Mercado de Abastos – Adventures in Panama

Before we got to Panama, Christina had asked about what we might want to do there. I love to visit food markets and grocery stores when I travel, so she planned for her husband, Patricio, to take us there one morning while she was at work. Besides knowing that this was not Patricio’s favorite place to shop, but the prices were low, I knew nothing about the market. We drove west out of the center of Panama City, which gradually elevated and overlooked a series of apartments that you know are less well off than those in the center of the city, because there is not a single air conditioner visible. The highway continues north and settles back towards the ground, and you pull off the street and are immediately at the market.

20170307_101034You pay to “park” (I forgot to ask Patricio how much it was), which was really just an entrance fee because there was no designated parking area to speak of. The market was a series of stalls, some of which had garage doors to pull down to close them and were about as big as a garage, others had much larger interiors. A few had high ceilings and open sides like a pavilion at a park, and some people were just selling out of the back of pickup trucks. The streets between the stalls were about the width of a large delivery truck, but they were used by said trucks, cars, and pedestrians (many of whom were pushing large dolly’s full of produce) all at once.

img_20170307_105859_555.jpgWe drove at a crawl searching for a space to park, which were really just clear areas in front of stalls that weren’t open. Cruising for a spot gave me time to observe the many stalls, some of which sold an abundance of a single fruit, like watermelon, avocados, papayas, or plantains, or a mix of fruits and vegetables. We followed Patricio as he sought out favorite stands, and selected lettuce, tomatoes, cantaloupe, a green papaya, pineapple, avocados, and passion fruit.

20170307_095759Many pineapple vendors were collected under a large pavilion with their goods pilled on low tables. One of the vendors was holding a pineapple by the greens, and had cut off the bottom and cut around the sides to loosen the fruit. He sliced off wedges and then pierced them with his knife to pass them to us. I had been sold far before the sample, but the incredibly sweet, juicy, tropical and just slightly acidic fruit sealed the deal even further. We sprung for 2 of the larger pineapples he was selling for $2.50.

img_20170307_105552_455.jpgMuch of this experience was cushioned by Patricio, who speaks Spanish as his first language and was familiar with the market. I wanted to try out my Spanish skills, so I went up to a vendor selling a fruit I did not recognize, and asked ¿Que es eso? (What is that?). He responded by telling me the price per pound, which I was fairly certain I hadn’t asked, so I tried again (same response). I think it was impossible for him to fathom that there was a person in the world who had never been presented with a whole passion fruit, or at least learned about them in preschool as I do with kids by showing them apples or potatoes and asking for their name.

img_20170307_110151_433.jpgPatricio was able to identify the passion fruits for me, and I felt I had to buy some. My next challenge was determining which ones were ripe. Some were dark purple and a bit wrinkly, while others were light yellow with taut skin. Another man at the stand was picking them up and shaking them to determine their worth, so I tried handling a few. I was expecting the density of an apple or a mango, but these couldn’t have weighed more than a couple of ounces (maybe they were all ones the other man had already put back). Mostly at random I selected 3 to equal a pound (which cost $2.50 – I knew that!).

Later on in the trip (once I had consumed half of a pineapple), I cut the passion fruit in half to reveal a thick, spongy pith surrounding a dense cluster of gooey seeds. I scooped it out and directly into my mouth and surprised myself with the tartness. Given my lack of passion fruit experience, I chalked this up to picking unripe specimens and not letting them ripen long enough. It was another amusing chapter to my passion fruit story, and I figured I could do better next time.

20170307_100914Later I recounted this to Christina, who laughed and told me passion fruit are tart, and when she lived in the Dominican Republic she watched people cut them open, pour sugar inside, and stir it up before eating. Any passion fruit I had previously eaten was part of a dessert or juiced, and certainly had sugar added before it ever entered my mouth.

I cut open one of the remaining passion fruits, added a teaspoon of sugar, and stirred it up. The seeds are covered by the fruit flesh, and you eat them together. The bright tartness is punctuated by the crunch of the seeds for a very lively eating experience. After experiencing the delight of eating a fresh passion fruit, it is hard for me to justify eating them any other way, which will have to wait for my next adventure to warmer climes.

