there, and DPaul and I took a visit back about six or seven years ago. And we liked it! But it was in the fall, and the typical Northwestern drizzle pervaded through the weekend. It didn't prohibit us from eating and drinking our way through town, but it certainly was more conducive to cuddling up in front of the fire than getting intrepid. Not this time, baby! By the time I arrived in PDX, the town was already scorching, and it would stay in the 80s through the entire visit. 

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