Chef Cat Cora’s Sweet Onion Marmalade (Sort Of)

Over the years of playing around in my kitchen I’ve learned a few advanced techniques, all self-taught so probably not executed that well…but well enough. I can reverse-sear a rib eye steak to a textbook medium rare each and everytime I cook steak. I give it a few hours at a precise temperature of 132 degrees in my sous vide cooker, finishing it off on my grill for that nice tasty Maillard crust. When I’m grilling steak for guests I will sometimes plate that fork tender steak with perfectly formed horseradish pearls using molecular gastronomy and a carefully measured amount of agar-agar. That’s a melt in your mouth bite of beef followed by the sharp pop of heat from an exploding horseradish pearl that will bring tears to the eyes of any beef lover. And not from the horseradish.

My most recent love affair with a dish was a sweet onion marmalade I encountered about this time last year in Santa Barbara. One of the places Janet and I stopped at for a meal was Chef Cat Cora’s laid-back Mesa Burger in Goleta, and I had the most delectable lamb slider with a sinfully good sweet onion marmalade. Right then and there I decided I was going to make that marmalade in my own kitchen. Some day.

My going in thought was how tough could it be? It was a condiment after all, and condiments are an afterthought. Do you prefer ketchup, mustard, or mayo with your burger? Yes, please. Some people like lettuce, tomato, pickles, and even raw onions on their burger…some people don’t. I’m OK with all those. Except the raw onion. It hijacks my tastebuds. My point is when you serve up a burger, as a cook you don’t give much thought to what goes on it, or next to it. Unless you are a kick-ass Iron Chef like Cat Cora. There are no afterthoughts on any of her dishes…everything on the plate contributes to the overall flavor palate the dish is engineered to deliver, and is meant to be consumed. Even the garnishes and condiments, and especially the onion marmalade. I could have made a meal out of it, and that’s why I deemed it copy worthy.

The Challenge

In my onion naivete, I wasn’t overly concerned with cooking the onions. Who can’t cook up a skillet of onions? Well…me, apparently. I ruined an embarrassing number of onions in my attempts to prefect this dish. My chief concern was how to recreate that tasty goo Chef Cora bathed them in. I had no idea what went into it. I figured it would take quite a bit of experimentation to get it right, but little did I know the goo would turn out to be the easy part.

The trick with this dish is that it involves applying two different browning processes to the onions that are complementary while at the same time work in competition with each other: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. I’ll skip the science behind it and just say the only way to get caramelized onions that are sweet while at the same time savory, nicely browned, complex in flavor and not burnt is to go slow over medium-low heat. Which means it takes time…way more time than you think, and you can’t cheat the process with hacks. I know because I tried all the hacks I could find.

The Hacks

Before I delve into what works, I have to say a bit about what doesn’t work. The hacks. Don’t do it. Whether it is adding baking soda or table sugar to the skillet, don’t do it. Enough said.

The Recipe

On the surface this is a simple recipe that doesn’t require any fancy technique, but it does require skill. And patience. Lots of patience. It only takes a couple of ingredients…some onions, butter, oil (optional) and about a cup of water or broth…I chose beef broth. That’s it. It doesn’t even matter what kind of onion you use…I went with candy onions because that’s what the local farm stand had in abundance when I decided it was time to try recreating Chef Cora’s marmalade.

What elevates this simple condiment to Iron Chef level is what you do with those ingredients, and I discovered I needed to do three things for this recipe to work. I needed to caramelize the onions, which uses heat to break down the sucrose in onions into simple sugars…fructose and glucose. The simple sugars register more readily on the sweetness receptors in your taste buds and caramelizing is what makes that happen. But I also wanted the rich, savory complexity you get with Maillard browning, which occurs when some of the liberated glucose recombines at a molecular level with amino acids in the onion proteins to form hundreds of new and richly flavorful compounds. Anyone who grills understands the Maillard reaction, even if only intuitively. It’s what gives a nicely grilled steak that delectable tasting crust.

Heat is what you need for both caramelization and the Maillard reaction, and both reactions occur naturally when you cook up a batch of onions in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat. The trick is to resist trying to speed things up by using a higher temperature setting. Onions will burn in the blink of an eye if you apply too much heat. Low and slow is the way to go for this dish. Plan on at least an hour of cook time to get it right, stirring regularly to make sure nothing burns. It only takes a few bits of burnt onion to ruin the entire batch. I know. I ruined plenty of batches trying to get this recipe down.

The third thing I needed was something to form a gel for the onions to set in. Otherwise, it would just be a batch of cooked onions…great on any meat dish, but it was the marmalade treatment that elevated Chef Cora’s onion condiment to new heights of culinary excess.

I stumbled on how to make a marmalade gel for this dish even before I perfected my technique for caramelizing the onions. Mostly because I unabashedly tried to cheat. I tried one of the “time saving” hacks I found on the internet for making caramelized onions…using a pressure cooker. In my defense, I found it on my go-to site for food science, Serious Eats. Their Food Lab scientists presented the pressure cooker hack as a cheat to cut down on the time necessary to caramelize onions, but in the end it didn’t work. It rendered the onions down to a soupy consistency where the onions lost all structural integrity. And though that isn’t what you want when making caramelized onions, it works great for making the base of a French onion soup. And, as it turns out, the base for a sweet onion marmalade, or as I call it…the goo.

The prep for this dish was simple. I cut my onion in half, dicing one half to use in my Instant Pot for the goo, and cutting the other half into slices to cook up in the skillet. I set the Instant Pot to sauté mode, tossed in a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and after that melted I added the diced onion. I cooked the onion dices up just to the point of rendering out some of the liquid, added a cup of beef broth, and then put the lid on and switched to pressure cooker mode. I set the timer for 20 minutes and let the Instant Pot do its thing. I skipped the Serious Eats step of adding baking soda. I understand the science behind it, but it also leaves an unpleasant chemical aftertaste. No thanks.

When the Instant Pot timer was down to just a few minutes remaining, I put my cast iron skillet on the cooktop and set the temp to medium high just long enough to get it hot, then turned it down to medium low. You can add a bit of oil to the skillet if you want, but I chose not to. When the pressure cooker timer beeped, I released the pressure and poured the contents into the cast iron skillet, gave it a few stirs, then added the onion slices.

At that point it was a simple matter of babysitting the onion slices as the heat did its thing, stirring them occasionally to make sure nothing burned. I fiddled with the temperature setting throughout the cooking to avoid burning anything. The low and slow cooking also further reduced the liquid from the contents of my Instant Pot into more of a gelatinous goo, which is what I needed for this to be a proper marmalade.

How do you know when it’s done? When the onions are nicely brown, taste sweet and complex, most of the liquid in the goo has rendered out, and your arm gets tired of stirring. For me, I wanted onions that were limp but with enough structure to be identifiable as onions. It took about an hour and 15 minutes of steady stirring over a medium low heat to get the results I was aiming for. And quite a bit of stirring. That’s in addition to the time it took to make the goo in my Instant Pot. Figure on at least 90 minutes from start to finish, and it can take even longer if your onions are particularly juicy.

The Results

My sweet onion marmalade was delicious. I served it with some beef sliders I cooked up on my grill, the beef of course coming from my favorite source, Roseda Farms. The marmalade turned out oh so sweet and savory with a richly complex flavor profile. The combination of the fatty beef flavor of the sliders and the onion marmalade was a pairing that worked better than I hoped. I doesn’t taste quite the same as my memory tells me I got from Mesa Burger…it tastes better. But I am biased. In any event, this condiment has earned a spot in my arsenal of ways to impress my guests the next time I go for a casual dinner of burgers on the grill. It keeps well in the fridge too and reheats nicely with a short stint in the microwave. Now all I have to do is cook up another batch with the same results so I know it wasn’t a fluke.

