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June 24, 2013

The Food at Riu Palace Las Americas

What do you do when you are on a Caribbean vacation and it rains and it pours and it floods? Well you eat and drink of course! And in no better place than the Riu Palace Las Americas all-inclusive resort in Cancun Mexico. Great food and great friends saved the vacation.

It was impressive how they fed so many people so well. It helped too that the drinks were included in our all-inclusive stay. And they made some really special drinks. I should also mention how wonderful the staff was, there to wait on you anytime you needed anything. They even greeted us at the door upon our arrival and took our drink order. I think they could tell we needed to be pampered. A normally 20 minute ride from the airport took us three hours. The roads were flooded; cars abandoned and even a bus wreck. We truly felt like we were on a three hour tour. But once we settled in, accepted that the rain may be here for a while we relaxed and met up with our group of 13 (maybe we should have had 14 in our group) to enjoy our first meal in over 12 hours.

Food is a universal language, creating bonds between people from all walks of life. Just about anywhere you go you can always find people enjoying good food. From one culture to the next, the preparation or presentation of food may differ but the ingredients are usually the same. The cooking style may vary or the spices may be different but you know good food when you see, smell and taste it. At the Riu the food was amazing. From the presentation, to the flavors and the variety we were continuously impressed.

After checking in we were ready to eat. We were directed to the buffet and as we walked in we immediately knew we were in the right place. There were so many choices and so much food. I just walked around with eyes opened wide and belly growling. Then I spotted the shrimp and that was where I headed. I enjoyed several shrimp dishes that were one delight after another. One of my favorites was about a 20 count/pound shrimp, grilled with the shell on. I admit they are a little more difficult to eat but the shell and the flame enhances the flavor tremendously.

I had a big plate of those and a plate of boil and peel shrimp, about the same size. They tasted fresh and the texture was perfect; reminding me how very important it is not to overcook shrimp. Overcooked shrimp becomes mushy and flavorless. Not these, they were just right.

Ah and the salad bar.

It had all my favorites; feta, fresh mozzarella, and a wonderful blue cheese. The smoked salmon was delicious, complete with capers, olives, cream cheese and toast points.
Did I mention the fresh vegetables, marinated mushrooms and seafood salad? The seafood salad wasn’t overpowered by the mayonnaise and it had just the right amount of celery and onion allowing the shrimp and crab flavors to stand out. Well that was enough on my plate for now. I don’t want to totally overdo on the first night.

But I do need a glass of wine and whoola, like magic in my glass, a wonderful Chardonnay to go with the shrimp.
As I looked around I saw that the signs of a stressful day had left the faces of my friends, being replaced by smiles and sounds of laughter. The vacation was finally underway.

Thank goodness the hotel was so nice and the food was so good because we awoke Sunday to a dreary, drab morning. More rain. But never fear breakfast is here. And it was amazing. They had everything that you could possibly think of. Some of the chefs were making omelets, others were making pancakes and waffles. There were several meats including sausage, bacon and ham.
On the “salad bar” I once again saw some of my favorite cheeses, salami, and other cured meats.

Hold on! What did I just spot on that lady’s plate? Why I believe it was a magnificent array of fruit. Where did she find that? Ah over there, a fruit bar complete with watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries, peaches, papaya and mango. The mango tasted like it just came off the tree. I’m sure it did. There was even a selection of fruit smoothies to choose from. Carol and I liked to mix the banana with the berries. Honestly I’m not one to eat a big breakfast but my plate just kept piling up; fresh baked breads and pastries, now really!

Every day was a unique culinary experience. If you didn’t feel like eating at the buffet you could make reservations at one of the specialty restaurants. Tonight we’re going for Italian. You won’t believe the spread. We began with a selection of smoked salmon, shrimp, mussels, and vegetable appetizers.

There were several salads to choose from
and a wheel of Parmesan Reggiano
for serving yourself. Then we had to choose our entrée and it wasn’t an easy decision with so many wonderful choices. The presentation of each was masterfully created and the aroma from the kitchen added to my confusion. But finally I decided on the sea bass and it was a great choice. The fish was flaky, mild and delicious.

It was lightly breaded, pan seared and finished with a red pepper cream sauce. I ate very bite. In fact I came back later in the week and ordered it again. The wine selection was limited. We had the choice of one Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Sauvignon Blanc. But hey, I’ve always said that I like whatever is in my glass. The Chardonnay was once again a good choice. Ha Ha, even the Merlot was good. After dinner everyone started bringing these beautifully prepared desserts to the table. A dessert bar, no doubt.

