New Year, New Menu at Cuba Libre

I love classics but am always intrigued when a creative mind can pull off a twist that is at once convincing and fresh. That's what executive chef Matt Zagorski accomplished with his updated menu at Cuba Libre restaurant in Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to savor his creations right before President Obama announced the beginning of normalizing diplomatic relations with the island Communist nation of Cuba and the holidays and the New Year. Chef Z and the Cuba Libre staff spoiled us with six courses--a sampling of soups, appetizers such as croquetas, three meat entrees, and a trio of desserts. Unlike true food critics, I did not sample a couple of mouthfuls per course. Instead, this self-professed Girl Who Can Eat gorged on each dish which means I couldn't enjoy the dessert, including a classic flan and tres leches. Truly my loss.

Check out these fun pics of Chef Z's updated Cuba Libre menu snapped with my iPhone 5s and run through my fave app--Instagram!

Don't forget to share any good food and/or travel stories by leaving a comment here and sharing with your network using the easy peasy social buttons below.

xo ~ Viviana

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Something To Do: Sushi School at Masa 14

Bored of the same boozy brunch each week? Is the thermostat not your friend because it's getting too butt cold or sweltering hot to be outdoors?

Couples, how about adding some pizazz into your marriage routine that's not the run of the mill "dinner and a movie"?

Singles, how about a cool first date?

These are just some of the options I think of with Masa 14's Sushi School. Offered the first Sunday evening of each month, award-winning chef Kaz Okochi is our sushi sherpa during his master class, expertly (and in my case patiently) guiding his students as we make our own rolls. For $15 for two sushi rolls, it's only a wee bit more than what you would pay at Whole Foods. But at Masa, you can enjoy a two-hour experience and show off your "ol' flick-of-the-wrist" rolling and knife slicing skills that will impress your date (unless you're me and your sushi turns into a blob).

Check out these fun pics of the Masa's Sushi School with Chef Kaz snapped with my iPhone 5s and run through my fave app--Instagram!

Don't forget to share any good food and/or travel stories by leaving a comment here and sharing with your network using the easy peasy social buttons below.

xo ~ Viviana

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Día de los Muertos Menú at Oyamel Restaurant

Raised in California, lived in Mexico City in 1999-2000, and then on the U.S. Mexico border in Texas turned my palate into a discriminating connoisseur of authentic Mexican food. However, I am not the only person in Washington, D.C. to look down my nose primed by snobby taste buds at this town's Mexican fare. The notable exception is Oyamel Restaurant.

Hmmmm, I remember exclaiming the first time I dined at this eatery in celebrity chef José Andrés' culinary constellation. No doubt the spices and combinations I tasted in Mexico swirled in my mouth. But that's the point. Once, experiencing the sophistication of Mexican cuisine required a trip south of the border--nowhere within the city limits of the nation's capital.

Oyamel is among the first to change this. Indeed, this restaurant shines during the annual Day of the Dead Festival which runs through November 2. The fabled Día de los muertos tradition dates back to pre-Columbian times and today draws hundreds of thousands who descend upon cemeteries throughout Mexico, including the famous city of Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán where I first observed this tradition. Mixing indigenous and Catholic traditions and celebrated November 2nd, it's an opportunity for people to pay homage to their dearly departed. Alters are decorated with symbols that evoke a loved one's memory, personality trait, or habit, not just in Mexico but wherever Mexicans have immigrated.

Oyamel is organizing this year's Día de los muertos festival around the legendary lucha libre wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, aka El Santo. Chatting to the chef, I learned of the exhaustive research that went into tracking down Guzmán's family members. What were his favorite dishes? Finding the answers to these questions gave birth to an inspired menu that includes Huatape de hongos or sautéed mushrooms served over herbed masa and Puerco en chile morita or roasted local baby pig in a chile salsa. Other so-called delicacies include ancas de rana or frog legs in a sweet and savory mole sauce.

Hold the metaphorical phones!

Not for your humble Girl Who Can Eat.

She only consumes mainstream animal parts.

But I digress.

Enjoy these pics of some of Oyamel's Día de los Muertos Festival limited engagement dishes and drinks. I snapped the photos with my iPhone 5s (no 6 or 6 Plus for me as I just got mine after my flip phone went up in smoke at the end of June) and run through my fave app--Instagram!