Thank you, Chef Cora!

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It Must Be True…I Read it on Facebook

Janet and I occasionally get questions about travel that befuddle us…until we learn someone read it on Facebook. I do very little on social media these days beyond posting pictures and videos of our travels, my kids and grandkids, and the critters in my yard. And food. I’m one of “those” people that can’t resist food posts. As if anyone cares what I made for dinner or ordered in a restaurant.

I have resisted signing up for most affinity groups…it is entirely too easy to get caught up in the back and forth about things that don’t matter to me…but I decided to do just that prior to our most recent trip. I found an affinity group on Facebook dedicated to Secrets Cap Cana, sent in my request to join, and was granted access.

There were a few good questions and some very good responses from people genuinely trying to be helpful. And while I did learn a few things, most of what I read left me shaking my head. Many of the questions posted had been asked and answered multiple times even in the few short weeks I belonged to the group, but I guess people who love filling posts with emojis and virtual stickers can’t figure out how that Facebook search function works.

I decided to capture and share the top 10 posts and responses that left me shaking my head the most, along with notes I took of my reactions. As you read these, keep in mind I’m not making any of this up. I couldn’t even if I tried.

#10. The post: “Hi all…traveling from the UK. Can someone please tell me what travel adapters we need to bring?”

The response: “We just used our regular plugs.”

Note: Answered by an American about a resort that uses U.S. standard outlets. Real helpful to the poster from the UK.

#9. The post: “I am from the UK and I brought an adapter to the resort only to find it (the adapter) is a three prong grounded U.S. plug. The plugs in my resort are two prong. Help!”

The response: “Just cut off the grounding prong…it doesn’t do anything anyway.”

The follow up post: “Thanks. I took your advice and it worked.”

Note: They took that person’s advice but ignored everyone else who suggested they contact the concierge desk and ask for an adapter without the grounding plug. Reason 1 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#8. The post: “Looking for a bit of advice. Has anyone had problems with swollen legs? Any advice on diuretics? Looking into getting some delivered from a local pharmacy.”

The responses: “Electrolyte powder,” “Cut back on alcohol” (at an all-inclusive…really?), “Drink lots of water,” “Cut down on sodium” (not likely with all the salt the Chefs use at this place), “Diuretics.”

Note: I should point out the person posting the suggestion about diuretics, not a medical professional by her own admission, went so far as to recommend a specific diuretic that requires a prescription in the U.S. but was available over the counter in the DR. She even recommended a dosage…all without knowing the medical history of the original poster. Reason 2 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#7. The post: “What wildlife around the resorts…any lizards or birds around?”

Note: You are in a tropical destination…what do you think?

#6. The post: A picture of a spider on the edge of one of the OUTDOOR sidewalks.

The response: “This is not a joke, I have severe arachnophobia & saw the tarantula post yesterday (it wasn’t a tarantula). I’m freaking out & considering changing our vacation. I just can’t unsee what I saw. I forgot that most Caribbean spots have them. Can anyone tell me what type of spiders they’ve seen here 😬🥺😩”

The follow-up post: “Actually it was a joke. It was a plastic spider.”

#5. The post: “Bring your own Yeti cup…you’ll get a bigger drink.”

Note: That explains all the people we saw carrying Yeti cups around the resort. Ummm…it’s an all-inclusive…you can have as much to drink as you want. They’ll even give you a big cup if you ask for it and refill it for you when it’s empty or if your drink isn’t as cold as you like. No kidding…not a trick 😂😉😉😂🥸.

#4. The post: “What happens if you test positive for COVID?”

The response: “You get to extend your vacation. I was hoping I’d catch it, but no such luck.”

Note: Words fail me.

#3. The post: “When traveling with prescriptions meds and vitamins, must they remain in original containers or can they be packed in those Sunday-Saturday daily containers?”

The response: “Currently as of Monday, you had to pack medicine in checked bags on the way out of Punta Cana (airport). Just and (sic) FYI.”

A response to that response: “That has been posted several times here but it is not true.” They included a link to the Punta Cana airport’s security guidelines, which recommended putting prescription medications in carry-in. It was the only helpful response out of a dozen or so comments.

Another post later that day: “I saw a post on here about medications. It said you have to pack them in a checked bag when leaving the Dominican Republic. I hope this is not true. What if your luggage gets lost? Anyone know the answer?”

Note: That person saw the post, read the comment with the inaccurate information, but didn’t bother to read the comment with the accurate information (or chose not to believe it). They did include lots of emojis and stickers in their post.

#2. The post: “Hi! We have a 5 night trip planned in November. Do you think 5 is enough or should we do 6? We will be staying at the resort and not taking day trips.”

The response: “Seriously? You’ve booked your stay and you’ve bought your plane tickets which are insanely expensive and only getting worse. What are you going to do with the answers to this question? What if someone says it is too long (which someone did)…are you going to cut your stay short and pay the penalties? What if the consensus is 5 nights is too few, but 6 nights is in the Goldilocks zone…just right (which someone did). Are you going to double the cost of your trip for that one extra night, which’s (sic) is what it would cost for the difference in air plus the extra day at an already fully booked resort?”

Note: I wish I had written that response!

#1 The post that left me scratching my head the most:

“Do they have good cheese at this place? Not spending $1400+ unless there’s good cheese.”

The responses: Varied from “They have the best cheese in the world” to “Don’t waste your money.” My favorite response was “Cheese sucks.”

Note: It doesn’t matter. If $1400 is all you are planning on spending, you won’t be staying at Secrets Cap Cana.

Well…that’s about all I have to say about that. I know people turn to Facebook for a variety of reasons, and I understand how joining an affinity group in connection with your travel can help you get excited and learn about things you or your travel agent haven’t thought of. But be careful. Just because you read it on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true.

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The COVID Conundrum

People are traveling now in numbers on par with pre-COVID days as most destinations have eliminated many or all of the restrictions they enacted during the peak of the pandemic. So how is that working out? I’ve gained some insight from our own travels into how COVID continues to impact leisure travel in all its forms…air, land, and sea…and I want to share some of that. It is anecdotal, but I’ve seen enough to offer some conclusions and suggestions.

Prior to this spring Janet and I knew hardly anyone who tested positive for COVID either during or immediately following travel. In the past month it seems like just about everybody we know who is traveling has tested positive. It isn’t really that bad…that’s a perception driven by a cognitive phenomenon known as the availability heuristic…something seems to be more common than it really is when it happens to people you know. The actual number of travelers that we know contracting COVID is very small, but even as small as it is, the number is noticeably higher than it was over the winter. Mostly because so many more people are traveling. Mostly.

With mandatory testing and masking now a thing of the past for most destinations, people aren’t taking the same precautions as they did when traveling earlier in the pandemic. They aren’t wearing masks, even on crowded airplanes or in busy airport terminals. And with most flights full these days all airplanes are crowded. As are the airport departure gate areas, restaurants, and bars. I’m talking shoulder to shoulder wherever you go…travel has become a contact sport as people increasingly get frustrated by flight delays and cancellations. Does that make a difference? I think so.

