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El Castell Motel, Monterey CA

Monterey is a destination for many travelers and many reasons.  We were in Monterey last weekend for the Cooking For Solutions festivities, but there was no way we could commute that far for each day’s events.  We did research to find a comfortable and affordable room, and El Castell Motel came into our sights.

comfortable king size bed

comfortable king size bed

Most of the rooms are on the first of only two floors, and parking is right in front of your door.  Walking in, the room is welcoming.  The bed was appointed with plush pillows and blankets that provided just enough warmth for the cool coastal nights.

The bathroom was spacious and well laid out.  Considering that there was no room service at this motel, we appreciated the microwave so that we could heat leftovers.

coffee pot, flat screen tv, and fast wireless internet

coffee pot, flat screen tv, and fast wireless internet

Technological upgrades made this room more like home than we realized.  Coffee and wireless internet have become such important factors when booking a room.  The speed with which we uploaded photos from our Cooking For Solutions events was impressive.

covered pool

covered pool

We did not test the pool ourselves, but early in the morning we got a shot of it when the kids weren’t playing.  Clear, heated water and pretty floor made for a nice sanctuary in the center of the motel.

Every morning, a small breakfast spread is available.  Of course there is the standard cereal, yogurt, fruit, danishes, and hot beverages, but the waffle machines were particularly popular.  Who doesn’t love a fresh waffle?

If you’re planning a trip to Monterey, this is a very well maintained facility with easy access to other parts of the city.  It is family run, and they take pride in their business.  There is no need to stay in one of the snazzy hotels close to the aquarium when you can have just as comfortable a room a mere ten minutes away.

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The Morning Chew – Breakfast with Carla Hall: Cooking For Solutions 2013, Monterey CA

cooking with love

It was hard to wake up early Sunday morning after two busy days of Cooking For Solutions.  But the third and final day had us jazzed for breakfast with Chef Carla Hall, so we were eager to enjoy a meal with her before exploring the aquarium.  She energetically chatted with us and other patrons, posed for photos, signed her book, and danced with the live band.  She was very welcoming to all who attended, and everyone had a wonderful time.

Local and organic, Clover produces some of the highest quality dairy products available in our area.  The toppings included gorgeous fruit and Earthbound Farm Organic granola to add to peach, forest berry, and vanilla yogurts.

brown sugar cured niman ranch bacon

brown sugar cured niman ranch bacon

Niman Ranch is famous as a leader in livestock sustainability, producing beef, pork, lamb, smoked, and prepared meats.  This bacon was sweet, smoky, thick, meaty, and amazing.

poached shrimp and grits

poached shrimp and grits

Shrimp and grits is not what first comes to mind when we think of breakfast since we don’t have a lot of experience with Southern cuisine, but it was totally appropriate here.  And of course, we’re at a seafood sustainability conference, so how could we not have had something from the sea?  The grits were buttery, rich, and creamy, perfect for each bite with a succulent shrimp.

smoked salmon asparagus frittata

smoked salmon asparagus frittata

With asparagus in season right now, we’re seeing it on so many menus and in so many items, but that’s okay because we like asparagus.  We wish this frittata recipe was in Carla’s Cooking With Love!  The eggs were velvety in texture and the smoked salmon had a great flavor.

carla's fried apple pancakes

carla’s fried apple pancakes

GMO-free and hardly your standard box variety, Carla’s fried apple pancakes were the highlight of the buffet.  Crisp and tart apples broke up the texture of the pancake, and the apple-cider syrup on top was delicious.  Compared to maple syrup, the apple-cider syrup was sweet yet a little tangy, but just as good with bacon as maple syrup is.

august's spread

august’s spread

August admits, she’s not a fan of yogurt so she swapped that out for a shipped-in mini chocolate croissant and fresh apricot.  But you have to admit, that’s a breakfast that hugs you.

fennel-dill brined and poached iceland arctic char served with horseradish-flavored sour cream, honey-citrus dressing, mustard cress, and almond crumble

fennel-dill brined and poached iceland arctic char served with horseradish-flavored sour cream, honey-citrus dressing, mustard cress, and almond crumble

Immediately outside the dining area, the aquarium opened up with a few food tables.  On the aquarium’s first floor, a small number chefs and businesses were preparing for the onslaught of aquarium patrons who would get a taste of what we had experienced the last few days, but we got first taste.  Chef Hákon Már Övarsson was back, this time with char and a whole lot of hyphenated extras.  Fennel and dill are wonderfully earthy herbs which enhanced the char’s natural taste, and horseradish is a favorite additive in our house, so the combination of flavors was particularly enjoyable.  August has always wanted to go to Iceland, but if this is a representation of the gourmet possibilities that await, then that dream had better happen sooner than later.

mini penny pops

mini penny pops

Thank you, anonymous rep for The Penny Ice Creamery, for posing so well with your yummy ice cream pop!  The strawberry ice cream was made from scratch with locally farmed and organic ingredients, then dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in cookie crumbs.  The equivalent of about three bites, this was a great dessert to round out our morning meal.

Since all of the animals were tucked in with the lights out on Friday, we were happy to see them today.  Buffet breakfast was bountiful, and we met a fellow writer who passed on invaluable knowledge, so our morning was all-around amazing!  Please enjoy an assortment of our favorite animal sightings of the day.

goodbye, monterey!

goodbye, monterey!

