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Penca, Downtown Tucson

September 8, 2014 1 Comment

Our Sunday brunch today was exciting new and different. We went downtown to Penca, a restaurant we have been wanting to try.  We both loved our experience and want to return very soon and often.  The cuisine is labeled Mexico City style, but it is also a very fine example of fresh combinations and very artful mixology.  Our favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson burned to the ground a few months ago, so we have been hunting for a new one.  Penca wins for many different reasons.  The decor is post industrial modern with as much of the old building in tact as possible for style.  The design successfully tells you that the place has a unique flavor and point of view.  It is refreshing after so many meals in the corny Mexican restaurant decor with pictures of parrots and Javier Solis. (not that I want to get rid of that forever).  The open kitchen also sends the smells of the kitchen wafting through the space in just the right way to make you hungry.

The restaurant is housed in a building that was once owned by the Graham Truck Company.  The brick openings  still visible on the walls are large enough for vehicles to pass.  The  designer did a great job of keeping the industrial feel with plenty of metal features.  I particularly love the swiveling doors that can create privacy in an area in the back for parties or events.  The mural on the wall is the street view of the building in the past.  They warm up the room and the acoustics by using wood for tables, walls and the bar.  It feels spacious because the ceilings are high.  The exposed duct work becomes a design element and sets a modern tone.

We arrived before the crowd arrived and therefore had very personal service.  The chef dropped by our table to chat, which was fun and informative.  He let me know that the dish I had ordered, the corn cakes with chalula butter and jalapeño syrup with a side of 2 eggs and some black beans, was his favorite on the menu.  He also told me to get a side of Chalula to add to the flavor.  This was the perfect suggestion for me because although the butter had some heat, and the syrup also, the complete sweet and heat balance was brought out by using that extra hot sauce.  I loved the whole thing. Bob had to help me finish after he enjoyed his own pork hash breakfast.

One reason we favor this as our new Mexican restaurant is the creativity at the bar.  When I was first told about the place my friend mentioned the tepache, a pineapple drink with a slight fermentation that is made in house and used in some of the cocktails. I ordered a bourbon and tepache, the preparation of which you can see here below.  The flavors were really intricate, including the bitters sprayed on the top, making it both pretty and giving a distinct bitter note to the first few sips.  They also make their own shrubs, and a pineapple shrub (they refer to it as pineapple vinegar) was used in my drink as well.  Bob reported that the Bloody Mary he had with his has was spicy and went perfectly with his food.  This is a pleasant departure from the usual margaritas and mojitos.  We are planning to go back again soon early on Sunday to repeat this super dining delight.  I want to try the tacos, and Bob wants to have the corncake special.  Compared with places we dine with similar gourmet offerings, the pricing at Penca is generous.  We were pleasantly surprised at the bill and I had to take my beans home because we both were so full.  If you enjoy delicious food and inventive bar service, try Penca.


Fall Food Fiesta, Pears

September 5, 2014 2 Comments

bartlett pears

bartlett pears

Peak Pear season is upon us and I couldn’t be happier.  These Bartletts will be perfect to slice and bake with brie and port wine for an evening bite. We have that simple combination a few times during the season with different varieties as they ripen.   The versatility of pears makes them good from breakfast until midnight snack.

Very simple pear preparations include:

If you want to do some special baking pears will enhance pastries, cakes and other desserts:

Don’t for get the cocktail hour:

Pears keep well so we will have them all winter from different parts of the country.  I hope you will enjoy the season as much as we do at our house.  What are your favorite ways to eat pears? Do you have a favorite variety?  Mine is Comice, very hard to transport, but worth the effort if you can find them.  Bon appetite!!

Bountiful Basil

June 24, 2014 2 Comments

Basil is a culinary herb that has magical qualities. The different varieties add distinct flavors to dishes and drinks.  You can purchase seeds for many varieties, but the most commonly used and grown is the Genovese.  This very hardy herb does well in pots or in the ground.  It is very tolerant of sun and thrives with minimal care.  It is important to keep the flowers trimmed so the plant does not go to seed.  The flowers have delicate flavor that can be used to flavor anything for which you would use the leaves.  The blooms look good in cut flower arrangements, and will scent the room where they are displayed.  A few common ways we see basil used are:

  • pesto sauce
  • caprese salad with tomato and mozzarella
  • in tomato sauce

I love using basil in all of these traditional ways.  When I find a really excellent tomato I always want to eat it with basil and fresh mozzarella. Pesto is used on everything in our house, not just for pasta.  We put it on eggs, roasted veggies, potato dishes, rice, and sandwiches of all kinds.  The bright green color and the bright flavor wake up any meal.  I find that making a large batch with really good olive oil, roasted pine nuts, garlic and basil stores very well.  I add the parmesan cheese at the time I am using it.  This also allows a different proportion for each kind of use.  The pesto is delicious without any cheese for those who prefer that.  I have tried some really tasty cocktails that contain muddled basil for flavor.  Here are some of my favorites:

That will give you some ideas to get started on your own basil concoctions to drink this summer.  It is good with citrus, cucumber, and other herbs.  Try a plain basil mojito to get yourself started. Basil is a prosperity herb, so you really can’t have too much of it in your food and drinks.  Enjoy!

Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, an Adventure

May 16, 2014 4 Comments




I bought  a hard cover copy of Bitters by Brad Thomas Thompson after reading about the history of this elixir and the revival of its popularity today.  I have always enjoyed cooking with bitters and had only ventured out from Angostura to a couple of other flavors until recently.  I saw some sampler sets and bought chocolate, key lime  and lavender in small bottles to try.  I also bought a fancy one from Scotland that I adore.  Experimenting with these flavors in cocktails and in food (I always put some is soups) has piqued my interest in producing some of my own with ingredients from my garden.

The medicinal use of bitters has a very long history of curing headache, indigestion, stomach cramps and more.  The herbs and fruits used create both the flavor profile and the curative values.  Bitters and soda is the classic companion for rich foods and an abundance of alcohol.   There are two kinds, potable and cocktail bitters.  Potable are sipped straight up as a digestif, like Campari or Fernet Branca. Cocktail bitters are used to marry flavors in drinks or cooking.  They balance and enhance the other ingredients to create a complex synergy.

The book is very well written and researched.  The history, the prominent producers today, and opinions from bartenders are covered in the opening chapters.  The complete recipes and instructions to create 13 different kinds of homemade varieties follows.  Most contain gentian, others calamus root, hops and cinchona bark (the main taste in tonic water) as the bitter element.  Fruits and spices such as ginger, allspice and cardamom are used.  Since I have ripe calamondins on my tree I plan to follow the orange or the lemon recipe to make my first batch using the citrus I have.  The technique is simple, involves vodka and soaking for a month, and seems pretty foolproof.  The exciting part is that I have a new way to use my garden herbs and fruits that preserves their flavor and creates a unique product not available on the open market. Mr Parsons suggests a bitters exchange party at which friends gather, make the mixture, and return after a month to finish the process and bottle.  I am happy I have just met a neighbor how wants to be my bitters buddy.  We are going to make one that includes turmeric for inflammation.  I don’t think it will take very long to become expert bitters makers, and since a small amount is effective it will be great to share batches of new concoctions.

The greatest part of the book is dedicated to cocktail and cooking recipes.  Beautiful pictures, detailed instructions and a wide variety of new and old make this section of the book really fun to own in hardcover.  I have read more of the drinks than I have tried, but am fascinated with some of the non alcoholic drinks like smoked lemonade in which the lemons are smoked for up to an hour before the preparation.  There are some flavor ideas that will spark your imagination and creativity.  It is the complete guide to the adventure of making and using these curative combinations. Santé!

Cocktails in History

April 11, 2014 6 Comments

The word cocktail originally meant a drink made with bitters and distilled spirits, but this has changed over time.  There are many versions of how the name was derived, including a drink that was served with a garnish of feathers from a rooster.  The bartender was more of a pharmacist, and the elements of the drinks were medicinal in the 1800’s.  Morphine and heroin were sold on the open market and included in patent medicines in the early 1900’s, so mixed spirits were hardly the most dangerous potions one could use at that time.  Bitters were concocted by bartender/pharmacists with the herbs and fruits they had on hand, with whatever knowledge they possessed about the healing qualities of those plants.

Today Angostura and Fee brothers are still producing bitters from ancient recipes while other new producers are entering the commercial market.  It is easy to make your own bitters with flavors that work for you. I made a citrus vanilla infusion using an Alice Waters recipe and our organic grapefruit and Meyer lemons this winter which is delightful and has inspired me to dabble in bitters.  The process is simple.  Add flavors to vodka which is stored in the dark and shaken regularly for two weeks.   Strain the herb/fruit/flower mixture and boil it in water to create a strong tea.  Store both the vodka infusion and the strong tea for another two weeks, shaking the herbal tea frequently. Combine the tea and vodka after removing the solids and you have bitters.  There are several mixtures  of flavoring and bittering agents that appeal to me.  I think I will make peach bitters when my peaches get ripe just to get started.  The bitters can be used in non alcoholic drinks as well as in cooking.  I often use Angostura bitters in food.  It adds depth of flavor with great subtlety.  I did not drink or make cocktails until about 3 years ago but I have become a student of the history and resurgence of the art of mixology.  I enjoy seasonal fresh ingredients and the creativity of trying new combinations.  What is your favorite cocktail, Gentle Reader?

