Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mango Salsa

I read somewhere that one of top 10 things that Americans miss the most when overseas is Mexican food.  I completely get fact it frightens me a bit.  I think we are a bit spoiled and used to eating a variety foods here in the US....chinese, mexican, thai, italian and vietnamese in the same week is pretty normale. While you can definitely find more variety in larger cities while traveling, it's a bit more difficult in smaller towns.  My mom made Thai food all the time growing up so it's definitely one of my favorites, but after just two weeks in Thailand eating only Thai food, I was craving anything in the world that was not Thai food.  There was definitely never a mexican restaurant to be seen.

Rumor has it that Mexican restaurants are a bit few and far between in Italy as well.  While I know I will happily eat all of that fresh seafood that's abundant near Italy's shores, I also know I will miss my Mexican, and well, let's be honest here, TexMex.   I've been gorging myself on brekkie burritos, enchiladas, chile rellenos and my tacos. 

How traditional are fish tacos?  I have no idea but in my mind they fall somewhere in the Mex or TexMex category also known as bites of heaven on earth.  They have to be one of the most perfect foods because they encompass just about every ying and yang out there: sweet salsa with savory fish, crunch cabbage with soft, chewy tortilla shell and of course spicy hot flavors with creamy cooling yogurt.  

Fish tacos are also about one of the easiest things to throw together too.   I think it's all about the mango salsa. 

Mango, tomatoes, cilantro, onion, lime juice and a bit of salt.  I used frozen mangoes that I thawed out because my freezer is bursting with food to be finished off.  Fresh mangos are obviously better but the frozen kind are still pretty good if you are in a hurry or not in the mood to peel and dice fresh ones. 

I've used mahi mahi, salmon and halibut and all were fantastic.  Just sprinkle with your favorite blackening spice and grill or bake. 

I add a bit of fresh chipotle or chipotle powder to my greek yogurt but if you think the spice in the salsa is enough, you can top with just plain 'ole greek yogurt. 

I'd packed away most of my baking pans and tools and thrown out my masa, so needed to pick up tortillas.  I found these at Sprouts--flour and corn all in one?!  They were awesome--soft and tender and slightly chewy like a flour tortilla with all the flavor of a corn tortilla.  Who knew such magic even existed? 

Store bought tortillas, blackened fish, chopped cabbage, yogurt and doesn't get any easier or better than this. 

Rumor has it that people who go to Italy also miss puppy kisses and snuggles.  A lot. 

Mango Salsa


2 c chopped pitted peeled mango
2 c chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 jalapeño, seeds removed and finely diced
salt to taste

Mix all ingredients in small bowl.  Serve at room temp or chilled.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fuji X-E2 Mirrorless Camera System

I finally did it.  After months and months of researching and wavering, I took the plunge and dove headfirst into a mirrorless camera system.  Yikes.  She's kinds of a sexy little thing isn't she?  It's no coincidence that X-E2 rhymes with sexy you

I won't write a long detailed post on all of the bazillion technical pros and cons of mirrorless because truth be told, I'm hardly qualified.  It's a relatively new system that I'm still learning.  I'll let others with more experience and research tell the mirrorless story.  If you are interested, just do a search on mirrorless and there will be as many stories for why the system is the future of cameras (like DSLRs were to the old film SLRS) as there are stories on why mirrorless will never replace DSLRs. Some of the most influential to in convincing me to convert to mirrorless were this article (though I'm not advocating the death of DSLRs) and David duChemin's review.  

While mirrorless cameras have definitely gained ground over the past 5 years,  DSLRs still rule the world and for good reason...they have proven themselves. Like all technology adoption, it's a bit overwhelming to just jump in.  I just reminded myself that there was a time though when SLRS ruled the world and DSLRs were the new kids on the block. 

The other hesitation is that neither Canon nor Nikon have done all that much to join the mirrorless market.  I know Canon, I have a 20+ year relationship with Canon and I'm not going to lie to you--being courted by Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus felt a little weird.  

In the end though, mirrorless convinced me to give it a go for the following reasons:

Weight and Size:  Everyone who is converting to mirrorless or supplementing their camera gear with a mirrorless system lists these as some of the top driving factors.  They were the number one draw for me especially for my upcoming move to Italy.  I wanted a lighter more compact system that wouldn't take its toll on my back or shoulder after an hour.  With my Canon and my favorite lenses and accessories, I could be lugging close to 8-10 lbs of gear. The Canon 70-200 2.8 IS II alone weighs over 3 lbs. It doesn't sound like much except to those that have lugged a camera system around all day.   The Fuji plus lenses comes in at under 3 lbs...and only 1.5 lbs if you go with only the 18-55 walk around lens.  It weighs even less if you snap on a 32mm prime.  Less than 1.5 lbs...seriously, mind blown. 

