Venturing into the Sahara

Marrakech is notoriously hectic.  The narrow streets bustle with people, cars, motorbikes, and donkeys pulling carts.  Vendors shout at you, children ask for the food from your hands, and it quickly becomes overwhelming.  So after a few days in the city, we were ready to get out and see more of Morocco.

At 7AM sharp, Mohammed picked us up in a Land Cruiser. We climbed in and headed East.  Here’s my photo journal from the beautiful and vastly different geographies we saw.

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We stopped for lunch and a tour in Ouzzarte, which is an ancient Berber village (and frequent movie set for films like Gladiator and an episode of Game of Thrones).  The whole thing is built from bricks made of clay and straw.  It’s remarkable how well it’s stood the test of time.

Sahara 8Sahara 9Sahara 10After lunch we continued East until we reached Zagora, where we pulled off the road for this parked pack of camels.  We stepped out of the car, grabbed our bags, and hopped aboard.

Sahara 11Climbing on was pretty easy, but when they start to stand up, it’s ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING.  See that face?  Pure fear.  Twenty years of horseback riding did not prepare me for this.  They pitch forward, then rock wayyyy back before coming to all four feet.

Sahara 12Until I was on one, I didn’t realize how enormous camels are.  Mine’s name translated to “The Big One” and it was very fitting.  Sitting right atop the hump, I was probably 10 feet in the air.  And camel rides are not the smoothest.  Just ask my sore groin.Sahara 17

Sahara 13 Sahara 15Sahara 16Eventually we reached our Berber camp for the evening. The Berber people are a traditionally nomadic group and I learned a lot about them on this tour.  Like I learned that Hope Chests were used to present dowries, and the purpose of the chest was because each man offered his best and the chest concealed it so that other people couldn’t see and compare.  Isn’t that a nice idea?  Quite opposite of today’s engagement rings, eh?

Sahara 18Perhaps the biggest thing I learned is that I’m not cut out for nomadic life.  It was over 100 degrees (the car thermostat topped out at 40°C) and after just a few minutes, I had sand places I didn’t even know I had.

Sahara 19After we arrived at the camp, we were joined by about 25 other people from all over the globe.  We were served a traditional Moroccan meal before creeping into bed.  I won’t say that I slept that well, but no matter because we were roused by 6 AM and back on camels by 6:30.  The trip back was long and uneventful, so I capitalized on perfect opportunity to sprawl across the back seat and nap.

Eventually, we arrived  back in Marrakech and checked into The Pearl, a gorgeous modern hotel.  I was so happy to be there, I almost kissed the doorman.  As I write this, I’m propped up on a big comfy bed in an air-conditioned room.  And it feels GREAT!

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Souk Cuisine

Souk Cuisine 3At 10 AM sharp we met Gemma, a Dutch native, in front of a cafe in the Medina’s main square.  She was carrying an armful of empty shopping bags and chatting with a couple of Belgian women.  We introduced ourselves, were joined by a lovely British couple, and were ready to get started on our local culinary tour.

She started by distributing the bags, shopping lists, and small change purses with local currency.  We’d be making an array of traditional Moroccan dishes, all family recipes from the local women who assisted her.  Our list had mint, cumin, icing sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, and a couple other miscellaneous items.  The other pairs had other items, making it feel like we each had our own little treasure hunts.

Souk Cuisine 5She led us through the bustling alleys of the souk, stopping first in front of some stands heaped with olives jars of preserved lemons.  While the other people procured items from their list, Gemma showed me the two kinds of Moroccan mint.  She snapped a leaf off both varieties and let me taste the difference.  One was distinctly more bitter, so I chose the other and purchased a neat little bunch, which the vendor wrapped in paper for us.

We trekked on, deeper into the souks, stopping here and there for items.  My favorite stop was the spice shop.  Gemma explained that there are many vendors for each type of good, and that they’re all essentially the same but that locals always return to the same one.  They value the relationship, especially since these spice vendors are also herbalists of sorts, who can be consulted when an illness or ailment strikes.