But here’s the thing…none of the people we know who contracted COVID while traveling got really sick. They’ve been asymptomatic or experienced what they described as a mild to bad cold, similar to what they used to get when the traveled before COVID. The only reason many of them are even aware they have COVID instead of a cold is they get tested after hearing of someone else on their trip testing positive, or in response to their own cold symptoms. Because that’s what you do these days when you have the sniffles…you get tested. Nobody has required hospitalization. One or two have taken Paxlovid, but most haven’t. They’ve had mild symptoms for a few days and then get better on their own. I’m sure that’s because anybody we know who has tested positive for COVID in connection with travel has been vaccinated and most have also had at least one booster shot.

Even as COVID restrictions have been relaxed for most travel destinations, and in many cases eliminated altogether, there are three things you should still do to mitigate your COVID risk. The first of course is to get vaccinated and boosted. Second, you can mitigate the risk of getting COVID by wearing an N95 mask when you fly, on any bus or train, and anytime you are in a confined environment with other people. That means transportation terminals, restaurants when you aren’t eating, and bars when you aren’t drinking. Even though it isn’t required, masking along with vaccination is still your best defense against getting COVID.

The third thing you should do is purchase a good trip insurance policy to mitigate the financial risk you face if you do contract COVID when you travel. It will provide protection against the cost of changing flights and paying for a hotel if you have to stay at your destination for a few extra days because of quarantine requirements. If you are one of the very few who get seriously ill, trip insurance provides you with financial protection against the cost of expensive medical treatment in a foreign country, or evacuation if that becomes necessary.

Increasingly people have adjusted to living with COVID and are no longer willing to go to the same lengths to avoid it as we did during the first two years of the pandemic. Many of our friends are going to major concerts, often several in a short span of time, which would have been unthinkable last year. Large family gatherings that had been put on hold are going forward. I can’t tell you the number of people we encountered on our recent trip to the Dominican Republic who were celebrating the destination weddings they put on hold for the past two years, or the celebration of milestone birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements now up to two years late.

Secrets Cap Cana, the resort we stayed at in the DR, is usually a place for couples, but it was full of groups both large and small who have put their COVID worries aside and come together to celebrate life. I know from following the Secrets Cap Cana Facebook group that some of those people came home with COVID. A negative COVID test prior to returning to the U.S. was still required during that trip, and the resort tested all departing guests. None of the people I noticed on the Facebook group tested positive for COVID at the resort…it was only after they returned home which suggests that they contracted the virus on their return trip, either in an airport or more likely on a plane.

My takeaway from the collective experience of people who travel and test positive for COVID is this: COVID still presents risks, but it is not the same dreaded unknown that it was when the pandemic first hit us back in the spring of 2020. Those risks are no longer stopping people from traveling, and most who end up testing positive feel their trip was worth it, in spite of COVID.

We continue to encourage travelers to consider your personal risk tolerance when it comes to deciding whether and how to travel, just as we have throughout the pandemic. Wear an N95 mask when you fly and anytime you are in crowded and confined spaces and purchase a quality trip insurance policy that will limit your financial risk if you come down with COVID while traveling. Make contingency plans for travel delays like packing extra prescription medications and making sure whatever arrangements you’ve made to have your kids, pets, and house looked after can be extended for a few days if needed. Even without COVID, flight disruptions can make those contingency plans useful.

Janet and I have resumed a busy travel schedule since this past winter, and we do all the things I’ve recommended here. So far, neither of us has tested positive for COVID. I don’t believe it is inevitable that we will, even with our busy travel schedule, because we continue to mask up and get booster shots when recommended. Even so, we are prepared for it if it happens. The one thing we are not doing is changing any of our travel plans. If anything we’ll be adding to them.

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Don’t Be a Chuck

The unfiltered behavior that has become the norm for some people in the virtual world of social media isn’t acceptable when you are a guest in another country. Yet lately when Janet and I travel, I feel like I’m seeing more of it than I ever did before COVID. Most of what I’ve seen along these lines, I believe, stems from a handful of people venting two plus years of COVID fueled frustration without regard to their surroundings, helped along by too much booze. The behavior is self-indulgent and immature, and though the frustration it stems from is understandable, allowing it to jump the air gap from the virtual world of social media into the real world of human social interaction is not. It is something to guard against, especially when visiting another country.

To most people that is a simple truth, but not everyone gets it. I want to share two encounters I had with ugly American tourists during my recent visit to the Dominican Republic. Even though these types of encounters occurred before COVID, for some reason they struck me as particularly bothersome on this trip. Perhaps because they happened at the idyllic beach resort of Secrets Cap Cana, a resort I associate with people who know how to cut loose and have fun, but in a responsible way that is respectful of other vacationers and the people whose country we are visiting.

Which brings me to Chuck…not his real name by the way. Chuck was an ugly American tourist, COVID version. I ran into him one evening in the Preferred Club Lounge at Secrets Cap Cana. The Preferred Club lounge is an exclusive venue within an exclusive resort, that is itself located in the exclusive gated enclave of Cap Cana. It is the go-to place for guests who appreciate savoring a glass of premium whiskey or cognac. In short, not the place you expect to encounter a Chuck.

When Chuck got dressed the day I ran into him, I don’t think he considered the fact that what you wear when you are in another country can tag you as an ugly American. I’m pretty sure even if it had occurred to him, it wouldn’t have mattered. Chuck didn’t care. I’m also guessing Chuck thought he was being clever in his choice of attire. Everyone in the Preferred Club Lounge was dressed in resort casual wear as the dress code required for admission into the ala carte restaurants. I’m not talking tuxedos and ball gowns here…summer khakis and collared shirts for the gentlemen, capris, skirts or summer dresses for the ladies. Not Chuck and his friends…they wore shorts and t-shirts.

Chuck’s attire in itself wasn’t remarkable. Unlike the restaurants at this resort, the Preferred Club Lounge, though exclusive, doesn’t have a dress code. Plenty of guests opt to stop by for a nightcap in shorts and t-shirt after changing out of their dinner wear. What was offensive about Chuck’s attire was the message on the back of his t-shirt. In large block letters, Chuck’s t-shirt labeled him as being DEA.

My first thought upon seeing Chuck’s t-shirt was how gutsy, or how stupid, he must be to wear a shirt branding him as a member of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency while visiting a Caribbean Island nation. A closer look at the t-shirt revealed Chuck’s idea of the DEA was not the same as mine. His t-shirt spelled out DEA below each big block letter in only slightly smaller print words impossible to miss: D=Dicks E=Enjoying A=Alcohol, and Chuck was certainly acting the part. It was the kind of thing you might expect to see at a college fraternity reunion party, not at an exclusive resort in another country.

I had just gotten past realizing what Chuck’s t-shirt declared him to be when he decided to do shots, with his buddies cheering him on. So much for savoring the complexity of an ultra premium whiskey or a high end cognac as you let your taste buds revel in the complexities of the blend and the unique flavor profile imparted by the toasted oak cooperage. Chuck’s drink of choice for his shots was Johnny Walker Blue Label blended Scotch whiskey. I don’t think he had a clue what it was, or that it retails for $250 per 750 bottle, just that it was on the top most shelf behind the bar so it must be good. And while Chuck was enjoying the alcohol content of the Johnny Walker Blue, he was hardly able to appreciate it when knocking back shots like it was Wild Turkey.

That was the only time I ran into Chuck during my week-long stay, thankfully, but Chuck wasn’t the only ugly American I encountered. There was also Sherry and her posse, again not her real name. The day after my encounter with Chuck I was heading to the beach just before noon when I passed a gaggle of about 10 guests, including Sherry, who were congregating in the swim out pool of one of the guest’s ground floor ocean front suites. Sherry and her posse earned their mention in this post for a host of reasons, but I’ll focus on just two.

