Cueva Ventana, Puerto Rico

September 7, 2012

Most caves I have visited have cement walkways, electric mood lights, and a ticket booth for your guided tour. These caves were exciting because they are completely wild, and thankfully not ruined by vandals. Bats were flying everywhere, and our tiny flashlight barely lit the way. Then after wandering for a while we followed the light to an amazing view of the valley below.

The cave gets it’s name “Window cave” for this view

Not typical stalactites and stalagmites, but felt very wild

Bats were flying everywhere. I’m glad they have radar.

Main entrance to “Window Cave”

There is also a “secret” side entrance through the tree roots.

Careful, there’s nothing preventing us from going off the cliff

This is my last Puerto Rico post. After all this is supposed to be a food blog, right. But for those who know me personally, travel has always been a huge part of my life. Man cannot live by cooking alone. So here are a few final photos from other places we visited. Ponce, is the southern part of the island, is a beautiful colonial city. Obviously a few hundred years newer than San Juan because of the different style of colonial architecture.

Our hotel on the main square

Typical Ponce architecture of the city center

From Ponce we went to the north of the island and stayed in a small, but picturesque little beach town. It was perfect for relaxing, but the surf was a little wild for my two sons. We went to nearby Playa Jobos to swim.

View from our hotel room in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico

Surf on the north of the island is a little bigger

Picture-perfect location

Nearby was the famous Arecibo Observatory. It uses radar imagery to create detailed images of objects within our solar system. The observatory has been in a few famous movies.

Largest radar observatory in the world


Santo Domingo

August 15, 2013

Traveling to the Caribbean in summer is a crap shoot. Last year, I was caught by Hurricane Issac in Puerto Rico, but this summer in the Dominican Republic the weather was amazing every day. While most tourists skip the capitol city of Santo Domingo, it does offer a beautiful colonial center worthy of a few days. I stayed in a 16th century convent one block from the main pedestrian artery; Calle el Conde. Here are a few of the architectural highlights.

In many places the old city walls of Santo Domingo have been rebuilt using modern cement. Still, a lot of what remains in the Zona Colonial remains original. My first meal of Chivo en linea al fuego was on a beautiful colonial plaza; Plaza Colon. My second dinner was at Adrian Tropical. After reading rave reviews, I was a little disappointed with both the restaurant (for lack of authentic cuisine) and my dinner selection of Guinea Fowl. My dinner had too much sauce and not enough fowl. By the way, If you ever find yourself eating Guinea you should eat it with your fingers no matter how messy things get.

Those who know me know that I am never an alarmist, but I was pretty disappointed with the security situation of Boca Chica. First, the road into Boca Chica had a police roadblock (a la shakedown). And while the police eventually let me go sans bribe, they were still pleading how “thirsty” they were; meaning I was supposed to buy them something to drink.  Second, after stopping at the beach for about 5 minutes in a heavily populated area, some trim on my rental car disappeared in plain sight of dozens of people; an insurance headache more than anything.


Culebra Island

September 4, 2012

Most of Puerto Rico is a blend of modern US life with the easy pace of the Caribbean. But there are a few smaller islands to the east that are more rustic and where the pace is even slower. Culebra and Vieques are always mentioned as a highlight of Puerto Rico. My original intent for Culebra was to reserve a decent room (ideally with a shared kitchen) and rent a Jeep to explore the island. However, I arrived at the dock in Culebra with 200 other tourists without any reservations. Fortunately, everybody who has anything to rent, sell or offer meets the big ferry. Within 5 minutes I had the answers to all my questions that I was unable to resolved in the prior 2 weeks. I skipped the $150 Jeep in favor of the $3 shuttle. I ended up in the “penthouse” of the Hotel Kokomo; 1-bedroom with a full kitchen, nice bathroom and disgusting sofa (see photo of our view below).

Of course, beautiful Flamingo Beach (Playa Flamenco) is the main reason people come to Culebra, and it’s reputation did not disappoint. The weather was cloudy so we didn’t get the full effect of the turquoise water, but the sand was brilliant white and soft like baby powder under my feet. Culebra also offers excellent snorkeling. Amazingly, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of snorkeling with sea turtles. Even more amazingly, I was able to share it with my two sons. We snorkeled with them for a full 25 minutes.