Street Food Extravaganza: Cooking For Solutions 2013, Monterey CA

at the entrance

The Cooking For Solutions dinner on May 18, day 2 of the events hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, took a bold turn.  In the open air and far more casual than the previous night, thirteen chefs made their own versions of street food.  We walked, talked, and sampled some of the most gourmet finger food imaginable; granted, a few forks were used, and some items would never be produced in a roach coach, but the theme inspired the chefs to outdo one another in the quest for flavorful bites that highlight the importance of sustainable food harvesting practices.

oliva abbey saison

oliva abbey saison

Sierra Nevada collaborated with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA to make this saison, a pale ale brewed in a Belgian style.  Locally grown mandarin orange mingled with lemon and pepper for spicy but very refreshing sips to go along with the food.

stewart & jasper orchards

stewart & jasper orchards

Stewart & Jasper of small Newman, CA brought many goodies to drool over, and we sampled four types of glazed almonds.  Cinnamon, strawberries and cream, and apricot pepper were all good, but the red velvet cake stole the show.  These could easily become an addictive snack.

Chef Sarah LaCasse with Earthbound Farm Organic tossed us another delicious salad, this time with a mustard vinaigrette.  With it she paired a rich curried sweet potato soup and an immaculate grilled cheese sandwich of fontina d’aosta, balsamic onions and mixed baby kales.  Grilled cheese, soup, and salad is a standard combination, but the flavors and quality found here were anything but standard.

Some of the patrons walking by were impressed by the big fish at Chef James Waller’s table for the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.  Zach knew, though, from growing up in Martinez, CA where the sturgeon are giant, that this was just a baby sacrificed for the sake of presentation.  Regardless, the roasted pico de gallo sturgeon tostado was good, and the spicy creamy slaw only made it better.

Chef Art Smith was up to his usual wonderfulness of providing “healthy comfort,” tonight in the form of shrimp and grits.  August feels that grits are good at any time of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner) so why not make them accessible in any kind of venue?  Grits, too, can have their place in street food, especially when accented with big, succulent, well-seasoned shrimp.  For being very hearty, it was very light calorie-wise.

We were happy to be able to chat with Chef Sam Choy a little more this evening while sampling his char siu pork with firecracker fried rice.  His team was busy assembling all the elements that made an impactful flavor combination.

korean mung bean pancakes with shiitake mushrooms and kimchee

korean mung bean pancakes with shiitake mushrooms and kimchee

August has always liked Asian-style pancakes, but these rank high on the list of favorites because they were so decadent.  Freshness is key in order to achieve quality, something that chefs Susan Feniger and Kajsa Alger take seriously at Chef Susan’s STREET.

scallop and pork belly taco with a cilantro mango slaw

scallop and pork belly taco with a cilantro mango slaw

The deep fried sea marshmallow topped off this extravagant taco with a bed of fruity mango slaw and smoky pork belly.  The Whole Beast‘s Chef John Fink delighted our palates with the naturally sweet and savory mix, and it seemed to be one of the favorites among the crowd.

arancini

arancini

Chef Michele Ragussis was working the crowd for the second night, personally preparing and serving up arancini, or Sicilian fried rice balls.  Her talents are further proof that vegetarian can be anything but boring.  Zach would love this in a sandwich with marinara, mozzarella, and fresh sauteed spinach.

clam chowder

clam chowder

Affable Chef Tim Wood created a clam chowder that would have made the Santa Cruz chowder competitors shake in their boots.  We’re going to have to plan a trip to visit his restaurants at Carmel Valley Ranch soon, and make an excursion out of it by doing the beekeeping experience, as well.

crispy clam rolls with uni tartare sauce and geoduck sashimi

crispy clam rolls with uni tartare sauce and geoduck sashimi

Now we can cross geoduck off the list of weird foods to try.  Chef Richard Blais combined geoduck sashimi with crispy clam and uni (sea urchin roe) tartare sauce – odd on top of odd, but flavorful and rich.

The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa provided one of the desserts of giant strawberries, scratchmade marshmallows, chocolate sandwich cookies, and candied pineapple for three different melted chocolates (milk to dark to more dark).  They used Tcho chocolate from San Francisco, practically in our backyard, so we want to take a factory tour sometime soon to see the process that goes into the delicious confections.

churro tots

churro tots

Chefs Mary Sue Milleken and Mike Minor impressed us yet again with these ideally textured churro tots.  Crunchy outsides coated in sugar and cinnamon encased fluffy, tender insides, and each tot sat on dollops of chocolate, a marshmallow-like sauce, and caramel to be dipped/swirled/rolled.  There is no such dessert on the Border Grill menu, so were were happy for two reasons: 1) we got to try something totally unique for this event, and 2) there’s so much more waiting for us for our next Las Vegas trip.

chocolate sea salt cookies with marscapone filling

chocolate sea salt cookies with marscapone filling

Chef Emily Luchetti of Farallon and Waterbar brought four kinds of sandwich cookies.  Dulce de leche was delicioso, as were the walnut cookies with milk chocolate filling and the raspberry filled delights, but the chocolate sea salt cookies were mighty tasty with a creamy marscapone filling, turning these into the most decadent Oreos you could find.

50% off?!

50% off?!

While we waited in line, a man handed us each a promotional $10 gift card for Macy’s that expired in less than two weeks.  We were a bit perplexed, but then we saw the huge display table tempting us.  Not only did we have $20 between us to spend for free, but everything presented was 50% off, no kidding.  We thought they first said 15% so Zach selected an eight-quart enameled cast iron round casserole from the Martha Stewart Collection, but then it was rung up and we realized that it was at 50% plus the $20 discount.  Oh, wow!

imagine the scraps he found...

imagine the scraps he found…

We felt like we made out like bandits with the steal-of-a-deal casserole, in addition to the fabulous fare and casual conversations with the chefs.  All the while, Chef Carla Hall had a mock-studio and interviewed various chefs who were willing to talk to her (some were too busy preparing food for the guests, sorry Carla!).  But after all the outdoor eating, we know of someone else besides us who was a very happy camper – this brazen seagull.  He probably had the meal of his lifetime!