When you book a swim out room at any Secrets resort, the pool is intended for the enjoyment of the people in that room. It is not a place to invite all your friends to congregate…that’s what the main pool is for. The swim out pools aren’t private at Secrets Cap Cana like they are at some resorts, but they are small…just big enough for two. Each building with swim out pools has 6-8 swim out rooms and the pools are all connected to one another. When you try to host a gathering of 10 people in your swim out pool, you can’t help but spill over into the pools in front of the adjacent rooms, and that’s a big no-no in a resort that caters to couples. The swim out pools are meant to be relaxing and romantic, used by only the people booked into the room, not as a venue for a communal pool party.

Sherry and her group of friends must have thought they were at a college spring break party in Fort Lauderdale, because that was how they were carrying on. Except this was not spring break, and they were all in their 50s and 60s. Sherry was standing, barely, in the middle of one of the swim out pools shouting in alcohol-slurred, Caucasian accented Spanish at the top of her lungs, “Que paso pendejo.” If you don’t know what that means, it is a Spanish slang phrase that ranges in meaning from mildly profane when directed at friends, to being really offensive when directed to someone you’ve never met before. I’m not sure who Sherry was shouting to, if indeed anyone in particular, but she was facing out toward the public spaces and none of her besties were between her and the nearby walkway. There is no doubt at least a few people heard her. I was several hundred feet away and I heard her. I don’t know what was more offensive to me, Sherry’s behavior or that of her friends for allowing her to carry on. Fortunately, Sherry turned her attention back to the rest of her posse after just a few minutes.

Most of the guests we shared the resort with during our week in paradise were fun loving people enjoying themselves, and their unlimited adult beverages, responsibly. The Secrets brand of resorts is geared toward providing a romantic, mostly quiet atmosphere for adult couples.  There is a sister brand to Secrets, Breathless, that caters to the spring break crowd, but when a group books into a Secrets resort there are always at least a few members of the group that belong at Breathless. Secrets Cap Cana was host to quite a few small and large groups that came and went throughout our stay, and all were celebrating something. Celebrations ranged from COVID delayed weddings to milestone birthdays and anniversaries shared with multigenerational groups of family and friends, and the general mood of the resort was festive. Individual members of the groups were respectful…when they congregated as groups in the public areas they got somewhat boisterous at times as any group will, but they were fun to watch and to interact with. They represented American tourists the way I like to be represented as an American tourist visiting another country.

I mention Chuck and Sherry not because they put a damper on my stay…they didn’t. As I noted earlier both encounters were brief, and I have encountered similar ugly Americans in my travels on occassion before COVID. But they are examples of behavior I have been seeing more often than I care for since COVID. I don’t have a problem with cutting loose and letting out pent-up COVID frustrations…we’ve all been through a lot. Where I do take issue, both as a travel agent and as a traveler, is when people behave like ugly Americans while visiting another country. I care because these few bad apples become the image foreigners have of America and Americans, but they aren’t representative of who we are. Far from it.

Chances are you won’t encounter a Chuck or a Sherry the next time you travel out of the country. If you do, I hope your encounter is as brief as my two recent experiences. I know I will occasionally continue to run into people like Chuck and Sherry when I travel. I just hope the distance between the encounters becomes greater as we all relearn how to travel in a COVID world.

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Restaurant Review – Royal Caribbean’s Chef’s Table

When Janet and I take a working cruise we spend a fair bit of time experiencing things we think our clients would be interested in. We aren’t without free time though, and when we have it we like to indulge in things that make us happy. On our recent Seminar at Sea aboard Enchantment of the Seas that meant spending a few hours lingering over fine food and wine at Chef’s Table.

Some people describe Royal Caribbean’s Chef’s Table as Michelin Star dining at sea. It is not. Not even close. But Janet tells me sometimes I have to set aside the snooty culinary snobbery that I’m so full of and let my taste buds enjoy themselves without the grey matter getting in the way. So, I did that a little over a week ago at Chef’s Table. Before I knew it, three hours had gone by, the evening was over, and I wasn’t ready for it to be. I’m glad that for once, I tabled the snobbery, and so were my taste buds. I’ll still make a few critical observations about the food where warranted. After all that part of my brain runs on autopilot and if I can’t be at least somewhat critical in a review, what’s the point? But I won’t let that get in the way of sharing how much I enjoyed the entire experience.

We met our host for the evening, Eduardo, in one of the ship’s lounges. Using a lounge for the meeting point made it easy for everyone to find, and the ship’s staff had arranged chairs and tables just for our group in a semi-private corner of the lounge which set the tone for the evening. Chef’s Table is meant to be an exclusive event. It is capacity limited with a single seating, and it isn’t offered every night so if it is something you are interested in, be sure to book early. Group size is limited to 16 guests…our group numbered 12. On a ship carrying over 2,200 passengers with a main dining room that seats 1,180 guests, that’s exclusive.

Eduardo welcomed each guest with a menu card and an interesting take on a Hugo Spritz cocktail that featured a splash of mint oil to go along with the elderberry of the St. Germaine and a robust Domaine Chandon bubbly. As we sipped our welcome beverages, he double checked with each guest about any food allergies, consulting his prep sheet to make sure the necessary accommodations had been made. I read the menu card salivating over the description of the six courses we were about to enjoy, and the rumblings in my surgically reduced stomach signaled that it was ready to get started. Eduardo ushered us to our private dining room which featured a single long table elegantly set for 12 in anticipation of our arrival.

As we settled into our seats, Eduardo described how things would work. He would offer a 2 ounce pour of each wine with refills available on request, as long as our supply of two bottles for each wine lasted. It was more than enough without being so much as to get anybody stupid. As a quick aside, I no longer drink alcohol and limited my enjoyment of the wines to the sight and smell. Eduardo bent over backward to make sure my experience was just as special as everybody else, directing the bar staff to prepare special non-alcoholic libations just for me. I don’t think I missed a thing. After Eduardo went over the tasting notes for each wine, the Executive Chef would join us and describe the course about to be served, letting us know how she prepared it and the flavor notes and complexities we should be tuned into. And then we would enjoy it.

Our meal opened with freshly baked and still hot Parker House rolls, glistening with a generous slathering of butter and olive oil punctuated by herbs and bits of roasted garlic. Each guest was served their own slab of a half dozen rolls and I was surprised to note that several of my table mates managed to eat all of theirs. I did not. Not that I didn’t want to. I have always loved fresh bread, but ever since having bariatric surgery what’s left of my stomach has a capacity of about a cup and a half, so I have to be strategic about what I eat and how much. Bread usually doesn’t make the cut because it is too filling. I made an exception in this case because…well, they just smelled so damned good. I limited myself to one roll, but it wasn’t easy. Fortunately this meal proceeded at a very relaxed pace, allowing me to process one course before the next was served so I was able to enjoy a small amount of each dish. The pace of the meal was slow enough to satisfy both my stomach and my palate. And I’m glad, because that roll was really good.

The appetizer course was a scallop carpaccio served with yuzu vinaigrette dressing. The overall appearance of the dish was stunning, a study in contrasting colors. The picture I took doesn’t come close to doing it justice. The carpaccio was presented on a plain white plate rimmed with a thin lemon-yellow ribbon of yuzu dressing with a bit of honey and Dijon mustard whisked in to give it a nice citrusy sweet zing. The scallops were the most delicately sliced wafers I’ve ever seen, arranged in a circle, slightly overlapping as they chased each other around the plate. Four thin radish slices rested atop the portion of the scallop wafers closest to the center of the plate, their outer peel a delicate but striking red ribbon of color announcing their presence in the dish. The radish slices in turn were topped with a nest of shredded white lettuce with a few sprigs of Bull’s Blood beet microgreens and a dozen or so bits of red quinoa scattered about to finish it off. It was exquisite.