Flamingo Beach one of the nicest beaches in the world

While the beach is amazing, one of the drawback about going during hurricane season is that the water is less turquoise, but the beaches are far less crowded.  Of course my reason for going at this time of year was that the kids were out of school.

Another view of Flamingo Beach

View from the “penthouse suite” at Hotel Kokomo

An old tank left on the beach from the time when the US military was here.

We came on the Big Cat Express. Nice ride!


El Yunque

August 29, 2012

One of the funniest things about Puerto Rico is seeing how the familiar blends with the unfamiliar. The same mail trucks that deliver my mail at home also deliver the mail down here, and for the same 45-cents. It was with that odd sense of familiarity that we visited the U.S. National Park El Yunque; which is the Spanish word for anvil, but is somehow translated to mean white lands. However, this mountain is far from a typical national forest. El Yunque was originally set aside by the Spanish in the 1880’s, making it older than any other National Park, and is the only rain forest that is part of the U.S. National Park system. El Yunque has more species of trees than all other national parks combined. We were serenaded by Coqui frogs; whose name is derived from their song (“co-qui, co-qui”); during every moment of our hiking. Eventually we made it as far at Mt. Britton, but the boys ran out of energy at an impressive 3,100 ft, and couldn’t quite make it to the very top on Yunque mountain (3,500 ft).

Entrance to El Yunque

Beautiful mix of tropical trees and ferns

La mina waterfall; about a 1 hour hike

El Yunque has it’s own quarter!

 

Elaborate roots that you only see in the rain forest

El Yunque receives over 200 inches of rain per year

Nico got tired climbing the mountain; but made it to about 3,100 ft.

Lookout tower at Mt. Britton; not the replica that can be driven to.


Old San Juan

August 26, 2012

Originally, I had huge plans of a trip combining a week in central Europe with 10 days in South Africa for this month. But life has sent me in unexpected directions. So I simply intend to enjoy the blessings that life has offered, instead of worrying about all the things that might have been. My “lemonade” is 11 days in Puerto Rico, and it turns out that  this “consolation prize” turns out to be filled with just as many spectacular experiences as my other ports-of-call that require a passport. Even hurricane Issac was accommodating as it bent a little to our south leaving the island largely unaffected. I do wish my cell phone didn’t work, though, so I would feel like I am further from my daily life back home. Even my frequent shopper card at CVS works.

Old city wall

The boys trying to get into the old city.

Main entrance to Castillo de San Felipe.

Typical colonial architecture

More colonial houses

Houses along a main square

Near the old main gate leading into the city

Part of Castillo de San Felipe.

The cities origins go back to the 1500’s.


Ceviche

November 13, 2014

Ceviche is one of my favorite things about visiting the Caribbean (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here). Of course, ceviche is “cooked” in citrus juice rather than being thermally cooked. While its important to understand the potential risks about eating “raw” seafood (see here), I personally have never allowed the slight risks from stopping me from enjoying ceviche. I rely on my judgement to select the right restaurant (not-to-cheap-price, cleanliness). I’ve also made something similar but gently cooking the shrimp.

Delicious, but heavy on the veggies

Delicious ceviche, but a little too heavy on the veggies

Frozen seafood cannot match the flavor and texture of fresh, Caribbean seafood, but it still work making at home. This version has more peppers and vegetables that I generally get in the Caribbean. It is more like a citrus seafood salad. It is still delicious. 4-stars. I served it with this Pernil.

Issues:

  1. After waiting the 1 hour listed in my recipe, the ceviche still looked semi-raw. I wanted to wait until the entire exterior lost it’s brown, translucent appearance. Finally after 3 hours the shrimp appeared completely cooked.
  2. I exclusively used shrimp, but the recipe is written to also work with sea scallops, skinless fish fillets, or any combination. I believe that it would be important to cut them in very similar sized pieces, so that they will finish “cooking” at the same time.

Rating: 4 stars.
Cost: $12.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time: 2:30 PM. Ready at: 6:00 PM.