Cost: I was able to purchase the body plus 4 lenses for just about the resale value of my 5D Mk III body.  The Zeiss lenses were on some crazy is-this-a-scam-pricing, so I was super lucky there, but a full system for the price of the Canon body?  Enough said.  

Image Quality:  No camera regardless of weight or cost could convince me to switch over if I didn't feel the image quality was rock solid.  While I'll admit that I'm not a pixel peeper, I studied a lot of photos on Fuji flickr groups and via reviews and found the image quality of Fuji to be shockingly indistinguishable in the hands of a talented photographer.    So many photographers and friends I admire have been converting to mirrorless too and underneath it all, I'm really just a follower. 

So then why Fuji?  I don't really have a great answer for this one.  Sony has a full frame system with exceptional reviews but I think it was really the Fuji lens roadmap that impressed me.  Mirrorless's area of opportunity is in the lens selection.  Fuji's roadmap showed an investment to the system and lenses and their lenses are consistently close to 5 stars....this is pretty much the same reason I chose Canon as it turns out.   Fuji customer service is supposed to be outrageously good though my one experience with them so far was outrageously awful.  Fuji's demand is exceeding supply at times and the 35mm prime that I'd purchased with the X-E2 went from 2 day out of stock to 2 months.  With the time approaching for my trip, I finally got nervous about receiving the lens prior to leaving and contacted customer service.  The response I received back was one of those canned responses that answers a question I didn't ask and shows that they didn't actually read the inquiry but just sent a response to check it off as complete.  Oh Fuji...seriously my pet peeve.  I ended up canceling and going with the Zeiss lenses at that point. 

Some of the things I'm not excessively fond of are: 
  1. Slower more finicky auto focus.  No explanation needed there.  
  2. EVF--electronic view finder. Awful.  Hate it.   I will ensure my next body purchase has an Optical View Finder.  Every time I look in that thing I'm surprised by how much I hate EVF.  Yes, I've read the arguments for why it's better but it'll take me awhile to come to grips with EVF
  3. Pretty bad battery life
  4. Shutter speed maxes at 1/4000 

All of these things however, are things that I would expect a newer camera system to be able to work out in newer's the nature of evolving technology. The two Fuji lenses I own are pretty spectacular so the above are not really complaints. 

I agree with an article  I read that stated mirrorless feels more intentional.  Maybe it's the slower autofocus or the retro styling, but as the article states, it's not the kind of camera you want to grab if you have more of a spray and pray style of shooting.  I wouldn't grab it first for action shots either.  

So enough blah, blah, blah, let's see how sexy she really is.  

I love the retro styling.  Here she is next to the Canon SLR I used in my college photography classes.  The X-E2 comes in all black too, but what fun is that?  Aside from retro appearances, the Fuji system (not sure about the other mirrorless systems) returns to old-school controls.  Shutter speed is the top dial again and aperture changes are via the lenses.  I panicked and cursed a little at first when I couldn't find the aperture digital dial but finally channeled the force to remember how film cameras used to work. Aperture on the lens ring really is so much easier, intuitive and tactile.

The lenses.  I love lenses like men love cars.  I still contend that I'd make out with lenses if I could.  I love my primes so opted for a 12mm (18 equivalent on a Micro 4/3 or crop sensor) and a 32 mm(50ish equivalent).  The 56mm is a new release which shows that Fuji is taking their roadmap and release schedule very seriously.  I haven't played much with it so more to come on the actual lens performance.  At 1.2, it's a pretty wicked fast lens but also the heaviest lens at 14oz.  It almost has me convinced that Fuji also supplies tanks to the US military.  Again it adds to that film camera and solid metal lenses frames from the days of yore feeling.

The Fuji 18-55 has actually surprised me a's a kit lens that doesn't deserve to be called a kit lens.  I'd definitely wouldn't hesitate to grab it as the only lens for a day out.  iPhone added for size perspective. 

For another size comparison, here's my Canon love.  I couldn't bear to part with the entire system and kept my 7D along with the uber amazing 35 1.4.  Someone offered to buy the lens and while I let the 50mm 1.2 go, I just could not sell my 35mm.  Until mirrorless can nail action or becomes quicker in response, I'll hold on to these guys.  This below setup and bag though is still a beast to carry around.

Side by side the size difference of the bodies is pretty amazing but it's the weight differential that is most mind-blowing.  

The X-E2 does require that I carry some CPL and ND filters around because of its 1/4000 shutter speed restriction but it's a small price to pay  for a compact system.