As visually appealing as this dish was, the flavor and texture fell a bit short of the promise. The knife work on the scallops was amazing. I have no idea how Chef cut them so wafer thin, and I think that was part of the dish’s problem. Scallops are subtle, and these were so thinly sliced the delicate flavor of the sea they brought to the dish was overpowered by the spicy earthiness of the red radish. Their gentle texture got lost as well, both in the crispy crunch of the radish and the heavy-handed abundance of lettuce. Which is not to say the dish was disappointing…far from it. A single scallop wafer dipped into the yuzu dressing was the perfect combination of flavor and texture with everything else being a distraction easily avoided.

The carpaccio was paired with a Pinot Grigio from Attems, a winery located near Trieste in eastern Italy along the border with Slovenia. I’m not usually a fan of Pinot Grigio, but the old world character of the wine along with its crisp green apple, honeysuckle, and white peach notes chased by a hint of citrus paired well with the scallop and yuzu. Getting the most out of a food and wine pairing when you are limiting yourself to smelling the wine as you eat the food was an interesting experience for me, but I have to say I feel as though I got every bit as much out of the wine as if I drank it. Not having the alcohol dull my palate was a welcome change from past food and wine pairings where I tended to put too much of my focus on the wine.

Even in the best land based restaurants at a Chef’s Table format there is always one dish that doesn’t hit my wheelhouse and at this meal, it was the soup course. There wasn’t anything special about it except it had liquid smoke added to give it an unexpected edge. It came with garnishes of garlic focaccia croutons, a couple of slivers of well-aged Parmesan, and a dollop of crème fraiche. My taste buds were intrigued by the description Chef provided, but bitterly disappointed by the flavor profile the soup delivered.

The presentation was clever, the bowls placed in front of us sans soup with the garnishes neatly arranged on the bottom. The soup was then poured over the garnishes, and we were instructed to stir gently before tasting. I’ve seen a similar approach to soup at higher end land-based restaurants. Your first couple of sips are all soup, but as the garnishes slowly infuse into the soup, the dish transforms into something greater than the sum of its parts with each sip a new exploration in a growing complexity of layered flavors. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. It didn’t work out that way in this case.

All culinary snobbery aside, the soup course didn’t thrill me because of the liquid smoke. I found it to be gimmicky with the pungent smokey aroma arriving long before the first sip of soup hit my taste buds, obliterating all other flavors. The garlic focaccia croutons were the only part of the dish that managed to stand up to the liquid smoke, offering the barest suggestion of a counterpoint. The crème fraiche got completely lost…too little and too subtle to cut through the harshness of the liquid smoke. The slivers of aged Parmesan melted into globs that sunk to the bottom of the bowl where they stayed until I scooped one up in a spoonful of soup. It gave me an unwelcome mouthful of overly pungent cheese and little else. It was not pleasant. I should say I’m not a fan of Parmesan to begin with, but I can tolerate it where it makes sense. In this dish it didn’t make sense, at least not in that form. It would have been better freshly grated into the soup table side where the diner could direct the addition of as much, or in my case as little, as their palate cared for.

The soup was paired with a Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay which is one of Royal Caribbean’s go to wines for Chef’s Table. At under $20 per bottle retail, this wine punches above its weight. As much as I like this wine, I would not have paired it with this soup. The wine is aged in new French Oak barrels that imparts a delicious array of oak and spice notes even on the nose…especially on the nose. Sadly, the oak and spice rack notes from the wine conflicted with the liquid smoke in the soup. This was the only course of the meal that didn’t leave me wishing I had a bigger stomach. I left most of it in the bowl.

The salad course more than made up for the soup. It was sublime and one of the reasons I love these dining experiences. The dish was described as a Maine Lobster Salad served with hearts of palm, pineapple and cilantro. As served, the salad consisted of 5 ounces of nicely cooked lobster meat laid out in a semi-circle to one side of the plate, topped with field greens and a little more of the red beet microgreens, finished with a drizzle of vanilla dressing. There were 4 dollops of mango puree in the middle of the plate, and opposite from the lobster, 4 petite dices of pineapple resting atop quarter sized slices of hearts of palm with a few parsley leaves sandwiched between. The parsley was apparently a substitution as the menu card listed cilantro. It was a visually fun looking plating, not stunning in the manner of the scallop carpaccio, but playful in a tropical sort of way. The lobster was buttery and rich as lobster should be and not at all rubbery as it often is. The greens it was topped with were gratuitous and added nothing except an excessive bitterness. The mango puree was scrumptious…a nice dip for the lobster that played surprisingly well with the vanilla dressing. The combination of the sweet pineapple and slightly vegetal hearts of palm was refreshing, the crispy texture a nice addition to the plate. The parsley leaves were fine, but I do think cilantro would have been even better. A single fork with a bit of everything on the plate, with the exception of the greens, made for a pleasant journey through a tropically lush palate.

As good as each component of this dish was, the use of vanilla freshly extracted from the pod as the Chef described, made the dressing the standout of the dish. Well, that and the lobster. Because…it’s lobster! That dressing was rich, it was flavorful, and it brought together all of the tropical components of this salad into a nice medley of flavors and textures. I loved the dish, though in deference to my taste buds I left the greens on the plate.

The salad course was paired with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. In this case it was Peter Yealands, and though it exhibited the classic grapefruit flavored acidity typical of Marlborough wines, it was not quite as pronounced as you normally get from the region. The wine was a lost opportunity…it did not detract from the dish, but neither did it add anything.

Next up was the fish course…a pan roasted crispy skin branzino over ratatouille with a single spear of asparagus on the side, a yellow squash slice and a single poached cherry tomato serving as garnishes. The fish was well seasoned, almost too well for me as I tend to go light on the salt, but Chef showed just enough restraint to keep it palatable. The skin had the proper degree of crispness to give it texture without being oily, and the flesh was nicely cooked and flaky. It lacked the strong fishy flavor I sometimes get from the fat layer between flesh and skin which tells me Chef took care in her selection of branzino portions to use for this course. It’s that level of attention to detail that made this meal such a treat.

The branzino was good, but what made this dish interesting to me was the ratatouille it was resting on. It had no eggplant, and no cheese. What it had was another ingredient from Provence, sliced oil-cured black olives. I suppose I could have faulted them for even calling it a ratatouille without the eggplant, but the composition was unapologetically simple and the rustic flavor and character was exactly what ratatouille should be. The olives added a touch of salty bitterness that brought everything together in a rich and somewhat briny mouthful that was delicious. I liked it so much I might try to copy it in my own kitchen. The squash and cherry tomato garnishes were unnecessary, but the tomato in particular was so pretty I felt guilty not eating it. The only thing I really didn’t care for was the single spear of asparagus placed on the side of the plate. It felt like an afterthought that didn’t belong with the rest of an otherwise well composed dish.

The fish course was paired with a Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay from Sonoma that was unremarkable, another lost opportunity. And I say that not because it retails for $11 per bottle. It just wasn’t that good paired with a dish that deserved better. I know the Royal Caribbean wine list well and they had multiple options that would have been a better choice without busting their wine budget.

