During this month of Escapes we asked some food blogger friends to share their food experiences and home cooking inspiration from faraway places. Here's an entertaining story from Greg of SippitySup about his first visit to Panama... to teach a cooking class!
Blogs are an interesting vehicle. They allow you to travel without leaving your computer, but did you know they could be vehicles to actual world travel?
Somehow my little blog caught the eyes of a group of ex-pats living in Panama. They're known as Boquete Gourmet and they invited me to come to Boquete, Panama and lead them in a cooking demonstration. They typically ask chefs and restaurant owners a bit closer to their home, so I was honored to be the first blogger they hosted.
I live in Hollywood, so I decided to present 6 recipes from 6 classic restaurants of Old Hollywood. The evening was to be called Lost Recipes from the Legendary Haunts of Old Hollywood.
Panama City is a 5 1/2 hour flight from LA. We took the red-eye, so I slept on the plane and it seemed like we arrived lickety-split. Who slipped that Ambien into my cocktail?
The Panama airport is big and modern and easy to navigate. We got our rental car and before you knew it – we were on the road. It's a good thing we got an early start because our destination was still a full 8 hours away by car. We were off to Boquete, and it's way up (over?) at the Costa Rican border.
Well, after much driving and a little sightseeing we finally arrived at our destination. The drive was long, but quite pleasant as the Panamanian Highway is modern and well maintained. We had no problems at all. Heck, we did not even get lost. But we were tired, so it was pretty much straight to bed for us as soon as we arrived at our host's house.
The next day we awoke to the sounds of the rainforest. We were not prepared for the beauty of Boquete. I cleared my sleepy eyes and stepped out onto the balcony, and then just like Dorothy in Oz, I gasped at the sights laid out before me – a beautiful valley and a soaring volcano. You could see coffee plantations dotting the hillsides. It was warm and fragrant with just enough mist to see rainbows. I swear, rainbows!
In the days leading up to the cooking adventure. We hiked, we sat on the balcony watching the colorful birds and we ate in local restaurants. We enjoyed the town of Boquete and we went for a dip in volcanic hot springs followed by a swim in the (cold, cold) river! One of my traveling companions even rode a water buffalo... don't ask. It was on his "bucket list"!
But of course the main purpose of the trip was cooking. Cooking for a delightful group of ex-pats who have figured out that they can live in Eden and still eat like royalty. I was there to help them follow that path.
My friend Liz, who is a terrific cook, came along for the adventure and she and I got everything ready for the class. As the guests started arriving we passed around the first item we had prepared for the evening. Of course it was a cocktail, the Signature Cocktail from the Cocoanut Grove. We had to shake up quite a few of these pink libations because the event was a sell-out! Yes, people paid actual money... don't look so shocked. I can still pack a house when I need to!
I have to admit I was surprised how serious the class was too. People were taking notes... people were listening intently. People were assuming I had the answers to their questions. I sorta liked it.
Despite the seriousness of the students, I had another kind of cooking class in mind. I wanted this class to have a party atmosphere. Because let's face it, the recipes I chose to demonstrate were all very easy, there wasn't much "teaching" involved. I chose them for their history and their significance to the evolution of the "Hollywood Hot Spot".
The first plate up was Rumaki. I shared an entertaining story about its history and attachment to famed Hollywood restaurant Don The Beachcomber, which you can read here.
Well if you don't know it, Rumaki is chicken liver. Bacon wrapped chicken liver! I half expected to hear a few groans or twitters of fear. People can be so funny about food. But, nope! Not this group. After all, they are a group of (mostly) Americans with enough sense of adventure, enough heart and enough chutzpah to move to another country and party like it's 1999. No Nervous Nellies here. Let's just say I was pleased to be surrounded by a group of eaters, whose mantra was: "One or two Rumaki ain't gonna kill ya, so let's just have a third!" That's my kind of party...
Next up was Plantains with Caviar and Black Beans from Trumps. This is a wonderful little recipe and I thought the plantains were a nice way to use a common local ingredient in a sophisticated way. As I learned fried plantains are called patacones in Panama. They are serious about the moniker so don't make the mistake of calling them plantains until you get home!
I set my patacones up as a "help yourself" station all laid-out with several nice toppings including a spicy bean puree and some beautiful black and red caviar.
What's a discussion of iconic Hollywood restaurants with out including a nod to the old Spago. I chose a Ginger & Lime Barbecued Shrimp dish to represent the flavors and tastes that seemed so new when Spago was young.
It's hard to imagine, but the idea of fusion food ingrained in our eating habits now, was once a bold new concept. Wolfgang Puck was certainly one of those chefs working hard to bring these notions to Los Angeles diners.
I decided to do an Original Cobb Salad as the main course. It's a hearty salad filled with chicken, avocado, bacon and egg. More than enough for a meal. Again I shared a bit of its history. It is "original" to the famed restaurant The Brown Derby and all the details of its arrival on the Hollywood scene may be read here:
At this point, I had the feeling things were going well. Our hosts moved us all downstairs to the pool house with tables for us all! There was also a small kitchen attached to the bar. Everything I needed to assemble my salad and tell its torrid tale.
The party atmosphere I had hoped for was in full swing now. In fact my students who had once been hanging on my every word now had lots of words of their own, usually punctuated by loud laughter. In my mind that's the sound of dinner party success! So I made the salad and pulled up a plate– seating myself down at one of the tables where I finally got to chat one-on-one with the people at my table. Of course they were an interesting group. Look at the life they lead. I enjoyed my meal and the conversation.
By now my part of the demonstration was over, Liz was up! She made a Chocolate Soufflé whose recipe came from the classic Hollywood restaurant Romanoff's. Now Liz is a pro at this and she did not disappoint, because this is the first soufflé I have ever seen to rise to the point of almost too high for the pan! It's those super fresh Panamanian eggs. Such a treat to cook with!
Of course none of these treats would have been possible with out the generousity of our hosts at Boquete Gourmet. When they first suggested that I do this I was a little verklempt. But not for long because I knew this had foodie adventure written all over it. So while they "were talking amongst themselves", I pulled myself together and accepted the invitation! I am so glad I did too. Because, in this great big internet foodie world, it's good to know I've got good people at my back everywhere I turn. Even in Panama...
(Images: Greg of SippitySup)