Don't forget to share any good food and/or travel stories by leaving a comment here and sharing with your network using the easy peasy social buttons below.

xo ~ Viviana

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Zaytinya Grape Festival: Spoonful of Good Food & Politics

At the preview of the Grape Festival this year held in the last two weeks of September, I had the opportunity to speak with executive chef Michael Costa. Rather than a fancy, schmancy food critic, I'm just a political and news junkie with a big appetite. That's why I treasured my few minutes with this pro. To keep his culinary skills sharp, he frequently travels to the eastern Mediterranean. It is no surprise that at the end of this summer, he travelled to Turkey near the border with Syria to cook for one month. But given the recent conflict in the region and the current U.S. and allies military escalation, Chef Costa perfecting his braising technique and mouth-watering marinades piqued the attention of the customs agents at Dulles airport. They detained him for a while, peppering him with questions. After likely hearing the chef wax on about secret aromatic spices, fresh lamb, strained thick yogurt, and plump, sweet raisins, the officers let him go home. I thought I was "off the clock" and would exclusively savor delectable bites. I did, with a healthy dollop of politics.

It was also nice to return to Zaytinya. One of celebrity chef José Andrés' restaurants, it is both a pioneer and anchor of today's emerging Washington, D.C.--a city that has become a destination, our nation's capital on par in culture, arts, restaurants, and nightlife with any world metropolis. I was a regular when I first arrived in D.C. eight years ago. But over the years, Zaytinya has been bumped from my top go-to spots list, displaced by some of the upstart hot spots. The competition is stiff and concentrates in the white hot 14th Street and H Street corridors, the Bloomingdale neighborhood, or the Navy Yards area by the Nationals Ballpark.

Enjoy these pics of some of the samplings of the Grape Festival where this fruit inspires limited engagement dishes and drinks. I snapped the photos with my iPhone (5s in case anyone is wondering since my flip phone went up in smoke at the end of June. No iPhone 6 or 6 Plus for me) and run through my fave app--Instagram!

Don't forget to share any good food and/or travel stories--customs agents or not--by leaving a comment here and sharing using the easy peasy social buttons below.

xo ~ Viviana

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Not in Paris but D.C.: My Night at Dîner en Blanc

Shrouded in mystery, you hear that a cool, secretive dining experience will pop up and a few hours later, break down. Few details are online--the dress code in white (which although after Labor Day was perfect because of the warm Washington, D.C. September) and the accoutrements for guests to bring such as a table and chairs for two, plus an elegant picnic. The location is revealed to the exclusive guest list only one hour before the event. Then Voilà! Dîner en Blanc, one of the original pop-up restaurants hatched more than a 25 years ago in Paris, came for the first time to the nation's Capital. The up and coming Navy Yards neighborhoods hosted us, at the Yards Park overlooking the Anacostia River. I arrived at #DEBDC14, luckily with nothing more than my picnic--lucky because I can't imagine hauling a table, chair, plus my eats--then setting it up, then clearing it to lug it back and unpack at home. But more than 1,500 people did, clad in white, some with elaborately decorated tables with silverware, china, and crystal. Jazz musicians strummed on guitars and caressed keyboards. The pièce de resistance in the form of the magical lighting of the sparkers was followed by the thump Thump THUMP of a DJ spinning a mix of techno, electronica, and Top 40 hit music.

Some guests confided in me that this was a Dîner en Désastre--given the logistical nightmare of having to haul like a pack mule on the metro during the jammed rush hour. One metro conductor, exasperated at the jammed doors and angry metro riders trying to get home, bellowed on the overhead:

You guys should have rented a truck!

Adding to the logistical nightmare was the metro escalators at the Navy Yards station which stopped working, leaving guests in white to climb to the top with tables, chairs, and picnic in tow.

Another person said the whole veiled-in-secrecy-until-the-last-minute meant she had to bring everything to work!

Point well taken. Perhaps this works in gay Paris but in schedule-focused D.C., people need to plan in advance. Someone even suggested Saturday which I don't think would work because the Yards Park is public. How are the organizers going to shoo parents, children, and love birds away to set up an enchanted evening?

Still, when we lit our sparklers, something in my heart burst. Along the water, all of us united for a minute in a color that symbolizes all the colors of the spectrum combined, I felt transported somewhere new, fresh, and different--thousands of miles away from the gridlocked and cynical politics of Washington.

But I was in D.C. and I love knowing that my city has transformed into a cool destination.

I didn't have to be gay Paris.

Not 17th Street (!), I was in gay D.C.

Check out my pics run through my favorite app Instagram that capture some of the allure of Dîner en Blanc which is scheduled to come back in 2015.

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When was the last time you went into something totally blind?

Were you disappointed or deliciously surprised?