Eduardo had taken the trouble to decant the one and only red wine for the evening at the beginning of our meal. It was the highest price point wine for the meal, a Robert Mondavi 50th Anniversary Maestro Bordeaux blend from the Mondavi Oakville and Stag’s Leap vineyards that retails for about $45 per bottle. It was a good fit for the 10 oz USDA prime grade filet, though just about any California Cabernet or Claret of similar caliber would have done as well. The filet was good. It wasn’t the richly Waygu-ish flavor I’m used to from Roseda Farms beef, but I didn’t expect that. It was the best beef I’ve had on a Royal Caribbean ship, fitting to the elevated format of the meal. The filets were cooked to order, though Eduardo warned us Chef would take an order of anything more than medium rare to be an insult. He said it as a joke, but not really. With beef that good it would have been an insult. Mine came out just a touch on the rare side of medium rare which was fine by me.

The beef was well seasoned with a pleasantly pungent tasting seared peppercorn crust. It was served with a table side addition of bordelaise sauce which I skipped. I sampled a bit from Janet’s plate after hearing Chef’s description of how she made it…a veal demi-glace, extracted bone marrow, and a combination of a Bordeaux wine with a port wine reduction…and I could tell not all of the alcohol had cooked off so I skipped it.  It was delicious, and a lesser cut of beef would have done well to have been covered with that sauce. This USDA Prime filet was practically fork tender and so uncharacteristically (for filet) flavorful that I didn’t miss it.

The filet was served with a trio of garnishes that seemed to have been added in a self-indulgent fit of whimsy, and in case that’s being too subtle I mean that not in a good way. There were two small piles of truffled potato puree on either side of the filet, a handful of lightly battered and fried onion rings on top, and a few potato chips strewn about the plate. I guess I see where Chef was going with the meat and potatoes aspect of it, but I was so laser focused on the filet, I let the rest of the stuff on the plate stay on the plate. I did taste just enough of the potato puree to confirm that it had real truffles, which for all my culinary snobbery I’m ashamed to admit I don’t like.

As it was, I barely had enough room in my stomach for more than about 3 oz of the filet which was a shame because it was so good. As with the fish course, the filet came with one or two seemingly random sprigs of asparagus tossed on the plate, and though the asparagus was a better fit with the filet than the fish, I was eager to save room for dessert. Fortunately, Eduardo waited a respectable amount of time after the meat course was cleared to give our tummies a chance to empty a bit in preparation for the final course, a chocolate bomb. And what wine do you pair with such decadent dessert? None. Instead of wine, a member of the bar staff wheeled in a cart and demonstrated the proper way to make the perfect liquid accompaniment to a chocolate bomb…an espresso martini. He then proceeded to make one for every diner, a virgin version for me which I appreciated, and then dessert was served.

Our chocolate bombs sat in a nest of Rice Krispies and red raspberries served in a shallow bowl. Visually it was stark with the red of the raspberries contrasting sharply against the dark tone and smooth spherical shape of the chocolate bomb. As the guests sipped their espresso martinis, a server went around to each and poured a stream of hot caramel sauce over the chocolate bomb, causing it to melt into the scoop of salted caramel ice cream and peanut butter ganache that filled the center of the bomb. It made for spoonful after spoonful of sweet chocolate caramel decadence. The peanut butter from the ganache gave it structure so it wasn’t like pouring syrup into your mouth straight from the bottle, but it wasn’t far from that. The Rice Krispies added a nice snap crackle and pop to a dessert that literally melted in your mouth. The raspberries were bright note in the midst of a gastronomical orgy of chocolate, caramel and peanut butter. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful dinner service.

The dinner was over all too fast, even though it was a full three-hour service. I didn’t look at my watch once during the meal, and was surprised at how late it was when we took the last few spoonfuls of dessert, and sips of the espresso martinis.

Even though I left my culinary snobbery outside the dining room at Chef’s Table, the $100 per person up charge compels me to share a few value-based observations. I’ve already commented where the courses were less than they could have been…less than they should have been. I’ve done that as gently as I can while noting I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And Chef’s Table is an experience, an exclusive experience that demands parity between the food and the wines. This was my third time at Chef’s Table in the past four or five years, and though I’ve enjoyed each one, I’ve also noted the wine portion of the evening is full of lost opportunities.  The meal came with four wine pairings and with the exception of the Mondavi, each wine had a retail cost under $20 per bottle with the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay coming in the lowest at a miserly $11 per bottle. That’s retail! You don’t need to go crazy with the price point for wines, but the pairings should have been more thoughtfully selected.

I had an illuminating discussion with one of Royal Caribbean’s certified sommeliers after a prior Chef’s Table experience…and by the way, you have to cruise on one of their newer ships with a dedicated wine bar to get service from an actual som. After I told him I was impressed with the food but disappointed by the wine pairings, he shared with me that that the wine pairings are made by the Chef’s staff based on recommendations from the corporate food and beverage office. The wine stewards aren’t usually consulted, even though some are trained and and a few are certified sommeliers as he was. I don’t know if that is still the case…our most recent Chef’s Table would suggest it is, and that is truly a lost opportunity to make an already delightful experience even better.

I should note the Chef’s Table menu is the same across the Royal Caribbean fleet. If you’ve enjoyed the Chef’s Table experience before and want to try it again, it is worth asking to see the menu card before you commit to the up charge. Each Executive Chef puts their own touch on the plating, and they have the freedom to add signature touches to garnishes so the dishes may look different, but the core of the meal and the wine pairings are the same. No doubt that is a result of Royal Caribbean’s centralized supply chain, and some effort to deliver a consistent level of quality, which I absolutely don’t fault them for.

If you enjoy an elevated dining experience, and don’t mind forking over the up charge, Chef’s Table is worth the experience. For me, it was something to be tried and enjoyed for what it was. Not a Michelin star experience, but overall a well conceived and properly executed (mostly) collection of dishes. All culinary snobbery aside, my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The New Topless II

It used to be the only place you could go topless without getting arrested was on a secluded beach, or up on the funnel deck of a Carnival cruise ship. The funnel deck topless sunbathing is a thing of the past, but there is a new topless coming soon and you won’t have to travel to a secluded beach to do it. All you’ll have to do is travel. Somewhere. Anywhere. The new topless coming soon is…no face mask!

OK that was a stretch. The mandate requiring us to wear masks on public transportation conveyances like airplanes, trains, and buses, and in public transportation hubs like airports and train stations, expires on April 18th. It has been renewed on a regular basis since it was originally enacted, but this time things are shaping up to be different. This time it looks like the government may finally allow us to travel topless…as in without face masks.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not opposed to masks. Quite the contrary. A high quality mask like an N95, worn properly, works. Before COVID, anytime Janet and I traveled one or both of us invariably came home sick. Since we started masking up when we travel, we haven’t. That’s pretty compelling.

Cruise ships have already ditched the mask mandates as have some European airlines, the former because vaccines are required for most cruisers, the latter because they just don’t see the point. Why bother trying to enforce a regulation for the good of all when a persistent few who oppose the rules insist on engaging in passive aggressive defiance behaviors? Wearing masks as a chin diaper, pulling it up whenever a member of the flight crew approaches only to yank it back down once they’ve walked past defeats the purpose. Such behavior has made enforcement impossible, so some European airlines are no longer bothering to try. They aren’t going back either, not unless we face another wave of a highly contagious new COVID variant that is more deadly than what is currently out there.

Momentum is building for the U.S. Government to move away from mandating masks on public transportation, and this may be the month they take action. The lobbying from throughout the travel industry has been heavy and relentless…mask mandates are costing them business…and the public, like Europe, is just tired. Tired of COVID. Tired of wearing masks. Tired of the drama.

