Chitown, the Food Saturday, Sep 18 2010 

When Boyfriend and I vacation, we tend to do a lot of walking.  We’ll tell you that it’s the best way to see the city, or that it’s silly to spend money on cab fare when it’s seventy perfect degrees outside, or that this is the reason we chose a hotel right smack in the center of everywhere we wanted to be.  But the real reason?  The real reason is that we really like to eat, and on vacation, we eat a lot. 
Chicago was, of course, no exception to this rule.  I spent a solid two months perusing the boards over here to get the rundown on what Chicago had to offer.  I ogled the crazy menu at Alinea (and, of course, ultimately deemed it too rich for our twenty-something wallets), and had a days-long inner battle about which deep dish pizza we should try (since we’re both insufferable snobs when it comes to our pizza).  I even had a list of brewpubs and bars with extensive beer lists that I was forced to narrow down quite a bit for lack of time.  With all this hemming and hawing between our various culinary choices, there was one stop that was simply a no-brainer the instant I looked at the menu.  It fairly shouted Boyfriend’s name to me, through the computer screen, and, despite its distance from the hotel and relative obscurity with respect to anything else we wanted to see or do, I knew we had to go. 

So onto my carefully-planned itinerary it went – after the brewery tour, and before a stop at Hopleaf to keep our buzz going, I decided that we’d go to Hot Doug’s so Boyfriend would experience the glory of the “encased meats” I knew he’d love, and the duck fries we’d never heard of (but now simply had to have).  And that was that…until we went to The Second City Comedy Club the night before.  I’d overestimated both how long it would take us to walk from The Loop to Old Town, and how long dinner at Adobo Grill would take, and we had a little time on our hands.  I insisted we go to the Spice Merchants, which instantly assaulted every one of our senses in the best possible way, and to get some fudge (because there is always room for dessert on vacation), before we wandered into a specialty store selling olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  Since we walked in only a few minutes before closing, I fully expected to be hustled along and back out the door, especially since we didn’t really want to buy anything that would necessitate checking our bags on the flight back to Jersey.  But, on the contrary, the clerk struck up a conversation about what we were planning to do while we were in Chicago.  When we casually mentioned Hot Doug’s as part of our plans for the next day, he was instantly apologetic.  “I’m really sorry,” he told us, “but I’m pretty sure that they’re closed this week…” After a few frantic minutes peering into Boyfriend’s (incredibly slow) BlackBerry, our fears were confirmed – there would be no Hot Doug’s trip on this vacation. 
Of course, we were disappointed.  And I have no doubt that Hot Doug’s would’ve fulfilled every one of our salivating expectations.  But the rest of Chicago’s food more than made up for the travesty of missing out on one of our highly anticipated destinations.  
Most notably, Boyfriend and I both returned from Chicago completely devoted to the genius that is Rick Bayless.  Not only were the churros and hot chocolate at XOCO mouth-watering and flawlessly executed, but the menu was so original, so eclectic.  In a world of taco-enchilada-fajita Mexican restaurants, Rick Bayless challenged everything Boyfriend and I thought we knew about Mexican food.  We were hooked from the first bite. And the Wednesday-only pork belly torta?  Words cannot describe.  Having never eaten pork belly in our lives, I wasn’t honestly sure we would enjoy it.  Or, more accurately, I wasn’t sure I would like it, since Boyfriend likes virtually everything he eats.  And no amount of glowing reviews on every website I read could make me order that sandwich without knowing what pork belly tasted like.  But when Boyfriend shared a bite with me, I instantly regretted that decision.  Because my torta was really good, but Boyfriend’s was outstanding.  The salsa, in particular, was stellar – hot enough to satisfy our spice-loving palates, but not so harsh that it overwhelmed the rest of the sandwich.  And this magical sandwich…did I mention that it was our very first meal in Chicago?  I think we knew right then and there that we’d be enjoying our time in this city.