Don't be shy. Share here in comments, by sharing using the social buttons below, or by connecting with me on social media.

xo ~ Viviana

My New $100/lb Diet I Discovered at Dean and Deluca's #SipAndSavor

I remember being a grad student at Yale and frequenting New York City where a visit to the Dean and Deluca SoHo store was a requirement. Back then, I was on the pasta grad school budget. Fast forward to my life as a career woman, I can still afford little more than a cafecito. Still, it was a treat to indulge in luxury and fantasy at Dean and Deluca's #SipAndSavor event. Hosted by the Georgetown store in Washington, D.C. and Gilt City, guests toting baskets savored tapas at different stations and in the Wine Hall sipped on the preferred drink of Bacchus. Dean and Deluca has a hard sell because, unlike the 90s when I would ogle the goods at the SoHo, more options exist where I can purchase fine foods. I split the difference between the nearby 14th Street Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Even the new Giant and Safeway stores carry artisanal items imported from around the world or handcrafted and locally sourced by local specialists. Today I can afford more than mac and cheese. But I choose not to pay between $15 and $20 for an individual slice of pasta unless it has flecks of gold. And then I'll channel my inner Melquíades from One Hundred Years of Solitude and engage in alchemy to separate the gold flecks from the marinara sauce before making a trip to my bank's safety deposit box.

However, Dean and Deluca's competitive edge is in the fine foods your palate becomes addicted to that can't or are very difficult to find anywhere else. One such delicacy is the pata negra chacuterie. I've lived in Spain and remember savoring jamón ibérico which is ubiquitous on the Iberian Peninsula, hanging inches above your head at corner tapas bars. The pata negra is so sumptuous, it makes the famed jamón ibérico taste like the canned Dak ham always present at the Casa Hurtado from my childhood. Donovan shaved a tiny piece of the pata negra which caressed my tongue like earthy, musky butter. At $100+ a pound, this is a rare treat that I would indulge in for a special occasion. But make no mistake, I'm hooked and now await the perfect moment to infuse my reality with a little bit of this porcine fantasy, although in small quantities to conserve my girly figure and my personal wealth. You may remember that scene in Sex in the City where Carrie realizes her shoe closet full of Manolo Blahniks is the equivalent of a down payment on her apartment? Imagine standing in your water closet, ruefully looking at your American Standard!

Closets and down payments aside, the pata negra was the evening's gold standard. Dean and Deluca is where I'll go the next time I need a tapas that will impress.

Check out the photos below that capture some of the #SipAndSavor fantasy taken on my iPhone and run through my favorite app--Instagram!

Don't forget to tell me about your most decadent indulgence here in comments or on social  media.

xo ~ Viviana

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Please Knock Before You Walk in on My #FoodPorn: National Tequila Month at El Centro D.F.

Refreshing. Fresh. Creative. Delicate. If my taste buds had thoughts and could articulate them, this is what they would be screaming after savoring the menu at El Centro D.F. in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. A Chef Richard Sandoval restaurant, "El Centro" (as we locals call it) created a tequila-inspired menu for National Tequila Month in July. I have to admit that I can be skeptical of any alcoholic beverage company holiday concoction, thinking of tragic Spring Break memories involving shots. Add to my skepticism the fact that I lived in Mexico City in 1999-2000. Locals schooled me on the sophistication, artisanry, and style that goes into crafting and drinking this spirit. For example, tequila is never imbibed via shots. Instead, it is sipped, savored slowly to extend its pleasure. Connoisseurs (and this connoisseuse) know that drinking tequila is no different than drinking whiskey. Below you will see photographs of El Centro's special Tequila Month Dinner menu snapped by moi now that I leaped 30 years into the present and traded in my flip for an iPhone (Late to but lovin' #Instagram where you can find my life documented in photos!). The only menu item missing is the dessert (even Instagram couldn't fix my shaky shot): añejo or aged tequila gelato served with a drizzle of cajeta or caramel and berries on a house-made Mexican chocolate waffle cone courtesy of local gelatería Dolcezza. ¡Delicioso!

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Summer Break: Unconventional Grillers for the 4th of July

People all across the country are firing up their grills and cooking out for the Fourth of July. Hamburgers and hotdogs are almost always par for the course for this all-American occasion. This year, however, leave the traditional cookout fare to the amateurs. Treat your friends and family to unconventional grilled delights.

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I don’t know about you, but I am a fan of just about anything that comes off a grill. Food such as green beans and even ice cream have become trendy additions to cookout menus. Grilling your food can be a healthy alternative to preparing fried or mayonnaise-based sides. Throwing a variety of options on the barbie will also send your tastebuds to chargrilled heaven this Independence Day.

