Is it the calamari or the dip?

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Some time in the 90s we were in California visiting family and friends and were dining at an upscale Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Flats.

Several orders of crispy calamari with a chipotle tarter sauce came to the table and our young son was invited to eat it by his elderly great aunt. Anthony would do anything his beloved Aunt Kate asked of him so he dove into the deliciousness.

He asked her what “calamari” meant and she quickly said it meant “tastes great” in Italian. He agreed and coming from a kid who rejected macaroni and cheese because it was not his “color” that was high praise, indeed.

Since then (even when he learned calamari was squid) it became a favorite and much like my husband judges any Italian restaurant by their sausage and peppers, we judge restaurants by the quality of their calamari.

Our theory is that you really cannot ruin calamari. Many places buy it already cleaned and breaded and good oil in a hot deep fried is all you need to make the tasty morsels.

This is not exactly true as we learned at Shooters Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.

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I know I am not a restaurant reviewer and usually do not say anything negative (like mom says, if you don’t have anything nice to say do not say anything at all) but I do not think I have ever had worse calamari than I had a few weeks back.

If they deep fried elastic bands I would have enjoyed it more. Yuck. Bad.

Remember the line from “The Lion King” when Pumbaa slurps a worm and says “slimy yet satisfying?” Yeah, that, only not satisfying! Other than the exception above we believe what distinguishes calamari are the add ins and the dips.

At JB’s on the Beach (http://www.jbsonthebeach.com/) in Deerfield Beach, Fla., they include strips of sweet and hot peppers mixed in with the calamari. They give two sauces, a sweet red sauce and a tarter sauce, both delicious.

Next door is Oceans 234, where they actually bread and deep fry lemon wedges and hot peppers with the calamari. If you have never had a deep fried lemon wedge try it before you curl your nose. They serve the bits with a roasted red pepper relish and a honey balsamic glaze. This is a particular favorite.

At Uncle Julio’s (where we met our new best friend bartender Alicia) we had crispy calamari with a creamy tomato sauce which reminded me of vodka sauce. We also dipped into the fresh grilled vegetable salsa and enjoyed the combo very much.

Here at home, most restaurants serve calamari with their own tomato sauce. It is a good sneak peek into your entree at many Italian restaurants.

I personally prefer a mayo-based sauce with capers and pickles (at Pop’s seafood store in Deerfield they make their sauce with fresh cucumbers and a touch of mustard mixed into mayo … dreamy).

However you make it (rubber bands excluded) enjoy the dipping sauce and remember,in some circles, calamari means “tastes good!”

Have a yummy week!

Next week: Catholic Schools Week Cupcake Wars at St. Peter’s

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Vacation is just living life

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For several weeks I was planning on writing today’s Foodie column about calamari. Just so you know, this column is not about calamari although calamari probably has some contribution to its content (you will understand this soon).

Becoming “The Foodie” is an ironic twist for me because for the last 18 months I have been on a journey of a lifetime. I “struggled” with my weight for at least 40 years until I took responsibility for it. We all have excuses, reasons why we are the way we are and act the way we act but the simple fact is, if you eat healthy portions of good food, move your body more and try to minimize stressors that control you, you will eventually become healthier, look better and perhaps even lengthen your life.

It may be simple but it is not easy.

This column is not about weight loss, the answers to all of those burning questions we have about diet and exercise. It is about my own experience with just living my life.

As the months have passed something really special happened, quietly creeping first into my subconscious then into the daylight. Food made the beautiful transition from the thing that drove me to a thing that brings pure joy. There was a time when I would plan my day around food. What was I going to eat today? Where was I going to eat? Did I have enough cash for the drive-through or would I have to go to the cash machine. Are you going to finish that? I have to clean my plate.

Now I not only understand portion control, I can visualize the correct amount of food before I put any on my plate or begin eating at a restaurant. I have changed how I value food. Here is an example to highlight my new thinking. I want a rack of lamb at a restaurant. It is a whopping $32. In the past I would do everything but lick the plate to get my “money’s worth.” Now I eat a few ribs (meat suckers, as my friend calls them) picking up the bone and enjoying each bite, taste the side accompaniment and call it a meal. I usually bring some home or share with fellow diners. And guess what? That was worth $32 to me. It is no longer about the quantity but the actual food that I enjoy. Who knew?

Another big part of the changes I have made is changing my environment. My cupboards and refrigerator have been streamlined and I have smaller containers to store food. This helps when I bring food to work.

Now, back to my message of the day. I returned home recently from a wonderful, relaxing vacation with my husband. We spent 10 days in the Florida sunshine eating and drinking and playing golf. We went on walks (though I must admit my husband was much more devoted to the effort), spent time reading and shopping and dining at our favorite restaurants. We ate calamari just about everywhere and drank great wine.