Ending the Book Diet

November 13, 2013 3 Comments

Bar Book

Bar Book

bar food

bar food



festive friend

festive friend

I have restricted my reading of books for the last year to three, Sacred Contracts by Carolyn Myss, How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci by Michael Gelb, and Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.  This experiment was proposed by Brother Brogan about the time that he published Impact Equation.  I went for the idea because I have always read voraciously but applied the information with much less vigor.  I also have enrolled in a course to study the Sacred Contracts material which I find fascinating and endlessly useful.  I read constantly this year, and did not really read the three books much at all after the first three or four months.  By then all the other participants including Brother Brogan had all quit the program.  I stuck it out because it served me.  I found out there is such a thing as reading too many books. There is more to life than reading.

I have put more practical application and reflection into what I have read this year.  I do not hurry or skip through anything that I read now, which is new. I have been a speed reader for 40 years, having studied at the public library where I went for lessons by Dick Cavett on video.  Life is change.  If I have spent all this untold time reading it seems I should be able to write.  I should also be able to read contemplatively, a skill I have yet to acquire.  As I allow myself to buy and read books once more I have a new perspective.  I have discovered the U of A Poetry Center and my ancestor poet in it.  I have been to a few poetry readings during this diet, which I liken to being driven by a chauffeur.  The experience of a poetry reading includes everything about the ambiance and company.  I plan to return to the Poetry Center for both the readings and to read in that amazing ambiance.  I also plan to write poetry as a meditative practice.  Most of all I plan to be strategic and particular about all my reading from now on.  I think if there is a librarian at the pearly gates we will be asked to do book reports to show comprehension, not prove that we have been on a life long book binge.

Rather than yo-yo dieting, allowing myself to totally pig out at the library right out of the gate, I have purchased three practical and useful books beyond the poetry books I will read will super mindfulness.  My recent purchase, The American Bar by Charles Shumann, is a huge hit, although I have not finished reading it.  It was center stage last night when I created a signature cocktail for one of my guests.  Now that I have a fresh start I do not plan to read every book in the library before I mix my first cocktail.  Reading how-to books without doing any of the things about which one reads is probably pointless.  I think the remedy was well timed and perfect for me.  My name is Pamela Morse and I am a book-a holic.  As a recovering reading addict I will allow myself to go to libraries, but no used book stores for now.  I need to know that I can stay in control.  So far, so good.

Under the Influence

October 30, 2013 4 Comments

This holiday season I have decided to create a diet plan. Each year we splurge eating outside of our normal diet to enjoy some seasonal goodies both at home and out and about. I think it is silly to deny yourself all relatively unhealthy foods since it creates a special power around the food. You can taste almost anything, then put it down and walk away without harming yourself.  Moderation in all things may seem stingy in comparison to  the commercial holiday cheer with merchandise at the base of it all.  Gifting or not gifting is easy at our house. We like experiences better than items so very few presents are given unless they are special yard sale finds.  We love art, but filled our home already, so we have to go to galleries and museums to see anything new.  Our tradition involves making treats and attending special events.  This season I am mindfully setting a budget, not so much in dollars, but in calories, alcohol, and fat.

If I allow myself to be mindless at the supermarket I end up with a lot of unhealthy treat ingredients that will become cookies, etc.  I have become a creative bartender and now have a vast array of interesting liquor with which to mix cocktails.  The idea of the taste profile of the cocktail is to enhance your snacks or meal.  I enjoy creating new cocktails from recipes and sometimes by experiment.  Since I enjoy taking risks in the kitchen, my bar tending is a natural extension of that exploratory spirit.  I am carried away with using seasonal ingredients and the fruit from my garden in cocktail recipes.  I could not work at a bar since I know few classic drinks, but in terms of kinky creations I get better all the time. Therein lies the problem.  These tasty spirits take over the situation and decide that moderation is out the window for the night.  One good taste leads to another.  Last winter I did allow the spirit of alcohol to leave the barn door open for the spirit of sugar and other inferior foods to enter my body in mass quantities.  My general health suffered from this overdose, and required reform of my diet in order to recover.

This winter as the nights grow longer and the wood stove glows I am starting a written log of what I eat and drink.  This is not for publication, but for my own information.  I will not allow sneaky spirits, holiday or otherwise, make me fat this winter.  They have no power over me.  I never drank hard alcohol until a couple of years ago when I bought some cheap bourbon to pour on my dad’s grave on All Soul’s Day.  My parents both loved to cocktail way too much, which was responsible for many of their health problems.  I have chosen to have a different relationship with alcoholic spirits.  Cheers! Happy Holidays! Think before you drink!!!

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