Aside from our new crush on Rick Bayless, we also developed a really strange love for Portillo’s hot dogs.  I don’t mean that it was unusual because of the place we got so attached to – with the sports memorabilia, highly amusing staff, speedy service, and delicious chocolate milkshakes, it was no wonder we enjoyed it. But hot dogs?  We don’t even eat hot dogs at barbeques if there are other options – we’re really cheeseburger and sausage kind of people.  But these hot dogs.  I don’t really know what it was; I got very attached to the chili dog, while Boyfriend raved about the Chicago dog and it’s tiny, lime green peppers.  I would tell you the exact tally of hot dogs eaten in five days, but it’s embarrassing, and quite frankly I’d rather not face the potential judgment. 
And then there was the thing we didn’t think we were going to like.  We’re Jersey kids and we like our pizza the way we like our pizza, so neither of us thought that deep dish was going to do it for us.  We actually walked into Lou Malnati’s expecting to be underwhelmed (I know, I know…blasphemy!), and were pleasantly surprised to find that we more than enjoyed our little upside-down pizza (I’m sorry, the toppings go on the top.  This is why they’re called toppings).  While it will never replace the pizza I’ve grown up with, the pizza I desperately miss whenever I leave the tri-state area, Boyfriend and I were glad to have tried, and liked, it, if for no other reason than to avoid the wrath of Chicagoans everywhere. 
And!  And!  Garrett’s Popcorn.  What is that about?  Though fully warned by a friend from the Chicago area, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wandered passed our first Garrett’s and found an actual line of people waiting for the doors to open in the morning.  Not that we didn’t eat it and love it (I mean, it’s popcorn drenched in caramel, after all), but lining up outside the door?  At breakfast time?  I don’t know…maybe I just didn’t eat enough to get hooked.
Now, I’ve long held the belief that calories don’t count on your birthday, but after a trip like this, I may need to revise my theory a little – perhaps to include one’s significant other, vacation, and several days of eating as if it were your birthday.  And at the end of it, only hours after we landed in Newark, I’m sure you can guess what we were doing. 
Eating birthday cake, of course.

Chicago Thursday, Sep 9 2010 

I take birthdays pretty seriously.  I like to bake big cakes, make big plans, do big things.  I like to remember birthdays as unique and special experiences that can’t be had every day – not just having dinner with some friends at a local restaurant, but doing something truly special.  Because there’s really only one day a year that’s all about you, and why wouldn’t you want to celebrate it in a big way?  For me, birthdays are less about the age, and more about the occasion.  And for Boyfriend’s 25th last week, we certainly did celebrate. 

Conveniently, Boyfriend had some time off available right around his birthday, and he had a specific vacation in mind – a vacation that would finally get him to Wrigley Field.  Needless to say, I had no complaints about Chicago; I’ve never been there, and had been itching to go myself.  So off we went to the Windy City, where we spent five days eating hot dogs and wandering around a new city.   

We spent some time on The Ledge at the top of the Sears Willis Tower, where Boyfriend looked specifically for every sports arena in the greater Chicago area, pointing out Soldier Field and the United Center like an excited kid on Christmas.  And while we couldn’t see Wrigley from the top, we got to see it right up close the next day, the way Boyfriend felt it should be seen.  We took the Red Line out to Wrigleyville, stood in the general admission line for close to an hour, and (literally) ran to the left field bleachers, where I spent a tense two hours trying to avoid home run balls hit our way during batting practice.  While the Cubs would go on to lose the game, Boyfriend was in heaven – it was a beautiful day, he was watching baseball, and we’d nabbed a stray ball during batting practice.  And after the game, we fell in love with Murphy’s Bleachers and the Goose Island Brew Pub, where we finished celebrating Boyfriend’s birthday (a few days early) with some delicious beers and snacks.  Another El ride, a chocolate milkshake, and several hot dogs later, we spent the rest of the evening relaxing…which is something we rarely do much of on vacation. 

Antsy and looking to burn off some milkshake calories, we spent the next day biking around the lake, near Chicago’s version of the beach, and riding through Navy Pier before the crowds got to it.  We stumbled upon a giant hot air balloon of sorts, as well as the set of the movie Transformers 3, and tried to keep my sun-burned self in the shade.   At night, we saw live blues at a club where the bouncer told me I looked too young to be there (ouch?), and the bartender informed Boyfriend that there was no Coors Light to be had.  We took photos of ourselves reflected in the Chicago bean, admired Buckingham Fountain, and sat at an impossibly small table at The Second City, where we laughed hysterically for two full hours.   

But our favorite thing about Chicago (besides, of course, the food, which we’ll get to later), was definitely the people.  Everyone we met, from our airport shuttle driver to the women sitting behind us at the Cubs game, was so genuinely excited for our first trip to Chicago and so eager to help us decide how to spend our time.  Strangers commented on Boyfriend’s “CANADA IS HOCKEY” t-shirt, reminding us that while Canada may be hockey, for this year at least, the Cup was Chicago.  We also had an oddly endearing conversation about Trenton, NJ and its pork roll with the Brewers at Half Acre, and very hot-dog-specific chat with a store clerk (moments before the store was scheduled to close, which, incidentally, is precisely when most clerks are the least chatty) that centered around our deep sadness at Hot Doug’s summer closure. 

And after days of eating, drinking, and watching sports, was it any wonder that, upon our return to windy, rainy New Jersey, Boyfriend stepped one foot off the plane, turned to me, and asked (in his best it’s-my-birthday-and-you-have-to-do-what-I-say voice) “um, can we go back to Chicago now?”