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Donde Pope Si Hay – Adventures in Panama

Last week, Will and I visited my friend and her husband in Panama City, Panama. It is still their dry season, and it was hot (90F every day). On our second day there, the four of us got up before 7, ate a quick breakfast of cheese on toast, and went to the ferry. We joined a long line of other travelers waiting to get our passports checked and load a small boat to the island of Taboga, 8 miles off the coast.

20170305_081909.jpgWhen the captain asked for English speakers, Will and I were the only ones who raised our hands, a sign that we were in for a true Panamanian adventure. (I do understand some Spanish, but when it comes to boat safety I wanted to make sure I understood all the important bits.) The bay was full of huge cargo ships, waiting for their turn to enter the canal. It took us 30 minutes to get to the small island, and as we approached I couldn’t believe one of my middle school Spanish phrases was useful: ¿Donde está la playa? (Where is the beach?) As the ferry approached, there was no visible sand. Once we docked, you could make out a small corner of beach a 10 minute walk away (which had been shielded by an even smaller island, which was closed off as a bird sanctuary).

20170305_083124.jpgWe walked with everyone else along the narrow street (which doubled as a sidewalk), past small buildings and carts selling popsicles, many fried things, water, soda, and national beer for $1 a can. The beach was a small peninsula, maybe a total of 1/2 a mile long, that seemed incapable of holding the number of people on the ferry I came from (which was one of many to dock during the day). It was nothing like the huge expanses of protected sea shore in MA, that go on for miles and miles.

20170305_105125.jpgI was proven wrong, and as the tide went out the beach got bigger to accommodate arriving ferries. A few people had their own chairs or towels, but for the most part people rented both beach chairs and umbrellas from vendors for $5 apiece. This would get expensive if you went to the beach every weekend, but we certainly appreciated the convenience. Later on in the morning, the wind picked up and the umbrella vendors came around to put an additional stake in the ground in front of your umbrella, which they then looped a string already attached to your umbrella for this very purpose (genius!).

With our spots firmly established, Will and I took a walk back through the small town. The houses were built into the hillside, brightly colored, and very close together. The town square was headed by the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere, Iglesia de San Pedro. Directly in front of the church, in a small, irregularly shaped square, there was a basketball court (make use of the space you have!). We continued walking past the square until we came to a t, then took a left and decided to walk parallel to the way we came.

It was this turn that led us directly to Donde Pope Si Hay, which we had read about in our guidebook as “A simple concrete eatery serving fresh fish, cold green coconut water, and patacones (fried plantains); there is nothing mysterious about Pope beyond its name.” The name is indeed a mystery, as it roughly translates to “Where Pope is there,” but on the signs we saw there was not a picture of the Pope, but of Popeye the sailor man.

It was a good thing we went on our walk, because I have no idea if we would be able to find the spot otherwise. It is on the opposite side of town from the beach, not near other businesses, and there were no street signs. Compared to other structures near the beach, it was much more than a “simple concrete eatery,” with a small covered but open-air dining area containing six or maybe eight tables with white table clothes. Since it was just after 9AM we were not ready for breakfast, and returned to the beach with plans to walk back.

The menu was half a page, with the items they currently offered checked off. Most were fish offerings with different side options. Sadly they did not sell green coconut water any longer, but they did have piña coladas. We ordered the pescado (fish) for $7 and the pulpo creole (Creole octopus) for $9. Service was leisurely, and gave us time to observe the inner workings of the establishment. One younger man took orders of the patrons at the restaurant, answered the phone, and drove an interesting three-wheeled, covered, but open-aired vehicle that delivered food to the beach for an additional $2, or transported restaurant patrons back and forth for free. A woman ran the kitchen, maybe by herself, but we couldn’t see the whole room. The whole establishment could have easily fit within half of a basketball court.

Our dishes came alongside our piña coladas, which were mildly sweet and wonderfully refreshing. We each had our fish dish, alongside rice, a coleslaw-like salad, and twice-friend plantains called patacones (I later learned that I could have ordered coconut rice, but I am trying not to be consumed by this regret). I ate the fish, which was about 8 inches long, very lightly battered, and fried whole. The fish had a crisp exterior, with a mild, white, and flaky interior. Will had the Creole octopus, which was small pieces of octupus (tentacles thinner than a pinky), with onions and peppers in a mild, tomato based sauce. The octopus was meltingly tender, and perfectly complemented by the light sauce. There was a bottle of yellow hot sauce on the table, that was firey, but with a pleasing sweetness. It was especially great on the fish.

