I’m really big on customer service. I don’t mean that I need people surrounding me all the time, filling my glass of water after every sip, and folding my napkin across my lab when I return from the bathroom. I find that awkward actually. But its nice when you really enjoy a place not only for the food but also for the staff.

We once were patrons of Romano’s pizza, but they ruined a trust we had spent over a year building. We went almost every Thursday. When we would enter the restaurant there would be a bottle of our favorite wine waiting for us at our regular table. One night last summer, after ordering our usual, Elmer brings us the check. The price of the bottle had increased almost doubled, yet we were not informed. We expressed our disappointment that he didn’t at least inform us of the change before opening the bottle. We haven’t returned since. (We’re good at grudges).

La Boqueria de Barcelona Viva has in some ways replaced Romanos. While we can’t afford to go there as frequently, it holds a special spot in our heart, mainly because of Oscar, our waiter. We went to La Boqueria for the first time last year for my birthday. Actually the day after my birthday, because on my actual birthday I had to work. (And it was a Saturday. Yes I’m still bitter.) So Hec took me out the next day. Oscar waited on us, bringing us complementary pan tumaca, made some recommendations on his favorite menu items, and didn’t bother us every second asking if we wanted to order something else when we just came for the sangria and marinated mushrooms. Since this first wonderful expereince, we continued to come back. Usually just for the sangria and pan tumaca, although on special occasions we’ll order the lechón, paté (for Héc, not me!), or one of their unique desserts such as pears in cognac. But even though we don’t always spend $50 (usually its well under $20), Oscar greets us with a huge smile, is glad to see us, and even gives away little cooking tips. He told us what was in the sangria, and also how to prepare pan tumaca. At another Spanish restaurant we visited (thinking it was the same everywhere) we asked the waiter how they prepare the sangria (we didn’t want to pay a lot for wine-flavored juice). “Sorry,” he told us, “it’s a secret of the house”. Which to us meant it was boxed cooking wine with grape juice and sliced up apples and oranges. And thats certainly what it tasted like. We had to order another cup of wine to mix in to the pitcher to take the edge off the sweetness.

When we asked Oscar if the sangria was sweet, he basically recited the recipe, verifying for us that it was not just grape juice. He told us the liquors used, approximate amounts, and the fruit juices. I was surprised, to be honest. We went home immediately and experimented. While it is never the same as at La Boqueria, it is always good…sometimes even better that at the restaurant.

Now Sangria is not an exact science, although I would say it can be an art. (Asá). Use the things you like, and it will turn out delicious. Thats all we do. If you want it light, use less alcohol, add some sparkling water. If you want it heavy, up the brandy and gin. Go white, go red. If you just have rum and nothing else, go for that too. This is what Oscar told us, and this is generally how we base our recipe:

Oscar’s Sangria

1 bottle wine (we just use a cheap drinkable something red).
2 oz brandy
2 oz gin
1/2 to 1 cup juice (orange or pear are yummy)
1 cup diced fruit (citruses are great, ripe pears, berries, ect)
1/2 lime, sliced

Mix all together and let sit at least over night. Sometimes we let it sit a couple days. The fruit really absorbs the wine, and makes a nice snack at the end of the pitcher.


Pan Tumaca

We go to this Catalonian restaurant quite a bit — La Bocaria. It is fabulous in all ways: ambiance, staff, to the menu, the sangria. The prices generally are not what I would call fabulous, although there are a handful of affordable nutritious dishes that will fill your belly without breaking your wallet (although we don’t usually get them). We go there primarily for the sangria, and on very special occasions, the lechon. We love the dimly-lit, old-fashioned feel of the place, and Oscar is always happy to see us and seats us in our usual spot. On days when we are not too hungry and only want something to munch on while enjoying our refreshing fortified beverage, we order pan tumaca (this is my strategy for saving money). They always bring a small portion of it when we order the drinks, but the two tiny slices just tease my taste buds and I have to order another portion.

The first time we tried it we were baffled over what exactly was on the bread. The bite of the garlic was intensely clear. We could tell there was tomato in some form, but that was not so obvious.  It was almost jelly-like, but thin and not sweet. Finally we asked the waiter if he knew what it was. Just like the secret to the sangria, he gave it to us straight and simple. I wonder if the owners know he gives away their prized recipes…. perhaps its not that big of a secret,but in our household this allows us to transform lame bread into a masterpiece we don’t want to stop eating.