Aundrea's 6 Unconventional Foods to Grill This 4th of July

  1. Flatbreads: While savory meats come to mind first, appetizers and side-dishes are equally important to a good cookout. Sliced and paired with hummus, grilled flatbread is a worthy substitution for common starters such as chips and dip. Flatbreads are also great as the foundation of homemade pizzas. Check out other tasty flatbread recipes here.
  2. Peaches: I may be biased because I'm from Georgia, but I am currently addicted to sweet, savory, and succulent grilled peaches. Whether by themselves, on top of a salad, or sitting next to a slice of grilled pound cake (yes, this is a thing!) the taste will blow your mind!!

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  3. Artichokes: This Fourth don't forget about the veggies. Grilled artichokes are a sophisticated and flavorful addition to the cookout spread. If artichokes are not your thing, kale and romaine lettuce are other great greens to throw on the grill.
  4. Oysters: The smokey flavor of grilled oysters is a truly unique addition to any table. For real seafood lovers, it is nearly impossible to eat just one or two. Try serving them as a stand-alone appetizer or as a full meal with grilled veggies.
  5. Bison burgers: Bison meat is a low-fat alternative to beef for grilled burgers. Packed with vitamin B and essential minerals such as iron, this lean protein is also a healthier option for fighting heart disease. For your first taste of bison, try this delicious recipe.
  6. Veggie sausage: Beef and pork are the traditional choices for links thrown on the grill. To switch it up and provide inclusive options for vegetarian guests, try out veggie sausage links. With some brands offering all the flavor of a regular hotdog, chances are even the biggest carnivores won't be able to tell the difference.

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Celebrating the birth of our nation needn't be rigid in tradition. As you enjoy firework displays and gatherings around the grill, try something new. After serving unconventional grillers, your Fourth of July cookouts may never be the same.

Aundrea_Gregg-TheWiseLatinaClubAn education policy wonk at the Georgia Center of Opportunity, Aundrea Gregg holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School Of Economics and a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations and Political Science from Howard University. She also is a nail painting enthusiast and writer living in Atlanta, GA. Connect with Aundrea on Twitter or Google+.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

What's on your grill?

Homegrown: The Benefits of Teaching Children How to Grow Food

Growing fresh food at home can be just as much an educational tool as it is a component of the pantry. The process of planting and harvesting fresh produce teaches children about food and the importance of healthy eating habits. Today the homegrown movement has caught fire: more people are growing their own food than ever before including the White House led by First Lady Michelle Obama who this month welcomed students to her Annual White House Garden Planting. With FoodCorps and the National Gardening Association, Mrs. Obama is encouraging children to get out and garden as part of her mission to establish healthy eating and lifestyle habits.

FLOTUS gardening with students.

Currently 1 in 3 households grow food. Over the last five years, the number of families food gardening increased from 12 million to 15 million. Food gardening provides families with fresh produce. But more importantly, it is a resource for education since children learn the skills needed and lifelong benefits of growing food.

3 Lessons Children Learn from Growing Produce at Home

  1. Responsibility and Commitment: For families, tending to a garden can be much like caring for a pet. The garden needs attention. It has to be watered and protected from pests. This is no easy task. For children to see the (literal) fruits of their labor, they must commit themselves to taking care of the garden and wait patiently for it to harvest.

  2. Importance of Local Food: Eating produce from a home garden is about as local as you can get. Many Americans are disconnected from where and how their food is produced. Teaching our children to grow and buy local food can lead to a cleaner food supply and shrink our carbon footprint. 

  3. One Aspect of a Healthy Lifestyle: Childhood obesity is a concerning epidemic. Teaching children the importance of a healthy lifestyle starts at home. Growing and eating fruits and vegetables encourages healthy habits for children to carry with them into their adult life.

During the First Lady's annual garden planting, Washington, D.C.-area students helped the First Lady plant the new pollinator garden where bees can gather pollen and spread it between the plants.

Students gardening in the White House Garden.

The garden which grows a multitude of fruits and vegetables was already sprouting leafy greens. That's where White House Executive Chef Cristita Comerford goes for fresh ingredients to cook meals including a kid favorite--pizza. I grabbed the recipe while at the event to try at home! 

White House Grilled Garden Pizza 

Serves 4

1 12 inch pizza dough, can use freezer dough

2 tbsp olive oil

1 eggplant, sliced, ½ inch thick

1 sweet potato, peeled, sliced thinly

1 red pepper, sliced, ¼ inch thick

Salt and pepper to taste

6 oz. tomato sauce, your favorite brand... or homemade!