Seamus and Brooklyn don't really care that when I zoom into the original photos, I can see my reflection clearly in their eyes, but I do.  My relationship with Fuji is definitely off to a good start.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Chana Masala

Not only do I hate, hate, hate packing, but I'm really, really, really awful at it.  For every one item that goes into a box, five items require further investigation, reminiscing, or use.  Needless to say, this ends up making a bigger mess than if I'd just grabbed everything and thrown it into a box. 

It's good now and then to take a break in the midst of the colossal mess to make a mess in the kitchen.  And this is approach is exactly why I'm just so bad at packing. 

If I'm going to make a mess, chana masala is a pretty good outcome.  Full of yummy chickpeas and wonderful Indian spices, it's quick to throw together and cooked up in no time.  I like potatoes in mine, but if you leave them out, you can throw this together in the time it takes to cook the rice.

Yes, some messes are definitely worth it. 

Chana Masala

1 tablespoon oil
1 large onion, diced
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp amchoor powder (optional)
3 green chilies chopped
1.5 cups chopped tomato
3/4 cup water
2  15oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cups potatoes, peeled and diced in 1/4 inch cubes
1/2 lemon, juiced
Additional tsp minced ginger (optional)
3 tbsp minced cilantro (optional)

  1. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat.
  2. Add the onion and saute until tender, about 5-7 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger,  turmeric, paprika, garam masala, salt and amchoor if using and saute until fragrant, about a minute.
  4. Reduce heat to medium low.  Add the tomatoes, water, potatoes and chickpeas and cook until potatoes are tender and sauce has thickened,  about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, fresh ginger and cilantro if using. Add additional salt to taste. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cinnamon Soft Pretzels and Oh, Some Life Changes.

I know, it's been forever.   It's a good thing my livelihood doesn't depend on writing new posts and updating my blog.  There hasn't been tons going on in the kitchen because there's been a lot of this going on....

I really hate packing.  This hasn't been the everyday run-of-the-mill packing either, this time around it's involved selling furniture, booking storage and donating as much as possible--all still part of the "simplify" new years resolution.     And oh yeah, I gave notice last month and bought a one way ticket to Italy.

At the end of July, I'm heading to NY for a week and then it's off to Italy to study some Italian language and history and get a refresher on Renaissance art history. The former Liberal Arts major in me sings "hallelujah."  I'm signed up for a couple of months of intensive total immersion Italian lessons but the biggest plan is to not have any plans--you know, just live a little dolce vita for a bit.  Tranquilo. 

I bought a one-way ticket but I know I have to come back.  The biggest deterrent to this whole adventure was not the part where I quit a stable job that paid the mortgage, but rather thinking about leaving this one....

Finding an acceptable option for Brooklyn was really tough.  Really, really ridiculously tough.  I considered taking her because even with a full ticket, it was cheaper than boarding but smush face dogs aren't very welcome by the airlines.   I talked to quite a few people and long term boarding facilities before finally deciding on an option.  I knew I'd stay home before I'd let her be kenneled for long periods of time each day so it had to be an in-home option with someone who likes loves dogs,  has great references, and very importantly, someone who would definitely give me my dog back when I came back.  You'd think that would be a given but I swear I talked to a woman who was a self-declared "BT Addict" and got the sense I'd never see Brooklyn again if I went with her.   Just like everything else in the planning of this trip, it all eventually worked out.   I do feel so guilty though and already miss this peanut if that's possible.  

So between finding boarding and scheduling everything from movers to cleaners and running a bazillion and one errands, cooking has gone by the wayside.  That is of course except when I come across an abundance of ingredients that I feel guilty about throwing a half-full 25lb bag of flour.  Yikes.  

Luckily, pretzels are one of the easiest doughs to make and when covered with cinnamon sugar are seriously one of the best things ever.  This is the same recipe I posted last year for the pretzel dogs(the same recipe that everyone's posted really).  Pretzel dough is just that flexible. 

Rolling this dough into balls makes some pretty awesome pretzel rolls as well. 