We ate slowly, pausing to take sips of our piña coladas to ease the fire from the hot sauce. The small portion of my brain not focused on enjoying the food was thinking: I am living out every fantasy I’ve ever had about eating island food, I am going to remember this forever, and also potentially spend forever trying to find this again, so maybe I should more to Taboga. We cleaned our plates and drained our drinks. I went up to the window to pay, and the man retrieved my change from a cookie tin that was living a second life as a cash register. We went to walk back to the beach, but the man motioned for us to get in his delivery vehicle. The narrow street became more crowded as we approached the beach.

 

 

Philadelphia Eats

20160626_112850This past weekend Will and I got to visit one of my oldest friends and her fiance in Philadelphia, PA. I’ve been to Philly once before, but I was working and didn’t get to fully experience it. Not at all the case with this trip. We spent two and a half days walking, eating, and drinking our way through the city. It was probably because we had such good tour guides, but I can’t remember a recent vacation when we had such consistently mind-blowing food. These dishes were the stand-outs that I’m going to have to recreate at home until I can head down again.

Bud & Marilyn’s. This is a lively and trendy spot in center city. The really memorable dish was the salad we ordered to balance the pu pu platter: “grilled heirloom carrots with red quinoa, shaved sunchokes, orange, pickled raisins, cumin yogurt.”All of the toppings were piled on a bed of the yogurt. The carrots were nicely charred, but not overcooked. The pickled raisins added a nice tang. The whole thing was not overly sweet, and I would return just to order this (though the sage derby smash cocktail was worth repeating too).

Federal Donuts. They do two things – donuts and fried chicken – and they more than excel at both. We started with a strawberry lavender donut off the hot menu (which they fry to order). It was exactly as I want a donut to be: cakey and just a bit sweet. Then we split the chicken sandwich (which only comes one way (perfect): with buttermilk ranch seasoning, American cheese, pickle, and rooster sauce on a potato roll) and the za’atar fried chicken (which you can also get with other dry seasonings or glazes). Oh my goodness. Both were crunchy, juicy, salty, and indulgent, but not heavy (likely a bad thing, because I want to eat this every day forever). The fried chicken comes with a honey donut, which was a delightful counterpart to the chicken (like a biscuit….but better because it is a donut).

Stock. This little southeast Asian eatery is the best kind – one that has a small menu but exceeds at every dish. Will and I shared the sausage bahn mi and the chicken pho which were both excellent. The really surprising new-to-me dish that I will be trying to recreate at home was a special on the night we were there. It was a salad made from a mix of different cold fruits, including mango, plum and pineapple, topped with Thai herbs and a coconut dressing. It is what I want to eat with all the summer fruit. This recipe looks like it could be a good jumping off point, and I’ll get back to you about the coconut dressing.

La Colombe Coffee Roasters. Using some kind of automagical process La Colombe serves draft lattes, which come out of the tap as a perfectly uniform, unbelievably light, milk and coffee wonder beverage. The draft latte is an experience all its own, but as a regular drink I think I would stick with the black and tan, which is cold brew topped with the draft latte. Lucky for us all there are locations outside of Philly, including one in Boston!

The Yachtsman. I don’t frequent tiki bars, but that is something to be fixed. I usually gravitate towards more sour or floral gin based cocktails, so that is what I ordered. Don’t make my mistake. I then had a sip of their piña colada, which is first on the menu for a reason. In my very limited piña coladas experiences they have been overly sweet because they are poured out of a box into a smoothie machine or taste too strongly of cheap rum. If only I’d known what they could be! This one was the most refreshing balance of coconut with just light sweetness from the pineapple. I have a feeling my journey to make one as good as this may be long…but I will persevere.

Hungry Pigeon. I didn’t know it until this weekend, but there was a void empty of breakfast salads in my life. The breakfast salad here (pictured at top) consists of “greens, bacon, cheddar cheese, warm lentils, hashbrowns, poached egg, & toast.” Not the most normal combination, eh? The greens were just lightly dressed in what I would guess was olive oil and wine vinegar. The bacon was extremely thick cut lardons and more generous than I expected. The cheddar and lentils were tossed throughout the salad . The hashbrown square had about a 1:10 soft to crisp texture ratio (so, perfect). And then there were two hearty pieces of toast to pile all these nice bits on to and eat.

