Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Salt Pans of Salineras, and the Sacred Valley of Peru

I've given you a hint in the title of this post, so you probably already know what you're looking at in the photo above. They're not terraces of snow or white marble -- they're thousands of individual pools of salt in Peru's Urubamba River valley.
Years ago, I'd visited underground salt mines in Austria and felt claustrophobic riding down a wooden slide where the salt was mined. But that felt like child's play compared to the descent to the salt pans of Salineras, Peru. It was a little too close to the edge for most of the harrowing ride down the valley, but our driver assured me he had done it many times before. 
The 6,000 individual salt pans of Salineras de Maras have been mined since Incan times. 
Individual salt pans form cascading terraces along a hillside.

They are all family-owned and passed down through generations.

The pools are filled with heavily salted water from a natural spring. The water is diverted into the pans through a series of channels, which can be blocked off, controlling where the water flows.

Once the pan is filled with water, the sun does its job and helps evaporate the water in a few weeks, leaving layers of salt about one meter deep (about 40 inches).
 The top layer is used in the leather industry; the middle layer is used for animals and the very bottom, and finest salt layer, is for human consumption. I'm sure many of you have purchased fleur de sel from France for your cooking. In Spanish it's called "flor de sal" or "flower of salt."
At Salineras, they sell lots of different kinds of salts, including some flavored with herbs and spices.
I bought several bags, including one type of salt that's used for medicinal purposes -- very useful after my ankle injury on this trip.
I was sidelined at the edge, due to my injury, but my daughter explored, walking carefully along the paths between the salt pans. 
When it's time to harvest the salt, families arrive with shovels and start filling bags with the salt.
Salineras is in a beautiful area of Peru called the "Sacred Valley" -- an area of rolling fields and fertile farmland between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It's also an area of many ancient Incan sites, all crowned by the magnificent backdrop of the Andes mountains.
One of the most unusual places we visited was Moray. These concentric circles are thought to have been a center for Incan agricultural research, where crops were grown at different levels, and where temperatures changed precipitously from the lowest to the highest terrace.
We also stopped at Chinchero, where there are more Incan ruins and where we got a demonstration on natural dying and weaving from two Quechua women who were spinning baby llama wool.
 Most of the colors came from plant material, such as this purple corn:
But one of the colors came from a small beetle that lives on cacti, called the cochineal beetle. It appears to be white, but once it's scraped off the protective white covering on the cactus and crushed between the fingers, it turns as red as bright lipstick.

The beetles are dried,
 Then crushed into powder before mixing with water.
Artists and textile experts have long used the natural dye in their work, and it's also been used in food coloring for centuries as well as in cosmetics. It fell out of favor for a while, but after some synthetic red food colorings were found to be carcinogenic, the natural cochineal red is making a comeback. 
Similarly, Italians produce a liqueur called alkermes, whose intense red color also comes from an insect. The liquid, infused with flavorings like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is widely used there in baking and as a digestivo.

 There are so many more Incan sites to visit in the "Sacred Valley" and we barely scratched the surface.
 The people we met were so friendly and warm, we were sorry we couldn't spend more time there. I hope you get a chance to visit too.
Hasta la vista.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Quinoa Salad and Perils in Peru

It was no surprise to see quinoa on the menu at restaurants across Peru, including this salad my daughter ordered at a restaurant in Cusco during our recent vacation together. 
After all, quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") is a wonder food that dates back 5,000 years to Peru's Inca civilization.
We were even served a quinoa pastry for breakfast on our train ride from to Ollantaytambo from Aquas Caliente (the nearest town to Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination).
Back home, I recreated the salad, but since the mango I had bought wasn't quite ripe, I used nectarines instead, along with the avocado and maché lettuce that was in the original salad.
The second time I made it, the mango had ripened, and I added some red onion too, something that's used quite a lot in Peru, I found. Whether you use nectarines or mangos (or even a peach or apricot), it's a tasty salad packed with plenty of nutrition. Quinoa is a complete protein in itself, and if you have any gluten intolerant friends, they'll thank you, since it's not a grain, but the seed of a plant that's in the same family as beets and spinach.
The real reason we went to Peru however, was not to eat quinoa, but to visit its breathtaking sights, including the most recognizable icon of Incan civilization -- Machu Picchu.
My daughter had planned for us not only to traipse through the 15th century ruins, but had made reservations for us to hike the large mountain you see in the distance - called "Huayna Picchu," or "Wayna Picchu."
I should have known there would be trouble ahead, after learning that Huayna Picchu means "young person's mountain," while Machu Picchu means "old person's mountain."
More on the trouble later.

As we walked through the site, we couldn't help but wonder how the Incans could have hauled these huge boulders and cut the massive stones without any iron tools, or how they could have created the walls and buildings without any mortar between the stones. Add the sheer height and the thin air to the mix and it becomes an almost unimaginable architectural feat.
Temples and houses are interspersed among the agricultural terraces.