Though no official announcement has been made, all signaling from the administration points to the mask mandate for public transportation shifting from masks “required” to masks “highly recommended but optional,” and an announcement could come any time as April 18th approaches.

It might make you feel better about traveling whenever the government does eliminate the masking requirement for public transportation, but it certainly won’t make traveling any safer. It just puts the onus on you to decide whether to wear a face mask based on your personal risk tolerance rather than a government mandate.

It would be nice if we lived in a world when a common sense measure like wearing a face mask, which is demonstrably effective at limiting the spread not just of COVID but a whole range of upper respiratory diseases, would be universally accepted. We don’t live in that world. So…I’ll keep my supply of N95 masks handy whenever I travel, and when it makes sense to mask up, I will.

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Mask On…Mask Off

In February, not long after the Omicron wave ebbed throughout Europe, the UK Government terminated their requirement for airline passengers to wear face masks as a protective measure against contracting COVID-19. In the past week several major international airlines have announced that they are dropping their requirement for passengers to wear masks as a protection against COVID-19. The airlines include Dutch KLM, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. Other airlines across Europe are expected to follow suit, but if you have plans to fly on one of those carriers to or from the U.S. don’t toss your facemask just yet. Until the CDC eliminates the U.S. requirement for masking on commercial modes of transportation, which includes planes, you’ll still have to mask up.

The CDC extended the current requirement for masking on planes last week, pushing the expiration of the rule forward to April 18th. Earlier this week executives from most of the major commercial airlines in this country sent a letter urging the administration to eliminate the mask mandate for planes. Travel advocacy groups have been lobbying for elimination of the mask requirement since the Omicron wave ebbed, and it appears the move may be gaining traction. With European nations and airlines doing away with their version of airplane mask rules, it seems likely the CDC will follow suit. The recent mini-surge in COVID cases in Europe as a result of the newest Omicron variant may give the CDC pause, but even that won’t likely make a difference. I suspect that by this time next month, masks on airplanes will be a thing of the past.

Whether you support mandatory mask mandates on commercial transportation or not, the end of masking on planes and in airports is coming, and it’s coming soon. If you fly and find yourself worried by that, get vaccinated and boosted, and invest in a high-quality mask like an N95 or better…higher rated masks are readily available if you must fly and are immune-compromised or otherwise at high risk from COVID. Removal of the mask mandate in commercial transportation is yet another step toward accepting COVID as an endemic virus, for better or worse, and it is coming.

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The New Topless…

Going around on a cruise ship without a face mask is the new topless for cruising. Not to bury the lead, but you can now cruise without masks. You still need to get vaccinated, and boosters are highly recommended, but as of the end of February face masks are optional on all major cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters. That’s a really big deal and has come about as a result of a significant reduction in COVID risk now that the Omicron wave is behind us.

A few days ago the CDC implemented a new “voluntary” policy that all major cruise lines have already opted into, their second major “voluntary” COVID policy for cruise lines in as many months. These policies have been voluntary in name only, and they contain a good bit of burdensome and pointless bureaucracy for the cruise lines to object to. And object they did. However…they have found some good in the latest CDC policy, and that’s good news for us. Let me break it down.

Masks. All major cruise lines will be following a mask optional policy for passengers beginning the end of February. This is a big step toward a return to pre-pandemic cruising, and it is a change I know many cruisers will welcome. Masks are still required for all crew members, and passengers will still need to bring a mask as they continue to be required for commercial transportation and in the cruise terminal throughout the check-in process. There could also be some onboard activities or venues where masking is periodically required, and you should be prepared to bring your mask with you on all shore excursions. We recommend using N95/KN95 masks, or at a minimum a disposable surgical type mask, as those are more widely accepted by other countries. And even though masks will no longer be required on most cruise ships, if you are more comfortable wearing your mask you can feel free to do so. Janet and I cruised on several adults only, fully vaccinated cruises after cruising resumed in June where masks were optional. Even though the majority of cruisers left their masks in the cabin, there were still plenty of cruisers wearing masks.

Masking requirements for the kids vary by age. Masks are not required for children under the age of  two. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 won’t be vaccinated and therefore are expected to wear masks in public indoor spaces. All children participating in any of the cruise lines’ kids programs will also be required to mask up when indoors in any of the areas designated for kids since the onboard programs will be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated kids.

Vaccinations. As a practical matter, adults and kids over the age of 12 must be vaccinated in order to cruise on any major cruise ship operating in U.S. waters. That’s not because of any CDC requirement…it is because the ports cruise ships visit throughout the Caribbean require it.

The cruise lines are trying to spin the latest CDC guidance as though there is something new in it. If there is, I haven’t found it, and I have almost 40 years of experience reading government bureaucratese. The CDC allows cruise ships to operate in U.S. waters provided at least 95% of all passengers on each sailing are fully vaccinated. They give the cruise lines discretion in how to apply the allowance of unvaccinated cruisers, and cruise lines continue to limit it to children under 12 years old. The reason, as I’ve noted before, is that some of the most visited Caribbean islands don’t allow unvaccinated cruise ship passengers over the age of 12. Now that COVID vaccinations have been approved for kids down to the age of five years old, if any of the Caribbean Islands drop their vaccination requirement below the age of 12 you can expect cruise lines to adjust their vaccination policies accordingly.

Boosters. For the time being the definition of being fully vaccinated does not include getting a third or booster shot. As of now, the CDC policy states that boosters are highly recommended, and that’s how the cruise lines are selling it to passengers…boosters are highly recommended but not required. Cruise lines have already stated their intent to comply if the CDC changes the definition of full vaccination to include boosters, but so far boosters are only required by some of the smaller luxury cruise lines that cater to an older age demographic.

If you have been holding off booking your next cruise for a return to normal, the time to book is now. This is about as normal as it is going to get in this era of endemic COVID-19, and for me and many others who love to cruise, it is close enough. Expect cruise bookings to explode with this latest news from the cruise lines. It’s not too late to get in on some bargains but don’t wait. Give us a call now!

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Boosters and Masking and Tests…Oh My!

Boosters. If you want to travel to Europe this spring and summer, you’re probably gonna need to get a COVID booster shot. As with all things European, the rules are confusing and a mish mash of bureauractese depending on what specific country or countries you plan to visit, and what you want to do once you get there.

Most European nations have adopted the requirement to get a booster shot if your COVID vaccination is more than nine months old as a condition for entry. A few countries, Greece and Croatia being the most popular, will still permit tourists to enter without being vaccinated against COVID, and without requiring them to quarantine. However, all EU member nations to include Greece and Croatia are using the EU digital COVID passport, the so called Green Pass, to control entry into public indoor venues like museums, restaurants, and bars. As of February, the EU Green Pass expires nine months after the last COVID vaccination shot and to renew it requires a booster. There are a few exceptions that apply to Europeans, but I won’t get into those here. For American tourists, count on needing to get a booster if your last COVID shot was nine months ago or longer by the time you’ll be traveling to Europe. And when you get a booster shot, be sure it gets entered on your original CDC COVID vaccination card.

Note: As of now boosters are not widely required for cruises. That is changing, but I’ll update cruise requirements in a separate post. Requirements for geographic areas outside of Europe are also dynamic, so best to check and know before you go.