On our next trip it will be very difficult to not just return to all these places…but first on the list of new spots is Dizengoff, a hummus restaurant by Michael Solomonov (who also owns Federal Donuts). We’ll also go back to Reading Terminal Market and actually pick a few things to eat there (instead just walking around in awe). And then of course whatever new spots our excellent tour guides discover in the meantime (we’ll let you know where!).

A study of pints

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersWhen traveling it is natural to compare the place you are visiting to your home. Especially since while on vacation you have a little more leisure time to seek out the things you love to do. During our stay in Cork, Will and I did an earnest study of pubs while we were in Ireland, making sure to to get a wide sampling of the local brews. I think that every Irish student has to learn to pour a perfect pint before graduating school. Stouts you expect to be poured with a certain finesse, but no matter what beer or where we were each pint was expertly filled to the brim (and served in appropriately branded glassware).

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersBesides just pouring, the Irish have their pubs down pat. They are full of cozy nooks, friendly bartenders, empty liquor bottles used as candle holders, and just about none of the decor you would find plastered on the wall at an “Irish” pub anywhere else in the world (though there were always a few token beer signs). Often Guinness was on tap, but it’s a Dublin beer so in Cork you’re more likely to see the local stouts, Murphy’s and Beamish, on tap. Murphy’s was originally brewed on the north side of the city and Beamish on the south, so loyalties fell accordingly. Our first beer was a Guinness, but after that we stuck to the other two. To be honest all three beers are very similar. We did a side by side comparison and the main differences were Murphy’s had a slightly richer and creamier head, and Beamish was a hint more sour (and was usually the cheapest of the three).

There would always be a stout on tap, plus a few other big name lagers like Heineken (which has a production facility in Cork), Carlsberg, and Coors Light. There are a few local craft breweries as well, and they are gaining ground. We saw Franciscan Well and Rising Sons on tap pretty regularly. I was indecisive while ordering a beer so the bartender gave me a taste of a few Irish brews, and Rising Sons’ Handsum immediately became my favorite beer of the trip (though it was later dethroned). Then I looked at the beer description and laughed at my utterly predictable taste…it is an American IPA.

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersBoth breweries have their own pubs in the city that are worth visiting. Franciscan Well is a small spot with a beer garden out back three times their inside space (they also had woodfired pizza, which we didn’t get a chance to try). Rising Sons was on a busier street with a few tables out front. Their pub had a huge lofted ceiling and felt more like a sports bar (…probably because there was a rugby match on). They also had pizza, which we did try, and wasn’t especially exciting but 10 Euro for a pint and a pizza is hard to beat. We also listened to a man order an IPA and then complain about paying an exorbitant 5.30 Euro for his 20 ounces of beer. We should have probably warned him to not come to drink in the US.  Elbow Lane is a restaurant which sells their own beer. The beer was good, but the cocktails looked particularly amazing (sadly we never got back to try them…next time). It was a much more upscale place and the small plates we tried were excellent.

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersThe most interesting thing to me was that all of these places that brewed their own beer also had all of the other usual beers on tap as well. We talked to a few bartenders and brewers about the beer scene, and they said people were warming to the more intense, different styles there were brewing, but not necessarily embracing them wholeheartedly. From my observation there was interest in the new little guys, but a long-seated devotion to the big beers. The US has such a saturated brewing scene that a small brewery will often only pour their own beers and focus on very specific styles. There is enough business to go around that no one has to try to please everyone (and the ones who do often make an inferior product).

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersThere was one beer habit in Ireland I can’t even begin to try to explain…ordering Coors or Bud Light and pouring it over ice. Not a good showing of American beer.

Part of the hold-back in adopting more American or Belgian style brewing could be the quantity beer is served in. The imperial pint is 20 ounces, and most stouts hover around 4% ABV. Imperial IPAs, Belgian triples, strong ales, and many other styles are often double that or higher. Making higher alcohol beers and adding extra ingredients adds to the cost, so such beers are often higher prices and smaller quantities. Plus Ireland has incredibly strict drunk driving laws and you are considered impaired after a single beer. In A Pint of Plain Barich guessed that this had a lot to do with the downfall of the true Irish pub, which was often isolated by farmland.