It was one of the most difficult hikes I've ever done, but we were rewarded with stunning sights all along the steep climb.

Including wild orchids growing along the sides of much of the tropical forests along the mountain.
I wanted to turn around several times and go back to safer ground (and terrain that made it easier to breath) but was encouraged to keep going by not only my daughter, but by the people coming down the mountain who urged me to go slow and get to the top. Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, and you have to reserve way in advance.
So onward we climbed, to these narrow, steep steps near the summit.
The steps seemed to get more narrow and more steep as we climbed higher and some people decided to turn back.
But there was no stopping us at this point, when we were so close to the top, even if we had to use our hands and knees part of the way on these ancient stone steps.

When we got to the top, we were rewarded with extraordinary views of the neighboring mountains and the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Very little is known about this archeological site that was hidden from most of the world until 1913 when National Geographic Magazine published an article by American professor Hiram Bingham, who two years earlier had "discovered"  it. Bingham wasn't the first Westerner to have stumbled on it though.  That claim is thought to have been attributed to Augusto Berns, a German adventurer who looted the citadel's gold and other artifacts.
After making our dizzying way to the summit of Huayna Picchu, we had unparalleled, spectacular vistas of the Andes mountains with 360 degree views. It seemed as though you could touch the sky.
Although it looks like she's at the edge of the mountain, my daughter is sitting on a ledge with a small landing of grass beneath her feet, overlooking Machu Picchu and the zig-zaggy road used by vehicles to drive there.
After soaking in the almost mystical feeling of being in this ethereal place, we had to start our descent, and part of it was navigating through a tight crevasse in dim light, with jagged rocks hanging at eye level. For tall people like me and my daughter, we were crouching the whole time through the narrow passageway.
And so the descent began, on steps that were wide enough for only one person. Anyone coming in the other direction had to wait at the one of the platforms, where there was room to two or more to maneuver.
Careful as I was though, shortly after that last photo, I unfortunately slipped and injured my ankle. Nonetheless, I had no way to get down except to walk on my own. One kind stranger, seeing my distress, thankfully gave me her walking stick for the descent. 
For two more hours, I took careful, slow and painful steps until I got to the guard shack at the entrance, where we had started earlier in the day and where we needed to check out. 
My daughter called for paramedics, who came to my rescue a short while later. I am so grateful to Cristian and Riccardo, for the gentle way they cared for me, even if it meant an embarrassing shot in the rear in the mountain hut to help relieve the pain. Muchas gracias amigos.

 Back at home now, I've had time to reflect on this trip, and how special it truly was to see Machu Picchu and other sacred sights in Peru, and to have my daughter as my companion the whole way. 
My daughter might say otherwise, given the handicap I thrust on her the last couple of days of the trip, but as for me, if I had to do it all over again - torn ligaments and sprained ankle included - I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
But for the record, I may confine my exercise to swimming pools in the future. 

Stay tuned for more adventures and recipes from Peru and in the meantime, try this delicious salad:
Peruvian Quinoa Salad
printable recipe here

1/2 cup quinoa (I used a mixture of white and red quinoa)
1 cup water
2 Tablespoons olive oil for sautéing
1 mango (or 2 nectarines or peaches or apricots), diced
1 avocado, diced
a couple of slices of red onion, minced
salt, pepper
3 T. olive oil for dressing
juice of one lime

Cook the quinoa in the water for about five minutes. This is less time than most packages call for, but in Peru, the quinoa was crunchy, and a waiter told me that the chef had sautéed it in some oil after it was boiled a bit. 
Let the boiled quinoa cool a bit, then heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and toss the quinoa in the oil for a few minutes.
Remove to a bowl and let cool, then add the rest of the ingredients, adjusting seasonings and adding more lime juice (or white wine vinegar) if necessary.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Mortadella Mousse

It's been made since ancient Roman times. The name mortadella is derived from mortariolum, which means mortar, the implement that was used to mince pork meat before electric grinders came along. The recipe that we know today as mortadella dates back to 1661, when one Cardinal Farnese published a public notice in Bologna codifying the making of this product for the first time. Down through the centuries, the mortadella from Bologna became famous and spread to many areas of what is now known as Northern and Central Italy. In 1998, it received the prestigious European recognition of the Protected Geographical Indication mark, (IGP) an acronym that guarantees a product originating from a region whose quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographic origin.
Who knows what's in the mortadella you buy at the big chain grocery stores? If you have an Italian deli near you, try searching out real mortadella from Italy. Its fragrance is nothing like what you'll find at supermarkets.
There are several places in Rome that display huge mortadella -- at least 12 inches in diameter and five feet long. This one's at Panella.

If you have a hankering to make your own mortadella, take a look at this video. It doesn't look complicated, but it does seem time-consuming. But the end results look better than anything I've ever bought.