6 oz. shredded mozzarella, lowfat

Chopped fresh basil, for garnish.

Toss the vegetables in olive oil and salt and pepper. Grill until softened but still a bit crunchy. Set aside.

Flatten the pizza dough until about 1/8 inch thick. Brush with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill on both sides for about 2 minutes on each side. Top with the tomato sauce, mozzarella, and grilled veggies. Garnish with basil. Serve immediately.

White House Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford

Teaching our children the importance of growing food from an early age is necessary for promoting a healthy future. Gardening and cooking with children is not only beneficial for their education, but they also reap the benefits of the lesson. Brush the dust off of your gardening tools and get out and grow! 

HaleyFulford-TheWiseLatinaClub A food enthusiast and native Georgia Peach, Haley recently graduated from Appalachian State University with a Bachelors of Science in Sustainable Development. Currently interning at the United States House of Representatives, she is passionate about the outdoors, improved access to quality education for all, public policy, and documenting “from stress to success in the city.” Click here to read more about and connect with Haley.

Edited by Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

Are fruits and vegetables a regular part of your diet?

Pan Latino Tapas Restaurant Review: Purple Potatoes and Barrel-Aged Bourbon

Tapas, or small plates are popular in the restaurant industry and an easy way to try many different dishes on a menu. Celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s Toro Toro recently opened its doors, offering the crème de la crème of Pan Latino small plates to the appetites of Washington, D.C. Located in the heart of the city's downtown area, this hot new restaurant takes you straight from the work day grind to a world of creative eats.

The Wise Latina Club founder Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D  invited me to accompany her to Toro Toro. As my southern roots have made me accustomed to large and hardy meals, I was skeptical of the dainty portions. As the night progressed, my appetite was satiated and Toro Toro proved to me that bigger isn’t always better.

Toro Toro with the Wise Latina Club founder, Viviana Hurtado.

From purple potatoes to barrel-aged bourbon, tapas dishes from Toro Toro highlight some of the top ingredients in Latin American cuisine.

Toro Toro's menu separates the tapas dishes into cold and hot plates. My favorite cold dish took me by surprise. I am not usually a fan of tuna or avocado (I know this personally offends some of you), BUT the Causa Toro Toro hit the spot.

Enter: purple potato cake!

The small, round cake was topped with tuna tartare, which is raw, finely chopped tuna. The tartare added a smooth texture and flavor without overwhelming all of the other flavors. Topped with avocado and sesame seeds, the dish was visually appealing and shattered all my preconceived notions about fish or avocado.

Purple Potato, Tuna Tartare, Avocado, & Sesame Seeds

As for hot plates, the Cachapas, which consists of duck carnitas, corn pancakes, tomato jam and Oaxaca cheese won over my tastebuds. There is a first time for everything which for me that night included trying duck. The flavors of the combined ingredients created a sweet and salty sensation.

Toro Toro paired the complex flavors of the food with equally intricate cocktails. I particularly enjoyed the Manhattan de Toro. A compilation of barrel-aged  bourbon, bitters, candied cherry, and sweet vermouth, it brought depth and warmth to the meal.

The Toro Toro bartenders shared a recipe for the Carnival whiskey cocktail to try at home.

 Toro Toro's Carnival Whiskey Cocktail Recipe

2oz of rye whiskey

1/2 oz Luxardo Cherry

1/2 oz Lillet Blanc or another type of white wine

3 dashes orange bitter

Combine, stir,  and serve in a champagne coup with  a flamed orange peel

¡Salud!

Toro Toro Cocktails

Want to make a full night out of the tapas experience? Just below the main dining area, the dance floor awaits those ready to cut a rug. The room, with cowhide stools and antler mounts, creates just the right ambiance for a chic night.

The Wise Latina Club PSA: remember to bring your ID to prove that you are 21 or older when buying your spirits.

The flavor and spunk that tapas dishes offer should never be underestimated. Tapas dishes are great to share with friends over delicious cocktails. Richard Sandoval's Toro Toro proves that big flavors can come in small packages.

HaleyFulford-TheWiseLatinaClub A food enthusiast and native Georgia Peach, Haley recently graduated from Appalachian State University with a Bachelors of Science in Sustainable Development. Currently interning at the United States House of Representatives, she is passionate about the outdoors, improved access to quality education for all, public policy, and documenting “from stress to success in the city.” Click here to read more about and connect with Haley.

Edited by Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

What is your favorite tapas recipe?