Souk Cuisine 2Her “spice guy” was a real delight.  He let us smell each spice and made us guess what they were.  I don’t think we got a single one right, but learned a whole heck of a lot in the process.  He also showed us how to distinguish real saffron from fake, how Moroccan women use crushed minerals for eyeliner, and a wealth of other informative gems.

Souk Cuisine 4One of our last stops was the baker, who prepares bread in an oven that somewhat resembles a massive version of an Italian pizza oven.  The bread here is unleavened, like a biali or thick pita.  It’s a bit bland, but the perfect canvas to soak up the juices from a tangine.

With all our goods in hand, we snuck through a door so small that even I had to duck to squeeze through.  We were guided into the courtyard of a small riad, where local women washed our groceries and created cooking stations while we relaxed in front of a fan with some tea.

Souk Cuisine 7Once everything was prepped, recipes were distributed and we all got to work.  I paired up with the British woman and we got to work chopping, peeling, and chopping some more.  The local women could barely conceal their disdain at our barbaric knife skills.  What we thought was “finely diced” must have looked like glaciers of onion to them, and they continually pantomimed the additional chopping we needed to do.

Souk Cuisine 12Together, she and I made a sweet carrot salad, a Moroccan salad, and Courgette (zucchini) salad.  The Belgian women made a mashed aubergine (eggplant) dish, and a pan of filleted anchovies covered in tomatoes and peppers.  Souk Cuisine 10The men handled the meatballs, cooked in a tangine, and once everything was cooking we all chipped in on some cookies that turned out much like a shortbread from home.

Souk Cuisine 8 Souk Cuisine 9Souk Cuisine 11Souk Cuisine 13Once everything was thoroughly cooked, we all sat down to enjoy the meal with some nicely chilled wine.  It tasted just as good as it smelled, the local flavors creating a delicious bouquet of fragrances.  To my surprise, the carrot salad was a favorite.

Souk Cuisine 14 Souk Cuisine 15Souk Cuisine 6I didn’t care much for the anchovy dish (not a huge surprise) but no matter because moments later the meatballs stole the show.  Simmered in a tomato sauce in a large tangine, they were robust with flavor and utterly divine.  Just before they were done, four eggs were cracked on top and poached in the sauce, balancing out the whole dish and providing even more protein.  This is something I would definitely make again at home, and now that I have the recipe, I can!

Last came the mint tea and cookies.  Although I was a bit nauseated by the amount of vegetable oil required by the recipe, my skepticism waned when I took my first bite.  They were really good.  Just like a shortbread, with an essence of orange.

With our bellies full, we sat and swapped stories from our travels.  We learned that Gemma had moved to Morocco over 9 years ago.  She imparted wisdom and helped us gain a better understanding of the local culture.  Other tourists recommended restaurants to try (and to avoid) and of course, we discussed the inevitable shopping we all planned to do.

If you ever find yourself in Marrakech, I highly recommend this experience.  You can find Gemma online- her tour is called Souk Cuisine and it’s an excellent introduction to Moroccan food and culture.  The whole experience is so enjoyable, I’d say that the delicious meal is just (I can’t resist a food cliche here…) “the icing on the cake”.

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Arriving in Marrakech

After about 20 hours of travel, this was a very welcome sight.

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I retrieved my luggage and connected with the driver I’d arranged with my riad.  In Marrakech, the most common form of lodging is Riads.  They’re small, generally about 20 rooms, with a beautiful courtyard in the middle, and they’re operated a bit like an American Bed and Breakfast with warm, personal service and a morning meal included with your stay.

After scouring reviews online, I booked Palais Sebban for my first few nights.  The driver, like most Moroccans, was very warm and friendly but I started to question things when he dropped us off in front of this unassuming door.
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Fortunately, the exterior was deceiving.  The inside is truly splendid. It’s a labyrinth of courtyards, rooms, and lounging areas.  Each is ornately decorated and blissfully tranquil (a vast departure from the streets outside!).