Masks. The second trend we are seeing has to do with masking. At the same time that EU member nations are adding the requirement for boosters, they are beginning to soften their masking requirements. This trend is being driven by the individual EU member nations’ internal impatience with national and local COVID restrictions, not all that different from what we are seeing in this country. If your travel plans take you to Europe this spring and summer, you’ll still want to pack your masks and make them disposable surgical or N95 type masks to be on the safe side. Many European nations are no longer accepting cloth masks. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the masks can stay in your luggage or in your pocket once you get into the country and go out and about, as long as you show proof of up to date vaccination and booster shots, but it is best to have one handy just in case the venue you want to visit has a higher standard for masking.

Tests. As it looks increasingly like the Omicron wave is over, European countries are beginning to eliminate requirements for COVID testing as a condition for entry for vaccinated and boosted travelers. Check the requirements for the countries you plan to visit before you go. For most European destinations it is probably still a bit soon to eliminate getting a COVID test from your predeparture to do list, but with France having just eliminated the requirement you can expect others will soon follow. Unfortunately, you’ll still need to plan for a COVID test prior to your return to the U.S. The travel industry recently lobbied the White House hard to eliminate the return COVID test requirement, but the CDC is holding firm, and for now the White House is going along with it. I suspect that as we gain more distance from the recent Omicron wave, and as we get closer to the peak summer travel season with no new COVID outbreaks or variants popping up, you may see the re-entry test requirement go away as well, but so far it remains in effect.

Maybe someday COVID travel restrictions will be a thing of the past, but for now it is something you’ll continue to have to deal with if you want to travel. For me, it is a small price to pay for the ability to go where I want. For others, it is a deal breaker. The most important thing is to be an informed traveler so you don’t face unpleasant surprises regardless of your individual COVID risk tolerance.

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Don’t Be a Sourpuss

kitten-g45661d27c_1920 2I put sauerbraten on the menu a few weeks ago. It’s not my favorite dish, but it is one of Janet’s, so I try to make it for her at least once each winter. If you’ve ever made sauerbraten you know two things. First, it takes at least three days to marinate. I learned that lesson the hard way. Second, it calls for the cheapest cut of beef you can find…I use chuck roast. It took three weeks of searching through half a dozen grocery stores before I found something under $6 per pound. I would have settled for a sirloin or round roast, but they too were crazy expensive.

It shouldn’t be so hard to find a cheap roast. I refuse to blame COVID related supply chain shortages. The supply chain between the national meat packing plants in the Midwest and the grocery wholesalers here on the East Coast hasn’t had any trouble getting truckloads of that double digit dollar per pound USDA Prime Certified Angus stuff to the grocery stores. In fact it’s all you can find some days. USDA Prime represents just 3% of all beef sold in this country, most of which…supposedly…goes to the restaurant industry. With restaurants having been closed for the better part of two years guess whose getting it now?

Enough whining and sounding like my parents. After three weeks of searching I finally found a chuck roast at Food Lion for $5.49 per pound so I put sauerbraten back on the menu. And I made it. And it was good.

In the weeks I spent searching for a cheap roast, I became curious how other people cook their family’s version of sauerbraten. I put the question to my Facebook friends, asking especially for family recipes with a German connection. I got about half a dozen responses, some with really touching backstories to go along with them. That’s the thing I like most about food and cooking…the smells and the flavors they result in evoke the best memories.

I went in search of the history of sauerbraten as a dish and in the process found a great online source for traditional German recipes. The website presents two recipes for sauerbraten, the “classic” Bavarian style sauerbraten (their words not mine) which they describe as a traditional Swabian dish, and a Rhenish recipe from the Rhineland. When I looked at the recipes my friends sent me, indeed they were one of those two styles.

Sauerbraten is meant for whatever kind of meat you have available that is tough by nature, or that you pulled out of your freezer after it sat there for who knows how long. The dish supposedly originated from the Romans, when Julius Caesar moved in to conquer Europe. As the war and work animals his troops used for the conquest died along the way, particularly horses, soldiers would butcher the meat and preserve it in crocks of salt, pickling solution and wine…whatever they had on hand at the time. The long marinade time kept the meat from spoiling, tenderized it to make it edible, but left a decidedly sour flavor to it. Sauerbraten remained popular in Germany where horse meat continued to be the favored source of protein. By the time the dish caught on in this country it was most often made with some of the tougher cuts of beef like the chuck roast I use. You can even use pork if you prefer it to beef.

I did a side by side comparison of recipes for both the Swabian and the Rhenish versions of sauerbraten that I found on the traditional German cooking website and they are almost identical. The ingredients for the marinade are the same for both recipes, but the Swabian version has you add the meat to the cold marinade without boiling it up. The Rhenish version has you boil the marinade before adding the meat, to unlock to flavors from the root veggies and the pickling spices. I suppose at a molecular level there is some difference in the flavors that get into the broth from boiling as opposed to the acid extraction caused by bathing for a week in vinegar. But can you taste it?

The other difference between the two sauerbraten styles is that after marinating the meat, the Bavarians add six tabespoons of honey to the marinating liquid before cooking the meat in it, while the Rhinelanders only add four. Wars have been fought over smaller differences. Rhinelanders also add 3-4 ounces of crumbled pumpernickel bread to their marinade just before cooking it up which the Bavarians don’t add, or at least don’t admit to adding. Again…can you taste the difference in the finished dish? Maybe a Michelin star palate could tease it out, but not mine. Of course the raisins the Rhinelanders add to their gravy that the Bavarians don’t would give it away. Both styles are in agreement on one point…you thicken the gravy with a roux. Gingersnaps have no place in a traditional sauerbraten.

Like the Rhinelanders, I boil my marinade before adding the meat to unlock the flavors of the veggies and spices, but unlike either of the traditional styles I also brown my meat first, before I put it in the marinade. I figure if it makes sense to boil the marinade up front to unlock flavors from the veggies, then it makes sense to brown the meat too and incorporate the fond in the marinade. Once I have it browned on all sides I set it aside and then saute the veggies in the same pan, which I then de-glaze with the marinade liquids and scrape up the fond from when I browned the roast. I bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it up a few times, then drop the heat down to low and let it simmer for about 15 minutes before taking it off the stove to cool. Once it is cooled I add the meat back in, cover it, and stick it in the fridge for three to five days, turning it and sloshing the liquid about once or twice each day.

The other differences between my recipe and the traditional recipes come when I use the marinade to make the gravy.  I don’t add any pumpernickel crumbles to the marinade before I cook the roast up, but I do add sugar. The nutritional value of the amount of sugar I add is roughly on par with the 4 tablespoons of honey added to the Rhenish style of sauerbraten gravy. What sets my recipe apart from the traditionalists is that I use gingersnaps to thicken my gravy rather than a roux. I like the flavor and texture I get out of it. OK I’m not going to lie…I also like snacking on the left over gingersnaps. I usually add raisins to the gravy just before I serve it but I didn’t have any in the pantry this time, so I substituted what I did have…some dried cranberrries. It worked.

Sauerbraten is one of those dishes where you can’t mess with tradition. Except…I do. I do it with just about everything I cook because I like exploring flavors and textures. You can’t do that by cooking the same thing the same way every time. My recipe, as it turns out, didn’t come from one of Janet’s family cook books. I took it from Alton Brown, which is really just an Americanized version of the Rhenish recipe that uses gingersnaps in lieu of pumpernickel and the roux. I’ve made a few changes over the decade and a half since I’ve been making it, but not many. This year I made a few more changes, thanks mainly to some ideas I took away from my friends’ recipes, and I have a few more things to try the next time I make sauerbraten. I’m through with it for this year, but we’ll see what next year brings!

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