I believe I am getting drunk on food! Even though I don’t usually have dessert, it was after all included in our all-inclusive package. The cutest little tiramisu caught my eye and just like everything else, it was wonderful. To complete a great evening we decided to go for a little entertainment. Every night the hotel presented a theme show and this one was one of my favorites. The Caribbean dancers were on at 9:00 p.m. This was a splendid ending to a very nice day despite the rain.

Monday came and went with more rain and more great food. I had a light breakfast- don’t believe it- who said we had to save room for lunch. Even though it was pouring they began setting things up for lunch on the covered (thank goodness) patio. I smelled a little grilling going on; boy do I have a great nose. Today they were grilling burgers, hot dogs, pork ribs and chicken. The chicken was tender and finished with a tangy barbeque sauce, just the way I like it. I couldn’t break tradition though. I had to have a side of shrimp, just peel and eat with a little cocktail sauce. The cocktail sauce had just enough heat to leave the flavors intact. Is it too early to have a glass of wine? After all it is raining on our picnic. I tried the Sauvignon Blanc this time and it was pretty good for a girl who loves her Cabs. Now what were we going to do with the rest of the day. Some of our group thought the hot tub might be a good idea especially with those cute little drinks, "Miami Vice" that Carol turned everyone onto; too sweet for me though, but they were lovely.

Time flies when you’re on vacation. We realized we had talked and drank the afternoon away. We have reservations at 6:30 for the Mexican restaurant so off we go to get ready.

If you didn’t know better you would have thought you were back at home in just about any Mexican restaurant. I could tell that Mac, Dennis and Dallas felt it too. We settled in and ordered up and naturally the tequila slammers were flowing.

If you can tolerate tequila shots you should try a slammer. Generally it has tequila topped off with a carbonated lemon soda. The server covers it and 1-2-3 slams in on the table before handing it to the drinker who must down it all at once. Then everyone yells “tequila”. The guys took their shots while Barbara, Brenda and I just looked on in sheer appreciation. Actually Dennis and I saw this tequila practice the first time we were in Cancun over 20 years ago. Apparently some traditions never die. Tomorrow night is at the steak house. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with. The meals were so good and presented with such creativity.

I couldn’t believe it when I woke up and it was still raining. I just crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. What in the world would we do today? I guess we would eat, drink and talk. A group of us decided to go walking. We started on the 7th floor and worked our way down to the bottom. On the way we collected our little towel animals that the housekeepers were leaving in our room. They needed a party almost as bad as we did. So we set the stage. Amazing what you can find to do inside a luxury hotel.

I skipped breakfast and opted for an early lunch. I made a big plate of nachos. They had the best guacamole. It was creamy with small chunks of avocado, seasoned with lime and cilantro. The pico de gallo was fresh and spicy. Pico de gallo is Spanish for rooster beak getting its name from the way it was once eaten with the thumb and finger, an action that resembles a rooster’s pecking beak. Now it is eaten with chips- much better flavor than your fingers. To my nachos I added black beans, pinto beans, cheese, and shredded pork all topped with lots of guacamole and sour cream. Tomorrow I may make one with chicken and grilled vegetables. It was fun to create your own with all the choices the provided. I think a big bowl of fresh fruit and a dollop of ice cream will top me off until dinner.

I decided to spend some time talking to a few of the chefs. It was amazing to watch them at the pasta bar, the grill or the sauté station. One chef, Antonio told me that he has worked at the hotel for 6 years. He is working his way up the ladder, one day hoping to be one of the executive chefs. Today he was craving prime rib and pork roast. He said his passion is preparing food and watching people enjoy it. He introduced me to Miguel, the pasta chef who was serving up a big plate of shrimp with Alfredo sauce. All of the sauces are made in house with fresh ingredients. The marinara was rich with ripe tomatoes and highly seasoned with garlic, onions, and oregano. You could choose any meat or vegetable to go with it and I noticed that most people were using some of the sausage from the grill; another create your own concept. As I walked around I saw another chef sautéing a pan of diced onions. He added a little garlic, deglazed with red wine and added a cup of beef stock. He looked up and saw me watching him, tasted the sauce and said it was missing something. Then he turned around and took some of Miguel’s Alfredo sauce, added that and tossed in a fairly large amount of black pepper and beef tips. I took a plate and helped myself to a big spoonful which I put over linguine. It was amazing and I feel pretty certain that I can recreate the recipe when I get home.

I know you will find this hard to believe but it was still raining and time to get ready for a 6:30 seating at the steak house, another specialty restaurant inside the hotel. Tonight I ordered lobster and steak, amazing.