This is also where Hec took me the night he proposed. !

Pan Tumaca


  • Bread, generally something dense and crusty, although whatever you have will work.
  • Garlic cloves, peeled. One per large slice of bread.
  • Ripe tomato, cut in half and seeded
  • Good quality olive oil
  • Salt to taste

1. Toast the bread
2. Rub the peeled garlic clove over the bread. It will dissappear as you rub.
3. Rub the tomato flesh on the bread until it turns pinkish.
4. Drizzle with olive oil, as much as you want.
5. Salt to taste.

This is a great appetizer, and great for when you have guests. Let them do it themselves (unless you want to keep the secret to yourself). They’ll enjoy it.

Seafood Avgolemono (Greek Style Egg Lemon Soup with Calamari and Tilapia)

Avegolemono - Rings of Squid

Avgolemono soup reminds me of Solonica, located on 57th Street in Hyde Park Chicago. It was just two blocks from my place, and was a frequent breakfast stop, especially mornings (or afternoons) after a party. It is a diner-style restaurant but the menu is sprinkled with Greek-style culinary treats such as moussaka, omelettes with spinach and fetta, spinach pie and, my favorite, baklava. Avgolemono was also on the menu. It traditionally is an chicken stock thickened with eggs, scented with lemon, and served with rice, and sometimes herbs such as mint or dil.

My recipe is slightly different. In fact, I began making this stew with something completely different in mind. I was going to make a simple seafood stew, featuring the many pounds of squid we recently bough without taking note of the expiration date (thats why it was so inexpensive…) But didn’t read the recipe carefully. After I finished making the stock (step #1 in my recipe below) I realized that the recipe called for mayo. It called for mayo. I despise mayo. So I thought and I though. What can I put in place of the mayo? I didn’t have yogurt prepared, which is my number one go to substitute for mayo. I thought milk would be too watery for the consistency I was looking for. I don’t do cream any more willingly than I do mayo. But what is mayo, anyway? Eggs, lemon, salt, and oil. Huh. Eggs and lemon sounds an awful lot like Avgolemono…and lemon goes wonderfully with seafood. So it was settled. Instead of they mayo I added the juice of two lemons (limes actually- lemons are almost impossible to find in Guate, but I found the limes to work just as well) and 4 eggs.

LeeksAvgolemono - With Veggies

The result was a lovely light lemony cream sauce, and rich in protein. I followed most of the directions of my original inspiration, but the lemon and eggs took the dish hostage-which I was greatful for. The dish was perfect. There were groans of joy throughout the entire meal. In addition, the veggies I used added a nice texture, color, and flavor that traditional chicken broth wouldn’t have provided. This broth was a perfect way to feature the calamari and tilapia.

Seafood Avgolemono (Serves 6 -8)
For Vegetarian version, use vegetable broth instead of chicken, and omit seafood. Perhaps chickpeas or white beans would be a nice addition.

1 pound squid, cut into rings
4 tilapia filettes
1 pound new potatoes, boiled separately and put aside (optional)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 cup white wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot, sliced
1 leek, sliced
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tomato
1 bayleaf
4 eggs
2 lemons or limes
1/4 teaspoon paprika
large pinch of salt
8 garlic cloves
Olive oil and generous fresh black pepper. This is important!

Directions: 1. Add olive oil to a 4 quart pot, and add carrots, leeks, and onion. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, making sure not to brown the veggies. One the veggies are tender, add the tomato, and cook another two minutes. Add the fennel, thyme, and bay leaf, along with the chicken stock, water, and wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 3o minutes. At this point I prefer to strain the veggies, and set them aside. I will add them in later. For me, it makes preparing a creamy broth much easier. However you can keep them in if you prefer.

2. Prepare the egg mixture: Beat the eggs well. Add the juice of the lemons and whisk together. Peel all the garlic, and place in separate bowl or plate. Add the salt, and grind together to form a nice paste. This will ensure that the garlic combines well into the soup. Once into a fine paste, whisk the garlic into the eggs. Set aside.

3. If you want to make this ahead of time (lets say the night before, or in the morning), you can let the stock cool, and cover it and the eggs well and keep in the fridge up to 24 hours. When you are ready to prepare the rest, about a half hour before eating, bring the broth to a simmmer and let the eggs sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

4. Temper the eggs. Ladle a half cup of the hot broth into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously. Add another half cup and continue whisking. This ensure that the egg does not “seize” and start cooking when it enters the hot broth. Add the egg mixture to the broth and whisk until well combined.