The parmesan cheese in this mousse also adds to its appeal.
Moreover, it's fast and easy to make and even people who claim not to like mortadella may become converts.

Mortadella Mousse

Mortadella Mousse
Time: 20 minutes
1/2 pound mortadella in one piece, rind removed
1/4 cup mascarpone
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese (about 1 ounce), more optional
Pinch of nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
Toast rounds for serving (or crackers)
Whole shelled, salted pistachios or capers for garnish.
1. Dice mortadella and place in a food processor; grind to a paste. Add the mascarpone, 1/3 cup grated cheese and the nutmeg. Process until blended. Spread on toast and top each with a pistachio or caper, or refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Alternatively, each canapé without the garnish can be dusted with about a half-teaspoon of grated cheese, arranged on a baking sheet and run under the broiler briefly, about a minute, to lightly brown the top.

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Monday, May 2, 2016

Ramps & Asparagus Soup

Ramps -- "allium tricoccum" - a member of the onion family (sometimes called wild leeks)
 -- are available for only a few weeks in Spring. If you live anywhere near woods in the Northeast U.S.,  Canada or as far down as North Carolina -- you might try foraging for them, or if not, hopefully you have a farmer's market near you that carries them. - typically at obscenely high prices.
I was lucky enough to get some for the second year in a row from my neighbor Insung, who has a friend who forages for them in New York's Catskills Mountains. 
Both the broad leaves and the bulbs can be eaten and they've got a distinctly pungent taste - somewhere between an onion and garlic. In the photo below, you see the leafy ramps on the left, but they're missing the bulbous part. That's because my friend's friend picked them, leaving the bulbs in the ground in order to allow for more growth for next year. In many areas, ramp mania has gotten so out of control, that local woods have been decimated of the ramps there. So be thoughtful and judicious if you decide to hunt and bring some home.
For this soup, I used a few scallions and asparagus too, adding one potato to help thicken it.
Chop everything into smallish pieces, including the potato.
After I cut off the fibrous ends of the asparagus, I boiled them in some water, to enrich the soup with the vegetable stock. You can make this completely vegetarian, but I added some chicken broth.
There are plenty of other ways to enjoy ramps too, including this ramps pesto I posted a couple of years ago.
They also pair beautifully with eggs, as I found out when making a frittata with mushrooms, ricotta cheese and ramps.
And I loved them on a flatbread too, with mozzarella, ricotta cheese and baby portabello mushrooms. Have you tried ramps yet? What are some of the ways you've enjoyed them?

Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I'm cooking up each day. 
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter. 

Ramps and Asparagus Soup

2 T. olive oil
a few scallions, sliced
1 bunch of ramps, sliced
a bunch of asparagus, roughly sliced
one medium potato, cut into small chunks
4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
a large handful of fresh Italian parsley
salt, pepper to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream, optional
chives or croutons to sprinkle on top

Saute the scallions, asparagus, and ramps in the olive oil until softened. Add the potato chunks and the rest of the ingredients except the parsley and the cream. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer. Cook for 15 –20 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through. Put everything in the blender and puree. (Be careful to cover the lid with a dishtowel or it may splatter.) Add the parsley and whir for a few more seconds. Add heavy cream if desired. Garnish with drops of cream and a sprinkle of chives on top .

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Old-Fashioned Blueberry Coffee Cake

Blueberries are finally starting to taste good again. For months, they've been tasteless and mealy but with the advent of spring, they're back in markets with a much better flavor and texture -- just in time for a coffeecake.
The recipe is from Bon Appétit magazine and was just the thing for serving warm from the oven when three of my high school friends came visiting earlier this week. It holds up well too at room temperature, even for a couple of days. That is, if you can keep from eating the whole thing right away.

(My notes in red.)
Servings: 8–12

Crumb Topping

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (I'd use just a pinch of table salt here next time.)
  • 1/4 cup pecans, toasted, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes


  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (I would use just a pinch of table salt next time)
  • 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups fresh (or frozen, thawed) blueberries (about 10 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) (not necessary - the Panko doesn't really stick to the blueberries anyway)


  • Preheat oven to 350°. Coat 8 x 8 inch pan with nonstick spray. Line bottom with parchment paper; set aside. (I used a buttered cast iron skillet.) Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
  • Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat 3/4 cup sugar and butter in a medium bowl until light and fluffy, 3–4 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend between additions and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until mixture is pale and fluffy, 3–4 minutes longer.
  • With mixer on low speed, add dry ingredients to bowl in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Pour half of batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Whisk remaining 3 Tbsp. sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl; sprinkle evenly over batter in pan. Spoon remaining batter over; smooth top.
  • Toss blueberries with panko in a small bowl; scatter evenly over batter. Sprinkle crumb topping over blueberries.
  • Bake cake until top is golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 55–65 minutes. Let cool completely in pan. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature. 
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