When I got home I weighed myself. I gained seven pounds in ten days. And yet, no one died, the world did not end and I did not go into a tailspin. I did not binge eat thinking that I was a failure giving up and not worrying about the consequences.

No, I just kept living.

Eating like this is the rest of my life. It does not end when I reach any goal (which I do not have, by the way, I figure I will know when I get there) nor does it change my accomplishment of shedding 63 pounds (a little less this week ;o).

No, food and weight are not evil. I am not bad because I gained weight (I’ve already lost half of it in four days). Food is wonderful, brings happiness to all around me and gives me something joyful to talk to you about every week.

I’m just going to keep living, writing and enjoying all that we have.

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Have a yummy week!

NEXT WEEK: Is it the Calamari or is it the Dip?

NU grad is bartender extraordinaire in Boca Raton

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Niagara University grad Alicia Kwiatkowski

It was just a regular Sunday, strolling along at Mizner Park http://www.miznerpark.com/ in Boca Raton, Florida when we decided to stop in for a cool drink and some calamari at Uncle Julio’s.
A very busy bartender served up light homemade tortilla chips with the best salsa I have ever had. She told me the salsa is prepared daily with mesquite grilled vegetables. It has a smoky flavor and was the perfect dip for the great chip.

I enjoyed a Patron Margherita made with fresh lime juice. It was the perfect balance of tart and sweet. We ordered the appetizer of the day, crispy calamari with a dip which reminded me of vodka sauce. We also ordered Quesadillas made with sautéed fresh peppers, mushrooms and onions. They were toasted perfectly on the outside and melty warm on the inside. Both were the ideal compliment with my drink.

The very friendly barkeep asked my husband if he was from Niagara Falls. It seemed like a random question until she pointed out he had a Niagara Falls Country Club logo on his shirt – not so random after all!

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Then, in typical Western New York fashion the dialogue begins:

“OK, where are you from?”

“I grew up in Lancaster.”

“No kidding? Where did you go to school?”

“I went to Niagara University.”

“What brings you down here?”

“I graduated from NU six years ago and headed to South Florida to work for the Four Seasons. As you know, Florida was particularly hard hit during the crash and the tourism industry slowed to a trickle.”

Meet Alicia Kwiatkowski, a Lancaster native who has lived in West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach and now Boca Raton. She says she would leave South Florida kicking and screaming although there are plenty of things she misses from home. She misses the food from home the most naming chicken wings (she chooses Duff’s over Anchor Bar), Picasso’s Pizza and Tim Hortons.

Alicia participated in karate through high school but did not play any sports in college. Her best memory of Niagara is of her friends, many of whom still keep in touch. I’ll just bet they visit as often as possible!

Notebook:

While climbing the stairs to get to our car Friday night in Deerfield Beach, Fla., a guy overheard our conversation and joined in. He had a Detroit t-shirt on and told us he owned A1A Tattoos across the street (of course he did!). One thing led to another and he said he knew someone from Lewiston. Turns out it was one of my husband’s clients. Small world!

I learned about Pisco at Shooter’s in Fort Lauderdale. It is a grape brandy made in Chile and Peru. Look for more information soon…had a Peruvian Lemonade…one of the best drinks I have ever had.

Have a yummy week!

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Putting together a New Year’s game plan

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The Foodie:

The year 2011 was an epic one for me and I am trying to continue the momentum. Below are some things which could be called resolutions, desires and proclamations.

I welcome any additions to this list, especially under the category “Things I Would Like To Learn.”

Things I will continue doing:

• I will shop around the outside of the grocery store for food that is whole and fresh.

• I will include lean protein in every meal because I know how satisfied it makes me feel.

• I will look for appetizers on the menu as entrees and be aware of portion distortion.

• I will let what is fresh dictate my menu.

• I will buy locally whenever possible.

Things I need to do:

• I will look in my freezer and dispose of any food that is unidentified, covered with frost or outdated. Here is a guide from the magazine Real Simple.

• I will look in my cupboards and dispose of any food that is outdated.

• I need to get my knives sharpened.

Things I want to do:

• I want to visit every winery on the Niagara Wine Trail.

• I want to learn about honey and why eating local honey is superior.

• I want to learn more about my pressure cooker and foods I can prepare using it.

• I want to learn more about different cuts of meat, what they are useful for and if they are cyclical.

• I want to talk to chefs who use the farm to table philosophy.

• I want to write more about my dining experience as I travel throughout the year.

• I want to meet more foodies and get their take on cooking and dining out.

What would you like to do this year? Please send me suggestions and we will see what we can see, learn and do together this year.