A study of pints - Vegetal MattersWhile in the end the styles of beer were not enough to make me want to relocate, the charm of the pubs could make me reconsider. They were often brightly colored, had fun names (Hi-B, The Huntsman), very often fireplaces, and even sometimes bar dogs. Stouts were a nice change of pace, with the added joy of dating a man with a full beard is that gets a mustache full of head upon every first sip. Observing the dynamic of regulars in a pub is  more than enough entertainment for a pint (or two).

Brattleboro, Vermont

Brattleboro, Vermont - Vegetal MattersSince I moved back from Seattle I’ve been more deeply exploring my native New England. One town that has incurred many repeat visits is delightful Brattleboro, Vermont. It’s in the southeast corner of the state touching New Hampshire (just a short walk across the Connecticut River away) and has everything I’m looking for in a town: breweries (3), bookstores (5), the greatest grocery store of all time, great restaurants, hiking, a river and mountains, and plenty of Vermont charm. I think everyone should visit Brattleboro and so does Will, so we elaborated on all the reasons you should visit (in case you’re not already convinced).

Bookstores

At last check, Brattleboro has five bookstores (though only four of them are downtown). We’ve been to Everyone’s Books, Mystery on Main Street, Basket’s Books, and Brattleboro Books. Everyone’s Books is a new bookstore with a large variety. Their focus is on social justice and the environment, but there are large fiction, history, cooking, etc. sections to please everyone. Mystery on Main Street focuses on the genre you would guess and is also new books. I rarely read mysteries so I can’t be the authority on their selection, but admire their specialty as they seem do it well. Basket’s Books is all used paperbacks. They seem to specialize in books with the most faded covers. The selection may not be new, but the books are really cheap and if you’re looking for something specific, this may be the place to find it. The owners are super nice and helpful, so ask. Brattleboro Books is my favorite. It’s the kind of used store that you just want to lose yourself in, and then come round with 10 lbs of books in your arms. There is a good mix of older and contemporary books and large sections (lots of cookbooks!). For the true bibliophile, Brattleboro also has an annual literary festival in October. -VB

Brattleboro, Vermont - Vegetal Matters

Brattleboro Food Co-Op

This is the best grocery store I have ever been to. I can say this with some authority, because I love grocery stores, and often stop in them when I visit new places regardless of my grocery needs. Getting the basics out of the way: it is large, clean, has friendly staff, lots of specialty sections (cheese! beer! wine! coffee! deli! cafe!), a nice patio, and cooking classes. The real kicker, is the absolutely massive bulk section.

Brattleboro, Vermont - Vegetal Matters

A small diversion on why bulk foods are the greatest: they are cheaper, and don’t come with packaging (part of why they are cheaper), and you can buy however much you want. Grocery stores can buy huge portions of goods that people don’t normally have access to (some people do buy them from coops, which really is the cheapest option, but then you have to commit to the quantity and storage). Then once they have that 50 lb bag of flour or pasta, they can sell you a portion of that for a small markup, which is low because it is a commodity good and all they did was put it in a bin with a scoop. Then you can bring your own containers (which you should, because less packaging and a $.05 discount per container) and buy exactly what you need. Only need ½ a cup of nuts for a specific recipe, and likely won’t use them again for months? Well then only buy that ½ a cup, and when that next nut need comes around many moons later, buy some fresh new nuts. Never had that kind of grain or bean before? Well just try a little bit to see if you like it. Or need a ton of something? Buy it for a likely cheaper unit weight.