5. Add the squid and tilapia (torn into bite-sized pieces) and cook for a few minutes until opaque and flaky. If you removed the veggies and wish to have them in your soup, you can add them at this point. Add the potatoes, if desired, at this point as well. (So, Alton Brown says that the veggies after being cooked for so long are “worthless” as far as nutrients go. But for me they still have flavor, texture, color, and fiber. So I keep them. It doesn’t hurt.)

6. Serve drizzled with olive oil, fresh cracked black pepper. Look at the picture below…this is important. A few mint leaves would also add a lovely touch.

Avgolemono - Pepper and Olive Oil

Dulce de Leche de Ajo


Anyone in the Chicagoland area must try Mercat a la Planxa. It is a Catalan style restaurant by Chef Jose Garces, native Chicagoan but well known in the Philly area. And a related note, Chef Garces has been selected among 10 up-and-coming chefs to complete for a spot in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America! I don’t care if Michael Pollen is giving it a bad wrap (hey, I cook. I also like to watch people cook). However, we don’t get Food Network in Guatemala. And even if we did, we don’t have a T.V. I guess I’ll just have to beg my mom to tape it for me. I am very excited about this possibility.

My first Mercat experience was in celebration of my graduation from grad school. We were going to just stop by the restaurant to meet my Dad’s business partner for “a drink” before family time downtown and much later dinner. We began downstairs in the basement with a few cocktails, cured meets, cheeses, those yummy bacon-wrapped dates, and were much later ushered upstairs to the dining room with help of the partner’s company card. The upstairs was an open tactfully-designed dining room overlooking Grant Park. Bottles of wine, plates of tapas, paella, sausages, ect were continually being passed around, and our mouths were never bored with delicate texture and flavors we were experiencing. We left rather early (having started at 3pm), and got home around 7pm. We were happy, full and, i’ll admit, pretty drunk. We laid down for a nap and awoke at 1am, just a little late for a party we were to attend.

The second experience, this past June, was less extravagant but none the less pleasing. Since it was just the two of us, we just had a light lunch. Sea scallots lightly seasoned and tenderly grilled; sautéed mushrooms with garlic and wine; and a lovely plate of cheese served with marmalade and a garlic dulce de leche. I was skeptic and thought I would enjoy my cheese on its own; and it was good cheese which can stand on its own. But I tried it, cuz I’ll try almost anything. And it was delicious, creamy, lustrous. It went really well with the cheese, bread, and apples. So what did we do? What we always do when we try something amazing and different. Go home and make it!

Dulce de Leche con Ajo:IMG_1807
1- 14oz can sweetened condensed milk*
6 heads (not cloves) garlic, separated and peeled
A small piece of cheese cloth
A couple pinches large grain sea salt

First, roast the garlic. I like to do it in foil with a little butter in the oven. Wrap it tightly, roast for around 30-40, sometimes 50 minutes. I like to do the cloves already peeled instead of whole heads because it reduces wasted garlicy deliciousness, and it is easier to remove the pulp. When the garlic is roasted to prefection and cooled off a little, put it int he cheese cloth and squeeze the garlic through. This will make it very smooth and easier to whisk into the milk.

Second, make the dulce de leche. Put the milk in the top of a double boiler, and cook on medium heat. Before the milk gets very thick, whisk in the garlic. Then keep stirring it occationally until it is a thick deep caramel color. If you don’t have patience, like I often don’t, you can do this in the microwave, but be very careful and take it out very frequently (every minute or even 30 seconds). The firrst time I made it in the microwave I overcooked it and it was pretty gritty, not lustrous and smooth. It was still delicious though, I would say.

*You can be more natural and use sugar and milk. I would prefer that normally too, but it would probably take twice as long. With the sweetened condensed milk it is much quicker. Plus, if a can is good enough for David Lebovitz, its good enough for me.

Pizzaria Romano in da House

We love pizza. The traditional, wood oven baked type with that crispy bottom but chewy center and that semi-charred flavor that Dominoes just couldn’t ever deliver. Mmmhmm. I used to work at a very nice authentic pizza and pasta place in Columbus Ohio, Figlio. I would love it when , at the end of the night, the doors were closed, all the customers had been served, and the chef would throw together an excellent spread pizzas, pastas, and salads. My favorite was “Peter and Laurie’s” featuring caramelized onion, sun dried tomatoes, fresh herbs, and gorgonzola and blue cheeses. For me, what really makes the pizza, is the cheese.