Cornbread Tuesday, Aug 10 2010 

A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I went to see Dave Matthews play at Citi Field in New York.  This was a big deal for a lot of reasons:

1 – Boyfriend is a huge Dave fan, and he’s seen him enough times that he can’t remember the actual tally.

2 – Zac Brown Band, who we both love, was the opening act.

3 – Boyfriend hadn’t seen DMB in concert since college.

4 – It coincided with NYC Restaurant Week.

I think you can imagine how excited I was to discover this out this last detail.

Since Boyfriend was already coming home the night before the concert, we planned to spend the entire day in the city – eating, drinking, and sweating in the 100-degree temperatures.  After attempting to read through the exhaustively long list of participating restaurants and their menus, I had an epiphany.  And that epiphany’s name was Bobby Flay.

I’ve never eaten at a celebrity chef’s restaurant, but the topic was on my mind after days of planning our Chicago itinerary and reading up on Rick Bayless’s restaurants.  So to Mesa we went for their pre fixe, Restaurant Week lunch menu.  And can I tell you?  I haven’t been that full after a meal that involved not one bite of meat ever. Ever.  We had delicious smoked shrimp cakes (that I was predictably nervous about, being very afraid of all things deemed “smoky”) dressed in a beautiful pineapple relish that balanced the heat out nicely.  Boyfriend had red snapper that he assured me was fabulous but was, to me, just another fish I wasn’t interested in.  And I had a monstrous chile relleno followed by the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted, while Boyfriend enjoyed a chocolate strawberry shortcake.

But for Boyfriend, who loves all things spicy and most anything unique, the real gem of the meal was the cornbread.  Made with both yellow and blue cornmeal and studded with kernels of corn and chunks of jalapeno, he took one bite of his first roll, looked across the table at me, and whispered, almost in awe, “when are you making these for me?”  We ate the entire basket of them, in addition to a second basket brought over to replenish the first.  I mentioned we were really full afterward, yes?

Several hours after cleaning our plates at Mesa, we made our way to Citi Field to watch the show.  Halfway through, Dave played the song we were hoping he would – Boyfriend’s favorite song, and the one he was very much looking forward to hearing live for the first time in years.  The song we’d sung loudly in the car on the way to the train that morning, and the song that is the first track on the DMB/Zac Brown Band playlist I made in preparation for the concert.  What song is that, you ask?

Cornbread, of course.

Spicy, Cheesy Cornbread

Adapted from this recipe

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

6 tbsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 vegetable oil

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

2 – 3 tbsp red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch square baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and red pepper flakes.  Stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk, and oil together.  Slowly pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir to combine.  Add cheese, and stir until it’s well-distributed.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cut bread into squares and serve warm.

Lime Layer Cake Saturday, May 8 2010 

I have an oddly high amount of amusing Disney World stories.  It’s not as if my family vacations there every year and I have 24 years of material – it’s just that weird shit happens to us there.  I mean, weird shit happens to us a everywhere, but especially in Disney.

There was the time I got bronchitis there and we had to take a cab to the doctor and explain to him that this was, in fact, a fairly normal occurrence for me and that his best course of action was to prescribe drug XYZ so that I could breathe without hacking up my left lung.  Which was not so much weird as entirely, pathetically, predictable given that I got bronchitis like clockwork at the same time every year well into my teenage years.  Also, our cab driver brought my poor, sick little self a Minnie Mouse doll and didn’t even flinch when I unceremoniously coughed all over God’s green earth and every inch of his cab to and from the clinic.  Bless his heart.

Then there was the petting zoo.  Because I was that kid at an early age (24 years and counting, baby!), I insisted on constantly wearing dresses.  My mother weathered many an incredulous across-the-playground stare from other mothers when her daughter insisted on climbing trees in her ballet tutu and patent leather shoes.  I actually still have a scar on my knee from falling off of my scooter while wearing that exact outfit.  Because of course I do.  And in case you were wondering, no, I did not take dance for more than one month (which was the amount of time it took my family to unanimously decide that I’m quite possibly the least graceful person any of us has ever met) as a child. Anyway.  The petting zoo.  I was obviously wearing a sundress, and it was obviously beautiful, and the goat obviously shared my opinion on its splendor, because he started to eat it.  That’s right: the goat I was politely petting reached his bigass, dirty buck teeth right through the wooden fence and started munching on my dress.  And there I am, confused, because my sundress is literally disappearing before my very eyes and I’m wondering if perhaps the goat is going to decide that maybe he wants to try something a little meatier, like, you know, my leg.  How am I recalling this event with such clarity?  Well, clearly we have it on video.  I assure you that within moments of this entry posting I will receive a phone call from Boyfriend requesting this video be brought to Boston for his viewing pleasure when I visit next week.  The joys of my childhood and 21st century technology, people.

And finally, during my last time at Disney, my freshman year of high school, there was Epcot.  My family loves Epcot.  We may never get back there because we have this crazy life goal of working our way through freaking Europe, but I think that actually has a lot to do with our love of Epcot and its worldliness.  We were (in typical fashion) eating our way through the Epcot countries and Dad got a piece of pie.  Because these were my picky-eater days and I am an idiot, I didn’t know what kind of pie it was.  Nor did I look when he offered me a bite.  Nor did I ever think to ask what kind it was, beyond uttering the phrase “is there meat in this?” immediately after swallowing it…which made my parents dissolve into incoherent laughter, as it was key lime pie.  And as you’re probably aware, there is no meat in key lime pie.  Ever.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that last story.  Suffice it to say that it’s been repeated once or twice.  And I have no doubt I’ll be enduring it even more than usual in the common week for two reasons: a) because I stupidly decided to post about it on my blog, for godssakes, and b) because for his birthday my Dad requested a “lime cake…with no meat, please.”

Obviously.  Because didn’t I walk right into that one?

Lime Layer Cake

This is not a cake for the faint of heart – it’s really lime-y.  Dad loved it, because he loves lime.  I actually thought it was really good combination of curd, cake, and icing, but I thought the cake was a bit dry – I would advise brushing the cake with either simple syrup or a combination of lime juice and water after it cools (poke it all over with toothpicks first so the cake absorbs the juice).  If you’re concerned about being overwhelmed with lime, I would take the lime out of the cake itself and just make a plain white cake with lime curd and icing.  Also, my limes were not at all as juicy as I was anticipating. Not that the lime taste was muted by any means, but if your limes are on the large and/or juicy side, I would use less in the cake and icing.

For the Cake:

Adapted from this cake

1 ¾ cups sugar

¾ cup butter, softened

3 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

¾ cup milk

Butter/cooking spray

Zest and juice of two limes

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and grease three 8-inch cake pans.  Set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating after each egg is added.  Add lime zest and juice.

In a separate bowl, mix together salt, baking powder, baking soda, and flour.  Add one third of this mixture to the butter/sugar and beat until mixed.  Add half of the milk and beat. Repeat until all of the flour and milk have been added (you should start and end with the flour).  Pour the batter into the prepared pans (it’s going to be fairly thick).

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the center is set.  After removing from the oven, take the cakes out of their pans and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack.

If you’re making the cake more than a day in advance, wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and freeze.

For the lime curd:

Adapted from allrecipes

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup butter

3/4 cup lime juice (it took me more than 3 limes to get this much juice)

1 tbsp lime zest

2 eggs, beaten

In a double boiler over medium high heat, combine sugar, butter, lime juice and lime zest.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until butter melts.  Once the butter has melted, slowly add 2 tablespoons of the hot lime mixture to the beaten eggs, mixing vigorously during the addition.

Lower the heat on the double boiler to medium, and slowly whisk the egg mixture into the butter/sugar/lime mixture.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 – 25 minutes, until the mixture coats the back of the spoon.  Cool completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator if not using immediately.

For the icing:

Adapted from this icing

4 tbsp butter, softened

3 tbsp milk

1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

Zest and juice of 2 limes

2 cups heavy cream

Green food coloring (optional)

Mix together butter, milk, sugar, lime zest, food coloring and lime juice in a small bowl.  Set aside.  In a large bowl, beat cream until stiff peaks form.  Fold butter/sugar into whipped cream until combined.   Cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to construct the cake.

To assemble:

If you’ve refrigerated or frozen the cake, allow it to come to room temperature.  On a cake plate lined with parchment paper (more detail in the assembly of the Cannoli Cake), lay the first cake on the plate (because of the low cooking temp, the cakes should be fairly flat – if you wish to get them flatter, cut the domed top carefully off prior to assembly).  Cover with about half of the lime curd mixture (this will be a really thin layer, as you don’t need much; if you overfill this, it will ooze out the side of the cake and make icing the cake a challenge).  Lay the next cake on top and repeat.  Finally, put the last cake on top and ice the top and sides with the whipped cream icing (I had a little extra icing and curd when I was done, so don’t worry about using every ounce of either).


I thought about cutting each cut in half and making it six layers, each with a thin layer of lime curd, but I was really pressed for time and didn’t get a chance. I think it would’ve helped out a bit with the dryness I noted in the headnote of the recipe…If you go in that direction, I’d love to know how it went!

Perbacco Saturday, Apr 10 2010 

Several weeks ago, I happened to be visiting Boyfriend in Boston during the city’s Winter Restaurant Week.  And what a week it was – our dinner at Brookline’s La Morra was quite possibly the best meal I’ve eaten in my life.  Four delicious courses and a wine flight later, Boyfriend and I found ourselves in a food-induced haze of happiness.  Now, you’ll have to forgive the lack of photos and/or posting about that meal, as I was far too caught up in our beautiful little date to consider snapping a photo of my steak, which was, by the way, melt-in-your-mouth, perfectly cooked, utter bliss swimming in a sea of chianti-laced sauce.  Swoon.

In an attempt to replicate the experience, we met in New York on Thursday for dinner at Perbacco, before a night of exploring the bar scene in and around the East Village.  We I chose the restaurant’s specifically because of its mention in this New York Times article.  Perbacco was, and I mean this in the best way, not what I had expected.  First, the restaurant is not nestled on a quiet side street and staffed by white-aproned waiters.  Rather, it’s planted right in the midst of the hustle and bustle, and its waiters hover outside, enthusiastically greeting passers-by.  Its menu is structured as most Italian restaurants’ are – extensive wine list, antipastas, soups and salads, primi and secondi, and, finally, dolce.  Boyfriend and I opted to split Sicilian rice balls, which were fried crisp on the outside, and filled with a warm mix of melting mozzarella and white rice.  Along side a smooth tomato sauce, they were a delicious start to the meal (though I did wish for a bit of a kick with the tomato sauce).  For the main dish, Boyfriend opted for salmon and I chose the beef tenderloin.  Both were fantastic – the pine nut sauce, accompanied by shallots, mushrooms, and chestnuts, that lay under my steak was creamy, rich, and perfectly seasoned; Boyfriend and I sopped every last bit of it up with soft, Italian bread.

Full and satisfied, we opted out of dessert and strolled through the East Village enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.  Amongst the bustling excitement of the city, on our way to one of our favorite bars, we happily declared our date a success.  And thanked Frank Bruni for his wonderful recommendation.

Harpoon Brewery, or How to be a Bad Girlfriend Thursday, Apr 1 2010 

How to be a Bad Girlfriend, Lesson Number One:

Last weekend, three days after I returned from San Fran, I opted to drive the five hours up to Boston to visit Boyfriend.  Naturally, I chose to leave right from work on Friday afternoon, which put me on the Jersey Turnpike at approximately 5:15pm.  Which is, coincidentally, the exact moment I began questioning this little plan.  Did I mention that I also made the decision to not change out of my work clothes? Yeahhhhh…

Anyway, several hours and half a book on tape (yup – you read that right) later, I pulled up to his apartment still in high heels and a dress.  Because of course I did.  In fairness, he only judged me this much, but I think that if he’d known then how Sunday afternoon would play out, he may have been a much harsher critic.

Here’s how it went down:

Boyfriend works.  A lot.  As in, I lose track of the multitude of jobs he holds down because he does so many different ones.  When I come up to visit, he generally tries to work as little as possible while I’m there, which is sweet.  Unfortunately, taking 2-3 days off from his approximately 2.5 million jobs is not exactly easy, and he usually has to work at least once while I’m there.  This is fine with me for a couple reasons: 1) the shifts he keeps are usually so early in the morning (5am. True story) that I sleep right through the entire experience and before I know it, he’s back in bed, and 2) the ones that aren’t freakishly early in the morning afford me a little free time to hang out with my Boston friends.  Not that I avoid doing this with Boyfriend, it’s just that having friends up there makes it easier to entertain myself when he’s not around.

This little visit was no different.  Boyfriend knew in advance that he was going to be operating the scoreboard at Northeastern’s baseball game on Sunday afternoon well in advance, and I immediately told my sorority “Little Sister” that she’d be responsible for entertaining me while he was otherwise engaged, since I strongly believe that baseball is the most boring sport on the planet.

Now here’s where it gets dicey for me and I become a shitty girlfriend.  Little suggested a brewery tour – more specifically, since we’ve both already been to Sam Adams, the Harpoon Brewery tour – and I couldn’t say no.  Of course, this resulted in the following conversation with Boyfriend/his boss when I dropped him off at work.

Boss: Are you staying to watch the game, Katie?

Me: Um, no…

Boyfriend: No, she’s going to the Harpoon Brewery.  With her friends.  Without me.  Even though I haven’t been there yet.


So despite my new place in the doghouse, Little and I had a fantastic time at the Brewery.  The tour was, bar none, the best brewery tour I’ve ever been on.  And I’ve done my fair share of brewery touring.  Five dollars bought us a half-hour tour with two hilarious, knowledgeable guides and an hour-long “tasting” at the end.  And by tasting, I mean that they led us to their bar, stocked with 12 taps of Harpoon beer, filled our souvenir four-ounce tasting cups with their original ale, and proceeded to let us drink as much of whatever we wanted for the next hour or so.  Um, hello? Can you think of anything else you’d like from a brewery tour? Because I can’t.  Not one thing.

I also have to make the confession that I wasn’t Harpoon’s biggest fan before this tour.  Having only had their IPA (and, as a rule, hating IPA’s), I wasn’t compelled to really try anything else.  That, my friends, is called foolish – their beer is delicious and extremely well-made, especially the Oyster Stout, Munich Dark, and Cider.  By the end of the afternoon, I was effectively eating drinking my words.  Just consider me a Harpoon convert.

And as for my place in the doghouse?  Well, I think I made a little gain in that department when I brought Boyfriend home a growler of Harpoon’s newest beer: the Belgian Pale Ale.  I mean, he finished it in under two days.  So I’m 97% sure he enjoyed it.

San Francisco Saturday, Mar 27 2010 

As much as we love our wine, we did more than just cruise Sonoma County when I was in San Francisco last week.  Day two of the West Coast shenanigans found us dressed in the matching (neon blue tie-dye) “San Fran Invasion 2010” t-shirts we had made (yes, seriously), renting bicycles from (obviously) Blazing Saddles to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.  Now, let’s be serious – we’re all relatively healthy.  None of us is overweight, and we all make it to the gym with some degree of regularity.  And yet, ten minutes into what was billed as a leisurely bike ride, all five of us were stopped at the top of the first hill, draped over our handlebars, gasping for breath.  The hills are not a myth.  After a full minute of not speaking, someone croaked out “I…ugh…I think I need…to spend more time…at the gym” and we all sucked down the contents of our water bottles in agreement.

One million hills, several hours, and 150 (literally) photos later, we made it to the bridge, where I made the questionable life choice of releasing the handlebars with both hands to take out my camera and snap some pictures while we were moving down the narrow bike path of a bridge. A bridge with cars. And other bicycles.  Bicycles occupied by far more skilled, speedy, and, in one notable case, naked (I kid you not. Elderly, naked men should not be biking in public) cyclists.  I have no defense for this behavior – sometimes the blond seeps in…but my photos are beautiful!

Anyway, after our harrowing journey, we wisely chose the ferry as our means of transportation back to civilization.  And the moment we stepped off the ferry and returned our bikes, we were universally in need of a drink.  More specifically, in observance of that day’s St. Patrick’s day parade, we needed an Irish coffee – a Buena Vista Café Irish Coffee.

Buena Vista is known for its unique take on this beverage, and it had the crowds to prove it.  Nearly every adult in the relatively small bar had an Irish coffee in front of them, all in delicate little glass cups.  For me, it was the cream that really felt unique – I’ve had my share of Irish coffee, but I’ve rarely had it topped with anything other than from-a-can whipped cream.  At Buena Vista, though, the cream wasn’t mounded on top, overflowing the cup.  It was deep, rich homemade cream, and the small dollop spread perfectly across the top of the cup, incorporating itself slowly into the coffee as I sipped.  It didn’t overpower the strength of the whiskey, and gave it just enough sweetness to make it feel truly luxurious.

And speaking of luxury, what would a trip to San Francisco be without a trek to Ghirardelli Square?  Feeling a little chilly in the early evening, we all opted out of the lengthy ice cream line…but the brownies.  The brownies called to me; and for good reason – this was, by far, the best brownie I’ve ever had in my life.  Oh my gooey chocolately goodness.  If I can find that recipe online, you had better believe I’ll be looking to make a batch of those immediately.

A week later, up in Boston to see Boyfriend, I cracked open one of the bottles of wine I purchased and handed him a few bags of Ghirardelli dark chocolate.  One sip of wine later, I was already thinking about how much I’d like to visit California again.  Because let’s be honest – the four days I spent there didn’t even scratch the surface.

Dry Creek Valley Wednesday, Mar 24 2010 

I am embarrassingly overdue for providing an explanation for my absence.  Seriously.  I’m ashamed.  But! I have a few really good excuses – and in case I haven’t been evil enough this month, I’m not going to give them to you all at once.  I mean, wouldn’t that just be too damn easy?  I thought so.

I digress – let’s talk about something awesome.  You know what’s awesome? San Francisco is freaking awesome, especially when you go with your five best girlfriends.  And, especially, especially when you go wine tasting. In a limo.

Yes. And. Please.

The weather may not have cooperated, but that didn’t mean we didn’t take advantage of Sonoma County’s Barrel Tasting Weekend. Evidently this is a big deal – we just happened to be there for it (…no, seriously. We didn’t plan this trip around wine tasting. I swear.  Just a happy coincidence!).  But what trip to Cali would be complete without a little vineyard tour – particularly because it was my first time in California.  I know. It’s pathetic that I’ve made it this long without seeing the west coast of my own country, yet I’ve been to Europe three times.  I know. My priorities are clearly skewed.

I don’t know what I was expecting out of wine country, but it so far surpassed my expectations that I can’t even begin to explain it to you.  There are just grapevines literally everywhere you look.  I can only imagine it green and lovely in the spring and summer, without the rain that persisted through most of our day.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, barrel tasting is a pretty unique thing – it’s sort of like tasting beer halfway through the brewing process: it tastes delicious, but it’s not done yet.  The vineyard essentially cracks open a barrel or two of each type of wine and offers a tasting before it’s ready – meaning that you can drink it at the winery, but you can’t bring it home with you until it’s finished months later. It also means that what you’re tasting at the vineyard that day is an unfinished product used to determine what the finished product will taste like when the process is complete.  You can purchase bottles and cases, called futures, that you then return to the winery once the wine is bottled.

Obviously, this was problematic for me for several reasons:

1) I am, and always will be, unwaveringly impatient.  I can’t help it.  I want to do things now. What can I say?  I don’t have a lot of self-control.

2) Um, I don’t live here. Yes, this wine is fantastic, but I can’t exactly come back for it in October or next year.  That might be the least economical decision ever.

3) Fortunately, wineries allow for such a predicament, and will ship the wine to you.  Unfortunately, New Jersey, in a fit of puritanical zeal, has refused to make this legal.  Thus, no wine futures for moi.

However, to offer nothing but futures would be silly when you’re attracting the kinds of crowds that Barrel Tasting Weekend does, so most wineries also offer bottles of their finished wine for sale as well.  And if you think I paid to check my carry-on luggage all the way back home to New Jersey because it had several bottles of wine in it carefully wrapped in sweaters…then you are absolutely correct.  Congrats!  Looks like you have been listening closely all this time!

We visited the following Dry Creek Valley vineyards:

Armida Winery

David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery

Mazzocco Winery

Pedroncelli Winery

Rued Winery

Wilson Winery

Londontown, the Food Monday, Jan 11 2010 

Because this is (supposed to be) a food blog, I obviously need to go into much greater detail about the edible side of London. Because if you think Boyfriend and I didn’t take full advantage of all the delicious things there are to eat there, you’re sorely mistaken. When I lived in London during college, I was hardly a “foodie” (apologies to those who hate that term, but it’s just honestly the best one-word description) – I didn’t know how to cook, I was a very picky eater, and I was also pretty broke. In fact, my primary goal when eating out was to have enough money in my possession at the end of each meal to still go out drinking later that night. And friends, London ain’t cheap, so this lead to a lot of mediocre/unsatisfying dinners.

Plus, you have to admit, the Brits eat some…unique fare. Steak and kidney pie, for example, is something I will never get my head around. But black pudding? Love. I am nothing if not inconsistent.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to find out, three and a half years later, that London has some really superb food. I don’t mean that in the bitchy, elitist way it sounds – I just mean that I missed out on so much the first time because I was a poor college student. And while I may not be rolling in the dough as a 23 24-year-old workin’ girl, I had significantly more fundage to donate to the eating-well cause. And eat well we did.

Boyfriend had some very specific food-related goals in London (sound familiar?):

1: Indian food

Check – Brick Lane is quite possibly the most authentic Indian food in the city. I liken it to Chinatown in NYC – you turn a corner, and suddenly you no longer feel like you’re in London. The signs around you aren’t in English, the convenience stores sell completely different products, and everywhere you look there’s a tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant boasting “THE BEST CURRY IN LONDON!!!” And even though it’s quite impossible that they all have the best curry, they each make a truly phenomenal (and cheap) effort. Boyfriend and I ate honestly the spiciest food I have ever had in my whole life; so spicy, in fact, that we had to order more rice halfway through the meal to cool down the inferno in our mouths.

2: Fish and chips

Done – We at in what we later realized was a chain bar/restaurant in Wimbledon. Oops. In all fairness, this was our last full day in London and we were running out of time. Plus, we’d attempted to make it to a specifically-recommended restaurant in Covent Garden on two separate nights (we were only there for four), and failed both times. It was now or freaking never.

3: Meat pie

Got it – OH MY GOD: my new most favorite place in the whole world is Borough Market. Coincidentally, we also went there on the morning of my birthday. This market, which only exists on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, has some of the most amazing food vendors I’ve ever seen: on one side of the alleyway is a stand selling decadent chocolate truffles in all shapes and sizes, while on the other, men stir huge woks of curry.  There are cheese and dairy vendors handing out tiny samples of cheese and displaying (through their own photos, narrated in handwritten captions) the journey they undertook to Switzerland to bring back this cheese.  There are butchers calmly slicing into hog legs that would, upright, stand half my height, and vats of mulled wine perfuming the crisp morning air.  Outside the market itself, there are restaurants, bakeries, coffeehouses, and even a wine bar – all well worth the trip to London Bridge.  Personally, we purchased a teeny little “birthday” cake for me (past its Christmas-themed prime, but delicious none the less), a bag of organic espresso beans (which was the result of a lengthy and very special tasting process), mulled wine, and a lamb and mint pie (that Boyfriend devoured instantly and went on about for hours).  Later in the trip, we returned to the wine bar, where the wine list was the size of a book…in other words, heaven.

4: Have tea

FINALLY ACCOMPLISHED – Please don’t judge me, but I neglected to do this the first time I was London.  I know, I know – it’s England! You must have high tea! Ugh.  I know.  But like I said, I was broke, and the best kind of high tea is not generally a cheap experience (This was no exception – it was probably the most expensive meal we had in London.  It was also our favorite.).  Because I hadn’t had high tea before, I was clueless as to where we should indulge.  Fortunately, Boyfriend’s parents had lent us their guidebook (in addition to my dog-eared, well-loved one), and had helpfully circled several possible teahouses.  So off we went to Knightsbridge where I led us to the place the teahouse should have been, but was not.  Frustrated, hungry, and ready to give up, Boyfriend opted to ask a neighboring hotel about the location of our teahouse.

Boyfriend: Do you know where the Basil Street Hotel is?

Concierge: Yes, of course.  It’s just down the street a ways, less than a block, on your right. And it closed five years ago.

Hey, thanks, bud!!

Two teahouses and twenty minutes later, we were finally seated in front of a pair of dainty mugs, sipping our Earl Grey.  And when, moments later, our waiter brought out our three-tiered tray of sandwiches, scones, and desserts, we were thrilled.  Not only was everything so petite, beautiful, and delicious, it was also much more elaborate than I’d expected.  Honestly, I couldn’t think of a tea sandwich beyond egg salad, cucumber, and water cress, but the variety we were presented with was much more diverse: there were curried sandwiches, and ones involving ham and horseradish, as well as a lox and cream cheese one that I left for Boyfriend’s enjoyment.  Our scones were perfectly buttery, and both he and I have a newly discovered love of clotted cream.  Literally the only reason I didn’t bring some back was to save my hips.

5: Drink all the cask ale/Guinness he could

Heck yes – Listen.  Have you ever been to Europe?  If you have, did you notice the taps at the bars?  Many British taps are, unlike American taps, reliant on actual human labor to pump them – not CO2 or carbonation or anything else (Look, I’m not a science major.  I just know the beer tastes better. Look it up.)  I cannot tell you what a difference this makes.  Guinness, especially, is far, far superior in Europe.  This is the primary reason that Boyfriend did not want to come home: there is nothing more satisfying or relaxing than having a pint of perfect Guinness at a dark, cozy corner bar when the weather dips into the 30’s.  It’s just…true.

So the verdict?  London has amazing, amazing food – especially if you know where to look.  And if you don’t know where to look, find the nearest corner pub, have a pint, and chat up the bartender.  Chances are you’ll find a real gem.

Oh, one more thing: someone send me some clotted cream and McVities, mkay?  Please?

Londontown, the Intro Wednesday, Jan 6 2010 

When I came back from studying abroad during my junior year of college, the most popular question I got was “What was your favorite city in Europe!?”  Up until this week, I’ve always answered that it was Rome.  Now that I’ve been back to London, though, I can no longer honestly say that.

I’m not sure why I never thought of London as my favorite city.  Maybe it’s the same as being asked about your favorite city here in the US, and neglecting to even consider your hometown.  Maybe the romantic notion of my little European weekend getaways blinded me to the fact that the city I had adopted as my temporary home was really the one closest to my heart.

When I returned to London last week, Boyfriend in tow, it was like seeing an old friend again.  I was worried that I would forget my way around, or that nothing would thrill me as it once had because, well, I’d seen it all before.  But, ironically, the opposite happened: I remembered the way to bars and sites we’d frequented during my time there (with no map and no address to confirm my instincts).  I found new parts of the city to love, and did things I’d never done before.  And even though we stayed on the opposite side of the city from where I’d lived for all those months, stepping out of the Paddington tube station was like coming home after years away.  I marveled at the changes and regaled Boyfriend with stories of the memories while we wound our way through the city, making new ones.

We discovered that the Tower Bridge is even more beautiful up close, and that climbing to the top of it will afford you a gorgeous view of the city.  We sampled every cask ale we could get our hands on in every dark, corner pub we could find.  Boyfriend learned of the superiority of European taps and European Guinness, and will forever be ruined for the crap we have over here in the States.  We ate the spiciest Indian food I’ve ever eaten on a little street called Brick Lane in East London, and, a few blocks over, found out how and where Jack the Ripper did his dirty work.  We toured the majestic greens of Wimbledon, where a tour guide sold us, hook-line-and-sinker, on the fact that we’ll need to return one day to see the tournament in action.  And at the end of each day, dead on our feet from 12 hours of touring this great city, we tramped back to the north end of Hyde Park, crawled into bed, and whispered to each other in the dark how happy we were that we were able to take this little vacation to London, together.

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