So anyways, the bulk section. This bulk has the most variety I have ever seen. Spices, coffee, grains, beans, flour, baking needs, liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, tofu, soap and shampoo, kombucha. Way more items than I can name, so you can drool over the full list here. They do have bags and plastic containers you can use if you don’t bring your own, but they charge for the containers, and you get a small discount if you bring your own. It is best to weigh them all beforehand and mark the tare weight on the container (which you can do because you have a scale, right?), and black out the barcode on any containers you might be reusing from other products (tape or a permanent market work well).  -VB

Grafton Village Cheese

This spot is a little outside the town center, but still worth a visit. I don’t think much needs to be said besides great cheese, lots of other Vermont food, and ALL the samples. -VB

Brattleboro, Vermont - Vegetal Matters

Mt Watastiquet

This is on the east bank of the river so technically this is in New Hampshire.  It takes about an hour to get to the top and the ascent itself isn’t that interesting, but the view from the top is spectacular.  You can see the whole town laid out before you, the beginning of the Pioneer Valley, and the southern Green Mountains. -WF

McNeill’s

Picture a dive bar that brews its own beer.  They have 20 or so varieties on tap at any time.  The IPAs are not very good and the beer is pushing warm, but the atmosphere is……..unique (so you should probably still try it).  Technically, they have food, but the only cooking apparatus we could spot was a microwave so its probably best to skip this part. -WF

Whetstone Station

Where can you sit on a rooftop deck with its own bar overlooking the Connecticut River and listen to live music while drinking delicious beers brewed on site?  Here, here is where you can do that. The food is better than you would expect, and definitely get something that comes with fries. The beers they brew are pretty good, and they always have a bunch of great stuff on tap from other breweries.  -WF+VB

Hermit Thrush Brewery

Brand new brewery specializing in Belgian and sour beers.  I’ll readily admit that sours are not my thing, but the Sour IPA is delicious.  The tap room is a nice place to try some samples (no full pours), lots of wood and exposed brick.  It’s in the first floor of an old warehouse downtown so it has some historic authenticity that you can’t fake. -WF (For other non-Vermonters like myself, the hermit thrush is the Vermont state bird. -VB)

Brattleboro, Vermont - Vegetal Matters

General cuteness

Brattleboro is a small town with old buildings full of charming shops and restaurants, on a river, surrounded by the greenest Vermont and New Hampshire mountains. General cuteness level: 9 (out of 10). -VB

Mocha Joe’s

Good little local coffee roaster.  You can pick up a bag of beans at the co-op or any other grocery store in town.  The coffee shop on main street also has a selection of beans that you can bag yourself.  The baked goods are pretty tasty and you can get cappuccinos in a mug (sign of a decent coffee shop).  I’m not sure the barista’s totally know what they’re doing, but they coffee is good enough that it doesn’t really matter.  Mocha Joe’s has a neat vibe, located in a basement with two rooms, one for ordering and a sitting area that has a rotating art installation.  If you want to get a feel for Brattleboro and can only stop at one place, Mocha Joe’s will do nicely. -WF

Putney Food Co-Op Sandwich

Best. Club sandwich. Ever.  Seriously, there’s no gimmick to this thing.  It’s just turkey, bacon, cheese (maybe?), lettuce, tomato, and mayo.  I know it sounds boring, but the ingredients are of such quality and the sandwich of such a size that the combination is simply staggering.  It’s not actually in Brattleboro, but its a short hop up 91 to Putney (5ish miles) or you can take Route 5 (more scenic). -WF

VT Country Deli

For a not quite as good, but actually in Brattleboro sandwich experience, you should hit up the Vermont Country Deli.  This place is BUSY.  I wouldn’t come here expecting to get in and out in 5 minutes, but the service isn’t slow.  There are a ton of prepared options besides sandwiches and a nice selection of local products.  The sandwiches are huge.  Perfect for refueling after a hike. -WF

Hazel

Pizza, BBQ, and cocktails.  I’ll admit to having some skepticism about this place when I discovered it.  That’s a lot of things for a small restaurant in a small town to take on and do well.  Upon arriving, we discovered they also have a nice craft beer list, nachos, and Cuban sandwiches.  After eating a solid pizza, there was sadly no room to try the BBQ or cocktails.  They also have chalk diagrams on all the walls which I guess is Hazel’s chosen quirk.  Hazel is a good place for a quiet, affordable meal that will have something to please anyone. -WF

Local shops

Outdoor gear, local crafts and art, Vermont things, music, clothing. My disposable income goes to restaurants, beer, and books so I haven’t ventured far into the rest of the shop scene, but it is certainly there if you’re looking for some hand-thrown pottery or a tank top with cats and lasers. -VB