Cinnamon Soft Pretzels


1.5 c warm  water (about 110-115ºF)
1 tbsp sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
4.5 c all-purpose flour
4 tbsp melted unsalted butter
12 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 stick of melted butter
1/2 cup sugar 
2 tsp cinnamon
Canola oil for greasing bowl
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer with hook attachment, combine the water, sugar and kosher salt. Sprinkle the yeast on top and allow it to sit for 5 minutes.
  2. Add flour and melted butter to the mixer bowl and mix on low until the ingredients are combined.
  3. Increase the speed to medium and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, 6-7 minutes.  Remove and roll into ball.
  4. Grease  bowl, add dough and turn, ensuring oil covers all surface of dough.  Cover bowl with towel and let dough rise in bowl until double in size (about 1 hour depending upon temp)
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl. Clean the bowl and then grease it with vegetable oil.
  6. Fill large stockpot halfway with water and bring to a rolling boil. Add baking soda. The boiling baking soda water can make quite a mess--definitely stick with a big pot filled halfway full if you can. 
  7. Preheat oven to 450 and line two sheet trays with parchment paper.
  8. Remove dough and place on work surface.   Divide it into 12 equal pieces. 
  9. Roll out each piece of dough into an 18- to 20-inch rope. Fold each rope in half, twisting the two pieces around one another and pressing the ends together. Twist the bottom end around the top, feeding it through the top hole and pressing to secure. 
  10. Return the twists to the cookie sheet.
  11. One by one, carefully place each twist into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove each twist from the water using a large slotted spoon or spatula(s) and return it to the cookie sheet. 
  12. Bake the twists until golden brown in color, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the pans (between racks and turning to rotate pans) halfway through, then remove the twists from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes before topping.
  13. Mix together 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon.  
  14. Melt butter and lightly brush the top of each pretzel.  
  15. Hold over sugar bowl and liberally sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the top of each pretzel.  Serve warm.
For pretzel rolls, shape dough into balls and let rise for 30 minutes before adding to boiling baking soda water.  Pretzel rolls will bake for 15-20 minutes depending upon size. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Guinness Chocolate Cake with Baileys Frosting

Chocolate cake is not my friend.  Really, it's cakes in general--I find them all rather temperamental, moody little things that throw a fit and refuse to come out right if I mis-measure by even a quarter of a teaspoon.  

Actually, strike that.  I have measured and followed a recipe exactly, sifting when sifting is required, counting hand strokes for mixing (really) and carefully making the high altitude adjustments and I still don't have a chocolate cake recipe that I adore except my favorite chocolate ganache cake which starts with a box mix.  

Recently, I embarked on a journey to find the PERFECT homemade chocolate cake recipe.  I started with a recipe for Chocolate Heaven cake from the Back in the Day Bakery.  Five star bakery in Savannah, five star cookbook, and rave reviews for this cake, I was sure I'd finally found the go-to cake recipe.  

Cake flour, eggs and sour cream and room temp and unsweetened chocolate would think this recipe is on it's way to the winners list. 

I always give myself a pat on the back when I use more than one pan for a cake. 

And then an extra pat on the back when I pull out a pastry bag and pipe anything.  Piping is sometimes fun, sometimes annoying.

Alas, I was able to screw up a cake recipe that everyone else seems to be able to nail.  My version was dense, not chocolatey enough, and well, dense.  Maybe the problem is that I expect cakes to be fluffy.

Chocolate cake number two was a Pinterest recipe that was touted to be the world's best sour cream chocolate cake.  

Surely cream cheese buttercream (yes both) chocolate frosting is the secret to perfect chocolate cake.  

Or not.  This cake was a  lot fluffier but that frosting was killer sweet and there definitely wasn't enough chocolate in the cake or the frosting.  It was more like a "kind-of chocolate" cake.  

I should have mentioned that the chocolate cake by which I gauge all other cakes is Cheesecake Factory's Chocolate Tower Truffle cake which is probably more truffle than cake.  

Strike two. 

After all of the effort of the two prior chocolate cakes, I went back to one of my standards--Nigella's Guinness chocolate cake.  I would categorize this as an overall fantastic cake rather than a fantastic chocolate cake.

Best part is that it's super simple and made right in the saucepan.

I know I posted this recipe 4 years ago when I made it into Irish Car Bomb cupcakes, but while not the perfect truffle-like chocolate cake, it's a pretty delicious cake....definitely a keeper recipe for when you want to throw together something super quick and easy.

Only one saucepan and  one baking pan to clean up.

Chocolate Guinness Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson Feast

1 cup Guinness stout
1 stick unsalted butter, sliced
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 cups sugar
¾ cup sour cream
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2.5 teaspoons baking soda

Baileys frosting
-8 ounce cream cheese
-1 cup confectioners’ sugar
½ cup Baileys

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line bottom with parchment paper.
2. Pour Guinness into a large saucepan, add butter and heat until melted. Whisk in cocoa powder and sugar. In a small bowl, beat sour cream with eggs and vanilla and then pour into brown, buttery, beery mixture and finally whisk in flour and baking soda.
3. Pour cake batter into greased and line pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack.
4. When cake is cold, gently peel off parchment paper and transfer to a platter or cake stand.
5. Place cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar in a mixing bowl, and whip with an electric beater, until smooth
6. Add cream and beat again until you have a spreadable consistency.
7. Ice top of cake, starting at middle and fanning out, so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint.