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Friday, March 27, 2009

Qatar Chronicles: Lounging in Luxury

Posted on Peter Greenberg's travel site. Read the previous entries in the Qatar Chronicles…From Rainy Seattle to the Desert City of Doha and From the Boeing Factory to the Sky.

In Doha I found evidence that the economic downturn may be pervasive right now, but some people have faith that it will be short lived.


Visiting Qatar Airways’ Premium Terminal in Doha, you would never know there’s a recession.
Many of us have either been lucky enough to have been inside airline VIP lounges, or at the very least, we’ve walked past them en route to our gates.
They are the oases of the airports, places to relax, or patiently wait for flights when there are delays.

Many international airlines upped the ante years ago by creating different lounges for their first and business class passengers.
But now, in the global game of one-upsmanship, some foreign carriers have gone a step further. In Germany, Lufthansa built a separate, all luxury, dedicated first class terminal, complete with its own restaurant, immigration, security and customs, and stylish way of getting you to your plane—by chauffeured Mercedes or Porsche, driving along the tarmac directly to the plane.
Not to be outdone, the folks at Qatar Airways have now built super, over-the-top first class terminal at its main hub in Doha. And if you’re lucky enough to experience it when departing this country, well … then, you have really arrived.
Qatar lounge exteriorQatar Airways’ Premium Terminal literally covers an entire terminal—more than 107,000 square feet to be exact.
Valets meet first and business-class passengers to load bags onto luggage carriers.
You line up … never.
A concierge escorts passengers to plush leather chairs at the check-in desk. Besides a fully serviced business center and three conference rooms, there are men and women’s prayer rooms, a children’s play area and nursery complete with on-call nannies, a room for families, and a video game room. A Duty-Free shop is dedicated entirely to upper-class travelers. The First Class Lounge additionally has a spa with showers, a sauna, Jacuzzi, sleeping rooms, and massage treatment rooms. There’s even a medical center with a doctor and nurse on staff.
Qatar lounge interiorBut even more amazingly—and characteristic of life in fast-changing Doha—this $100 million sanctuary is only a temporary setup. The space that was built as recently as November 2006 (a week before the Asian Games) will actually be torn down in a few years, along with the rest of the airport to make way for an even more luxurious facility.
Three miles away, the new Doha International Airport is being constructed to better handle an expected increase in passenger traffic. Designed to handle 24-26 million passengers, the new terminal will double the capacity of the old terminal. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2012, the second by 2015. A new and even more luxurious Premium Terminal will replace the current one.
In fact, it’s not just the airport that’s getting an overhaul. Even in this tough economy, Qatar Airways is moving ahead with its long-term plans to expand operations to more than 100 cities globally. Qatar Airways announced last Wednesday that it plans to launch scheduled flights to Australia and expand its operations in India and Europe, and the carrier will increase frequency to several destinations in its network this summer.
Qatar Airways is also planning to add one new aircraft to its fleet every month, with more than 200 new Boeing and Airbus aircraft worth more than $40 billion already on order.
Global economic crisis? What global economic crisis?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Los Angeles to Seattle to Doha, Qatar

A few weeks ago I took my first trip to the Middle East. It was an amazing experience in more ways than one. The most recent post is on Peter Greenberg's site, reprinted here:

Boeing assembly lineRecently, I flew from Los Angeles to Seattle to Doha, in Qatar.
Certainly not the most direct route, but it was the most impressive because I got to explore the process, and then the product—something few passengers ever do.
It started with an inside, private tour of the Boeing Plant in Everett, Washington.

Maybe this is a guy thing, but I got a major kick out of the Boeing plant with its row after row of 747s, 777s, and even the yet-to-debut 787s (the revolutionary Dreamliner). I can’t tell you how cool it was to see all these planes being assembled. The scale of the engineering was impressive as was the precision of the manufacturing process.
Luckily Boeing allowed us to take some photographs (usually a big no-no).
Boeing factoryWalking through mock-ups of their new 787 and the redesigned 747-8, they talked us through a design process that focused on controlling details to make flying more pleasurable: full-spectrum LED cabin lighting instead of white lights that are either on or off; a higher ceiling on the entryway of the 787; and even something simple like the overhead bin latches which are being redesigned to work by pulling or pushing, the choice is the passenger’s.
If Boeing does its job right, they told us, once passengers enter the cabin, they will leave behind the difficulties of the day and re-experience the magic of flying. OK, so much for fluffy brochure language.
But first, Boeing has to deliver at least one operational 787—and they have been delayed more than two years already. Coupled with a tough economy in which a number of airlines may be cancelling orders for the new plane, that’s not a lot of magic.
But the real magic is that Boeing did deliver a new 777 on time, and both the plane and I were ready to go. I was onboard on the delivery flight of a Boeing 777-200LR, flying from Boeing Field outside Seattle to Doha International Airport, and its new owner, Qatar Airways.
With Doha as its hub and routes already well established in Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and, of course, the Middle East, the Boeing 777-200LR gives Qatar Airways a reach of 8,000 nautical miles, putting them in striking distance of just about any destination in the world.
Several years ago Qatar Airways pushed into the American market with non-stop service to New York and Washington, D.C. Starting March 30, 2009, the airline will begin flights between Houston and Doha. With service to Houston, they hope to strengthen their relationship with American energy businesses.
For the next year, Boeing is scheduled to deliver one airplane a month to Doha as the airline upgrades its fleet. While other airlines are cutting back, Qatar Airways says it sees an opportunity to expand routes and strengthen its business class service. To maximize profits, Qatar Airways eliminated first class on the Houston-Doha route, so they could increase the number of business class seats.
Empty boeing seatsThe coach compartment on Qatar Airways’ 200LR feels roomy. The 50-inch height of the seat back allows most passengers to look above the seat in front of them, adding to their sense of space. A 3-3-3 seat configuration, instead of the more typical 3-4-3, adds extra room. The airline ordered their coach seats with a 34-inch pitch (the industry average is 32 inches), with the result that there is both the feeling and the reality of more space, making the seats that much more comfortable.
In business class, Qatar Airways asked Boeing to outfit their 777-200LRs with upgraded features: seats with a 78-inch pitch in the upright position; in the fully reclined position, each seat goes completely flat to create a full-sized bed; 17-inch flat-screen televisions for each passenger with interactive controls that include an innovative USB mouse; bathrooms that are twice the normal width with motion activated sinks.
When you push the “make this seat into a bed”-button on the 200LR, the back slowly reclines, a foot rest extends, you stretch out, curl up with your very plush Qatar Airways blanket, and enjoy just enough engine noise to help you sleep. Oh, and you’re wearing your Qatar Airways pajamas and socks.
Personally, I still think flying is magical. Which doesn’t mean I don’t feel hassled whenever I fly. I do. Often times, I question whether I really needed to take the trip after all.
But then I hear the whine of the engines that says the pilot has gotten the go-ahead. As the plane speeds down the runway, it’s like something out of a dream when the wheels hang noiselessly in the air as the plane’s lift levitates it above the runway.
My rational brain still questions how it is that an object weighing many tons can slice through the air and float high above the ground. But emotionally I don’t care. At that moment I glory in the magic of flight.
And then, we landed in Doha, the third in my triple play of firsts: the Boeing factory, a delivery flight, and … Qatar.
Next up: the Qatar Premium Terminal, and the Museum of Islamic Art and Al Jazeera studios. We are also scheduled to visit the restored Souk Waqif and take a desert safari. The questionnaire for the safari company wanted to know just how “rough” we liked our dune bugging.
Oh boy …

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sweet Potato Inari Sushi

I love sweet potatoes: baked, mashed, sautéed, grilled, or deep fried. I just discovered that they also make a delicious stuffing for inari sushi.

Inari sushi are made by filling abura-age, fried tofu skin pounches, with rice and vegetables. Abura-age is sold in Asian markets and in the specialty aisles of major supermarkets, either in cans or in a dry pack.

You've probably seen inari sushi at a sushi bar and wondered what they are. Usually they're served rice side down, so from the top they look like wrinkled footballs.

They're actually made out of thin pieces of fried tofu, joined together on three sides to make a pocket. They're soft and sweet and usually stuffed with white sushi rice. Sometimes flecks of vegetables like carrots are added for color.

Besides being tasty, they're a good bargain. For less than three dollars you can make two dozen of these healthy taste treats.

Sweet Potato Inari Sushi


Taking a western approach, I sauté the sweet potatoes in olive oil with a little garlic. The sweet potatoes give the inari sushi a unique flavor that works equally well as a snack or a party appetizer.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

2 sweet potatoes, medium sized, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, washed, peeled, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled, mashed, finely chopped
1 can or dry pack abura-age or inari sushi, 20-24 pieces
2 cups cooked rice, preferably Japanese white rice or organic brown rice
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Sauté the sweet potatoes, onions, and garlic in the olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Mix together with the cooked rice.

When you open the can of inari sushi, you'll find two dozen flattened tofu wrappers. Use your fingers to carefully open each one. Gently rinse them with water and pat dry. Spoon in the sweet potato-rice mixture, being careful not to tear the tofu skin.

Serve at room temperature or warmed in a 250 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sprouted Broccoli from Green Spring Farm in Petaluma, California

Recently we spent a weekend in Sonoma. Since I like to shop at farmers' markets, I was happy to learn that the valley is home to more than a 100 organic farms.

We would have liked to stop at a dozen or more but this was a short trip, so we zeroed in on Green String Farm. Although the farm is small, its produce is well-known, supplying many Bay Area restaurants, including Alice Waters' Chez Panise, Terzo, Camino, and Hog Island Oyster Company.

Ross Cannard gave us a walking tour of the farm his father, Bob, started years ago with wine maker, Fred Cline. He took us through ankle high grasses to check out the fields under cultivation, the pasture enclosures with goats and sheep, and the chicken trailer.

At times it was difficult to see exactly what was under cultivation and what wasn't. The philosophy of the farm is summed up in a simple description:
...by maintaining an important balance between crops grown for human consumption and crops grown to improve the soil, Green String farmers always give back to the earth the same amount the earth gives to us. Unlike conventional produce which is grown in conditions specifically designed to put out the highest and fastest possible yields (and without room for anything but the food crop), Green String produce grows under more natural conditions, with the help of farmers who are listening to what their land tells them throughout the year.
"Listening to what their land tells them" means, no chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Beneficial plants (we'd call them "weeds") grow side by side with celery, broccoli, kale, onions, artichokes, and lettuces. Before planting, the chickens and livestock add to the mix, literally. By creating portable enclosures the animals are moved from one field to another. Their hooves aerate the soil, as their waste provides fertilizer.

The proof of any system is the quality of the product. All the produce looked so delicious, we had to hold back from buying too much.

With produce this fresh, it makes sense to use simple preparations, the better to savor the quality of the vegetables.

Braised Sprouted Broccoli

In an email Ross explained how Green Spring Farm perennializes its broccoli:
It's Italian green sprouting broccoli, which is a standard variety. What's different is in our method of picking it. We let it head up, then pick it, like everyone else does, but then, if you keep it in the ground, it keeps growing these nice little heads, which you have to keep picking to prevent the plant from flowering. This way, though, you don't have to replant your broccoli all the time, you just keep on picking the ones you have, and we prefer these little heads to the giant supermarket-style heads anyway.Sprouted broccoli is really worth finding. The taste is sweeter, the flavor more, well, "broccoli"-ish. It can be found in farmers' markets and some specialty supermarkets like Whole Foods and Gelson's.
Yield: serves 4
Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound sprouted broccoli, washed, ends of stems trimmed, keep leaves on
4 garlic cloves, peeled, mashed, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Method

Heat the olive oil in a frying or chef's pan over a medium-high flame. Season the oil with sea salt and pepper, add the broccoli and toss with tongs until the leaves wilt. Add the chopped garlic and continue tossing until the garlic and broccoli are lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add water to deglaze the pan, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top and let simmer. Turn the broccoli after 2 minutes. After a total of 5 minutes the broccoli should be tender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add a pat of sweet butter (optional) and toss.

Serve hot as a side dish with meat, poultry, tofu, or fish.