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We were welcomed in warmly and served mint tea in true local tradition.  Despite the temperatures topping 100°F, the Moroccans love their hot tea.  The lovely woman from the front desk provided a map and pointed out attractions as we rested our weary bodies.
Morocco Sebban 2After securing a dinner reservation in the hotel restaurant, it was time for a nice long nap.  I was shown to my room and collapsed into bed.

DSC_0161We arrived downstairs at six, completely famished.  Dinner was served poolside, at one of the tables with the red clothes in the picture above.  It was a traditional Moroccan meal and utterly delectable.  We started with a bottle of red and some salads.  Tomato and basil for me, tomato, basil, and eggplant for my friend.  Mine was good, but the other was better.  The eggplant was sliced thin and lightly fried.  It was the perfect compliment to the tomato, pesto, and cheese.  I’ll surely replicate this little dish at home.

Morocco Dinner Night 1 5Next, the best part: Tangines.  Lemon chicken with olives and beef with prunes, dates, and apricots.  Tangines are a classic Moroccan style of cooking.  They’re made from a terracotta of sorts and look like little clay teepees until the covers are removed.  They’re cooked on the stove, and the top traps in moisture producing soft, savory meats that fall off the bone. Morocco Dinner Night 1 4 Morocco Dinner Night 1 3

The beef was good, but the chicken was truly delectable.  After this meal, there’s a really good chance I’ll be leaving this country with a tangine in tow!

Dessert was yogurt and these flaky crisps, doused in a sticky sweet orange glaze.  Not really my style, but still worth a try.  One of the best parts of travel is trying local cuisine, knowing that I won’t love everything.

Morocco Dinner Night 1 2After dinner, the sun had set and the local’s Ramadan fast had been broken so we struck out to see the souks and experience the city after dark.  Even though it was after normal business hours, many shops were open and the main square bustled with activity.

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20150712_210343Even at night, it was a sight to behold.

After a while, we decided to find our way home.  Our feet were filthy and we’d had enough of the heckling that the souk is known for.  I collapsed into bed again, and slept like the dead.

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An Update

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In recent months I’ve avoided posting very personal content on my blog, but I think it’s due time for an update.

After three and a half [mostly] blissful years in Southern California, I’ve decided to move on.  And while I’m sad to close the book on this chapter, I’m really excited about the things ahead.

I’ll be living in DC: an exciting, vibrant city with which I’m completely enamored.  I’ll miss the 350 days of sunshine, the abundance of palm trees, and the Pinterest-perfect ocean views but I’m excited for the culture, the history, and of course, an entire new city of restaurants to try!

In about a month, once I settle in, I’ll start grad school at Georgetown.  I’ve always known that I wanted to go back to school for an MBA and about a year ago I decided I was ready. Of course, as luck would have it, all of the admissions deadlines had just passed.  Business schools don’t allow students to enroll in January, so I had the entire year to plan, research, study, and apply.  I worked my butt off.  I woke up at 5AM everyday for months so that I could study for the GMAT before work.  I drove to LA and back several times for dinners and forums and interviews.  And now that the application process is over, I’m thrilled with how everything worked out.  As Sophia Amoruso would say, “I [got] what I want[ed] because I work[ed] for it.”  And I’ve gotta say, it feels really good.

But first, an adventure….

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Tea Upon Chatsworth

TeaUponChatworthMy sister-in-law came to visit a couple of weeks ago and one of the highlights of our time together was afternoon tea in Point Loma.  It’s a cute little place with lots of ladies in hats and a hodgepodge of beautiful china.

image2They offer two different options- both include several teas and multiple courses.  I think ours included 12 and the other had 8.