The original Cook’s Illustrated recipe is here.  The recipe as I cooked it today is as follows:

1 pound extra-large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound)
1 teaspoon grated lime zest from 1 lime
1/2 cup juice from 4 limes
1/2 cup juice from 4 lemons
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped fine
1 jalapeño chile (small), stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
Salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 scallions, sliced thin
3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Ground black pepper

  1. If using shrimp, peel them completely, devein (if not already done), and use a paring knife to slice each shrimp in half lengthwise  (through the deveined groove in the shrimps back).
  2. If using scallops, remove the side tendon and cut into 1/3″-thick rounds.
  3. If using fish, remove any bones and cut into 1″ squares that are 1/3″-thick.
  4. Add the lime zest, lime juice, lemon juice, bell pepper, jalapeño, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a medium bowl. Stir until combined.
  5. Gently stir in the seafood, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 60 minutes (it took mine 3 hours) until the seafood becomes firm, opaque, and it appears cooked. Stir halfway through the marinating time.
  6. Drain the mixture though a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the liquid. Leave it a little wet, and return to the bowl.
  7. Gently stir in the oil, scallions, cilantro, and sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Chicken Big Mac

October 23, 2012

One of the happiest discoveries of my chicken-loving son during our recent trip to Puerto Rco was the Chicken Big Mac. It’s exactly what it sounds like; A big Mac but with deep-fried chicken patties. After three attempts, I am happy to report that we have found a recipe that exceeds the original. There are really only a few things you need to know. (1) Slice the chicken in half horizontally so that the burger isn’t too thick to fit in your mouth. (2) The secret sauce recipe isn’t really a secret anymore. (3) Slice the top or bottom crust of a bun to form the middle bun. My son said the results exceeded the McDonald’s original, which I only consider praise when it comes from a 13-year-old. He gave it 5-stars.

Home-made chicken mac saves on airfare to Latin America

Comments:

  1. As a healthier alternative I tried to cook the chicken in a skillet with just a little bit of olive oil, but my son deemed it too plain. In another attempt, He much preferred the shallow-fried version when I did the Weinerschnitzel technique.
  2. Of course McD’s uses American Cheese, but I substituted my kids favorite. Parmesan for the 13-year-old and Mozzarella for the 11-year-old.
  3. I still remember the commercial when I was a kid giving the recipe for a Big Mac: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” I’m not sure why my brain would store such seemingly useless knowledge for 35 years, and surprisingly how it could have possibly come in handy.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $1.25 per sandwich.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium/High.
Start time 4:45 PM. Finish time 5:30 PM.

The descriptions of how I prepared the recipe today are given below:

Big Mac Secret Sauce Ingredients:
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon onions powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika

Sandwich Ingredients:
4 Chicken Breasts
2 egg whites
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 leaves of lettuce, shredded
4 slices of American Cheese or Grated Cheese of your choice
8 pickles (omitted in my house)
1 slice of onion, diced
6 Hamburger buns (ideally sesame-seed buns)

  1. Lay chicken breast flat on cutting board, and freeze for 15 minutes. Place one hand flat on top of chicken breast to hold in place, and use a chef’s knife to slice the chicken horizontally. Repeat for all your breasts.
  2. Trim thin ends of chicken breasts away, so that the evenly thick part of the breast is about 1″ larger than your hamburger buns. It can be in a rough circle or square shape.
  3. Put Panko bread crumbs in a pie plate, then add flour to another pie plate. In a third pie plate, mix the eggs with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.
  4. Working with 1 cutlet at a time, dredge thoroughly in flour, shaking off excess, then coat with egg mixture, allowing any excess egg to drip back. You want to ensure a very thin and even coating. Finally coat evenly with bread crumbs, pressing so that the crumbs adhere. Place breaded cutlets on wire rack to allow the coating to dry for 5 minutes.
  5. Heat 2 cups of vegetable oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil reaches 375-degrees, put 2 breaded cutlets in pan and cook for 2 minutes per side, gently shaking pan so that cutlets will cook evenly.  Flip and cook the second side for between 1 and 2 minutes. Remove and place cutlets on paper towel-lined plate and flip cutlets several times to blot excess oil. Repeat cooking process with remaining cutlets.
  6. Assemble sandwiches putting special sauce, shredded lettuce, diced onion, and cheese on bottom and middle bun.

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