We noticed one of the waiters making what looked to be Mayan coffee. We absolutely loved this the first time we came to Cancun. When he came over to our table we realized he wasn’t making coffee as we thought but a topping for the dessert. But the concept was the same. The sauce was Brandy and Vodka that was ignited and poured from one container to another while flaming. It was quite a show. Then he poured the sauce over Baked Alaska. How cool was that. Again we realized that each restaurant had their own special entertainment. It was really fun.

But that night we had even more entertainment and I sang along to every word. Those who know me will understand because tonight’s show was Grease.

Thursday morning it was pouring buckets. In fact the hotel had buckets all around catching the drips. I counted 27 buckets on my morning walk. But low and behold, around 10 a.m. it quit raining and the sun was trying to shine through the clouds. A group went on a morning dive but I heard it was really rough out there. It was the first day that the port was open and there were several boats going out. I decided to try the afternoon dive. The visibility was pretty poor and I think the fish had all been washed out to deeper seas. Oh well, all is not lost because as soon as I got cleaned up, showered, and dressed it was time for our farewell dinner.

All the ladies dressed up and the guys made our pictures by the pool. A group of 8 of us then went to the 8:30 seating at the fusion restaurant. Fusion cuisine combines different styles of cooking that have often been inspired by Asian, Italian and French cuisines. When we were seated we were given a glass of Sparkling wine and right away we understood that the tone of the evening was more formal that the buffet. I guess we’ll be on our best behavior. I tried a little of everything, beginning with steak tartar and fresh salad greens wrapped up egg roll style.

The smoked salmon was presented topped with caviar. The meal was delicious and once again I found myself totally out of character. I ordered the apple crisp for dessert. The apples were inside a flaky crust that was dusted with sugar. They used tart apples cooked just right, not mushy but with a little bite.

The tart had a big scoops of homemade ice cream on the side. I was totally stuffed. After dinner we all said good night and went to our rooms to pack. Actually I think we all went to our rooms to sleep off all the food.

While we were disappointed on many levels about the rain we still enjoyed ourselves. We spent time talking with friends, sharing great meals and creating memories that will always be with us. Thanks to everyone for your great attitudes, sharing your stories and helping to keep us all afloat during this very wet but delicious vacation.

Posted by terri at 02:38 AM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2013

Penny's Onion Tart

Penny provided me with a fool-proof recipe for pizza dough. She topped it with caramelized onions, blue cheese and olives.

3 and 1/2 cups of I bleached bread flour
2 tsp granulated sugar or honey
1 and 1/2 tsp table salt (or 2 and 1/2 tsp kosher salt)
1 and 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 and 1/2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all thus in a medium bowl
Add 11 oz cool water
Mix until everything is combines and the dough forms a ball. Turn it out on a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for 2-3 minutes. You may need to add a little flour or even a few drops of water to get a nice supple ball of dough. Then place it in a bowl which has been coated with another tablespoon or so of olive oil. The bowl should be large enough that the dough can double in size. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator. I usually make it the night before and let it rise 12-24 hours in the fridge. This seems to make the best dough. Or you can make it in the morning and let it rise (covered) on the counter. It will be ready 3-7 hours later.
Then divide the dough into 2 equal portions and roll out the dough into 2 pizza crusts. You can let it rise again for about an hour for a fluffier crust, but I usually go ahead and make the pizzas right away. They will rise some in the oven. Several tricks for a crispy crust.
Use a pizza screen
A nice hot oven (450 to500)
Not too much sauce or other sources of moisture (dry roasted pepper, olives, etc on a paper towel)
If you really want it crispy brush a little olive oil on the crust and partially bake it before topping it and doing the final
It only takes 7-10 minutes to bake.

Now you know everything I know about pizza crust. :-)

For the onion tart:
Finely chop 2 pounds if onions
Prepare sheen bouquet containing 4 sprigs of parsley, 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 1/2 bay leaf)
Add 1/2 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper to the onions
Cook the onions with the herb bouquet in 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet on low heat for about an hour.
The onions will be reduced and caramelized.
Remove the herb bouquet.
Prepare one if the pizza crusts (you may be able to make 2 depending on how much onion you end up with and how thick you want the filling)
Brush the pizza crust with olive oil and spread the onion mixture over it
Chop up 16 kalamata olives ( you can leave some whole or halved for decoration)
Crumble up 1/8 to 1/4 cp blue cheese (such as Gorgonzola mountain)
Distribute the cheese and olives over the onions.
Cook at 450-500 degrees on a pizza tray or screen for about 9-12 minutes.

Posted by terri at 03:16 AM | Comments (0)