Just over a year ago when I first moved to Guatemala we were working at one end of the city, but living with the in-laws in the other while we searching for a more conveniently located apartment. To avoid the rush hour traffic (which I believe I mentioned in the last post), we would eat an early dinner and hang out someplace until 7:30 or 8pm until the traffic had died down. One of these places was Romano Pizza, a new pizza place advertising authentic wood ovens. Skeptical as I was, I had been dying to try it, and avoiding traffic had been a perfect excuse.

Romano's - MotosWe made the short drive from the University to Boulevard Los Proceres, where the little Italian joint is located. The parking situation did not fill me with confidence, as the restaurant is located on busy, therefore high crime zone. Generally we avoid parking on the side streets in this area. A nice restaurant or business will have a small lot with a garita (guard) to keep your cars safe. Instead, there there were only a few orange cones reserving 3 or 4 spaces in front of the restaurant. However, an entourage of motorists were standing in front of Romano by half a dozen delivery bikes, apparently waiting for the next delivery order. As we slowed in front of the entrance one of the guards/motorists pull a pair of cones out of our way encouraging our stay, although after considering our laptops in the trunk we almost didn’t stop. But I’m glad we did.

We were greeted by René, a short stocky man, who seated us in a cozy little corner window, next to a inactive fireplace. He presented us with an enticing menu and a wine list with prices not matched in the entire city. I ordered a glass of wine for 14Q (just under 2USD). We would have gotten the bottle for 36Q (4.50USD) if it hadn’t been that Héc was sick. I’m sure you’re thinking how terrible that wine must be…so I’ll make the note now that the wine is better than merely drinkable — we love it. We tend to leave the restaurant with a few extra bottles to keep around the apartment. Even in the grocery stores you cannot find these prices paired with the quality.

Enough about the wine…the pizza is absolutely delicious (wouldn’t say as good as Figlio, but the best I’ve had in Guatemala by far). The crust is just how I like it…fairly thin but with a slightly chewy texture, and those gorgeous bubbles that leave a soft hollow cavity. The toppings are typical Italian, my favorite being the veggetali a la brasa (grilled veggies), and Modena (buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, parmasean, and requesón –which is a Guatemalan type of ricotta that is slightly more dense and not as creamy).

Romano’s became so frequent in our lives (nearly every Thursday around 7pm), that we would arrive to see a bottle of our favorite wine sitting at our table. I live for stuff like that. Just puts a smile on my face…

So, long story to simply say that…since I am not currently working, we are saving money by trying to eat out less and less. But boy do we crave pizza. So we tried to recreate some in our minimalist kitchen. I made a 100% whole wheat dough (recipe to follow) topped with caramelized red onions, requesón, crisp-roasted garlic cloves (3 whole heads), and thinly shaved zucchini. We opted out of pizza sauce on this one despite my love for it (Elmer, our waiter at Romanos, knows how much I like it and always brings extra to the table). I baked it in our little toaster oven for about 15-20 minutes, and it was heavenly. The juicy caramelized onions were a perfect substitute for tomato sauce, and Héc and I both decided that next time we would up the roasted garlic to 5 heads (not cloves, heads) because of how delicious it was.

Pizza Dough
2 cups whole wheat flour
5 teaspoons olive oil
2/3 cup water
2.25 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Its thin, crisp, chewy, and healthy. Most people don’t like using 100% whole wheat flour, but I do. So I did.

Mix all together, and knead for 5 minutes. Let rise in warm place, covered with plastic wrap, for an hour. Punch down, and knead for a minute, and let rest for 20 more minutes, or until ready to use. For one 12-inch pizza, use half the dough. I like to freeze the rest. It keeps up to a month.

The Crispy Roasted Garlic:
-Peel the garlic cloves completely. Some people like to roast it in its skin, but I find I loose a lot that way. I want every bit of every clove, so I peel them, place them in a foil pouch, give it a glug of olive oil, and into the oven (or toaster oven if you too are in a less than fully functioning kitchen) for 50 minutes to an hour. It will be slightly toasty on some pieces, while others are a soft as butter.

Do you see those crispy brown pieces of heaven there on the creamy requesón? Heaven.