When I first sat down, I couldn’t believe how many teas they had to choose from.  I usually drink green tea, so the array of choices was really exciting.  My favorites were the Vanilla Jasmine and the Creme de Earl Grey.

image1They encourage guests to visit their wall of herbs and spices.  I opened up a few and delicious aromas wafted out.  There’s so much in the world of teas that I’ve been missing out on!

image11We chose our first two teas and they brought us our starting course of kale soup.image9

image3Next they brought us a gorgeous tiered platter of finger sandwiches, mini quiches, scones, pastries, fruit, cookies, and mini red velvet cupcakes.

image4We sat in the window, chatting and enjoying the assortment of nibbles.

image6image7image8Everything was delicious, but my favorites were the sandwiches, the scone, and the chocolate mousse.  Ohh, that chocolate mousse.  I smile just remembering it.  It was rich but light, and it melted on my tongue.  It’s so rich and divine that only a few bites are satiating.  image1

It was a really nice, leisurely way to spend the afternoon.  The British are really onto something from this tea time thing!TeaUponChatsworth2

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JLSD Food & Wine Festival

IMG_6979A couple of weeks ago my friend Alicia and I donned our Derby wear and headed up to La Jolla Cove for the annual Junior League of San Diego Food and Wine Festival.

A couple of my friends are members and for the last two years I’ve heard about this wonderful event.  This year, I finally went to support.  Within minutes I was sorry I hadn’t gone last year.  Katie warned me I’d regret missing it – will I ever learn to listen to her?

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Tickets run about $85 (I think VIP is $145) but once you’re in the white picket fence, there is tent after tent of tasty little nibbles.

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I really enjoyed watching this artist work as I enjoyed my libation under the California sun.

IMG_6957They gave us these clever little plates with a wine glass holder to assist in the balancing act.   I wasted no time grabbing everything from sliders to parfaits.  I wasn’t sad to see that the “Food and Wine Festival” is a bit loose in their definition- we tasted spirits ranging from beer to Alicia’s favorite- moonshine!

IMG_6964We spent the afternoon ambling from tent to tent under the sun, nibbling and sipping and (of course) popping over to the photo booth every chance we got!

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The afternoon passed way too quickly, but only 50 weeks until next year’s event.  I highly recommend it to locals, or visitors who happen to be around!

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Coffee Creme Brûlée

CremeBrulee2I’m fancy.  Oh, I’m fancy.  Because I made creme brûlée.  At home.  From scratch.  And it was delicious.

Here’s my silky smooth, simple but chic recipe for coffee creme brûlée.

Ingredients:

(This recipe makes enough for about 3 people, depending on the size of your ramekins):

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup + 4 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons instant coffee powder (I used 1.5 single-serve packages)

sprinkle of cinnamon

1 egg

3 egg yolks

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Get a large sauce pan and combine the cream, 1/2 cup of sugar, a dash of cinnamon and instant coffee powder. Bring it to a boil, whisking to combine and dissolve everything.  Once it’s come to a boil, remove the pan from heat and cover it for 30 minutes.

Then you need to strain it.  If you have a sieve, that’s perfect.  If you don’t, you can use a colander and coffee filters.  It works- I tried it.

Preheat the oven to 325 and whisk your eggs and egg whites in a medium or large bowl.  Add some of the cream mixture, whisk it a bit, add some more cream mixture, whisk again, and repeat until fully combined.

Find a baking dish with high sides and place the large ramekins or custard cups in it.  You’ll need to add water, so that the ramekins are in a water bath.  The water should be about half way up the side of the ramekins.  Divide the custard mixture into the ramekins and bake for 55 minutes.  You can tell they are done because the middle will barely move when you jiggle the cups a bit.

Cool and refrigerate (overnight, ideally).

Everyone knows that the best part of creme brûlée is the sugary shell on top, and there are two ways to achieve it.  The first requires a blow torch (not something this single 20-something woman has handy) so I went with the broiler method.

Start by sprinkling about 1 teaspoon of sugar on top of each creme brûlée.  Turn on the broiler and put all the creme brulees on a baking sheet.  Place them under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, rotating if necessary for even cooking.  Remove from the oven, cool for about 30 minutes, and enjoy!

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Breaking into the sugar shell is even more fun when you’re the chef! And the inside is silky smooth.

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So fancy.

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